Praveen Davar | How Ambedkar ensured Hindu society’s reform despite all odds

The Asian Age.  | Praveen Davar

Opinion, Columnists

A saffron-clad swami went to the extent of saying “an ‘untouchable’ had no business meddling in matters normally the preserve of Brahmins”

April 14 instantly brings to mind the legacy of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, whose 132nd birth anniversary is being celebrated this month.

If Children’s Day on November 14 reminds one of Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, April 14 instantly brings to mind the legacy of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, whose 132nd birth anniversary is being celebrated this month.

In 1948, Pandit Nehru entrusted the drafting of the Hindu Code Bill to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was felt by the Cabinet, especially Nehru and Ambedkar, that codifying Hindu law would to a great extent check the injustices suffered by Hindu women. The life mission of both the first PM and the first law minister was to bring equality in Indian society and to end all discrimination based on grounds of caste, race, religion and gender. But no sooner was the bill introduced that there was vehement opposition from orthodox Hindu elements. Even President Rajendra Prasad was opposed to the idea and wanted it postponed, but the PM declined to do so.

Though the Cabinet decided to bring the Hindu Code Bill in February 1951, it was postponed to the next session of Parliament, till the first week of September. Ambedkar wrote to Nehru that in view if his ill- health which required immediate long-term treatment, the bill should be taken up in mid-August and passed by September. But there were more urgent bills to be taken up and it was not possible to advance the date for the introduction of the Hindu Code Bill.

The opposition to the bill also built up. Jan Sangh leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee issued a public statement: “The magnificent structure of Hindu culture will stultify a dynamic and catholic way of life that had wonderfully adapted itself to changes for centuries.” The reservations of the orthodox in Parliament was supplemented in the streets by the RSS’ cadres who shouted slogans against Pandit Nehru and Dr Ambedkar: “Down with the Hindu Code Bill” and “May Pandit Nehru perish”. One saffron-clad swami even went to the extent of saying “an ‘untouchable’ had no business meddling in matters normally the preserve of Brahmins”.

On September 15, 1951, President Rajendra Prasad sent a note to Nehru expressing a desire to act solely on his own judgment, independently of the council of ministers. He maintained that the Provisional Parliament did not have the authority to enact such major legislation as the Hindu Code Bill because it was indirectly elected and its members lacked the “public mandate” of a general election. He desired to use the power of his office either to force the Provisional Parliament to shelve the measure or, failing that, to veto it even against the advice of his Cabinet. Due to stiff opposition both within and without Parliament, the bill could not be moved despite Nehru’s best efforts. In view of the heavy business before the House and the short time at its disposal before the session ended, it was decided to concentrate on passing as a separate measure Part II of the bill -- that dealing with marriage and divorce. Yet even Part II of the bill could not be passed and was dropped on September 22. Deeply disappointed, Dr Ambedkar remarked: “It was killed and buried, unwept and unsung after four clauses were passed.” Finally, he resigned from the Nehru Cabinet on September 27.

Besides non-passage of the Hindu Code Bill there were, however, other reasons why Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet. First, his differences with Nehru on Kashmir policy and foreign policy in general. Second, he was deeply distressed with the treatment accorded to Scheduled Castes and other backward castes who were suffering from the “same old injustice, the same old oppression, and the same old discrimination which existed before”. Third, he wanted the stewardship of the Planning Commission in the place of law ministry, which did not materialise. Dr Ambedkar’s resignation from the government was soon followed by a decision of far-reaching consequences: his decision to renounce Hinduism, and embrace Buddhism.

However, the Hindu Code Bill was later split into four bills, and the same were put on the statute book by Parliament after the elections to the first Lok Sabha in 1952. By this time Dr Rajendra Prasad, overwhelmed by the popularity of Pandit Nehru in the country as shown by the results of the first Lok Sabha polls (Congress won 364 out of 489 seats), did not raise any objections. But Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Bhartiya Jan Sangh remained as opposed to the Bill as they were in 1951. The four bills -- the Hindu Marriage Act 1955; the Hindu Succession Act 1956; the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act 1956 and the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act 1956 -- soon became law and incorporated most of the ideas and principles of the original Hindu Code Bill.

Despite the fact that Ambedkar had resigned from his Cabinet in October 1951, in extreme bitterness, Prime Minister Nehru paid a generous tribute to him after the Dalit icon passed away in December 1956: “Dr Ambedkar would be remembered, above all, as a symbol of revolt against all the oppressive features of Hindu society, (and) he will be remembered also for the great trouble he took over the question of Hindu law reform. I am happy that he saw that reform in a very large measure carried out, perhaps not in the form of that monumental tome that he had himself drafted, but in separate bits.”