Resources on Ambedkar’s Life and Works

In 2014, almost eight decades after it was originally written, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste found itself at the centre of yet another raging controversy. This time, it had to do with an introduction to the essay penned by the author and social activist Arundhati Roy titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ for Navayana Publishers. A major criticism against Roy’s essay was her positioning of Gandhi at the ‘front and centre’ as the author Yashica Dutt describes it. In effect, Roy seemed to be following a much-trodden path of reading Ambedkar solely in reference to Gandhi. Such an approach reduces and restricts Ambedkar’s life and vision to an antithesis of Gandhi’s, formed unalterably as a response and rejoinder to it.

Indeed, the risks of oversimplifying Ambedkar’s life and thoughts to fixed ideological paradigms are many. This is despite, and perhaps because of, the many hats he donned as an academic, a politician, and a reformer in some of the most turbulent yet formative decades of India’s history. Establishing a link between his life as a public figure and life as an intellectual, in particular, defies any straightforward pattern. At times, such a link can be pretty obvious. Our lead post from Aakash Singh Rathore’s fine book Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India shows how his notion of fraternity drew from an in-depth engagement with western and Indic thought traditions and eventually found expression in our preamble. In this case, as in many others, insights gleaned from a lifetime of research and learning informed, and were in turn tested in the harsh unforgiving terrains of realpolitik Babasaheb navigated all along. We back this up with an essay from Aravind Narrain that explores the notion of ‘constitutional morality’ alongside ‘fraternity’ through a jurisprudential lens. At other times, the link between the intellectual and political sides of his life are less obvious, and even tenuous. Ananya Vajpeyi’s talk and Vasudha Bharadwaj’s essay bring this out quite well. Naturally, reading through a life of mind so complex is no easy task. An informed survey of some of the critical points of intersection and divergence between Ambedkar’s socio-political concerns and the concepts underpinning them definitely helps, as in this essay by Valerian Rodrigues. To wrap up, we also share a list of podcasts from the archives of EPW that offer an overview of all aspects of Ambedkar’s thoughts and helpdevelop frames of reference to approach them.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these resources and suggest others, as you may see fit.

Happy reading/listening!

1. What Would An Ambedkarite Jurisprudence Look Like?

In this article, Aravind Narrain pays close attention to Ambedkar’s work as a jurist and attempts to draw elements of an Ambedkarite jurisprudence. Narrain borrows from a range of Ambedkar’s work – from his autobiographical work to his speeches in Parliament. Ambedkar, as Narrain argues, offers us a conception of law that originates from and beside the sovereign authority of the state. He emphasizes on the symbolic or expressive power of law and helps us think of the key elements of a counter-majoritarian law as well as the limits of one. From Ambedkar’s reflections on the social and political realities of a majoritarian democracy, Narrain explores Ambedkar’s ideas of fraternity and constitutional morality as tools in service of minorities in starkly hierarchized societies.

2. B.R. Ambedkar: The Life of the Mind & a Life in Politics

Babasaheb Ambedkar was arguably the most erudite among his generation of public figures in India. A prolific scholar, he straddled seamlessly across disciplines as diverse as political science and Indology, economics and law. Evidently, his politics, social reform, and constitutional vision drew upon this rich repository of learning. As this talk by Ananya Vajpeyi shows however, the link between Ambedkar the academic and Ambedkar the activist-politician is complex, layered and chequered. Just like his politics and intellectual pursuits, how he bridges these two sides of his life escapes any easy definition and demands of us a closer scrutiny.

3. Ambedkar’s paradox of differentiation: Language, nation and recognition of states in post-colonial India

Even as identity politics surrounding linguistic states still create conflicts in the country,  Ambedkar’s writing offered certain interesting thoughts on this matter. This article by Vasudha Bharadwaj  collates and analyses Ambedkar’s complex ideas on linguistic states and the concept of India as a nation using Andhra’s statehood movement as context. The article points out certain contradictions in Ambedkar’s writing by drawing from his treatises Thoughts on Pakistan (1941) and Thoughts on Linguistic States (1955). For instance, he viewed religion as primal and unyielding to a central identity while linguistic identities served a more functional purpose for nationhood. Specifically on linguistic states, Ambedkar argued that monolingualism is essential for a state’s political stability. However, in the backdrop of demands for linguistic states by Andhra, Maharashtra, Odisha and Gujarat, he noted a threat of northern hegemony over the south. This threat, according to him, had the potential to lead to the undesirable ‘consolidation of the North and the balkanization of the South’. While some of his rationale regarding the northern and southern states of India might read like  overgeneralization, especially with the benefit of hindsight, his concerns of fractures along linguistic lines still hold relevance.

4. Ambedkar as a Political Philosopher

This article by Valerian Rodrigues finds in Ambedkar’s vast body of work the elements of a distinct political philosophy – one that offers new formulations of critical concepts of public life and a new interpretative method to read and deploy tradition. Rodrigues’s contribution lies in being able to draw from Ambedkar’s legal, sociological and moral arguments, possibilities of redefining core concepts in political philosophy, such as equality and democracy. Rodrigues pays attention to Ambedkar’s recognition of religion and culture as critical sources of power and his strategic deployment of them in the struggle for radical transformation of power relations. Finally, they derive a novel mode of argumentation from Ambedkar’s writings on the problem of political representation. The article provides a set of valuable provocations that demonstrate how Ambedkar’s work, rooted in the various modes of his political life, crucially contributes to breaking new ground in political philosophy and theory.

5. The Research Radio Podcast, Seven-part series on Ambedkar

The Research Radio, a podcast run by Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), has a seven-part series dedicated to Ambedkar’s work. Each podcast is executed by an author who has written on Ambedkar in EPW. The episodes cover the wide shades of Dr Ambedkar – the academic and the activist. Ambedkar as a historian, Ambedkar’s role in transformative social change, Ambedkar and current systematic casteism, Ambedkar the intersectional feminist, Ambedkar’s involvement in working class struggles and Ambedkar’s thoughts on economic and developmental policy. Each of these is discussed at length by eminent academicians and offer insights into his philosophy and politics. Particularly, the last episode with Gopal Guru, Editor of EPW, discusses frameworks that can be used while reading Ambedkar.

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