There are very few people in the world who could go against established norms and come out victorious. Dr, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is one of the rare exceptions. Known popularly as Babasaheb, Ambedkar fought hard and worked industriously as a social reformer, jurist, economist and political activist. Champion for the rights of the untouchables and other minorities and the architect of independent India’s Constitution, Ambedkar should have a prominent position in any studies dealing with the history of India.
The fourteenth child of parents of the Mahar caste, Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891 in the military cantonment town of Mhow in the Central Provinces (today in Madhya Pradesh) to Subhedar Ramji Maloji Sakpal and Bhimabai Murbadkar Sakpal. His family was of Marathi origin, hailing from Ambavade in the Ratnagiri District in modern-day Maharashtra. Even though they are from the poor ‘untouchable’ caste, his ancestors had traditionally worked for the British army. This enabled him to attend the British Army School even though, to avoid repercussions, the students were segregated by caste. Often, the lower castes had to attend class from outside the classroom in order not to contaminate the Brahmins and other higher caste students inside the class. They had to bring gunny sacks to sit on and had to take them back home every day. The lower caste students were banned from getting water themselves. It had to be poured for them by a higher caste individual and they had to hide their mouths while drinking. In Ambedkar’s time, it was the peon who poured the water for them. Later in his writings, Ambedkar wrote, “No peon, no water”. Even in a British government- run school, these discriminations were common place. Two years after his father’s retirement, the family moved to Satara in 1896. His mother’s death followed. Ambedkar attended the local school. But the experience in the previous school continued.
The motherless children were cared for by a paternal aunt. Life was difficult for the Ambavadekar children. Of his surviving three brothers and two sisters, only Ambedkar passed the exams and graduated to high school. His last name was changed in school records from Ambavadekar that indicated his village to Ambedkar by a Brahmin teacher, Mahadev Ambedkar, who was fond of this brilliant student.
Ambedkar’s family moved to the then Bombay in 1907. He enrolled in the Elphinstone High School. He was the only ‘untouchable’ in the school. His home was in the poorest of poor section. The whole house consisted of one room. He woke up after his father went to bed and studied in the light of an open kerosene lamp. In school, he suffered a great deprivation. He was denied the learning of Sanskrit because he was from the ‘untouchable’ caste. He felt very bitter about this, but he learned Sanskrit later in life.
When he was fifteen years old, his marriage to the nine-year old Ramabai was arranged.
In 1907, Ambedkar was the first untouchable to complete his matriculation and enter Elphinstone College which was affiliated to the Bombay University. He had been quite successful in his examinations. This was a special occasion for the lower castes and they celebrated. From the author and family friend, Dada Keluskar, he received a biography of Buddha. Maybe there was something prophetic in that gesture. In 1912, he received his degree from the Bombay University, majoring in Political Science and Economics. He was prepared to take up a job with the Baroda state government. His wife was fifteen then and he moved his young family to Baroda and began his work. He was called back to Bombay because his father was ailing. His father died subsequently in 1913.
Ambedkar secured a scholarship of 11.50 sterling pounds a month for three years under a scheme to provide graduate studies at the Columbia University in New York, set up by Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda. He was only twenty-two years old and he moved to the USA in 1913. He settled in the Livingston Hall and made a lifelong friend of Naval Bathena, a Parsi.. He secured his first MA in Economics in 1915, In India, he had added English and Persian languages to strengthen the base of his knowledge. In USA, his studies included ethics, history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology. His thesis was titled, Ancient Indian Commerce. He was greatly influenced by John Dewey and his views on democracy and understood the extent of the injustice perpetrated in the name of Hindu caste system. For another MA, his second thesis was titled, National Dividend of India-A Historic and Analytical Study. Soon, he left for London.
In 1916, he had enrolled at the Gray’s Inn to qualify to be a barrister. He, simultaneously, enrolled in the London School of Economics for a doctorate. But, his scholarship had ended and he had to return to India. With a promise to complete his dissertation within four years, he left in 1917 shipping his large collection of books. But, the ship was torpedoed by Germans and he lost his cherished collection.
Since he was educated by the Princely Sate of Baroda, Dr. Ambedkar owed his time to the state. He took up the position as the Military Secretary to the King of Baroda. More discrimination followed because of his caste despite his eminent learning. Even non-Hindus and servants showed no respect. He quit this position. He described the incident in his autobiography as “Waiting for Visa”. He tried to earn a living to support his family by working as a private tutor, as an accountant, and by establishing an investment consulting business. But it failed because some clients objected to have dealings with an untouchable.
With the help of the former Bombay Governor, Dr. Ambedkar received the post of Professor of Political Economy at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Bombay. Although successful with his students, some professors objected to his serving of water from the same jug. In 1920, he left for London to complete his higher studies at his own expense. In 1921, he earned his MA and completed his D.Sc in Economics in 1923. His research was on the problem of rupee, its origin and its solution. He also became a barrister in Gray’s Inn in the same year. He spent a few months in the University of Bonn studying economics. He received his PhD from Columbia on June 8, 1927 after he read his dissertation, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development before a seminar.
On Ambedkar’s part , returning to India was the beginning for a lot of ideological moves focused on the current social establishments and cultural interpretations of inequity, which were dividing India. In 1918, he was invited to testify before the Southborough Committee which was preparing the Government of India Act of 1919. He argued in favor of establishing separate electorates and reservations for the oppressed classes of the time: the untouchables and other minorities such as Christians.
Dr. Ambedkar looked for ways of reaching the minorities or ‘dalit’s as the untouchables are known in Indian parlance. He wished to provide a voice for this silent strata of society and, in 1920, started the publication of a weekly titled Mook Nayak( the leader of the silent). The Maharaja of Kohlapur, Shahaji II, supported him. The Maharaja, after listening to his speech, took time to dine with him and created a social and political upheaval. This was also the time when Dr. Ambedkar was vigorously practicing law in Bombay High Court. He defended three non-Brahmins who accused the Brahmin community of destroying India. Both the barrister and clients experienced vindication and personal and individual victories.
Words were not enough for Dr. Ambedkar. While his legal profession continued to function, he became very active in promoting education for the untouchables. His first effort in this direction resulted in the establishment of a central institution, Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha. Its function was to promote education, socio-economic development and welfare of the depressed classes. This was also the time for the birth of more periodicals like Bahishkrit Barath and Equality Janta in order to promote the ‘dalit’ rights.
In 1925, Dr. Ambedkar was appointed to the Presidency Committee to work with the all European Simon Commission which was set up to look into the constitutional reforms in India. There was nationwide protest against the Commission and its report was mostly ignored, but he had already construed what was needed in a constitution for India.
In 1927, actions instead of words gained foremost importance. Civil disobedience has already caught the imagination of the nation. Movements against untouchability was called for. The first of these was the march to open up public drinking water. The Satyagraha in Mahad at the Chowdar Tank was an active protest to let the untouchables draw water from the town water tank. The Bombay Legislature had already passed a bill allowing open access to water and the Mahad Municipality had decreed that even untouchables can take water from the tank; but till that day, no one had dared to do it because even going near the tank had been forbidden to these people. As planned, Dr. Ambedkar went to the tank and touched the water and others followed. But after a couple of hours, someone spread a rumor that the untouchables were going to enter the Veereshwara temple. The traditionalists took physical action and beat up the Satyagraha participants and even Dr. Ambedkar was wounded in this violent episode. But the incident brought social awareness to many Hindus who decided that denying water to anyone because of their castes was not right.
In a Conference in 1927, in public, Dr. Ambedkar condemned Manusmriti (The code of Manu) which was justifying the authority of the caste system. On December 25, 1927, in the presence of multitudes, he conducted a ceremony for burning the ancient texts. Twenty-fifth of December came to be known as the Manusmriti Dahan Din (Manusmriti Burning Day). Another bone of contention was the denial of entry into the temples for the ‘dalits’. In 1930, after three months of preparation, he marched to Kalaram Temple in Nashik. He was accompanied by fifteen thousand followers and with great fanfare, he marched to the temple. When the procession reached the temple, the gates were already closed by the Brahmin authorities.
In 1932, Dr. Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates was recognized by the British government which allowed separate electorates for the depressed classes. By now, he had become the most prominent champions of the untouchables. Gandhi objected vehemently, his reason being that it would divide the Hindu community. Eventually, while Gandhi was fasting in the jail, a meeting was arranged and the result was the Poona Pact which was reached on September 25 and was signed by various representatives including Dr. Ambedkar representing the untouchables and tribals. In 1935 and 1950, the term for the ‘depressed classes’ was changed to ‘scheduled castes and scheduled tribes’.
Dr. Ambedkar was never far from being an academic. In 1935, he was appointed as the Principal of Government Law College and stayed there for two years. He was also the Chairman of the governing body of Ramjas College in Delhi. He settled in Bombay and housed his personal collection of 500,000 books. Meanwhile, he suffered the loss of his wife owing to prolonged illness. He had already lost his sons in their infancy.
Even those who condemned untouchability, did not see the need for equality for them. He found neither Gandhi nor some leaders of Congress supporting the minorities and the untouchables. He lost faith in the religion he was born into and declared publicly his intention not to remain in it. He was searching for a religion which will provide him equality when he accepted it.
Political activities of Dr. Ambedkar had become more pronounced. He established the Independent Labor Party in 1936. It won fifteen seats in the 1937 elections to the General Legislative Assembly. He also published the book, The Annihilation of Caste. In it, he was very strong in his condemnation of religion and caste system. The book was a roaring success. He was against the term “Harijan” (God’s People) for the untouchables. He considered it to be discriminatory and blasted the hypocrisy of Gandhi and Congress. In his work, Who were the Shudra?, he rejected the Aryan invasion theory of Max Müller. He preferred the interpretation of Sayanacharya who read ‘an-asa’ instead of ‘anasa’ from Rig Veda, the differences between the Aryans and Shudras being more to do with the speech than in racial differences like a flat nose. His scholarship and leadership earned him the position of Minister of Labor in the Defense Advisory Committee and the Viceroy’s Executive Council.
Dr. Ambedkar oversaw the morphing of his party into The Scheduled Castes Federation. Before Independence, in the 1946 election for the Constituent Assembly, its performance was poor. But, he was elected later in Bengal where Muslim League was extra powerful. In 1952, he contested in Bombay, and lost to his former assistant. He became a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house. He tried again to enter Lok Sabha in 1954 and was only placed third. Before the next general election in 1957, he was no more.
The intellect and deep knowledge base of Dr. Ambedkar made him the ideal choice for the position of the first Law Minister of Independent India. On November 29, 1947, he was appointed the Chairman for the Constitution Drafting Committee. To all practical purposes, he was the main architect of the Indian Constitution. It was socially revolutionizing and provided constitutional guarantees and protection for individual civil liberties and rights like freedom of religion, women’s social rights for marriage and inheritance and it outlawed all discriminatory practices however ancient they were. He tried to introduce a uniform civil code and strove for a virtual bridge between classes. So he interjected affirmative action such as equal opportunity for education and job reservation for the scheduled castes and tribes. The Constitution was adopted on November 26, 1949. He resigned from the parliament when it stalled on the Hindu Code of Law he had introduced with the purpose of equal social and civic rights. Equality without prejudice of gender, race, and caste was what he was aiming for.
With his farsighted legal mind, Dr. Ambedkar opposed Article 370 that gave special status to Kashmir. He pointed out the contradiction where Kashmir got equal status with India while the Indian government had only limited power and the Indian people had no rights in that region. We still experience the contention that remains as the result. It was a politically maneuvered choice.
As the first Indian who secured a doctorate in economics abroad, Dr. Ambedkar’s standing as an eminent economist was unquestionable. Industrial development and agricultural growth were his watchwords in enhancing Indian economy. In 1951, he established the Finance Commission of India. He stressed public health, public hygiene, education, and residential facilities. He advocated social developments to achieve economic growth. The Reserve Bank of India was based on his ideas.
Health became a big concern for Dr. Ambedkar.. He suffered from diabetes from 1948 and he had been taking insulin. He suffered from neuropathic pain in his legs and lack of sleep. He went to Bombay for treatment and met Dr. Sharada Kabir, a Brahmin. He married her in New Delhi on April 15, 1948. She took the name, Dr. Savita Ambedkar.
Not to continue as a Hindu became very important. Dr. Ambedkar was a seeker of knowledge and he studied about several religions. He had been studying Buddhism all his life and ultimately chose to convert to Buddhism. On October 14, 1956, in a public ceremony in Nagpur, he accepted the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk and converted along with his wife. He then proceeded to convert the 500,000 followers who were present at the ceremony.
The political issues took a toll on Dr.Ambedkar. His eyesight had been deteriorating and his passion for reading could not be sated. Side effects of medications had plagued him and, since June to October, 1954, he had been bedridden. Yet, he continued his efforts and writing. Three days after he completed his book, Buddha and His Dharma, he passed away in his sleep on December 6, 1956 at his home in New Delhi. He was given a Buddhist style cremation on the next day and half a million people attended. He was survived by his wife and son Yashwant. A coneversion ceremony was organized for December 16 so that the cremation attendees had the opportunity for converting to Buddhism. He was awarded posthumously the Bharath Ratna, the highest civilian order, in 1990. He had also received honoray degrees before his death: his third and fourth Doctorates (LL.D, Columbia, 1952 and D.Litt., Osmania, 1953). His birthdate is the public holiday Ambedkar Jayanthi.
Here was a man who was a mover and shaker. Dr. Ambedkar rose above his circumstances and outdistanced everyone. He made maximum use of his educational opportunities and was tireless in his studies and in his efforts for social and political reforms. His thirst for learning was phenomenal and he used his knowledge for persuasive arguments to establish the legitimacy of his reasoning. A voracious reader, he was also a prolific writer. He was voted the “Greatest Indian” in a 2012 poll organized by History TV18 and CNN IBN and in which nearly 20 million votes were cast. During his 2010 visit to the Indian Parliament, President Obama extolled Dr. Ambedkar as the greatest human rights champion. He was erudite, daring, articulate, and compassionate. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen claimed that Dr. Ambedkar was the father of his economics.
It was Dr. Ambedkar’s compassion towards human beings who were deprived of the basic rights of their existence that drove him to his ventures into the social, political, civil, and political arenas to fight tirelessly. He made things happen. When he visited Aurangabad, he was appalled at the lack of greenery around the college. He did not hesitate to demand that anyone who wished to visit him to bring a sapling. Hundred saplings appeared and he himself took a pick-axe and prepared the ground. His message to his followers and to everyone else is, “Educate, Organize, Agitate”.
Works by Dr. Ambedkar: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._R._Ambedkar)
The Education Department, Government of Maharashtra (Mumbai) published the collection of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in different volumes.
- Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Developmentand 11 Other Essays
- Ambedkar in the Bombay Legislature, with the Simon Commission and at the Round Table Conferences, 1927–1939
- Philosophy of Hinduism; India and the Pre-requisites of Communism; Revolution and Counter-revolution; Buddha or Karl Marx
- Riddles in Hinduism
- Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability
- The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India
- Who Were the Shudras?
- The Untouchables Who Were They And Why They Became Untouchables ?
- The Annihilation of Caste(1936)
- Pakistan or the Partition of India
- What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables; Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables
- Ambedkar as member of the Governor General’s Executive Council, 1942–46
- The Buddha and his Dhamma
- Unpublished Writings; Ancient Indian Commerce; Notes on laws;Waiting for a Visa ; Miscellaneous notes, etc.
- Ambedkar as the principal architect of the Constitution of India
- (2 parts) Dr. Ambedkar and The Hindu Code Bill
- Ambedkar as Free India’s First Law Minister and Member of Opposition in Indian Parliament(1947–1956)
- The Pali Grammar
- Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution – Struggle for Human Rights. Events starting from March 1927 to 17 November 1956 in the chronological order; Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution – Socio-political and religious activities. Events starting from November 1929 to 8 May 1956 in the chronological order; Ambedkar and his Egalitarian Revolution – Speeches. (Events starting from 1 January to 20 November 1956 in the chronological order.)
- Ambedkar’s Speeches and writing in Marathi
- Ambedkar’s Photo Album and Correspondence
Thank you for sharing! What an amazing man and story. Have a wonderful trip! LIz
History teachers …..pay attention……
They should teach about him.