The Popularity or (Un)Popularity of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar among academics outside India
Ablaz Mohammed Schemnad
Reading Ambedkar and practising Ambedkarism as a student in India gave me a feeling of strength and confidence among peers in university spaces. The ‘Jai Bhim’ slogans and posters asserting the oppressed unity, winning elections, and representing the whole student body, including Bahujans, studying and debating on Bahujan movements in the country, took me to a deep understanding of the realm of Bahujan uprising and its importance in Indian politics and society, which is otherwise ignored in classrooms and textbooks in schools. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is a significant and prominent figure in Indian political spaces as well as literature, irrespective of religious, regional, and ideological differences, and is highly discussed now more than ever before.
From my experience at the prestigious Sciences Po in France, known to be one of the best institutes in the world to study political sciences and international relations, quite contrary was the acceptance and familiarity of Ambedkar in the classroom and off-lecture discussions. European teaching methods involve a significant amount of peer-teacher exchange of ideas and opinions, which led me to this shocking realisation. Whenever I raised the relevance of oppressed voices in mainstream parlances, and Babasaheb’s name had to obviously arise, most of the professors and students did not have a satisfying look on their faces. It took me a while to break the ice, and thereon I started to give a short introduction of Dr. Ambedkar and his works whenever his name popped up in my oral participations. As I got close and started discussing with friends from multiple countries around the world and with professors as well, they opened up to me that they really were never taught about Dr. Ambedkar, even though they had lessons about the Indian subcontinent at some point in their academic trajectory. While Mahatma Gandhi is quite popular for his undeniable (yet controversial) efforts for an independent nation, the architect of modern Indian society is (still) kept hidden behind generations of denial.
Is caste a ‘topic of importance’ internationally?
Caste and its nuances are strictly unignorable in Indian politics in particular and in society in general. The greatest myth of “caste is a pre-modern era practice” is present among some of the peers. The social structure of caste is taught as an academic topic all over the world, just like any political or social system we were taught at school in India. For instance, ancient Egyptian and Roman social structures, the dynamics of feudal systems, etc., were taught as something that is barely visible in real life in today’s world: “unjustifiable practices of the earlier generations”. Knowing that the Hindu caste system is also taught in a similar way at schools outside India was not pleasant news for me, especially as a student voice for the anti-caste movement. I am not arguing that it is purely ignored among the global intellectual community, but the disparity of its current-day brutalities and the argumentative space it deserves among the intelligentsia is not a zero-sum game. When individuals like Shashi Tharoor write a book about Babasaheb and his relevance in identifying the vacuum in global literature, my argument is clearly getting endorsed without asking for it.
Importance of Representation
Representation is a strong practical technique to be read along with this experience. I started emphasising and involving discussions of caste atrocities during discussions over a cup of coffee with international students (the European version of Chai-pe-Charcha), the role of leaders like Babasaheb and others in the uprising of a whole mass of population, started explaining about reservation and its outcomes at occasions of house parties and birthday brunches, and all the possible events and platforms to “hold the mic” and start talking about the importance of “passing on of the mic”, with an extra emphasis on the question, “Who holds the mic?” For instance, a friend from Germany once sat with me along with other students from various other nationalities and discussed in detail, to which, at the end, he commented, “One of the best political discourses I had in a year.” A professor showed interest in knowing more about the movements on the ground and my personal experiences with them when I mentioned my experiences in Dharavi on December 6 (Mahaparinirvan Day rally). The parallel of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Jawaharlal Nehru, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as the three most crucial leaders of independent India needs to be drawn at spaces around the world, the accomplishment of which would be only possible if our voices reached such spaces directly in the form of oral or written arguments.
Global Scholarship is (un)achievable?
Over the years, we have seen students from historically disadvantaged communities occupying spaces at global universities for educational, research-related, and professional roles. It is an immense pleasure to witness first-generation learners achieving this milestone, and the whole community applauding. Being a global scholar is a dream of many Indian students, but the probability of achieving it is disproportional for each student based on their social (and financial) backgrounds. The accessibility of education abroad is still primarily confined to the upper middle class, or the most affluent sections among us. It is a hard (yet achievable) journey to pursue quality higher education at highly competitive Indian universities for many, while those with historical endowments and hereditary wealth and capital make it to foreign universities right after school. The indicator here is not merit but the question of the level-playing field, which can only be overcome with collective hard work and struggle.
My Personal Experience
My experience as an exchange student from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, with dual-funded scholarships, has also been fortunate due to the diversity of nationalities from the ‘elite-est’ universities around the world. Interacting and exchanging ideas is always a privilege, especially with people who think differently from you. The formation of thought processes is also an outcome of one’s own lifestyle and upbringing. I realised that, despite the relief from doing a part-time job or searching for other mediums for funding my study here in France, it is not the same as compared to a student from a well-affluent family background. After all, that is the beauty of Maitri, as Babasaheb has mentioned. It is slightly odd when the generosity angle by a funding entity overpowers rather than “meritocratic” achievement by the receiver. To conclude, there is no triumph without struggle.
Ablaz Mohammed Schemnad (Visual Storyteller), is a Charpak Exchange Scholar, Sciences Po Lille, France. He has an M.A. Development Studies, from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad.