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Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar biography

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956)

BIOGRAPHY - B R Ambedkar

Bhimrao was born on 14 April 1891 at mhow in the erstwhile princely state of Indore. He was the fourteenth child of his parents Ramji Sakpal and Bhimabai. The family belonged to the ‘untouchable’ Mahar caste. However, among the ‘untouchables' Mahars were considered as a martial race and had played an important role in the Maratha army from the time of Shivaji. Many of them had also joined the British army.
His grandfather, father and six uncles were in the British army, holding the rank of subedar-major. His b r ambedkarfather, Ramji, was serving as a teacher in the Army School when Bhim was born. He retired from service after a couple of years and took his family to Dapoli, a village in Ratnagiri district, and then to Satara where he could get a job.
A child’s first school is always the family. Bhimrao grew up in a religious atmosphere. His father was a religious man who recited couplets from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata daily like any devout Hindu. Bhimrao formal education started at Dapoli but he finished his primary education at Satara. In school, he had the traumatic experiences which an 'untouchable’ suffers in orthodox Hindu society. Students and teachers alike shunned him heaping untold humiliations on the young Bhim. His attitude towards Hinduism and the curse of untouchability could be traced to these ugly degrading experiences in his childhood. while studying at Satara, Bhim used Ambavadekar as surname, which was derived from their ancestral village Ambavade. A teacher, whose name was Ambedkar, changed Bhim’s surname to Ambedkar in the school records because he liked the meek but disciplined boy. From Satara the family moved to Bombay, where Ramji got a job. Bhimrao was enrolled in Elphinstone High School from where he passed the matriculation examination in 1908. He was an average student but at a young age he had developed the habit of reading widely, beyond textbooks. Even before he had passed the matriculation examination, he was married to Ramabai, an eight-year old girl.
After school Ambedkar joined the Elphistone College and passed the Intermediate examination from there. In school as well as in college, the orthodox Hindu teachers did not allow Bhim “to opt for Sanskrit as an elective Subject and he was compelled to take Persian. However, with his own efforts and with the help of some broadminded Pundits he acquired a good knowledge of Sanskrit, which enabled him to study and interpret Hindu scriptures. Surprisingly, leaders like Gandhi and Nehru had hardly any knowledge of Sanskrit. Ambedkar was contemplating discontinuing his studies due to financial difficulties when he received a scholarship of twenty-five rupees per month from the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayaji Rao Gaikwad, which enabled him to graduate in 1912.-for further studies he went to America on a Baroda State Scholarship and joined Columbia University, New York from where he obtained a Master’s degree in 1915, and a doctorate in philosophy in 1916.]While at Columbia University, he wrote three dissertations: Ancient Indian Commerce; Caste in India and National Dividend in India, which were later published in the form of a book. Form the US Ambedkar went to England and joined the London School of Economics and Political Science in October 1916 as well as Gray’s Inn for legal studies. While he was still studying, the tenure of his scholarship expired and he had to return to India. He was, however, determined to go back to complete his studies. Back in Bombay, he taught at the Sydenham College for two years (1918-1920); saved some money, borrowed some more and returned to London to resume his studies. He was awarded an M.Sc. degree in Economics in 1921 and D.Sc. in 1923. In the same year, he was called to the Bar and qualified as a barrister. On his return to Bombay he started legal practice but his heart was in doing social work for the downtrodden ‘untouchables when he had returned to India the first time from England he had started a fortnightly Mooknayak (Leader of the Dumb) in Marathi with the help of Sahu Maharaj. he had addressed several conferences expressing his views, which had been well-received. His education completed, he was drawn more and more towards social and political activities. His first concern was the eradication of untouchability and instilling confidence and dignity in the untouchables. For that purpose, he set up the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha in July 1924. The Sabha gave priority to education of the depressed classes and opened free schools, libraries and hostels. Within five years, the sabha was running four boarding houses in the Bombay Presidency, where students belonging to the lower strata of society could live, as the students belonging to higher castes had refused to stay and dine with them.
Ambedkar started a few journals and newspapers to spread his message. A Marathi fortnightly,- Bahishkrit Bhamt, was started in April 1927. The same year, in September, he founded the Samaj Samara Sangh to preach social equality and started publishing its organ Samara in March 1929. Still another journalistic venture of his was janata, a weekly started in November 1930. None of these, however, survived for long as Ambedkar became involved in social, educational and other activities.
 Country like India where a vast majority of people are illiterate, a person cannot become a leader of the masses through his writings and speeches alone. The leader has to take recourse to some dramatic action in which people can participate in large numbers, as was demonstrated by Tilak and Gandhi. With that purpose in mind, Ambedkar resorted to a form of satyagraha to fight for the right of ‘untouchables‘ to drink water from ‘Chavdan Talen’ (sweet water tank) a public tank in Mahad, inaccessible to the lower castes. Ambedkar and his followers walked upto the tank on 20 March 1927 and drank water from it. The high caste Hindus were furious and attacked them. But Ambedkar advised his followers to stay calm and not retaliate. The case was referred to the court, which the ‘untouchables’ won after along wait in 1937 from the Bombay High Court. Ambedkar led another Satyagraha in March 1930 demanding the right of all Hindus of all castes to enter the famous Ram Mandir in Nasik. From these events, Ambedkar emerged as the leader of the weaker sections of Hindu society. In recognition of this, he was nominated to the Bombay Legislative Assembly where he served from 1926 to 1934 fighting for the cause of the scheduled castes in the Assembly. In 1928, he was appointed a lecturer in the Government Law College, Bombay, and subsequently it’s principal. In 1935, he was made Perry Professor of Jurisprudence, a highly coveted chair in academics.
Ambedkar was a delegate to the three Round Table Conferences held in London during 1930-32, as representative of the scheduled castes. In these conferences he pleaded for separate electorates for the ‘scheduled castes’, as there were for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. During the Second Round Table Conference, Ambedkar came into direct confrontation with Gandhi who claimed to represent all castes and communities in India as the sole representative of the Congress. As the delegates could not arrive at an agreed solution to problems confronting India, the British government announced their own decision on 17 August 1932, known as Communal Award. In it the scheduled castes were given separate electorates. This was unacceptable to Gandhi and most Hindu leaders like Madan Mohan Malaviya. Gandhi went on an indefinite fast in Yervada jail, where he had been interned. A pact was signed between Ambedkar and Madan Mohan Malaviya (on behalf of the cast: Hindus) known as the Poona Pact. Under this pact separate electorates for scheduled castes was rescinded and additional reserved seam in legislatures were provided for them. Thus division among Hindu society was avoided. This is rightly considered as a great contribution of Gandhi. However, unwittingly, Gandhi and the Congress party had accepted Ambedkar as the leader of the scheduled castes.
Years 1934 and 1935 proved to be quite significant in the life of Ambedkar. In 1934 he moved to his new house in Bombay which he had designed himself and named it as ‘Rajgruha’. It was large enough to accommodate his vast collection of books. On 27 May 1935 his wife Ramabai died and he performed all the rites prescribed by Hindu Shastra including the shaving of the head to the chagrin of orthodox Hindus. By now Ambedkar was convinced that it was not possible to reform the Hindu society and its hideous customs like untouchability. The only alternative he could think was to leave the Hindu fold and get converted to any other religion, which could offer the untouchables better social status and equality. He announced this on 13 October 1935 at a public meeting-at Yeola, district Nasik. He vowed that, “I am born a Hindu because I could not help it but I assure you that I will not die a Hindu." He exhorted his followers to do likewise. He spent several years studying the social set-up of various religions; Sikhism, Islam and Christianity. To his horror he found that some kind of discrimination, some sort of caste system, existed in all these religions. Conversion was therefore postponed.
(Ambedkar now wanted to enter politics to represent the depressed classes as well as the poor peasant and labour. He founded the Independent Labour Party in October 1936. The party was confined to the Bombay province. It fought elections in February 1937 for the provincial assembly and won thirteen out of fifteen seats reserved for the scheduled castes (the term used for the depressed classes in the 1935 Act). In 1942, he founded the Scheduled Castes Federation as an all India party bringing all the scheduled castes under its banner. However, it did not do well in the elections for two reasons: One, there are several castes and sub castes even among the scheduled castes and all the castes were not with Ambedkar who was a Mahar; two, some powerful leaders of the scheduled castes like M.C. Rajah (a pariah) and GA. Gavai (a Mahar) had joined the Congress and opposed whatever Ambedkar did.
The Second World War in September 1939. Ambedkar was nominated as Labour Member of the governor general’s Executive Council. As he was cooperating with the government in the war effort he was made a member of the Defence Advisory Committee. The need for manpower in the defence forces compelled the government to change their policy towards recruitment in the army. Under the pressure of the high castes the British government had stopped recruiting low caste people in the forces by the turn of the nineteenth century. Now they had to change their policy by allowing all castes to join the armed forces. Ambedkar exhorted the scheduled castes to join the army in large number. The British raised a Mahar regiment after half a century. This contribution of Ambedkar has not been accorded its due by his biographers.
In July 1945, the People’s Education Society was founded by Ambedkar. The society opened several schools and colleges, the most important college being Siddhartha College, Bombay, founded in 1946. Another college was Milind College, Aurangabad, the foundation stone of which was laid by Rajendra Prasad, president of India in 1950. This college became the nucleus of the Marathwada University.)
As the Scheduled Castes Federation did badly in the 1946 elections, the British government did not allow Ambedkar to take part in the final negotiations for the transfer of power, i.e., the Simla Conference (1945) and Cabinet Mission (1946). However he was elected to the Constituent Assembly from Bengal and in July 1947 from Bombay. The Constituent Assembly started functioning from 9 December 1946, even before the transfer of power. Ambedkar was appointed chairman of the Drafting Committee and played a pivotal role in drafting the constitution. He was also made law minister in the Nehru Cabinet. “He brought to bear upon his task of drafting a vast array of qualities, erudition, scholarship, imagination, logic and expertise as a legal luminary. He may not be a modern Manu but he was the last word on interpretation”. Immediately after the work of drafting the constitution was over. Ambedkar started drafting the Hindu Code Bill, and worked on it for Brie year with his usual diligence. As law minister, he introduced the Bill in Parliament in February 1951. Nehru had promised his support for the Bill but when the time came he dragged his feet and the Bill could not be taken up for discussion and lapsed. This hurt Ambedkar. In disgust, he resigned from the Cabinet. The Times of India, Bombay reported on his resignation: “Bereft of the crown of Manu, Dr. Ambedkar nonetheless leaves the Government with a considerable record of achievement behind him. The Cabinet is not overburdened with talent, and the departure of this discerning scholar and industrious student of public affairs cannot but dim its limited luster”.
For quite sometime Ambedkar was not keeping good health. In 1948, he went to Bombay for treatment and was admitted to hospital. Soon after on 15 April 1948 he married a doctor, who was working in the same hospital. His wife Sharda Kabir was a Sarswat Brahmin. They led a happy married life for the remaining eight years of Ambedkar‘s life. She died on 29 May 2003 at Mumbai at the age of ninety-four.
His achievements notwithstanding, Ambedkar was a frustrated man as he could not do much for the eradication of untouchability. He remembered his declaration which he had made in front of thousands of his followers at Yeola way back in 1935, “that he will not die a Hindu". He felt that the time to redeem his pledge had now come. He had studied Sikhism, Islam and Christianity and had rejected all the religions. In his later years, he had been taking an interest in Buddhism and its philosophy. He had attended a few international conferences on Buddhism at Rangoon, Colombo and Kathmandu. The rational religion had appealed to him. (On 14 October 1956 he converted to Buddhism along with his wife and thousands of his followers at Nagpur. On 16 December the same year Ambedkar died in his sleep in Delhi. His body was brought to Bombay and cremated. He was a Buddhist only for two months. The rest of his life he remained a Hindu, the religion which he detested
Ambedkar was a prolific writer. He wrote highly critical and controversial books on caste and Hinduism: Caste in India (1917), Annihilation qf Caste; What the Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables; (1945); Who Were the Sudras? (1946); Untouchables: Who Were They (1948); Riddles of Hinduism (published posthumously in 1987). He also wrote on economic topics like Problem the Rupee (1923); Evolution of provincial Finance in British India (1924). On politics his most outstanding book remains Thoughts on Pakistan (1941) and its second edition, Pakistan or the Partition of India (1946). He was perhaps the only leader who saw the inevitability of the partition of the country way back in 1940; analyzed the problem in detail and suggested that partition seemed to be the only solution along with the complete transfer of population of the two communities. The country was partitioned in 1943 but the complete transfer of population did nor take place as advocated by Ambedkar.
Ambedkar remained a controversial personality during his lifetime and—remains so even after his death, not for what he said but largely for the way he said it. By using a little tact and somewhat refined language he could have avoided strong reactions from the people. still nobody doubts his greatness. “Ambedkar was a man of principles, a‘ man with a spine, a true patriot, a realist, a loyal shepherd to his community, a scholar in his own right, a man for whom words had a definite meaning”. The nation’s highest award, the Bharat Rama, was conferred on him in 1990. An impressive statue of Ambedkar greets the visitors to the Parliament House reminding people about his contribution to the Indian Constitution and to the nation.

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