B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) was the first Dalit or low-caste Hindu to be formally educated to the highest level, gaining his PhD in the West. Despite this huge achievement he remained true to his background and origins, fighting for Dalit rights throughout his life. No one today doubts Ambedkar’s status as India’s first and foremost Dalit. For years, Ambedkar waged a singular and lonely battle against India’s brahminical and higher-caste political establishment, which included Mahatma Gandhi, who resisted Ambedkar’s effort to formalize and codify a separate identity for lower-caste Hindus. Nonetheless, Ambedkar became Law Minister in the first government of independent India, and chairman of the committee which drafted the Indian constitution, and was able to modify Gandhian attempts to influence India’s polity. In the final stage of his life Ambedkar distanced himself from politics and sought solace in Buddhism, to which he converted a short while before his death. Jaffrelot’s major new book focuses on the three key areas that are central to a full understanding of India’s pioneering Dalit: Ambedkar as social theorist; Ambedkar as statesman and politician; and Ambedkar as an opponent of caste Hinduism and advocate of Buddhism as a method of release from Hindu social oppression. In each case, Jaffrelot argues, Ambedkar was the first to forge new political, symbolic, and emotively powerful strategies for Dalits. These not only proved effective in Ambedkar’s own lifetime, they resonate powerfully even today.
Christophe Jaffrelot is director of CERI (Centre d’Etudes et Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po in Paris. His books include The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics (1996) and India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics (2003).