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Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (April 14, 1891, December 6, 1956) has been called the most prominent Indian Untouchable leader of the 20th century. He was born in Mhow of Madhya Pradesh state in central India, the fourteenth child of parents who belonged to the very lowest stratum of Hindu society, known as Untouchables or Dalits. He helped spark a revival of Buddhism in India, a movement which is now known as neo-Buddhism.

Education
Ambedkar's father had acquired a certain amount of formal education in both Marathi and English. This enabled him to teach his children, especially Bhimrao, and to encourage them in their pursuit of knowledge. In 1908, Ambedkar passed the matriculation examination for Bombay University, the first 'untouchable' from his community to do so. Four years later, Ambedkar graduated with a degree in Politics and Economics. Soon afterwards, he was awarded a scholarship to study abroad in return for his promise to serve Baroda State for ten years after finishing his studies.

From 1913 to 1917, Ambedkar studied at Colunbia University in New York. During his three years at Columbia University he studied economics, sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology, and politics. He was awarded a Ph.D. for a thesis which he eventually published in book form as "The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India". His first published work, however, was a paper on Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. After completing his studies in America, Ambedkar left New York for London, where he was admitted to the London School of Economics and Political Science and to Gray`s Inn. A year later, his scholarship came to an end.

In 1920, having taught in a Bombay college and started a Marathi weekly called Mooknayak or 'Leader of the Dumb', Ambedkar was able to return to London and resume his studies there. In the course of the next three years he completed a thesis on The Problem of the Rupee, for which the University of London awarded him a D.Sc. At this time, he was admitted to the bar. Before permanently ending his residence in England, Ambedkar spent three months in Germany, where he engaged in further studies in economics at the University of Born.

Professional Work

Back in India, Ambedkar established himself in Bombay and pursued an active career. He built up his legal practice, taught at a college, gave evidence before various official bodies, started a newspaper, and was nominated to the Bombay Legislative Council, in whose proceedings he at once took a leading part. He also attended the three Round Table Conferences that were held in London to enable representatives of the various Indian communities and the three British political parties to consider proposals for the future constitution of India. During the years immediately following his return to India, Ambedkar helped form the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha or Depressed Classes Welfare Association, the objects of which were to promote the spread of education and culture among Untouchables and low caste persons, to improve their economic condition, and to provide a voice for their grievances.

Fight Against Untouchability

Between 1927 and 1932, Ambedkar led his followers in a series of nonviolent campaigns to assert the right of the Untouchables to enter Hindu places of worship and to draw water from public tanks and wells. Two of these campaigns were of special importance: the campaigns against the exclusion of Untouchables from the Kalaram Temple in Nasik and from the Chowdar Tank in Mahad. Both of these involved tens of thousands of Untouchable satyagrahis or nonviolent resisters. Higher caste Hindus responded violently. The Chowdar Tank campaign, after years of litigation, ended in a legal victory for the low caste activists. The Chowdar Tank campaign also saw the ceremonial burning of the Manu Smriti or `Institutes of Manu', the ancient Hindu law book that Ambedkar believed bore much of the responsibility for the cruel treatment that the Untouchables had suffered. By thus desecrating the volume, Ambedkar's followers intended to demonstrate for equality. It is debatable if this had the intended effect because the importance of Manu Smriti to Hindu beliefs is unclear and disputed. Especially since Manu Smriti is neither a part of Hindu Scripture nor accorded any religious significance outside rural areas.

Unpopular as Ambedkar's activities had already made him in orthodox Hindu opinion, during 1931 and 1932 he became more unpopular still. In his own words, he became the most hated man in India. The cause of the trouble was Ambedkar's continued insistence on the necessity of separate electorates for the depressed classes. Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party were opposed to separate electorates for the depressed classes, and Ambedkar and Gandhi had clashed on the subject at the Second Round Table Conference. Although Gandhi was one of the earliest champions of the cause of untouchables, and wanted to rid Hindu society of all casteism and discrimination, he also hoped to avoid allowing the British to politically divide Hindus based on caste. When the British made their Communal Award in 1934, they granted separate electorates for untouchables. Gandhi went on a "fast unto death," an action which led. Ambedkar to meet with Hindu orthodox leaders and leaders of the Indian National Congress, and eventually agree to give up the separate electorates and quotas. In return, the Congress Party agreed to increase its representation of untouchables, and Hindu religious leaders became aggressive in their attack upon caste discrimination and untouchability as a whole.

Today, Dr. Ambedkar, is openly credited with the crafting of the Indian Constitution. This volume has much significance, for other nations who won independence at about the same time in the Indian subcontinent, failed to enshrine the rights of their citizens. India, alone is the exception - and Dr.Ambedkar's contributions are openly recognized. Ambedkar was not satisfied by what he felt were inevitably hollow promises given the reluctance of orthodox Hindus to re-visit caste doctrines, and his conceding to Gandhi over key political issues. At this point, partly as a result of the opposition he had encountered over the question of separate electorates and partly because of the continued exclusion of Untouchables from Hindu temples, Ambedkar made a tactical shift: he started exhorting his followers to concentrate on raising their standard of living and gaining political power. He also began to think there was no future for the Untouchables within Hinduism and that they should change their religion. Inspite of this, there was little or no reaction from the Hindu community, which saw him as a Reformer. In the same year Ambedkar was appointed principal of the Government Law College, Bombay, built a house for himself and his library of over 50,000 books, and lost his wife Ramabai. They had been married in 1908, when he was sixteen and she was nine and she had borne him five children, of whom only one survived.

In later years, Dr.Ambedkar and his followers failed to understand that many of their demands was not for equality; rather, other communities were being asked to sacrifice their fundamental rights for his (Ambedkar's) own political gain. Needless to say, the movement did not succeed. It was an unhappy ending for a great man.

Political Career

In the course of the next few years Ambedkar founded the Indipendent Labour Party, and took part in the 1937 provincial legislative elections held as a result of the Government of India Act 1935. He was elected to the Bombay Legislative Assembly, where he pressed for the abolition of agricultural serfdom, defended the right of industrial workers to strike, advocated the promotion of birth control, and addressed meetings and conferences throughout the Bombay Presidency. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Ambedkar regarded Nazi ideology as a direct threat to the liberties of the Indian people.

Ambedkar exhorted the public to support the British government in prosecuting the war and encouraged Untouchables to join the Indian Army. In 1941, Ambedkar was appointed to the Defence Advisory Committee and in the following year joined the Viceroy's Executive Council as Labour Member, a post he occupied for the next four years. During the same period he transformed the Independent Labour Party into the All-India Schedule Caste Federation, founded the People`s Education Society, and published a number of highly controversial books and pamphlets. Among the latter were Thoughts on Pakistan, What Congress and Gandhi have Done to the Untouchables, and Who Were the Shudras?

Participation In Drafting The Constitution

In 1947, India achieved independence and Ambedkar, who had already been elected a member of the Constituent Assembly, was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the country, to join the Cabinet as Minister for Law. A few weeks later the Assembly entrusted the task of framing the Constitution to a Draft Committee, and this committee elected Ambedkar as its chairman. For the next two years, he worked on the Draft Constitution, writing it almost singlehandedly. Despite ill health, Ambedkar completed the Draft Constitution by the beginning of 1948 and later that year introduced it in the Constituent Assembly. Thereafter he steered it through the legislative process and in November of 1949 it was adopted by the Assembly with very few amendments.

Ambedkar's resignation from the Cabinet in 1951 marked the virtual end of his political career. In the general elections of January 1952 he failed to win a seat in the lower house of India`s parliuament, the Lok Sabha, and was equally unsuccessful when he contested a by-election the following year. In March 1952 he was, however, elected to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, as one of the seventeen representatives of the erstwhile Bombay State. He was soon vigorously attacking the government from his new position.

Conversion to Buddhism

While Ambedkar continued to participate in the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha, and was to do so until the end of his life, from 1952 onwards Ambedkar's energies were increasingly devoted to other concerns. Ever since the 1935 Depressed Classes Conference, when he had shocked Hindu India with the declaration that though he had been born a Hindu he did not intend to die one, Ambedkar had been giving earnest consideration to the question of conversion. Further consideration made him increasingly convinced that there was no future for the Untouchables within Hinduism, that they would have to adopt another religion, and that the best religion for them to adopt was Buddhism. In 1950 he visited Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Young Men`s Buddhist Association, Colombo, where he addressed a meeting of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Kandy and appealed to the Untouchables of Sri Lanka to embrace Buddhism. In 1951, he wrote an article defending the Buddha against the charge that he had been responsible for the decrease in women's status in ancient India. The same year, he compiled the Bauddha Upasana Patha, a small collection of Buddhist devotional texts.
In 1954, Ambedkar twice visited Burma, the second time in order to attend the third conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Rangoon. In 1955, he founded the Bharatiya Bauddha Mahasabha or Buddhist Society of India and installed an image of the Buddha in a temple that had been built at Dehu Road, near Pune on 25th December 1954. Addressing the thousands of Untouchables who had assembled for the occasion, he declared that henceforth he would devote himself to the propagation of Buddhism in India. He also announced that he was writing a book explaining the tenets of Buddhism in simple language for the benefit of the common man. The work in question was 'The Buddha and His Dhamma', on which he had been working since November 1951 and which he completed in February, 1956. Not long afterwards, Ambedkar announced that he would be formally converting in October of that year. Arrangements were accordingly made for the ceremony to be held in Nagpur.

On 14 October 1956, Ambedkar took the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a Buddhist monk in the traditional manner and then, in turn, administered them to the 380,000 men, women, and children who had come to Nagpur in response to his call. After further conversion ceremonies in Nagpur and Chanda, Ambedkar returned to Delhi. A few weeks later he travelled to Kathmandu in Nepal for the fourth conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, where he addressed the delegates on The Buddha and Karl Marx. On his way back to Delhi, he made two speeches in Benares and visited Kusinara, where the Buddha had died. In Delhi he took part in various Buddhist functions, attended the Rajya Sabha, and completed the last chapter of his book The Buddha and Karl Marx.

Ambedkar died on 6 December 1956. Although Ambedkar had been a Buddhist for only seven weeks, during that period he probably did more for the promotion of Buddhism than any other Indian since Ashoka. At the time of his death three quarters of a million Untouchables had become Buddhists, and in the months that followed hundreds of thousands more took the same step - despite the uncertainty and confusion that had been created by the sudden loss of their leader.

The work which has been described as Ambedkar's magnum opus, The Buddha and His Dhamma, was written between 1951 and 1956 and published by the People's Education Society in November 1957, almost a year after his death.

Memorial And Modern Views

A memorial for Ambedkar has been established in Delhi (26 Alipur Road, Near IP College, Civil Lines, New Delhi - 110054). 26 Alipur Road is the house where Ambedkar spent most of his life since he moved to Delhi, and is also the place where he breathed his last. The memorial was opened after a prolonged struggle by Dalit groups, when finally the Government of India secured the house from Jindals who occupied the property.

His birthdate is now a public holiday in India known as Ambedkar Jayanti. As a sign of respect, many Indians use the title "Babasaheb" in front of his name. "Jai Bhim!", referring to Ambedkar's first name, Bhimrao, is sometimes used as a greeting or an exclamation. He was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990.

Controversy

B.R. Ambedkar is a very polarizing figure in Indian society and politics. Hailed as a hero by his supporters, the communities he criticized during his life have a deep sense of enmity with him.

 

 
   
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