Monday, November 24, 2008

Search for an Indian Obama

Ram Guha has announced his choice(s): Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. There indeed are many parallels, but it sounds strange to be calling Ambedkar, who passed away over fifty years ago, an Indian Obama. Shouldn't we be calling Obama an American Ambedkar?

Anyway, here's Guha:

Ambedkar was born in a Dalit, working-class household. His father had a small job in the army, and there was no history of education in the family. Obama’s father at least had a college degree, and his mother was white. Both Obama and Ambedkar were, in their birth and social origins, anything but men of privilege — but Ambedkar was even more underprivileged. Like his American successor, the great Indian jurist made his mark by dint of exceptional courage and a still more exceptional intelligence. Like Obama, he owed his degrees, from the best universities in the world, to his brilliance and hard work alone. Like Obama, for his persistence and his achievements, Ambedkar did, in the end and after much struggle, get his rewards. Before Independence, he was a member of the highest decision-making body in British India — the viceroy’s executive council. After Independence, he became law minister in the first cabinet of free India. If we consider that slavery existed in the United States of America for a bare 200 years, while caste has existed in India for two millennia and more, then the fact that a Dalit supervised the drafting of the Indian Constitution must be reckoned to be as significant, as boundary-breaching, as earth-shattering a historical event as that of a half-black man becoming the president of the United States of America. And let us remind ourselves that the Indian, and India, took precedence in this regard — for Ambedkar became law minister sixty years before Obama became president.

Also featured in Guha-the-historian's list of possible Indian Obamas are Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and Nitish Kumar, Bihar's current chief minister.

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Thanks to Pradeepkumar (via e-mail) and Guru for the alert.


  1. Anant said...

    Correct me for my naivete, but is it not so that when generally speaks of African-American heritage, it is about those whose ancestors were brought to the shores of the New World in shackles, made to work in fields until their backs broke, and were traded like chattel? The question is whether one can overcome such immense baggage of slavery and all the brutishness that went with it. With due respect to Barack Obama, he does not seem to be a legatee of this. Ambedkar, on the other hand, did overcome in his personal battle, the centuries of humilitation and deprivation and showed the world he could do it. I do not see the parallel at all, with or without the wrong causal order of that great historian Ram Guha.

  2. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Anant -- slavery ended in 1865. It took another century to bring in civil rights. You were not asked for your ancestry in the American south. Whether Barack Obama was descended from slaves or not, he would have been treated the same way in Alabama in the 1960s. And the fact that his mother was white wouldn't have mattered either. One drop of black blood made you black. Anyway -- to paraphrase you yourself on the matter -- why are you exercised over his heritage or roots? It is a matter for Americans to decide, and African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

  3. Anant said...

    Rahul: thanks for your comment. I was thinking aloud about the possible (albeit far-fetched) connection between Ambedkar and Obama. [As mentioned in my disclaimer, it is my naivete speaking.] I know very well that African-Americans are thrilled with the outcome of the election notwithstanding the absence of commonality, and I am happy for that.

  4. Wavefunction said...

    I can find almost no other reason for Guha drawing parallels between Nehru and Obama except Guha's rather unrestrained fondness for Nehru

  5. longnose said...

    Guha has presented one side of Ambedkar.Infact his words and deeds during the British rule if published separately would have given truer picture of the man and his thinking.Unfortunately, populism is the bane of modern history and Guha ( dubious historian)is one of its prominant purveyor