Dr. ‘Babasaheb’ Bhimrao Ambedkar – a social reformer and ‘poor man’s barrister’

By G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, affectionately and reverently known by his followers as ‘Babasaheb’, was born in the Mahar community, which at that time was one of the ‘untouchable’ castes. Throughout his childhood and youth, Dr. Ambedkar had to suffer the humiliating treatment meted out to ’untouchables’ by the ‘upper castes’ of society. Despite all difficulties, he completed his education in India, and having received a scholarship from the then Maharaja of Baroda, proceeded to the United States of America to study at Columbia University. He completed his MA in economics and went on to successfully achieve his Ph.D. in 1916. Dr. Ambedkar then went on to join the London School of Economics, from where he received the degree of D.Sc. (Economics), and enrolled himself at the reputed Gray’s Inn for Law where he proceeded to qualify as a Barrister. Having distinguished himself in his studies, Dr. Ambedkar then returned to India to practice law at the Bombay High Court. Unfortunately, he had to face caste-based discrimination, ostracism and stigma once again, and inspite of his outstanding knowledge, qualifications and acumen, he came to be called a ‘poor man’s barrister’. Humiliations, insults and caste-based discrimination awakened and strengthened Dr. Ambedkar’s resolve to emancipate his fellow ‘untouchables’ and free them from social slavery.

Dr. Ambedkar played a major role in awakening the depressed classes to their rights, and to the injustices being heaped on them by the so called ‘upper castes’ of society. He strove to bring about unity amongst the untouchables by founding and establishing political parties and organizations for their unity and upliftment, and publishing newspapers to disseminate information and spread awareness amongst them, and espouse their cause. He founded the Marathi fortnightly, ‘Mooknayak’ (leader of the voiceless), in 1920, and the organisation, ‘Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha’ in 1924.

In 1927, Dr. Ambedkar led the historic satyagraha in the town of Mahad, where untouchables were forbidden to draw water from the Chavdar lake situated there, to secure this right for the downtrodden masses, and end the mindless caste-based discrimination. Addressing the crowds at the site of the satyagraha, Dr. Ambedkar said that untouchables can be elevated only by themselves, by learning self-help, regaining self-respect and achieving self-knowledge. This event marked a turning point in the movement for upliftment of the downtrodden masses, and turned it onto the path of agitation, and Dr. Ambedkar became an icon of inspiration and hope for the depressed classes. Dr. Ambedkar started another newspaper, ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’, in 1927 to air the grievances and sufferings of the downtrodden masses, and also started the ‘Samaj Samata sangh’ to bring about unity and reconciliation and social equalities between the untouchables and the caste Hindus.

Dr. Ambedkar was one of the foremost proponents of a separate electorate for the depressed classes, and tried his best to make this concept acceptable to the British government as well as Indian leaders. In 1929, Dr. Ambedkar testified before the Simon Commission and emphasized the cause of a separate electorate, and his demand was partially granted by the Communal Award. Gandhiji, shocked by the award, went on an indefinite hunger strike to protest it, and following negotiations with him, Dr. Ambedkar was forced to tone down his demand to ‘reserved constituencies’ instead of a separate electorate. Though Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar had differences of opinion regarding the upliftment of the downtrodden classes and castes, they had great respect and regard for each other, and Gandhiji often referred to Dr. Ambedkar as a ‘patriot of sterling worth’.

Dr. Ambedkar became a member of the Bombay Legislative Council in 1926, and actively participated in the debates and proceedings. He was instrumental in introducing several bills for the welfare of peasants, workers and the depressed classes. His eloquence and knowledge were universally appreciated and applauded. In 1936, he formed the Independent Labour Party of India and in the elections held in 1937, his party went on to win 15 out of the 17 seats which it contested from Bombay. Dr. Ambedkar became the Leader of Opposition in the Council and once again played a major role in the proceedings of the House.

In 1946, Dr. Ambedkar was elected to the Constituent Assembly, which was formed to draft a Constitution for the soon-to-be independent India. He was then appointed as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee in the Assembly. With his profound knowledge of the law, and his deep-rooted desire for the upliftment of the poor and downtrodden, Dr. Ambedkar played the role of prima donna in the preparation of the draft Constitution, and later ably replied to motions for amendment during the debates. The hard work put in by the drafting committee and especially by Dr. Ambedkar, was appreciated by member after member in the Constituent Assembly. Our Constitution which he helped draft, is universally recognized as one of the best and most comprehensive Constitutions in the world, and has gloriously guided us through almost sixty years of Independence. Dr. Ambedkar is rightly remembered as the Chief Architect of the Constitution.

Dr. Ambedkar served as law minister in Pt. Nehru’s interim government formed in 1946, and played an important role in introducing several important bills in Parliament, including the landmark Representation of the People Bill, 1950, which was duly passed. In 1951 however, Dr. Ambedkar resigned from the government following differences of opinion with Pt. Nehru. In the first elections were held in independent India under the new Constitution in 1952, Dr. Ambedkar was elected to the Rajya Sabha.

Dr. Ambedkar was an eminent educationist and set up the People’s Education Society in Bombay which organized the Siddhartha College of Arts and Commerce. He also provided encouragement to students belonging to untouchable communities, providing them with hostel facilities, free books and clothing. He also taught at the Sydenham College in Bombay and also served as principal of the Government Law College there.

Dr. Ambedkar exhorted the untouchables and the downtrodden masses to leave the fold of Hinduism so that they might get rid of the injustices and humiliation meted out to them in the name of caste. Towards the end of his life, Dr. Ambedkar founded the Bharatiya Buddha Mahasabha and embraced Buddhism. He himself gave ‘deeksha’ (ordination) into Buddhism to several lakhs of his followers at a massive congregation in Nagpur. Just two months after becoming a Buddhist, this great lawyer, social reformer and jurist attained mahaparinirvana. Rich tributes poured in from all sides and the nation mourned the demise of one of its greatest sons. Pandit Nehru noted, “…we in Parliament remember him for many other things and more particularly for the very prominent part he played in the making of our Constitution and perhaps that fact will be remembered even longer than his other activities”.