By Mallika Soni
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
“Mahatma is not an immortal person, nor the congress. Mahatmas have come and Mahatmas have gone. But the untouchables have remained as untouchables.”- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
He was an Indian jurist, politician and social reformer who inspired the Modern Buddhist Movement and campaigned against social discrimination in India, striving for equal social rights for Dalits, women and labour. He was independent India’s first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India. This article is not a process of eulogizing or indulging in any unnecessary mythification of Ambedkar, it is just a way to revisit Ambedkar’s life for the sake of understanding the ‘Dalit Self’ better. Gandhi once said about Ambedkar, “He is pronounced as belonging to the Depressed Classes and as being an untouchable. Intellectually he is superior to thousands of intelligent and educated caste Hindus. In other words there is no position in the Government of this country to which he may not aspire or rise and to which an orthodox Brahmin will rise.” Let us begin by looking at various facets of Ambedkar’s life.
Most of the painful experiences that honed Ambedkar’s life have been written down by him in Waiting For A Visa(written in 1935-36). After obtaining a degree from the Bombay University, Ambedkar moved to the United States in 1913. He always talked of experiencing social equality for the first time in his life during his years in Columbia University; once back in India he was constantly reminded of his caste and implied untouchability. Thus began his struggle against the discrimination ingrained in the minds of the Indian Society. He believed that in Hinduism,everything is caste oriented and caste bound.
Caste determines one’s station and status in the society. Indian society is a gradation of castes forming an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt. The caste system is not just a division of labour but also a hierarchial division of labourers which is not based on natural aptitude or spontaneity but on the caste of parents. In his book, Who were the Shudras?, Ambedkar terms caste system to be Graded Inequality saying, “The caste system could not have been imposed by the Brahmins on society, but it took shape when they were able to persuade other groups that their values were universally superior and that they had to be emulated by others.”
According to Ambedkar the real line of cleavage among Hindus was not set between Brahmins and Non-Brahmins but between Touchables and Untouchables. Thus he spent his entire life fighting against the caste system, his sole aim being ‘reconstruction of the society’.
Gandhi and the Poona Pact
In 1926, Ambedkar successfully defended three non-brahmin leaders who had accused the Brahmin community of ruining India and were then subsequently sued for libel. Keer notes, “The victory was resounding, both socially and individually, for clients and the Doctor.” This made Ambedkar popular in the country. Then followed, Mahad Satyagraha (1927) and Kalaram Temple Movement (1930). The Communal Award(1930) was ‘gifted’ by the britishers, Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, “Hinduism was on its trial.” This was just a beginning.
In 1932, Ambedkar was invited to attend the Second Round Table Conference in London. He recommended, “either to reserve seats for those minorities that can not, otherwise, secure personal representation or grant communal electorates.” So he demanded separate electorates, gurantee of representation, a toll tax for Dalit villages and Dalit approval for the constitution. Gandhi was against separate electorates for untouchables. When the British agreed, Gandhi protested by fasting in Yerwada jail. Ambedkar criticized Gandhi’s fast unto death as a ‘political stunt’.
When Ambedkar went to meet Gandhi, the latter said, “ I know you are a patriot of sterling worth. You are an untouchable by birth and I am by adoption.” Thus, Ambedkar was forced into agreeing with Gandhi and this was called the Poona Pact, whereby a number of seats were reserved for the untouchables, naming them the “Depressed Classes”.
This also led to the Eternal battle between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Savarkar once said, “ For Gandhi, the script was played out in the opposite way-the experience of discrimination had to happen far from social security and comfort that India provides its touchable classes.”
Ambedkar is often called the “social reformer who inspired the Modern Buddhist Movement.” On 14 October 1956, Ambedkar, his wife and 500,000 followers of Ambedkar converted into Buddhism and this is considered as the greatest mass conversion ever. What led Ambedkar to do so was surely his fear that social hierarchy was cosubstantial to religion. Thus to leave a religion was to attain equality.
This discombobulation was first evident in the Mahad Conference of 1927 where Ambedkar said, “ We want equal rights in the society. We will achieve them as far as possible while remaining within the Hindu fold or, if necessary by kicking away this worthless Hindu Identity…”
Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism was a step by step process. On 29 March 1927, a dozen Mahars converted to Islam. But this did not help them in gaining equal status. Later Ambedkar even said, “Indian Muslims are as strange creatures as Orthodox Hindus. Social reform was an anathema to both of them.”
In 1935, Ambedkar decided to leave Hinduism in the Yeola Conference stating, “I will not die a Hindu.” As Veer Savarkar once said that Ambedkar’s conversion was a process of “reiteration of being a Hindu”
and thus he wanted to “convert into a non Vedic Indian Religious system.”
In August 1936, he thought of Sikhism as a plausible option. He, thus, sent 13 delegates to Amritsar “to have some responsibility for the future of Hindu culture and civilisation.” But due to fear of social boycott, Ambedkar dropped the idea.
Thus in October 1956, Ambedkar converted to an egalitarian religion born in India, Buddhism. He said, “ A religion which discriminates between one of its followers and another is partial and the religion which trets crores of its adherents worse than dogs and criminals and inflicts upon them insufferable disabilities is not a religion at all. Religion is not an appellation or such an unjust order. Religion and slavery are incomparable.”
Ambedkar in his letter to Shri Thakkar said, “I want a revolution in the mentality of the caste Hindus.”
Opposing Ambedkar’s stance, Gandhi said, “Religion was not like a house or a cloak which one can change at will. It was an integral part of one’s own self.” But Ambedkar discarded religion and thus was ‘reborn’. Ambedkar’s turmoil and bewilderment can be seen in a statement in Harijan, “ The outcast is a by product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.” Thus the battle he waged against religion becomes more understandable.
Use of English as a Casteless Language
Owing to Ambedkar’s western education, English became his political language. He used English to express his notions of social and political democracy and even wrote short narratives about his life to depict, in a subtle and simple manner, how caste is an everyday problem. For Ambedkar, English had the potential to give an ‘identity’ to the Dalits, an identity that secured justice, freedom, recognition and a neutral place for the Dalits. Thus caste, being an age old institution was able to consolidate itself into the vociferous, dynamic language English thereby giving Dalits a powerful, efficacious medium.
Despite Ambedkar’s habit of taking resolute decisions, he made some ambivalent, double edged, ‘politically incorrect’ inclinations. The greatest dilemma of Ambedkar’s life was that he was closer to the Britishers for their egalitarian values and also hoped for protection. But at the same time he had a key role in protecting the country which was dominated by foreign power. Thus, this constantly tore Ambedkar apart, so much so, that some critics started calling him a ‘traitor’.
The second most significant paradox was that of the notion of Dalit villages. In 1944, Ambedkar wrote to a British officer Beverly Nicholas, “ In every village there is a tiny minority of Untouchables. I want to gather these minorities and make them into majorities which means a tremendous work of organisation.” Such a statement clearly depicts the confusion in the mind of Ambedkar. He was not ready to conclude whether he wants an egalitarian space for Dalits or a separate physical space for them.
Despite all his efforts, Ambedkar always lived as a stranger in strange conditions, ‘a wheeling stranger of here and everywhere’. He remained an untouchable wherever he went, a problem to himself and to others. What hurts the most is the fact that how easily History became a process whereby which the imperfections of memory met the inadequacies of documentation resulting in deliberate exclusion and forgetfulness of Ambedkar’s life and his works.