The Relevance of BR Ambedkar in Modern India

Outside my apartment a cobbler has a sidewalk shop where he sits and fixes shoes. One of the things that interests me in this photo is the picture the cobbler hangs behind him, that’s BR Ambedkar. In the Cobblerindependence movement BR Ambedkar was the leader of the Dalit (untouchable) class and the guiding force in writing the Indian constitution, which in India makes him a combination of Martin Luther King and James Madison.

Ambedkar died in 1956 but he continues to be highly regarded, especially, but by no means solely, among the Dalits. Indeed, of the great triumvirate, Gandhi, Nehru, and Ambedkar, only Ambedkar seems to have grown in stature since his death. Gandhi is given lip service but his image no longer carries meaning. As Arundhati Roy put it, “Gandhi has become all things to all people…he is the Saint of the Status Quo.” The image of Ambedkar, however, still signals a demand for justice and an insistent claim that not all is yet right.

Today is Ambedkar’s birthday and at the stroke of midnight my neighborhood, which happens to be on Ambedkar Road, erupted in a party and parade that lasted until two in the morning.

Of the great triumvirate, I’ve always been partial to Ambedkar. He had a PhD in economics from Columbia where he worked under Edwin Seligman and later also graduated from the London School of Economics writing another dissertation under Edwin Cannan. Ambedkar was not a free market advocate and he didn’t write much in pure economics after the 1920s but he was an early supporter of monetary rules because he had a sophisticated understanding of the distributional consequences of monetary interventions and feared government manipulation.

A managed currency is to be altogether avoided when the management is in the hands of the government.

Ambedkar also wrote insightfully on the problem of India’s small farms, a problem that continues to plague India (although some of his solutions such as government ownership of land actually don’t fit the problem, lack of capital, that he emphasized).

So why does Ambedkar continue to resonate in modern India? Ambedkar never had Gandhi’s worship of the village and tradition. He understood that progress would come with cities, industrialization and education. Exactly the forces that are transforming India today. Ambedkar did not mince words:

The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is pathetic. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?

Most importantly, quoting Luce’s excellent In Spite of the Gods (still the best introduction to modern India):

Ambedkar gave India’s most marginalised human beings their first real hope of transcending their hereditary social condition. He saw the caste system as India’ greatest social evil, since it treated millions of people as sub-humans by the simple fact of their birth.

But even as the caste system declines in importance (in some ways), there remain those who are marginalized and downtrodden. Ambedkar, for example, resigned as law minister in post independence India when his bill to bring greater equality and property rights to women was rejected. Even today, Ambedkar’s vision is not complete. Ambedkar was a modernist, a rationalist, a believer in the principles of liberty, equality, and the rule of law for all, and for these reasons he remains relevant in modern India.


I would recommend the writings of Rajagopalachari, an ardent advocate of the free market. A moderate social conservative. A William F Buckley of sorts in 20th century India.

A man whose writings have aged far better than Ambedkar.

Ambedkar was a man of some erudition, but badly prejudiced on a number of subjects which is understandable given his background.

In terms of philosophy of liberalizing the economy , decades ahead of his time. Couldn't convince the Fabian socialists. Should have been the first President (a ceremonial title unlike in the US) of India , but bypassed possibly because he was from the South.

"badly prejudiced on a number of subjects which is understandable given his background."

But of course, Rajagopalachari, the rich privileged Brahmin, was not at all prejudiced by his orthodox Hindu upper-caste background, right? I won't be surprised if you, the Brahmin racist, actually believe that.

Rajagopalachari was anything but rich. Thanks

He was born in a relatively well-off family and made a lot more money as a lawyer, before becoming a powerful politician. Next you'll be telling me Gandhi mostly lived in poverty because he wore rags all the time (Hint: Gandhi came from a prosperous merchant family and his father was the Chief Minister of Porbandar State). The strategic "poverty" of people like Rajagopalachari and Gandhi was mostly for the cameras.

Even for those who intellectually disagreed with his ideology (like me) , didn't think of him as anything but honest and incorruptible. Its not fair to paint him otherwise.

"Well off" is not a precise enough term.

Ambedkar's family was anything but destitute by the standards of his time. His father was a subedar (equivalent of a British captain) in the Indian Army.

Dear Shrikanthk, do you notice that this Dmitri Helios has called you a brahmin racist, and yet you engage him on his arguments?

Also, if you did the same to another commenter, do you think you would be treated as kindly? Do you realize that by legitimizing-by-silence attacks of this kind on brahmins, white males or whatever, you are letting the set up be rigged for an asymmetrical warfare that is not to your interest? In other words, you are helping flourish a system where racist attacks on Indians are freely condoned (as happens *routinely* on marginal revolution), and some people get an unfair edge simply because they get to use words like "privilege".

This is apart from the fact that you diminish your own "market value", whatever that means, by respectfully respond to those who are mean to you.

You are, in other words, undermining whatever cause you stand for.

Yes, I guess i have been too considerate. But that's the way I am constituted.

Shrikant, I used to be like you. Eventually I understood I was getting a raw deal for that, instead of any respect for trying to engage people, and changed. But of course it is up to you.

"The strategic “poverty” of people like Rajagopalachari and Gandhi was mostly for the cameras"

Cannot agree more.

A vast majority of Indians think that Gandhi was poor. Narrative of his asceticism worked well to get congress the support from the masses.

Rajagopalachari, the rich privileged Brahmin, was not at all prejudiced by his orthodox Hindu upper-caste background, right?

That's a very Marxist way of looking at things. Should CR's conservatism and free market advocacy be rejected just because of his privileged background (which I don't deny, though as Shrikanth says, he was from a modest background, fiscally speaking.)

"Should CR’s conservatism and free market advocacy be rejected just because of his privileged background"

Not necessarily, but when the Swatantra Party so beloved of Indian libertarians was basically financed by erstwhile Maharajas and Maharanis of the Princely states who were angry at the loss of their hereditary kingdoms and power and wealth in a Congress ruled India, one does begin to wonder what was really behind their free-market veneer. It's like when Republicans keep railing against redistribution of wealth, but you realize after a while that what they're really saying is they're against redistribution to brown and black folk.

That's a fair critique. I guess Indian libertarians need heroes to cling to, like everyone else. :)

I would have favored a cross between the Congress' social policies and the Swatantrata Party's economic policies. I'm not a big fan of Indira Gandhi's domestic policies in general, but the abolition of Privy Purses was one of the things she did right, and that was a long overdue action (should have been done in 1950, with the inauguration of the Republic.)

I don't get how that's a fair critique.

This is an ad-hominem style of argument.

You don't trust X because something in X's background disqualifies him totally. Eg : Only Christians can write on the Bible. Any biblical commentary written by someone who is not a strict believer is suspect. Fair? How can a non believer be expected to be fair to the Bible?

"favored a cross between the Congress’ social policies "

What are Congress's social policies? Appeasing minorities with sops is the policy you'd like?


I was referring to things like the Hindu code. And, since I know you'll ask, I would have liked them to pass a Uniform Civil Code while they were at it, as the subject of this article was in favor of.

What I said was a fair critique was DH's observation of who backed the SP and why. Those are fair observations, and we make similar observations about current factions all the time. DH himself mentioned the Republican Party. There's also this reclusive billionaire named Mercer who's backing the alt-right, and he has some wacky ideas. So the fact that the SP was funded by princes who wanted the Indian state to recognize their privileges and privy purses is absolutely relevant. As I made clear earlier, I was for the abolition of those privileges. (You may observe that, in the American context, I'm not a fan of Citizens United.)

So please learn to be more discerning about arguments.

I don't need lessons in discernment thank you.

A fair critique would be one where you spell out why Swatantra's policies were wrong or inappropriate. Not one where you reduce them to a single phrase like "pro prince" or "pro rich"

That's a lot of nonsense on Swatantra that Rajagopalachari launched in 1959 at the age of 80. Especially the bit about the Privy Purse. India had over 500 sovereign states that agreed to give up their powers, including their armies, treasuries -- without a single battle fought. Both Gandhi and Rajaji, and Nehru saw maintaining the Privy Purse agreement-- something of far less than the future value the independent Indian state had gained -- as a matter of principle. This was the real act of redistribution, perhaps unprecedented in its nature and scale. Indira Gandhi's decision to support scrapping the agreement in 1971 was a cheap populist gesture in contrast, and an unprincipled act. It went against her own father, Nehru's principled stand against the many demands that had been made after independence to abolish the agreement. And, here's how Sardar Patel, the man responsible for convincing these states to join the Indian republic saw things:

“The privy purse settlements are, therefore, in the nature of consideration for the surrender by the rulers of all their ruling powers and also for the dissolution of the States as separate units … Need we cavil then at the small — I purposely use the word small — price we have paid for the bloodless revolution which has affected the destinies of millions of our people? …
“The capacity for mischief and trouble on the part of the rulers if the settlement with them would not have been reached on a negotiated basis was far greater than could be imagined at this stage. Let us do justice to them; let us place ourselves in their position and then assess the value of their sacrifice. The rulers have now discharged their part of the obligations by transferring all ruling powers by agreeing to the integration of their States. The main part of our obligation under these agreements is to ensure that the guarantee given by us in respect of privy purses are fully implemented. Our failure to do so would be a breach of faith and seriously prejudice the stabilisation of the new order.”

But back to Swatantra --in the 50s and 60s the Congress had the support of all of the big business houses that would benefit from all the protectionist policies of the Congress. Swatantra rose not as a result of money but because the support it got from the large number of small farmers who Nehru had threatened to collectivize. It came to power in Orissa, one of the poorest states in the country. The end of Swatantra is a tragic story of not having the means, nor the willingness to match the populist politics and street muscle power of the Congress.

Thanks Nimai.

Excellent comment


Thanks. My knowledge about the Swatantra Party (beyond the highlights) is lacking. I'll read more about it.

I appreciate your points about the privy purses. But Sardar Patel's comment indicates that he thought of them as temporary bribes paid for the purpose of maintaining peace (at least that's the way I'd read it.) Since I have absolutely no love for our departed Rajas, Nawabs, and assorted feudal lords, I'm still happy about Indira Gandhi's abolition of the purses, cheap and populist and symbolic though it may have been.

Well, many of those departed Rajas governed their provinces a LOT better than the British Raj. Travancore and Mysore are good examples.

If Kerala boasts of a very high literacy rate today, a lot of the credit should go to the Travancore kings

"But Sardar Patel’s comment indicates that he thought of them as temporary bribes"

Not bribes, but inadequate compensation for an extremely graceful near voluntary relinquishment of power and privileges.

Response to shrikanthk:

"I don’t get how that’s a fair critique."

Kris has a point maybe not Congress' hypocritical socialist platitudes but mere libertarian , trickle down economics of the Swatantra party .unless combined with a dose of egalitarianism , could not have worked in India. Capitalism can run amok , more so in India compared to elsewhere. The pendulum swings both ways and the Swatantra party's manifesto despite its platitudes and homage to Gandhi did not address the bottom of the pyramid.

Swatantra never got a chance to govern. But it was definitely not an anarchist libertarian party, but a conservative one. You can't dismiss a party's philosophy which never got a chance to be put into practice.

I don't mind criticisms of Swatantra. But it is definitely not fair to say that "Hey...Rajagopalachari was prejudiced because he was a Brahmin". The man was a giant. Rajaji's writings reveal a sensitive man with a great deal of nuance. Unlike Ambedkar who is all fire and brimstone on a number of topics and whose writings particularly on Indian history and Indian society, lack nuance.

That is different from Dmitri Helios' critique: you raised a legitimate question and articulated it well, while Helios just makes a crass ad hominem. Just attack others for their background, in the name of some catchwords like "privilege".

@shrikanthk @blah

If y'all were better at reading comprehension you'd notice that I talked about CR's Brahmin background only after Shrikanth made the offhand remark that Ambedkar was "badly prejudiced" because of his background, as if being influenced in such ways by their background never happened to Brahmin males like CR.

I do believe Ambedkar was prejudiced on a number of issues. But hang on. Prejudice is not a bad word. Prejudice stems from historical wisdom as Edmund Burke once said. Why take offence?

Rajaji sure had his share of prejudices. I never denied that.

That's no cause to call me a racist!

@Dmitry Helios: By Ambedkar being prejudiced due to his background, most probably the intended meaning was "since the system had treated him so poorly, Ambedkar naturally and understandably developed a prejudice", and not "since he was a dalit, he would naturally have been prejudiced" as you are implying.

“Gandhi has become all things to all people…he is the Saint of the Status Quo.”

Sounds pretty much like what happened to King in the U.S.

Ambedkar is actually the Martin Luther King of India.

A man beyond reproach. A Sacred cow who shouldn't be criticized lest you be labeled a racist.

Gandhi remains a widely debated figure and it is quite common in public debates to openly deride or criticize his writings and pronouncements.

Not so with Ambedkar.

Sacred cow despite praising Subhad Chandra Bose, a Japanese collaborator? ( See this article: ("Bose, Not Gandhi, Ended British Rule In India: Ambedkar") Compare to the more scholarly looking Quora article: (no one reason, and Atlee's win over Churchill a factor, but to me it seems an insult to say that Bose was the reason since Atlee feared him, since, in a way, it admits that it was not the Indians who liberated India but the fear of a British politician, Atlee, of a single man, Bose)

There is a fringe group that adulates Bose ( whose philosophy seemed to have been enemy of my enemy (British) is my friend and associated with Fascism and the Axis , and believes he didn't die in a plane crash but most Indians give little importance to what Bose contributed. The zeitgeist changed and that was a significant reason also for so many colonized countries to get freedom . Atlee may have had much to be modest about , but with Churchill independence would have been further delayed. The heroes of war are not necessarily the heroes of peace.

It's not a fringe group. Every teenage Indian goes through a love phase with SC Bose (I count myself in that.) Some people grow out of it, others don't. Bose's literal fight against the British Empire sounds much more heroic to younger people (who want to think of themselves as patriots) than Gandhi's non-violent fight (which sounds pusillanimous, like asking for freedom with a begging bowl in hand.)

Is "deride" really the right word? I imagine many of his works and sayings are critiqued, including within and outside of their historical context. But is that not debate and discussion?

For no special reason, I'm curious to know what content might be associated with "deride" here. I'm watched the movie and have read a book of some of his sayings, stuff he said, etc., but aside from the more obviously useful/interesting ones, many of them strike me as odd.

Gandhi was a gradualist when it came to accommodations towards caste prejudices. Ambedkar's smash-the-caste-system was and is the right position.

"He understood that progress would come with cities, industrialization and education"

Well what's the big deal. Even socialists like Nehru and communists like Lenin shared this belief! So did Fascists like Hitler.

"although some of his solutions such as government ownership of land"

Gandhi would never advocate something as evil as government ownership of land.

Here's a conservative take on Ambedkar -

A complex flawed man. Some of the ideas like letting the State establish a Priesthood service are hardly secular in any sense. He was also an Islamophobe by the way.

Was he really against Islam? He was right about the idiocy of the caste system infecting Indian Islam.

Online book of Ambedkar in 1940, Pakistan or the Partition of India

supports partition , from a pro-Hindu angle, to get rid of troublesome muslims,
on current Radcliff line and he also calls for mass transfer of population,
saying any muslims left behind in India are a permanent menace

Also exposes so called moderate muslims as Maulana Azad as cunning islamists

Calls muslims as Nazi gangsters and so on

The quotes from there appear quite knowledgeable, definitely not the stuff you see from the typical ranting Islamophobe:

“[5:] Again it must be borne in mind that although there are castes among Non-Hindus, as there are among Hindus, caste has not the same social significance for Non-Hindus as it has for Hindus. Ask a Mohammedan or a Sikh who he is. He tells you that he is a Mohammedan or a Sikh, as the case may be. He does not tell you his caste, although he has one; and you are satisfied with his answer. When he tells you that he is a Muslim, you do not proceed to ask him whether he is a Shiya or a Suni; Sheikh or Saiyad; Khatik or Pinjari. When he tells you he is a Sikh, you do not ask him whether he is Jat or Roda, Mazbi or Ramdasi. But you are not satisfied, if a person tells you that he is a Hindu. You feel bound to inquire into his caste. Why? Because so essential is caste in the case of a Hindu, that without knowing it you do not feel sure what sort of a being he is.”

“The Muslim invaders, no doubt, came to India singing a hymn of hate against the Hindus. … Its (Islam’s) growth is so thick in Northern India that the remnants of Hindu and Buddhist culture are just shrubs. Even the Sikh axe could not fell this oak. Sikhs, no doubt , became the political masters of Northern India, but they did not gain back Northern India to that spiritual and cultural unity by which it was bound to the rest of India before Hsuan Tsang.”

In the same book he says this: So proving Ambedkar as Muslim hater will not really work:

“These invasions of India by Muslims were as much invasions of India as there were wars among Muslims themselves. This fact has remain hidden, because invaders are all lumped together as Muslims without distinction. But as a matter of fact they were Tartars, they were Tartars, Afghans and Mongols. Muhammad (Mahmud) of Ghazni was an Afghan, Taimur was a Mongol, Babar was Tartar while Nadir Shah and Ahmad shah Abdali were Afghans. In invading India, the Afghan was out to destroy the Tartar and the Mongol was out to destroy the Tartan as well as Afghan. They were not a loving family cemented by the feeling of Islam in brotherhood. They were deadly rivals of one another and their wars were often wars of Mutual extermination."

In Annihilation of caste he wrote:

"The Hindus criticise the Mahomedans for having spread their religion by the use of the sword. They also ridicule Christianity on the score of the Inquisition. But really speaking, who is better and more worthy of our respect—the Mahomedans and Christians who attempted to thrust down the throats of unwilling persons what they regarded as necessary for their salvation, or the Hindu who would not spread the light, who would endeavor to keep others in darkness, who would not consent to share his intellectual and social inheritance with those who are ready and willing to make it a part of their own make-up? I have no hesitation in saying that if the Mahomedan has been cruel, the Hindu has been mean; and meanness is worse than cruelty.”

Sorry Mr Ambedkar

Most moral philosophers would aver that selfishness and meanness are lesser vices than cruelty.

I'd rather be selfish than cruel. Thank you.

- A Hindu

The trouble with what Ambedkar or Gandhi or Nehru wrote is that a portion of their readership was emic and able to see the other side of their claims. Ambedkar's father, like Jagjivan Ram's father, belonged to a particular non-Brahmin spiritual lineage which was woven into a wider fabric of political 'Hindutva'. Ambedkar decided that since provincial Brahmins and Kayasthas- like Acharya Kausambi or Rahul Sankirtayan- were using Buddhism to leapfrog to national salience, so too should the Mahars. Ambedkar took his time over this and was rewarded because, in the Fifties, the High Caste version of neo-Buddhism ran out of steam.
Ambedkar's career as an actual politician and polemicist enabled him to discriminate something not taught at Columbia or the LSE- viz kairos. I think that's why his writing is still engaging. Who reads Nehru now?

"Who reads Nehru now"

Discovery of India, for all its flaws, still remains a more intellectually honest work than "Annihilation of Caste"

Reply to poyglot:

"Who reads Nehru now ?"

Yes , in this zeitgeist its fashionable to dismiss Nehru .

laugh if you wish , but he deserves the Nobel for Literature more than some other winners. Re-read the last will and testament.

I recall reading his 'Antim Abhilasha' and agree with you that though he wrote in English, behind him was the Kaula Sanskrito-Persianate 'Riti' inheritance whose dhvani was in fact quite 'chayyavad' or crepuscular.
Persian is the closest 'foreign language' to ours and as you say Nehru's writing had a sort of salience, more particularly when you consider that the 'Supreme Guide' has a penchant for Iqbal.

The trouble is my Chacha Nehru, presiding in spirit over 'Children's Day' when us kids took over the classroom and forced our teachers to listen to our satire on their styles of pedagogy, wasn't actually the Nehru of Economic Policy.

He quoted Walter Pater but ended up licensing a Yeatsian elite who eschewed Da Valera (the guy was a Math teacher) vulgarity in favour of Amartya Sen-tentiousness.

Nehru is a good writer because he writes Sabak-e-Hindi English. But no one under 50, and few over 50 unless they have too much time on their hands, understands him.

Prove me wrong! I want to think of myself as young and vital.

"Prove me wrong!"

I haven't read much of his Fabian socialist inspired writings ( not even aware where they would be) , but anyone who can write :"Glimpses of World History" from a prison cell , limited by availability of any reference material , deserves the highest Kudos . Nor should we be swayed by the act that a daughter who received a book of letters from him turned out so authoritarian , contrary to his principles.

Yes, I am sure the Kashmiri poetic inspiration must have been an integral part of his make-up.

I'm sorry 'Anon' that though you have in fact successfully decoded a bunch of signs on the page into your bizarre and uncultured view of Nehru; nevertheless your reading is worthless.
Nehru wrote for smart people. Not you. He wrote strategically, smart people always do so. Can you tell me what the relationship is between his mention of Pater and his quotation from Yeats?
No. You lack what the Thomists call 'adequatio'.

No doubt you consign Nobel Prizes for Literature with your other hand every day. Still, I'd ask you not to troll me. You are too ignorant and stupid.

"He saw the caste system as India’ greatest social evil, since it treated millions of people as sub-humans by the simple fact of their birth."

Well if caste were truly a predictor of economic success or failure, you shouldn't be seeing 50% of Brahmins (the "highest" social class in theory) subsisting on less than $100 a day

The original quote does not saying anything resembling the claim that caste is "truly a predictor of economic success or failure."

Brahmins always subsisted on about 20 percent of what others did. That's true of my ancestors and yours.

From '98 to 2012' I was on the board of a charity. Money advances to 'pure Brahmins' (not Bhumihars) was highly correlated to what we wanted to see. Does this mean Brahmins are smart? Nope. Quite the reverse. Econ explains why.

I must correct my comment here...
50% of brahmins to this day subsist on less than $100 a month (not day)

AlexT: "Ambedkar was not a free market advocate and he didn’t write much in pure economics after the 1920s but he was an early supporter of monetary rules because he had a sophisticated understanding of the distributional consequences of monetary interventions and feared government manipulation." - but wait, if money is largely neutral (and the evidence shows it is, see Bernanke's 2002 FAVAR econometrics paper which shows a mere 3.2%-13.2% change, out of 100%, for a range of real variables in response to US Fed policy shocks from 1959-2001, i.e., fairly small albeit statistically significant), then short of hyperinflation, monetary rules don't really matter.

The American thinker who influenced Ambedkar most profoundly was John Dewey, his teacher at Columbia. The pragmatists left a deep impression on him, and Ambedkar often mentioned Dewey in his later work.

Given how far the country moved from a Gandhian vision, and immediately after independence, Arundhuti Roy's take on Gandhi is a poor one. Her frustration with Gandhi is perhaps based on the fact that Indian's so far have ignored her calls for a revolution. Ironically, more so in the urban areas than in the rural -- her ideas find greater resonance with the Maoist-Naxalites violent insurgency that affects rural tracts of India but has barely moved the urbanites, rich or poor. But coming back to Gandhi himself, the last thing one could accuse him of was being for the "status quo". And it was the misery that Gandhi saw in the Indian rural interiors that motivated his fight against the British maintained status quo. There were genuine differences too between him and Ambedkar on caste reform. Ambedkar thought Hindu enlightenment on this issue to be a hopeless cause, and instead called for a wholesale conversion out of Hinduism, christening the lower castes, Dalits or the "broken". Gandhi thought to fight on for a more enlightened Hindu, and preferred to have the lower castes christened as Harijans or "children of God". With the country being 80% or more self-declared Hindus, I rather place my bets on Gandhi's fight than on Ambedkar's. Otherwise we are in trouble.

From India Today in 2014:

Those, like the author Chetan Bhagat, who condemn English for creating a new caste system might ponder the fact that English as the language of democracy, human rights and equal opportunity has played a vital role for three centuries in battling India's indigenous caste oppression, political despotism and religious obscurantism. They should have the humility to ask why millions of Dalits, led by the great Dr B.R. Ambedkar, embraced English education and Western liberalism as their emancipators from two millennia of oppression under both Hindu and Muslim rulers. Many Dalits still venerate English as their goddess of learning, revere Lord Macaulay, the Victorian statesman who brought English education to India in the 1830s, and celebrated his birthday, October 25, as English Day.
Macaulay's motives were more pragmatic than ideological. British administrators needed a link language to govern territories as linguistically diverse as Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Maharashtra. Almost two centuries on, that administrative imperative for English remains stronger than ever. Hindi, despite 70 years of vigorous promotion by the Central government, is still spoken by less than half of India's population and remains more alien than English to most of the country's southern and north-eastern regions.

Are English-speaking Indians an oppressive elite? Quite the contrary, if one looks at modern Indian history. Macaulay rightly anticipated that English would give Indians rapid access to global advances in science, medicine and technology. Time has proved him right, as a whole swathe of countries, from Scandinavia to China, embrace English as their language of higher education. Macaulay also envisaged that English would spread liberal political and economic values in India, eventually making Indians the political equals of their British rulers.

The British in India decided to adopt the Spanish 'Caste' system with respect to their own. Thus, a white person educated in England at a Public School who spoke with a refined accent was considered the highest class. Next came white English speaking people from Scotland or Yorkshire or wherever who might speak with a regional accent. Third came 'country bottled' English people who might have a creditable enough accent but spoke the local languages with a suspicious fluency. Last came people of English ancestry who spoke 'Hobson Jobson'- i.e. a creole.

The upper middle class Indian professional class adopted a similar caste system. Chetan Bhagat is well aware that his accent and education put him in a caste lower than his success warrants. Many millions of Indians are aware that they have more money and more useful qualifications than the old English speaking elite. Thus they resent the English caste system. Rahul Gandhi is the first member of his dynasty who is trying to sound more 'desi' than his education warrants.

Incidentally, when Mayawati became C.M of U.P she did not turn her back on Hindi. It is as foolish to imagine that the poorest and most oppressed can leapfrog over those blocking their progress by superior attainment in a wholly foreign language to which they have little access.

A very good extract,

It is ironic that Chetan Bhagat , India's most popular English novelist ( though not necessarily from the critic's point of view) and a product of one of India's best Business schools is so critical of English.

No doubt English has played a vital ole in modern India but Macaulay's intentions were as the above article says pragmatic ; he also had contempt for the East.
"We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, --a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.".
"I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.."

But Steve, can that argument not be applied to the French and the Germans as well, that they ought to give up their respective languages and learn English?

"can that argument not be applied to the French and the Germans as well"

Only if you think Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the equivalent of France and Germany in indigenous education, talent and technology. Just because the Japanese do well in Japanese doesn't mean the sons of illiterate peasants in Madhya Pradesh should be stuck with Hindi medium.

Is language so unimportant that it ought to be jettisoned in the name of expediency?

Why can't the scientific and philosophical knowledge currently available only in English be translated into languages that Madhya Pradesh peasants understand, instead of forcing them to learn a foreign tongue? Isn't that what the Japanese do with their language?

"Hindi, despite 70 years of vigorous promotion by the Central government, is still spoken by less than half of India’s population and remains more alien than English to most of the country’s southern and north-eastern regions"

Not true. I'd argue that Hindi is definitely more popular than English atleast in Andhra Pradesh and Northern Karnataka and large parts of Kerala too. Maybe among the educated classes of the South - English may be more popular. But the average Joe on the street understands Hindi atleast as well if not better than English

"English as the language of democracy, human rights and equal opportunity has played a vital role for three centuries in battling India’s indigenous caste oppression, political despotism and religious obscurantism"

Define religious obscurantism. Does believing in Jesus Christ qualify as religious obscurantism? If yes, then English hasn't quite helped the United States emerge out of that obscurantist abyss that is Christianity.

In 2000, it was almost impossible to find Hindi speakers in Bangalore. Only local Muslims, some of whom had Urdu educations, seemed to speak it.

Today, a working knowledge of spoken Hindi seems widespread in the city.

It is the educated south Indians who prefer English over Hindi. And given the large influence this minority wields in forums such as these, there is this perception that South Indians don't know Hindi.

But the working class South indian is every bit as alien to English as he is to Hindi. And most of them speak Hindi slightly better than they do English

"Many Dalits still venerate English as their goddess of learning, revere Lord Macaulay, the Victorian statesman who brought English education to India in the 1830s, and celebrated his birthday"

Anyone who "venerates" a bureaucrat who speaks an alien tongue and views you with singular contempt, doesn't have his head screwed in the right place.

"Macaulay also envisaged that English would spread liberal political and economic values in India"

Sure it did. But liberalism of the wrong kind. Not Gladstonian liberalism. But the liberalism of Galbraith, GB Shaw, JM Keynes and company.

"embraced English education and Western liberalism as their emancipators from two millennia of oppression "

Well, English didn't quite rescue Zimbabwe from Mugabe or South Africa from Mbeki.

Very well written. Ambedkar is now everybody's hero. Yet thirty years ago he was considered gifted but unbalanced because-
1) He was used by the British to throw a spanner in the movement towards independence. He made out that Democracy would be bad for the 'untouchables' because the Caste Hindus would treat them far worse than the British had allowed them to. The Muslim League made a similar claim. Ambedkar was thus against one-man-one-vote Democracy. However, his actions were more pragmatic and sensible than his rhetoric. Thus, it was a colleague of his- J.C Mandal- who decided to throw in his lot with the Muslim League. He was appointed a minister in Pakistan but had to flee for his life. This ended his political life. Ambedkar too did not fare well as a democratic politician. People voted for competent administrators like Jagjivan Ram who could have become P.M and founded a dynasty. Interestingly, Jagjivan Ram's caste- the Jatav/chamars- are political heavyweights and their leader, Mayawati, has been a C.M and once looked like a possible P.M. By contrast, Ambedkar's own Mahar community has suffered factionalism and never risen up to become the dominant member of a ruling coalition.
2) He converted to Buddhism, having adopted the specious theory of a Tamil neo-Buddhist, though he knew full well that Buddhism had spread untouchability across India and even to Korea and Japan. Thus, in the end he became a 'Boddhisattva' just as Gandhi had become a 'Mahatma'. However, his version of Buddhism was opposed to cross caste proselytism and also rejected Buddhist deities like Ganesha etc. Thus it lacked dynamism. It was absurd to suggest that India needed yet more Religion when, clearly, Religion was part of the problem, not the solution.
3) He married a Brahmin lady instead of one from his own caste. This meant that his widow was ostracised and could not play a leadership role. Thus his legacy was disputed and fragmented.
4) In economics, he ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds. The new Hindutva Right claims him as their hero with greater plausibility and enthusiasm than the Left can do.

My own view is that Ambedkar was born ten years too early or to late. Every politician in the inter-war period took a stupid trajectory and adopted a silly ideology. Born ten years earlier, Ambedkar would have risen rapidly as a technocrat. Ten years later, he would have risen as an administrator. As it was his role was obstructionist and his rhetoric overblown.
His big failing- in common with the other 'barristocrats'- was that he made no move to reform and revitalise the administration of Justice. Thus, the Criminal Justice system remained heavily biased against the poor and the Dalit. Ambedkar and his ilk were happy to waste their time creating a new Constitution and passing wonderfully progressive Laws but had zero interest in doing their job as officers of the court- viz. working for the reform and expansion of the Judicial system.

Ambedkar also stopped bothering about Monetary policy or anything else he had been trained to do. Instead he became a Buddhist for a ridiculous reason which goes like this- 'Buddhists didn't eat beef so they gained power. The cunning Brahmins, imitating the Buddhists in accordance with Gabriel Tarde's mimetic law, went a step further in terms of vegetarianism and thus became all powerful. They then cruelly discriminated against the Buddhists who were still eating meat who were declared Untouchable.'
This story is as silly as any Gandhi told. If not eating meat gives you magical powers because some French sociologist said so then the remedy for every oppressed group is not far to seek. Eat only veggies. Don't drink. Dress up like a Buddhist or whatever. Why bother with Econ or the Law or good Governance. Everything has to do with what you eat and what soteriology you profess.

In the end, it seems, in India, it's not just Harvard Professors who are worthless compared to 'hardworking people' (as Modi said recently), any guy with Doctorates from Columbia and the LSE is bound to end up saying stupider things than the ordinary person.

"The cunning Brahmins, imitating the Buddhists in accordance with Gabriel Tarde’s mimetic law, went a step further in terms of vegetarianism and thus became all powerful"

Vegetarianism is hardly a signal of social strength in India. In the North, several agricultural castes are vegetarian. Particularly Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab. It is quite laughable to assert that "Brahmins" became vegetarian in order to move up the ladder of influence.

Even today, 40% of Brahmins in the country do eat meat.

This is Ambedkar's (laughable) argument, not mine. He finally figured out that the way to become not just a 'Mahatma' in India but a 'Boddhisatva' was by using obviously foolish and self defeating arguments.
My mother was sent a 'Dalit' cook when my father was posted to a certain East block Capital where the people were carnivores. Within one month, the gentleman refused to touch meat. Mother- a Socialist and extreme DMK type- had her nose put out of joint. She started to refer to him as 'boy' which is disrepectful. But, he loved her completely as his mother. Then I turned up- in those days I smoked- and he would follow me around to catch and admonish me as my 'anna'- elder brother. Mum appealed to me in vain to use my superior knowledge of Marxism to get the fellow to cook meat. By God's grace, this 'boy' found two elderly ladies to come and cook. I am not joking- these ladies made the best vegetable parathas we ever tasted!

RSS type Indians think 'our Muslims are the best in the World.' My dear fellow, we aren't even the best Hindus in the World! Seriously! Some honky from Hawaii was the head of an important Tamil Saivite sect!
My Vaishvav Gujerati friend used to make a detour to Accra to get blessing from Swami Ghanananda who was actually more Krishna (black skinned) than even me!

I'm a Brahminbandhu. Not a Brahmin. Very few Brahmins eat meat or drink wine or indulge in narcissitic interchanges such as this.

Modi, like Vajpayee, appealed to this larger horizon that Hindutva enjoys over and above Sanatan Hindu Praxis and the People rewarded him. I can't tell the future. But I know what really happened in the past. It wasn't a story about some people being disabled by their creed to do what was incentive compatible.

At one time the notion was put forward that Jews were essentially feminine. The couldn't and wouldn't defend themselves. This notion was false. Israel is a Democracy where the Army actually enhances Growth- and therefore Peaceful Coexistence- rather than being a drain upon the State. A former President of India, a Muslim, called it a 'Promised Land' for that reason.

Indian Muslims are like Abdul Kalam not the moronic Dr. Zakir Naik.
That's why I invest in India and say it is a 'buy'.
What's your story?

Bengali Brahmins, bihari Brahmins, Kashmiri Brahmins, oriyan Brahmins as well as many maharashtrian Brahmins do eat meat. So I stick to my "40% Brahmins eat meat" assertion

You do seem to be obsessed with your "dark" skin. You have mentioned it thrice already in different comments ;)

I am not obsessed with my Krishna skin colour. I naturally make reference to it where not I but the Krishna that is my covering set has resolved a dharmic dilemma. You have read three of my comments but not understood the inwardness of a single one. The only thing you retain in your memory is my mention of my black skin. Why?
Are you not a Hindu? Do you reject Lord Krishna? Ok. Like me you might be a Saivite or Smartha South Indian. You may think Krishna was a Northerner. But do you not have any Draupati Amma temple in your vicinity? Her name too was Krishnaa. Her skin too was black.
What is wrong in what I am saying? I know that people like me dominated India.
We did not do a good job. Only private enterprise can lift us up. Yuddihstira himself heard of the Vyadha and the the (Jain type) Tulabhadra.
There is some klesha in your psychological make up. Purge it.

Colour of skin can only matter to the tanner.
You say 40 percent of Brahmins eat meat. Rubbish! Only 20 percent of Bengali Brahmins do so. Kashmiri Kaulas are few in number. Likewise with Chitpavan and Konkan Brahmins. Since the largest concentration of Brahmins is in the 'cow belt', where Vegetarianism is the norm, you are talking through your hat. Run the numbers before running your mouth off.
My estimate is that about 3 percent of Indian Brahmins habitually take meat. I may be wrong. It could be 5 percent or it could be 1 percent.

What is wrong with you? Why are you uttering calumny against a community that has done you no harm?

I am a brahmin myself, but thats not central to my personal identity. Nevertheless I have no reason to utter "calumny" against brahmins, as you put it.

Eating meat isn't a sin. Yes, vegetarianism is an ideal in the Indian tradition. I believe it is a worthwhile ideal. Am a vegetarian myself. But merely noting the presence of meat eaters among brahmins doesn't mean I am critiquing or ridiculing them.

Nearly every bengali brahmin I have met eats meat. So do all Oriyan brahmins, as well as brahmins of eastern Bihar. Many konkan brahmins eat fish. The strict vegetarian brahmins are - Tamil, keralite, andhra, karnataka brahmins, UP/MP brahmins, rajasthan/gujarat brahmins.

@shrikanth. You and me are both South Indian Brahmins. We may harbour suspicion against North Indian Brahmins. However, I must tell you, the vast majority of North Indian Brahmins are strict vegetarians. I am talking about children, women and humble servitors, not elites.
You said 40 per cent of Brahmins eat meat. I think the figure may be 3 per cent. The distinction here is about what is normative. Kaulas are allowed to eat meat as are Saktas- but it is normative for the poorer class amongst them to adhere to vegetarianism. I don't know about you, but I have done Social Service in North India. Previously, I too had a chauvinistic attitude. I am not a handsome man. My distinction is intellectual simply. But, I realized these people were more moral than me. That is why my ancestors would go to Kashi or even Mansarovar.
Find these things out for yourself.

Sir - I have no suspicion against north indian brahmins. Many of my friends belong to that group.

You say 3%. I said 40%. Let's settle at 20% :)

Talking of India as a whole, what % of Indians are vegetarian as per you?

I say 30% are strict vegetarians, 40-45% veg+eggetarians, 60-70% - Flexitarian (non veg fewer than once a week)
What are your estimates?

Sorry Shrikanthk, didn't see your response. Beg your pardon if I offended. Things have changed a lot in the last 30 years. I would say meat consumption among Male Brahmins peaked circa 2007. Women, for good reason, were never enthused.

I may mention that Sikh Vegetarianism has gone up a lot. It seems strange to me- more especially amongst Babbari Khalsa who take training in Pakistan- but these fellows want to put 'blue water' between themselves and their funders.

Many Indian 'Hindu' castes are now normatively 'Jain'. For example, we 'Smarta' used to happily cut onion and ginger. Now, like Jains, or Vaishnav 'Iyengars', we don't.
There is nothing wrong with this. I spent some time in Jain Ashrams. The food was excellent.
However, for poorer sections of Society, we must ensure supply of protein from traditional animal sources. This means well run and clean Municipal Slaughter Houses.

I financed a young Muslim in M.P to create a good value adding chain for goat meat. It took three visits by very senior people to get it going. But it is going. India may seem a very horrible place to you- because of the bureaucracy- but, once you attain a certain age, it is more flexible than your vaunted Federal Bureaucracy.

Let me be clear. Some Brahmins give dowry, others take bride price. We are Smarthas and did neither. My Mum married without Dowry. But we paid a lot for my Sister. Why? She was very tall and would not quit IFS. So we had to get her a boy one inch taller who was well educated and handsome and of our subcaste.
Unfortunately the only such boy we could find- his Uncle was TN Sheshan- had been thrown out of the States on drug/rape charges. We all knew the 'rape' charge was bogus- the boy was dark skinned, that is all. But, the drug charge was serious. The boy went to a North Indian Ashram and seemed okay.
We paid a lot of money for this son of an ICS officer- elder brother of TN Sheshan- but what did he do? Getting back to his beloved US on my Akka's diplomatic passport, he bided his time, took an MBA of a worthless sort and then, next time she was posted there, went AWOL.
By then his father had died. He had no sense of shame. He latched onto some other Tamil girl of high professional rank.

We have adopted a 'Tsunami baby'. She goes to the best schools in New York and is treated as a Princess wherever my Father is remembered. The irony is she is not a dark skinned Tamil like us. She is a very fair skinned baby from Tihar Jail.
Yes, Iyers break the Law. I am ashamed.

I have always favored this expression: the sun never sets on the British Empire because they can't be trusted in the dark.

Yes , they meant it to show how many time zones it covered . And someone turned it aginst them with this humorous twist.

The infamous Devyani Khobragade , ( Indian diplomat who got arrested in New York , for under-paying her nanny )
is a Mahar, same caste as Ambedkar and a multi-millionaire due to her corrupt dalit-politician father

Interesting cross-national comparison, with some special intel for Thiago:

Thats like preaching to the choir.

Facts will not confuse Thiago ; he believes Brazil is on the right track and India is not.

"Ambedkar also wrote insightfully on the problem of India’s "small farms, a problem that continues to plague India"

You know what ELSE continues to plague India? The PLAGUE LOOOOLLLLL!

In addition to In Spite of the Gods, noted above, good books on India?

I want to go after reading these posts (and comments, ty), but getting the spousal unit on board is going to be a heavy lift.


I have just finished a good history of the Punjab by Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi called Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten. Other good histories are Liberty or Death by Patrick French on the independence era and William Dalrymple's books. I would also recommend Nirad Chaudhuri's works.

History :
Part 1: till 16th century - Romila thapar: A history of India-Vol 1

Part 2 : 16th-20th cent : Percival Spear : A history of India-Vol 2
After independence: Ramachandra Guha : India after Gandhi
Culture and History : (A liitle heavy but comprehensive) : Richard Lannoy :The speaking tree
Critical but perceptive : VS Naipaul : India : A miillion mutinies now ; India : A wounded civilization

Jawaharlal Nehru : Last will and testament.

Fiction : R K Narayan : Swami and Friends

Arundhati Roy : The God of Small things

Rabindranath tagore : Gitanjali

The essential book to understand modern Indian history: "The Fall of the Mughal Empire (in 4 volumes), (1932–38)" by Sir Jadunath Sarkar.

Pre-Islamic History : The Wonder that was India (AL Basham) (Please keep away from Romila Thapar)
British Raj : Niall Ferguson's Empire, William Wilson Hunter's Indian Empire

Other books -
Mahabharata (John D Smith's abridged translation is a good start)
Valmiki Ramayana
Kautilya's Arthasastra (liberal Hindu law)
Manusmriti (conservative Hindu law)
Rajagopalachari's columns - Satyam Eva Jayate

Non Fiction -
Naipaul's India - A Million Mutinies Now
India - A Wounded Civilization

Thanks. I've got the 2 Naipaul books on order.

Rajagopalachari's refutation of Ambedkar - Recommended read

Minutes from the Constituent assembly debates in 1946 where there is an open admission of the fact that discrimination against the so-called backward classes was most acute during the British Raj and not earlier -

" While the reservation in services to the Anglo-Indian community and reservation in Parliament and in the Slate Legislatures in favour of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should cease after aperiod of 10 years from the commencement of the Constitution, no such time limit was js-escribed for reservation to the ‘backward classes’ under Art. 16(4). Pandit Hriday Nath Kunzru wanted reservation under Art. 16(4) to backward classes also to be limited for a period of 10 years, but that suggestion was rejected.’®
The said amendment of Kunzru was rejected at the instance of T. Charmaiah from Mysore who vehemently opposed the prescription of time-limit, and Channaiah wanted ‘ this reservation for 150 years which has been the period during which opportunities have been denied to them"


Kudos to everyone for a very interesting comment thread and to the bloggers for the post.

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