On 14 October 1956, less than two months before he died, B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s Constitution and one of the towering intellects of modern India, converted to Buddhism along with some 365,000 of his followers in Nagpur after a traditional ceremony. The conversion to the religion which had fascinated him for a long time and he had been studying for years, was one of the pivotal moments in the modern Buddhist movement in India.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb, was born on 14 April 1891 into a poor Mahar (Dalit) family, and his lifelong campaign against India’s centuries’ old caste-system culminated, in a sense, in the mass conversion at the twilight of his life.
In the decades after his death it was Ambedkar’s status as a Dalit and Buddhist icon that was stressed, with his role as the Constitution maker and India’s first law minister coming in as afterthoughts. But in recent years the full breadth of his intellectual concerns—including his views and writings on gender, economic theory, politics, philosophy and law—has received more focused, and welcome, attention.
Ambedkar was born in Mhow town, now in the state of Madhya Pradesh. He was the 14th child of Ramji Sakpal and Bhimabai, who belonged to Ratnagiri district in what is now Maharashtra state. Ramji served in the Army at Mhow. Since the family were of the Mahar (or so-called untouchable) caste, they often faced discrimination.
The young Ambedkar got first-hand experience of caste-based segregation at school, as boys of his caste were not allowed to touch drinking water or the water container, and a peon had to pour water to them from a height to prevent ‘pollution’. Ambedkar later described this childhood humiliation in his own words: “I could not touch the tap; and unless it was opened […] by a touchable person, it was not possible for me to quench my thirst. […] The presence of the school peon was necessary, for he was the only person whom the class teacher could use for such a purpose. If the peon was not available, I had to go without water […] — no peon, no water.”
In 1907, he entered University of Bombay’s Elphinstone College. After getting a degree in economics and political science, he went to the United States on a scholarship. He majored in Economics and also studied Philosophy, Anthropology, Sociology and History. He read his paper ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ at a seminar held by an anthropologist. In 1916 he started work on a doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics.
The time in the United States, free of caste discrimination, was crucial in Ambedkar’s intellectual growth. “The best friends I have had in life were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson,” he would later say.
On his return to India, after being unable to work with the Princely State of Baroda, he took up several jobs, but caste-based prejudice often came in the way of his work. Shockingly, even when he became a professor in Bombay’s prestigious Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, discrimination reared its ugly head, with fellow professors refusing to share the water jug with him.
On an invitation to a hearing before a government committee, Ambedkar said he was in favour of creating separate electorates and reservations for untouchables and religious minorities. He also started publishing a weekly magazine. Later, while practising law in Bombay, he became actively involved in Dalit rights, and from now on was an undisputed leader of the community. Meanwhile, being a prominent lawyer and thinker, he wrote a set of recommendations for the future Constitution of India.
By the late 1920s, Ambedkar’s anti-discrimination campaigns on sharing public water resources and the right to enter temples gathered momentum. In 1930 he led thousands of activists to the Kalaram Temple in Nashik, demanding access to the temple.
In 1932, Ambedkar reluctantly agreed to Mahatma Gandhi’s plea to drop the demand for a separate electorate for the untouchables, in what came to be called as the Poona Pact. From 1935 onwards, Ambedkar told his followers to find justice outside the folds of Hinduism. The following year he founded the Independent Labour Party. His famous book, The Annihilation of Caste, was published in 1937.
In acknowledgment of his intellectual capacity and legal acumen, Ambedkar was made Independent India’s first law minister and the chairman of the body in charge of writing the country’s new Constitution. He resigned from the Cabinet after his draft of the Hindu Code Bill was stalled, but was later appointed to the Rajya Sabha. He passed away on 6 December 1956. The day is celebrated as Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din.
Ambedkar was deeply conscious of the dangers of social and economic inequality, and his words ring true even today: “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril,” he said when India was becoming a republic. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
Also on this day:
1981 — Gautam Gambhir, Indian cricketer, was born
2004 — Dattopant Thengadi, founder of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, passed away