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‘B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice’ review: Scholar of global relevance

If Dr. Ambedkar were to be denoted by just one word that could as well be ‘justice’. As a graduate student at Columbia University, he postulated India’s central problem in a seminar paper in 1916, thus: caste splinters India’s ‘indubitable cultural unity’. He spent the subsequent four decades of his life to fight ‘the monster’ that renders any reform impossible, hurting the nation’s cause. His singular accomplishment? In India today there is not one mainstream publication that dares to carry a commentary in defence of caste. He was opposed to caste because he regarded it anti-national, not just because it hurt lower castes and Dalits.

The five-volume set under review is an attempt by 59 scholars from across the globe to revisit the Ambedkarite conception of justice. Almost half are from abroad (26 writers, including some Indian expatriates), representing North America (Canada and the U.S.), Europe (Germany, Italy and the U.K.), Africa (South Africa), Asia (Hong Kong and Nepal) and the Caribbean (Guyana). They are a judicious mix of well-known scholars (Upendra Baxi, Meena Dhanda, Pradeep Gokhale, James Manor, Bhikhu Parekh, Vidhu Verma and Cosimo Zene), young and upcoming (Shauna Rodrigues and Jadumani Mahanand) and a couple of activists.

The volume has had political context in that it is the outcome of a conference held in Bengaluru and sponsored by the then ‘Congress’ Government of Karnataka in 2017. But most of the contributors are scholars and apolitical with no party affiliation.

Diverse thoughts

The work is split into five volumes, viz., Political Justice, Social Justice, Legal & Economic Justice, Gender & Racial Justice, and Religious & Cultural Justice. As the authors look at justice through the above eight lenses, certain overlap or repetition is unavoidable. Given that the papers have been written by authors from diverse backgrounds, one can easily ‘grade’ them. However, these contributions are not to be treated as pieces of furniture, but as flowers in a bouquet offered in admiration. Some stars do disappoint, but some rookies have done a remarkable job.

The past four decades witnessed the rightful emergence of Ambedkar as a pre-eminent national leader whose struggle in defence of the underclass and whose intellectual legacy of constitutional morality have proved to be guideposts in India’s journey towards a more perfect nation. It is the singular accomplishment of the current volume in establishing Ambedkar as a scholar of global relevance.

Citing Valerian Rodrigues, Debora Spini (Vol. V, p. 52) makes a crucial point that Ambedkar as a global thinker “can and must be considered as a full-fledged political theorist... and thus as a point of reference valid beyond” his national and historical context. Cosimo Zene, for one, takes forward the discourse of Ambedkar as a global thinker by pointing out the ‘rapprochement’ between Ambedkar and his contemporary Antonio Gramsci (though neither was aware of the other), especially their belief in education as, “not a mere acquisition of erudition,” but “as a gift to be shared with others, especially those less privileged” (Vol. I, pp. 32-3). Both thinkers believed in education as an antidote to hegemony.

Ideas on education

Zene rightly credits Shailaja Paik as the first scholar to invoke Gramsci’s ideas on education to support Ambedkar’s views (p. 45). Scholars like Paik and Zene must be complimented for repositioning Ambedkar where he truly belongs — beside his gurus Mahatma Jotirao Phule and John Dewey, contemporaries such as Gramsci and W.E.B. Du Bois, and generations of subsequent scholars who understand the potential of education to end internal (mental) as well as external (physical) slavery. Pradeep Gokhale recalls how Ambedkar “emphasised the importance of mind in bringing about social transformation” (Vol. I, p. 132). Gokhale unpacks Ambedkar’s justice as consisting of liberty, equality and fraternity, which is also the essence of democracy.

Ambedkar’s ideas and ideals are well-known. Most contributors are equanimous to the task; especially the volumes on political, social and legal aspects of justice are illuminating, but they mostly cover familiar ground. The rest of the volumes make original contributions in expanding Ambedkar’s justice, in addition to women, to other groups such as Pasmanda Muslims and post-apartheid South Africa.

‘Crowd psychology’

The outstanding contribution of these volumes is the insights (hitherto ignored, at least in India) of Deweyan conceptions of how, if culture and tradition get to condition human mind and behaviour, education could be the key to social transformation.

In addition to Zene, Scott Strode and Shaunna Rodrigues engage with attendant issues like the concept of self-respect, communication, and the importance of ‘crowd psychology.’

Meena Dhanda’s chapter takes the next logical step of the challenge of turning on/off of cognitive switches for the benefit of Dalits, be they in India or the U.K. which is the focus of her chapter. The evocative title of her chapter, ‘Made to Think and Forced to Feel’ (Vol. II, pp. 71-90), is taken from Ambedkar’s 1932 letter to A.V. Thakkar, a Congress leader, wherein he writes, “the salvation of [Dalits] will come only when the Caste Hindu is made to think and forced to feel that he must alter his ways” (p. 78). To accomplish that, Dhanda proposes ‘counter-rituals’ that are ‘in non-argumentative modes’ to challenge the ‘entrenched practices’ of caste, which “necessarily require repeated performance” (pp. 86-7).

That the caste Hindu has not been made to think, nor is he being made to feel has been the tragedy of India since Independence. This only increases our need to study Ambedkar more and to come up with creative interventions like counter-rituals.

One would have loved to read chapters on Ambedkar’s thoughts on small holdings, or imperial finances, or foreign policy, etc. Obviously, even a five-volume set is not adequate to cover the Ambedkar oeuvre. If the good doctor were to be offered the set as a festschrift — limited as it is or imperfect as it might be — he would have accepted it.

Having established beyond doubt that Ambedkar arbitrarily inserted ‘fraternity’ into the Preamble to the Constitution (Ambedkar's Preamble, Vintage, 2020), the editor of these volumes, Aakash Singh Rathore, has succeeded both in mainstreaming Ambedkar at the global level as well as establishing himself as an Ambedkar scholar of substance.

B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice; Edited by Aakash Singh Rathore, Oxford University Press, ₹9,995.

The reviewer is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 1:27:53 AM |

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