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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 18, April 25, 2015

On Babasaheb Ambedkar

Saturday 25 April 2015

by S.N. Sahu

In the annals of India’s modern history spanning our freedom struggle two towering personalities—Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Dr B.R. Ambedkar—rose on their own and that too not under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Dr Ambedkar was one of the worst victims of untouchability. He was deliberately humiliated and excluded just because he was born as a Mahar, one of the lowest category of castes in the Dalit community in Maharashtra. After he came from Columbia University and joined the office of the Maharaja of Gaikwad, a progressive ruler, peons belonging to high castes, instead of handing over files to him, used to throw them at him.

As a Member of the Pune Legislative Assembly he once famously stated that “law is the greatest disinfectant against inequality”. With firm faith on law for affecting social change he discarded all methods which were not in consonance with law and the Consti-tution. His famous words, in the last speech he delivered in the Constituent Assembly, that with the adoption and enactment of the Constitution any method to redress our grievances other than the constitutional method would be described as the Grammar of Anarchy, sound so relevant for our time. In fact he coined a slogan consisting of just three words—

Educate, Organise and Agitate

—for empowerment of individual and progressive social transfor-mation.

He gave precedence to Education over Organisation and Agitation. In doing so he unequivocally made education the main factor for upliftment of the depressed classes of India. Once he boldly declared that we might forego material benefits but not our right to education. In fact Professor Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their latest book, India : An Uncertain Glory, repeatedly invoked Dr Ambedkar’s slogan Educate, Organise and Agitate to deepen public reasoning for making democracy more effective for ameliorating the conditions of the common people.

Ambedkar And Buddhism 

Dr Ambedkar described Hinduism as a religion based on graded social inequality. He had the courage to say that he was a born Hindu and a born untouchable, but he would not die a Hindu and an untouchable. He rejected the graded social inequality of Hinduism and accepted Buddhism because it is based on Pragyan (Enlightenment), Karuna (Compassion) and Samata (Equality). Therefore, he embraced Buddhism and became a Buddhist. In reviving Buddhism in the twentieth century he was reviving a religion which, according to Swami Vivekananda, gave to the world, for the first time, the Gospel of Social Raising Up.

In other words, it was Buddhism which for the first time prescribed the method to uplift the exploited masses from their fallen state. Therefore, in embracing Buddhism he was embracing a religion which discarded graded social inequality and emphasised on empowerment and upliftment of the vast masses of people who suffered socially and economically on account of caste inequalities.

Dr Ambedkar and Gender Equality

Apart from being a champion of the rights of the poor and Dalit community, Dr Ambedkar vigorously fought for equal rights for women. The Hindu Code Bill—that he drafted—was a revolutionary code which guaranteed equal rights for women. Unfortunately it was opposed by none less than Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India and some Right-wing formations. Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted to enact the Hindu Code Bill, could not do so in the face of fierce opposition from some parties and important personalities.

Eventually Nehru broke the Hindu Code Bill into small pieces of legislation such as Hindu Marriage and Divorce Bill, Hindu Succession Bill, etc., and enacted them. When Dr Ambedkar strongly pleaded for the right of women to property in the Constituent Assembly (Legislative) many conservative Hindu leaders opposed him. He then quoted Smritis where the right of women to property was acknowledged and guaranteed. He told the conservative Hindu leaders that although he discarded Hindu Shashtras and even burnt Manu Smriti, he was attracted by some provisions of the Smritis which upheld the rights of women over property and, therefore, blended both ancient wisdom and modern jurisprudence for advancing the cause of gender equality.

Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar

Even as Dr Ambedkar was bitterly critical of Hinduism and sharply disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi on many issues, both had commonalities which need to be highlighted and harnessed for addressing the challenges of the twentyfirst century India. When Mahatma Gandhi started the Harijan fortnightly, he requested Dr Ambedkar to write a message for the first issue. Dr Ambedkar wrote a letter to Gandhiji and asked as to who would be interested to read a message from an outcaste like him. However, he sent a statement in which he wrote that the outcaste is a byproduct of the caste system and the problems of the outcastes would be put an end to by annihilating the caste system. Mahatma Gandhi put that statement on the front page of the first issue of Harijan and condemned the caste Hindus for ill-treating the so-called untouchables. Gandhiji had high regard for Dr Ambedkar. He wrote that whenever the Members of the Pune Legislative Assembly used to come to attend the sessions of the Assembly they used to be paid Rupees 10 as accommodation allowance. Most of the Members used to stay with their friends or relatives and, thus, save rupees ten. Dr Ambedkar, who was also a Member of the Assembly, had to spend rupees ten for accommodation as none of his friends would accommodate him because of his Dalit status. Gandhiji referred to that instance of Dr Ambedkar’s life and wrote: “If Ambedkar would come and tell that he would kill Hinduism and Hindus, I would say that here is my neck for his sword.” Because Gandhiji felt that he being a caste Hindu should be held responsible for the problem of untouchability. Both Gandhiji and Ambedkar wanted eradication of untouchability. Both wanted the amelioration of the people who suffered untouchability. Both described untoucha-bility as worse than slavery. It is this common vision which is essential to address the problems of our society.

Dr Ambedkar—the Defender of Unity of India

In his last speech in the Constituent Assembly Dr Ambedkar clearly and forcefully stated that with the adoption of the Constitution all concerned would have to strive to uphold the unity of India. He admitted that most of the Members of the Constituent Assembly, including himself, entered the Assembly as leaders of warring factions. And then he stated that with the adoption and enactment of the Constitution all leaders must uphold the unity of India.

Even he cautioned that in independent India there would emerge too many parties and if those parties would give priority to their political creed over the nation then we would lose our independence for ever. His prophetic statement sounds alarm bells for our time. Too many political parties in pursuance of their partisan interest have relegated national interest to a secondary position. Even as early as in 1927 Dr Ambedkar talked of the ideal of unity of India and wanted measures to defend it.

Dr Ambedkar and Odisha

There is an interesting dimension of Dr Ambedkar’s life and work which throw light on his contributions to Odisha. In pre-independent India when he was a Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council he approved a plan to build the Hirakud Dam. Eventually the Hirakud Dam was built during Nehru’s period. How many Odias know about it?

Late President Of India K.R. Narayanan’s Tribute

K.R.Narayanan described Dr Ambedkar as a Compassionate Rebel. He rebelled against the existing social and economic order and yet retained the compassion to change it more constructively. In one of his essays on Dr Ambedkar, Narayanan wrote: “If Mahatma Gandhi gave moral and mass dimension to freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru gave an economic and socialist dimension and Dr Ambedkar gave a challenging social and democratic vision.” What we need is this integrated vision. On the occasion of the 124th birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar I pay tribute to him and hope that the integrated vision given by the late K.R. Narayanan would be the guiding spirit for us.

The author is a Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed here are personal and not those of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.