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Babasaheb Ambedkar: True measure of a man

Champion of the downtrodden, architect of India’s Constitution, and an accomplished Minister, Babasaheb Ambedkar knew that his attempts at social reform would make him very unpopular. But he soldiered on. Even on the occasion of India marking its 75th Republic Day, Ambedkar’s rehabilitation is neither wholehearted nor complete; he is yet to get the recognition he deserves

Babasaheb Ambedkar: True measure of a man

Babasaheb Ambedkar (Illustration: Saai)


CHENNAI: When Dr BR Ambedkar, popularly called Babasaheb, died on December 6, 1956, he was, in the words of his biographer Dhananjay Keer, “the most hated man in India”. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru released a terse condolence message in which he described him as a “very controversial figure in Indian politics”.

How did the champion of the downtrodden, architect of India’s Constitution, and an accomplished Minister first as the Member in charge of Labour, Irrigation and Coal in the Viceroy’s Executive Council (1942-46) and later as Law Minister in Nehru’s first Cabinet (1947-51) come to such a pass?

Ambedkar knew that his attempts at social reform would make him very unpopular. But he soldiered on. In his own words: “A political tyranny is nothing compared to social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a more courageous man than a politician who defies government.”

Ambedkar’s fall and rise

These were some of the reasons why Ambedkar was unpopular:

  • He had raised the banner of revolt against the oppressive features of the Hindu caste system and untouchability. His treatises such as Annihilation of Caste (1936), Who were the Shudras? (1947), and The Untouchables (1948) were filled with irrefutable facts, arguments, and logic. He wrote, “Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from comingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind. The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcastes except the destruction of the caste system.”
  • He was also a man of action who organised several non-violent protests to secure civil rights for the ‘untouchables’.
  • He was openly critical of Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leaders, accusing them of being “political radicals and social Tories.” In 1944, he told Beverley Nichols, a famous British journalist and author: “Gandhi is the greatest enemy the untouchables have ever had in India Gandhi says to us, ‘Trust us trust the caste Hindus!’ I reply, ‘We will not trust you, for you are our hereditary enemies’.” He followed this up with a book titled What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables (1945).
  • He declared, “The keynote of my policy is that we are not a sub-section of the Hindus but a separate element in the national life.” He initially lobbied hard for a separate electorate for the Scheduled Castes and finally settled for proportional reservation of seats in the Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
  • He argued that a long legacy of unequal treatment justified compensatory discrimination in favour of the disadvantaged classes to bring about a level playing field. He was instrumental in securing reservations in higher education and public jobs under Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) which did not please the upper castes.
  • As the first Law Minister in Nehru’s Cabinet (1947-51), he drafted and moved the Hindu Code Bill to reform traditional Hindu law by banning polygamy, introducing the concept of divorce, and giving women property rights. When the Bill could not be passed due to vigorous opposition from orthodox Hindu elements within the Congress and outside, he resigned from the Cabinet in a huff in September 1951. (PM Nehru succeeded in passing the Hindu Code later as 4 separate laws during Babasaheb’s lifetime).
  • He courted controversy by openly declaring that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die a Hindu. He converted to Buddhism two months before his death along with 5 lakh followers. It was, therefore, no surprise that Babasaheb met with the same fate that Thomas Paine did one-and-a-half centuries earlier. Despite his unique distinction of participating in two Revolutions, despite being one of the Founding Fathers of the USA and an elected Member of Parliament of Revolutionary France, Thomas Paine’s name was airbrushed out of US history because he dared to write the book ‘Age of Reason’ (1794), a devastating critique of the Bible and Christianity. All his services were promptly forgotten, disparaged, or denied.

Between 1956 and 1990, there was a similar conspiracy of silence to erase Ambedkar’s name from public memory. School textbooks either did not mention his name or mentioned it only in passing. Though he wrote very erudite tracts on economics, sociology, political science, and law, college textbooks on these subjects never discussed his ideas. Have you heard of these names Bhagwan Das, Gobind Ballabh Pant, DK Karve, Dr BC Roy, Purushottam Das Tandon, and PV Kane? These gentlemen did make significant contributions in different fields, but they could not hold a candle to Babasaheb.

And yet, Bhagwan Das was awarded Bharat Ratna in 1955, GB Pant in 1957, DK Karve in 1958, Dr BC Roy and PD Tandon in 1961, and PV Kane in 1964. Even Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of Pakistan was awarded Bharat Ratna in 1987 and our own MGR in 1988. When did Ambedkar get the Bharat Ratna? In 1990, 34 years after his death, thanks to VP Singh! We should also be thankful to Sharad Pawar who, as Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1979, constituted a committee to compile Babasaheb’s writings and speeches and got them published in 17 volumes, running to thousands of pages, through the Education Department of the Government of Maharashtra. Their publication gave a peek into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers India has produced, one who merits comparison with Voltaire and Thomas Paine.

Babasaheb’s pen and his soul went together. His writings are like a trumpet’s blast. They carry conviction even to the dullest and the most prejudiced. In my opinion, Ambedkar was “in the Bradman class”, that is, he was head and shoulders above his political contemporaries in terms of scholarship, originality of thinking, and the range and erudition of his writings.

From 1990 onwards, Babasaheb’s popularity has been resurgent due to the political consolidation of SCs across the country, the rise of a plethora of SC intellectuals, and an ever increasing number of books and articles written on his ideas. Even the political parties that were strongly opposed to him and his views during his lifetime are now trying to coopt him into their fold. Economists of both persuasions the Left and the Right – are trying to cite his works in support of their respective contentions.

Three false insinuations

At the same time, forces inimical to social justice have been making insidious attempts to belittle Babasaheb’s contributions. I think their false insinuations warrant a detailed rebuttal.

1. ‘Ambedkar was not the architect of India’s Constitution; he simply noted down what the Constituent Assembly debated!’

This is a preposterous insinuation. The Constitution of India was indeed discussed and approved by a Constituent Assembly consisting of 389 members, but it did not produce the Constitution out of a vacuum. As chairman of the drafting committee, Babasaheb’s responsibility was to prepare a background note for each Article of the Constitution, to suggest the draft wording of the Article, to lead the discussion about the Article in the Assembly, to reply to the points raised by other members about the Article, and to redraft the wording of the Article based on the discussions, and so on. Anybody who has read the Constituent Assembly Debates would know how pivotal Ambedkar’s role was in the drafting of the Constitution. It is to the eternal credit of Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leaders that they set aside their differences with Babasaheb, realised that he was the man best suited for the job, and made him the Chairman of the Drafting Committee. After the Constitution of India was enacted, Dr Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly, gave this handsome compliment to Ambedkar: “I have realised… with what zeal the members of the Drafting Committee and especially its chairman, Dr Ambedkar, despite his indifferent health, have worked. We never made a decision so right as when we put him on the Drafting Committee and made him its chairman. He has not only justified his selection but has added lustre to the work which he has done.”

One of the members of the Drafting Committee, Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar paid this tribute: “I would be failing in my duty if I do not express my high appreciation of the skill and ability with which my friend, the Honourable Dr Ambedkar has piloted this Constitution and his untiring work as Chairman of the Drafting Committee.”

The final encomium, if one were needed, came from New York’s Columbia University. In 1952, it conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws for his contribution to the framing of the Constitution of India.

2.“Ambedkar was a British stooge who 2 worked against the Congress and, by implication, against Indian Independence”!

Babasaheb believed in Bismarck’s dictum that ‘politics is the art of the possible’. He assessed correctly that his chances of doing something tangible for the upliftment of the Depressed Classes were remote if he joined the Congress which was then dominated by the upper castes and had put social issues on the back burner.

So, he chose to vociferously oppose the Congress, forcing its leaders to introspect about social reforms and extract as many concessions as possible for the Depressed Classes from the Government of India, both before Independence and after. I think this was the correct strategy. As Ambedkar put it, “Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers but by relentless struggle... Goats are used for sacrificial offerings and not lions.”

By temperament, Babasaheb was not one to cringe before the British or anyone else for any post or nomination to committees. As the tallest SC leader of that time and a man with impressive credentials (PhD in Economics from Columbia University, another PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics and a barrister-at-law from Gray’s Inn, London) Ambedkar was always an automatic choice. His resignation from Nehru’s Cabinet in 1951 showed that he didn’t care for official posts.

Ambedkar is criticised for continuing as a Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (1942-46) even after Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ call. But then, Gandhi and he had never been on the same page. And, politicians of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League had also ignored Gandhi’s call and continued as Ministers both at the Centre and in the Provinces.

The argument that ‘anyone opposed to the Congress was an anti-national’ is specious. Where Ambedkar differed strongly from the Congress was in his firm belief that political freedom meant nothing without social freedom; it would merely substitute the tyranny of the British with the tyranny of the upper castes. He knew the lessons of history.

Even though the USA became politically independent in 1776, it took another “four score and seven years” (87 years) for the Blacks to be emancipated from slavery (1863). And that was mostly on paper. White racism, racial segregation and lynchings continued unabated for another hundred years till Martin Luther King’s movement of the 1960s.

Even today, after nearly 250 years of US Independence, it cannot be said that the Blacks have gained social freedom on par with the Whites.

Babasaheb knew that the situation of the SCs, STs and OBCs in India was even more precarious than that of the Blacks in the USA because of 2,000 years’ history of stigmatisation and institutionalised discrimination. And his fears have been proved right. Even after 76 years of Independence, not a day passes without news of caste atrocities somewhere or other in the country.

3. ‘Ambedkar was only a Dalit leader’

This is unfair to his legacy and amounts to stigmatising him. If you read Babasaheb’s speeches and writings, you will find that he did not write and work for the emancipation of SCs alone. He also wrote and worked for the emancipation of labour, women, OBCs, and minorities.

He was instrumental in the inclusion of many provisions in the Constitution to protect the interests of these sections. Let me give 3 examples:

  • By the 1930s, Ambedkar had emerged as a leading trade union lawyer. In 1936, he founded the Independent Labour Party to protect the interests of tenants, agricultural workers, and industrial workers. As the Labour Member on the Viceroy’s Executive Council (1942-46), he introduced many labour reforms, including the reduction in the number of working hours from 10 hours to 8 hours per day.
  • Babasaheb’s passion for gender equality may be seen in his quote: “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” He recommended education, increasing the minimum age of marriage, family planning, participation in political and social struggles side by side with men, etc., as strategies for the emancipation of women. As already mentioned, he was the moving spirit behind the Hindu Code Bill.
  • Ambedkar encouraged OBC leaders to form an All-India Backward Classes Federation in 1950. He gave two reasons for his resignation from Nehru’s Cabinet in September 1951: (i) his frustration at not being able to get the Hindu Code Bill passed, and (ii) his unhappiness that not enough was being done by Nehru’s government to promote the interest of the OBCs. In my estimation, Ambedkar’s rehabilitation is neither wholehearted nor complete; he has yet to get the recognition he deserves. His works are rarely read by large sections of his countrymen, especially those who belong to the upper castes.

One reason for this is caste prejudice the unstated presumption that “you can’t be a top-notch intellectual unless you are one of us.” Another reason is what I call the ‘Siddhartha Syndrome’ like the young Sakya prince who was closeted within the palace walls, they genuinely do not know the reality of the pitiable conditions of the downtrodden sections of the society.

Robert Green Ingersoll’s memorable tribute to Thomas Paine seems almost tailor-made for Dr BR Ambedkar:

“He belonged to the lower classes... He was born in a country where real liberty was unknown, where people hugged their chains, where the privileges of the class were guarded with infinite jealousy and the rights of the individual trampled beneath the feet of priests and nobles, where advocating justice was treason… He saw oppression on every hand; injustice everywhere; hypocrisy at the altar, venality on the bench, tyranny on the throne; and with splendid courage, he espoused the cause of the weak against the strong of the enslaved many against the titled few.”

I cannot think of a better tribute to India’s Thomas Paine.

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