On the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, on April 14, India still finds itself unable to induct him into the pantheon of greats unquestioningly. His statue, with its ubiquitous electric blue suit, may be a common sight at bus stands, bastis and universities, but it hardly brings out the fact that his life is one that was overshadowed by iconography and idolatry. We forget that Ambedkar was one of modern India’s first great economic thinkers, its constitutional draftsman and its first law minister who ensured the codification of Hindu law.
Assimilating Dr. Ambedkar into the national pantheon of the freedom struggle is difficult because his life was one of steady accretion of ideas, of making a stand on rights and of standing up to social wrongs. His biggest fights were with fellow Indians and not with foreign rulers. He led no satyagraha against the British, he led no march on Delhi, he broke no repressive law to court arrest for it. In fact, his father and ancestors had willingly served in the British Army even in the days of the East India Company. He himself served as a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. His often stated view was that British rule had come as a liberator for the depressed classes. Despite all this, he was in agreement with the nationalists, that India must be ruled by Indians.
In a corner His status in the national pantheon, where he occupies a corner all by himself, and slightly apart from the nationalist heroes of independence, is somewhat like his status in school. He once wrote: “I knew that I was an untouchable, and that untouchables were subjected to certain indignities and discriminations. For instance, I knew that in the school I could not sit in the midst of my classmates according to my rank [in class performance], but that I was to sit in a corner by myself.”
“ B.R. Ambedkar walked a tightrope, between securing a modern society for all Indians and ensuring that a modern state stabilised around a constitutional architecture of social change. ”
This separateness was to lead him to assert in more than one instance, that the depressed classes he represented, were not to be counted among the Hindus. He famously chose to separately represent the depressed classes at the Round Table Conference in the 1930s, where Gandhiji was sent as the sole representative of the Congress. Having secured a separate electorate for the depressed classes, he had to give it up in the face of a fasting Mahatma, whose death he did not want ascribed to those outside the pale of varnashrama dharma . After this, the Poona Pact of 1932 ensured a greater number of seats for the depressed classes, but it was within a common Hindu electorate. Ambedkar never was sure that he had secured a fair bargain.
He never fully forgave Gandhiji for the pressure exerted on him. He told his followers, “There have been many mahatmas in India whose sole object was to remove untouchability and to elevate and absorb the depressed classes, but everyone has failed in their mission. Mahatmas have come, mahatmas have gone but the untouchables have remained as untouchables.” Ambedkar told Dalits: “You must abolish your slavery yourselves. Do not depend for its abolition upon god or a superman. ...We must shape our course ourselves and by ourselves.”
A fight for rights The question of whether the depressed classes were to be counted among Hindus or separately, continued to be relevant especially when the country was going to be partitioned on religious lines. There were some Dalit leaders like B. Shyam Sunder, who vociferously said: “We are not Hindus, we have nothing to do with the Hindu caste system, yet we have been included among them by them and for them.” With the support of the Nizam of Hyderabad and Master Tara Singh of the Akalis, Shyam Sunder launched the Dalit-Muslim unity movement and urged his people to join hands with Muslims.
The imminent arrival of Independence saw a constituent assembly being elected to draw up a constitution for the new nation. Dr. Ambedkar was first elected to the assembly from an undivided Bengal. Because he lacked the requisite support in his home province of Bombay, he was forced to seek election from Bengal, a province he was unfamiliar with. Throughout the 1940s, Ambedkar and the Congress clashed over issues of the rights and the representation of the depressed classes. Ambedkar was a critic of the party’s positions on many an issue, which he believed were inimical to Dalit interests. Therefore, Sardar Patel personally directed the Bombay Congress to select strong Dalit candidates who could defeat Dr. Ambedkar’s nominees. Despite the politics, once in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar worked closely with his Congress colleagues in formulating and drafting the Constitution.
Consequent to the announcement of Partition, fresh elections had to be held for only the seats from West Bengal. Dr. Ambedkar would not have possibly been elected again. At this stage he was co-opted by the Congress, into the seat vacated by M.R. Jayakar from Bombay. Dr. Rajendra Prasad wrote to B.G. Kher, then Prime Minister of Bombay and said: “Apart from any other consideration we have found Dr. Ambedkar’s work both in Constituent Assembly and the various committees to which he was appointed to be of such an order as to require that we should not be deprived of his services. As you know, he was elected from Bengal and after the division of the province he was ceased to be a member of the Constituent Assembly commencing from the 14th July 1947 and it is therefore necessary that he should be elected immediately.” Even Sardar Patel stepped in to persuade both Kher and G.P. Mavalankar, who was otherwise slated to fill in the vacancy caused by Jayakar.
It is against these adverse circumstances, that we must evaluate Ambedkar’s achievements in the Constituent Assembly. He walked a tightrope, between securing a modern society for all Indians and ensuring that a modern state stabilised around a constitutional architecture of social change. Granville Austin has rightly described the Indian Constitution drafted by Ambedkar as “first and foremost a social document. ... The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement.”
Making a mark The Constituent Assembly was the hallowed ground from which Ambedkar made his most lasting contribution to all people of independent India, Dalit, savarna and non-Hindu alike. As chairman of the drafting committee, it was his interventions in the debates of the assembly that were soon to become definitive expositions on the intent of the framers. He also joined Nehru’s cabinet as the first Law Minister of independent India.
He explained to the Assembly, “On the 26th 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 recognising 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….”
Despite his insistence on individual liberties being enshrined as fundamental rights, Ambedkar was a realist as to their worth as guarantees. He said: “The prevalent view is that once the rights are enacted in law then they are safeguarded. This again is an unwarranted assumption. As experience proves, rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of the society.”
Political battles Ambedkar’s constitution was barely finished and adopted, when he plunged into piloting the Hindu Code Bill. There was opposition from the President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, as well as a host of Congressmen like Pattabhi Sitaramayya, but Ambedkar kept pushing for the passage of the Act, by the Constituent Assembly, which functioned as an interim parliament. Nehru was advised by Rajagopala Ayyangar and others that it was better to wait till after the general election of 1952. When it became apparent that the bill was going to be deferred, Ambedkar resigned in protest from the cabinet in September 1951. The Hindu Code Bill finally came about in 1956.
In 1952, in independent India’s first general election, he was defeated from the Bombay North Constituency by a Dalit from the Congress. Though he was elected to the Rajya Sabha immediately thereafter, he made a second attempt in 1954 to enter the Lok Sabha through a by-election for the Bhandara seat. He failed again.
His political battles and his voracious capacity for intellectual work began affecting his health. His spirit to fight on and his spiritual quest though continued undaunted. In the 1930s, his first wife, Ramabai, who was dying, had asked him to take her to Pandharpur on a pilgrimage. The entry of untouchables was barred there. He then promised to build a new Pandharpur outside Hinduism.
After her passing, he declared at Yeola in 1935: “I was born a Hindu, I had no choice. But I will not die a Hindu because I do have a choice.” In the twilight of his life, on October 14, 1956, two months before his death, he left Hinduism to become a Buddhist. His Brahmin-born second wife and nearly six lakh of his followers followed suit.
As he lay down for the night on December 5, 1956, Dr. Ambedkar had by his side, the preface to his latest book, The Buddha and his Dhamma . He wanted to work on it but it was not to be. The book was published posthumously as Babasaheb, never woke up and moved into history on December 6, 1956.
How do we remember Ambedkar? He gave the nation a constitution that has endured, he forced it to look shamefaced at its own social inequities, and he gave the most oppressed Indians, the hope of a better nation to come. He may not have been a hero of the war of Indian independence, but he is the hero who built an independent India. It is time that we cease to keep him ‘slightly apart’.
(Sanjay Hegde is a Supreme Court lawyer.)