Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was the most important leader of the oppressed untouchable minority in the history of India. He acquired the honorific name Babasaheb. Fighting for his people, he angered Mohandas K. Gandhi, the revered leader of the Indian nationalist movement, as well as many Hindu traditionalists.
When India became an independent country, he served in its cabinet and drafted its constitution. Near the end of his life, he became a Buddhist and encouraged other untouchables to do likewise; he had lost hope of justice for his people within Hinduism.
In Hinduism most people belonged to four hierarchical castes, but a large minority were excluded from the caste system and were regarded as beneath it. They did jobs that other Hindus rejected as ritually unclean and were not allowed to pray in temples or to draw water from communal wells. Nearly all of them were desperately poor. In English these people often are called untouchables, or pariahs. Gandhi, wishing to improve their status, called them harijans, or children of God. To underscore their miserable condition, untouchables preferred to be called dalits, a name that means oppressed.
B. R. Ambedkar was born to an untouchable family as its 14th child. At the time of his birth his father was a soldier. Untouchables were divided into numerous hereditary subgroups, or jatis. Ambedkar belonged to the Mahar jati. Despite the disadvantages of poverty, family responsibilities, and untouchable status, he acquired an advanced education. In 1912 he earned a B.A. degree from Elphinstone College at Bombay University. The ruler of a princely state then financed his education in the United States and Britain. In 1916 Columbia University awarded him a Ph.D. in economics. He continued his studies at the London School of Economics. In 1921 it awarded him a second doctorate. He studied law at Gray’s Inn and in 1923 was called to the bar in Britain. He also studied briefly at a German university.
In India he practiced law, taught, edited newspapers, and entered politics. Although he was elected to the Bombay legislature, his real political career was as the leader of the formerly passive untouchable community. Ambedkar’s nonviolent protests mobilized tens of thousands of dalits for the right to draw water from wells and public tanks and to pray in temples. Although Gandhi saw himself as a friend of the untouchables, he got along poorly with Ambedkar. They quarreled at the Round Table Conferences on India’s future held in London.
When Britain decided to grant India extensive political autonomy, its government grappled with the problem of the diversity within the Indian population. In 1932 Britain offered separate electorates to the untouchables, so that this oppressed minority would control the selection of its representatives. The Indian National Congress strongly opposed any separate electorates. Gandhi began a fast to put pressure on Ambedkar to reject the special electorates for his people. Reluctantly, he did so. The Indian National Congress offered Ambedkar concessions in what was known as the Poona Pact. The number of seats reserved for untouchable candidates was increased, but the entire electorate, not just untouchables, would vote on the candidates for these seats.
In 1936 Ambedkar organized the Independent Labour Party. In contrast with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, Ambedkar and his party supported the British government in India during World War II. In 1942 he became a member of the viceroy’s executive council. In the same year he organized a new political party, the Scheduled Castes’ Federation.
When India became independent, Ambedkar joined the new government that the Indian National Congress dominated. From 1947 to 1951, he was a member of the cabinet. More important, he chaired the committee that drafted the national constitution and was its principal author.
In the final years of his life, Ambedkar turned to Buddhism, a religion with Indian roots that rejected the Hindu caste system and the concept of untouchability. He formally converted to Buddhism in October 1956. Hundreds of thousands of untouchables joined him in leaving Hinduism for Buddhism. A few weeks after his conversion ceremony, Ambedkar died.
David M. Fahey