Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was born on this day 127 years ago. Here is a brief look at the life and work of the man who grew up to be an eminent jurist, economist, social reformer, and is widely considered to be the Father of India’s Constitution.
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891 in Mhow, in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, his parents’ fourteenth child. Ambedkar was born into the Mahar (Dalit) caste, and began facing discrimination early in his life; as a student, he was reportedly separated from other students because he belonged to a lower caste, and made to sit on the floor on a gunny sack.
Following matriculation, Ambedkar enrolled in Elphinstone College in Mumbai, and obtained a degree in economics and political science. In 1913, he was awarded a scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York, from where he eventually earned a doctorate in economics. While at Columbia, Ambedkar presented his paper titled ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ in May 1916. Ambedkar wrote in his preface to the third edition of his seminal text ‘Annihilation of Caste’, that he intended to “incorporate” this paper into it, but could not do so due to a lack of time. Ambedkar eventually also earned a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and also completed a law degree from Gray’s Inn in England.
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Ambedkar’s growing activism
After completing his education, Ambedkar worked as an accountant and investment consultant, but did not succeed after his clients learned that he was an ‘untouchable’. He taught political economy at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, and also went on to practise law. In this decade, he began actively working for rights of Dalits, their education and socioeconomic development. In 1924, Ambedkar founded the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha, for the upliftment of lower caste communities. Its motto was ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. He also launched several periodicals to promote Dalit rights, ‘Mooknayak’, which he started in 1920, being one such example.
In 1927, Ambedkar led the satyagraha in Mahad, in coastal Maharashtra, so that Dalits could secure access to the Chavad tank, the public water source. Although the Collectorate had previously issued a legal notification that sanctioned free access for everyone, “caste hegemony and oppression” had not permitted Dalits to access the tank. The day prior to the protest, Brahmins had even secured a stay order from a local court barring Dalits from accessing the tank. In spite of restrictions, the protest was organised, with a local Muslim man providing his private land in support.
On December 25, 1927, Manusmriti (Laws of Manu), which Ambedkar criticised for justifying caste discrimination, was publicly burnt on a specially constructed pyre. In his speech, Ambedkar explained that the movement’s purpose was not just to secure access to water, but to dismantle the varna system that created societal inequality. December 25 is annually commemorated by Dalits as Manusmriti Dahan Din (Manusmriti Burning Day).
In the 1920s, Ambedkar also served as a professor at Mumbai’s Government Law College, and was appointed to the Bombay Presidency Committee to work with the Simon Commission, which was widely criticised across the country, and boycotted by the Indian National Congress because it lacked Indian members. In May 1928, Ambedkar presented a statement regarding the state of education of India’s depressed classes to the commission. He eventually drafted a separate set of recommendations for India after disagreeing with his colleagues. In 1932, Ambedkar, Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya, and other Dalit leaders signed the Poona Pact to end Mahatma Gandhi’s fast unto death. Gandhi had been fasting to protest separate electorates for Dalits. The Poona Pact provided seat reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) within the general electorate among other provisions.
Accord to Prof. Shailaja D. Paik, of the University of Cincinnati, Ambedkar wanted Dalits to have access to education, and also “get education at par with upper caste students”. According to Paik, Ambedkar’s idea for education was for all Indians, Dalits and non-Dalits alike. He set up more than 40 educational institutions in Maharashtra, including Milind College and Siddharth College, as well as similar institutions for Dalits and women. Ambedkar emphasised the importance of education for the Dalits’ advancement, and even founded the People’s Education Society in 1945; it currently operates several educational institutions.
‘Annihilation of Caste’
Ambedkar’s first wife Ramabai died in 1935 following a prolonged illness. It was also around this time that he seems to have begun penning ‘Waiting for a Visa’, an autobiographical account that discusses his experiences with untouchability. In 1936, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party, which contested the election to the Central Legislative Assembly. That same year, he published what became one of his most famous works, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, the first 1,500 copies of which he printed with his own money. The text was originally intended to be the presidential address at the annual conference of the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, or the Forum for the Breakup of Caste, in Lahore. However, in October 1935, Ambedkar had stated at the Yeola Depressed Classes Conference that he “had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.” This prompted the Mandal to request to see Ambedkar’s address prior to the conference; they took exception with several sections of the speech, and suggested changes, but Ambedkar refused, and the speech was ultimately not delivered. Eventually, when he published ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Ambedkar decided to include his complete correspondence with the Mandal to provide context. In the text’s second edition, Ambedkar included his response to Gandhi’s reviews of the text in the publication ‘Harijan’.
Father of the Constitution
In 1947, following India’s independence, Ambedkar was appointed the country’s first Minister of Law, and was also appointed as Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. Ambedkar’s draft of the Constitution included provisions for a host of civil liberties, including the freedom of religion, the ending of untouchability, and barring discrimination in all forms. He also pushed for women’s rights and proposed a reservation system in education and civil service jobs to aid those belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. In 1948, the Draft Constitution was formally introduced to the Constituent Assembly, which formally adopted the Constitution on November 26, 1949. In 1948, Ambedkar, who by then was diabetic, married Dr. Sharda Kabir, who adopted the name Savita Ambedkar.
Ambedkar and Women’s Rights
A man who thought far ahead of his times, in 1951 Ambedkar introduced in Parliament the Hindu Unicode Bill, which included “expanded” rights for women. It afforded rights to widows, and a portion of inheritance to daughters. Ambedkar actively pushed for women’s rights, once writing, “We shall see better days soon and our progress will be greatly accelerated if male education is persuaded side by side with female education…”. In July 1927, he addressed a gathering of women belonging to ‘depressed classes’, where he reportedly said, “I measure the progress of community by the degree of progress which women had achieved”. He urged the women to dress “as touchable ladies,” and stressed the importance of obtaining an education, both for the women themselves and their children. Ambedkar also took up women’s issues while serving on the Bombay Legislative Council and Assembly, and also introduced the Maternity Benefits Bill as Labour Minister on the Viceroy’s Executive Council. He also pushed for equal pay for equal work.
Ambedkar eventually resigned from his position as Minister of Law over the Hindu Code Bill, after then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress did not support the bill as they had promised. He ran twice for a Lok Sabha seat, but was defeated, and was eventually appointed to the Rajya Sabha.
Conversion and Death
Ambedkar ultimately stayed true to his publicly stated promise that he would not die a Hindu. He wrote in an unpublished preface that his first exposure to Buddha and Buddhism came when he was gifted a book on the life of Buddha to celebrate his the passing of his English Fourth Standard Examination. Having studied Buddhism all his life, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism in 1956, just months prior to his death. His conversion sparked the Dalit Buddhist Movement, and several hundred thousand supporters who had gathered for his conversion ceremony in Nagpur also converted to Buddhism. Ambedkar died on December 6, 1956. His final work ‘The Buddha and His Dhamma’ was published posthumously. Ambedkar was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest honour, in 1990.
Long after his death, many still resisted Ambedkar’s questioning of Hinduism. When Maharashtra’s government published his ‘Riddles in Hinduism’ posthumously in 1987, the book’s copies were publicly burnt in January 1988 at a Maratha Mahamandal meeting in Amravati. The Shiv Sena “rioted” to push for the removal one chapter, ‘The Riddle of Rama and Krishna’. However, several thousand Dalits mounted protests against this move, prompting the government to reinsert the chapter with the disclaimer that it did not “concur with views expressed in this chapter”.
Today, when Dalits continue to face structural and societal barriers on the road to progress, it is vital to remember Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and what he wrote about caste: “Caste does not result in economic efficiency. Caste cannot improve, and has not improved, the race. Caste has however done one thing. It has completely disorganized and demoralized the Hindus.”
Ambedkar, in ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’, wrote, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”