Ghandi’s Historic role in India’s struggle for independence has been commemorated the world over. But 64 years after the birth of the modern state, his political rival and the man who wrote India’s constitution, Dr Ambedkar, is little known outside his home country. Harry Dadswell tells us why it’s time his legacy is given the recognition it deserves.
It was four years ago in the luggage store room of a Mumbai railway station that I first encountered Dr Ambedkar. Depositing a suitcase, I noticed a framed portrait of a bespectacled man in a suit and quizzical expression on the wall. “Who is that?” I asked the porters. “That is Ambedkar, the man that wrote our Constitution” came the answer. Over the following weeks of travel across India I became increasingly aware of the enormous number of statues, portraits and posters of a man unfamiliar to me before my arrival. Intrigued, I bought the first book I could about Dr Ambedkar, a tatty little paperback sold to me by a newspaper seller at a Keralan Bus Station.
In its pages I learnt of the extraordinary life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Born in 1891 into a poor untouchable family, he was one of the first members of that oppressed caste to study at university, gaining degrees from Columbia University in New York and the London School of Economics. Returning to India, Dr Ambedkar spent decades as a politician fighting the social discrimination of the Hindu caste system, eventually writing the Indian Constitution adopted after Indian Independence that outlawed the practice of untouchability.
Amazed at the contrast between the scale of commemoration for Ambedkar in India and how little known he was back in the UK, I have spent the subsequent years researching a history PhD on his political philosophy. Ambedkar’s writings cover a great array of topics; law, economics, politics, history, anthropology and religion. He is fascinating from a political perspective because it is so hard to categorise him. One can find elements of liberalism, socialism, Marxism and Buddhism in his views on the future of India and how it might overcome the curse of the caste system.
Yet Ambedkar serves as an extraordinary example today, not simply owing to his beliefs, but his actions too. The American Civil Rights movement was inspired by Rosa Parks’ refusal in 1955 to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white passenger. Likewise Ambedkar showed great courage in 1927 by leading a campaign to secure lower caste access to public water facilities, drinking from the water tank of Mahad town to the fury of many residents. In the years after Independence, Ambedkar showed frustration at the slow pace of change. He resigned as Law Minister when his attempts to reform Hindu civil law failed to find parliamentary approval.
In the years after Independence, Ambedkar showed frustration at the slow pace of change. He resigned as Law Minister when his attempts to reform Hindu civil law failed to find parliamentary approval. Abandoning hope in reforming Hinduism from within, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956, the year of his death.
In subsequent decades Ambedkar didn’t get the recognition he deserved for his contribution to Indian history. It was only in 1990, when lower caste parties such as the BSP were growing in power, that Ambedkar was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award and in 2012 a TV poll on the ‘Greatest Indian After Gandhi’ was won by Ambedkar.
When Obama spoke to the Indian parliament in 2010 he spoke of how Ambedkar’s life demonstrated that every person should fulfill their God-given potential. The fact that many of India’s lower castes still suffer from social discrimination shows that Ambedkar’s memory is more than just something to inspire. His life serves as a challenge to make the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity enshrined in Ambedkar’s Constitution real in the lives of all India’s citizens.