He Had a Dream

Name: The Essential Ambedkar Author: Bhalchandra Mungekar Publisher: Rupa Publications Pages: 453 Price: Rs 395

It is one of the interesting conundrums of our recent history that while the influence and relevance of almost all of the stellar figures of our freedom struggle seem to be on the wane, there is one major exception. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956)’s luminosity seems to have very markedly grown in the past three to four decades. It would not be incorrect to say that the philosophical precepts of Mahatma Gandhi are today observed more in the breach, and seem to be confined to the deliberations of some academic historians, political scientists or economists, while Nehru seems to be facing a particularly scathing barrage under the present dispensation. Indeed, there are some self-appointed analysts whose chief occupation seems to be to argue that all the ills of our present times may be placed at the doorstep of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s case has been quite the opposite. Born into the “untouchable” Mahar caste at Mhow in central India, Ambedkar devoted his entire life to the uplift of the condition of the Dalits, who for centuries have been mired in wretched living conditions in the Indian subcontinent. He was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution and also served as the first law minister of India. He was a democrat to the core and held radical views on discrimination against the backward classes, particularly the untouchables. As the framer of the Hindu Code Bill, he sought to give dignity to the role of women in Hindu society. In 1990, Ambedkar was posthumously accorded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. It is possible to argue that the continuing evidence, and even accentuation of economic and social inequities in today’s India might be the chief reason for the contemporary relevance of Ambedkar’s thoughts.

The present volume, very ably edited by Bhalchandra Mungekar, former vice-chancellor of the University of Mumbai, is, therefore, especially welcome at the present juncture. It contains glimpses of Ambedkar’s extensive writings on caste, untouchability, Hindu social order, human rights, labour welfare, the Constitution and parliamentary democracy, linguistic states, the Buddha, Marx and emancipation of women, among other major themes. A key point that Mungekar stresses is that even while vehemently arguing against caste and untouchability, Ambedkar advocated non-enmity with the tormentor, and was keen “to push forward a struggle for justice responsibly rather than indulging in punitive violent measures”.

As an “untouchable”, Bhimrao endured a childhood and youth full of the indignities that are a regular feature of the rigid, hierarchical and inhuman caste system of Hindus, and he was determined to fight it. Through sheer grit, dedication and a huge reservoir of self-belief, he educated himself to earn a doctorate in economics from Columbia University in New York and a DSc in economics from the London School of Economics, as well as a law degree from Grays’s Inn, London. There need be no doubt that in terms of sheer academic achievements, Ambedkar was possibly the most formidable among all of India’s principal pre-Independence figures, not excepting Gandhi, Nehru and Subhas Bose.

But, paradoxically, during his own lifetime, Ambedkar never got his due among the great political figures of the 1930s, ’40s and the early ’50s. This is possibly because, fairly early on, he took up the cause of the Dalits and untouchables and, at a major conjuncture, had to take an openly confrontationist position with Gandhi on the issue of a separate electorate for “depressed classes” in the communal award announced by the colonial British government in 1932. Gandhi opposed this, arguing that this would divide the Hindu community, while Ambedkar was in favour of it. Gandhi went on a fast unto death and finally had his way in having a general electorate under this so-called Poona Pact.

Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste was a seminal intellectual study of caste, which the editor appropriately describes as an illuminative as well as a redemptive text. Ambedkar had observed: “…turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform unless you kill this monster.” Ambedkar was convinced that political and economic safeguards are necessary for Dalits, since without these safeguards, they would not be able to enjoy social and economic freedom. This was regarded as a direct challenge to Gandhi, and, therefore, was the source of considerable conflict.

In the latter part of his life, when he was totally frustrated with the inflexibility and inhumanity that Hinduism had to offer to the Dalits, Babasaheb decided to change his religion. He had famously declared: “Though I was born a Hindu, I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu.” He was a cerebral person to the core, and after extensively studying the foundational tenets of both Hinduism and Buddhism, he consciously decided to embrace the latter. He was the author of The Buddha and His Dhamma, which was a treatise on Buddha’s life and Buddhism.

The paperback is well produced and reasonably priced. Anyone interested in this great savant may profitably read it.

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