A MESSIAH OF THE SUPPRESSED AND THE OPPRESSED - I
`For a successful total revolution, it is not enough that there is discontent. What is required is a profound and thorough conviction of the justice, necessity and importance of political and social rights.' — Dr B R Ambedkar
The 54th 'Mahaparinirwan Diwas' of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), popularly known as Babasaheb, is being celebrated in a grand manner today (6 th December 2010) in all parts of India and in several parts of the world. An acknowledged Field Marshall of the Dalits of India in their struggle for emancipation and freedom from the cruelties and disabilities of age old caste oppression, a world renowned architect of the Constitution of India and above all, a great leader of men, endowed with the qualities of courage, wisdom, judgment, integrity and vision, he is one of the makers of Modern India.
Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on 14 April, 1891 in a poor untouchable family in the British-founded town and military Cantonment of Mhow in the Central Provinces (now in Madhya Pradesh). He was the 14th and last child of Ramji Maloji Sakpal and Bhimabai Murbadkar. His family was of Marathi background from the town of Ambavade in the Ratnagiri District of modern-day Maharashtra. They belonged to the Hindu Mahar caste and were treated as untouchables and subjected to intense socio-economic discrimination. Ambedkar's ancestors had for long been in the employment of the army of the British East India Company, and his father served in the Indian Army at the Mhow cantonment, rising to the rank of Subedar. He had received a degree of formal education in Marathi and English, and encouraged his children to learn and work hard at school.
Belonging to the Kabir Panth, Ramji Sakpal encouraged his children to read the Hindu classics, especially the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He cleverly used his position in the army to lobby for his children to study at the government school, as they faced resistance owing to their caste. Although able to attend school, Ambedkar and other untouchable children were segregated and given no attention or assistance from the teachers. They were not allowed to sit inside the class. Even if they needed to drink water somebody from a higher caste would have to pour that water from a height as they were not allowed to touch either the water or the vessel that contained it. This task was usually performed for the young Ambedkar by the school peon, and if he could not be found Ambedkar went without water. Ramji Sakpal retired in 1894 and the family moved to Satara two years later. Shortly after their move, Ambedkar's mother died. The children were cared for by their paternal aunt, and lived in difficult circumstances. Only three sons — Balaram, Anandrao and Bhimrao — and two daughters — Manjula and Tulasa — of the Ambedkars would go on to survive them. Of his brothers and sisters, only Ambedkar succeeded in passing his examinations and graduating to a bigger school. His native village name was `Ambavade' in Ratnagiri District so he changed his name from `Sakpal' to `Ambedkar' with the recommendation and faith of a Brahmin teacher who believed in him.
Overcoming numerous social and financial obstacles, Ambedkar became one of the first `untouchables' to obtain a college education in India. He went on to pursue higher studies in Columbia University, New York, United States and England, where he earned law degrees and multiple doctorates for his study and research in law, economics and political science. Returning home a famous scholar, Ambedkar practiced law for a few years before he began publishing journals advocating political rights and social freedom for India's untouchables.
Ramji Sakpal encouraged his children to read the Hindu classics, especially the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He used his position in the army to lobby for his children to study at the government school, as they faced resistance owing to their untouchable caste. Although able to attend school, Ambedkar and other Untouchable children were segregated and given no attention or assistance from the teachers. As Ambedkar himself has recorded `We were not allowed to sit inside the class. Even if we needed to drink water, somebody from a higher caste had to pour that water from a height as we were not allowed to touch either the water or the vessel that contained it. This task was usually performed for us by the school peon, and if he could not be found, we were condemned to go without water.'
Ambedkar's father Ramji Sakpal retired in 1894 and the family moved to Satara two years later. Shortly after this, Ambedkar's mother died. She left behind her three sons — Balaram, Anandrao and Bhimrao — and two daughters — Manjula and Tulasa. Of his brothers and sisters, only Ambedkar succeeded in passing his examinations and qualifying himself for University education.
In 1898, Ramji Sakpal remarried and the family moved to Mumbai (then Bombay), where Ambedkar became the first untouchable student at the Government High School on Elphinstone Road in Mumbai. Although he excelled in studies, yet Ambedkar was increasingly disturbed by the atmosphere of segregation and discrimination that he had to face in School. In 1907, Ambedkar passed his Matriculation Examination and entered the University of Bombay, becoming one of the first persons from the community of untouchables to enter a college in India. This spectacular success was marked by wide-spread celebrations in his community. After a grand public ceremony, Ambedkar was presented with a biography of the Buddha by his teacher Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar also known as Dada Keluskar, a Maratha caste Hindu scholar. In the same year, according to Hindu custom, he married Ramabai, a nine-year old girl from Dapoli.
In 1908, he entered Elphinstone College and obtained his Graduate Degree in 1912. He was fortunate to win a scholarship of twenty five rupees a month from the Gaikwad ruler of Baroda for completing his college education in Mumbai. His father Ramji Sakpal passed away in 1912.
In 1912, Ambedkar was selected by the Gaikwad ruler to travel to the United States and enroll at Columbia University. He was awarded a scholarship of $11.5 per month. Arriving in New York City in 1912, Ambedkar was admitted to the graduate studies programme at the Political Science Department of Columbia University. In 1916, Ambedkar was awarded a Ph.D Degree by Columbia University for his thesis on Provincial Finance in British India which he eventually published in book form as The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India.
Ambedkar’s first published work, however, was a paper titled Castes in, India: Their Mechanism Genesis and Development. Winning his Post-graduate Degree and Doctorate, he travelled to London and enrolled at Gray's Inn and the London School of Economics, studying law and preparing a doctoral thesis in economics. The expiration of his scholarship the following year forced him to temporarily abandon his studies and return to India amidst the storm of World War I.
He returned to work for Baroda state. Ambedkar was distressed by the sudden reappearance of discrimination in his day-to-day life, and therefore left his Government job to work as a private tutor and accountant. He even started his own consultancy business that failed owing to his social untouchability status. Fortunately, with the help of his English friend, Lord Sydenham, a former Governor of Bombay, he took up the post of Professor of Political Economy at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai.
Again Ambedkar was lucky. He was able to return to England in 1920 with the financial support of the Maharaja of Kolhapur. By 1923, he completed a thesis on “The Problem of the Rupee.” He was awarded a D.Sc. by the University of London, and on finishing his law studies, he was simultaneously admitted to the British Bar as a barrister. On his way back to India, Ambedkar spent three months in Germany, where he conducted further studies in economics at the University of Bonn.
Ambedkar's saga of struggle against the cruel practice of untouchability began sometime before the Jallian Wala Bagh massacre in April 1919. As a leading Indian scholar, Ambedkar had been invited to testify before the Southborough Committee, which was preparing the Government of India Act 1919. At this hearing, Ambedkar argued for creating separate electorates and reservations for Dalits and other religious communities.
In 1920, he began the publication of the weekly Mooknayak (Leader of the Silent) in Bombay. This Journal became very popular and Ambedkar used this journal to criticize the orthodox Hindu politicians. Through the columns of this journal, Ambedkar launched a frontal attack against the reluctance of the Indian political community at that time to fight against the evil of caste discrimination. His speech at a Depressed Classes Conference in Kolhapur in 1920 impressed the local state ruler Shahu IV, who shocked orthodox society by dining with Ambekdar.
Apart from establishing a successful legal practice, he also organised the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha to promote the cause of education and socio-economic uplift of the Depressed Classes. In 1926, he became a nominated Member of the Bombay Legislative Council.
From 1927, Dr. Ambedkar decided to launch active political and social movements against untouchability. He began with public movements and marches to open up and share public drinking water resources. He also started a struggle to uphold the public right to enter Hindu temples. He led a satyagraha in Mahad to fight for the right of the untouchable community to draw water from the main water tank of the town.
On January 1, 1927 Dr. Ambedkar organised a ceremony at the Koregaon Victory Memorial which had been set up to commemorate the Indian soldiers who had died at the Battle of Koregaon in the Second Anglo-Maratha War, in the first quarter of the 19th century. Here Ambedkar inscribed the names of the soldiers from the Mahar community on a marble tablet.
A little later in 1927, he began his second journal, Bahiskrit Bharat (Excluded India), later rechristened Janata (The People). He was appointed to the Bombay Presidency Committee to work with the all-European Simon Commission in 1928. This Commission had sparked great protests across India, and while its report was ignored by most Indians, Dr. Ambedkar himself wrote a separate set of recommendations for future constitutional reforms. By now Dr. Ambedkar had become one of the most prominent untouchable political figures of the time.