On Saturday, April 14, 2018, India would be celebrating the 127th birth anniversary of Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Popularly known as Babasaheb, he was an Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who inspired the Dalit Buddhist Movement and campaigned against social discrimination against untouchables since he was a Dalit too and also supported the rights of women and labour.
However, Ambedkar’s importance in Indian history cannot just be limited to a person who championed for the rights of the poor, downtrodden and lower caste people. He can easily be remembered as “The Father of the Constitution of India” and the man who fought for the oppressed in the country. He was the principal architect of our Constitution and a founding father of the Republic of India.
“Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is a yug purush (man of the era) who lives in the hearts and minds of crores of Indians. His life is characterised by unmatched determination and a firm commitment towards social justice. He made a mark as a bright lawyer, scholar, writer and intellectual who always spoke his mind,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in praise of Ambedkar.
Born on April 14, 1891 in the town and military cantonment of Mhow in the central provinces, (now in Madhya Pradesh) to Ramji Maloji Sakpal and Bhimabai Murbadkar Sakpal, Ambedkar had to face isolation in school because of his caste. Ambedkar was born into a poor low Mahar (Dalit) caste, who were treated as untouchables and subjected to socio-economic discrimination
His hardships in school and worksphere
His ancestors had long worked for the army of the British East India Company, and his father served in the British Indian Army at the Mhow cantonment. Although they attended school, it is reported that Ambedkar and other untouchable children were segregated and given little attention or help by teachers. They were not allowed to sit inside the class.
When they needed to drink water, someone from a higher caste had to pour that water from a height as they were not allowed to touch either the water or the vessel that contained it. This task was usually performed for the young Ambedkar by the school peon and if the peon was not available then he had to go without water; he described the situation later in his writings as “No peon, No Water”
However, despite facing all hardships, Ambedkar, in 1897 became the only untouchable enrolled at Elphinstone High School. In 1906, when he was about 15, he got married to nine-year-old Ramabai.
Ambedkar pursued a degree in economics and political science from Elphinstone College, University of Mumbai, and then completed his Masters in Economics (Major) at the Columbia University and Doctor of Science in Economics from London School of Economics with the help of a scholarship.
Ambedkar went on to work as a legal professional. In 1926, he successfully defended three non-Brahmin leaders who had accused the Brahmin community of ruining India and were then subsequently sued for libel.
While practising law in the Bombay High Court, he tried to promote education to untouchables and uplift them. His first organised attempt was his establishment of the central institution Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha, intended to promote education and socio-economic improvement, as well as the welfare of “outcastes”, at the time referred to as depressed classes.
For the defence of Dalit rights, he started many periodicals like Mook Nayak, Bahishkrit Bharat, and Equality Janta.
After India attained independence in 1947, Ambedkar accepted Congress’ proposal to serve as the country’s first Law Minister and was appointed chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee on August 29, 1947. On November 26 1949, the Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly.
Opposition to Aryan invasion theory and Manusmriti
Babasaheb viewed the Shudras as Aryans and rejected the Aryan invasion theory which depicts scenarios around the theory of an origin from outside South Asia of Indo-Aryan peoples.
On December 25, 1927, Ambedkar publicly condemned the Manusmriti for justifying caste discrimination and untouchability and led thousands of Dalits and burnt copies of the text.
Opposition to Article 370
Ambedkar opposed Article 370 of the Constitution of India, which granted a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and which was included against his wishes. He resigned in 1951 when the Parliament delayed the draft which sought to enact gender equality in the inheritance law.
Conversion to Buddhism
Ambedkar considered converting to Sikhism. But after meeting with Sikh leaders, he concluded that he might get “second-rate” Sikh status, as described by scholar Stephen P Cohen. Instead, he studied Buddhism all his life. Around 1950, he devoted his attention to Buddhism and travelled to Sri Lanka to attend a meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
After meetings with the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Ambedkar organised a formal public ceremony for himself and his supporters in Nagpur on October 14, 1956. Accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk, in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed his own conversion, along with his second wife Savita.
Ambedkar passed away on December 6, 1956 in New Delhi where he was accorded a Buddhist cremation.
In 1990, Ambedkar was posthumously conferred with Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.