Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 18
Dr Ambedkar : An Ambassador of Humanity
Tuesday 22 April 2008, by
Bhimrao Ramji, who, later came to be known as Dr B.R. Ambedkar or Babasaheb Ambedkar in popular parlance, was born at Mhow, near Indore on April 14, 1891. He was the fourteenth child of Subedar Major Ramji and his wife Bhimabai. Only five of the children of this couple survived, including Bhimrao and two each of his sisters and brothers. Ambavade in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra was the ancestral village of the family and they belonged to the Mahar caste, one of the numerous untouchable castes in those days.
In 1896, the family shifted to Satara, where shortly Bhimrao’s mother died. He was just five years old at that time. He had his early education here. In 1904, the family shifted to Mumbai and lived in Parel, an area inhabited by textile workers. In 1907, at the age of 16 years, Bhimrao completed his school education from Elphinston High school. Next year he was married to Ramabai, eight years younger to him and of nine years of age at that time. In 1912, Bhimrao graduated from Elphinston College and joined the armed forces of the Maharaja of Baroda as a Lieutenant. In the same year his father died. In 1913, Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda awarded him a scholarship to study at Columbia University in the USA. In 1915, Bhimrao completed his MA in Political Science and wrote a dissertation on ‘Administration and Finance of the East India Company’, to obtain his degree. On May 9, 1916, he presented a paper on ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’, which was published later in the journal Indian Antiquity in 1917. Just in one year after completing his MA degree Bhimrao submitted his Ph.D thesis on ‘ National Dividend—A Historical and Analytical Study’ to Columbia University; on this he was awarded the Ph.D degree in 1917.
After submitting his Ph.D thesis, Bhimrao joined London School of Economics as well as the Grey’s Inn in 1916. Bhimrao returned to India as Dr B. R. Ambedkar in 1917 itself and joined the services of the Maharaja of Baroda as per the contract of scholarship. However, even after obtaining Ph.D degree from the USA, a rare feat in those days, he was subjected to the indignity of untouchability; so he left that service. In November 1918, he joined the Syndenham College of Commerce as a Professor of Political Science. In 1920, he started a Marathi fortnightly—Mooknayak (Silent Hero).
Dr Ambedkar actually started his journey as a scholar-activist from 1916, when he first presented a paper on caste in India, which turned out to be one of his major writings later. The publication of Mooknayak was the second step in this journey, through which Dr Ambedkar started an awareness campaign among Dalits. In 1920, he also participated in the first All India Conference of the Depressed Classes. This Conference was presided over by Shahuji Maharaj of Kolhapur. Dr Ambedkar exhorted Dalits in this Conference for self-help to free them. In September 1920, Dr Ambedkar went back to the London School of Economics to pursue his studies further and he got his M.Sc. degree from there in 1921, writing a dissertation on ‘Provincial Decentralisation of Imperial Finances in British India’. In 1922, he was invited to the Bar-at-Law from Grey’s Inn. In 1923, he was awarded the D.Sc. degree by the London School of Economics on the thesis ’The Problem of Rupee—Its Origin and Solution’. This thesis was published by King & Co, London in the same year. King & Co also published his Ph.D thesis of Columbia University in 1925. He went to Berlin for further studies, even after two doctorate degrees from the most prestigious universities of the world. In fact Dr Ambedkar specialised in three equally important subjects¬—Economics, Political Science and Law. It must definitely be a record in those days for any Indian to achieve such a feat. Dr Ambedkar, two years younger to Jawaharlal Nehru, appeared to be the tallest amongst all national leaders of those days in the field of academic achievements.
Returning to India in 1923, Dr Ambedkar started practising law at the Mumbai High Court. In 1924, he formed the ‘Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha’ (Depressed Classes Welfare Association). Apart from practising law, Dr Ambedkar also taught at the Batliboi Institute as a part-time teacher from 1925 to 1928. He was nominated to the Bombay Legislative Council in 1927 for five years, which was further extended for another five years in 1932. The third step in his journey as a scholar-activist occurred with his Satyagraha on Chowdar tank in Mahad for the Dalits’ right to draw water in 1927. He delivered his famous speech at Mahad on December 25, 1927 in this Satyagraha, when a copy of the Manusmriti was burnt. This was a significant step towards advancement of the Dalit liberation movement. In April 1927, he had started another Marathi fortnightly, Bahishkrit Bharat (Exiled India). In 1928-29, he served as a Professor of Law at the Government College of Law at Mumbai. During 1928-29, he also brought out another fortnightly, Samata (Equality). In 1930, he brought out the Marathi fortnightly, Janata (People). During the same period, Lala Lajpat Rai was bringing out English daily, The People, from Lahore. In 1930, Dr Ambedkar started another Satyagraha from Kalaram temple in Nasik, and this continued intermittently for five years. In 1930 itself, Dr Ambedkar also became the President of the first All India Depressed Classes Congress, held at Nagpur. The whole year of 1930 was full of activities for Dr Ambedkar. In this very year, he participated in the First Round Table Conference called by the British to discuss the future shape of India. In 1931, he was part of the Second Round Table Conference. 1932 was also a politically significant year. This was the year when the Poona Pact, also known as the Gandhi-Ambedkar Pact, was signed on September 24. In this year again he participated in the Third Round Table Conference.
Dr Ambedkar suffered a personal setback in May 1935, when his wife Ramabai died. From 1935 to 1938, he remained the Principal of the Government Law College, Mumbai. In October 1935, he declared at the Yeola conference that though born a Hindu, he would not die a Hindu. He announced that he will embrace Buddhism, which he could do only after 21 years, hardly two months before his untimely death. In 1936, one of his classics, Annihilation of Caste, was published. In 1936 itself, he formed his first political party, Independent Labour Party. In 1938, he protested against the Industrial Disputes Bill. In July 1942, Dr Ambedkar formed the Scheduled Castes Federation. In 1942, he was also appointed a Labour member in the Viceroy’s Council, in which capacity he continued till July 1946. The Viceroy’s Council in those days was like the Central Cabinet. In 1945, he wrote on the ‘Communal Deadlock and the Way to Solve It’. Like Bhagat Singh, Dr Ambedkar was also concerned about the communal problem, as well as about labour laws. In 1945, he also founded the People’s Education Society Mumbai, which established the Siddhartha College of Commerce in 1946. In July 1947, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly from Mumbai and on August 3, he was appointed the first Law Minister of India. On August 19, 1947, he was appointed the Chairman of Drafting Committee of the Constitution of India. The draft prepared by this Committee was approved by the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949 and India was proclaimed a Republic from January 26, 1950, with the Constitution coming into force from that date.
Dr Ambedkar remarried on April 15, 1948, after 13 years of widowhood. Dr Sharda Kabir, who was looking after him in his ill health, shared ten letters with him, before he could agree to this marriage. He was hesitant, because Sharda Kabir was younger to him by 15 years at that time. Dr Kabir became Dr Savita Ambedkar after the marriage conducted in the most simple manner.
Dr Ambedkar resigned as the Law Minister from the Nehru Cabinet in September 1951 and he lost the election in the first elections to the Lok Sabha held in January 1952. However, in March 1952 he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from the Bombay Legislative Council and he remained a Member of the Upper House till his last day. Columbia University honoured its alumni with a Doctor of Law degree in June 1952. In December 1954, Dr Ambedkar participated in the World Buddhist Conference in Rangoon, and in 1945 he formed the Boudha Maha Sabha. He was not keeping well, so to fulfill his commitment of 1935, he embraced Buddhism on October 14, 1956, alongwith lakhs of his followers. After participating in the World Buddhist Conference in Kathmandu on November 15 and 16, 1956 despite his ill health, he breathed his last on December 6, 1956 at Delhi. All through this period, he was working very hard and writing continuously. His another classic, Buddha and his Dhamma, was published after his death. Many other unpublished writings were also published later.
The Maharashtra Government formed a committee to edit and publish Dr Ambekar’ Speeches and Writings, under the chairmanship of Vasant Moon, and it brought out a 16 volume edition in Marathi and English. Dr Ambedkar Foundation in Delhi is assigned with the task of getting these volumes translated and published in other Indian languages.
THERE are hundreds of books written on the life and deeds of Dr Ambedkar in almost all Indian languages. These books include biographies, critical commentaries on his writings, creative writings like novels, poetry plays etc. on the life of Babasaheb. Followers of Dr Ambedkar formed the Republican Party of India (RPI) and it created a strong base in Maharashtra in its early phase. Later, as is usual in India, it got split into many factions and it now remains confined to Maharashtra only. Many groups of the RPI are still a force to reckon with among the Dalits in Maharashtra. Many other parties, professing the ideology of Dr Ambedkar, came up later in different parts of the country. Out of these, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is stronger in North India, particularly in Uttar Pradesh (UP), where it has tasted power as well. All other political parties of India, including the BJP, whose representative Arun Shourie attacked Dr Ambedkar as a ‘false god’, play the Ambedkar card to woo the Dalit voters. What Dr Ambedkar could not become in his own lifetime (that is, an icon of Dalit identity), he became two decades after his death.
Now in the early years of the twentyfirst century, we remember many personalities who have become a bridge between the split peoples of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which were one people sixty years ago. Dr Ambedkar is one of these personalities, apart from Bhagat Singh, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Rabindranath Tagore, Jagan Nath Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and many others, who bind the people of these countries in an emotional bond. The common heritage of events like Tipu Sultan’s struggle in 1806, the 1857 revolt, activities of Bhagat Singh and others revolutionaries, the Ghadar Party tradition, the Chittagong revolt and the 1946 Naval revolt are such glorious common struggles against British colonialism which exhort them to jointly fight against neo-imperialism today, something far worse than British imperialism. But how come that Dr Ambedkar has also become a common symbol of these countries, whose birth anniversary is being celebrated in Lahore this year, perhaps for the first time in sixty years?
In my view, it is the humanism inherent in the ideas of Dr Ambedkar, which brings the people of India and Pakistan and perhaps Bangladesh and Nepal too, closer to each other. The caste system, particularly untouchability, is an in-built part of Hinduism alone and all other religions of the region—Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism etc.—do not only disapprove of casteism, these religions have strongly indicted casteism as a social practice. Most of these religions apparently profess the essential unity and equality among mankind. It is only through Manusmriti and few other texts of Hinduism that the caste system has been codified. During British rule and earlier during Moghul rule, lakhs of sufferers of the caste system had converted to Christianity or Islam, yet even after conversion to these religions, this suffering humanity did not get equal social status in society. No doubt they were not subjected to the indignity of untouchability in their new religion, yet they did not get the human social respect at equal level. This reality has been aptly captured in many creative writings such as Jagdish Chander’s Hindi novel trilogy—Dharti Dhan Na Apna (Land does not belong to us), Narakkund mein Vaas (Living in a hell) and Zameen Apni to Thi (The land was once ours) or Gurdas Ram Aalam in his Punjabi poem Dr Ambedkar etc. So the inequality, though formally removed in the converted religion for untouchables, remained in practice in social conduct. Even after conversion, Dalits were treated at a lower level and were not allowed to enter into marriage relations by upper class people. Dr Ambedkar put great emphasis on this aspect by insisting on the need of inter-caste or for that matter inter-religious marriages to really eradicate inequality among castes and classes. Dr Ambedkar spent his whole life to understand the mechanism of inequality, ingrained in the caste system at the intellectual level, and struggled all through to eradicate it at social and political levels.
At the intellectual level, we can see his writings on the caste system and untouchability such as—‘Caste System in India’, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, ‘Who were the Shudras?’, ‘Philosophy of Hinduism’, ‘Riddles of Hinduism’. Dr Ambedkar’s speech at Mahad on December 25, 1927 is one of the sharpest analyses of the caste system, where he equates the Dalit liberation movement in India with the French Revolution of 1789, which had the core slogans of ‘Equality, Fraternity and Liberty’.
At the social and political levels from 1920 onwards, with the publication of Mooknayak at the age of 29 years, Dr Ambedkar remained active to his last breath for 36 years, to change the life of crores of Dalits in India on the basis of his ideas of essential human equality and also of socialism. The major struggles he took up, apart from publication of various journals and books in this direction, incuded launching of the Chowdar tank Satyagraha in Mahad and the Kalaram temple Satyagraha, which continued for five years. Then as a Member of the Mumbai Legislative Council, Central Assembly, Rajya Sabha; as a Member of the Viceroy’s Council; as a Law Minister or as the Chairman of Constitution Draft Committee, Dr Ambedkar played a major role in shaping the destiny of Dalits of India in particular and Indian people in general. His role in the three Round Table Conferences, in signing the Poona Pact was to ensure a fair and equitable deal for Dalits in any future set-up of India. By all his ideas and actions, Dr Ambedkar advanced the scope and space of liberation for a vast number of the Dalit population of Indian society.
Dr Ambedkar was enlightened by the philosophy of the French Revolution, Buddhism and Marxism for the emancipation of the Dalit masses. ‘Buddha or Marx’ is the title of one of his major writings. He was for socialism, but was against the use of violence to achieve it. He wanted to build socialism in Indian society through peaceful constitutional means. That is why the philosophy of Buddhism attracted him more, particularly in the Indian context, where people are much too religious. But Dr Ambedkar accepted the atheist and rationalist form of Buddhism.
Dr Ambedkar’s philosophy of humanism is much more relevant in Asian societies today, where the worst kind of religious fundamentalism of many hues, worst kind of inequalities on caste and class basis exist. Asia needs to seek inspiration from the ideas of personalities like Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh to bring radical changes in their societies, to make these more equal, more just, and more humane.
1. Speeches and Writings of Dr Ambedkar in 16 volumes—published by the Government of Maharashtra.
2. Essential Writings of Dr Ambedkar, Valerine Rodrigues, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
3. Dr Ambedkar: His Life and Works Dhanjya Keer, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai (Biography).
4. Remembrances and Reminiscences, Nanak Chand Rattu.
5. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Vasant Moon (Biography), National Book Trust of India, New Delhi.
6. Poisoned Bread: Dalit Literary Writings, Arjun Dangle (ed.), Orient Longman, Delhi.
7. From Untouchable to Dalit, Eleanor Zelliot, Manohar, Delhi.