The Real Mahatma?


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The greatest visionary of modern India, voted the ‘Greatest Indian since 1947’, went to sleep on the night of December 6, sixty years ago, never to wake up again. It was just three days after he had completed the monumental work on his guiding light that strengthened his resolve to fight for justice and equality for all. He was only 65 years old; too young to die, but he surely would have felt much older as his whole life was a continuous struggle against a pernicious disability. A disability that was not physical though he was the last of a family of fourteen children. It was no mental disability either; in fact, he is considered the most intellectual politician ever in India. It was an artificially created one which he resolved to fight against for the emancipation of millions of others who were similarly persecuted. Unfortunately, his success was only partial.

I am, of course, referring to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (14 April 1891 – 6 December 1956), popularly known as Babasaheb, the Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who chaired the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly and was independent India's First Minister for Law and Justice. This year happens to be his 125th Birth Anniversary as well, celebrated the world over including India, where political parties, some of which hated him while he was alive are fall over themselves to celebrate him! Well, hypocrisy is a distinguishing character of politicians, no matter where they are.

He was born an Ambavadekar, being from the small town of Ambavade in the modern day Maharashtra. His misfortune was to be born an ‘Untouchable’; a Mahar whose occupation, according to the ‘Jati’ system, was disposing of dead cattle and were mandated to tie brooms around their waists to sweep away their ‘polluting’ footprints and hang pots around their necks to collect their spit! Untouchables are below the four Varnas mentioned in Brahminism; Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, and are considered Adi-Shudra (Sub-Shudra). Banished to the bottom of the social ladder they consist of many Jatis, some of whom are untouchable, some unapproachable and some even unseeable. What a terrible system!

When in 1900, Bhimrao started attending Maharaja Pratap Singh High School in Satara, at the age of nine years, he had to take a gunny bag to spread on the floor and sit far away from high caste children who were sitting on chairs. Perhaps, he was lucky to be allowed to school, a luxury denied to the vast majority of ‘untouchable’ children. When they needed to drink water, someone from a higher caste had to pour water from a height as they were not allowed to touch either the water or the vessel that contained it, as their touch would pollute the water! This task was usually performed for the young Ambavadekar by the school peon and if the peon was not available, then he had to go the whole day without water; which he aptly described as ‘No peon, No water’ in his writings. Impressed by his potential genius, a teacher gave his own surname, Ambedkar, to shroud the disability.

As even the surname change did not help, the family moved to Bombay and he was lucky to be the only untouchable to be allowed to enrol at Elphnistone High School in Bombay. However, he was not allowed to study Sanskrit as it would pollute the language! Instead, he was instructed to study Persian. In 1907, he passed the Matriculation Examination and the following year entered Elphinstone College, affiliated to the University of Bombay, becoming the first untouchable to do so. This success evoked much celebration among untouchables and after a public ceremony, he was presented with a biography of the Buddha by Dada Keluskar, well-known author and a family friend, which, no doubt, had a lasting, profound influence on him.

He obtained a degree in economics and political science from Bombay University in 1912 and the following year, receiving a scholarship from the King of Baroda (one of the most benevolent despots of the time), opted to go to the US rather than Britain as was the tradition then as he considered the US to be the land of equality and liberty. He attended Columbia University in New York and obtained an M A degree majoring in Economics. In October 1916, he came over to England to study at the London School of Economics and enrolled in Gray’s Inn, as well, to study law. In all he obtained four doctorates and authored 50 books on varied topics such as Law, Economics, even the Partition of India but mostly on the Cast System. Amazingly, his intellect pervaded many disciplines; Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, referring to Ambedkar as "Father of my economics"

Although he returned to Baroda to serve his benefactor, he could not find a place to stay as no one would accommodate untouchables. Further, though he held high office as Military Secretary, he was insulted by even peons of higher caste and was not allowed to drink water with them. He describes his anguish in a book titled "Waiting for a Visa". Quitting the job, he tried to do various businesses but all failed because of his birth. In 1918, he became Professor of Political Economy at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics. Though the students liked him, fellow teachers refused to share a jug of drinking water with him!

He started a weekly newspaper ‘Mook Nayak’ (Leader of the Silent) in 1920, the first of many to follow. He started his own law practice in 1923 and gained fame in 1926, when he successfully defended three non-Brahmin leaders, who had accused the Brahmin community of ruining India and were subsequently sued for libel. Together with the campaign for Independence, he embarked on a mission to abolish the caste system, but in this he met the opposition of Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not the cast system. Ambedkar stated, "A swaraj, where fundamental rights were not guaranteed for the depressed would be no swaraj for them at all, it would be a new form of slavery."

Ambedkar was the first to launch a Satyagraha, to get the right for the Dalits, the term he favoured for untouchables, to get water from Mahad water tank where even cows could drink but not untouchables. He marched with his followers and drank water; the following day Brahmin priests purified the water by adding cow-dung to it! This was in 1927, three years before Gandhi’s Satyagraha on the British salt tax. Six months later, Ambedkar ceremoniously burned the Hindu post-Vedic text, Manusmriti, which he called ‘a bible for slavery’. He started the temple entry movement in 1930 but Brahmins locked the doors when the crowds approached temples.

In 1930, he attended the Round Table Conference in London and persuaded the British government to allow Dalits to have two votes for ten years, till assimilation, one to elect their own representatives. This was in line with Communal Awards granted to Sikhs, Muslims and Christians. Congress Party, which did not attend the conference, objected to this and Gandhi, who attended the Second Round Table Conference in 1931, declared that he would be representing the 44 million ‘Harijans’, his preferred term for ‘Untouchables’, in spite of the presence of Ambedkar. It beggars belief why Gandhi muscled in, except for political expediency, but this resulted in an enmity that lasted long.

It is said that when Gandhi met Ambedkar for the first time, at the Second Round Table Conference in 1931, and questioned Ambedkar about his sharp criticism of the Congress, which, it was assumed, was tantamount to criticising the struggle for the homeland, Ambedkar replied: "Gandhiji, I have no Homeland. No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land."

When in 1932 the British government announced the creation of a separate electorate for the ‘depressed classes’, Gandhi started a hunger strike. Ambedkar was persuaded by Congress leaders as well as other Dalit leaders, who feared severe repercussions if Gandhi died, to meet Gandhi which he reluctantly did, resulting in the Poona Agreement. Paradoxically, this resulted in a better representation than Ambedkar was aiming for.

Following Independence, India needed a new Constitution and Ambedker was elected the Chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. Though Ambedkar was not entirely happy with the Constitution drawn, it was presented on November 26, 1949 with the preamble:

"We the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic, gift to ourselves this Constitution."

Ambedkar was made the Minister of Law and Justice in the first Cabinet of Independent India under Prime Minister Nehru, supposedly on the recommendation of Gandhi. He wanted to further justice and introduce a ‘Hindu Code Bill’, to give equality to women in marriage and inheritance. He stated: "I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved." But due to protests from the majority of Hindus, Nehru decided to shelve it and Ambedker resigned, in protest, from the Cabinet in 1951. In his resignation speech Ambedkar said:

"To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap."

Ambedkar vociferously denounced the caste system and blamed Hinduism for not facing up to times and make changes. At ‘The Depressed Class Conference’, in 1935,Ambedker stated:

"It is true that Hinduism can absorb many things. The beef-eating Hinduism (or strictly speaking Brahminism which is the proper name of Hinduism in its earlier stage) absorbed the non-violence theory of Buddhism and became a religion of vegetarianism. But there is one thing which Hinduism has never been able to do—namely to adjust itself to absorb the Untouchables or to remove the bar of untouchability."

Why have the mass of people tolerated the social evils to which they have been subjected? There have been social revolutions in other countries of the world, why not in India is a question that has incessantly troubled me. There is only one answer which I can give and that is that the lower classes of Hindus have been completely disabled for direct action on account of this wretched caste system. They could not bear arms and without arms they could not rebel. They were all ploughmen—or rather compelled to be ploughmen—and they were never allowed to convert their ploughshares into swords. They had no bayonets, and therefore everyone who chose, could and did sit upon them. On account of the caste system they could receive no education. They could not think out or know the way to their salvation. They were condemned to be lowly; and not knowing the way of escape, and not having any means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate."

Turn in any direction you like – caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster"

Ambedkar studied Buddhism all his life. He considered other religions like Sikhism but around 1950, directed his attention to Buddhism and travelled to Ceylon to attend a meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. While dedicating a new Buddhist Vihara near Pune, Ambedkar announced he was writing a book on Buddhism, and that when it was finished, he would formally convert to Buddhism. After meetings with Ven. Hammalawa Saddhatissa, who later became the Head of London Buddhist Vihara, Ambedkar organised a formal public ceremony for himself and his supporters to embrace Buddhism. In Nagpur, on 14 October 1956, accepting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, in the traditional manner, Ambedkar completed his own conversion, along with his second wife, who was a Brahmin. He then proceeded to convert almost 500,000 of his supporters who were gathered around him.The two-hour speech he delivered on that occasion, in spite of not being in good health, is truly inspirational. A similar number converted to Buddhism at his funeral, just two months later.

"Annihilation of Caste" Ambedkar’s most famous and controversial book with incisive analysis and condemnation of Brahminism has been reprinted recently with a lengthy introduction by Arundhati Roy, the Man Booker Prize winning author. She is no stranger to controversy but this attempt has drawn flak from supporters of both Ambedkar and Ghandi, the most valid criticism being that the introduction is so long, it should have been a book by itself. Having watched her lecture on YouTube titled ‘the Doctor and the Saint’ and read her blog in ‘revolutionary’, titled "Ambedkar, Ghandi and the battle against caste" I have no doubt she uses the word ‘saint’, tongue-in-cheek. She comments:

"Ambedkar’s utopia was a pretty hardnosed one. It was, so to speak, the City of Justice—worldly justice. He imagined an enlightened India, Prabuddha Bharat, that fused the best ideas of the European Enlightenment with Buddhist thought. (Prabuddha Bharat was the name he gave to the last of the four newspapers he edited in his lifetime.)"

Contrary to the consistency of Ambedkar’s views, Ghandi’s views have changed over time which he termed ‘one truth to the other truth’, which critics may claim is a vain attempt to justify previous statements he made. In the beginning Ghandi’s writings supported the Varna system as he believed that it provided the basis of an egalitarian society. Then he went on to say that an important attribute of Varna was that while it was determined by birth, it could be retained only by observing its obligations. One who failed to do so lost one’s title to that Varna. On the other hand, a person, though born in one Varna, but displaying the predominant characteristics of another, was regarded as belonging to the second Varna.

It is pretty obvious that Ghandi did not have the guts, or the vision, to admit what Buddha preached that status was determined by action alone.

On his return to India it was the Christian missionaries who titled him a Mahatma and Richard Attenborough’s film "Ghandi" that sanctified him. It is interesting that in the film there is not even a passing reference to Ambedkar, a largely unrecognised figure up to recent times. Following on from ‘Greatest Briton’ in 2002, topped by Winston Churchill, India decided to have a ‘Greatest Indian’ but titled it ‘Greatest Indian since 1947’, stating that Ghandi would be the one before that, but may be the organizers had a fear that Ambedkar may beat him. Whatever that may be, in the competition sponsored by Reliance Mobile and conducted by ‘Outlook’ magazine in partnership with CNN-IBN and The History Channel, Ambedkar was the winner; chosen by a Jury including Amitabh Bachchan, on-line poll of more than 20 million and a market survey. Ambedkar was vindicated, finally.

Ambedkar has once said, "Life should be great rather than long." His certainly was. Is he not the real Mahatma or at least one of the two?

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