Debate @ The Hindu Books

Outcasting Ambedkar

Ananya Vajpeyi’s > Righteous Republic, being marketed as the next big India book (after Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India), seeks to understand the manner in which the ‘Indian self’ (the swa of swaraj) was conceptualised by five key intellectuals through ‘Indic’ categories — M.K. Gandhi (ahimsa/non-violence), Rabindranath Tagore (viraha/longing), Abanindranath Tagore (samvega/shock), Jawaharlal Nehru (dharma and artha/order and purpose), and B.R. Ambedkar (duhkha/suffering). Her attempt at “mainstreaming Ambedkar”— by including him in this panchayat of privileged, “twice-born” intellectuals — is merely an unsympathetic act of epistemic charity, for Vajpeyi does not concern herself with the specificity of Ambedkar’s emancipatory project.

Her Ambedkar chapter focuses on his opus The Buddha and His Dhamma, and dubs his redefinition of Buddhism a mere “polemic” and a “failure of his imagination” that therefore has little to do with the ‘Indic tradition’. Such judgments are a logical consequence of her hazy and elitist idea of ‘Indian tradition’ that she restricts to brahminical textual knowledge. What place can a Dalit critique of brahminism, such as Ambedkar’s, really find in a research project culturally premised on the ‘Indic tradition’ which, for Vajpeyi, defines the ‘Indian self’ “from the Vedas to the Constitution”?

Had Vajpeyi’s been a non-academic effort — like say Arun Shourie’s Worshipping False Gods — it could have simply been regarded as yet another instance of social disdain towards Dalits and their uneasy attempt to define themselves as political subjects in their own right in contemporary India. But the fact is it has been published by Harvard University Press and has received ringing endorsements from India’s intellectual class — Pankaj Mishra, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Sudipto Kaviraj and Partha Chatterjee, among others. This raises concerns regarding the social and political sensitivity of the intellectual class towards the Dalit question.


It is not that Ambedkar’s engagement with Buddhism should not be evaluated critically. But Vajpeyi’s conclusions are drawn exclusively from her so-called intuitions and unconvincing psychological interpretations of Ambedkar’s Dalit psyche. These ‘intuitions’ only seem to give a free way to value judgments. In her account, Ambedkar is the rationalist who appears far less successful or talented than Gandhi whose poetic sensitivity to India’s soul is praised. Hence, while “The Bhagavad Gita spoke to Gandhi so vividly because it had achieved the supreme summit of poetry”, “Ambedkar, ever prosaic, ever pragmatic, ever the realist … was so eager to rewrite history that he never grasped the literary nature of his chosen task.”

Although Ambedkar was raised in the Kabir Panthi tradition, the backbone of the ‘untouchable’ strain in the Bhakti movement, Vajpeyi gratuitously doubts his ability to grasp its beauty: “Did Ambedkar hear the poetry of Kabir? I doubt it, though I don’t know for sure”. Was Ambedkar such a stubborn rationalist that he could not perceive the beauty of Kabir’s poems? Or does she regard his ‘untouchable’ background as being so intrinsically laborious and fundamentally prosaic that it disables him from producing or being exposed to poetry?

It is not just intuition but, by her own admission, speculation that plays a crucial part in building her arguments. Vajpeyi sadly ends up portraying Ambedkar as culturally unfit for intervening in such an important religious tradition as Buddhism. However, value judgments are too often substituted for methodology: “Ambedkar who had no interest (and worse, no faith) in the categories of transcendence, (…) had to struggle very hard indeed to make sense of such texts.”

Firstly, Vajpeyi refuses to recognise Ambedkar’s anti-metaphysical interpretation of Buddhism, instead taking for an unchallengeable truth her assumption that Buddhism existed only in a philosophical dialogue with Brahminism. Second, she disqualifies Ambedkar’s “revisionist duhkha and dhamma at the centre of his philosophy of history (if we can call it that)” on the ground of his so-called failure to “reconcile the traditional and the modern”. But her own project of reconciling ‘Indic tradition’ with modernity cannot be accepted as a criterion to evaluate Ambedkar’s modern reinvention of Buddhism.


The elitist bias of her scholarship is palpable in the sense of entitlement with which she sometimes dismisses in a single sentence whole mobilisations, religious practices and political ideologies of India’s popular classes. For instance, Ambedkar’s earlier movements for ‘untouchables’ to gain access to temples and water-bodies are simply referred to as a “series of debilitating tank and temple satyagraha campaigns”. In the same vein, she dismisses the 1970s attempts by Dalits to produce an ideological synthesis of Ambedkar, Phule and Marx, whose “coherence, effectiveness, and reach continue to be somewhat doubtful”. Oddly, she never once deigns to name the Dalit Panther whom she targets.

The Dalit Panther manifesto (1972), in fact, gave birth to the idea of the Dalit as a revolutionary subject; it inspired similar militant Dalit movements across India. Crucially, it helped jettison Gandhi’s patronising and pejorative term ‘harijan’ from public discourse. The Dalit Panther movement also led to a renaissance in the world of letters, giving us the geniuses of Namdeo Dhasal, Baburao Bagul and Daya Pawar among others. Could someone in the U.S. today claim that the Black Panther movement created nothing coherent and was ineffective, and get away with it?

Vajpeyi also has a rather unscholarly disdain for the religious practices of the downtrodden. While religious syncretism has been celebrated — sometimes perhaps naïvely — by many scholars of bhakti as an inherently tolerant aspect of popular religion, she simply dismisses these as conceptually irrelevant attempts by unauthorised mavericks, who gullibly sought to reconcile “Islamic and Hindu theologies (that) are so fundamentally incompatible that even a thousand or more years of close coexistence and interaction on the subcontinent failed to yield any actual understanding, synthesis, or syncretism of a doctrinally robust kind.”

Paradoxically, even as she considers these popular sects philosophical failures, she regrets that Ambedkar did not work within the framework of Kabir Panth, whose poetic value she sentimentally acknowledges.

Vajpeyi ultimately interprets Ambedkar’s unorthodox attempt to redefine Buddhism as a secret desire to engage with Brahminism and to enter the domain of the high philosophical Indic tradition forbidden to him as an ‘Untouchable’: “He did not want to destroy tradition — he only wanted to be able to partake in it, in full. (…) This, at any rate was Ambedkar’s fantasy … In converting to Buddhism, he wanted to pull into an empty spot in the parking lot of tradition” (emphasis added).

Ambedkar’s conversion appears undermined for social and psychological reasons. Vajpeyi simply assumes as evidence that his mental anxiety (the “incessant anguish and conflict of this man’s thought”) as an ‘untouchable’ entering the forbidden domain prevented him from understanding the literary essence of Buddhism: “…staying up nights, feverish, crying, desperate, lonely, sick and exhausted, what did Ambedkar produce? A strangely unpoetic account of Gautama’s life and teachings; a text so devoid of metaphor, so stripped down in its language, so bereft of the marvels and miracles associated for 2,500 years with the name and memory of the Budddha that, yet again, we have to wonder at just how distant Ambedkar was from the kind of imagination that had heretofore been at work in the Buddhist traditions.”

The image of a desperate, neurotic ‘untouchable’ painstakingly and clumsily seeking to enter the domain of tradition with his inadequate western intellectual baggage — this, in sum, is Ananya Vajpeyi’s portrayal of Ambedkar.

The manner in which she denies an ‘untouchable’ the ability to produce higher religious knowledge is nothing but scholarship recreating another form of untouchability. Since Vajpeyi has announced that she is working now on a biography of Ambedkar, we can only hope she will be more rigorous and less judgmental.

( Nicolas Jaoul is a researcher in Anthropology at CNRS, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris; S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana)

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2020 4:03:02 AM |

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