How an 'untouchable' inspired a force of resistance against inequality in India
'B.R. Ambedkar is one of those characters in history who continually overcomes his circumstance,' says scholar
*Originally published on October 6, 2020.
During India-wide political protests against the Narendra Modi government in 2019, two portraits were seen carried by demonstrators. One belonged to Mahatma Gandhi. The other was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
Although Ambedkar was born a so-called "Untouchable" or Dalit, he would rise to become Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian constitution. Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought against the inegalitarianism that lay at the root of the Hindu caste system.
"With Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, [Ambedkar] was one of the three greatest Indians of the 20th century," says historian Ramachandra Guha. "He was a scholar, a lawyer, a social reformer, a writer and activist."
"He was also a leader of the most sort of oppressed social class in India, formerly known as Untouchables, and today known by the name Dalits," says Ananya Vajpeyi, a scholar and a writer at New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies.
"He is responsible for the politicization, mobilization, organization into a force of resistance against inequality."
Discrimination against Dalits (which means broken) is due to their status of being outside of the caste system and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They are among the most marginalized communities in India because they are seen as "polluting."
Researchers point out that atrocities against them are on the rise. The stigma against Dalits is so strong that it travels with the Hindu diaspora — a recent lawsuit against Cisco Systems alleges such discrimination in the United States.
"Ambedkar is that guy who offers a cultural, moral, spiritual guide for Dalits," says Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters and a forthcoming biography of Ambedkar.
"He just injects confidence in our desperate conditions. And in our traumas we remember him, his life, we look up to his image and get inspiration."
Ambedkar's fight for Dalit rights during the Indian freedom movement kept him outside of its mainstream. He would eventually find himself famously at odds with Gandhi who started a fast unto death over Dalit representation in colonial elections.
Ambedkar was not afraid of controversy. He solemnly vowed he would not die a Hindu and followed this with the publication in 1936 of "Annihilation of Caste," a speech which was seen as so controversial that his invitation to deliver it was revoked. There he would ask whether there was such a thing as a good Hindu and demand that Hindus abandon caste by abandoning their scriptures.
"And so in the Indian context, he is probably one of the most discussed, anticolonial thinkers of our times," says Yengde.
Freedom of religion
Born in 1891 in Maharashtra, Ambedkar would show signs of intellectual prowess at a young age and would become the most educated Indian in the freedom struggle era, thanks to scholarships from progressive Maharajas. He earned PhDs at both Columbia University and the London School of Economics, and studied to become a lawyer.
But returning home from the West, he found that no one would rent a place for him to live because of his caste.
"He is one of those characters in history who continually overcomes his circumstance, the sheer difficulty of that overcoming is something which defines the kind of political arc of his life," says Vajpeyi.
"And a lot of his beliefs, his arguments, his assertions, his claims, his philosophy, and the kind of change that he has sought to bring about in society and Indian polity are a direct product of what his own experience was."
In his career, he would champion the cause of Dalits through the creation of upliftment societies, civil disobedience campaigns, and political parties. His willingness to negotiate and even work with India's colonial masters in order to represent Dalit interests would open him up to charges of being a traitor and a stooge. But he remained firm in the belief that the leaders of the freedom struggle were too high caste to adequately represent his community.
Despite joining the Viceroy's Executive Council as a Minister of Labour during Gandhi's Quit India campaign, when thousands of freedom fighters were jailed, Ambedkar would be invited to join the Constituent Assembly in 1946 that was tasked with the goal of creating India's constitution and become the Chairman of the Drafting Committee.
The constitution would outlaw all forms of discrimination, abolish untouchability and guarantee the right to freedom of religion. It also included a system of reservations or affirmative action for Dalits and India's indigenous peoples, the Adivasis.
"I think today in India, Ambedkar has become a major figure who upholds the Constitution," says Anupama Rao, a historical anthropologist at Barnard College.
"And in that sense puts forward an imagination of both social justice and of maintaining in some sense a commitment to constitutionalism, to due process to radical liberal notions of equity and really of individual freedom."
One last radical act
Ambedkar became the Minister of Law and Justice in India's first cabinet in 1947 but he quickly grew disenchanted — from the failure to pass a reform bill on the rights of Hindu women and the lack of opportunities afforded to him by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
By the end of his life, ailing from complications from diabetes, he made good on his promise not to die a Hindu. Just two months before his death in 1956, he led a mass conversion with over 400,000 followers to a new form of Buddhism in a ceremony that both affirmed Buddhist principles and disavowed Hindu practices. It was his final radical act.
In the years after his death, Ambedkar's legacy was ignored by the Indian establishment. His memory was kept alive due to the dedicated work of Dalit activists and writers.
Today, Ambedkar's birthday is celebrated and there are thousands of his statues throughout India.
Guests in this episode:
Ananya Vajpeyi is a scholar and a writer at New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies. She is the author of The Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India.
Anupama Rao is a historical anthropologist at Barnard College. She is the author of The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India.
Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in southern India, and author and editor of many books including Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 and Makers of Modern India.
Suraj Yengde is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School as well as a fellow with Harvard University's Department of African and African-American Studies. He is the author of Caste Matters and co-editor of The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections.
* This episode was produced by Piali Roy with the help of Naheed Mustafa.