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Columbia University teaches Ambedkar’s biography, but few in India have even read it

A casteist and ideological bias has ensured that Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography is a celebrated work while Ambedkar's memoir is hardly known.

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Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s books and academic journals are celebrated works across the globe. But in India, which every year celebrates its first law minister’s birth anniversary on 14 April as Ambedkar Jayanti with much fanfare, there is overwhelming neglect. The best example of this is BR Ambedkar’s autobiography, “Waiting for a Visa”, which is part of the Columbia University’s curriculum. Few may have even read it in India.

Ambedkar wrote ‘Waiting for a Visa’ in 1935-36, following his return from the US and Europe. In the 20-page autobiographical memoir, published by Maharashtra’s Education Department in 1993 as part of a collection of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches, the Dalit icon wrote about his own personal experiences with untouchability basically for the “(f)oreigners (who) of course know of the existence of untouchability. But not being next door to it, so to say, they are unable to realise how oppressive it is in its actuality”.

Ambedkar believed it was “difficult for (people outside India) to understand how it is possible for a few untouchables to live on the edge of a village consisting of a large number of Hindus; go through the village daily to free it from the most disagreeable of its filth and to carry the errands of all and sundry… and yet never touch or be touched by any one belonging to the village.”

Columbia University, whose Prof Frances W. Pritchett edited the memoir, now teaches its students about the several humiliating incidents faced by Ambedkar from his childhood to 1934-35 because of his status as being a person from the untouchable class.

Also read: You can be a Hindu nationalist and an Ambedkarite both

Ambedkar knew of the difficulties he would face while trying to detail the experiences of an untouchable for the Western audience. And he notes it as thus:

“The problem is how best to give an idea of the way the untouchables are treated by the caste Hindus. A general description or a record of cases and of the treatment accorded to them are the two methods by which this purpose could be achieved. I have felt that the latter would be more effective than the former. In choosing these illustrations I have drawn partly upon my experience and partly upon the experience of others.”

This autobiography has six segments. In the first segment, Ambedkar describes his childhood journey to Koregaon, which he remembers as a “nightmare”. The incident from 1901 took place when Ambedkar was only nine years old. He was travelling from Satara to Koregaon with his brother and nephew to meet his father. Ambedkar vividly describes of the insult and ostracization they felt – from bullock-cartmen at the railway station refusing to give them ride to the family being refused water – because they were Dalit.

In the second segment, he describes his days in Baroda city, where he had just returned from the West after completing his education and was unable to find a place to stay. Ambedkar writes: “My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable, and that an untouchable wherever he went in India was a problem to himself and to others. But when I came out of the station, my mind was considerably disturbed by a question, “Where to go? Who will take me?” I felt deeply agitated. Hindu hotels, called Vishis, I knew there were. They would not take me. The only way of seeking accommodation therein was by impersonation. But I was not prepared for it, because I could well anticipate the dire consequences which were sure to follow if my identity was discovered–as it was sure to be.”

Also read: India’s Constitution makers Nehru, Patel & Ambedkar were divided on parliamentary system

In the third segment titled ‘Pride, awkwardness, and a dangerous accident in Chalisgaon’ Ambedkar writes about an incident that dates back to 1929. The Bombay government had formed a committee to investigate the grievances of the untouchables. Ambedkar was appointed a member of this committee, which was tasked with travelling all over the province to probe cases of injustices. At the Chalisgaon station, Ambedkar would later learn, the tongawallahs had refused to ferry “the untouchables”, which meant someone who didn’t know how to drive the tonga was tasked with the job. “(The horse, instead of going straight, took a turn and bolted. The wheel of the tonga struck against the side stone so forcibly that I was bodily lifted up and thrown down on the stone pavement of the culvert, and the horse and the carriage fell down from the culvert into the river… As a result of this I received several injuries. My leg was fractured, and I was disabled for several days.”

The other’s experiences are covered in the memoir’s last two chapters: ‘A doctor refuses to give proper care, and a young woman dies’ (chapter 5); and ‘A young clerk is abused and threatened until he gives up his job’ (chapter 6).

Ambedkar says that not all these insults and injustices were propagated by Hindus. The venom of caste-based discrimination has proliferated to Indian followers of other religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Persians too. The bigger question here is: why Ambedkar’s autobiography has been constantly neglected while almost every Indian is aware about Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography?

Also read: Ambedkar was wrong, Gandhi wrote against untouchability in Gujarati journals too

Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth’ is well known to every educated Indian. This autobiography was published in 1929. Why is it so that Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography is termed as a great work while that of Ambedkar’s is relegated as a second-grade work? In my view, there are no obvious reasons other than casteist and ideological bias that prevails in our country. This is also responsible for the fact that a person who fought against the Britishers on the behalf of upper caste/class was bestowed with the title of “Father of the Nation”, while the person who fought for the real freedom of India’s common masses has been neglected and insulted since long.

The writer is a PhD in Hindi and currently works as Hindi Editor of Forward Press. This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the original version here.

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  1. I agree with the general direction of this article, that Ambedkar’s Waiting for a Visa is just not read enough. However, as someone how has taught different courses at Columbia University, I can confidently say that Waiting for a Visa is not a part of either the Columbia Core Curriculum, or most of the graduate courses offered by the University. There is a lot of good work around Ambedkar being done at Columbia University with the Anupama Rao – led Ambedkar Initiative carrying out several projects to situate Ambedkar within the world that Columbia is part of. My contention here is less with the claims that the author is making about the value of Ambedkar’s Waiting for a Visa, and more with the editors of Print.in – are you checking your sources when you put something like this in the title? The link you provide for Columbia’s “Curriculum” directs the reader to Prof. Fran Pritchett’s website – a fascinating resource freely available online containing details about Ambedkar’s life that have been carefully researched at Columbia – but in no way outlining the syllabus to any course in Columbia University. Making a false claim in a title of an article widely publicized on Ambedkar Jayanti might be as much of a disservice to Ambedkar’s legacy than not reading Waiting for a Visa.

  2. Many people even dont know how great his work and Indian people never pay for his work his was one of geniuses.
    He burn Manusmruti, establish RBI, Build Nagrabhakhla dem, maternity leave for women, worker rights, law.
    He did marvelous job making reservation for poor people, so anyone can be a King no need to take birth from Queens belly. But many hindu twisted his idea and spread hatred. In one incident if you belong to lower caste you will not get good house in some society( cities like Rajkot, Junagadh, Mehsana, Patan) even on rent even you do work in reputable company.

  3. Ek achha kaam PM V P Singh ne kiya – he bestowed the Bharat Ratna on Dr Ambedkar. He honoured and acknowledged the Dalit community, its centuries of deprivation and exploitation.

  4. From abdekar till now caste discrimination still exhists in india like non curable disease.may its not only day to discuss and discribe how worse it is in the past and we have to realize now also it exists ..its a cancer to our society (india).
    Do u know bigger responsible person for this THE GOVERNMENT,govt.implement actions rules based on caste not ability when it change everything will be change gradually

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