Ambedkar: The man from Manhattan

Illustration by Prathap Ravishankar

Ambedkar, whose 128th birth centenary was observed on Sunday, April 14, has become the elephant in a game of blind men and the elephant. Hindutvavadis see in his virulent criticism of Islam and the role of Muslims in Indian history a vindication of their own political agenda. Dalit intellectuals and politicians see in his political activity and intervention in favour of social justice as the most significant, overarching aspect of Ambedkar relevant today. Leftists cite his advocacy of a form of socialism. With the BJP having struck a growth path, Leftists have recently taken up the task of rediscovering Ambedkar and linking Ambedkarism with their own beliefs to build a broader alliance against the BJP.

While all these dimensions that people discover in Ambedkar are consequences of Ambedkar’s fundamental worldviews they are not the worldviews themselves. They are inferences Ambedkar drew based upon his core beliefs. Those beliefs, largely coming from western liberalism, can however form the template of liberal democracy that can define the political agenda of India in the future.

His Guru was an American academic

To think about Ambedkar, one will have to go back to an American academic named John Dewey, a professor at Columbia University where Ambedkar studied. Ambedkar openly called Dewey his master, his intellectual father figure. When Ambedkar was feted at Columbia University in the 1950s, what he looked forward to most was meeting Dewey but sadly Dewey had passed away when Ambedkar was on his way to America.

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