Interview with Aakash Singh Rathore Author of “Becoming Babasaheb : The Life and Times of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (Volume 1)”Explore the profound life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar in "Becoming Babasaheb" by Aakash Singh Rathore. Gain insights from the author in an interview on Frontlist
on Jan 24, 2024
Aakash Singh Rathore is a philosopher of international repute and the author of nine books, including the bestselling Ambedkar's Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India (2020). He has also edited over a dozen books ranging from political philosophy and law to literature and religion, including B.R. Ambedkar's the Buddha and His Dhamma: A Critical Edition (2011) and, more recently, B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice (a box set of five volumes, 2021). His Hegel's India was shortlisted for the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the Tata Literature Live! Book Awards 2017.
Professor Rathore has taught politics, philosophy and law at premier institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Delhi (in India), UPenn and Rutgers University (in the US), the University of Toronto (Canada), Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany) and LUISS University, Rome (Italy). He is International Fellow at ETHOS, Rome, and was previously Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
Frontlist: What is the modern resonance of Dr. Ambedkar's patriotism, considering today's context? Which aspects of his vision do you believe align most with contemporary India?
Aakash: It is important at the outset to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Dr. Ambedkar was an ardent patriot, but he was suspicious of nationalism. So what is the difference? Nationalism generally focuses on the characteristics of the people, on their blood or ethnic origin — 'natio' essentially means 'birth' in Latin — and is usually closely tied with territory, language, religion, and culture. It is a chauvinism toward certain persons who share a certain blood, territory, language, and/or religion. In this way, nationalism is exclusionary. This is especially problematic in a territory that has long enjoyed a multiplicity of diverse and overlapping cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities. Nationalism thus takes the plural, the diverse, the multi-cultural, and multi-religious and aims to stamp it more and more into homogeneity: to prioritize one language, to favor one religion, to champion one region, as the essence of, say, Indianness. Patriotism, on the contrary, aims to allow inclusivity without demanding homogeneity. In Dr. Ambedkar's vision, patriotism meant aligning oneself with the values espoused in the
Constitution, especially those of Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Dignity — it was indeed the due recognition of the dignity of each individual, irrespective of ethnicity, language, religion, etc, that was the very precondition for the unity of the Nation. In this way, celebrating diversity in India is, for Ambedkar, a patriotic act. And perhaps more controversially, protecting secularism — the equal treatment of all religions — is, for Ambedkar, a patriotic act. Even further, critiquing the government for any of its failures in promoting justice, liberty, or equality is, for Ambedkar, a patriotic act. And importantly, for Ambedkar, practicing fraternity with fellow Indians who happen to be unlike you in caste, class, gender, religion, language, and so on is a paramount act of patriotism.
Frontlist: How does your exploration of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's life in "Becoming Babasaheb" contribute to our understanding of patriotism in his era? How did Ambedkar's journey reflect his commitment to patriotic ideals, especially during the period covered in Volume 1 of the biography?
Aakash: Ambedkar's era was one where the struggle for independence dominated public discourse, so much so that internal struggles for equality, justice, and recognition — such as those for caste and gender equality — were pushed aside. Because Ambedkar strongly held the view that India's freedom from unjust foreign domination was of little value without at the same time ensuring Indians' freedom from unjust internal systems of oppression, he was viciously attacked as being a 'British stooge' for dragging his feet on the freedom struggle, or for not espousing the proper nationalist sentiment. As we know, Dr. Ambedkar devotedly dedicated more time to the successful completion of the Constitution than any other member of the Drafting Committee — such was his commitment to Indian 'nation building.' But, again, this was patriotic nation-building, not nationalistic nation-building.
Frontlist: Balancing objectivity and subjectivity in biographical writing is often challenging. How did you navigate this balance, particularly in addressing the theme of patriotism in "Becoming Babasaheb"?
Aakash: There have been many biographies of Dr Ambedkar before mine. A lot have been hagiographic, some have been character assassination. The latter in fact are grounded in the misleading thesis that Ambedkar was not nationalist enough — for the reasons I have mentioned earlier. The hagiographic biographies, of course, regard him as the consummate patriot. The aim of my biography, what makes it different from all of those that have come before, is that I try to capture the personality of this man, as a real, flesh-and-blood person. This means attempting to capture the subject objectively. That is, as an author and a biographer, I do not need my subject to be something specific: a patriot, a nationalist, neither, or both. My goal is simply to follow all the clues, to be able to reveal the real person behind the statesman, the icon, the legend.
Frontlist: In what ways do you foresee "Becoming Babasaheb" being used in educational settings to teach about patriotism and historical figures?
Aakash: I think my previous book on Dr Ambedkar, Ambedkar's Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India (Penguin, 2020), is a book that has already found its place in educational settings — especially in Indian law schools — to teach about patriotism, constitutional values, and more. This is not so much the strength for the new biography, Becoming Babasaheb. However, the new book could be useful in educational contexts for understanding our foremost historical figures, specifically for treating them as contextual figures, as both products and makers of their times.
Frontlist: Dr. Ambedkar played a pivotal role in shaping India's Constitution. How did his involvement in constitutional drafting align with his vision of patriotism? Can specific constitutional principles or provisions be seen as reflections of Ambedkar's unique perspective on patriotism?
Aakash: As many members of the Constituent Assembly voiced during the two years of drafting the Indian Constitution, the soul of our Constitution is to be found in its Preamble. Dr. Ambedkar basically single-handedly authored that Preamble, and the Preamble, in many ways, captured the essence of his view of patriotism. I believe that its central concepts — Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Dignity, Nation — must remain central to our own patriotic feelings.
Frontlist: As an author delving into Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's life, how did your personal understanding of patriotism evolve throughout the research and writing process?
Aakash: Only Volume One of the biography has been published so far. I am in the process of completing the second and final volume. I mention this because if there is one thing that I have learned in this long process, it is that my personal understanding of just about anything Dr. Ambedkar dealt with in his own life — including the concept of patriotism — is continuously evolving the more I learn and write about him, his work and his achievements (and indeed, even his failures). Tracing out how young Bhiva Ambadawekar became Bhimrao Ambedkar, then became Barrister Ambedkar, then became Dr. Ambedkar, and finally became Babasaheb Ambedkar (hence the title, Becoming Babasaheb), has been an exhilarating journey for me as well. And though his own life has ended, his legacy most certainly lives on, and thus so does the journey of learning from his becoming. You'll see what I mean when you read the book!