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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 16, April 12, 2014

Honouring Ambedkar

Saturday 12 April 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

April 14 this year marks the 123rd birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. On this occasion we are reproducing the following piece by N.C. to offer our sincere homage to the abiding memory of that towering personality.

The award of the Bharat Ratna posthumously on B.R. Ambedkar raises mixed feelings. No doubt Ambedkar was one of the stalwarts of modern India; the high-water mark of his career was that he contributed most to the drafting of the Indian Constitution and piloting it through the Constituent Assembly. There is, therefore, a touch of irony in Ambedkar being awarded the Bharat Ratna 30 years after he eminently deserved it when the Constitution came into force in 1950.

Not only that. All these years, there has hardly been any recognition for him or his memory from those enthroned in power. That was largely because Ambedkar never belonged to the exclusive circle of the Congress leadership. Rather, in the thirties, he had to face angry diatribes and vilification at the hands of the Congress leaders, many of whom did not hesitate to malign him as a stooge of the British Raj.

But he was no toady of the Raj. Ambedkar’s antipathy towards the Congress leadership arose mainly because of his concern for the millions of untouchables in the country. He discovered that while the poor and the downtrodden responded to Gandhiji’s call for satyagraha against the Raj, the Congress bosses treated them shabbily in the social hierarchy. This gap between the profession and practice of the national leaders embittered Ambedkar who throughout his life remained a steadfast friend, philosopher and guide of the millions of untouchable outcasts in our society.

The clash with the Congress leadership came in the early thirties as the talks for constitutional reforms started with the British Government. At that time, Ambedkar challenged the Congress claim to speak on behalf of the untouchables. This was resented by the Congress leaders who, even the best of them, turned hostile to Ambedkar. But Ambedkar stuck to his guns.

Gandhiji understood the significance of the Ambedkar phenomenon, because he saw in it the alienation and isolation of the untouchable community from the mainstream of the freedom struggle represented by the Congress. He paid special attention to the untouchables, whom he called the Harijans to boost their self-respect. He himself underlook the Temple entry movement thereby seeking to break the ban by Hindu orthodoxy upon the untouchables entering the temples to pray.

Although Gandhiji’s movement did create a stir among the untouchables, it could not shake Ambedkar’s hold upon the depressed class community. He demanded a separate electorate for the untouchables, marked out in a special schedule of the British Government’s reforms plan for India. Gandhiji opposed tooth and nail the idea of a separate electorate for the Scheduled Castes, and went on a fast unto death over the issue. Finally, after protracted negotiations, the Congress leaders brought Ambedkar around to a compromise formula—a joint electorate but reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes.

After this, the Congress attempt was to boost some leader from among the Scheduled Castes who could challenge Ambedkar’s hold over the depressed class community. A young Harijan graduate from Bihar picked up by Rajendra Prasad was groomed by Gandhiji himself. Thus began the political career of Jagjivan Ram.

But Jagjivan Ram, though influential in the Scheduled Caste community, could hardly dislodge Ambedkar from his standing as the supreme leader of the depressed caste community.

After independence, particularly after the passing of the Constitution which had specifically banned untouchability, Ambedkar had hoped that the era of social inequity would now end. When he found that the upper caste domination not only continued as before in Hindu society but was reinforced by the higher castes getting affluent and powerful, leaving the untouchables in a state of destitution, Ambedkar in a state of thorough disenchantment left the Hindu fold and embraced Buddhism, as it enjoins social equality. He died embittered as he found that despite all his labours, untouchability persisted in the land of his birth.

It is in this background that one views the award of the Bharat Ratna to the memory of Ambedkar as a cynical gesture on the part of the government. One felt that this award has come more with an eye on the votes of his followers rather than as a genuine acknowledgement of the services of this great son of India to the cause of the uplift of the downtrodden.

(Mainstream April 21, 1990)