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A battleground called BR Ambedkar

Vijeta Kumar | Updated on December 06, 2019 Published on December 06, 2019

Power of one: In this volume, Ambedkar is by turns scathing and sharp, and teasing and infuriating   -  THE HINDU / RAJEEV BHATT

A powerful anthology of essays by the father of India’s constitution, whose death anniversary was on December 6, brings out the historical origins of untouchability in India

“Brahmins were not merely beef-eaters but they were also butchers,” says Ambedkar in his 1948 work The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? And then with the practicality of a mathematician, he continues to prove this statement through a range of evidence and sourcing, none of it from what may be considered ‘lived/witnessed truths’.

Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men: An Annotated Critical Selection from The Untouchables is an anthology of Ambedkar’s essays written when he was 57. At this point, he had already been the country’s first law minister, an established jurist, lawyer, orator, writer, translator, journalist and editor. Here, he is also a historian set to trace the origins of untouchability. And since he knows that his scholarship (despite his extensive qualifications and multiple academic degrees) wouldn’t be enough for the Brahmin-Savarna critic, Ambedkar makes his research all the more rigorous.

Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men: An Annotated Critical Selection from The Untouchables BR Ambedkar Non-fiction Navayana ₹699

 

His scholarship in this book is interesting for two reasons. A careful study of the prefaces he wrote to his books will show us two Ambedkars at play. The Ambedkar in the preface is Ambedkar on the playground — teasing, joking, and infuriating to read if you are a proud Brahmin (“It is a grave reflection on the scholarship of the Brahmins that they should not have produced a Voltaire”).

The same author in the rest of the book is Ambedkar on the battlefield — scathing and sharp (“For the Brahmin, everyday was a beef-steak day”). For one, it is difficult to not be swayed by his power over the English language and the capacity with which he delivers uncomfortable truths. What we see is also a rare ability to confront research problems and dead-ends with the precision of a surgeon’s tools while a horde of ‘lived experiences’ sits beside him patiently.

In the book, Ambedkar raises significant questions about the origin of ‘broken men’, a term he uses to describe people who later became ‘untouchables’. He offers the conclusion that the Brahmins began cow worshipping and gave up beef-eating to ‘vanquish’ Buddhism. The non-Brahmin upper castes also gave up beef in the spirit of imitation. But since “imitation is too costly”, a whole community of ‘low-caste’ people could not afford to give up beef. There again, Ambedkar encounters the complexity between castes that ate ‘fresh’ beef as opposed to the ‘broken men’ who ate the flesh of the dead cow. Every time he finds an answer, he complicates it further by breaking it down into other questions: Did the Hindus never eat beef? What made the Brahmins become vegetarian? Why should beef-eating make broken men untouchables?

Only someone invested in getting to the root of the problem would complicate it further. But this is also the work of someone determined to not let his work be attacked for any flaws. It is another matter altogether that for the upper castes, Ambedkar’s key flaw wouldn’t even be related to his argument, it’d be his ‘untouchability’.

An investigation into the origin of untouchability would have perhaps been easier if there were a collaborator from the upper castes; someone with access to a history of upholding the practice of untouchability. But since the Brahmins did not produce a Voltaire, Ambedkar turns to history and his own imagination to get to the roots.

The problem here is that there are missing links in our history which make it impossible to get to the root of untouchability. And since this is the kind of missing link that a Savarna scholar has the luxury to not be bothered about, it falls to Ambedkar to fill up the blanks. “It is permissible for a historian to use his imagination and intuition to bridge the gaps left in the chain of facts. I must admit that rather than hold up the work, I have preferred to resort to this means to get over the difficulty created by the missing links,” he says.

As Ambedkar foresees an attack on the seriousness of such a study, he has a fascinating rebuttal ready: “Critics may use this weakness to condemn the thesis as violating the canons of historical research. If such be the attitude of the critics I must remind them that if there is a law which governs the evaluation of the results of historical results then refusal to accept a thesis on the ground that it is based on direct evidence is bad law”.

‘Direct evidence’ is Ambedkar’s own account of having been an untouchable. But predicting that the meritorious Brahmin critic will never acknowledge lived experience as the basis for good research, as serious or as even having merit — Ambedkar doesn’t merely present his experience as experience. He submits it to scholarship and uses the language of law to defeat the Brahmin. In short, Ambedkar lawyers the Brahmin in this book.

These essays have the same energy in them as his 1916 seminal essay Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, written when Ambedkar was 25. It will continue to be an enormous feat that there too he didn’t feel the need to deflect into personal experiences. He has always chosen the more difficult path to persuade the reader.

The fact that in order to be taken seriously as a scholar he would need something much larger than truth itself reveals the kind of attackers he was dealing with. It also shows us that he wasn’t just a writer when he was writing — he was also a lawyer, a historian, a poet, bringing us to the long overdue recognition of Ambedkar as, first and foremost, an artist before he is anything else.

Vijeta Kumar teaches English in St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, and writes at rumlolarum.com

Published on December 06, 2019
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