At NCDHR we are both inspired and energized by the teaching and intervention of Dr. Ambedkar and find relevant his strategies for the struggles of our day.
B.R. Ambedkar was a central figure in the struggle for Indian independence, the architect of the new nation's constitution, and the foremost champion of the civil rights of the "untouchable" class to which he belonged. He spoke and wrote ceaselessly on behalf of "untouchables," but his passion for justice was wide-ranging; in 1950 he resigned from his position as the country's first Minister of Law when Nehru's cabinet refused to pass the Women's Rights Bill. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, near the end of his life, helped to spark a revival of a new form of Buddhism in India. His actions and writings have been essential in empowering Dalits with dignity, self-respect, social consciousness, political identity, and the motivation to fight for their basic human rights. Highly revered as a father-figure to Dalits—he is respectfully referred to as “Babasaheb”—Ambedkar’s life and work are a constant inspiration to the Dalit Movement and provide the foremost example of the courageous spirit and initiative needed for Dalits to bring about social justice and to “cast out caste.”
EARLY LIFE & EDUCATION
Bhim Ram Ambedkar was born into the “untouchable” Mahar caste on April 14th, 1891, in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. As a child, at school he was seated on the floor in a corner of the classroom, separate from other students, and his teachers refused to touch him or his notebooks because of his supposed “impurity.” Despite such daily caste humiliation and discrimination, Ambedkar excelled in his studies. He passed his high school matriculation examination in Bombay in 1907 and became one of the first ‘untouchables’ ever to attend college in India, studying at Bombay University and Elfinstone College. After graduating with his BA in 1912, Ambedkar received a scholarship to study in the United States from the Maharaja of Baroda (in exchange for 10 years of future service to the State). At Columbia University in New York City, he experienced social equality (the absence of caste discrimination) for the first time. There he studied under John Dewey, who inspired many of his ideas about human rights and social justice. Ambedkar earned his MA in Political Science from Columbia in 1915 and then traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Gray’s Inn (Law School). In 1917, after only one year in the UK, his scholarship was terminated and he was called back to India. Returning to work as Military Secretary for Baroda state, Ambedkar was distressed by the sudden reappearance of discrimination in his life. In early 1920, he began publishing the news weekly Mooknayak (Leader of Fools) in which he criticized orthodox Hindu politicians and the seeming reluctance of the Indian political community to fight caste discrimination. Later in the same year, having accumulated the necessary funds, he returned to London where he completed his DSc from LSE and earned his Bar-at-Law degree from Gray’s Inn.
PROFESSIONAL WORK & BATTLE AGAINST “UNTOUCHABILITY”
Upon completing his education abroad, Ambedkar returned to Bombay as a barrister, established a successful legal practice and, in 1924, founded the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha (Association for the Depressed Classes) to promote the spread of education among the socially and politically downtrodden, to improve their economic status, and to provide a voice for their grievances. Between 1927 and 1932, Ambedkar led a series of nonviolent campaigns to assert the right of “Untouchables” to draw water from public tanks & wells and to enter Hindu places of worship. Especially important was the satyagraha (nonviolent civil disobedience) he led in Mahad where tens of thousands of “Untouchables” protested successfully for their right to use water from the public Chowdar Tank, which had been traditionally prohibited to them (though animals were allowed to use the water!).
In a conference in late 1927, Ambedkar public condemned the classic Hindu text, the Manusmrti (Laws of Manu), for ideologically justifying the system of caste discrimination and “untouchability,” ceremonially burning copies of the ancient text. Increasingly unpopular with dominant caste Hindus, Ambedkar became even more so due to his insistence on the need for separate electorates for the depressed classes. When the British granted this demand, Gandhi, who felt strongly that this would divide society in future generations and prevent the political and social unity of Hindus, went on a fast until death in protest of the decision. Under massive pressure, in 1932 Ambedkar joined with Gandhi in signing the Pune Pact, in which the demand for separate elections was dropped and replaced with special concessions like reserved seats for “Untouchables” in legislative assemblies.
VIEWS ON RELIGION & ROLE IN CONSTITUTION
Over time, Ambedkar became increasingly critical of orthodox Hinduism, which he saw as inextricably linked to caste discrimination, and at the Yeola Conversion Conference in 1935, he stated famously, “I was born as a Hindu but will not die as a Hindu;” and exhorted his followers to leave Hinduism and join another religion. Ambedkar was also fiercely critical of certain aspects and practices of Islam, especially child marriage, the mistreatment of women, and narrow literalist interpretations of Islamic doctrine which prevented positive social reform within Muslim society.
In 1936, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party and in 1942 he founded the Scheduled Caste Federation for the independent political assertion of Dalits. Between 1941 and 1945 Ambedkar published a large number of controversial books and pamphlets which included criticisms of Hindu civilization, Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the Muslim League’s demand for a separate state of Pakistan.
In 1947 India achieved independence and Prime Minister Nehru appointed Ambedkar the Minister of Law. Despite his unpopularity and criticisms, Ambedkar was also appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee for the Constitution of India and played the central role in its crafting. In February 1948 he presented the Draft Constitution and it was adopted in November 1949 with all its 356 articles, including Article 11 which explicitly abolishes “untouchability” in all forms.
After resigning from the Cabinet in 1951, Ambedkar increasingly turned his attention towards Buddhism. He began writing a book, The Buddha and His Dhamma—published a year after his death and today often considered his magnum opus—which articulated his understanding of the Buddha’s message and its contemporary relevance. On 14 October 1956, in a formal public ceremony (which explicitly rejected and condemned Hinduism), Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with over 300,000 followers. This action sparked an ongoing Buddhist revival in India and a number mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism have occurred since then.
Bhim Raj Ambedkar died on 6 December 1956. In 1990, he was posthumously honored with India’s highest national award, “Bharat Ratna” and his portrait was adorned in the Central Hall of Parliament. His birth date is now a public holiday in India known as Ambedkar Jayanti.
The following is a link to the full text of many of Ambedkar’s books, essays, and pamphlets: http://www.dr-ambedkar.com/writings-link.htm