Life and Mission of Dr Ambedkar

Book by Dhananjay Keer

Courtesy Copyright Popular Prakashan

For those of us born after 1950 Dr Ambedkar is mostly remembered to as the Father of the Indian Constitution. He is also referred to as the Savior of the Depressed Classes called Dalits today. I had always wanted to read about him but the man aroused me after I read his book ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’. His style is well researched, simple, straight possibly blunt. He came across as a very well read person whose arguments were based on sound logic. After completing the book I was in awe of the man’s intellect. Where did this Man come from? Why do the depressed classes worship him today? What were the problems that he had to undergo? Why did he become a Buddhist? What were his views on Ahimsa? Not knowing whether any book would satisfy my quest for knowledge I went to my favorite bookshop at the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan & was fortunate to find a book by D Keer. Having read Life Story of Veer Savarkar by the same author I instinctively knew that this was the book. Dr Ambedkar is referred to as BRA & Depressed Classes as DC henceforth. 

How have I compiled this piece? Done a précis of the book taking the most important events in BRA’s life. Focused on the problems faced by him, his achievements, dual with Gandhi, role in India’s Independence movement & framing India’s Constitution, reasons for embracing Buddhism. The book also has extensive quotations from historic interviews & inspiring speeches. Have ignored aspects of Partition that are covered in essays on Patel & Savarkar. My comments start by saying Friends.  

Excerpts from Preface by the Author 16/5/1954 “BRA has played the part of destiny in the liberation of suppressed humanity in India. So India must learn to understand his life, character and mission & know him as he is & not as he is distorted by his enemies or deified by his devotees. In order to help readers see the development of his mind and understand the bitterness and violence with which he attacked the old views & values that had defaced a part of humanity in this land, I have traced the events & facts in their proper context and perspective & dealt with the views of his great contemporaries with whom he came into clash. In doing so I have not the remotest idea of his belittling his greatness. Every great man has his minor foibles and flaws and when he moves & struggles in a particular field, he comes into conflict with the great ones in that field”. Friends hope that my précis is up to the mark, if not apologies in advance.

This piece is dedicated to Valmiki, Veda Vyasa, Sant Tukaram, Mahatma Phule, Veer Savarkar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and lastly to the author Dhananjay Keer. He attained eminence as a biographer, in recognition of which The Govt of India conferred on him the honor of Padma Bhushan. This piece is divided into 27 chapters as they appear in the book.

No's Title Content
1. 2500 years. Origin of untouchability, British attitude, socio-political situation in Maharashtra.
2. Childhood & Youth BRA’s family, early education & childhood.
3. Self-Development. Education in U.S.A., early activism, back to London.
4. Man of the Hour Law practice, BRA/Gandhi/Savarkar, Organizes DC.
5. Up Against Slavery Mahad fight – taking water from well, Role in Bombay Legislative Council.
6. Declaration of Independence BRA on violence, historic Mahad conference, BRA/Gandhi/Savarkar compared.
7. The Morning Star Comments on Bhakti Movement, Simon Commission, Rising Star.
8. Land, Labor, Education Fight for education or political rights, textile strike.
9. Before the Bar Temple entry into Nasik, Ist R.T. Conference.
10. War with Gandhi Meeting with Gandhi, 2nd R.T.C., Gandhi/BRA tussel.
11. Truce On Gandhi, separate electorates, Gandhi BRA pact.
12. The Real Path Muslim approach, temple entry controversy & Constitution committee.
13. A Thunderbolt. Health, ready to embrace another religion, why BRA would not adopt Islam.
14. Verdict on Hinduism. BRA on varna & embracing Sikhism.
15. A New Party. Starts a new party, elections of 1937.
16. Labor Leader Role, why BRA did not want to adopt Christianity, noble words, comments on Gandhi.
17. On Federation & Pakistan Challenges Congress, compares times of Ranade & Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo’s words on Gandhi/Congress, World War 2, Thoughts on Pakistan.
18. From Dust to Doyen Mahar battalion, Cripps Mission, BRA grows in stature.
19. Labor Member Super speeches, work for labor cause, BRA routed in elections.
20. Spell on Constituent Assembly Dispute with Congress, depressed + great speeches.
21 Modern Manu Results of partition, constitution work, BRA praised.
22. Shadow of Buddhism. Increasing popularity, back to Buddhism.
23. Back to the Opposition. Hindu code bill, resigns, defeated in elections, conferred doctorate.
24. Govt on the Anvil No linguistic states, on foreign policy.
25. Old Age What did BRA achieve, contribution to Hinduism, knowing BRA the man.
26. Revival of Buddhism Promoting Buddhism, thoughts on Buddhism and BRA converts. (a Must Read).
27. The Last Journey End / Tributes / Thoughts.
2500 years

This chapter gives you the political, social situation on eve of BRA’s birth.

1. BRA hailed from a poor family belonging to one of the untouchable communities (lowest strata of Hindu society) in India. Before the Indian Constitution abolished untouchability in 1950 they were divided into three categories – Untouchables, Unapproachables & Unseeables and were nearly 20 % of the Hindu population in India. They had different names in different parts of the country – Outcastes, Antyajas and Namashudras. Their social disabilities were specific & numerous. Their touch, shadow and even voice were deemed by the caste Hindus to be polluting. They were obliged to wear a particular type of dress & footwear, eat a particular type of food, and were forced to occupy the dirty, dingy, and unhygienic outskirts of villages & towns for habitation where they lived in dark, insanitary and miserable smoky shanties or cottages. Men wore a turban, carried a staff in the hand - rough blanket on the shoulder and a piece of loincloth. The women wore bodices & rough sarees barely reaching the knees.

Their children were not admitted to schools attended by caste Hindus. Though they worshipped Hindu gods, observed the same festivals, the Hindu temples were closed to them. Barbers & washermen refuse to render them service. These untouchable Hindus were treated by the caste Hindus as subhumans, less than men, worse then beasts. This picture is still true of villages and small towns (written in 1954). Cities have now mostly overcome this prejudice. As they were uneducated all public services including police & military forces were closed to them. Some of them plied trades of a lower & degrading order such as those of street-sweepers, scavengers & shoemakers. Others who were more fortunate tilled the land as tenants, worked as laborers in fields, a great number of them subsisted on food or grain given to them as village servants. They were born Untouchables, lived and died as Untouchables.

2. The origin of Untouchability is an enigma to modern history. But it is generally held to be a perverted outcome of the caste system. The Vedic Aryans knew no caste system. As time passed by, they divided themselves for different occupations. Those who took to learning became Brahmins, undertook governance became Kshatriyas, took to trade were Vaishyas and those who served these three classes became Shudras. But in actual practice this original principle of division of labor did not sustain for long. The result was that the original four divisions became watertight compartments & degenerated later into the present day caste system. Another view holds that these Untouchables were Broken Men and then followers of Buddhism. In their fallen days they did not assimilate themselves with Vedic Hindus or give up beef eating, and so they were degraded & segregated as Untouchables. The question is – Did this disruptive system go unchallenged?

Several worthy sons of India from generation to generation made attempts to free Hindu society from this system. There was Buddha who around 500 B.C. rocked the system to its foundations for a considerable period and even initiated the Untouchables into his religion. ‘Friends Buddha’s was a reformist movement, not a Religion, because in India existed Never Religion but Dharma did’. In the 11th century Ramanuja, who had an untouchable discipline, threw open the monasteries & temple to them which he had founded & built. There was Basavana in Karnatka followed by saints like Ramananda, Kabir, Chaitanya, Eknath, Tukaram, Rohidas & Chokhamela who succeeded to a great extent in establishing equality in matters of their Bhakti Cult.
Then followed the waves of socio-religious revival led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. But the most vital role was played by Mahatma Phooley who started in 1848 India’s first School for Untouchables. Among the Indian Princes it was Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda who started schools for the Untouchables in 1883. Gopal Baba Walangkar, a follower of Phule strove hard to convince the caste Hindus of their inhuman behavior. The virile & valiant Dayananda made great efforts too.

3. The attitude of the British rulers, who had just abolished slavery in their own land, towards the Untouchables was quite indifferent. Their neutral role was in effect a negative support to the caste Hindu oppressors. After the fall of the Maratha Empire they about stabilizing their newly acquired empire a manner so as to drain them slowly, fleece them safely and exploit them softly. Thus they first took up the cause of the Brahmans who had suffered tremendously by the change of Govt. For enlivening their hearts they began to educate them to enable them to be in service of the new Govt.

In those days literature was the privileged treasure & education was the monopoly of the Brahmans. They were forbidden to other caste Hindus too. When the Govt opened a Sanskrit school in 1821 for education of other castes the Brahmins protested and a majority of them resigned. However, as time passed by, it may be said to the credit of the British govt that non-Brahmins & backward class Hindus advanced gradually in education & govt service as never before.

If this was the situation of the caste Hindus what must have been the condition of the Untouchables. The Christian missionaries fully exploited the situation. By their tact, kindliness & readiness to help they ingratiated themselves with the lower classes & Untouchables with the result that a strong feeling grew that foreigners were preferable to the Brahmins. Due to the problems faced by Untouchable students in 1858 the Govt announced that it reserved the right refuse support to any partially aided school in which the benefits of education are withheld from any class of persons on account of caste & race. But this directive was not enough to result in a changed mindset of the caste Hindus.

4. Maharashtra – by the 1890s a strong socio-political revival had set in. The main problem that confronted the leaders along with political backwardness were the caste system, untouchability, child marriage, widow remarriage and emancipation of women. A bitter controversy arose over whether social reforms should take precedence over political reforms. The British naturally so wanted the Indians to focus on social reforms  & bypass political agitation. But the Indians believed that both need to happen simultaneously. The foremost among them was the glowing & mighty Ranade who conceived a vast broadening of the social foundations. Agarkar, a man of intellect & character, envisaged a profound reshaping of national, social & individual values. Dr Bhandarkar, a man of great learning actively propagated social reform.

On the side of political reformers was the commanding, aggressive personality of Tilak. He led the orthodox section of people who shouted that political reforms constituted the nation’s first necessity, with a subtle motive of bypassing social reforms. Telang an eminent judge wanted social reform running along the path of least resistance and political reform. Most of the political reformists opposed social reforms because they feared that social & religious disabilities if removed, would jeopardize their own prestige, privileges & position in Hindu society. So they bitterly opposed every move sponsored to give Hindu society a real & sound foundation.

The Indian National Congress had been founded 7 years ago, its sessions ended in appeals to the British for atleast Indianizing the Governmental administrative posts & Councils.

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