Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar – A brief profile
Full name: Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
Born: April 14, 1891, Mhow Cantonment, Madhya Pradesh
Died: December 6, 1956, New Delhi
Religion: Hinduism, then converted to Buddhism
Known for: Chief architect of India’s Constitution, reformer and activist for social equality
Education: Elphinstone High School, Mumbai (1897-1907), Elphinstone College, Mumbai (1907-1912) – Economics & Political Science, Columbia University (1913-1915) – MA in Economics, London School of Economics (1923) – Master’s in Economics, University of London (1923) – PhD in Economics, Columbia University (1927) – PhD in Economics
Marriage: Ramabai (1906-1935), Sharada Kabir (1948-till his death)
Children: Bhaiyasaheb Ambedkar
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar is well-known today for many things. Chiefly, he is seen as one who rose from the so-called untouchable caste to become one of the most highly educated men in India, and also one of the prime architects of democratic India’s constitution. In education, social reform and the repealing of the caste system, he was one of the most prominent voices. His crusading spirit has carved out a place of great significance in contemporary India’s history.
This biographical sketch of Dr. Babasahib Ambedkar is primarily meant to acquaint the people with the life, thoughts and deeds of one of the most illustrious sons of India; and also, in passing, give them an idea of the various forces which shaped his life.
This country of ours is the true land of promise. This race of ours is the chosen race.
We are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above creed or will they place creed above country?
I have hopes that my countrymen will some day learn that the country is greater than men.
We must have a Government in which the men in power will give their undivided allegiance to the best interests of the country.
Annihilation of untouchability is my Birth Right!
Untouchability has ruined the untouchables, the Hindus and ultimately the nation as a whole.
Religion and slavery are incompatible.
I don’t want you to be dependent on any single personality for your salvation. Your salvation must lie in your own hands, through your own efforts.
The great man must be motivated by the dynamics of social purpose, and must act as the scourge and the scavenger of society.
Buddha stood for social freedom, intellectual freedom, economic freedom and political freedom. He taught equality, equality not between man and man only but between man and woman.
Buddha’s teachings cover almost every aspect of the social life of the people, his doctrines are modern and his main concern was to ensure salvation to man during his life on earth and not after his death.
The movements of social reform will result in the emancipation of our people and the establishment of such a state of society in this country of ours in which one man will have one value in all domains of life, political, social and economic.
BR Ambedkar’s Birth and Childhood
Born into the Mahar tribe, who belonged to the so-called untouchables caste under the caste system, Dr. Ambedkar’s family came from the Konkan region of India. His ancestral village is situated in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, and is named Ambavade. The Mahars primarily lived in close proximity to the coast, and were thus among the first Indians to come in contact with the Portuguese when they landed on India’s west coast. His family were also the traditional Palanquin bearers or Palki of the village’s goddess, and they were followers of Kabir, the fifteenth century mystic-poet of Varanasi. Kabir’s dohas and calls for unity among human beings may have played a big role in shaping Ambedkar’s views and values later in life.
Ambedkar was born in the Mhow cantonment in the then Central Provinces. The cantonment was located near Indore, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Ambedkar’s family had a long history of military service, on both his mother’s and father’s side. His grandfather and his father, Ramji Sakpal were in the British Indian Army, which is how Ambedkar came to be born as the 14th child, in the cantonment on April 14, 1891. A story tells of how a saintly relative of Ramji told him that this child would leave a mark on history. Ambedkar was named Bhim after the Pandava Bheema, as was his mother in fact. She was Bheema Bhai, and hailed from Thane near Mumbai.
Ramji retired from the army soon after Ambedkar’s birth and settled down at Dapoli in Konkan. It was while Bhim was around 7 years old and attending school at Dapoli that he picked up the name Ambedkar. Brahmin teacher at the young boy’s school changed his surname from Sakpal to Ambedkar to protect him from the taunts of bullies, who harried him for belonging to the untouchable caste.
Soon after, little Bhim’s mother passed away, and Ramji decided to move to Bombay. The entire family lived in a single-room tenement known as a chawl. Bhim was admitted into the Maratha high school, but seeing his son’s interest in academics, Ramji shifted him to the more expensive and well-considered Elphinstone high school. Here, Bhim was taught mathematics, science and various other subjects, but was not permitted to learn Sanskrit due to his caste. Though Bhim showed a great interest in taking up the language, he ultimately had to settle for Persian. Ironically, Bhim scored the highest marks in Persian when he graduated, and later became a scholar of great caliber in Sanskrit.
During these formative years, Ambedkar met K.A. Keluskar, an assistant teacher at the Wilson High School, who often met Ambedkar and allowed him access to his rather large library. Keluskar introduced Bhim to Buddha, and lent him a copy of a book he had authored titled “Life of Gautama Buddha”. This book played a role in introducing Ambedkar to the teachings of the Buddha, and would later influence him into converting to Buddhism.
Ambedkar’s Scholarship and College Education
Bhim was married soon after at the age of 16, to young Rami, who was only 9. They were married at night in an open shed in Mumbai’s Byculla marketplace. Bhim continued his studies post-marriage, and was soon in a position to attend college. The only hitch? No money. This was when Keluskar came to Bhim’s rescue. Keluskar introduced Ambedkar to the then Maharaja of Baroda His Highness, Sir Sayajirao Gaekwad. Gaekwad had recently announced that he would support the education of any worthy untouchable. Upon meeting young Bhimrao and asking him some questions, the raja sanctioned a sum of Rs 25 per month to support his education. This was a princely sum in those days and helped Ambedkar’s family to shift into a two-room home in the Improvement Trust Chawl in Parel. Of these two rooms, one was entirely Ambedkar’s so he could study! Ambedkar soon passed his Bachelor of Arts exam in Economics & Political Science from Elphinstone College in 1913.
After this, Ambedkar was selected as a Lieutenant in the Baroda State’s Army. But barely a fortnight after joining up, Bhim received a telegram and was asked to come back to Bombay immediately. He was father was taken critically ill. Barely a few hours after Bhim arrived in Bombay, his father passed away on February 2, 1913.
After this loss, Bhim was inconsolable, and decided to stay on in Bombay to support his family. However, fate intervened in the form of the Maharaja of Baroda once again, who declared that he would offer a scholarship to any worthy untouchable, and send them for higher education at Columbia University in the United States of America.
Ambedkar Goes Overseas
Bhim Rao disembarked from his ship at New York in July 1913, and moved the city’s Columbia University, where he eventually settled in the Livingstone Hall dormitory with Naval Bhathena, a Bombay Parsi, with who he developed a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
His M. A. electives included political science, moral philosophy, anthropology, sociology and economics, which he completed to earn his MA degree in 1915. His Masters’ thesis was named “Ancient Indian Commerce”, and he also presented his first academic work on India’s caste system, titled “Castes in India, their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’’, in May 1916. The very next month, he even submitted the first of his PhD theses, titled “The National Dividend of India, a Historic and Analytical Study”. This thesis was highly critical of British occupation in India and the British imperial system in general.
After the completion of his courses at the Columbia University, Ambedkar enrolled in London’s Gray’s Inn for his Bar-at-Law, in 1916. He also enrolled in the famous London School of Economics. Once again, his studies were sponsored by the maharaja. However, the Maharaja’s Prime Minister was critical of Ambedkar and asked him to return. The despondent Bhim had thus to leave his studies, but only after getting an assurance from his professor, Dr. Edwin Cannon, that he would be allowed to resume his course within a period of four years from October 1917. Bhim booked his luggage on a steamer and himself boarded another ship to India. This was at the height of World War 1, and unfortunately, the steamer with his luggage was torpedoed by German submarines and sank.
Ambedkar reached India on August 21, 1917 and took up the post of Military Secretary to the Maharaja in September 1917. However, despite the high position, he was stilled considered an untouchable, and even peons would not give him proper respect. The Maharaja himself appears to have been too busy to look into the situation, and the Diwan was certainly not helpful. This led to Ambedkar moving back to Bombay in November 1917, at which he came into contact with another of India’s Rajas, the Maharaja of Kolhapur, Shahu Maharaj.
This prince had been working to breakdown the caste barriers, much as the Maharaja of Baroda had done. It was with the Prince’s help that Ambedkar began a newspaper, a fortnightly called Mook Nayak, which became his mouthpiece to depict the injustice of the caste system. Ambedkar was not officially the paper’s editor, since he was already appointed Professor of Economics in the Government Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Bombay. Through this salary, he managed to save enough money to continue his studies in London, helped abundantly by his friend Naval Bhathena’s loan of Rs 5000.
Soon enough, in July 1920, he was back in London and resumed his studies. He was also called to the bar. In June 1921, Ambedkar completed a thesis titled, “Provincial Decentralization of Imperial Finance in British India” and was awarded the degree of Master of Science. In October 1922, he completed another thesis titled “The Problem of the Rupee” for the University of London. Unable to appear for his barrister examination due to lack of time, Ambedkar planned to go to Bonn in Germany to pursue further studies. However his thesis caused much consternation in London circles due to its criticism of British management of India, and he was asked by his advisor to rewrite the thesis. Ambedkar, who had run out of money by now, sailed back to India in April 1923, where he rewrote the thesis, though he did not change any of its conclusions – as advised by professor Cannon. Upon sending this back to London, it was promptly accepted by the university! The book was published by King & Sons publishers in London in December 1923.
Ambedkar Begins Social Activism
Ambedkar sought to begin his practice as a barrister in India. However, his dire financial situation precluded any such attempt until Naval Bhathena came to his recuse once again. Thus, Ambedkar began to practice law in June 1923, at the age of 32.
However, though he was highly qualified, Ambedkar was still considered an untouchable, and upper caste Hindus refused to have anything to do with him. What’s more, most litigants who could afford to, chose European lawyers, since the mostly European judges looked upon this favorably. Thus, Ambedkar’s clients were primarily the poor and destitute who could not pay him fees.
Around this time, Veer Savarkar the freedom fighter started the Hindu Sanghatan for the upliftment of backward castes. Mahatma Gandhi also began his harijan movement, and Ambedkar established the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha, for the same purpose. The Sabha was formally recognized at a meeting on March 9, 1924 at Damodar Hall, Bombay, and its managing committee members included to Sir C.H. Seetalved, an upper caste Gujarati Hindu and a brilliant lawyer, M. Nissim, Justice of Peace; Rustomji-Jinwala,; G.K. Nariman; Dr. R.P. Paranjape, the famous mathematician; Dr. V.P. Chavan and Shri B.G. Kher who became the first premier of the then Bombay Presidency. Dr. Ambedkar was the chairman.
The principal aims of the Sabha were: to promote the spread of education and culture amongst untouchables through libraries and study circles; to improve the untouchables’ economic situation by establishing industrial and agricultural colleges, and to highlight the untouchables’ grievance before the government. The Sabha organized a hostel for untouchable youths in Sholapur, established camps to promote a culture of reading an acquiring knowledge and started a reading room and hockey club for untouchables in Bombay. Ambedkar himself traveled from village to village throughout the region of Bombay and Goa to encourage untouchables to seek out their rights and work for social upliftment. He also attended and presided over the first Provincial Depressed Classes Conference held at Nipani in the Bombay Presidency and the first conference for untouchables at Malwan. Dr. Ambedkar also started his second fortnightly Marathi Paper Bahishkrit Bharat on April 3, 1927 to keep the untouchables informed of situations and to attract enlightened Hindus of the upper castes to his cause.
With his rapidly growing profile, Dr. Ambedkar was appointed in January 1927 to the Bombay Legislative Council as a member. Through the Legislative Council he worked to raise the status of the untouchable class, and succeeded in many attempts. For example, it was due in part to his efforts that in 1931, the Bombay Police opened up their recruitment to the depressed classes. However, this time was not without personal loss for him, as he lost his son Rajratna and daughter Indu.
Ambedkar’s Speech on the Caste System
Dr. Ambedkar was well aware that only a complete restructuring of Hindu society would abolish the scourge of untouchability. Unlike some others who advocated that the caste system be left intact while merely wiping out untouchability, Ambedkar called or total annihilation of the caste system.
He spoke: “Some men say that they should be satisfied with the abolition of untouchability only, leaving the caste system alone. The aim of abolition of untouchability alone without trying to abolish the inequalities inherent in the caste system is a rather low aim. Not failure, but low aim is a crime, let us probe the evil to its very roots and not be satisfied with mere palliatives to assuage our pain. If disease is not rightly diagnosed, the remedy will be useless and the cure may be delayed. Even if we suppose that the stigma of untouchability is wiped out, what will be the status of the present day untouchables? At the most, they will be treated as Shudras. And what are the rights of the Shudras? The Smritis treat them as mere helots, and the Smritis are the guides of the caste Hindus in the matter of gradations in the caste system. Are you willing to be treated as Shudras? Are you willing to accept the position of helots?
That the caste system must be abolished if the Hindu society is to be reconstructed on the basis of equality, goes without saying. Untouchability has its roots in the caste system. They cannot expect the Brahmins to rise in revolt against the caste system. Also we cannot rely upon the non-Brahmins and ask them to fight our battle. Most of these are more interested in bringing the Brahmins down rather than in raising the level of the suppressed classes. They too want a class of people on whom they can look down upon and have the satisfaction of not being quite the under-dogs of the society. This means that we ourselves must fight our battles, relying on ourselves. Untouchability has ruined the untouchables, the Hindus and ultimately the nation as a whole. The day the depressed classes gain their self-respect and freedom they would contribute not only to their own prosperity but by their industry, intellect and courage would also strengthen the prosperity of the nation. A religion which discriminates between one of its followers and another is partial and the religion which treats crores of its adherents worse than dogs and criminals and inflicts upon them insufferable disabilities is no religion at all. Religion is not the appellation of such an unjust order. Religion and slavery are incompatible.”
At this point, it is pertinent to mention that many so-called upper caste Hindus were supportive of Ambedkar. Lokmanya Tilak, who famously said “Swaraj is my birthright” and was one of the first Indians to call for total independence from British rule, was a great supporter of Ambedkar. He even invited Ambedkar to speak at functions of his newspaper Kesari, despite opposition from members of the Kesari’s board. Tilak’s son was also a good friend of Ambedkar. Ambedkar likewise stressed that not all people were responsible for untouchability just because they were upper caste Hindus. He pointed out that there were many enlightened people among the so-called upper castes who were working alongside him, and even quoted profusely from the Bhagavad Gita in proving his points that the caste system was never meant to be such an oppressive yoke, it was merely begun as a means of division of labor.
In 1930, the British government sensing the overwhelming hostility of the Indian people to the British Raj, proposed a round table conference in which they would discuss the framing of a constitution for India. Many Indian leaders were invited to London to discuss matters pertaining to this, including Sir M.R. Jayakar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Dr. Ambedkar was invited to represent the depressed classes.
Ambedkar’s Speech at the Round Table Conference
On November 12 that year, Ambedkar stood up to speak at the conference and put forth his ideas as to what a fair constitution for the Indian nation would include. “While I want to emphasise the fact that one fifth of the total population of British India—a population as large as the population of Britain has been reduced to a position worse than that of serfs or slaves. However, I maintain that the untouchables in India were also for replacing the existing Government by a Government of the people, for the people and by the people.When we compare our present position with the one in pre-British days, we find that, instead of marching on, we are marking time. Before the British, we were in the loathsome condition due to our untouchability. Has the British Government done anything to remove it? Our wrongs have remained as open sore and they have not been righted, although 150 years of British rule have rolled away. Of what good is such a government to anybody? We must have a Government in which the men in power will give their undivided allegiance to the best interests of the country. We must have a Government in which men in power know where obedience will end and the resistance will begin; will not be afraid to amend the social and economic code of life which the dictates of justice and expediency so urgently call for. The use of force is but temporary. I am afraid, it is not sufficiently realised that in the present temper of the country, no constitution will be workable which is not acceptable to the majority of the people. The time when you were to choose and India was to accept, is gone, never to return. Let the consent of the people and not the accident of logic be the touchstone of your new constitution, if you desire that it should be worked.”
The famous British newspaper, the Sunday Chronicle paying a tribute to his efforts wrote: “At heart a true nationalist, he had to put up a stern fight against the persuasive coquetry of the British diehards -who were anxious to win him over to their side and at the same time his task was made more difficult by his anxiety to retain his brother delegate Rao Bahadur Srinivasan [who also represented the depressed classes at the conference] within the nationalist fold”.
This speech not only unsettled the British but many of the Indians as well. Many newspapers carried the speech in their morning editions, and several of England’s politicians were forced to acknowledge that Ambedkar was a force to reckon with. The British government even instituted an enquiry to investigate whether Ambedkar was a revolutionary in the style of Veer Savarkar!
Gandhi and Ambedkar
The second Round Table Conference began in London in September 1931, and this time, Mahatma Gandhi was in attendance. Mahatma Gandhi made an argument in favor of seeing the Indian National Congress as the sole representative of the Indian people, since it had members of Hindu and Muslim religions in its party in high positions. It also had members of the depressed classes, and two of its presidents were women – Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India, and Annie Besant.
Ambedkar also spoke on that day, and showed his far-sighted view of nationhood when he took on the Indian Princes. Stating that in a free and democratic India, there was no place for the princes to maintain separate fiefdoms, he said that the princes could not be allowed to become part of the nation if they wanted total non-interference in the internal affairs of their state. Furthermore, he stated that the representatives of the state in the future Indian parliament could not be decided by the princes themselves but by the people of the states.
It is quite a vindication of Ambedkar’s views that the Indian National Congress began state units in each of the princely states to promote exactly these views. Furthermore, independent India’s integrity was achieved only thanks to the efforts of Sardar Vallabhai Patel who oversaw military action against some reluctant princely states such as Hyderabad, which held out against becoming a part of India.
Predictably, the princes of the states were not amenable to Ambedkar’s views. The Maharaja of Bikaner Sir Ganga Singh, said that the princely states could not be expected to sign a blank cheque. Answering the king, Ambedkar said that to concede to the demands of the princes would be to go against the tenets of a free and democratic India. It must be mentioned that this was among the first instances where the rights of the people of the princely states was brought up in a public forum.
Ambedkar also had several arguments with Gandhi about the representation of the depressed classes. Gandhi was against separate representation for the depressed classes since he believed that the Indian National Congress would adequately represent them. He was also in favor of maintaining the princely states as they were. Ironically, he was in favor of providing reservations for Muslims in the central and state legislatures. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya was also on Gandhiji’s side and pointed out that if the country had wiped out illiteracy, untouchability would cease to exist. Ambedkar however pointed out that despite being among them most educated people on the planet, he was still classed as an untouchable. Ambedkar made it very clear to the Chairman of the Conference, the British Prime Minister Radcliffe, that he would not allow the Indian National Congress to hijack or undermine the rights and demands of the depressed classes.
Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s arguments grew heated at one point, and even called for intervention from the British PM. Soon, well-wishers of the two men brought them together for tea, at which point Ambedkar acknowledged Gandhi’s intention to uplift the depressed classes, and also his work in doing the same. However, he pointed out that the two of them had entirely different ideas as to how to go about it.
This difference continued and grew more exacerbated with the announcement after the conference that separate electorates would be granted to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Europeans and the depressed classes in India, with the result that country would soon be balkanized. They were given separate seats in the Provincial Assemblies and the right of double vote under which they were to elect their own representatives and to vote also in the general constituencies. All political leaders were against this balkanization, though Ambedkar himself was in favor of a separate electorate for the depressed classes. Gandhi went on a fast unto death asking the British to repeal this recommendation of separate electorates. He was promptly put in jail!
Ambedkar visited Gandhi in jail and was moved by his pitiful health situation. Listening to Ambedkar’s arguments in favor of a separate electorate for depressed classes, Gandhiji said, “You have my fullest sympathy. I am with you Doctor, in most of the things you say. But you say that what concerns you most is my life.” Dr. Ambedkar answered, “Yes, Gandhiji, in the hope that you would devote yourself solely to the cause of my people, and become our hero too.” Gandhi replied, “Well then if it is so, then you know what you have got to do to save it. Do it and save my life. I know you do not want to forego what your people have been granted by the award. I accept your panel system but you should remove one anomaly from it. You should apply the panel system to all the seats. You are untouchable by birth and I am by adoption. We must be one and indivisible. I am prepared to give my life to avert the break-up of the Hindu community.”
Ambedkar acceded and agreed to institute instead a reservation of 148 seats for the depressed classes in the provincial assemblies and also that 10 per cent of the Hindu seats from British India in the Central Assembly. This tug-of-war between the two men went on for quite a while, with Gandhi often threatening fasts unto death when it suited him to bend others to his will. Finally, in 1933, Ambedkar wrote in the magazine Harijan begun by Gandhi to highlight the plight of harijans in the country, that so long as a caste system existed, there will be those who will be at the bottom, the outcastes. Only with the abolition of the caste system can untouchability be abolished. Gandhi, however was not prepared for this, and called for the education of the other castes. Perhaps, Gandhi’s upbringing as the son of a Diwan to the king of a princely state, where the caste system was embedded and considered inviolable, had something to do with his reluctance to eliminate the caste system.
Another personal tragedy also awaited Ambedkar at this time, when his wife Ramabai passed away due to ill health on May 27, 1935.
Ambedkar Considers Conversion From Hinduism
Ambedkar organized and presided over the Depressed Classes Conference at Yeola on October 30, 1935. It was here that he first mooted the possibility of converting from Hinduism to another religion. The conference was attended by 10,000 members of the untouchable community. Ambedkar spoke for 90 minutes, and recalled how caste Hindus often heaped the worst atrocities upon them. Since their co-religionists would not allow them a dignified life in the fold of Hinduism, perhaps it was time to convert to another religion, where they would be treated with equality and dignity. “I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu,” he stated.
This announcement caused a great furor, with Gandhi stating that such statements were indeed disappointing. Many Hindu leaders who were working for abolishing of untouchability, such as Veer Savarkar, issued a cautionary note and said that even if untouchables converted to another religion, there was no guarantee that they would receive equal status. Savarkar pointed out the converted Christians of Travancore, who were having great conflicts between touchable and untouchable Christians. Savarakar’s statement is born out even today in modern day India, where such practices are still underway!
Ambedkar’s statement was however welcomed by the leaders of other religions, who saw a great political advantage in bringing this man under their wing. K.L. Gauba, a Muslim M.L.A. from Punjab sent Ambedkar a telegram inviting him to join the Islamic faith, where all men were treated as equals – supposedly. Similar telegrams came from Bishop Badley of Bombay, representing Christians, the Secretary of the Mahabodhi Society of Banaras, representing Buddhism, and Sardar Dalip Singh Doabia, Vice-President of the Golden Temple Managing Committee, representing Sikhs.
In the midst of all this consternation, on October 30, 1935 the famous Hindu leader, Masurkar Maharaj – who was instrumental in reconverting about 10,000 Christians to the Hindu fold – appealed to Dr Ambedkar to reconsider his statements. He stated that such a move would destroy Hinduism itself and destroy the foundations of Indian society. Ambedkar agreed with him, but stated that as much as it pained him, he did not see any other solution. He stated that the way to avert the impending tragedy lay only in the hands of the upper caste Hindus. Masurkar agreed with Ambedkar but stated that considering the vast magnitude of the problem, more time was required to arrive at a feasible solution. Ambedkar was quick to reply, “Some people think that religion is not essential to society. I do not hold this view. I consider the foundation of religion to be essential to the life and practices of a society. At the root of the Hindu social system lies dharma as prescribed in the Manusmriti Such being the case, I do not think it is possible to abolish inequality in Hindu society unless the existing foundation of the Smriti — religion is removed and a better one laid in its place. I, however, despair of Hindu society being able to reconstruct itself on better foundation”.
However, Ambedkar agreed that if in a period of five years, leaders managed to create a framework and set up a situation where untouchability was being abolished, he would reconsider his decisions.
India Gains Independence
With the coming of World War 2 in 1939, the whole world was thrown into turmoil. Though the British as part of the Allies, won the war, the British economy was in a bad state and after renewed pressure from the United States, the British began to consider leaving India for good. With this in mind, they constituted the Interim Ministry which would take charge of the transition of India under the British to a free nation. On August 24, 1946, the names of the members of the Interim Ministry were announced: Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, C, Rajagopalachari, Sarat Chandra Bose and Jagjivan Ram. None of the members of the Muslim League agreed to be a part of this ministry as they considered that it would give proper representation to Muslim interests. Ambedkar was also unhappy about the inadequate representation of untouchable and depressed classes, and actually traveled to England where he met the post-war Prime Minister Clement Attlee and a host of other leaders including Winston Churchill.
However, the British cared little and wanted to just be done with the problem. Disappointed, Ambedkar returned to India in November, 1946. Ambedkar was however invited to the constituent assembly and was asked to speak on the opening day. He said, “I know, today we are divided politically, socially and economically. We are in warring camps and I am probably one of the leaders of a warring camp. But with all this. I am convinced that, given time and circumstances, nothing in the world will prevent this country from becoming one, and with all our castes and creeds I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that we shall in the future be a united people. I have no hesitation in saying that, notwithstanding the agitation of the League for the partition of India, some day enough light will dawn upon the Muslims themselves, and they, too will begin to think that a united India is better for everybody.” Criticising the Congress Party for having given up its earlier stand for a strong Centre, he said: “The question I am asking is, is it prudent for you to do it? Is it wise to do it? Power is one thing and wisdom and prudence quite a different thing. In deciding the destinies of the people, the dignities of the leaders or men or parties ought to count for nothing. Let us prove by our conduct that we have not only the power but also the wisdom to carry with us all sections of the country and to make them march on that road which is bound to lead us to unity.”
Considering the boycott of the Muslim League and in light of Ambedkar’s speech, the assembly decided to try and bring them on board and postponed the meeting of the constituent assembly till January 1947. At the third assembly held on April 29, 1947, the famous resolution banning untouchability of any kind was passed by the assembly. It was moved by Sardar Patel. Meanwhile, the British government announced that they would hand over governance of the country by June 1947. Riots between Hindus and Muslims began to take place, fermented by anti-social elements and leaders seeking political gain. Lord Mountbatten the Viceroy of India announced that the country would be partitioned into India and Pakistan and that the Princely States were free to choose who they would join.
In July, 1947, the names of the members of the first Cabinet of independent India were announced. Nehru would be Prime Minister, and he wished for Babasahib Ambedkar to come on board as minister of law. Upon Babasahib agreeing, Nehru presented his final list to Gandhi for his approval. After India’s independence day, on August 29, 1947 the Constituent Assembly announced the members of the committee that would draft free India’s constitution. It was chaired by Dr. Ambedkar and included Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy, Sir B. N. Rau, Shri Syed M. Saadullah, Sit N. Gopalaswami Iyengar, Dr. K.M. Munshi, Sir B.L Mitter and Shri D.P. Khaitan.
Babasahib – The Architect of India’s Constitution
The constitution was drafted and presented to the assembly in February 1948. It was unique in several ways:
1. It is only one of the few written constitutions
2. It is comprehensive yet written in very careful language
3. It is flexible yet having sufficient rigidity to prevent evil intentions
4. Built to include amendments in future as required by time
After three readings before the constituent assembly, the draft constitution was finally ratified on November 26, 1949. It had 395 Articles and 8 Schedules. It would formally be adopted by the nation on January 26, 1950. In his speech after the ratification, Babasahib Ambedkar made a fervent appeal to all Indians, which is very pertinent today in a nation where caste and religion-based politics is rampant. He said: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we shall have equality, and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will only put our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously, built up.”
Ambedkar Converts to Buddhism
On May 24 1956, Ambedkar formally announced in Bombay that he would become a Buddhist. He stated that he was working on a book (which would be published posthumously), titled The Buddha and his Dhamma, and said that through it, he had come to realize that Buddhism was a religion that promoted equality. It directed man inwards, to find the true potential that lies hidden within. He stated that just as the Bhikkus of Buddha had come from different castes and regions of the country, they lost all identity once they became Bhikkus, in a way similar to rivers which lose their identity when they merge with the ocean.
On October 14, 1956, Ambedkar came to Nagpur to formally convert to Buddhism. Hundreds of thousands of people were in the city because the day happened to also be Dussehra. In front of a huge crowd, with the help of Bhikkhu Chandramani of Kushinara, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Ambedkar participated with his second wife in an open ground at Shradhhanand Peth. Ambedkar clarified that he was not a part of Mahayana or Hinayana Buddhism, and would instead follow the original principles of Dhamma as laid down by Buddha.
Wearing a white silk dhoti and a white coat, with 500,000 people in attendance, Dr. Ambedkar and his wife repeated the five vows: abstinence from killing, stealing, telling lies, wrongful sex life and drinking. They then prostrated before the statue of Buddha and placed lotus petals at its feet. He then called for those in the crowd who wished to convert, and the entire gathering rose. Ambedkar then administered to them the tenets of the Buddhist faith: the three refuges, the five precepts and the 22 pledges. He said that he hoped that in ten to fifteen years, India would be a Buddhist country.
Many commentators, including Veer Savarkar, were glad that Ambedkar chose Buddhism to convert to, since they considered it a non-Vedic Indian religious system.
Within a few months of this momentous event, Ambedkar passed away in his sleep in the early morning of December, 6, 1956. He was 65 years old.