Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, Ambedkar: A Life, dwells on the scholar-politician’s trials and tribulations, achievements and associations, and his differences with leaders of the stature of Gandhi and Nehru
How much do you admire Ambedkar for his educational qualifications?
The truth is that he was by far the best educated and most qualified Indian of his time. Not just in politics. It was extremely unusual to have such a large and incredibly impressive string of qualifications as he had. If you look at the astonishing string of them, he had the most extraordinary set of qualifications—double MA, triple PhD, and a law degree. I can’t even think of anyone today who may have gone that far. There may be some freak cases. But in those days when even passing out of high school was so rare and going to college was so rare, it really was an astonishing accomplishment.
We are speaking on the day 71 years ago that Ambedkar quit the Nehru Cabinet. How crucial was this decision for him?
Ambedkar’s resignation from the Cabinet was unfortunately one of those sad situations. He was bitter and he spoke of major differences with the prime minister, but in many ways people who have seen it from Nehru’s side will tell you that Ambedkar feeling betrayed was quite unjust because the prime minister really did everything he could to support his law minister on the key issue that Ambedkar resigned on—which was the Hindu Code Bill. It’s a kind of long saga which I have summarised in the book. Ambedkar had come up with this bill and Nehru was a strong supporter and ally. But they had serious problems.
In fact, the first time it was debated, there was massive resistance. Then he spoke at Siddharth College (of Law), a college that he had founded, back in 1950 saying, “There is nothing revolutionary about the bill, it is merely intended to rationalise elements that are unclear in the existing laws and create a single code”. That was his approach. He was trying to be conciliatory. He was not being a bomb thrower. This idea of the Hindu Code Bill goes back to October 1948 when it was still a Constituent Assembly. The committee was chaired by no less an eminence than Sir BN Rau. This is where Ambedkar came in and he had a profound commitment of course to equality, women’s rights, gender equity. All that he put into the Bill.
It’s interesting that in that college speech he made it a point to quote extensively from ancient Hindu texts. He was not being anti-Hindu. And still, because there was so much criticism between 1948 and 1950, in November 1950 he did some redrafting. And he circulated in Parliament—by now it was Parliament and no longer a Constituent Assembly—a brochure explaining the provisions and he said he hoped it would encourage members to discuss and pass the Bill. The problem is that Nehru, who was a staunch reformer, had so many problems going on at the time. Don’t forget, there were still refugee issues from Pakistan, ill-treatment of Hindus in East Pakistan, various issues going on—and with so many battles to tend to, Nehru did not bring the Bill in.
So, in February 1951, two months later, Ambedkar was able to bring it. It took a while, but he was able to bring it in. There was a nine-hour debate, but the critics of the Bill overwhelmingly outnumbered the supporters. There were four sets of objections—one was the conservative one: “Hindu marriage is sacred, and the Bill will introduce all the ills of western society”. The second was the soon-to-be speaker Sardar Hukum Singh who said, “Why are you trying to put the Sikh faith into your Bill? We are separate from Hinduism.” Then the liberals said it was violative of the secular nature of the Constitution: We have a pluralist system; everyone has their own personal law, why do you want to create this Hindu Code Bill? The fourth was very interesting, whether it was a clever argument by the traditionalists and conservatives, or whether it was a constitutionalist argument, it was argued by many that the parliament had not been elected—it had been converted from the Constituent Assembly—and until there was an election there should not be a Hindu Code Bill. Ambedkar responded patiently. The majority was clearly against him. By consensus the vote was deferred.
The poor man actually was in pretty bad health in 1951 so in August 1951 he again came back to the prime minister saying, “Do you mind if the Hindu Code Bill is re-introduced?” Nehru said give me another month, I’ll have to persuade the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) if they can reintroduce the Bill. Ambedkar was not a Congressman and when Nehru brought it up in the CPP, Congressmen were largely opposed. Again, the argument they made to Nehru was that it was the winter session of 1951 which was the last session of Parliament before the General Election of 1952, so let’s not bring a major piece of legislation, let’s wait. Nehru had to give in to that, but he agreed with the conservatives and with Ambedkar to bring in just the marriage and divorce laws to the bill. He said: Let’s keep out the rest; there are too many issues to sort out. So that was brought in by Ambedkar. But unfortunately, the Congress party did not issue a whip. Whips are much more standard routine today, but in those days they weren’t. It was much more like the British system where whips were relatively rare. And an overwhelming number of speakers—Congress as well as non-Congress—opposed the bill. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who had founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, declared the Bill was an assault on the very foundations of Hindu society. And Ambedkar became a bit testy in response, and the exchanges were acrimonious. Nehru then said: Why don’t you treat the marriage and divorce clause as separate altogether and not even part of the Hindu Code bill? Just look at this clause as a separate bill. And Ambedkar said fine, I’ll move the truncated bill. But he didn’t realise there was so much hostility even to that. Even Rajendra Prasad made it clear that he was not enthusiastic about the Bill and of course all bills have to be signed by the president. Hindu sadhus came and laid a siege to Parliament. Leading industrialists and businessmen from the Hindu community suggested they would withdraw their support for Congress in the elections if the Bill was proceeded with.
It was in those circumstances that Nehru asked Ambedkar to drop the Bill and the latter was absolutely shredded by the experience. He was exhausted, he was feeling betrayed, and he resigned from the Cabinet on September 27, 1951. I think blaming Nehru is a little unfair. Nehru did everything he could, but he was a prime minister—his very first term as prime minister in a democratic House and the people were all substantial figures with their own authority. It was the same sort of logic that prevented Nehru from pushing the Muslim personal law reform as well. You’ve got to bring people along at this time.
The other point is that although that was the ostensible reason Ambedkar gave, there were other things he was upset about. He had wanted to be head of the Planning Commission, but Nehru bypassed him for that. Then he disagreed with the government on foreign policy. He was much more pro-US whereas Nehru was seen as pro-China. On Kashmir, he wanted a further partition of Kashmir to end the problem, and Nehru obviously wouldn’t want to do that.
So, there were several issues, and the Hindu Code Bill was simply the last straw. The popular assumption is that he resigned because he had felt betrayed over the Hindu Code Bill. At the same time, Nehru was pushing his economic bills and there was an ideological issue between Nehru and Ambedkar, and Ambedkar felt you couldn’t keep passing economic laws without introducing social equality in Hindu society. He made a famous comment which I have quoted in the book: “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
There was another bit of unpleasantness when he asked for the right to give a resignation speech, which every minister has, and Nehru asked for a copy of the speech. Ambedkar said, “If I have the time to prepare a text, I will share it with you.” When he got up to speak, the deputy speaker said, “You can’t, if you did not give a copy of the speech in advance and that’s part of the rules.” Ambedkar was rather upset about that. And a couple of MPs—I am assuming opposition MPs—interjected to ask if this was not pre-censorship and the deputy speaker then said, “Look, I was just trying to ensure that there is nothing in the statement that is irrelevant or libellous.” Ambedkar, being a lawyer who knows the meaning of irrelevancy and libel, was furious. He stormed out of the House and refused to speak at all. Then, without delivering his resignation speech, he sat on the opposition benches. Therefore, the bitterness. So, you must look at it as a compound of multiple factors. But when he addressed the media after his resignation, he highlighted entirely his major differences with the prime minister and so on. But in fairness to Nehru, the prime minister wanted Ambedkar as his law minister, and he wanted to see Ambedkar’s Bill through. Nehru was with Ambedkar on most social and economic issues and was a strong ally on issues like individual rights and rights for Dalits and so on. It’s sad that they fell out like this. I’m afraid there never was a patch-up.
Again, didn’t we underestimate Ambedkar the economist for long?
I agree. His very first PhD was in economics. You could argue that he was a pioneering economist in some ways, but he was also a pioneering sociologist. The paper that he presented at Columbia on the caste system in India… there had been no such paper written by Dalits or by anybody. No one had bothered to study the workings of the caste system in India the way Ambedkar had done. His work was pioneering. He was an intellectual giant with a tremendously original mind. His work on the Indian rupee and the manipulation of the currency by the British was stellar. He was a leading authority in the country on provincial taxation. You may not agree with everything of his prescriptions but to fault his scholarship and his diagnosis is not possible. You don’t get a PhD from Columbia with faulty scholarship. And you don’t win the kind of recommendation letters that he got from various professors to other professors at other institutions until you are taken very seriously. He really was a remarkable figure. He was consulted on many issues even as a relatively young man in his late 20s and early 30s because of his reputation as a scholar more than because he had already become the unquestioned voice of authority. Initially he wasn’t, he was a voice of Dalits. There were others—especially in other presidencies who were older and more experienced, even in what we today call Maharashtra—but in economics and scholarship he had a formidable reputation before he turned 30.
Some people are lately trying to undermine his scholarship, saying he didn’t write the draft of the Constitution.
There is no one drafter of any constitution in any country, and there always has to be a committee. There is a famous sentence in the book, and I think it was TT Krishnamachari who said it. There were seven members in the drafting committee in November 1948: “One has died and has not been replaced. One is away on official duty in America [I think it was BN Rau]. One was preoccupied with other affairs of state [I think it was Gopalaswami Ayyangar]. Two others were absent from Delhi for reasons of ill-health. And therefore, essentially the chairman was for all practical purposes alone.” He had a characteristic single-mindedness about it and devoted day and night to the task. He was exhausted in the process. Of course, he had drafts submitted by various people and there must have been secretaries doing some work. But his personal principal authorship cannot be questioned for the reason Krishnamachari explained.
What are the key takeaways from the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate? How did it change Ambedkar?
The Gandhi-Ambedkar debate is too vast a subject to discuss here. That’s why I cover it with some detail and care in the book.
It is not just Congress or Gandhi. Tall communist leaders too had huge differences with Ambedkar.
Remember (the late Marxist leader) EMS Namboodiripad’s comment: “How can Ambedkar put a trivial issue like Harijan uplift ahead of the country’s independence?” What kind of language is that? The fact is that it was not at all just Gandhi, you are quite right. The fact is that, yes, we had this whole drama of the Poona Pact and Ambedkar felt he had been coerced into it by Gandhi’s fast.
I described this in the book: When the Mahatma started this new journal called Harijan, he invited Ambedkar to send him a message for the first issue. Now that’s an act of great honour and it meant that Mahatma Gandhi was essentially seeing Ambedkar as the principal Dalit leader. And Ambedkar sends an uncompromising message: There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Apparently, Mahatma Gandhi was provoked and stunned, and thought how this man could say such rude things to him.
You have to take the whole thing in totality. When Ambedkar said he would convert, Gandhi expressed his disappointment and said, “That’s an unfortunate statement. Untouchability is on its last legs.”
But Gandhi also said a few things that Ambedkar never forgave him for. In Navjivan he had written, back in 1921: “If I believe that Hindu society has been allowed to stand, it is because it is founded on the caste system”. He said varna and caste, etc, are all integral part of Hindu shastra and so on. Ambedkar was quite angry. He said even Gandhi and his family were not following traditional caste occupations.
The fundamental issue became that Ambedkar kept assuming that Mahatma Gandhi was functioning in bad faith, whereas most of us—whether we agree or disagree with somebody—would say we accept the good faith and sincerity of their point of view. Ambedkar said things like “This Gandhi age is the dark age of India. It is an age in which people, instead of looking for their ideals in the future, are returning to antiquity. Gandhi has the habit of condemning the caste system in English and upholding it in Gujarati.” And I don’t know if Ambedkar even knew much Gujarati. There was a long list of differences—philosophical differences too. The question of philosophy was that Gandhi believed that a just end cannot be pursued by unjust means, and every means must be worthy of the end’s pursuit. That was his major philosophical contribution to politics. Whereas Ambedkar said that the liberation of the depressed classes was such a transcendent goal in itself and that any means could be used to achieve it.
It’s not that Ambedkar was ever violent. It’s a philosophical argument. In 1945 he published a whole book attacking Gandhi and what Congress and Gandhi had done to untouchables. When Gandhi died, I’m afraid Ambedkar’s behaviour is difficult to condone. Ambedkar was silent; there were so many tributes coming in, but he didn’t add a single word, at least not publicly. He didn’t say anything about it being a national tragedy. He didn’t issue a condolence statement. He did join the funeral procession for a short while, and then he retired to his study. People assumed he would write something, but he didn’t. When I look at Ambedkar’s flaws, I must say that he was unnecessarily ungracious about Mahatma Gandhi. I do not say he was wrong to oppose Gandhi on economics, on political philosophy, on village republics, on constitutionalism, etc.
Similarly in the ‘Grammar of Anarchy’ speech, he said that unconstitutional methods like fasting, dharnas and hartals are fine against foreign rulers but when we have a constitutional system and democracy, you can’t do those things. The truth is that a lot of the unpleasantness can be explained and understood as intellectually comprehensible differences, but the bitterness and acrimony with which Ambedkar spoke of Gandhi a quarter of a century after the Poona Pact right up to his death cannot be condoned. Ambedkar said, “Gandhi was absolutely an orthodox Hindu, he was never a reformer. He has no dynamics in him… He wanted the untouchables not to oppose his movement of Swaraj. I don’t think beyond that he had any motive of uplift.” Now, this is incredibly unfair and, in my view, diminishes Ambedkar.
How ahead of his time was Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda who financed Ambedkar’s studies compared with several other royal families, some of whom refused to employ people in key posts over caste?
The Maharaja of Baroda was fairly enlightened. He was taken under a British tutor at the age of 12, and taught ideas that were so alarming that the British got the tutor transferred because he was taught about Enlightenment values and so on. Sayajirao Gaekwad then became a very progressive thinker. Of course, the Marathas are anti-Brahmin in some of their positions. Sayajirao was not particularly happy about caste oppression or caste inequality. Ambedkar was not the first person he supported. He was arguably among the most enlightened rulers of his time.
But in comparison with others, even in Baroda, in Ambedkar’s first job, he went to Sayajirao’s officials and said, “Please allot me a government bungalow”. They hummed and hawed and pushed papers from one desk to another and he had seven-eight days without a place to stay. When he went to a Parsi inn he was eventually humiliated and thrown out. Nobody was perfect in those days in the country. Honestly, the kind of discrimination that people lived through just a century ago is something that we have fortunately no consciousness of, certainly in any town or city in India today. Maybe in some obscure villages there may still be a problem of this nature but what Ambedkar suffered cannot be understood in today’s perspective without knowing these incidents.
That’s why I found Arun Shourie’s book (Worshipping False Gods) unfair. He said so many Indians suffered so much discrimination, look at what Vivekananda went through, etc. And that they didn’t use that as an excuse and support the British as Ambedkar did. That was Shourie’s argument. That’s a folly. There is no comparison between what a caste Hindu goes through because of poverty and what a Dalit goes through because of both poverty and caste. You cannot compare them.
How has working on this book changed you? Also, is it a handicap to be a non-Dalit and write an authentic book on Ambedkar?
I don’t accept the argument that only a Dalit can write about Ambedkar or only an Indian can write about Sanskrit. Nonetheless, when it comes to this particular issue of what Dalits have gone through, there is no doubt that somebody who hasn’t experienced that privation from the inside can only have intellectual sympathy, but not the knowledge of experience.
Having said that, I would say that I grew up in a different kind of context which was of a very, very enlightened nationalist father who dropped his caste surname in college and just refused to even talk about caste in the house. At no stage was anyone’s caste ever mentioned in my hearing and my sisters’ when we were growing up. It was only later that this notion of not being caste-conscious was ingrained in us.
But when I wrote that in an article once, in which I defended Rajdeep Sardesai for his comment for which he was reviled for being a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin, I said I could see where he’s coming from because he’s mentioning it (his caste) in the kind of spirit that you mention your own college attire or your old school affiliation. And that he was not thinking in terms of discrimination because many people of that generation after Independence were brought up to be oblivious to caste. I got a stinging rebuke from an 18-year-old Dalit blogger who wrote very well—I forget her name, but I thanked her for it— “only the privileged can afford the luxury of being oblivious to caste. No Dalit is ever oblivious to caste”. And that really opened my eyes. It was at least six-seven years ago but from then onwards I have tried to be very conscious that my obliviousness does not exempt me from being ignorant of the consciousness of the caste-consciousness of others. Whether Dalit or privileged, others may have that consciousness and I must be aware that it exists.
I have approached the subject with as much sensitivity as possible and I hope that most people will accept that I wrote in good faith. To some degree, this comment was a slightly defensive one in case some people say “who the hell is he to write about that”—by the way it has already happened—I think the need for a short, accessible, clear, English-language biography of Ambedkar is still there and I hope it can serve a purpose. But at the end of the day, any person, Dalit or otherwise, is free to say “We don’t have to read Shashi Tharoor’s views on Dalits.”