On January 17, 2016, Rohith Vemula took his own life. A twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad, he was a Dalit (the caste formerly called “untouchables”) and a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, which combats caste discrimination. The university had suspended his stipend following a complaint by the leader of the student wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that Rohith had physically assaulted him. The suspension made him despondent and unable to make ends meet, leading to his death. Rohith left a poignant suicide note in which he wrote of his dashed hopes of becoming a science writer like Carl Sagan. But he also called his birth a fatal accident, a reminder that the caste system had determined his status as a Dalit for life.

The word “caste” (jati in Hindi) is derived from casta, used by the Portuguese centuries ago to describe the divisions in Hindu society according to varna (literally translated as “color” but meaning “quality” or “value”). Ancient Sanskrit texts prescribed a four-varna social order: Brahmins (priests) at the top, followed by Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and artisans), and Sudras (agricultural classes) in descending order of ritual purity. Hindu society actually consists of thousands of castes, each with its place in this hierarchy. There is also a fifth group, which is viewed as so impure as to be outside the varna order. These are the “untouchable” castes—Dalits, as we call them now. They perform jobs, such as manual scavenging and the disposal of dead animals, considered so unclean that the very sight of them is deemed polluting.1

This ordering system is hereditary. Hindus are born into a caste and remain in it until death. Some castes belonging to the varna order have historically achieved mobility and moved to a higher varna by adopting “Sanskritizing” practices, like vegetarianism. But even this limited mobility is closed to “untouchable” castes, which remain stigmatized for generation after generation and find the doors of economic and social mobility shut tight.

Rohith’s suicide note sparked debates across India. How was such social inequality still practiced in the world’s largest democracy seventy years after independence from British rule? Attention turned to B.R. Ambedkar, not just because Rohith belonged to an organization bearing his name but also because Ambedkar, who died in 1956, has been increasingly recognized for his writings about caste as an entrenched instrument of social, economic, and religious domination in India. As he famously said in 1948, “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”

Now popularly addressed with the honorific Babasaheb, Ambedkar has long been known as a political leader of Dalits. He popularized the use of “Dalit”—meaning broken or scattered, first used in the nineteenth century by an anticaste reformer—as a term of dignity for “untouchables.” He is lauded as the chief draftsperson of the Indian constitution, which legally abolished untouchability. But few recognized him as a major thinker on the relationship between social and political democracy. This changed with the 1990s anticaste movement and the introduction of reserved slots for “backward castes”—the intermediate castes belonging to the Sudra varna—in public service jobs and universities. Political activists and academics turned to Ambedkar’s work to explain everyday discrimination against the lower castes, such as their relegation to menial jobs, humiliation in workplaces and housing, denial of entry into temples, separate wells in villages, and segregation from upper- and intermediate-caste neighborhoods.2 His rediscovery as a political philosopher led to the publication in 2014 of a new edition of his book Annihilation of Caste (1936), with an introduction by Arundhati Roy. It dwelled on his clash with Mahatma Gandhi, who opposed his argument that caste was the social bedrock of Hinduism.

Caste remains a contentious subject, and scholars disagree on the institution’s nature and history. British colonialists interpreted it as evidence of Indian society’s basis in religion and its lack of a proper political sphere, which was filled by the colonial state. Marx adopted this view, writing that the subcontinent knew no real history until its conquest by Britain, only a succession of wars and emperors ruling over an unchanging and unresisting society. Colonial writing and practice drew on Brahminical texts to understand and rule India as a society organized by its predominant Hindu religion.

The French anthropologist Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus (1966) gave this understanding the imprimatur of scholarship by arguing that Homo hierarchicus, rather than the Western Homo aequalis, undergirded Indian society. Following Dumont, anthropologists studied castes and their hierarchical ordering according to the Brahminical principles of purity and pollution. It was not until 2001 that Nicholas Dirks persuasively argued that the British were crucial in institutionalizing caste as the essence of Indian society—though they did not invent it, they shaped caste as we know it today.3 In place of a range of precolonial social orders based on a variety of factors, including political and economic power, society across India became defined by castes, with Brahmins at the top and Dalits at the bottom.4


As a system of inequality, caste has met with criticism and protests for centuries. Today activists demanding the dismantling of caste privileges in employment, education, housing, economic mobility, and social respect come up against the Hindu nationalist BJP government led by Narendra Modi, which advocates ignoring caste difference in the interest of Hindu unity. The BJP is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu cultural organization that since its founding in 1925 has campaigned for an organicist Hindu unity, expressing admiration for the national unity model advanced by fascism and Nazism.5 The RSS calls for reforming the most extreme aspects of caste, such as the practice of untouchability, but like most reformers, including Gandhi, does not challenge the four-varna order, regarding it as a divine organization of society in accordance with Hindu ideals. For the RSS, focusing on the differences in caste access to wealth and social status fractures the unity of Hindus; it instead calls upon castes to unite for a nation-state that guarantees Hindu supremacy. Accordingly the Modi government has systematically persecuted minority and Dalit activists as antinational elements. Hindu nationalist mobs have also assaulted and lynched Muslims, Christians, and Dalits.

Against this background of threats to democracy, Ambedkar acquires a new significance. The Indian politician Shashi Tharoor’s lucid biography is addressed to a general audience. But to appreciate the depth, complexity, nuances, and changes in the Dalit leader’s thought and politics, one should read A Part Apart by the journalist Ashok Gopal. He has pored over Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in English and Marathi, and the result is a stunning, comprehensive, and thoughtful account of Ambedkar and his times. The title is drawn from a comment Ambedkar made in 1939: “I am not a part of the whole, I am a part apart.”

What emerges in A Part Apart is a portrait of a minoritarian intellectual committed to building a society based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This entailed resolving the gap between the political principles set forth in the Indian constitution drafted and introduced in 1950 under his leadership, and the reality of social inequality. In an often-quoted speech before the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, he said:

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

Gopal’s account meticulously charts Ambedkar’s attempts to grapple with this “life of contradictions.” First, he confronted anticolonial nationalism and clashed with Gandhi on whether caste inequality was intrinsically connected to Hinduism. Second, he engaged with constitutional democracy and developed his view of politics as an instrument of social change. Third, his concern with establishing the equality of all human beings is observable in his approach to religion and his eventual turn to Buddhism.

Ambedkar was born in 1891 in the British colonial cantonment town of Mhow, now in Madhya Pradesh in central India. He was the fourteenth and last child of a family belonging to the Dalit Mahar caste. The Mahars were not allowed to draw water from public wells; upper-caste Hindus considered even their shadow polluting. The British colonial army in which his father had served recognized military rank but not the practice of untouchability. This perhaps explains why Ambedkar did not have an entirely negative view of British rule. For him self-rule was not intrinsically better than foreign rule; what mattered more than freedom from colonial domination was freedom from upper-caste domination.

The colonial army offered a modern education to soldiers, even training and recruiting them as teachers. Ambedkar recalled that his father developed a zeal for education, ensuring that all his children learned to read and write. In 1904 the family moved to a two-room tenement in a working-class Mumbai neighborhood where Ambedkar continued his education. He graduated from Bombay University in 1912 and left the next year for Columbia University, supported by a scholarship from the ruler of the princely state of Baroda.

At Columbia, he studied economics, sociology, history, philosophy, and anthropology. In 1915 he wrote a thesis for his MA in economics. While still working on his Columbia doctoral dissertation, he enrolled at the London School of Economics in 1916 for another MA in preparation for a second doctoral degree. He also enrolled in Gray’s Inn to become a barrister. He left for Mumbai a year later when his scholarship ran out, returning to London in 1920 to obtain an MSc (in economics) in 1921. He was called to the bar in 1922. A year later he submitted his dissertation and received a doctoral degree from the LSE. In 1927 he obtained his second doctorate in economics from Columbia.


By any standard, Ambedkar’s education was extraordinary, and even more so because of his stringent financial circumstances. In the years between his return to India and his Columbia doctorate, he started journals that launched his career as a public figure while teaching at a Mumbai college to support his family. In Gopal’s book he emerges as an intellectual intent on transforming Indian public discourse. This commitment came out of experiencing caste bigotry while growing up, such as being told to sit at the back of classrooms and being denied access to the water faucet unless a school employee opened it for him. Even his considerable academic achievements did not exempt him later from several humiliations, including being denied accommodations. In this respect, his time in the US and the UK provided a welcome relief.

New York also introduced Ambedkar to pragmatism, the philosophy of his teacher at Columbia, John Dewey. Several scholars have noted Dewey’s influence on his ideas on democracy and equality,6 as did Ambedkar himself. (He was hoping to meet with his former teacher in 1952 when Columbia invited him to New York to accept an honorary degree, but Dewey died two days before his arrival.) The philosopher Scott R. Stroud’s The Evolution of Pragmatism in India is a magnificent study of Ambedkar’s complex engagement with Dewey’s ideas, which he reworked to address India’s specific political and social conditions. Stroud calls this creative use of Dewey’s philosophy Navayana pragmatism, named after Ambedkar’s Navayana, or “new vehicle” Buddhism.

Pragmatism’s impact on Ambedkar is evident in his 1919 memorandum to the Southborough Committee, appointed by the British government to consider the implementation of constitutional reforms. Ambedkar rejected the claim that Indians formed a community, which was the basis of the nationalist demand for political reforms. He cited a passage from Dewey’s Democracy and Education that the existence of a community required its members to be like-minded, with aims, aspirations, and beliefs in common. But while Dewey suggested that like-mindedness was fostered by communication, Ambedkar argued that in India it came from belonging to a single social group. And India had a multitude of these groups—castes—isolated from one another. With no communication or intermingling, Hindus formed a community only in relation to non-Hindus. Among themselves, caste-mindedness was more important than like-mindedness. Divided between “touchables” and “untouchables,” they could become one community only if they were thrown together into “associated living,” a concept from Dewey.

Above all, Ambedkar’s memorandum demanded an end to caste inequality. In 1924 he established an organization to represent and advocate for all Dalit castes with the slogan “Educate, Agitate and Organise,” which he drew from British socialists. This advocacy took on a sharper tone by 1927, when his organization arranged two conferences that catalyzed what came to be known as the Ambedkari chalval (Ambedkarite movement). The actions it took included Ambedkar and other Dalits drinking water from a public tank and symbolically burning the Manusmriti (the Hindu scripture authorizing caste hierarchy). The reaction of upper-caste Hindus was ferocious. Dalits were assaulted, and rituals to “purify” the “defiled” spaces were performed.

Ambedkar compared the second of these conferences to the French National Assembly in 1789 and their symbolic actions to the fall of the Bastille. For him the deliberate violation of caste taboos was an assertion of civil rights. He still spoke of Dalits as belonging to Hindu society but warned that if savarnas (castes belonging to the four varnas) opposed change, Dalits would become non-Hindus. What angered him the most was the purification ceremonies, which he saw as an attack on the humanity and sanctity of the Dalit physical body.

Ambedkar’s demand for social justice put him at odds with the nationalist movement and eventually with Gandhi. In a 1920 editorial he acknowledged that Indians were denied self-development under the British Raj, but that the same could be said of Dalits under the “Brahmin raj.” He wrote that they had every right to ask, “What have you done to throw open the path of self-development for six crore [60 million] Untouchables in the country?” He described the Gandhi-led Indian National Congress as “political radicals and social Tories” whose “delicate gentility will neither bear the Englishman as superior nor will it brook the Untouchables as equal.”

Clearly the disagreements were deep. Gandhi, like other nationalists, believed that freedom from British rule was the primary goal and that Hindu society could address untouchability after independence had been achieved. Ambedkar, drawing on Dewey’s ideas on associated life, argued that India was not yet a nation and could not become one without addressing caste injustice. The purpose of politics, in his view, was to enact social change that Hindu society was too caste-ridden to accomplish on its own.

The conflict between the two men came to a head at the Round Table Conferences (RTC) in London, organized by the British to discuss political devolution. Several Congress Party leaders had denounced Ambedkar as a government puppet when he was appointed in 1927 as a nonelected representative of Dalits (whom the British called Depressed Classes) in the Bombay Legislative Council. Their criticism escalated at the second RTC when Ambedkar demanded that Dalits be granted separate constituencies to elect their own representatives to provincial legislatures. The Congress saw this as falling for the classic colonial ploy of divide and rule. It was willing to concede separate electorates for Muslims but not for Dalits. Gandhi was especially opposed to Ambedkar’s stand because he saw the Dalits, unlike Muslims, as part of Hindu society. He went on a fast to oppose the 1932 Communal Award, an electoral scheme announced by the British government that accepted separate representation for both Muslims and Dalits.

The standoff was resolved only after Ambedkar, Gandhi, and upper-caste leaders signed the Poona Pact that September. Ambedkar dropped his demand for separate electorates and accepted the principle of reserved seats for Dalits elected by joint electorates. From later writings by Ambedkar, in particular Annihilation of Caste and What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables (1945), the Poona Pact appears to have been a breaking point between the two men, a view that historians have accepted. But Gopal shows that the picture was more complicated in 1932.

Gandhi saw himself as a champion of Dalits, whom he called Harijans (“children of God”). He was loath to concede that they were outside Hinduism, like Muslims, and required separate representation. He wanted savarnas to abandon the practice of untouchability by a change of heart. Though Ambedkar appreciated Gandhi’s efforts, he wanted separate electorates because joint electorates for reserved seats meant that only those candidates acceptable to savarnas would win. But he signed the Poona Pact and accepted the outcome, even if it amounted to a concession.

This, Gopal argues, indicates that the Poona Pact was not a moment of irremediable split. With meticulous research, he shows that Ambedkar was satisfied with it. Though his attitude changed in his later writings, Gopal conclusively demonstrates that he initially regarded the pact’s achievements as substantial. He also believed that Gandhi’s commitment to eliminating untouchability was genuine, even as he disagreed with his methods. He wrote, “Gandhiji should be now called ‘our man,’ because he is now speaking our language and our thoughts.” This is at odds with Tharoor’s contention that ungenerosity toward Gandhi was one of Ambedkar’s flaws. If anything, it was Ambedkar who showed generosity and political flexibility.

But this amity barely lasted a year. There was a fundamental difference in their respective understandings of caste and its relationship to Hinduism. Gandhi regarded untouchability as an ugly corruption of a basically benign varna system. He called himself a “Harijan by choice” and turned his attention to uplifting Dalits rather than to the elimination of untouchability or any fundamental change in Hinduism. Ambedkar intensely disliked the “Harijan” moniker, believing it concealed the real cause of oppression, which was the Hindu varna system. At a conference in 1935 Ambedkar declared that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die as one. A year later he published Annihilation of Caste, the text of an undelivered speech, which argued that caste, along with social hierarchy and untouchability, was essential to Hinduism as a religion.

It was a stinging critique, one that Gandhi did not accept. Tharoor, who also wrote Why I Am a Hindu (2018), regards it as too sweeping, ignoring the religion’s plural traditions and closing the possibility of any rapprochement. But Tharoor fails to appreciate Ambedkar’s aim, which was to force Hindus to confront what their religion had wrought. Ambedkar wrote that Hindus treated Dalits horribly not because of some malice in their hearts but because they were religious and were simply following their scriptures. The problem was deep-rooted. At least slaves could hope for emancipation. But there was no hope for Dalits: it was the fatal accident of their birth.

If this religiously sanctioned system of inequality was resistant to emancipatory change, what could be done? This question opens the second theme in Ambedkar’s preoccupation with a “life of contradictions”: constitutional democracy and the use of politics to achieve social change. From the start of his public activities, he had used constitutional methods, submitting memoranda to various British committees to recommend reforms and participating in the RTC. Mindful of his standing as a Dalit leader, the Congress Party chose Ambedkar as the chair of the committee to draft the constitution of independent India, which affirmed equality irrespective of caste, religion, language, or birthplace.7 Untouchability was abolished, and seats in the Parliament were reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (the official name for historically disadvantaged groups since 1935). Inspired by the Irish constitution, the Indian constitution also included a section called Directive Principles of State Policy, which outlined broad measures of social welfare. But these did not establish legally enforceable rights; the expectation was that constitutional guidance would result in policies that would realize the goals of equality and fraternity.

Ambedkar observed in 1949 that adopting constitutional democracy meant that “we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution.” Liberty, equality, and fraternity were to be instituted through constitutional means. Although he had used these tactics himself in the past, he now showed little patience for the “stampede” of civil disobedience, which he called a “grammar of anarchy.” Gopal does not provide any explanation for this apparent contradiction. We are left to conclude that Ambedkar was so convinced of Hindu society’s resistance to equality that he could place his faith only in the state to transform power relations.

Tharoor criticizes him for this “statism,” but it was born of Ambedkar’s experience of upper-caste resistance to fundamental change. Accordingly, he drafted a constitution that equipped the state with vast powers to carry out an expansive social project. The constitution granted fundamental rights, but it also included provisions under which the state could circumscribe them, unencumbered by substantive judicial scrutiny.8 Ambedkar and other framers of the constitution had hoped that “constitutional morality” would guide state leaders in the future to use these provisions sparingly. But Indira Gandhi used them in 1975 to impose a national Emergency and suspend basic rights, and today the Modi government systematically deploys them to pursue critics and activists it calls “anti-national.”

Ambedkar was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950 to join his government as law minister, and he accepted. As minister, he introduced the Hindu Code Bill, which included women’s marriage and inheritance rights. The RSS and the Congress Party savarnas opposed it bitterly, especially as a Dalit was proposing a law involving Hindu women. Nehru dithered, the bill stalled, and Ambedkar resigned. He dabbled in politics for a time, though not very successfully. His last years were increasingly devoted to establishing colleges for Dalits, writing, and promoting Buddhism.

His interest in Buddhism developed out of his conviction that religion provided the “social conscience” without which any rights provided by law remained dead letters. Hinduism could not do this because of its commitment to caste. In his interpretation of Buddhism, called Navayana or Neo-Buddhism, Ambedkar believed he had found a religion for the modern age for three reasons: it upheld reason and experience over the divine word; its moral code recognized liberty, equality, and fraternity; and it refused to ennoble or sanctify poverty as a blessed state. Unlike traditional religions that were concerned with God, the soul, and rituals, Buddhism had no concept of God or the soul, and the Buddha shunned rituals, advocating an inclusive path of righteous and moral living. Ambedkar expressed these ideas in Buddha and His Dhamma, a posthumously published treatise on Buddha’s life and philosophy. On October 15, 1956, he took the oath to accept Buddhism in a public meeting with a mass of his followers. He died two months later on December 6, having fulfilled the pledge made in 1935 that he would not die a Hindu.

Although many Dalits did convert to Buddhism, most did not. In any case Ambedkar never clarified how conversion would address conditions of material deprivation and oppression by savarnas. Most Dalits remain poor. They work as agricultural laborers, perform menial jobs, and are housed in settlements separated from savarnas. The political theorist Gopal Guru, quoting V.S. Naipaul, suggests that Dalits continue to be treated as “walking carrion.” But Ambedkar did help raise Dalits’ consciousness of their rights. Thanks to Ambedkar, the overt practice of untouchability in public life is frowned upon. The constitutional abolition of untouchability and the provision for reserving positions have changed the political landscape. Democracy has helped members of intermediate and lower castes, including Dalits, climb the ladders of power in government. In many states, particularly in the south, this has resulted in more inclusive governance and welfare. But the Dalits’ share of wealth and access to professional careers remain minimal, and the experience of social indignity and humiliation persists.

Ambedkar’s ambition for achieving democracy as a daily practice of equality remains a distant goal, but these books establish the depth and ambition of his ideas and their global relevance. Theorists of democracy and those worried about its crisis around the world could learn from his idea of it as something that goes beyond procedural norms, as a dedication to the free and equal association of all human beings. His frequent invocation of the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity was not formulaic but purposeful. To realize this ambitious ideal, he wished to mobilize the combined forces of law, politics, the state, and religion as morality. Despite their differences, Ambedkar and Gandhi shared an understanding of the importance of conscience in effecting social change—realizing in practice what is written in law.

But there is little hope of this occurring under Modi, whose Hindu nationalist rhetoric has been amplified in the six-week national elections that end on June 1. Modi’s vitriolic anti-Muslim demagoguery hopes to unite Hindus as a solid voting bloc, but he maintains a deafening silence on Dalit demands for equality. To ensure victory, he imprisons opposition leaders. Political rivals are coerced into joining the BJP following raids on their homes by tax authorities. The BJP’s election coffers are flush with corporate donations. Television networks and newspapers, controlled by friendly owners, regularly sing Modi’s praises and attack the opposition. Critical journalism has been forced to operate precariously on YouTube, in the face of government censorship and the BJP’s army of social media bots.

Modi is leaving nothing to chance. The election results, to be announced on June 4, will determine if his government, in power since 2014, will secure a third term. Opposing the BJP is an alliance headed by the Congress Party, which led India to independence and ruled it for nearly sixty-five years. In its election manifesto it warns the country that the BJP is a danger to democracy and promises that it will undertake a caste census to determine the magnitude of economic and social inequality and introduce ameliorative policies. It thereby hopes to overcome Modi’s appeal to Hindu unity.

India’s democracy and Ambedkar’s vision of social equality are at stake as Indians vote. Meanwhile Rohith Vermula’s mother continues fighting to hold the authorities legally accountable for his death.9 The election will have a significant impact on whether she will get a measure of justice for the young man who fought for Dalit rights and wrote poignantly about the “fatal accident” of his birth.

—May 23, 2024

An earlier version of this article referred to the wrong book by Meera Nanda in footnote 6.