Intersectional Champion of the Month: Dr. B R Ambedkar

Today we celebrate the 128th birth anniversary of Dr. B R Ambedkar – our Crusader for Social Justice. We remember Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar for his contribution to our constitution. We all studied about him in school, but have since forgotten the values he envisioned in an ‘independent India’. 

Although his ideals have been co-opted and corrupted for mere symbolism in politics, we have a lot to learn from such a learned and curious individual. His discourses in published works including ‘The Problem of Rupee: It’s Origin and Solution’, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, ‘Federation vs. Freedom’, etc speak of a mind ignited with questions and eager to understand the mechanics of society. He epitomises the idea that we must doubt those who know but trust those who doubt. 

His Political Contribution 

He was the first person to study and elucidate the purely political roots of the ‘caste divide’ in India and preached that religion-based politics was the source of inequality.  To a man who fought hard to erase caste divides, the idea of mob lynching lower caste men for being suspected of ‘cow consumption’ would be abominable. He would also disparage the parties’ manifestos which hope to consciously manipulate everyday social differences between caste groups.

He was a strong proponent of the French ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. His inclusion of caste based reservations in the constitution was aimed at upliftment of those sections and at least in theory to afford them political equality. However, he always maintained that the only way to uproot the caste system was working towards actual social equality.

He was firmly opposed to politics in the name of caste, although understanding the importance of giving political equality to castes. As the father of the Indian Constitution, which has been lauded as ‘first and foremost a social document’, he was the social engineer of modern India. As Granville Austin noted, ‘The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement’. His efforts have since been misinterpreted and distorted for political gain, read more here and here.  

I am disgusted with Hindus and Hinduism because I am convinced that they cherish wrong ideals and lead a wrong social life. My quarrel with Hindus and Hinduism is not over the imperfections of their social conduct. It is much more fundamental. It is over their ideals

The evils of the Caste System 

Dr. Ambedkar has famously rejected hinduism for being exclusionary and inhumane in its treatment of the lower castes, as ‘detrimental to the prosperity of human kind’. In 1923, he formed the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha to alleviate the situation of the oppressed classes in India. He continually worked towards the elimination of the caste system in India. One of his greatest contribution to our Constitution has been the abolition of untouchability.

Ambedkar once wrote to Gandhi, “I am disgusted with Hindus and Hinduism because I am convinced that they cherish wrong ideals and lead a wrong social life. My quarrel with Hindus and Hinduism is not over the imperfections of their social conduct. It is much more fundamental. It is over their ideals”.

He was not afraid to question his religion, and call out others, including Gandhi for their hypocrisy. He openly criticised Gandhi for being anti-caste when he wrote in English for foreign publications, but pro-caste when he wrote in Gujarati for regional publications.

Source: KrantiJyoti Savitribai Phule Library

Ambedkar and Feminism 

As a true intersectional champion, he worked towards human rights, equality for all castes and women’s rights, he argued for the inclusion of intersectional issues in our laws. A proponent of women’s right, he questioned hindu practices of (a) burning the widow with her deceased husband (b) compulsory widowhood by which a woman is not allowed to remarry (c) imposing celibacy on the widower and (d) wedding men to girls before their marriageable age.

A strong advocate for women’s rights, he worked towards incorporating maternity rights for women factory workers. Some of the other changes he introduced as the chair of Labour Council include: 

  1. Mines Maternity Benefit Act; 
  2. Women Labour Welfare Fund; 
  3. Women and Child Labour Protection Act; 
  4. Maternity benefit for women labour; 
  5. Restoration of ban on Employment of Women on underground work in coal mines; and 
  6. Equal pay for Equal work irrespective of gender. 

Truly ahead of his time, he recognised women’s rights as human rights and fought for equality for the ‘oppressed classes’, including women, in social life. As social activists, we particularly draw inspiration from him, ‘I strongly believe in the movements run by women. If they are truly taken in to confidence, they may change the present picture of society which is very miserable. In past, they have played a significant role in improving the condition of weaker section and classes’.

As we celebrate the birth anniversary of this visionary man, we must take time to understand his legacy and learn from his teachings. Second-hand ‘lessons’ from Ambedkar through party narratives can be misleading, even if well-meaning. For those who want to acquaint themselves with the mind of this visionary leader, I urge them to read his speech at the Legislative Assembly on the eve of adoption of our draft Constitution.  In Dr. B R Ambedkar’s own final words: “Educate, Agitate and Organise”.

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