Ambedkar’s birth anniversary is celebrated as a day to reflect upon the progress made in achieving social equity and ending oppression
Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar is the greatest exemplar of the belief that education enables a man to overcome all obstacles in life, be they social, cultural or economic in nature.
Born on April 14, 1891, Ambedkar, whose 130th birth anniversary we are celebrating today, was the 14th and last child of soldier Subedar Ramji Maloji Sakpal and Bhimabai Sakpal, daughter of Laxman Murbadkar. Born into the Mahar (dalit) caste, he experienced caste discrimination and humiliations early in life. But his revolutionary resolve was to put faith in education as a means to achieve social and economic equality.
His life is an inspiration to everyone, especially the subaltern wishing to rise in life. With 26 degrees and titles, including PhDs, associated with his name, Ambedkar believed education can alone pave the way for change in society. “Cultivation of the mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence,” Ambedkar said.
Ambedkar holds the distinction of being the first Indian to pursue a doctoral degree in economics abroad. He was the first PhD in economics and the first double doctorate holder in economics in South Asia. He was also among the most highly educated Indians of his generation.
During his three years at Columbia University, Ambedkar took 29 courses in economics, 11 in history, six in sociology, five in philosophy, four in anthropology, three in politics and one each in elementary French and German, thus optimising the fellowship granted by Sayaji Rao Gaikwad, ruler of Baroda, who powered his educational pursuits. Ambedkar graduated with Persian as his medium of instruction because he was forbidden to study Sanskrit.
Ambedkar experienced discrimination since he was a child. Two incidents had a huge impact on him.
Once, while returning home with a maternal cousin after school, they alighted at the railway station in scorching heat and found no one had come to receive them from their village. They managed to hire a bullock cart to travel to their village but on learning the boys were Mahars, the driver forced them to get down from the cart. Babasaheb offered to double the price and even offered to drive the cart himself but the owner refused. On the way, no one allowed them even to drink water. In another incident, Ambedkar went to drink water from a roadside tap. He was beaten up.
Despite the Bole Resolution passed by the Bombay legislature in 1923 called for opening of public places and public water reservoirs to untouchables, there was no change in the plight of the dalits. Ambedkar conceived the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 to highlight the issue of untouchability and caste discrimination. “We are not going to Chavadar tank to merely drink water. We are going to assert that we, too, are human beings,” he declared.
Surendranath Tipnis, president of Mahad municipality declared public spaces open to dalits and invited Ambedkar to hold a meeting in 1927. After the meeting, they proceeded to Chavadar tank, where Ambedkar drank water along with thousands of “untouchables”. A riot broke out following a rumour that Ambedkar and his followers were planning to enter a Hindu temple in town.
In December 1937, the Bombay high court ruled that untouchables have the right to drink and use water from the tank.
With the Kalaram temple entry movement, Ambedkar led a protest outside the temple on March 2, 1930, asserting the right of dalits to enter temples. It was a nonviolent movement attended by over 15,000 people, who squatted before the temple and sang bhajans.
It was the reaction of upper caste Hindus who made Ambedkar contemplate religious conversion. At one point of time, he decided to convert to Sikhism but to give “shock treatment” to Hindu society he later chose Buddhism.
Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought for securing human rights for the downtrodden and the oppressed. He was the first labour minister of India and also our first law minister. On August 29, 1947, he was appointed chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution. He studied the salient features of constitutions of over 60 countries and distilled the best features that suited the Indian context. He is recognised worldwide as the maker of the Indian Constitution.
The Constitution drafted by Ambedkar ensures justice and equality to each and every citizen of India. Civil liberties, freedom of religion, abolition of untouchability, reservation and prohibition of all forms of discrimination are the gifts of Ambedkar to Indians. Ambedkar championed economic and social rights for women and advocated affirmative action for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Not many people are aware that Ambedkar refused to draft Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu & Kashmir on grounds that it was discriminatory and against the principles of unity and integrity of the nation. The article was finally drafted by Gopalswamy Ayyangar, former Diwan to Maharaja Hari Singh.
Ambedkar’s commitment to equality and justice is best established by his resignation as law minister when the Hindu Code Bill was dropped by Parliament. He had introduced the bill to elevate the social status of Hindu women. Most labour laws protecting the interests of workers are his contribution. He made provisions for maternity benefits for working women.
In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. His birth anniversary is celebrated as a day to reflect upon the progress made in achieving social equity and ending oppression.
As a nation, we are going to celebrate the 75th anniversary of our Independence in 2022. But even today, all evils against which Ambedkar fought have not been eradicated. The worst of these is communal hatred. The real tribute to Babasaheb would be to establish social and economic justice.