Happy 121st Birthday Dr. B.R. Ambedkar!
Today is Ambedkar Jayanthi, or Ambedkar Day, which is a secular holiday as it is the 121st birthday or Bharat Ratna Dr. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar Vishwavidyalaya (or just Dr. B.R. Ambedkar for short). He was not only the founder and architect of the Indian Constitution, but he was also also a Buddhist activist, juror, political activist and leader, social revolutionary and reformer, anthropologist, historian, scholar and orator, prolific writer and editor, economist, and a revivalist of Buddhism in India.
He was born into a poor Mahar family, which were considered a “Dalit” or “Untouchable caste”. Therefore, he campaigned against social discrimination and the injustice of the caste system (chaturvarna). Ambedkar was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, in 1990. Overcoming numerous social and economic obstacles, Ambedkar became one of the first “Dalit” or outcaste to obtain law degrees and multiple doctorates for his study and research in law, economics and political science from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. Every year, April 14th is known as Ambedkar Jayanti, as his birthday is celebrated all over India which the Union Government declared as a public holiday.
Since 1948, Ambedkar had been suffering from diabetes. He was bed-ridden from June to October in 1954 owing to diabetes and failing eyesight. He had been increasingly embittered by political issues, which took a toll on his health. His health worsened during 1955. He was also credited with delivering hundreds of thousands of Dalits (untouchables) to Theravada Buddhism and even many other Buddhists from India and abroad. Three days after completing his final manuscript The Buddha and His Dhamma, it is said that Ambedkar died in his sleep on 6 December 1956 at his home in Delhi.
In fact, his condemnation of Hinduism and its foundation in the caste system made him pretty controversial and unpopular among the Hindu right of the time. His political philosophy has inspired a large number of Dalit political parties, publications and workers’ unions that remain active across India, especially in Maharashtra. Presently, massive conversion ceremonies have been organized by Dalit activists emulating Ambedkar’s Nagpur ceremony of 1956.
Due to Ambedkar’s prominence and popular support amongst the Untouchable community, he was invited to attend the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1932. Gandhi, who was in jail in Poona, fiercely opposed a separate electorate for untouchables, though he accepted a separate electorate for all other minority groups such as Muslims and Sikhs, saying he feared that separate electorates for untouchables would divide the “Hindu community” with the scheduled caste.
When the British agreed with Ambedkar and announced the awarding of separate electorates, Gandhi began a fast while imprisoned in the Yerwada Central Jail in 1932 against the separate electorate for untouchables only. In fact, Gandhi stated, “I am certain that the question of separate electorates for the Untouchables is the modern manufacture of satanic government. I will resist it with my life.”
The British authorities did not want to deal with Gandhi’s death and said that the UK would accept any voting arrangement that was satisfactory to both Hindus and Untouchables. Gandhi’s fast provoked huge civil unrest across India. Therefore Congress politicians and activists such as Madan Mohan Malaviya and Palwankar Baloo organized joint meetings with Ambedkar and his supporters.
Ambedkar thought that Gandhi’s fast was a ploy, but feared not only increased coercion by Gandhi supporters, but also communal reprisal and even genocide of Untouchables. This agreement, which saw Gandhi end his fast, was called the Poona Pact. As a result, Ambedkar dropped the demand for separate electorates that was promised through the British Communal Award prior to his meeting with Gandhi. Instead, a certain number of seats were reserved specifically for Untouchables who were, in the agreement, called the “Depressed Class”.
Here are a few words from Ambedkar himself:
“History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”
“For a successful revolution it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights.”
“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
“Political tyranny is nothing compared to the social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a more courageous man than a politician who defies Government.”
“Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has its roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.”