SINGAPORE, Singapore — Born in 1891 to a Dalit family, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was no stranger to the harsh and inhumane discrimination endured by India’s “Untouchable” caste. For instance, he recalls in vivid detail how on one occasion, bullock cartmen refused to provide Ambedkar and his family a ride home in fear of becoming “polluted.” Eventually, Ambedkar paid a cartman double the fare to drive the cart himself while the cartman walked along the road beside them. For a Dalit, such experiences are routine. Fortunately, the shadow cast by his untouchability would not hold Ambedkar back from going on to break social barriers of discrimination by proving himself as an intellectual, a political titan and a champion of the Dalits.
Early Life and Education
As an officer in the Indian army, Ambedkar’s father used his influence to enroll his son in a government school. Despite the discrimination he and other Untouchable children faced, Ambedkar succeeded in passing his examinations and qualified for entry into a higher-level institution. In due course, Ambedkar would attend the University of Bombay, becoming one of the first Dalits to attend college.
Due to the generosity of the former ruler of Baroda, Sahyaji Rao III, Ambedkar was also able to pursue his postgraduate studies abroad. He would ultimately obtain doctorates from Columbia University and the London School of Economics as well as gain entry into “the British Bar as a barrister.”
A Visionary Politician and Champion of the Dalits
Upon finishing his further education, Ambedkar returned to India, only to find that many still viewed him through the prism of caste rather than merit. However, Ambedkar transformed his indignation into action. In 1924, he established the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha (Group for the Wellbeing of the Excluded) to improve socio-political awareness among the Dalits and inform the public of their hardships. He also founded Dalit newspapers, organized protests against Dalit discrimination and demanded greater political rights for the Untouchables, thus becoming a champion of the Dalits.
Despite being at odds with the Indian National Congress over the issue of caste, Ambedkar found himself a seat at the high-table after India achieved independence in 1947. He became the nation’s first minister of law and justice and played an instrumental role in the drafting of the new constitution in which he vehemently defended the importance of liberal democracy where the protection of minorities, irrespective of caste, was paramount.
The Fight for Gender Equality
While remembered largely as a champion of the Dalits, one would be remiss not to mention Ambedkar’s efforts in the fight for gender equality, which only further attested to his progressive values. Speaking to a gathering of 3,000 women in 1927, Ambedkar said, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
As minister of law, he advocated for family planning measures and ensured universal adult franchise, granting women and other minorities the right to vote. Further, Ambedkar also introduced the Hindu Code Bill, which radically transformed women’s liberties by giving them “absolute rights” over matters regarding their property and the freedom to file for divorce. His policies and advocacy cogently reflect his desire for a society based on “liberty, fraternity and equality for all.’’
Despite Ambedkar’s tremendous contributions to the Dalit cause, the plight of Untouchables in India remains precarious. The fact of the matter is that only a small proportion of Dalits have been able to leverage their constitutional rights to improve their economic and social status. The vast majority are still marginalized and live in poverty. Dalit women, in particular, are viciously targeted.
“Untouchability is not a simple matter. It is the mother of all our poverty and lowliness and it has brought us to the abject state we are in today….” These were the words Ambedkar delivered in a speech in 1927, and when one looks at the Dalit question today, it is clear that the words are as relevant now as they were back then.
However, according to Harish S. Wankhede, an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, people are at risk of forgetting Ambedkar’s “central thesis”, the importance of annihilating caste, amid abstract praises of him as a “national hero.” The validity of this concern is compounded by the fact that Ambedkar’s legacy is mired in a fight for ownership between parties along both sides of India’s political aisle.
Yet, in spite of such concerns and the present dismal state of affairs for Dalits, Ambedkar still serves as a beacon of social justice for the lower caste community. In an article for The Wire, Goutham Raj Konda, who was born a Dalit, shares that an Ambedkar statue is the “only symbol of hope in [his]village” and that celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti (Ambedkar’s birthday) is an opportunity for Dalits to affirm their identity, politics and triumphs.
It is evident that Ambedkar’s legacy transcends partisan politics and mere honorific titles. But, the question that remains is whether the celebration of Ambedkar by India’s political elites is just an act of tokenism or if it will actually inspire greater efforts in the fight to eradicate casteism once and for all. The latter would indeed be a fitting tribute to a man regarded as, among many things, a champion of the Dalits.
– Vyas Nageswaran