Remembering Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and his lifelong struggle against the caste system
Sixty years since Dr Ambedkar, caste continues to remain a part of India’s social reality. May it be the discrimination that members of socially-backward castes undergo, or the subtler issues of matchmaking during marriages, the question of caste continues to haunt our society. Dr Ambedkar’s life and legacy, however, remains an inspiration for many who believe that caste hierarchy should cease to exist, and formation of an equal society is the way forward.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was born into a Mahar (‘Untouchable’/ Dalit) family. His father served in the British Indian Army at the Mhow cantonment in the Central Provinces (now in Madhya Pradesh). Unlike most children of his caste, young Bhim attended school. However, he and his Dalit friends were not allowed to sit inside the class. Teachers would not touch their notebooks. When they pleaded to drink water, the school peon (who belonged to the upper caste) poured water from a height for them to drink. On days the peon was unavailable, young Bhim and his friends had to spend the day without water.
Due to his deep interest in learning, Bhim went on to become the first Dalit to be enrolled into the prestigious Elphinstone High School in Bombay. He later won the Baroda State Scholarship for three years and finished his postgraduate education from Columbia University in New York. He passed his M.A. exam in June 1915 and continued his research. In his thesis on Castes in India (1916) presented at the Columbia University, he wrote –
“The caste problem is a vast one, both theoretically and practically. Practically, it is an institution that portends tremendous consequences. It is a local problem, but one capable of much wider mischief, for as long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders; and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”
After completing three important theses that dealt with Indian society, economics, and history, Dr Ambedkar enrolled at the London School of Economics where he started working on a doctoral thesis. He stayed in London for the next four years and finished two doctorates. He was conferred with two more honorary doctorate degrees much later in the fifties.
After returning to India in 1924, Dr Ambedkar decided to launch an active movement against untouchability. In 1924, he founded the Bahishkrut Hitkaraini Sabha, aimed at uprooting caste system in India. The organisation ran free schools and libraries for all age groups. Dr Ambedkar took the grievances of the Dalits to court, and brought them justice.
Over the following years, Dr Ambedkar organised marches demanding Dalit’s rights to drinking water from public resources, and their right to enter temples. Despite severe attacks from the upper-caste Hindu men, Dr Ambedkar walked with fellow Dalits into public tanks and reservoirs and drank from its water.
In a conference in late 1927, Dr Ambedkar publicly condemned the Manusmriti for justifying caste discrimination and untouchability. On December 25, 1927, Dr Ambedkar led thousands of Dalits and burnt copies of the text.
Dr Ambedkar continued to ferociously protest the caste system. In 1935, at a conference at Nasik, he asked Dalits to convert to a religion where there is no hierarchy. In his undelivered speech titled Annihilation of Caste (1936), Dr Ambedkar claimed that political reform without social reform is a farce. He sought social equality and believed that political freedom from the British will automatically follow. He also claimed that caste is not a division of labour, but a division of labourers. He called the idea of racial purity absurd, and argued that inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriages are not sufficient to annihilate the caste system. “The real method of breaking up the Caste System was not to bring about inter-caste dinners and inter-caste marriages but to destroy the religious notions on which Caste was founded,” he wrote.
Mahatma Gandhi, unlike Dr Ambedkar, was a believer of the Varna System. He accepted untouchability as a serious problem, and advocated for Dalits to gain acceptance as the fifth caste. In a newspaper article titled Dr Ambedkar & Caste (1933), Gandhi wrote –
“The present joint fight is restricted to the removal of untouchability, and I would invite Dr Ambedkar and those who think with him to throw themselves, heart and soul, into the campaign against the monster of untouchability. It is highly likely that at the end of it we shall all find that there is nothing to fight against in Varnashram. If, however, Varnashram even then looks an ugly thing, the whole of Hindu Society will fight it.”
In 1937, when the British government agreed to hold elections on the provincial level, Dr Ambedkar’s Independent Labor Party won in the Bombay province with a thumping majority. Dr Ambedkar led many social, labour, and agricultural reforms in the region in the years that followed.
Post-independence, Dr Ambedkar was invited by Congress to serve as the nation’s first Law Minister, which he accepted. He was soon appointed the Chairman of the Drafting Committee formed to write India’s new Constitution. Article 11 of the Constitution abolished untouchability in every form. Granville Austin in his famous book The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation (1964) described the Constitution of India as one of the most progressive and revolutionary political documents of its time.
During the fifties, Dr Ambedkar drifted away from politics. His writings at this stage seem to be addressing the moral void Mahatma’s assassination had created in the Indian politics. A believer of non-violence, satyagraha, and dhamma, Dr Ambedkar was deeply moved by the ideas of Buddhism. He travelled to Sri Lanka and Rangoon to attend conferences of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. He finished his final book The Buddha and His Dhamma (1956), which was published posthumously. As promised, he converted to Buddhism after writing the book.
Dr Ambedkar was a reformer whose legacy and relevance continues to grow. His message of social equality continues to reverberate and resonate with passing time. In his last but incomplete essay, The Buddha or Karl Marx, Dr Ambedkar reiterated his belief in the slogan of the French Revolution and claimed that equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. His message, although approached differently, was a repetition to what he had written 20 years ago in The Annihilation of Caste (1936) –
“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.”