India remember a towering personality


I had no friends among the untouchables of Baroda State. But I had friends among other classes. One was a Hindu, the other was an Indian Christian. I first went to my Hindu friend and told him what had befallen me. He was a noble soul and a great personal friend of mine. He was sad and also indignant. He, however, let fall one observation. He said, “If you come to my home, my servants will go.” I took the hint, and did not press him to accommodate me.I did not like to go to the Indian Christian friend. Once he had invited me to go and stay with him. But I had declined, preferring to stay in the Parsi inn. My reason was that his habits were not congenial to me. To go now would be to invite a rebuff. So I went to my office, but I could not really give up this chance of finding a shelter. On consulting a friend I decided to go to him [=to the Indian Christian friend] and ask him if he would accommodate me. When I put the question, his reply was that his wife was coming to Baroda the next day, and that he would have to consult her.

I learnt subsequently that it was a very diplomatic answer. He and his wife came originally from a family which was Brahmin by caste, and although on conversion to Christianity the husband had become liberal in thought, the wife had remained orthodox in her ways, and would not have consented to harbour an untouchable in her house. The last ray of hope thus flickered away. It was four p.m. when I left the house of my Indian Christian friend. Where to go was the one supreme question before me. I must quit the inn, and had no friend to go to!! The only alternative left was to return to Bombay.

  The above quoted autobiographical account is from the life of an official in the office of Maharaja of Baroda, that took place in India 1917. He was 26 years old. By then he already had an M.A and a PhD from Columbia University, New York. But he could not find accommodation in Baroda and was forced to resign his job.

Thirty years later, in 1947 he was appointed the Chairman of drafting committee of Indian Constitution. On November 25, 1949,  moving the resolution for approving the Constitution he said:

On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our 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 do so only by putting 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 is Assembly has to laboriously built up.

These are my reflections about the tasks that lie ahead of us. They may not be very pleasant to some. But there can be no gainsaying that political power in this country has too long been the monopoly of a few and the many are only beasts of burden, but also beasts of prey. This monopoly has not merely deprived them of their chance of betterment, it has sapped them of what may be called the significance of life. These down-trodden classes are tired of being governed. They are impatient to govern themselves. This urge for self-realization in the down-trodden classes must no be allowed to devolve into a class struggle or class war. It would lead to a division of the House. That would indeed be a day of disaster. For, as has been well said by Abraham Lincoln, a House divided against itself cannot stand very long. Therefore the sooner room is made for the realization of their aspiration, the better for the few, the better for the country, the better for the maintenance for its independence and the better for the continuance of its democratic structure. This can only be done by the establishment of equality and fraternity in all spheres of life. That is why I have laid so much stresses on them.

Yes. I am talking about Dr B R Ambedkar , the architect of Constitution of India. On April 14th India is celebrating his 125th birth anniversary.

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The life story of Ambedkar is an amazing one. Born in an untouchable caste as per the inhuman caste system of India, he was extremely lucky to get good education. It happened because of his great will determination to get quality education as a way out of the life of misery. He received good help from his teachers, who were very impressed with his intellect. King of Baroda, who had progressive views, was also impressed and awarded him with scholarships so that he could study abroad.

Returning home after his PhD , Ambedkar’s dream was cruelly shattered as he could not get even a room to stay in Baroda due to his untouchable status. He realised that education alone will not get him or his brethren an escape route from misery and shame. He became an activist fighting for human rights of backward class’s of India.

He was never a part of mainstream freedom movement. He was suspicious of Indian National Congress under Gandhiji’s leadership, because he believed that Congress is not doing enough for depressed classes. Though Congress was  fighting to end untouchability and working for facilitating entry of untouchables into Hindu temples, Ambedkar realised that will not be enough to bring oppressed people to the level of mainstream caste Hindus. Ambedkar insisted on guarantee of proportional representation for backward classes in all public spheres, especially in legislatures in states and centre.

Gandhi on the other hand naively believed that change of mind of upper castes, to which he himself belong, was sufficient to bring social equity in society. Gandhi believed in caste system. He only wanted equal rights for all Hindus. But Ambedkar correctly realised that annihilation of caste system in a distant future will only end oppression, and till then constitutional guarantee of affirmative action is needed.

 

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Ambedkar soon became the undisputed leader of untouchables. He soon formed The colonial British government recognised him as such and began inviting him for meetings organised to discuss political reforms in India, much to the discomfort of the Congress. He was even a part of British Viceroy’s executive council in 1942, when Congress was on streets asking British to quit India.

In 1946, when the Constituent assembly was formed to frame Constitution and arrange transfer of power, Ambedkar could not find a place in it first as his party,,the Scheduled Castes Federation performed poorly and was defeated by Congress in his home state of Bombay. Later he was elected to it from a seat in Undivided Bengal with help of some non Congress parties.

In 1947, when India was partitioned, the seat from which Ambedkar was elected happened to be in Pakistan. But by then Congress has buried its animosity towards him. The few months in which Congress leaders worked with Ambedkar in the constituent assembly was enough for them to realise his intellect, scholarship and dedication to the task of drafting a Constitution. Ambedkar was brought into the Indian constituent assembly by Congress party from Bombay as their nominee. He was also made the Law minister.Thus Ambedkar was able to draft a Constitution which was called by many as more a social document than an administrative one.

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Ambedkar’s next big task was drafting of Hindu code bill to reform the civil rules of Hindu community in regards to marriage, divorce, inheritance etc. Urged on by Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he drafted a progressive legislation which for the first time gave equal rights to women. Sadly it faced a stiff opposition from leaders of the Congress itself and the bill had to be dropped. Angry at the patriarchal and regressive mindset of Congress leaders Ambedkar quit the cabinet in 1950. After 1951 elections a more powerful Nehru was later able to pass the bills.

Ambedkar contested Parliament elections twice, in 1952 and 1954 in seats reserved for scheduled castes, but was defeated by Congress candidates. Later he was elected  to Upper House of Parliament and remained a member till his death in December 1956.

Two months before his death, he and around five hundred thousand of his followers converted to Buddhism in a huge ceremony in Nagpur.

Ambedkar never fought direct battles with colonial powers for independence. He realised that Congress can bring self-rule in India. He was more worried about the status of 20-25% of population of India, the backward classes,  in an independent but casteist India. His fight with both the British and the Congress was to ensure proper representation of Scheduled castes in public spheres.

As the architect of Indian constitution his concerns was about the sustainability of Indian democracy in such a socially and culturally diverse country. He was a staunch liberal democrat, and was not attracted to Communist authoritarian regimes . He strongly believed that only democracy can keep India united and prosper.

Constitution he drafted guarantee fundamental rights to all regardless of religion, class, gender, language etc.  It included provisions for guarding the rights of religious and linguistic minorities. He ensured oppressive classes get proportional representation as a part of affirmative action. Later through the Hindu code bill he put women in equal status to men for the first time in history of India.

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar was a man much ahead of his times. He along with Nehru gave India a road map at the time of independence, without which the country might have been groping in the dark alleys of anarchy.

 

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