T:he is the first question I am often asked about my new book, “why Ambedkar? Why now?’ I am tempted to reply by informing my questioners of two facts of which even most Indians are unaware. First, there is no Indian for whom more statues have been erected across the length and breadth of India than Bimrao Ramji Ambedkar, barring perhaps Mahatma Gandhi. Second, when two respected television channels conducted a poll in 2012 to name the greatest Indian, more than 20 million voters participated and voted Ambedkar overwhelmingly ahead of Gandhi, Nehru and other giants of modern Indian history.
Arguably, there is no more important figure in modern India after Mahatma Gandhi than Dr. Ambedkar. His posthumous stature has grown tremendously. a controversial figure during his lifetime who lost more elections than he won and was equally reviled and admired, he is hardly criticized today. All Indian political parties seek to claim his legacy. However, he is not as famous in the world as he deserves. That is why I wrote a short, accessible biography for the general reader.
Today it is difficult to imagine the scale of what Dr. Babasaheb Bhimji Rao Ambedkar achieved. Born into an “untouchable” family in 1891, the 14th and last child of a poor Mahar; sub-century, or non-commissioned officer, in an army cantonment, usually guaranteed a life of neglect, poverty, discrimination and obscurity. Ambedkar not only rose above the circumstances of his birth but achieved a level of success that would have been impressive for a child of privilege. One of the first “untouchables” ever to enter an Indian college, he became a professor (at the prestigious Sydenham College) and principal (of no less an institution than the Government Law College, Bombay, then the country’s top law college). As one of the earliest Indian students in the United States, he earned multiple doctorates from Columbia and London universities, with advanced qualifications in economics, politics, and law. Heir to millennia of discrimination, he was admitted to the London bar and became India’s James Madison as chairman of the Constitution Drafting Commission. A scion of illiterates, he wrote a remarkable number of books, the content and scope of which testify to an eclectic mind and a sharp, if provocative, intellect. In 1891, an insignificant child writhing in the dust of Mhow, in 1947 became free India’s first law minister in the most impressive cabinet ever assembled in New Delhi.
By the time he died in 1956, aged just 65, Ambedkar had amassed a number of distinctions few could match; he had successfully challenged thousands of years of discrimination against Dalits (formerly “untouchables” or “depressed classes”), creating the world’s oldest and most remote class. arrived at a program of affirmative action for its people and enshrined it in the Constitution, promoted liberal constitutionalism in a traditionally illiberal society, managed the balance between individual agency of India’s citizens and collective affirmative action for its most marginalized communities, and made the most compelling and enduring case. for the principles and practices of democracy in a country out of imperial power.
Ambedkar had a monumental life. His great achievements were accomplished in spite of sufferings and enduring humiliations that might have been enough to break the spirit of a lesser man or turn him into a destructive rebel. Refused to sit at a desk like his other classmates and had to learn from a ball sack on the floor that no one touched and was beaten because he was thirsty and dared to turn on the water tap at school (because his touch was considered polluting) , Ambedkar still achieved rare academic excellence, winning scholarships for higher studies abroad and earning multiple doctorates in an era when upper-caste men wrote “BA (Failed)” after their names to indicate that they had come that far. Returning to the service of the Maharaja, who sponsored his studies abroad, he found no one in the city willing to rent an apartment to an “untouchable”, resorted to deception, was found out and thrown into the street. Sitting in the garden at night, papers and certificates scattered around him, he wept bitterly and left the prestigious job he had earned. To rise from such humiliations to become the most consistent political and social reformer of a brilliant generation of freedom fighters was Ambedkar’s triumph.
It is important to realize that Ambedkar was not only an eminent economist, but India’s only Nobel laureate economist, Amartya Sen, was to hail him as the “father” of his own economics, and a jurist of rare distinction, but also a pioneering social anthropologist, whose 1916 Columbia the conference paper on caste was perhaps the first serious academic study of the origins and practice of the caste system in India. Ambedkar was also the first male feminist in modern India; her speeches and legislative initiatives on women’s rights almost ninety years ago would be considered progressive even today in India. As a legal thinker, his emphasis on individual agency, his innovative promotion of brotherhood among all Indians regardless of caste distinctions, and his understanding of the true meaning of “effective representation” in a democracy are essential to the constitutional system established and entrenched in the last three-quarters of a century. during. As a social reformer, Ambedkar’s emphasis on education as a passport to social progress and economic empowerment of the “sub-prime” continues to resonate in today’s India. The idea of Indianness so brilliantly articulated by Jawaharlal Nehru and his associates was injected with an extra dimension when viewed through Ambedkar’s lens of social justice for those who had been oppressed and marginalized for millennia.
Finally, in the constant tension between Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of India and Ambedkar’s, it is fair to say that it is the latter’s vision that endures, enshrined in the Republic’s Constitution. And that vision is his best legacy. In the constant tension between communal privileges and individual rights, Ambedkar stood on the side of the individual. In the struggle between eternal traditions and modern conceptions of social justice, Ambedkar decidedly leaned towards the latter. In the conflict between those in power and those who make laws, Ambedkar won the victory for allowing change through democracy and legislation. In a fractured and divided Hindu society, he gave Dalits a sense of collective pride and individual self-respect. In doing so, he changed millions of lives yet to be born, moving an ancient civilization into the modern age through his intellect and the power of his pen.
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