Ambedkar, the architect of Indian constitution

By Sanjeev Raja

Babasahib Ambedkar did a lot for the untouchables. But it seems he was unable to read into the minds of humans and the greed that drives them. While achieving his life-long goal to uplift the lower castes that had been downtrodden for centuries, the institution of reservations for them in the Indian constitution, now at more than 48 per cent, has caused controversies that plague the nation today. Reservations being an attractive option in a not so abundant a   society, more and more castes today fight to join in the bandwagon. Ambedkar also achieved his vow not to die as a Hindu as he converted to Buddhism just two months prior to his death.

Humble Beginnings and Early Influences

Bhimrao Ambedkar, was born in Mhow, in western Madhya Pradesh, on April 14, 1891 into the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste. His father was in the British Army. In school, Bhim tasted the bitter reality of life as he had to sit on the floor in one corner in the classroom. Teachers would not touch his notebooks. He could only drink water if someone else poured water into his mouth. Once Bhim, when he drank from the public reservoir, was beaten by the higher caste Hindus. He realized this was the plight of anyone born ‘untouchable’. K.A. Keluskar, an assistant teacher at the Wilson High School, introduced him to the teachings of Buddha that would later influence him into converting to Buddhism.

Protesting against untouchability

After his education the State Maharaja appointed him as his Military Secretary but no one would take orders from an ‘untouchable’ Mahar. He could not even get lodging and not even the prime minister appointed by the Maharaja for the task could help him find a place to live.

Ambedkar returned to Bombay in November 1917. With the help of Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur, a sympathizer of the cause for the upliftment of the depressed classes, he started a fortnightly newspaper, the Mooknayak (Leader of the Dumb) on January 31, 1920. In July 1924, Ambedkar founded the Bahishkrut Hitkaraini Sabha, aimed at scrapping the caste system from the Hindu religion. Soon he became a father-figure to the poor and downtrodden and was respectfully called ‘Babasaheb’.

In March 1927, attendees at a conference of the depressed classes held at Mahad, decided to implement the resolution passed four years earlier 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 its water. Higher caste Hindus attacked them.

Desperate and controversial approach

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. The Congress version made no provisions for the depressed classes. Ambedkar became more sceptical of the Congress’s commitment to safeguard their rights. He pressed for a separate electorate for the depressed classes.

When a separate electorate was announced for the depressed classes, Gandhi ji went on a fast unto death against this decision. Leaders rushed to Dr. Ambedkar to drop his demand but he  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 October 13, 1935, at a conference at Nasik, Dr. Ambedkar reviewed the progress made on the condition of the ‘untouchables’ in the decade since he had started his agitation. Ambedkar declared that their efforts had not borne the kind of results he had expected. He then made his dramatic appeal to the ‘untouchables’, encouraging 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 at 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 with a thumping majority.

Architect of the Indian Constitution

The constitution was drafted and presented to the assembly in February 1948. It was unique in several ways:
1. It is only one of the few written constitutions
2. It is comprehensive yet written in a very careful language
3. It is flexible yet having sufficient rigidity to prevent evil intentions
4. It is built to include amendments in future as required by time

After three readings before the constituent assembly, the draft constitution was finally ratified on November 26, 1949. It had 395 Articles and 8 Schedules. It would formally be adopted by the nation on January 26, 1950.

In his speech after the ratification, Babasahib Ambedkar made a fervent appeal to all Indians to support equality, which is very pertinent today in a nation where caste and religion-based politics is rampant. “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will only put our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously, built up,” he said.

Gandhi versus Ambedkar

In the second Round Table Conference that began in London in September 1931, Mahatma Gandhi made an argument in favour of seeing the Indian National Congress as the sole representative of the Indian people, since it had members of Hindu and Muslim religions in its party in high positions. It also had members of the depressed classes as well as two of its presidents were women – Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India, and Annie Besant.

Ambedkar showed his far-sighted view of nationhood in the conference when he took on the Indian Princes, stating that in a free and democratic India there was no place for the princes.

Ambedkar also had several arguments with Gandhi about the representation of the depressed classes. Ambedkar made it very clear to the Conference Chairman, Mr Radcliffe, that he would not allow the Indian National Congress to hijack or undermine the rights and demands of the depressed classes.

Gandhi went on a fast unto death asking the British to repeal this recommendation of separate electorates. He was promptly put in jail!

Ambedkar visited Gandhi in jail and was moved by his pitiful health situation. Ambedkar acceded and agreed to institute instead a reservation of 148 seats for the depressed classes in the provincial assemblies and also that 10 per cent of the Hindu seats from British India in the Central Assembly. This tug-of-war between the two men went on for quite a while with Gandhi often threatening fasts unto death when it suited him to bend others to his will.

Ambedkar and Buddhism
On May 24 1956, Ambedkar formally announced in Bombay that he would become a Buddhist. Ambedkar organized and presided over the Depressed Classes Conference. He stated that Buddhism was a religion that promoted equality.

On October 14, 1956, Ambedkar came to Nagpur to formally convert to Buddhism. With 500,000 people in attendance, Dr. Ambedkar and his wife accepted Buddhism.

Within a few months of this momentous event, Ambedkar passed away in his sleep in the early morning of December 6, 1956. He was 65-years-old. He had often said: “I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu.”

 

 

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