The Journalistic Legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, the Editor

The newspapers associated with Ambedkar are repositories of vast information on the history of Dalit political activism, which is why it's a pity that Ambedkar’s role as a journalist and editor has been largely ignored.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of writings on Ambedkar, caste, and Dalit politics. This surge is taking place primarily in the context of rising radical Dalit political activism in India. These writings have, however, appeared mainly at the backdrop of current issues which has largely affected the course of the anti-caste Dalit Bahujan movement.

One of their main features is the focus on Ambedkar’s political and social philosophy. His ideas, consequently, have not only shaped the contemporary discussions on caste and Dalit politics but have deepened our understanding of our society, its history and politics. Yet little is known about his journalistic legacy.

The newspapers Ambedkar was associated with have largely contributed in disseminating radical political ideas and motivated a churn within the society. The study of the newspapers helps us contextualise and trace the history of Dalit political discourse, issues of caste violence, representation, and religious fundamentalism.

Most contemporary writings on Ambedkar and Dalit politics largely ignore the significance of Dalit newspapers and their role in the history of the Dalit movement. The newspapers associated with Ambedkar are repositories of vast information on the history of Dalit political activism, which is why it’s a pity that Ambedkar’s role as a journalist and editor has been largely ignored. Unlike his scholarly writings, which were written in English, his journalistic works are published in Marathi.

Venturing into journalism

Dalit newspapers in Maharashtra are the legacy of Jotiba Phule’s Satyashodhak movement. It was only after the establishment of Din Bandhu by Phule in the late 19th century that Dalit newspapers began to crop up. Prominent Dalit leaders of the pre-Ambedkar era, such as Shivram Janba Kamble and Kisan Faguji Bansode, founded newspapers which were dedicated primarily to the cause of untouchability. These newspapers were short-lived and did not create a lasting impact.

In 1920, Ambedkar entered into the world of newspapers. He started his first newspaper, Mooknayak, on January 31, 1920. It ran for three years before being closed. Later, he went on to found three more newspapers – Bahishkrut Bharat (1927-1929), Janata (1930-56), and Prabuddha Bharat (1956). He was directly involved in the editorial management of the first two newspapers, Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat. From 1930 onwards, he delegated the task to his most important colleagues, such as, Devrao Naik, B.R. Kadrekar, G.N. Sahastrabuddhe, R.D. Bhandare, and B.C. Kamble. Interestingly, Naik, Kadrekar and Sahastrabuddhe were not Dalits.  

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar’s active career as a journalist did not last long. Despite that, he was responsible for fundamentally shaping the contours of Marathi journalism. His insightful interventions through his newspapers were well-recognised even by his opponents. His lucid style of writing with a scholarly approach, and his command over the language were equally important in creating an impact at the time.

It is possible that his experience of editing Mooknayak motivated him to learn an argumentative style of Marathi writing. Ratnakar Ganveer, one of the earliest writers on Ambedkar, had pointed out that due to Ambedkar’s English schooling he initially faced difficulties in articulating himself in Marathi. In order to cope with the situation, he would write the editorials in English and then translate them into Marathi. He made great effort to learn and understand different dimensions of Marathi literature, which he profusely used in his editorials and commentaries. His strong but composed style of writing was clearly illustrated during the Mahad agitations of 1927.

One of the very fascinating aspects of Ambedkar’s journalism is manifested in his firm belief that journalism should not blindly cater to the masses. Instead, it should help in establishing democratic ideas. He argued that newspapers should lead the way by setting examples for the people. He consciously made decisions which deeply influenced his journalistic ventures, though it cost him dearly.

Ambedkar’s newspapers were cursed by a lack of funds – the very reason why Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat eventually shut down. The perpetuity in that particular crisis was partly due to his firm position on the issue of advertisement. In one of his editorials in Bahishkrut Bharat, he criticised newspapers that encouraged irresponsible advertisements which upheld and perpetuated inequality and ritualism. Many prominent nationalist newspapers including Bombay Chronicle and Kesari regularly published advertisements on Brahmanical religious literature, events and activities which upheld Brahmanism and the patriarchy. He pointed out that he would rather prefer publishing no advertisements than publishing ‘socially immoral and vulgar advertisements’.

Establishment of Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat

Mooknayak, founded on January 31, 1920, was a fortnightly newspapers published from Bombay on Saturdays. The Mooknayak office was situated in the working class neighbourhood of Parel. The title of the newspaper, literally means, the leader of the voiceless – inspired by Marathi quatrain written by Bhakti-poet Tukaram. Mooknayak received initial funding of Rs 2,500 from Chatrapati Shahu, a native ruler of the Kolhapur princely state and one of the most prominent public figures of the time in western India.

Ambedkar never became the official editor of the Mooknayak, he was its de facto editor during his stay in India. Pandhurang Bhatkar became the first official editor. Ambedkar had taken a break from his doctoral studies and reached India in 1918. He left India to complete his studies in 1920. Bhatkar was replaced by Dnyandeo D. Gholap. Gholap received the memorable distinction of becoming the first ‘untouchable’ to have been nominated a member of Legislative Council of Bombay Presidency in 1921. Ambedkar closely monitored the activities of Mooknayak from London.

From its inception, Mooknayak had to undergo serious financial and management problems. In Ambedkar’s absence, Mooknayak received generous help from his close Parsi friend, a well-to-do entrepreneur, Naval Bhathena, who studied with Ambedkar at Columbia University. He bailed out Mooknayak on several occasions. He convinced prominent Bombay based industrialists like Godrej to advertise in the paper. But as time marched on, it became more and more difficult for Ambedkar to monitor the activities of Mooknayak. He eventually broke his association with Mooknayak in 1923 due to his personal differences with Gholap. In the course of his dispute with Gholap, Ambedkar learnt an important lesson regarding management of the newspaper, which he utilised in later years when he established complete control over his periodicals.

As compared to Mooknayak, the Bahishkrut Bharat had a relatively stable and controversy free life span. It was a fortnightly published from Bombay. Bahishkrut Bharat was established during the course of the Mahad Satyagraha on April 3, 1927. It subsequently became the mouthpiece of the Ambedkar-led Bahishkrut Hitkarni Sabha. It was closed down because of financial problems in 1929. Nevertheless, it was a product of a powerful mass agitations started at Mahad in 1927.

During the 1920s, Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat took bold positions on several contentious issues pertaining to religion, society and politics.

Bahishkrut Bharat literally means ‘Excluded India’. The title was proposed and ratified at a public meeting held at Bombay, which was presided by Ambedkar. It received initial funding from Dalit activists of Konkan and Bombay, who participated in the Mahad agitations. Ambedkar wrote the reports, commentaries and editorials, and was deeply involved in every aspect of publication. No extra staff was officially hired by him. He had once noted that his job at Bahishkrut Bharat was to write, report, and edit the paper simultaneously, due to shortage of finances.   

Anti-Dalit violence

Problems of a society divided by caste were often expressed in the writings of the Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat through critiquing Hindu religion, its scriptures and society. The papers strongly criticised the Congress and right-wing Hindu nationalists for their indifference to the question of caste.

Ambedkar in Mooknayak argued that a nationalist consciousness cannot be developed by arrogantly ignoring social divisions. He compared Hindu society with a multi-storied tower with no stairs to connect one storey to the next. Here, the tower represented caste stricken Hindu society and each storey represented an individual caste. He argued that such a society which forecloses opportunities to different individuals to intermix with another lot was detrimental to national unity. As a result, such a society would only propagate indifference, hierarchy and violence, leaving no scope of genuine national unity.

The 1920s were radically transformative decade for the Dalit movement. Dalit mass politics in western India was essentially shaped in this decade by translating Dalit grievances into an effective political and organisational language. The Mahad agitation of 1927 unfolded the rise of assertive mass politics in western India. In the aftermath of violence during the Mahad agitation, Ambedkar began to argue that Dalits should be identified separately from the Hindu community. He pointed out that as Dalits were perpetually deprived from accessing common public spaces and they were continuously subjected to the upper caste violence there was no social cohesion amongst ‘untouchables’ and upper caste Hindus. In another editorial in Bahishkrut Bharat, he argued that Hindu society was incapable of realising basic social norms of intermixture and camaraderie. He argued that this absence of social affinity lead to caste violence.

The question of violence became one of the important areas of focus for not only Bahishkrut Bharat but also for the later periodicals like Janata and Prabuddha Bharat. They published many news reports and testimonies on the incidents of violence against Dalits in western India. Bahishkrut Bharat played very important role in mobilising the opinion against caste violence in the late 1920s. There are several evidences that illustrate how important editorials written by Ambedkar in the Bahishkrut Bharat were read publicly in the Dalit gatherings. His skills as an editor and an effective communicator were clearly demonstrated. Ambedkar’s emphasis on structural violence in defining the plight of Dalits crucially helped mobilise Dalits in western India.

Hindu-Muslim conflict   

In 1927, one of the issues that dominated the discussions in the Marathi public sphere was the interfaith marriage between a Hindu girl and a Muslim man. The girl in question was none other than the granddaughter of celebrated scholar R.G. Bhandarkar. Her marriage was staunchly opposed by Marathi newspapers, particularly those published from Pune. In response to the opposition, Ambedkar wrote a passionate editorial in the Bahishkrut Bharat supporting the marriage. He argued that our society should promote interfaith marriages as it could help in restoring confidence between Hindus and Muslims. While criticising opponents of the interfaith marriage, he argued that marriage was a personal matter, in which outsiders play no role.

During the 1920s, Hindu-Muslim conflicts had already affected the nature of politics in India, particularly in Bombay presidency. Under the leadership of V.D. Savarkar, the idea of Hindu nationalism was laid down in the 1920s. Discussions on Shuddhi and Sanghatan revitalised debates in the then Marathi newspapers. At the backdrop of a polarised environment, many mainstream Marathi newspapers, including some nationalist newspapers, supported a call to fight Muslims.

Until the 1930s, Ambedkar’s position on Hinduism was critical but it was more inclined towards reform. But in 1929, 5,000 Dalits from Jalgaon threatened to collectively renounce Hinduism thereby stirring up a huge debate on conversion. Ambedkar, in Bahishkrut Bharat, supported the Jalgaon Dalits, and asked them to embrace Islam. He argued that Islam promoted and practiced equality, which makes it easier for Dalits to get accommodated. He started a series of articles in the Bahishkrut Bharat providing information on the different aspects of Islam.

The 1920s also saw the rise of Mahatma Gandhi. Ambedkar’s perception of Gandhi in this decade was different from later decades as they were yet to face one another politically. The famous meeting between the two took place at the backdrop of the Round Table Conference. Though Ambedkar remained cautious about dealing with Gandhi even in the 1920s, he was positive about his politics.

Gandhi is regularly mentioned in the writings of Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat. Ambedkar’s editorials in Mooknayak had opposed the non-cooperation movement started by Gandhi but it praised  him for his courage to speak up against the Brahmin orthodoxy. The editorials in Mooknayak  viewed  Gandhi’s  leadership  of Congress with some optimism. Gandhi’s emphasis on eliminating untouchability  had invigorated a hope of change in the politics. With the onset of Dalit mass politics in 1927, Ambedkar‘s opinion of Gandhi became increasingly critical. Ambedkar’s commentaries in Bahishkrut Bharat vehemently criticised Gandhi’s views on the varna system and his patronising attitude towards untouchables.

Simultaneously, Gandhi was also praised for his honesty and austerity. Ambedkar, while writing a commentary on Gandhi in Bahishkrut Bharat, insisted that Gandhi should use his charisma to address the question of caste and untouchability. Ambedkar rose to national prominence in the early 1930s. The decade of the 1930s thus witnessed the unfolding of new dimension in his relationship with Gandhi and Congress. This dimension was completely absent in the 1920s.

Thus, Ambedkar’s stint as an editor was short, but important. His editorship of Mooknayak and Bahishkrut Bharat played a crucial role in setting the tone for new politics which was oriented towards mass activism. His arguments were not only impactful in mobilising Dalits, they greatly helped in establishing his leadership.

Ambedkar has again begun acquiring centre stage, both politically as well as intellectually, making it all the more important to remember his journalistic legacy. His journalism not only illustrated his radical politics, but it also represented his firm belief in professional integrity.

Prabodhan Pol teaches history at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.