Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar contributed to the development of the Indian nation during the formative stages of its history in the first half of the twentieth century. Ambedkar was born into a low-caste untouchable family in Maharashtra state in western India. Because his father had been in the military service through a limited opening given by the British during the middle of the nineteenth century, young Bhimrao gained access to an education at a time when the majority of untouchables were excluded from education. He graduated in 1912 and later earned MA and PhD degrees from Columbia University in New York City and a degree in law and DSc from the University of London. His studies were facilitated by fellowships awarded in 1913 by the philanthropic king of India’s Baroda state.
Untouchables in India traditionally hold a low position in Hindu social order based on the caste system, which denies basic human rights to them. They are considered polluting and suffer from social and physical segregation. Ambedkar himself faced discrimination in various stages of life as a student, as a government servant and lecturer, as a lawyer, and occasionally even when he occupied high positions of power as a minister and on other occasions in his public life.
CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST AND POLITICAL LEADER
India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947 and adopted its own constitution in 1950. Ambedkar was at the forefront of Indian politics as a scholar, a civil rights activist, and a political leader from 1920 until 1956. His nation-building contributions were multiple, and included writing books and memoranda on a number of issues of national importance and serving as a chief framer of the Indian constitution and as a policymaker. Above all, he was a leader of the excluded group of untouchables.
Ambedkar began his civil rights campaigns against caste discrimination and untouchability in the 1920s, mobilizing untouchables for access to public water tanks in the town of Mahad and entry into temples in the cities of Amravati and Nasik. With these struggles and the symbolic burning of the Manusmriti (a traditional Brahmanic law book) in 1927, the movement spread to the countryside. In the 1930s, struggles of workers and tenants against landlords were organized.
From 1930 onward, the focus shifted to seeking adequate representation for low-caste untouchables in the legislature, public employment, and in educational institutions, as well as to seeking general economic empowerment. Ambedkar published weekly papers, created associations, and established political parties. His first organization was the Bahishkarit Hitkarni Sabha (Association for the Welfare of the Ostracized), founded in 1924. In 1936 he created the Independent Labor Party, which was renamed the Scheduled Caste Federation in 1942, and converted finally into the Republican Party of India in 1956. Ambedkar also set up a Peoples’ Education Society in 1946 beginning with a college in Bombay, and he organized the Indian Buddhist Council to help spread Buddhism.
SOCIAL ANALYST AND POLICYMAKER
Ambedkar was a scholar as well as a man of action. His aim was to use insights from various studies on Indian history and society to restructure Indian society on the principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity. He had differences both with contemporaries like Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and with India’s leftists. In Ambedkar’s view, the problem of the untouchables was rooted in the caste system, which was based on the principle of inequality, isolation, and exclusion, with an ideological support from Brahmanic-Hindu religious philosophy. Gandhi, in contrast, believed that the institution of untouchability had no base in Hinduism and treated it as an aberration. The leftists, on the other hand, believed that the caste system had economic foundation and could be resolved through industrialization and a move toward socialism. Solutions differed correspondingly. Gandhi emphasized moral solutions and a change of heart among Hindus. Marxists advocated economic equality for the annihilation of caste discrimination. Ambedkar, however, favored dismantling both the religious-ideological and economic foundations of the caste system. At the social-religious level, he argued for the acceptance of the egalitarian Buddhist religious tradition in Indian society. Economically, he favored a strong state, a democratic socialism oriented to rapid economic development, and a system of compensatory affirmative action policy that included "reservations" in legislature, public services and educational institutions to ensure equal access to economic opportunities. As a minister for energy and irrigation under the last British government, Ambedkar played a major role in initiating economic planning in India.
Ambedkar turned toward Buddhism and converted with a large number of followers in 1956. Buddhism, in his view, was a harbinger of economic and social/cultural egalitarianism and political democracy. This perspective on the problems of Indian society had an immense impact on the issue of reform in Hindu society.
Ambedkar also had a profound impact on the development of policies opposing discrimination and facilitating the empowerment of discriminated groups. Because Hindu society is exclusionary and discriminatory in character, it requires policies of social inclusion. The set of measures aimed at ending discrimination and increasing equal opportunity and economic empowerment included equal rights legislation, legal safeguards against discrimination, and affirmative action to ensure fair participation to the discriminated and excluded groups of untouchables. Legal safeguards against discrimination came with the Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955, and affirmative action came with the Reservation Policy for representation in legislatures, educational institutions, and public jobs, measures that were instituted in 1935 and were finally incorporated into the constitution of India in 1950. In support of economic empowerment, Ambedkar favored a particular type of socialistic economic framework, which in his view would ensure economic equality to poor and marginalized groups. Ambedkar’s contribution is, thus, valuable both in social thought and in the shaping of policies against discrimination. As chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution, he helped to create the basic political, economic, and social framework under which Indians live today.
Ambedkar died in 1956, and the Indian state recognized his unique contributions. He was posthumously awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) on April 14, 1990.