Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was a giant of world history, though one barely understood both at home or abroad. While I am no expert on his life or his legacy, suffice it to say the more I read and the more I discover about him, the more I am in awe at his contributions, especially in the light of terrible personal conditions.

In that sense, Shashi Tharoor’s recent and eminently readable biography “Ambedkar: A Life” —is a welcome addition to the already voluminous material on this amazing human being.

Ambedkar A Life by Shashi Tharoor jpgDr. Ambedkar is known by some as the father of the Indian Constitution. To others, he is known as a champion of the downtrodden, specifically of Dalits. Still others think of him as a radical Economist and brilliant Lawyer. In fact, all of these are true. As with those like Gandhi and Nehru, Ambedkar’s life is not reducible to a label and his contributions not collapsible to a profession or to a single strand. A recent poll named him as the 20th century’s greatest Indian, a mantle almost impossible to assume in the era and land of Gandhi.

He came up from nothing and endured indignities his whole life. A Dalit born in a poor family, Ambedkar stood on equal parley with the Mahatma and though he compromised with Gandhi with the Poona Pact, the latter’s acid pen wrote nothing but laudatory comments about the Babasaheb.

Ambedkar was prescient on so many matters including the notion that Independence from the British was just a swap of hierarchies for Dalits- from the foreign oppressors to the caste Hindu oppressors. His thoughts on India’s language problems, on federalism, on the exportation of caste bias, on the need for women’s equality, all appear to be products of a crystal ball.

His detractors have ample fodder for detraction though for the most part, they miss the mark. Tharoor debones their main argument- that Ambedkar was an “anti-nationalist”- by suggesting that his positionality as a champion of equality for Dalits made his positions eminently rational. Tharoor deftly quotes Ambedkar to suggest what his real intentions were- that it was his love for India (and not the usual epithet of anti-nationalism) that made him shudder at the notion that so many people in the Hindu fold were excluded from the life and liberty to which all individuals have the right.

Ambedkar had real faults too. His antipathy to India’s Adivasis and his appeal for strong-man statism are on the top of the list. Both of these have terribly strong echoes in today’s India.

For many, the antipathy Ambedkar had for Gandhi is his signal failure. But evidence suggests that regarding the matters on which they differed, Ambedkar’s side was not only more rational but also in the end far more humane with regard to the dispensation meted out to India’s Dalits.

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