Ashok Gopal – “For 10 years, I read only Ambedkar” - Hindustan Times
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Ashok Gopal – “For 10 years, I read only Ambedkar”

Feb 03, 2024 07:12 PM IST

At the Kerala Literature Festival 2024, the author of A Part Apart; The Life and Thought of BR Ambedkar spoke about looking at scattered sources to put together a cohesive picture of his subject, his debt to Dalit archivists, and how 20 years of studying Ambedkar has given him a philosophy of life

BR Ambedkar has left behind a vast body of work. There are also many books on him and his oeuvre. Given this context, what inspired you to work on this book?

Author Ashok Gopal (Courtesy the subject)
Author Ashok Gopal (Courtesy the subject)

As I have said in the preface, I found that there were gaps in what has already been written about Ambedkar. Particularly in writings in English, Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism has been unsatisfactorily told. That he was a deeply religious person, albeit not in the way many understand “religion”, was completely missed.

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Ambedkar’s body of work, as available through volumes published by the Government of Maharashtra, makes it challenging to read. The volumes are not organised either thematically or chronologically. The reader has to make a lot of effort to see connections between ideas expressed at different times, and if you don’t read Marathi, you will miss a substantial part of Ambedkar’s thoughts.

A Part Apart tries to address these challenges. It covers the entire evolution of his thought. Had there already been such a book, I would not have written mine.

Given that this book is gigantic, please share your writing process.

Before I even thought of writing the book, I had done an enormous amount of reading. For about 10 years, other than the daily newspaper and stuff related to my work, I read only Ambedkar: what he had read, what had been written about him, and what had been written about his time. I wanted to understand him fully.

The idea of writing a book came only after a friend told me I shouldn’t be sitting on all that I had gained through my reading. I spoke to Anand (publisher, Navayana). He was interested, so I had to start typing. From the very beginning, the idea was to introduce Ambedkar’s thoughts to a general audience.

The writing went through three major phases. In my first draft, I focused only on Ambedkar’s ideas till his decisive turn to Buddhism in the early 1940s. Anand thought that was inadequate and I agreed. So, for the second major draft, I followed a chronological approach, telling the story of Ambedkar’s life and the evolution of his thoughts right up to his death. For biographical details, I referred to the multi-volume biography of Ambedkar in Marathi by CB Khairmode and took help from the Ambedkar archivist Vijay Surwade. I got the works of other Ambedkar archivists from the Siddharth Library in Pune and some bookstores in Nagpur. For newspaper accounts, I referred to digital archives.

Before starting on the second draft, I made a structure of chapters with sections. Then, setting deadlines for myself, I wrote one section after the other. As I had already done a lot of homework, the writing came quite easily. The rewriting, and the fine tuning, took more time and effort. And the indexing nearly killed me, though I did only half the work. The third phase of writing was after the review of the manuscript by Anand, his associate Alex and some noted scholars. Their comments helped me shape the final manuscript.

So, all in all, though legally I am the author of the book, it’s not my effort alone.

Also, one has to recognise, that much of what we know about Ambedkar and our access to many of his texts are the result of work done by many Dalit archivists, starting from Khairmode in the 1920s. Everyone who has written about Ambedkar, including me, is riding on that work.

864pp, ₹999; Navayana
864pp, ₹999; Navayana

You have invested two decades of your life to looking at Ambedkar’s work. How transformed are you now as a person, as a journalist, and as a writer compared to when you began engaging with his works?

Till I read Babasaheb, I didn’t have what he called a “philosophy of life” — like many other people I had views on different issues, but really no base holding these views together. Speaking from my social position, it might sound pompous to say this, but Babasaheb gave me a philosophy of life. I have not become a Buddhist, but I do have a moral compass, which I got from him, and which I think is better than any other.

Then, his way of thinking and his method of persuasion have also changed me. This will happen to anyone who reads him closely. At the very least, you will become a sharper thinker. And you will definitely not be a blind bhakt of anything or anybody.

A Part Apart contains some information that hadn’t been recorded earlier. Why was that so?

Actually, except for a few things like some long letters Ambedkar wrote to the Bombay Chronicle; I didn’t “discover” anything. Most of the information was already available, in some form or the other, albeit in scattered places, such as the sources I mentioned earlier. I simply put the pieces together.

The absence of a central, easily accessible repository of all documents related to Ambedkar is due to several reasons. The primary one appears to be a lack of political will, due to the need to have Ambedkar more as an icon than as a subject of study. It doesn’t help that there are competing factions among Dalits. There is also some reluctance of Ambedkar archivists to part with their material, as it means the world to them.

You have said, “Ambedkar taught me how democracy was to be understood.” What led you to this understanding?

The idea that democracy is fundamentally an ethical concept was new to me. Ambedkar got that idea from [American philosopher and psychologist] John Dewey, but he went several steps ahead, trying to formulate how this ethical concept of democracy could be grounded in India. That whole effort, which I have tried to narrate, was to me staggeringly novel and eye-opening.

You have tried to humanise Ambedkar in some ways. To what extent do you feel you were able to help achieve this?

I did not consciously set out to do what you are suggesting. I simply followed his dictum, which was also the Buddha’s dictum: Do revere a master, but do not be a blind bhakt. Apply your mind, examine the given, and arrive at your own understanding. Be your own light!

To what extent I have been successful, that is for the reader to judge. Also, one has to remember, that other perspectives are possible.

LISTEN: Books & Authors podcast with Ashok Gopal, author, ‘A Part Apart; The Life and Thought of BR Ambedkar’

How can individuals employ BR Ambedkar’s principles in their everyday lives to progress towards an equitable society? What would you advise people to read first from Ambedkar’s body of work?

The principles imply the practice of critical thought, dialogue, and persuasion through language, with absolute respect for human dignity. These can be applied in any field of life. The modes of application will vary. For example, in education, it would be through pedagogical practices and what is called the “school environment”.

As for the texts, to start one’s reading of Ambedkar, it depends on where you come from. Generally speaking, the Mukti Kon Pathe? speech (which is available in English translation), Annihilation of Caste and Ambedkar’s last address to the Constituent Assembly are good starting points before one dives into other texts.

Saurabh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and freelance journalist. They can be found on Instagram/X: @writerly_life

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