Book Title: Becoming Babasaheb: The Life and Times of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
Author: Aakash Singh Rathore
Raja Sekhar Vundru
Exploring Dr BR Ambedkar’s life is an experience that deepens the learning with every visit, makes it more intriguing, amazing and perplexing, given Ambedkar’s rise from an untouchable to Constitution maker, locating him in the tumultuous history of India. Aakash Singh Rathore, a trained philosopher, digressed into Ambedkar with ‘Buddha and his Dhamma’ (co-edited, 2011) and ‘Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India’ (2020). Even with a plethora of biographies to study, Rathore finds primacy in Changdev Khairmode’s multi-volume untranslated Marathi work (first volume published in 1952), marginally hagiographic and deeply informative. Rathore writes Ambedkar’s life journey comparing what he calls “lifeless anglophone” biographies on Ambedkar, such as Dhananjay Keer (1954); Gail Omvedt (2004); Eleanor Zelliot (1969, 2004); Christophe Jaffrelot (2005); Vijay Mankar (2016); Shashi Tharoor (2022); William Gould & Christophe Jaffrelot (2022); and Scott R Stroud (2022); except Savita Ambedkar’s autobiography (2014, 2022).
Rathore kicks off well with his guided tour, locating Ambedkar’s student life in New York and London, dipping into his influences, academic work, papers studied and the lives of his teachers. He gets swayed into comparative biography mode trying to ascertain errors in dates and events of other biographies. He becomes a storyteller, contextualising sometimes and veering independent of the classic biography done by Keer, which Ambedkar himself read. Rathore’s intention in writing Ambedkar’s story differently from other biographies takes on a newer tangent and is refreshing. He picks Mahad satyagraha of 1927 and depends heavily on Anand Teltumbde’s book ‘Mahad’ (2016), while missing out on details from Marathi native writers and Gail’s compilation, ‘Building the Ambedkar Revolution: Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad and Konkan Dalits’ (2011). This trend somehow shortened his bibliography.
Rathore stumbles on his unfounded enthusiasm as he attempts to throw light on Ambedkar’s female friend in London, known as Fanny Fitzgerald or F, a war widow, with her family details culled from William Gould’s ‘Ambedkar in London’ (2022). Being the communication mode of the 1920s, Ambedkar and F exchanged letters. Rathore treads a dangerous path as he refers to unpublished letters between the two. He quotes from an unknown Wordpress website that F was hopeful of marrying Ambedkar and the latter seriously considered the same! Rathore’s reference to unpublished letters claiming a romance between them is a sheer scholarly misdemeanour and that he finds F addressing Ambedkar as “My darling Bhim” is mischievous. Rathore ignores four of these letters published in Khairmode’s biography and in Ambedkar’s personal assistant Nanak Chand Rattu’s book ‘Little Known Facets of Ambedkar’ (2001). He doesn’t tell us that Ambedkar had denied the marriage rumours.
The author doesn’t even know what Ambedkar wrote back to F because these letters were never available. Ambedkar, like all men of those days, preserved his letters and left F’s correspondence in the custody of his second wife, Dr Savita. Dalit Panther Arun Kamble is said to have procured these from her and finalised the publication of the letters in 2006 (after Savita’s death in 2003). With a lot of hue and cry erupting over the rights to publish these letters, Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash, having inherited the estate, got an injunction and the issue died down. Kamble died in 2009. But S Anand (publisher of Navayana), like Rathore now, tried to mischievously sensationalise the same in Outlook magazine in 2006. Anand foolishly claimed that Ambedkar had lied to F that he was not married. Rathore claims to unravel these in his next book without even telling us about his references.
Two events catapulted Ambedkar to politics in 1919-20. First, he appeared before Southborough Committee on Constitutional reforms in January 1919, where he unveiled his electoral representation formula for Dalits on population basis. Vittal Ram Shinde, Depressed Class Mission head and Maratha leader, opposed the election idea and proposed co-option of Dalits, which Ambedkar calls “rival scheme”. Buoyed by Chathrapari Shahu Maharaj’s public adulation in March 1920, Ambedkar quickly organised an all-India Dalit conclave in May 1920 in Nagpur solely to attack Shinde and successfully decimated the Depressed Class Mission. Gail (1994), quoting Marathi resources, says that the Nagpur event finished Shinde’s political career; Keer calls it Ambedkar’s first victory in public life, whereas Rathore ignores this event claiming scanty details.
Gandhi’s biographer Ramachandra Guha took six laborious years to finish the second part and produced a brilliant work. One awaits such an effort on Ambedkar. With all the hits and misses, Rathore’s book refreshingly restarts and re-discovers Ambedkar. It gives us a panoramic-cinematic view and this addition of a newer version on Ambedkar’s life is always a must-read.