Opinion: Ambedkar’s American Comeback

Despite America’s relatively newfound interest in Ambedkar’s work, it will take another decade for him to become a household name.

Suraj Yengde

April 28, 2021

Opinion: Ambedkar’s American Comeback
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1950 (Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month and for the second time, Indian American Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced a resolution to the U.S. Congress to acknowledge and honor the legacy of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Khanna stated that Ambedkar “stood for an India and America where we respect the dignity of all.” The statement continued, “[Ambedkar was] a towering historical figure, a fearless feminist and caste abolitionist, and whose contributions to the fields of economics, philosophy, religious, jurisprudence, and democracy remain unparalleled, even today.” The resolution sought to recognize Ambedkar’s contributions as the architect of the Indian Constitution, into which he codified gender equality and included Article 17, which “abolishes ‘Untouchability’ in any form.” A video of philosopher Dr. Cornel West, who called Ambedkar the “great and inimitable,” accompanied the announcement of the resolution. 

As this resolution suggests, Ambedkar is increasingly becoming a more recognizable name in America as a key leader and political theorist in India’s freedom movement, a position that Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru previously dominated. Many scholars and researchers such as Cornel West, Isabel Wilkerson, Kevin Brown, Christophe Jaffrelot, David Mosse, interested in world politics and democracy, have taken to Ambedkar’s thought and philosophy. 

Though America, in particular, has known about caste and “shudras, pariahs” since the 19th century, this growing love of Ambedkar is an achievement of on-the-ground social movements that translated Ambedkar’s theories for the public, and fostered a global appetite for anti-caste culture and discourse. Ambedkar is perhaps the only Indian scholar who was promoted by non-academics in academic spaces. 

By offering simultaneous critiques to nationalists and as well as leftist scholars who were arbiters of India’s socio-political situation, Ambedkar’s followers brought him into the mainstream. Much of the South Asian-centric language and knowledge uplifted narratives on India through either a liberal, do-no-harm Gandhian lens, or the extreme polarity of leftist, caste-neutral, working-class thought. Ambedkar doesn’t fit into these contested ideologies. He is walking in the path of the Buddha —the middle path. However, Ambedkar is insistent on firm socio-economic and political justice and redistribution of resources. Given the breadth of his scholarship, it becomes difficult to put Ambedkar in one frame or align him with any single ideology.

While some western scholars and researchers interested in postcolonial India have examined and engaged with the history and contemporary study of the world of Dalits, this research wasn’t part of popular discourse. Late 19th and early 20th-century American academia saw the rise in caste scholarship via the study of Hinduism. And while this study did not ascend to the scope and depth of Ambedkar’s work on caste in India, as Dalit scholars and intellectuals have taken their work to international forums, the Dalit issue has become a more global one. 

The Dalit Indian diaspora (the true size of which is unknown) has also been a champion of Ambedkar. This group, across class lines, was fiery and unapologetic. These activists include the likes of Dr. Shobha Singh, Dr. Laxmi Berwa, Yogesh Varhade, Raju Kamble via their respective organizations — VISION, Ambedkar International Mission, Ambedkar Center for Justice & Peace, Dr. Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkar King Study Circle, among others. By distributing Ambedkar’s literature on topics ranging from caste, class, democracy, and religion, they kept insisting on Ambedkar’s necessity in public forums, academic conferences, and various gatherings on Indian holidays the diaspora celebrates. Supported by organizations in India, especially the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), along with a host of other Buddhist organizations, the Dalits in the diaspora made Ambedkar inevitable.