(Birth Centenary of Ambedkar - A Memorium)
History of modern India is repleted with the struggle and sacrifices of several men of talents and tenacity to the cause of the nation and to their fellowmen. Modern India has seen a host of social and religious reformers who sought to cleanse the Hindu religion getting rid of the evils that has crept into it so as to make it acceptable to all. The evils of untouchability and caste system are the greatest blots on Indian society which not only does not come under the perview of reason but also humiliating, in-human and injustifiable. India's struggle for freedom brought to the fore several resplendent personalities who fought for political liberation of the country as well as for social and economic equality and to recognise human values.
Kabir, Guru Nanak and a host of religious and social reformers decried caste system and untouchability right from the medieval times in India. Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar fought a virtual crusade against untouchability during the freedom movement and after.
We are today celebrating the birth centenary of Dr. Ambedkar (1990-91) and the Government of India has bestowed on him "Bharat Ratna", the highest civilian award of the country and also declared this year as the year of social justice as a mark of respect and as a tribute to the great leader in recognition of his service to the cause of social justice. His life, work and sacrifices have relevance in present day India which is in the grip of communalism, casteism and religious frenzy. Caste has put the greatest impediments against the growth of nationalism. Even after fortythree years of political independence we have not been able to find a lasting solution to our impending economic, social, political and religious problems of the country. At this juncture, it is but apt to reflect upon a personality like Dr. Ambedkar and recall his services, who having come face to face with urgent human problems of untouchability and caste system set about finding a solution through his incessant efforts. His life is a story of a man who so dearly loved his people that to him no personal sacrifice and hardship was too great if it promised to lead his people(dalits) to live a life of dignity, meaning and self respect.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, popularly known as Baba Saheb among his followers, was perhaps the most controversial public figure in Indian public life. In spite of his uncomparable scholarship, his humanity, his patriotism, his immaculately clean character, his encyclopaedic knowledge and wisdom, his name has been maligned and misrepresented publicly and privately by his own country men.
Born in Mahar family (untouchables) on 14th April 1891, Ambedkar suffered the worst indignities that are inherent in the caste system. He fought his way through hard prejudice, attained high academic distinctions in India and abroad and proved a frontline parliamentarian.
Ramji, Ambedkar's father, was a follower of Sant Kabir. Ambedkar too was influenced by his teachings which opposed caste system. Due to his caste Ambedkar had to suffer humiliation at school. He was segregated in the classroom and prohibited from learning sanskrit. Later he had a comfortable study at Elphinstone High School at Bombay where he could mix freely with other children. He passed B.A. degree from Elphinstone College with the help of scholarship from the Maharaja of Baroda. But later his service under the Maharaja was not without humiliating experiences at the hands of his colleagues. Fortunately he was sent for higher studies at Columbia University. His studies there enlightened him and brightened up his vision. In 1916 he joined London school of Economics and Political science but had to discontinue as his scholarship was stopped by the Maharaja. Soon he was appointed as Maharaja's Secretary, but still he was meted out contemptuous treatment from the people around him.
Being the first man to have education in the west, amongst his people, Ambedkar was held in high esteem by the untouchables. His Ph.D. thesis entitled "National Dividend for India" earned him name as a great scholar. Later he qualified himself as a Barrister and started legal practice in the high court of Bombay. In 1928 he became a teacher at the Law College, Bombay. His thirst for knowledge made him master Sanskrit by self study, the opportunity which he was denied during his school days. He was one of the most learned men and voracious reader. He owned the biggest personal library in Asia in those days. Rightly did Beverley Nicholas called him one of the six best brains of India. Lord Casey observed that he was the fountain head of wisdom and knowledge. He was a forceful orator. But more than an orator he was a leader who spoke more like a teacher and a prophet. His speeches inspired and enlightened the masses and antagonised those who refused to see reason.
Ambedkar exposed the tyranny of the Hindu way of life and rebelled against Hindu scriptures. He called Manusmruti "the Bible of Slavery" and burnt it ceremoniously on December 25th 1927 as it prescribed caste rules for the code of Hindu conduct. When he was a student of Columbia University, he wrote to a friend, "Parents give birth but not destiny". He decried the philosophy that resigned people to their fate and left them helpless victims of ignorance. He opposed to the notion of salvation after death in as much as Hindu scriptures laid down that untouchables would attain salvation by serving the upper castes dutifully during their life. Salvation, in his opinion, was another name for slavery. He emphasised time and again that the caste has ruined the Hindus. The reorganisation of the Hindu society on the basis of Varna Vyavastha was to degrade the masses by denying them opportunities to acquire knowledge and to emasculate them by denying them the right to be armed and he held that the society must be reorganised on such basis as to recognise the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. In order to achieve this object the sense of religious sanctity behind caste and varna must be destroyed. He stood forward defiantly fighting for a deal for the depressed classes displaying rare crusading spirit. His work was hard but was exciting and rewarding at times.
He disbelieved in the existence of God and of any unknown power because he held that the belief was irrational and incompatible with the dignity of human personality. Religion, he held, during the early years of its formation might have been a revolutionary institution, but with the passage of time it turned out to be a reactionary force which enslaved man and dwarfed his intellect. Hinduism, according to him, was a religion that glorified ignorance and impudently preached inequality and hatred and divided human beings into multitudinous castes and sub-castes, sanctioned poverty and adopted economic measures to keep majority of its followers poor, illiterate, ignorant, disunited and divided!
Through his writings and speeches Ambedkar inspired millions and millions of Dalits helping them to realise how their fellow men treated them worse than beasts. The powerful speeches and writings of Ambedkar have given the depressed classes a new hope and vision. They looked upon him as the greatest emancipator and saviour and likened him to Moses of Israel who led his people from slavery to freedom.
Ambedkar believed that despised slaves of yesterday can be the masters of tomorrow. His contribution to uplift the down throdden has made him immortal in the history of the depressed classes. As an author of several books and articles Ambedkar tried to create public opinion in favour of social equality. He started a weekly "Mookanayak" to champion the cause of the depressed classes. He attended several conferences of the depressed classes held at Nagpur, Kolhapur, etc., and in 1920 started a Depressed Class Mission. Ambedkar was instrumental in founding the Hitakarini Sabha in order to spread education, improve the economic condition and to represent the grievances of depressed class. He started a newspaper called "Bahiskrit Bharat". His forceful revolutionary writings in the columns of his journals availed an uproar which envisaged a virtual caste struggle to establish equality in society. He was accused of propounding a philosophy of hatred. He emphasised the need for education among the untouchables and that teaching should not be monopolised by the Brahmins. He fought for temple entry for untouchables to establish social equality.
He did not join the freedom struggle for he believed that the cause of the freedom was not the cause of the untouchables and he believed that India's freedom struggle was a struggle for power. Hence he thought it prudent to co-operate with Britain and work for political right of his people. He was branded as the Britisher's lackey, their stooge and a traitor and enemy of India. Several epithets of abuse were hurled at him. It was only after the pen and tongue let loose in frenzy of passion was exhausted that the people began to take notice of his greatness.
He was an original thinker who recognised that untouchables and tribals were the original inhabitants of India and hence needed to be treated separately and specially. Seperate electorate for them was his brain child. In 1928 when Simon commission was busy listing its proposals for constitutional changes in India, Ambedkar impressed upon the commission the need for separate electorate for the depressed classes. In 1932 when Ambedkar pursued his demands for separate electorate during the Round Table Conferences and British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald put forward the "communal award" taking into consideration the demands of the untouchables, Gandhiji went on a fast unto death protesting against it. When Britain refused to alter the provisions without the consent of Ambedkar, Indian National Congress brought pressure on Ambedkar, to give his consent for the same and an agreement was arrived at between the caste-Hindu leaders and Ambedkar on September, 24, 1932 known as "Poona Pact". Thus the untouchables gave up their separate electorate for the sake of saving the life of Gandhiji.
Ambedkar had great faith in the individuals' capacity to rise up to any situation. He exhorted people to work hard in order to deliver themselves from slavery and religious superstition. He said "Lost rights are never regained by begging and by appeals to the conscience of usurpers but by relentless struggle. "His appeal to the people was "You have to abolish slavery by yourself. Don't depend for its abolition upon God or upon superman. Pilgrimages and devotion to sculptures would not free you from bondage, want and poverty. Religious fasts, austerities and penances have not saved you from starvation".
The tussle between Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar rose from the fundamental difference in their approach to problems of untouchability and the steps for its eradication. Though Mahatma Gandhi was also championing the cause of untouchables and believed that his approach could bring about harmony in society getting rid of all prejudices against the depressed class and was interested in giving a rightful place for Harijans in the society; Gandhiji's middle path of "least discord and voluntary change of heart" could not satisfy Ambedkar.
Ambedkar protested against the term "Harijan" for untouchables. He moved a Bill in the Bombay Legislative Assembly to withdraw the term Harijan from the official correspondence and yielded no place to it in the draft of the constitution of India. He preferred the name "Protestant Hindus or non-conformist Hindu or untouchables.
Ambedkar was skeptical of the success of Gandhi's approach and also that an upper caste Hindu could ever fully understand and appreciate the grievances of the depressed classes. He held that the claim of Gandhiji as a leader of the depressed classes was a false claim and he criticised Gandhiji for it. He held that the Indian National Congress which was dominated by caste Hindus could never effectively stand for the depressed classes. Again he believed that Gandhi was very much ill-equipped person as far as untouchables were concerned and had no contstructive suggestions to offer for the improvement of their lot. Contemptiously he said: "Mahatmas have come and Mahatmas have gone but the untouchables have remained the untouchables". Ambedkar projected himself as the only authentic voice of the ambitious and aspirations of the class to which he belonged. So Gandhiji and Ambedkar had to cross swords on many occasions due to the divergent views they held.
There are differing views about conflicting approaches adopted by the two leaders for the removal of untouchablity.
But both contributed to the removal of taboos and restraints to the depressed class. Both acted as a corrective influence on Hinduism and the reformation they started has changed the pattern of Hindu society and brought a reasonable tolerance of the depressed classes in society. Though much more remains to be achieved in the direction, India has surely made a start under the able leadership of these two towering personalities. If Gandhiji was a reformer Ambedkar was a revolutionary and they left an indelible mark on the minds of their time and have carved one a place of their own in the history of India. While Gandhiji has become immortal in the history of India as the father of our Nation, Ambedkar has found a special place in the hearts of the oppressed and despised classes of society.
Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party in 1936 to educate the masses in the method of democracy and to organise them for political action through legislation. As a member of the Governor Generals Executive Council in 1942 Ambedkar promoted the interest of the scheduled castes and tribes by securing funds for their education and reserving posts in the central and provincial Governments for them. Ambedkar was appointed as minister of Law in independent India in 1947. But after an year he tendered his resignation in protest against government's attitude toward scheduled castes.
Ambedkar was one of the best authorities on constitution and international law. As a member of the constituent Assembly his efforts were to safeguard the rights of the untouchables. His work in the constituent Assembly was claimed as the greatest in the service of the Nation. His forceful speeches in the assembly were such brilliant expression of his deep understanding of India that most of those who had prejudices against him started admiring him.
He was assigned the most responsible task of drafting the Constitution of India which demanded enormous knowledge of law, georgraphy, economics and history of India. It required Statesmanship, wisdom, understanding and sympathy with the teeming millions of India. Ambedkar was praised for his outstanding ability with which he piloted the draft Constitution of India, which has been rightly adjudged by political scientists like Gilchrist as the best constitution of the world. He also prepared the Hindu Code Bill. Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Radhakrishnan, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and several other political leaders have greatly appreciated his work. Ambedkar was unique in his clarity of expression and thought and his mastery over the contributed problems. In the process of burying deep the tenets of Manu through the drafting of Indian Constitution for social, economic and political equality and upholding the interest of the oppressed classes, he earned the encomium as the "Modern Manu".
Ambedkar has been a student of Marxism and a great admirer of philosophers like Dewey, Russell, Darvin, Voltaire and free-thinkers and scholars like Shaw and Webbs. As he felt that social equality was not possible within the Hindu fold, he vowed not to die as a Hindu and decided to renounce Hinduism. Sometime in 1930 he exhorted untouchables to embrace some other religion. He became attached to Sikhism for sometime. But soon he became disillusioned as he saw casteism and untouchability being persued by the Sikhs as much as the Hindus did. He found that the spiritual equality preached by the founder of Sikhism ended in the Gurudwaras.
Later he became attracted towards the teaching of the Buddha. He participated in different conferences and addressed World Buddhist Conference in Kathmandu in 1949. He founded the Bharatiya Buddha Janasangha in 1951 and Bharatiya Buddha Mahasabbha in 1955. On 14th October 1956, at a historic ceremony at Nagpur he embraced Buddhism along with six hundred thousand of his followers.
He was a great Buddhist revivalist in the land of its origin after Asoka. It is said of Asoka that he brought Buddhism out of the monasteries and made it a world religion. Ambedkar brought Buddhism out of the grave and infused new life into it. He formulated a new code of ethics for the Buddhists. He was hailed as "Nav Buddha" at a conference held at Kathmandu in 1956. Ambedkar made a distinction between religions and Dharma according to him "The purpose of religion is to explain the origin of the world. The purpose of Dharma is to reconstruct the world. In Dharma there is no place for prayers, pilgrimage, rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices. Morality is not the root of the religion. It is a wagon which can be attached and detached as the occasion demands. But morality is the essence of Dharma".
Thus Ambedkar was a multi faceted personality whose work and personal struggle continue to inspire countless people to fight for their social and economic betterment. He proved to the world that the prejudice cannot smother the talent nor can the mud and filth of abuse stick to the shining golden image of a truly great man. "A great man, to use his own words, must be motivated by the dynamics of social purpose and must act as the scourge and the scavenger of society." He was that and much more. His action packed career came to an end with his death on 6th December 1956. Fitting tribute we can ever pay to the great person is not merely to bestow on him "Bharat Ratna" nor to declare his birth centenary year as the year of social justice but by truly fulfilling his life's struggle to safeguard effectively the rights of the Dalits and to guarantee them protection.
Dr. (Mrs.) Sunanda Shet, Head, Department of History, Nirmala College of Women, Coimbatore 641 018. Tamilnadu)
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Last update: 22 July 1998