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Oral Histories Of The Ambedkarite Community

For Our Past, Present And The Future
By Dadasaheb Tandale |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
Art by Vikrant Bhise. It highlights the journey of the global Ambedkarite movement.
History writes the future. But in order for it to do so, especially for people who are ‘unseen’ by society, it needs recollection and reminiscing. This oral history project tells the story of the Ambedkarite movement in the U.S., a community created not by birth- caste, creed, religion, or region, but by a unifying thought process. This is the community built by the people who believe in Ambedkarite ideology and strive for an equitable society for everyone.

The oral history of the Ambedkarite movement in the U.S. had never been documented. For me, creating this space for the community was like creating history itself, especially as I grew up in an Ambedkarite-Buddhist household. I am excited by the idea of constant evolution, and felt that by participating in SAADA’s project, I was not only creating a record of the community’s history, but also writing the future. Based on my own experience in the Ambedkarite movement in India, I already knew Babasaheb (as Dr. Ambedkar is lovingly called), not only as an individual but also as an idea which had the potential to emancipate those who have been oppressed by society. The foundation of Ambedkarism and Ambedkarite movement is equity and dignity. Since social movements are often defined by the people who participate in them as much as by the ideas that they are based on, I felt that the exploration of the anti-caste movement in the U.S. was a unique opportunity. Sure enough the project was the experience of a lifetime. The people I met were complete strangers to me, and yet we connected due to the common ideology we shared of ‘Ambedkarism’ which is what matters the most to all of us. A number of community members agreed to do a panel discussion after the oral history project interviews, showing clearly how invested they were.

The community members I interviewed were from very different backgrounds in terms of education, profession, life story of coming to the U.S. as well as regional and religious beliefs. However, they were united in their understanding of Dr. Ambedkar’s ideas. Although after Dr. Ambedkar’s death there have been many interpretations of what he stood for, it is not difficult to find his philosophy. He wrote extensively about what he believed in. Reading Dr. Ambedkar empowered the community members in true sense instead of blindly following him as a leader who emancipated them. As one of the participants reflected, "What came as a heritage to me got claimed as an active identity through reading and understanding Dr. Ambedkar." Each one of them evolved in their understanding of Dr. Ambedkar by actively engaging in the reading and understanding of his ideology. This is similar to my own experience in the Ambedkarite movement where I went from knowing Dr. Ambedkar as an idol to actually understanding him- which finally released me from my own doubts of my dignified existence.
Art by Jaspreet Mahal. This art highlights Ambedkar's selected prominent writings with the year of publication.
The universalism of the Ambedkarite movement was another crucial learning point for me from the oral histories of the community. Many of the participants said that they believed Ambedkarism was larger than merely the rights of the oppressed castes. It was about racial discrimination (Black Lives Matter). It was about Gender equality. It was about working towards emancipating anyone who is marginalized by their society. In short, Ambedkarism is about human rights and is engaged with social change in the US. As Dr. Ambedkar himself said, "Ours is a battle not for wealth, nor for power. Ours is a battle for freedom, for reclamation of human personality.” Another important aspect which was brought forth by the oral histories was the need to have critical consciousness within the community. As Dr. Ambedkar was a huge believer in Buddha's philosophy of questioning everything instead of following in blind faith, this was his expectation of his community as well. Ambedkarism stands for the development of critical consciousness for the social, cultural, and religious aspects of life for me as well. This means questioning everything around me, especially those things that do not agree with my consciousness. Standing true to their Ambedkarite ideology, many of the participants reflected on the need and efforts towards including more ‘gender justice’ into the movement to evolve towards Ambedkarism.

One of the participants mentioned Dr Ambedkar transcending gender boundaries; being a father and a mother to the community. This remark transported me to the world of Ambedkarite folk songs that I grew up around in India. One of the folk songs of the famous Ambedkarite poet Wamandada Kardak reflects a similar sentiment:

चोचीतला चारा, देत होता सारा
आईचा उबारा देत होता सारा;
भीमाईपरी चिल्यापिल्यांवरी
पंख पांघराया होता, माझा भीमराया
माऊलीची माया होता, माझा भीमराया

The song talks about how Bhimraya (Dr. Ambedkar) fed us with his beak, gave us the warmth of a mother and kept us safe under his wings. His affection is no less than a mother herself.

Such beautiful connections between my lived experiences and those of the community members in the US warmed my heart. Despite being oceans away from where I grew up, the oral history project proved to me that the community which walks on Dr. Ambedkar’s ideology has much more similarities as compared to differences. This transcending of region, religion, caste and even nations now prove the strength of Dr Ambedkar's ideology and its relevance to our future generations. As someone who has become a parent recently, I am proud to create this archive in order to contribute to preserving this rich history of the Ambedkarite movement in the U.S. for our future generations. This will ensure that we do not remain ‘unseen’.

Dadasaheb Tandale (he/him) is an advocate for social justice and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at School of Global Inclusion and Social Development at University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is a part of the Board of Directors in Boston Study Group, a U.S. based Ambedkarite organization. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation