Short Biography of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Dr. B R Ambedkar was born on 14 April 1891 at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh where his father was posted as head instructor of  military training school. He belonged to Mahar family of Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra. Mahars were among the several untouchable castes of those times in Maharashtra.

Original Surname

The original surname of Dr. Ambedkar was “Sakpal” but a teacher in his school, who was fond of him changed his surname to his own as Ambedkar. The children of untouchables had to sit apart in classroom and had to bring their own gunny sack from home to sit on them. The same had to be done by Dr. Ambedkar also in his childhood.

Education

He graduated in 1912 from Elphinstone College, Bombay. He was married to Ramabai at the age of 14. With the financial assistance from Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda, he joined Columbia University in USA in 1913 for higher studies. He was able to obtain his M.A. degree in 1915 for his thesis, ‘Ancient Indian Commerce’. In June 1916 he submitted his thesis on National Dividend for India: A Historic and Analytical Study for his PhD degree. In June 2016, he left Columbia University and joined London School of Economics and Political Science for advance studies. His scholarship was not extended and so he had to leave the study. From 1917 to 1920, he worked as Military Secretary to the Maharaja of Baroda. With the help of Shahu Chhatrapati, Maharaja of Kolhapur, he went back to London in 1920 for further study and obtained MSc (Economics) for his thesis, “Provincial Decentralisation of Imperial Finance in British India” in 1917. In 1923, he obtained DSc (Economics) for his thesis, “The problem of Rupee-Its Origin and Solution.”

Social Influences

During his stay in America, he was deeply influenced by two things. Firstly, it was the fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of USA, which granted freedom to the Negroes. Secondly, he was impressed by the activities of Booker T. Washington, who was a great social reformer and educator of Negros in America. Back home, he was deeply influenced by three great social reformers viz. Kabir, Jyotiba Phule and Gautam Buddha.

His family was a follower of Kabir and Kabir’s teachings of social equality influenced him in early childhood. Jyotiba Phule himself was an untouchable and great social reformer of Maharashtra who for the first time instilled self-confidence among the downtrodden in the history. He had established Satya Sodhak Samaj in 1873 and preached social equality among castes. It was Phule’s influence that Dr. Ambedkar later strived for anti-Brahmanism and amelioration of the masses, their education and economic upliftment. Finally, Buddha’s teachings gave him mental and metaphysical satisfaction and showed the way leading to the emancipation of untouchables.

Further, Dr. Ambedkar was also influenced by the pragmatism of John Dewey, his teacher in America. All these influence led in the development of the social philosophy of Ambedkar on three principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

It was his conviction that he decided to fight against untouchability and oppression by upper castes.

Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha

In 1924, Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha was formed by Dr. Ambedkar for removing difficulties of the untouchables and placing their grievances before government. This was his first organization to achieve his political and social ideals. The aims and objects of the Sabha were:

  • To promote the spread of education among the Depressed Class by opening Hostels or by employing such other means as may seem necessary or desirable.
  • To promote the spread of culture among the Depressed study circles.
  • To advance and improve the economic condition of the Depressed Classes by starting Industrial and Agricultural schools.
  • To represent the grievances of the Depressed Classes.

Mahad Satyagrah, 1927

The struggle of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar began from 1927 with Mahad Satyagraha. In 1926, the Municipal Board of Mahad in Maharashtra had passed orders to allow all communities including dalits to drink and collect water from a famous tank in the city. This tank was hitherto inaccessible for untouchables. These orders were opposed by upper caste Hindus and this led Dr. Ambedkar to call a conference of Dailts, which was participated by thousands of untouchables to support the municipal decision. In his address to the people there, Dr. Ambedkar asserted that the Hindu society should be organised on the basis of equality and absence of casteism. Here, he also burnt a copy of Manusmriti on December 25, 1927.

Temple Entry Movements, 1930

In Maharashtra, as in other parts of the country, the untouchables were not allowed to enter the Hindu temples. Ambedkar organised a Satyagrah for entering into Kala Ram Mandir temple at Nasik in May 1930. It was the perception of Ambedkar that such Satyagrah may facilitate the entry of untouchables to other temples. Ambedkar led 15,000 male volunteers and 500 female volunteers in this Satyagrah. A mile long procession was taken towards Kala Ram Mandir in the batches of four. After a month’s struggle a compromise was reached to allow entry of untouchables.

Depressed Classes Movement

The Depressed Classes conferences were organised even before Ambedkar’s effort to oppose untouchability in Indian society. For the first time, the Depressed Classes Mission Society of India was formed by Justice Sir N.G. Chandravarkar on October 18, 1906. The first conference of Depressed Classes was convened on November 11, 1917 by Justice Chandravarkar. The conference pleaded the demands of untouchables before the government. The first All India Depressed Classes conference was held in Bombay on March 23, 1918 under the Chairmanship of Maharaja Shivajirao of Baroda. It was attended by many prominent leaders. Bal Gangadhar Tilak said in this conference that he would not recognise God if he were to tolerate untouchability.

However, Ambedkar was sceptical about the movement started by high caste Hindus. In this backdrop, Ambedkar himself organised the All India Depressed Classes Association on August 8, 1930, and expressed great concern at the probability of the caste ridden Hindu Oligarchy being granted unrestricted power. For the first time, he demanded safeguards for the downtrodden untouchables in the Constitution and pleaded for direct representation in the councils in proportion to the strength of depressed community.

Contrast with Gandhi on question of untouchability

At around the same time, Mahatma Gandhi had broadened his movement for removal of untouchability under the banner of Anti-untouchability League in 1932. Gandhi advised that the activities of Anti-untouchability League should be mainly directed towards the economic, social and educational improvement of the depressed classes rather than to the temple entry and inter-dining. Henceforth, the word untouchable was replaced by Harijan and Anti-untouchability League was renamed has Harijan Sevak Sangh. This Harijan Sevak Sangh worked as a branch of Congress. Dr. Ambedkar was on the board of this Sangh but soon he disconnected himself from it because  he felt that this Sangh is not a platform for programme for removal of untouchability. This is how, Gandhi and Ambedkar developed different perspectives in context with the amelioration of problems of depressed classes. According to Dr. Ambedkar, Harijan Sevak Sangh was a political organisation aimed to draw untouchables into Congress fold. Consequently, he formed a Samata Sainik Dal (Social Equality Army) to dislodge all those values which conserved and fostered anti-human elements in the name of tradition and cultural heritage. We note here that after assassination of Gandhi in 1948, this Samata Sainik Dal was one of the organizations which were banned in those times. Dr. Ambedkar remarked that disbanding Samata Sainik Dal was an act of cowardice.

Political Ideals of Ambedkar Regarding Empowerment of Untouchables

Jawaharlal Nehru had termed Dr. Ambedkar as a symbol of revolt against the exploitative elements of Indian society. The struggle against the caste system and untouchability is based on some political ideals of Dr. Ambedkar. Firstly, Dr. Ambedkar had firm faith that caste system in India cannot be reformed and thus the only remedy is the total destruction of the caste system. In one of his speeches {Annihilation of caste}, he remarks that the root of untouchability is caste system, the root of caste system is religion attached to Varnashrma, the root of Varnashrma is Brahmanical religion, and the root of Brahmanical religion is authoritarianism. To him, virtue and charity have become caste ridden and morality has become caste bound. He characterised caste system as irrational and tyrannical and he attacked Brahmanism. He remarked that you would succeed in saving Hinduism, if you kill Brahmanism. Secondly, he believed that some social reformers and saints of high castes had sympathy towards untouchables but they did not do any concrete action to improve their position in society. Hence, the movement for social equality should be initiated and launched by the untouchable themselves. Thirdly, he exhorted the depressed classes in self-improvement by leaving derogatory practices and concentrating on education and self-respect. He believed that the untouchables do not lack merit and so, they should improve their education and skills for better life. Fourthly, he was the staunch supporter of empowerment of depressed classes by demanding their due representation in political institutions. He participated in the Round Table conferences in 1930s as a representative of depressed classes. It was his persuasion that the British Government announced the Communal Award in 1932, which gave separate and communal representation to depressed classes. In Communal Award, a certain number of seats were reserved for depressed class candidates and who were to be elected by depressed class voters only. However, Gandhi opposed communal representation of depressed classes as he considered them as part of Hindu society. Gandhi went on fast unto death in Poona Jail in 1932 to demand withdrawal of this award. Finally, an agreement was reached between Gandhi and Ambedkar, which is known as Poona pact. In terms of this pact, the seats were to be reserved for these classes in proportion to their population, but the representatives of scheduled castes were to be elected by a joint electorate and not separate electorate. The same scheme has been adopted in the Indian Constitution. Thus, in the political empowerment of scheduled castes Ambedkar has played a very important role.

Concept of Democracy

Dr. Ambedkar believed that the democracy is a form of government which facilitates radical social and economic changes without violence through peaceful means. There are several reasons why Dr. Ambedkar supported the parliamentary form of democracy. Firstly, it does not give hereditary power to rulers and the political power is vested in the representatives elected by people.

Secondly, in democracy, no individual can claim that he is omnipotent and capable of doing all things in the government. Thirdly, democracy requires that ministers and rulers seek confidence of people at regular intervals.

However, in this context also, Dr. Ambedkar had contrasted with Gandhi. While Gandhi supported decentralization, Dr. Ambedkar supported the unitary form of government or strong centre in the interest of unity and integrity of the nation. He opposed decentralisation of political power beyond a point.

Conditions for Success of Democracy

According to Dr. Ambedkar, there are several conditions needed for success of the democracy. Firstly, there needs to be social and economic equality. The lack of social and economic equality leads to social cleavages and violent revolution. Secondly, the democracy should be based on multi-party system and should have a strong opposition. Thirdly, there should not be any scope for the tyranny of majority over the minority in democracy. The majority should always respect the viewpoint of minority. He distinguished between the political majority and the notion of communal majority. The member of political majority is free to take any political action which he finds suitable, whereas a member of a communal majority takes only those political actions, which are determined by his community. Therefore, he found that the caste system was the greatest obstacle in the way of democracy. He concluded that if we fail to ensure democracy in social life, the political democracy would not survive for long time.

As far as methods of democracy are concerned, he argued that only the constitutional methods should be adopted to realise our social and economic objectives. He did not appreciate the methods of non-cooperation, civil disobedience or other forms of Satyagrah advocated by Gandhi. Further, he was against the practice of hero worship in democracy. According to Ambedkar, the main reason for the failure of democracy in India was that our political leaders treated their followers as domestic animals. The leaders did not have any faith in the rule of law and democratic procedure. Finally, the political democracy should be broadened to realise the idea of social democracy based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

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