Dr Ambedkar: The Unsentimental Historian

Ambedkar’s historical method remains resilient and alluring today because he highlighted the important political difference between imagination and fantasy, conjecture and possibility and a credible story and academic pedantry


There is nothing that I have urged in support of my thesis which I have asked my readers to accept on trust. I have at least shown that there exists a preponderance of probability in favour of what I have asserted. It would be nothing but pedantry to say that a preponderance of probability is not a sufficient basis for a valid decision … I am not so vain as to claim any finality for my thesis … my critics [should] consider whether this thesis is not a workable and therefore, for the time being, a valid hypothesis if the test of a valid hypothesis is that it should fit in with all surrounding facts, explain them and give them a meaning which in its absence they do not appear to have. I do not want anything more from my critics than a fair and unbiased appraisal.

– B. R. Ambedkar, Preface to The Untouchables, 1948


DR. BHIM RAO AMBEDKAR7Ambedkar’s historical approach to politics has, so far, not been acknowledged by the Indian historian establishment. To understand Ambedkar as a historian, a visit to the intellectual climate of late colonial India is necessary. It was unusual for Indian historians to debate questions of historical methods in the 1940s; the official archive reigned supreme over their imagination. Most of them were content with the canons of historiography taught to them by their British professors. The Indian nationalist historians of all hues wrote history with the help of these canons that had colonized their minds. Perhaps some exceptions were the Marxists, like D. D. Kosambi, who applied Marxism to the study of Indian history during the late colonial period. Indian historiography in the 1940s rarely dealt with the questions of caste, tribe and gender. These were generally left to the sociologists to answer. B. R. Ambedkar’s innovative views on the conception and writing of history appear nothing less than astonishing in this context. At a time when the “salt and pepper” professional Indian historians rarely ventured beyond the narratives of historical individuals and events in their writings, Ambedkar reflected on the aspects of historiography that exercise our minds today. He conceived history, in 1948, as a synthesis of art, science and storytelling underscored by the historian’s fertile and creative imagination. His suggestion that the historian must be self-conscious in the task of raising scientific consciousness among his readers rings true for all time.

A tug of war for Ambedkar

Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy thrives in an intriguing intellectual and political milieu. His differences with the Congress, on questions of caste and other matters like the Hindu Code Bill, have not deterred the Congress leaders from manufacturing and appropriating a false image of him. Since its rout in the 2014 General Election the Congress has struggled to regain its image as India’s premier centrist-liberal party. Therefore, it is desperate to stake a claim on Ambedkar, primarily as a constitutional expert. On the other hand, the Hindutva forces which rule India are trying to appropriate Ambedkar to their cause. In 1997, right-wing journalist Arun Shourie had called Ambedkar a pro-British false god unworthy of worship. Now, that position is passé. These days, the BJP-RSS wants to involve the millions of Dalit and Shudra followers of Babasaheb in its mission of creating a Hindu Rashtra. At the same time, the Indian state and the educational institutions, under Hindutva influence, continue the policy of persecuting and ostracizing Dalit students and activists. The new-found BJP love for Ambedkar demonstrates nothing but the politics of symbolism best summarized in the Hindi adage “Muh mein Ram, bagal mein churi”. The Hindutva ideologues know that a Hindu Rashtra cannot be created by only alienating and demonizing the Muslims. The BJP’s 2015 defeat in Bihar, preceded as it was by the tactless pronouncements of the arrogant RSS chief on reservations, has forced it to reconsider its hostility to Ambedkar. Needless to add, these selective misleading appropriations of Ambedkar do not square with his critical reading of Indian history.

These attempted appropriations of Ambedkar necessitate periodic visits to his multifarious and prodigious intellect. So far, he has been examined and accepted as an expert on the Indian caste system and the politics of constitutionalism, and as an organic intellectual of the Indian untouchable and lower castes. There is no doubt that these are germane aspects of his overall thought but I would argue that the sum total of his razor-sharp intellect exceeds these achievements and rises to a level of philosophical reasoning rarely achieved by learned Indians in colonial and even post-colonial India. His belief in the universal Enlightenment values made him a modernist and a lifelong adversary of Hinduism – there was no room for romanticism in his historical vision. His critical understanding of Indian history also negated the sentimentality that Gandhi demonstrated for the Hindu Varnashramdharma and the idyllic pre-modern village – clearly a myth suited to Savarna hegemony. All this makes the appropriation of Ambedkar by the Congress from a liberal-Hindu viewpoint impossible; Ambedkar viewed the Indian society and village from below. Unlike Gandhi and other Congress leaders he did not favour caste reconciliation but desired the complete abolition of caste. This brief intervention in the omnipresent vexed dialogue that Indian modernity has with Ambedkar asserts that his profound engagement with the liberal values of the Enlightenment, with a mix of dialectics, logic and reason at their centre, made him an “anti-myth” historian par excellence much before history moved in the direction of becoming a critical discipline in select Indian universities post 1947 (Dorothy M. Fugeira, Aryans, Jews Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity). Voltaire, Goethe and Gorky influenced his thinking, and his writings as a historian and essayist are too critical of the Hindu religion and therefore cannot be appropriated by the descendants of those he criticized with an academic rigour rare in his day. Since his politics were a product of his unsentimental vision of Indian history and vice versa, his historical views and method need a reappraisal in the context of a cow-worshipping, caste-valorizing and anti-Dalit Vedic palingenetic nationalism (based on the discovery of an ancient mythical romanticized nation) which governs popular historical imagination in the times of globalization.

Preface to The Untouchables

A full examination of Ambedkar’s writings, spread over thousands of pages, from the viewpoint of discovering him as a historian is beyond the scope of this article. Though such an enterprise might prove fruitful in the future, at hand I have one text, The Untouchables, the preface of which comprises a succinct comment on the historical method followed by Ambedkar as he set out to deconstruct the scriptural shibboleths of caste and thereby the basis of Hinduism. The essays in The Untouchables and the method of history outlined in its preface demonstrate at least three crucial attributes of Ambedkar’s historical thought. One, and here we are reminded of the idea of history visualized by R. G. Collingwood, Babasaheb’s historical inquiries began with contemporary political questions directly related to power. This political approach to history places him in the category of scholars like Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault for whom the study of history, ie the examination of causes, consequences and discourse, was related to the exercise of power and its legitimization by the ruling classes. The tension and resolution of social contradiction is central to this historical approach. The primary political questions, and the dominant view of a subject pertinent to them, exercised Ambedkar’s intellect and he embarked on a vigorous mental journey to answer them. Second, and in this respect Ambedkar came close to Marc Bloch, was his pursuit of a regressive method of historical analysis. His historiography was interdisciplinary. Its objective was to prove or disprove generalizations regarding the present and possible future of Indian society. His salutary research aim was to show how the present was produced by the past – there is no room for studying the past for its own sake or entertainment in his historiography. His view of Indian society was structural and caste appears in it as a longue duree factor (long-term historical phenomena). His essays confirm his deep understanding of the interaction of the past and the present – the hallmark of a good historian forever alert to the politics of his age. Three, his essays convey his fertile historical imagination and superb command over language – qualities essential to meaningful social science. Here, it should be remembered that while majoring in Economics in Columbia University, New York, he had seriously read history and sociology. His insightful essays prove that he applied a lawyer’s skill of cross-examination to the sources of history and tradition to arrive at impeccable conclusions. Some of these conclusions may appear dated or overstated today but that in no way diminishes the hermeneutic method he used to arrive at them.

Since Ambedkar’s becoming a historian of Indian society was intimately connected with his negation of caste and the Hindu religion, he began the preface by coming to the point straight away by raising the political question that inspired his historical research. The preface shows that what Marx is to capitalism, Ambedkar is to Hinduism. According to the preface, the “Hindu Civilization” is “a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity. Its proper name would be Infamy.” Furthermore the Hindus, throughout history, had neither searched for nor rationally investigated the origin of their own civilization, ie the caste system. Hence the first question: Why did the Hindu not scientifically investigate his so-called civilization? This non-examination was a consequence of the Hindu not considering the existence of the caste system and untouchability a “matter of apology or shame”. He felt “no responsibility either to atone for it or to enquire into its origin and growth”. Further, and reminiscent of what Alberuni wrote of the Hindus in his India, he explains that “every Hindu is taught to believe that his civilization is not only the most ancient but that it is also in many respects altogether unique. No Hindu ever feels tired of repeating these claims … The inculcation of these false beliefs in the sanity, superiority and sanctity of Hindu Civilization is due entirely to the peculiar social psychology of Hindu scholars.” This social psychology was a product of the long-term pedagogical hegemony wielded by the Brahmins in India since time immemorial. This hegemony had given them a scriptural authority in Indian society and, it may be added, this scriptural authority was reinforced by British colonialism. The Brahmins were learned men no doubt, but not intellectuals in the true sense of the term. To understand the unenlightened approach of these learned men to their own historical condition Ambedkar delved into comparative history and the history of ideas. “Today”, he mentioned in 1948, “all scholarship is confined to the Brahmins. But unfortunately no Brahmin scholar has so far come forward to play the part of a Voltaire who had the intellectual honesty to rise against the doctrines of the Catholic Church in which he was brought up; nor is one likely to appear on the scene in future. It is a grave reflection on the scholarship of the Brahmins that they should not have produced a Voltaire.” For an intellectual to arise and gain respect in society certain necessary and sufficient historical conditions must prevail; these conditions were absent from Indian history. Critical introspection of the self happens in peculiar historical circumstances and the Brahmins, by virtue of their addiction to their traditional learning, had proved themselves incapable of such an effort. Therefore, the Brahmin scholar was “only a learned man” and “not an intellectual”, though he claimed to be a social reformer in colonial conditions. Having written this, Ambedkar drew upon European history and the Enlightenment to dilate on the meaning of the word intellectual: “There is a world of difference between one who is learned and one who is an intellectual. The former is class-conscious and is alive to the interests of his class. The latter is an emancipated being who is free to act without being swayed by class considerations. It is because the Brahmins have been only learned men that they have not produced a Voltaire.”

Investigating the past

According to Ambedkar, the only way to disprove the unreasonable assertions of the Brahmins and the so-called scholars aligned with them was to raise questions and answer them by developing a “new way of looking at old things”. Admittedly, his own answers to the questions raised by untouchability in India were a “result” of the “historical research” he conducted. Further, he consciously followed the ideal of objective history writing laid down by the German statesman-historian-philosopher-poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with whose maxims and reflections he was familiar. According to Goethe’s prescription, the historian’s duty is to “separate the true from the false, the certain from the uncertain, and the doubtful from that which cannot be accepted”. Goethe likened a historian to a juror and Ambedkar took the metaphor seriously: “Every investigator must before all things look upon himself as one who is summoned to serve on a jury. He has only to consider how far the statement of the case is complete and clearly set forth by the evidence. Then he draws his conclusion and gives his vote, whether it be that his opinion coincides with that of the foreman or not.” Goethe inspired but did not constrain Ambedkar. The latter was alert to the possibility of missing links arising in the study of the past events. What should the historian do in cases where “relevant and necessary facts” and “direct evidence of connected relations between important events” are not available to him? Should he stop working “until the link is discovered?” Ambedkar’s answer to this question is a valid negation of academic pedantism:

I believe that in such cases it is permissible for him to use his imagination and intuition to bridge the gaps left in the chain of facts by links not yet discovered and to propound a working hypothesis suggesting how facts which cannot be connected by known facts might have been interconnected.

The point, according to Ambedkar, was not to quibble over the distinction between direct and inferential evidence to examine whether a thesis violated “the canons of historical research” but to avoid a “thesis based on pure conjecture”. Thus the difference between creative imagination and fantasy was maintained in his historical method. The crucial difference between pure conjecture and a possible thesis led him to a deconstruction of the sources to “divine what the texts conceal” and the “task of gathering survivals of the past, placing them together and making them tell the story of their birth”. This work of the historian, in Ambedkar’s words, is:

… analogous to that of the archaeologist who constructs a city from broken stones or of the palaeontologist who conceives an extinct animal from scattered bones and teeth or of a painter who reads the line of the horizon and the smallest vestiges on the slopes of the hill to make up a scene. In this sense the book is a work of art even more than history… It cannot but be that imagination and hypothesis should play a large part in such a work. But that in itself cannot be a ground for the condemnation of the thesis. For without trained imagination no scientific inquiry can be fruitful and hypothesis is the very soul of science.

In conclusion it can be said that the revolutionary philosophy of Ambedkar was predicated upon a patient, laborious and critical reading of the primary sources he selected to fashion a rational argument debunking the caste system in general and untouchability in particular. His articles prove that deconstructing the discourse of the ruling classes/castes is the primary objective of the historian. By claiming no “finality” for his thesis and underlining the difference between pure conjecture and theoretical possibilities in a system of historical analysis, Ambedkar pioneered an open-ended approach to social history at a time when most Indian historians rarely ventured beyond the ideology of nationalism and the battlefields of the past. Ambedkar’s historical method remains resilient and alluring in our times because his reflections highlighted the important political difference between imagination and fantasy, conjecture and possibility and a credible story and academic pedantry in the formulation of his historical submissions. As a modernist he desired rational knowledge, and not another myth, to replace the sophistry of the establishment. He worked in an age when the Prussian straitjacket of Leopold von Ranke was worn with aplomb by the professional historians of India and the method of positivism reigned supreme over their narrow minds. To accept and validate history as a credible artistic and scientific story told by the imaginative historian on the basis of a critical reading of the traces of the past in 1948 was to anticipate many future and exciting developments in historiography. It is a pity that Ambedkar has been, perhaps unwittingly or conveniently, reduced to a “Dalit” intellectual-philosopher in the Indian schools and universities. Indeed this anti-myth Indian pioneer of deconstruction should have been taken seriously by this country’s fraternity of historians decades ago.

Published in the April 2016 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine

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