Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1891 – 1956)
B.R. Ambedkar “Babasaheb” was an Indian political reformer who campaigned for the rights of the ‘untouchable’ caste of India. He played a role in the Indian independence movement and also played a key role in drafting the Indian constitution and the reformation of Indian society through the promotion of greater equality and rights for both the poor and women.
Ambedkar was also a prolific scholar, attending university in Mumbai, New York and London; he specialised in law, economics and political science, and made contributions to Indian economic thought. In 1956, shortly before his death, he converted from Hinduism to Buddhism encouraging many fellow ‘untouchables’ to also convert.
Ambedkar was born in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. He was the 14th child of Ramji Sakpal who was an Subedar (officer) in the British Indian Army.
His family were ranked as a Mahar (dalit) ‘untouchable’ caste. At the time of his birth, those born in the Mahar caste were subject to great discrimination, with limited education and employment prospects. They were not allowed to share public water provision and often suffered very low standards of living, health and poor accommodation. The Mahars are mainly found in Maharashtra and comprise around 10% of the population.
However, as an officer in the British Indian army, his father lobbied for his children to be allowed to go to school. Ambedkar was allowed to attend, but because of great opposition from Brahmins and other upper classes, the untouchables were segregated and often not allowed in the classroom.
In his later writing “No peon, No Water.” Ambedkar later explained how he was not allowed to take water, without the school peon (person to do manual labour). It was an example of the discrimination and exclusion that untouchables often faced. However, his father was ambitious for his children and encouraged them to read both the Hindu classics and other literature to further their education.
The discrimination and segregation of being born into the Mahar caste had a lasting influence on Ambedkar’s outlook on Indian society and political life.
In 1896 his mother died, and he was raised by their paternal aunt in difficult financial circumstances. Of his 13 brothers and sisters, only Ambedkar succeeded in graduating to high school; it was quite a rarity for his Mahar caste. In 1897, he became the only ‘untouchable’ to be enrolled in Bombay high school. In 1907, he became the first ‘untouchable’ to enter an affiliated college of the University of Bombay. This achievement was widely celebrated by his Mahar caste and was given a public ceremony. This ceremony occurred despite Ambedkar’s father refusing to give permission, arguing such a celebration ‘would go to the young boy’s head.’
As was custom, in 1906, he was arranged to be married to a nine year old girl, Ramabai.
Ambedkar received a degree in economics and political science from Bombay University. As a talented scholar, in 1913, he gained a Baroda state scholarship to study at Columbia University, New York. Here he gained an M.A, presenting a thesis on Ancient Indian Commerce.
After New York, in 1916, he moved to London where he enrolled for the Bar at Gray’s Inn and also at the London School of Economics. By 1923, he was called to the Bar and had completed a Master’s degree in economics (1921) and a D.Sc. in economics (1923).
Ambedkar was a professional economist until 1921. He wrote an influential paper to the Hilton Young Commission which formed the basis of the Reserve Bank of India. (RBI). In his 1923 these ‘The problems of Ruppee, it’s origins and solution’ – he studied the importance of price stability to the value of the Rupee. He also investigated how the Indian economy could successfully develop.
In 1917, he had to return to India to serve in the Baroda State military. However, his military career didn’t last very long. He quit and found work as a private tutor. He also tried to set up an investment consulting business, but soon lost clients when they found out about his ‘untouchable’ status.
In 1918, he became Professor of Political Economy at the Sydenham College in Bombay. He also went on to serve as a lawyer.
In the 1920s, Ambedkar became increasingly concerned and active about the plight of his fellow caste. He became a high profile figure within Indian politics. He sought to improve education for the ‘outcastes’. In 1924, he founded the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabaha – an organisation dedicating to improving the welfare of outcastes. It’s founding principles were ‘Educate, Agitate and Organize.’
He also founded a newspaper called “Mooknayaka” (leader of the silent)
During the 1920s, he became more active in organising protests against discrimination. He inspired mass protests against ‘untouchability’ and for the right to draw water from the main public tank. He attacked elements of orthodox Hinduism – burning copies of Manusmrti (Laws of Manu) which he felt justified caste discrimination.
“For a successful revolution, it is not enough that there is enough discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights.”
– Ambedkar, Political Science for Civil Services Main Examination, 2010
He also campaigned for ‘untouchables’ to be given admission to Hindu temples. In 1930, he led about 15,000 untouchables in a peaceful procession to gain admission to Kalaram Temple.
Ambedkar wrote prolifically on the subject of caste. He strongly criticised orthodox Hinduism and the caste system in particular. His book – The Annihilation of Caste – expressed these views most force ably.
“My study of the Caste problem involves four main points: (1) that in spite of the composite make-up of the Hindu population, there is a deep cultural unity; (2) that caste is a parcelling into bits of a larger cultural unit; (3) that there was one caste to start with; and (4) that classes have become Castes through imitation and excommunication.”
– Castes in India
He was also critical of Islam for the way he felt it justified slavery and the mistreatment of women.
“the Muslim Society in India is afflicted by the same social evils as afflict the Hindu Society. Indeed, the Muslims have all the social evils of the Hindus and something more. That something more is the compulsory system of purdah for Muslim women.”
– B.R. Ambedkar
Ambedkar believed that the rights of untouchables could be best served by having a separate electorate for the untouchables. In 1932, given his prominence, the British invited Ambedkar to the Round Table Conference in London. The British agreed with Ambedkar’s plan to have a separate electorate. However, Mahatma Gandhi was deeply opposed to this plan to divide the electorate. On hearing the news Gandhi went on a fast, whilst in jail, provoking huge civil unrest amongst the Hindu population.
Eventually fearing conflict between orthodox Hindus and the Dalit’s, Ambedkar agreed with Gandhi to avoid a separate electorate. Instead, a certain number of seats were reserved for untouchables. This was known as the Poona Pact and drew Gandhi and Ambedkar closer politically. Though tensions between the two still remained. Ambedkar wanted independence, but he gave equal weighting to the amelioration of the untouchables and other marginalised groups in society.
“It was not enough that India should get Swaraj. It was more important in whose hands the Swaraj would be.”
In 1937, he formed the Independent Labour party to represent the untouchables in elections. They gained local success in the 1937 elections, but fared less well in the 1947 elections.
Constitution of India
In 1947, after India’s independence, he was invited by the Congress government to play a significant role in drafting India’s new constitution. He was appointed Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. He was also appointed first Law Minister.
Ambedkar prepared a constitution which protected a wide range of civil liberties for both the poor and women.
“The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”
– Article 15
Article 17 outlawed the practise of ‘untouchability’. The constitution also included affirmative action to reserve jobs for people from scheduled castes. The constitution was adopted in 1949.
WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;
– Constitution of India
Ambedkar was brought up in a Hindu culture and studied Hindu texts. However, he was critical of the caste aspect of Hinduism and frequently talked about his desire to leave his religion and encouraged others to do the same.
For a while he considered Sikhism. But, in October 1956 announced his formal intention to convert to Buddhism. He studied Buddhism throughout his life and in the 1950s spent more time studying Buddhism, travelling to Sri Lanka and attending Buddhist conferences.
“The direct answer to this question is that I regard the Buddha’s Dhamma to be the best. No religion can be compared to it. If a modern man who knows science must have a religion, the only religion he can have is the Religion of the Buddha. This conviction has grown in me after thirty-five years of close study of all religions.”
– Ambedkar, The Buddha and his Dharma
After his conversion, he oversaw the conversion of 500,000 of his followers to the Buddhist religion. It was one of the biggest mass conversions in India. He founded the Buddhist Society of India and has helped to revitalise Buddhism within India, the land of its birth.
Shortly after his conversion to Buddhism, he died in his sleep on 6 December 1956 at his home in Delhi. He suffered from diabetes and stress related illness. He was given a Buddhist cremation, and over half a million people came to pay their respects.
Ambedkar left a powerful legacy for Indian culture, politics and society. His drafting of the Indian constitution placed great emphasis on equal rights and the overcoming of discrimination. His criticism of Hinduism has made him a controversial figure. But, in 2012, he was voted the greatest Indian by a national poll organised by History TV18 and CNN IBN. He gained nearly 20 million votes.
He has also received praise for his economic work. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen said that his contribution in the field of economics ‘is marvellous and will be remembered forever’