Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the fourteenth of Ramji and Bhimabai Sakpal Ambavedkar, was born on April 14, 1891, in Mhow, Central India into the “untouchable” Mahar caste. His father, and grandfather Maloji, were in the British Army. The Government required all Army personnel and their families to be educated and ran schools for this purpose. Thus the Sakpal family was fortunate to receive good education which otherwise, would have been denied to them.
At the age of six, Bhim’s mother died. The family was brought up by Ramji’s sister Meerabai until Ramji married a widow named Jijabai. Ramji was a strict, pious man. He never ate meat or touched liquor. He, along with his children, would sing devotional songs composed by Namdev, Tukaram, Moropant and Mukteshwar and read stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Ramji retired from the army after 14 years of service at the rank of “Subedar-Major” of the 2nd Grenadiers. The family moved to Dapoli in Konkan and then to Satara. Bhim and elder brother, Anand, were enrolled in the contonment school, Government High School.
Bhim began to taste the bitter reality of being born “untouchable” in school. He had to sit on the floor in one corner in the classroom. Teachers would not touch his notebooks. If Bhim felt thirsty, he could only drink water if someone else poured water into his mouth. Once provoked by an uncontrollable fit of thirst, Bhim drank from the public reservoir. He was found out and beaten by the higher caste Hindus. These experiences were permanently etched onto his mind. He realized that this was the plight of anyone born “untouchable.”
While in school, Bhim’s teacher Ambedkar, entered his last name into the school records as Ambedkar. Teacher Ambedkar and Pendse, were the only ones in the entire school who were kind and affectionate to young him. They made the few fond memories Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had of his school days.
Bhim was an average student. He became fond of gardening and, whenever he could, he bought saplings and with great devotion nurtured them to full growth. While studying in Satara, many of his classmates left for good jobs in Bombay. He too wanted to go to Bombay and get a job and become independent. He realized that if he ever were to be successful, he would have to concentrate more on his studies. He became interested in reading. He read not just the prescribed books in school but any book in general. His father was too pleased when he digressed from school books but he never said “no” when Bhim wanted a book.
Bhim enrolled in the Elphinstone High School in Bombay. Even there, one of his teachers constantly mocked him, saying that of what use was an educated Mahar. Bhim swallowed these insults and controlled his anger. He passed his matriculation examination in 1907. The Mahar community felicitated him on his achievement.
Bhim joined the Elphinstone College for further education. After completing his Intermediate course, Bhim received a scholarship from the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayaji Rao, and attained a Bachelors in Arts in 1912. The February of next year, Bhim father and mentor, Ramji died.
Sayaji Rao selected Bhim to be sent to America on a scholarship for higher studies. In return, Bhim Rao would have to serve the State of Baroda for ten years. Bhim Rao reached New York in July 1913. For the first time in his life, Bhim Rao was not demeaned for being a Mahar. He put his heart into his studies and received a degree in Master of Arts and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Columbia University in 1916 for his thesis “National Dividend for India: A Historical and Analytical Study.”
From America, Bhim Rao proceeded to London to study economics and political science. He Government of Baroda terminated his scholarship and recalled him to Baroda. Bhim Rao vowed to return to London to complete his studies.
The Maharaj appointed him to the post of Military Secretary but who cared to take orders from an “untouchable” Mahar. Bhim Rao could not even get lodging and not even the Prime Minister appointed by the Maharaja could help Bhim Rao find a place to live. Bhim Rao returned to Bombay in November 1917. and took a part time job in the Sydenham College with the sole aim of going to London to complete his studies.
With the help of Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur, a sympathizer of the cause for the upliftment of the depressed classes, Bhim Rao started a fortnightly newspaper, the Mooknayak (Leader of the Dumb) on January 31, 1920. The Maharaj also convened many meeting and conferences of the “untouchables” which Bhim Rao addressed. Impressed by Ambedkar, the Maharak declared at a meeting, “You have found your saviour in Ambedkar. I am confident he will break your shackles.”
In September 1920, after accumulating sufficient funds, Ambedkar returned to London to complete his studies. He became a barrister and got a Doctorate in Science. He now considered himself fully equipped to fight the evil of “untouchability.”
In July 1924, Ambedkar founded the Bahishkrut Hitkaraini Sabha. The aim of the Sabha was to uplift the downtrodden socially and politically and bring them to the level of the others in the Indian society. The Sabha aimed at scrapping the caste system from the Hindu religion. The Sabha started free school for the young and the old and ran reading rooms and libraries. Dr. Ambedkar took the grievances of the “untouchables” to court and gave them justice. Soon he became a father-figure to the poor and downtrodden and was respectfully called “Babasaheb.”
On March 19-20, 1927 a conference of the depressed classes was held at Mahad. Ten thousand delegates attended, workers and leaders attended. Babasaheb condemned the British for banning the recruitment of “untouchables” into the military. He declared,
“No lasting progress can achieved unless we put ourselves through a threefold process of purification. We must improve the general tone of our demeanor, re-tone our pronunciation and revitalize our thoughts. I, therefore, ask you now to take a vow to renounce eating carrion, the… flesh of… animals, from this moment. …Make an unflinching resolve not to eat the thrown away crumbs. We will attain self-elevation only if we learn self-help, regain our self respect and gain self-knowledge.”
The next day, the conference decided to implement the resolution passed 4 years ago to open public places to all regardless of religion, caste or creed by drinking from the Chavdar Taley (Sweet-water Tank). They walked to the tank and drank from its water. Higher caste Hindus attacked them. They beat the delegates, pulled down the conference pulpit, threw away all the cooked food and broke all the vessels. Ambedkar told his people to stay calm and not to retaliate. Later the Hindus performed rituals to “purify” the “defiled” water. Ambedkar vowed to offer a satyagraha and re- establish his peoples right over the water tank.
On December 25 of the same year, thousands responded to Ambedkar’s call. Speaker after speaker spoke, passions rose and the vast gathering waited for the satyagraha to begin with intense anticipation. The satyagraha was deferred when the matter was referred to the court. At the end of conference, a copy of the Manusmruti, the age-old code of the Hindus that gave rise to the caste system, was ceremoniously burnt. In a thundering voice, Ambedkar demanded in its place a new smruti, devoid of all social stratification. This act sent shockwaves through the nation.
In 1929, Ambedkar made the controversial decision to co- operate with the all-British Simon Commission which was to look into setting up a responsible Indian Government in India. The Congress decided to boycott the Commission and drafted its own version of a constitution for free India. Unfortunately the Congress version made no provisions for the depressed classes. Ambedkar became more skeptical of the Congress’s commitment to safeguard the rights of the depressed classes. He was invited to the Round Table Conference in London held from November 1930 to January 1931 to represent the depressed classes. He emphatically declared that the before the British came the evil of “untouchability” was rampant and now after 150 years of British rule, this evil had no abated. The British had done nothing to alleviate the status of the depressed classes. He declared that India must have a minimum of Dominion Status. He pressed for a separate electorate for the depressed classes.
When a separate electorate was announced for the depressed classes, Gandhiji went on a fast unto death against this decision. Leaders rushed to Dr. Ambedkar to drop the demand for a separate electorate. Ambedkar held fast and did not buckle under the immense pressure. Finally on September 24, 1932, Ambedkar and Gandhiji signed the Poona Pact. According to the pact the separate electorate demand was replaced with special concessions like reserved seats in the regional legislative assemblies and Central Council of States.
On May 27, 1935, Dr. Ambedkar’s wife Ramabai died. Ambedkar could not bear the loss of his wife. He broke down, a shattered man.
On October 13, 1935, at a conference at Nasik, Dr. Ambedkar reviewed the progress made on the condition of the “untouchables” in the decade since Ambedkar started his agitation. Ambedkar declared that their efforts had not borne the kind of results he had expected. He then made a fantastic appeal to the “untouchables.” He encouraged them to forsake the Hindu religion and convert to a religion where they would be treated with equality. The nation was shocked.
The British Government agreed to hold elections on the provincial level in 1937. The Congress, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha started gearing up for the elections. Dr. Ambedkar set up the Independent Labor Party in August 1936 to contest the elections in the Bombay province. On February 17, 1937, Ambedkar and many of his candidates won this a thumping majority. Around the same time, the Chavdar Taley water dispute which was referred to the Bombay High Court in 1927 finally handed down its verdict in favor of the depressed classes.
Dr. Ambedkar introduced Bills in 1937 to abolish the “khoti” system of land tenure in the Konkan region, the serfdom of agricultural tenants and the Mahar “watan” system of working for the Government as slaves. A clause of an agrarian bill referred to the depressed classes as “Harijans,” or people of God. Ambedkar was strongly opposed to this title for the untouchables. He argued that if the “untouchables” were people of God then all others would be people of monsters. He was against any such reference. But the Indian National Congress succeeded in introducing the term Harijan. Ambedkar felt bitter that they could not have any say in what they were called.
On July 15, 1947, the British Parliament passed the act of Indian Independence and on August 15, 1947, India became free. The Constituent Assemble of Independent India appointed a Drafting Committee with Dr. Ambedkar as its Chairman to draft the Constitution of India. Dr. Ambedkar was also invited to join the Cabinet as the Minister of Law. Ambedkar toiled over the Constitution while he took care of his ministry. In February 1948, Dr. Ambedkar presented the Draft Constitution before the people of India.
The mammoth effort had taken its tool on Dr. Ambedkar’s health. He went to Bombay for treatment and married Dr. Sharada Kabir on April 15, 1948, who worked in the same hospital where he was receiving treatment.
The Constituent Assemble adopted the Draft Constitution as the Constitution of India on November 26, 1949 with all its 356 Articles and eight Schedules and Article 11 which abolished untouchability in all forms.
In October 1948, Dr. Ambedkar submitted the Hindu Code Bill to the Constituent Assembly in an attempt to codify the Hindu law. The Bill caused great divisions even in the Congress party. Consideration for the bill was postponed to September 1951. When the Bill was taken up it was truncated. A dejected Ambedkar relinquished his position as Law Minister.
In May 1956, on Buddha’s Anniversary, Dr. Ambedkar announced that on October 14 he would embrace Buddhism. With him his wife and some three lakh followers also converted to the faith. When asked why, Dr. Ambedkar replied, “Why can’t you ask this question to yourself and… your forefathers…?”
On December 5, 1956, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar died peacefully in his sleep or as the Buddhists would say, he attained “nirvana.”