Ambedkar, B. R.

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AMBEDKAR, B. R. (18911956), statesman, writer, reformer, and creator of a new Buddhist movement in India; member of an untouchable caste. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, affectionately known as Babasaheb, was born in Mhow (now Mahu), India, where his father was headmaster of an army normal school. A member of the untouchable caste of mahārs of Maharashtra, who traditionally worked as village menials, Ambedkar lived at a time when his outstanding personal capabilities, in conjunction with a strong sentiment for reform then emerging among caste Hindus and the beginnings of a movement for rights within his own caste, could effect extraordinary progress and change in the status of untouchables. In his early years he suffered prejudice in school, but was also aided in his education by caste Hindu reformers. K. A. Keluskar encouraged him in his studies when the family moved to Bombay, and gave him a copy of his book in Marathi on the life of the Buddha. Two non-brahman princes, the Gaikwad of Baroda and Shahu Chhatrapati of Kolhapur, helped finance his education, which eventually included a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York, a D.Sc. from the University of London, and the title of barrister from Grey's Inn in London.

In 1917 Ambedkar returned to Bombay for a three-year period in the midst of his education abroad. During this time he participated in two conferences for the Depressed Classes, testified to the Government Franchise Commission on the rights of untouchables, and began a newspaper entitled Mūknayāk (The voice of the mute). All three activitiesconferences to organize and inspire, attempts to use the parliamentary process for political and social rights, and educational workwere to become hallmarks of his lifelong efforts at reform. Upon his return permanently to India in 1923, Ambedkar earned a living from teaching and law but spent a major part of his energies on building a movement among untouchables and creating political and social opportunities for them, chiefly through pressure on government. He made efforts to secure religious rights such as participation in public festivals, temple entry, Vedic wedding rituals, and the wearing of the sacred thread, but these ended in 1935 when he declared that although he was born a Hindu he would not die a Hindu, and that untouchables could be free only outside the Hindu religion. Earlier, at a conference called at Mahad, a small town south of Bombay, he had burned those portions of the classic Hindu law book, the Manusmti, that discriminated against low castes.

His unshakable faith in parliamentary democracy led Ambedkar to testify at every opportunity before the commissions that investigated the furthering of democratization in British India. The prominence he gained in these lengthy and sophisticated statements resulted in his being named a representative to the Round Table conferences in London in 1930 and 1931. Faced there with the demands of Muslims, Sikhs, and other minorities for separate electorates, he began to advocate separate electorates for untouchables also. This led him into direct opposition with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who fasted in prison in Poona against such separation of untouchables from the main Hindu body of voters. Although the Poona Pact of 1932 brought about a compromise with Gandhi consisting of an exchange of separate electorates for more reserved seats for the Depressed Classes, Ambedkar continued to regard Gandhi's belief in a "change of heart," rather than legal measures, as a deterrent to real change, as a cure for untouchability. His 1945 book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, indicted the Gandhian form of paternalism.

During the British governmental reforms of the mid-1930s, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party in opposition to the Indian National Congress. The year 1937 brought eleven Scheduled Castes (so called because the government placed untouchable castes on a schedule to receive representation in parliamentary bodies and government employment) into the Bombay Legislative Assembly. Although Ambedkar was to found two other political parties, the Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942 and the Republican Party in 1956, he never again achieved such a large number of seats.

Ambedkar himself was able to effect legislation guaranteeing rights for untouchables as well as measures affecting all India in the appointed positions of Labour member in the viceroy's executive council (19421946) and as minister for law in India's first independent ministry (19471951). He was also chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution (19471948), hailed as the "modern Manu." Among the tenets of the Indian constitution is one outlawing the practice of untouchability, a tribute to the work of both Ambedkar and Gandhi.

Underlying Ambedkar's social and political work was a constant effort to educate his people. The newspapers Bahishkrit Bhārat (Excluded India), Janata (People), and Prabuddha Bhārat (Awakened India) succeeded Mūknayāk and were widely circulated in spite of an extremely low literacy rate among the Untouchables. A modest beginning of building hostels so that untouchable children could attend government schools in towns culminated in the People's Education Society, which opened Siddharth College in Bombay in 1946 and Milind College in Aurangabad in 1951. The society runs two dozen institutions in the early twenty-first century and in 1982 laid the foundation stone for Dr. Ambedkar College in Poona. The stress on literacy and learning also encouraged creative writing, and since Ambedkar's death the movement called Dalit Sahitya ("the literature of the oppressed") has become an important new facet of Marathi literature and has influenced similar schools of literature in oher languages. Dalit writers pay tribute to Ambedkar as their chief inspiration and ascribe to the Buddhist conversion movement that he set in motion shortly before his death their sense of freedom from the psychological bonds of untouchability.

Although Ambedkar's interest in Buddhism was evident all his life, he did not convert until October 14, 1956, less than two months before his death on December 6. The ceremony, held at Nagpur, was witnessed by more than half a million people, and in the conversion movement that followed, more than six million people, most of them from former untouchable castes, declared themselves Buddhists. In his talks and in his book The Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar stressed a rational, humanitarian, egalitarian Buddhism drawn chiefly from Pali texts. Hindu beliefs and practices and any supernatural Buddhist ideas were eliminated from the Buddhism propounded by Ambedkar. He himself, however, was regarded as the savior of the untouchables and came to be held by many as a bodhisattva. In the years since his death, dozens of Buddhist viharās (temple compounds) have been built across the face of the state of Maharashtra, and hundreds of books have been written on Buddhist faith and practice, chiefly in Marathi.

Ambedkar's fame as an emancipator has grown constantly since his death. His statue can be found in almost every city and many villages in India and generally he is shown carrying a copy of the constitution of India. His birth day, conversion day, and death day are observed by millions and the Buddhist conversion movement continues to grow.

See Also

Gandhi, Mohandas.


Works by Ambedkar

The Buddha and His Dhamma. Bombay, 1957. Ambedkar's basic presentation of Buddhist stories and tenets. The volume has also appeared in Hindi and Marathi.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches. 18 vols. to date. Compiled and edited by Vasant Moon. Bombay, 1979. Volume 1 contains "Castes in India" (pp. 322) and "Annihilation of Caste" (pp. 2396), first published in 1917 and 1936, respectively, which represent Ambedkar's pre-conversion thought on the genesis and removal of caste.

The Untouchables. 2d ed. Shravasti, 1969. Ambedkar's thesis that the untouchables had been Buddhists, isolated and despised when India returned to Hinduism.

What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. 2d ed. Bombay, 1946. Ambedkar's most thorough indictment of the failure of Congress to deal realistically with the problems of untouchability.

Works about Ambedkar

Ahir, D. C. Buddhism Vol. 6 in India: 50 Years of Independence: 194797. Delhi, 1998. Hundreds of books and pamphlets in Marathi and Hindi have been produced by Ambedkar's Buddhist conversion movement, but D. C. Ahir is the only convert who writes extensively in English.

Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay, 1954, with many reprints. The most basic life of Ambedkar available in English, always kept in print.

Moon, Vasant. Growing Up Untouchable. Lanham, Maryland, 2001. An autobiography that tells of the importance of Ambedkar to untouchables.

Queen, Christopher S., "Dr. Ambedkar and the Hermeneutics of Buddhist Liberation" in Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, edited by Christopher S. Queen and Sallie B. King. Albany, 1996.

Zelliot, Eleanor. From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement. 3d ed. New Delhi, 2001.

Eleanor Zelliot (1987 and 2005)