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Equal protection under the law
Siddharth Gambhirwala remembers the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar.
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April 1999 : Bhimrao Ambedkar, the fourteenth child of Ramji and Bhimabai Sakpal Ambavedkar, was born in Mhow, in western Madhya Pradesh, on April 14, 1891 into the "untouchable" Mahar caste. His father, and grandfather Maloji, were in the British Army. The Government of the day required all Army personnel and their families to be educated, and ran schools for this purpose. Thus the Sakpal family was fortunate to see their children receive a good education, which otherwise would have been denied to them.

dr.ambedkar

When Bhim was six years old, his mother died, and he was brought up by his father's sister Meerabai until Ramji remarried. His father was a strict, pious man, and avoided meat and drink. Along with his children, he often sang devotional songs composed by Namdev, Tukaram, Moropant and Mukteshwar, and read stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. When he retired from the army as a Subedar-Major of the Second Grenadiers after 14 years of service, the family moved to Dapoli in Konkan and then to Satara. Bhim and his older brother Anand were enrolled in the contonment school, Government High School.

Despite the opportunity that education permitted, Bhim began to taste the bitter reality of his birth. He had to sit on the floor in one corner in the classroom. Teachers would not touch his notebooks. If Bhim felt thirsty, he could only drink water if someone else poured water into his mouth. Once provoked by an uncontrollable fit of thirst, Bhim drank from the public reservoir. He was found out and beaten by the higher caste Hindus. These experiences were permanently etched onto his mind. He realized that this was the plight of anyone born "untouchable."

Bhim was an average student. He was fond of gardening and, whenever he could, he bought saplings and with great devotion nurtured them to full growth. When many of his classmates left for good jobs in Bombay, he too longed to be independent. He realized that if he ever were to be successful, he would have to concentrate more on his studies. He became interested in reading, and read not just the prescribed books in school but much more. His father wasn't pleased when he digressed from school books but he never said "no" when Bhim wanted a book.

Bhim enrolled in the Elphinstone High School in Bombay. Even there, one of his teachers constantly mocked him, saying that of what use was an educated Mahar. Bhim swallowed these insults and controlled his anger. He passed his matriculation examination in 1907. The Mahars felicitated him on his achievement. Bhim joined the Elphinstone College for further education. After completing his Intermediate course, Bhim received a scholarship from the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayaji Rao, and attained a Bachelors in Arts in 1912. The February of next year, Ramji died; Bhimrao had lost his father and mentor.

Sayaji Rao selected Bhim to be sent to America on a scholarship for higher studies. In return, Bhim Rao would have to serve the State of Baroda for ten years. Bhim Rao reached New York in July 1913. For the first time in his life, Bhim Rao was not demeaned for being a Mahar. He put his heart into his studies and received a degree in Master of Arts and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Columbia University in 1916 for his thesis "National Dividend for India: A Historical and Analytical Study." From America, Dr.Ambedkar proceeded to London to study economics and political science. He Government of Baroda terminated his scholarship and recalled him to Baroda. Bhim Rao vowed to return to London to complete his studies.

The Maharaja appointed him Military Secretary but no one would take orders from an "untouchable" Mahar. He could not even get lodging and not even the Prime Minister appointed by the Maharaja could help him find a place to live; Ambedkar returned to Bombay in November 1917. With the help of Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur, a sympathizer of the cause for the upliftment of the depressed classes, he started a fortnightly newspaper, the Mooknayak (Leader of the Dumb) on January 31, 1920. The Maharaja also convened many meetings and conferences of the "untouchables" which Bhimrao addressed. Impressed by Ambedkar, the Maharaja declared at one meeting, "You have found your saviour in Ambedkar. I am confident he will break your shackles."

In September 1920, after accumulating sufficient funds, Ambedkar returned to London to complete his studies. He became a barrister and got a Doctorate in Science. He now considered himself fully equipped to fight the evil of "untouchability." In July 1924, Ambedkar founded the Bahishkrut Hitkaraini Sabha, aimed at scrapping the caste system from the Hindu religion. The Sabha started free school for the young and the old and ran reading rooms and libraries. Dr. Ambedkar took the grievances of the "untouchables" to court, seeking justice and equality. Soon he became a father-figure to the poor and downtrodden and was respectfully called "Babasaheb."

In March 1927, attendees at a conference of the depressed classes held at Mahad, decided to implement the resolution passed 4 years earlier to open public places to all regardless of religion, caste or creed by drinking from the Chavdar Taley (Sweet-water Tank). They walked to the tank and drank from its water. Higher caste Hindus attacked them; pulling down the conference pulpit, they threw away all the cooked food and broke all the vessels. Ambedkar told his people to stay calm and not retaliate. Later the higher-caste Hindus performed rituals to "purify" the "defiled" water. Ambedkar vowed to offer a satyagraha and re-establish his people's right to use the water tank.

On December 25 of the same year, thousands responded to Ambedkar's call. Speaker after speaker spoke, passions rose and the vast gathering waited for the satyagraha to begin with intense anticipation. The satyagraha was deferred when the matter was referred to the court. At the end of conference, a copy of the Manusmruti, the age-old code of the Hindus that gave rise to the caste system, was ceremoniously burnt. In a thundering voice, Ambedkar demanded in its place a new smruti, devoid of all social stratification. This act sent shockwaves through the nation.

In 1929, Ambedkar made the controversial decision to co- operate with the all-British Simon Commission which was to look into setting up a responsible Indian Government in India. The Congress decided to boycott the Commission and drafted its own version of a constitution for free India. The Congress version made no provisions for the depressed classes. Ambedkar became more skeptical of the Congress's commitment to safeguard the rights of the depressed classes. He pressed for a separate electorate for the depressed classes.

When a separate electorate was announced for the depressed classes, Gandhiji went on a fast unto death against this decision. Leaders rushed to Dr. Ambedkar to drop his demand. Ambedkar held fast and did not buckle under the immense pressure. Finally on September 24, 1932, Ambedkar and Gandhiji signed the Poona Pact. According to the pact the separate electorate demand was replaced with special concessions like reserved seats in the regional legislative assemblies and Central Council of States.

On October 13, 1935, at a conference at Nasik, Dr. Ambedkar reviewed the progress made on the condition of the "untouchables" in the decade since Ambedkar started his agitation. Ambedkar declared that their efforts had not borne the kind of results he had expected. He then made his dramatic appeal to the "untouchables.", encouraging them to forsake the Hindu religion and convert to a religion where they would be treated with equality. The nation was shocked.

The British Government agreed to hold elections on the provincial level in 1937. The Congress, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha started gearing up for the elections. Dr. Ambedkar set up the Independent Labor Party in August 1936 to contest the elections in the Bombay province. On February 17, 1937, Ambedkar and many of his candidates won this a thumping majority. Around the same time, the Chavdar Taley water dispute which was referred to the Bombay High Court in 1927 finally handed down its verdict in favor of the depressed classes. Dr. Ambedkar also introduced Bills in 1937 to abolish the "khoti" system of land tenure in the Konkan region, the serfdom of agricultural tenants and the Mahar "watan" system of working for the Government as slaves.

The Constituent Assembly of Independent India appointed a Drafting Committee with Dr. Ambedkar as its Chairman to draft the Constitution of India. In February 1948, Dr. Ambedkar presented the Draft Constitution before the people of India; it was adopted on November 26, 1949 with all its 356 Articles and 8 Schedules. Article 11 abolished untouchability in all forms. In May 1956, shortly before his death, Dr. Ambedkar announced that he was embracing Buddhism. With him his wife and some three lakh followers also converted to the faith. When asked why, Dr. Ambedkar replied, "Why can't you ask this question to yourself and... your forefathers...?"

Siddharth Gambhirwala
April 1999

This biographical sketch is reprinted with thanks from swaraj.net.
 

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