B R Ambedkar
This newspaper, Mathrubhumi, celebrates its centennial this month while highlighting the theme of Equality -- one that brings to mind the importance of the concept of equality in the life and thought of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. Early in his career, as a young professor from the Dalit community, Ambedkar testified before the Southborough Committee, which was preparing the Government of India Act, 1919, with a view to introducing some limited elements of self-government to India. He argued that 'The right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that make up citizenship. But the untouchability of the untouchables puts these rights far beyond their reach..., and equality before law is not always assured to them. These are the interests of the Untouchables.'
In March 1927, Ambedkar led a major protest meeting at Mahad in Kolaba District of Bombay Presidency, where the Chowdary water tank was, on paper, open to all, but in practice unavailable to the Dalits. In his presidential address, he put that prohibition in context: 'At the outset let me tell those who oppose us that we did not perish because we could not drink water from this Chowder Tank. We now want to go to the Tank only to prove that, like others, we are also human beings. This Conference has been called to inaugurate an era of equality in this land.'
The first resolution passed by the conference was a declaration of human rights, which repudiated the authority of the Hindus scriptures that upheld doctrines of social inequality. For Ambedkar the issue was the primordial one of human equality. Men may not all be equal, he stressed, but equality was the only possible governing principle. This was the central issue of the Mahad Satyagraha.
Over the years, Ambedkar argued that 'Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity'. The caste system owed its durability to a unique structure of 'graded inequality' that embraced the totality of society. Brahminism, Ambedkar often declared, 'is the very negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.' 'That the caste system must be abolished if the Hindu society is to be reconstructed on the basis of equality, goes without saying.... I do not think it is possible to abolish inequality in Hindu society unless the existing foundation of the Smriti religion is removed and a better one laid in its place.'
If this was his critique as a social reformer, as a constitutionalist, Ambedkar viewed the law a source of strength and support for those fighting for equality and justice. As Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, he worked to ensure that their rights, and their right to struggle for these rights, would be constitutionally protected. The Constitution's description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, and its conception of justice, of liberty, equality and fraternity, firmly anchors equality before the law as the bedrock of the national project.
On 25 November 1949, Ambedkar delivered a powerful speech advocating the unanimous adoption of the draft Constitution. In it, he repeatedly made it clear that for him democracy was not just a form of government but a form of social organization. The Constituent Assembly included several important rights in the Indian Constitution to ensure that principles of equality and social justice were the basis of all future developments in India. The fundamental rights, including Article 14, conferred equality before the law; Article 15 prohibited discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth and provided access to public spaces to all without discrimination. But he was conscious of imposing equal rights on an unequal society:
'On the 26th of January 1950 [the date on which the Constitution would go into effect], we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting 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.'
Unusually for a man of his era, Ambedkar's notions of equality extended to gender issues as well. His feminism was practically unknown at the time for an Indian male. He spoke extensively on the role of women in Indian society; he did not exclude women from his emphasis on equality, placing equal emphasis upon both caste and gender-based discrimination. He urged Dalit women to assert equality with their husbands within their marriages and even to change their style of draping their saris to match other Hindu women-a visual reflection of the principle of equality that undergirded his beliefs. When, as Law Minister, he worked on the Hindu Code Bill, among his amendments was to grant Hindu women the right to inherit property, to initiate divorce, and to manage their own finances.
Ambedkar's approach to women was anchored in his profound commitment to equality and to women's rights as part of his faith in gender equity. When he finally resigned from Government he did so again over the same principle. 'To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems,' he famously declared, 'is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.' He had no wish, he stated, to be complicit in a process of passing economic laws without introducing social equality in Hindu society.
When, shortly before his death in 1956, he converted to Buddhism, he again cited equality foremost among his reasons for doing so. 'By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today I am reborn,' he declared. 'I will discard the caste system and spread equality among human beings.' Equality and fraternity were at the heart of Buddhism's appeal for Ambedkar. He stressed that 'the fundamental principle of Buddhism is equality'.
Even after his death, the principle of equality rings on in commemorations of Ambedkar's life. In the United States, the states of Colorado and Michigan in the US declared a 'Dr B.R. Ambedkar Equity Day', echoed in India by the state of Tamil Nadu calling his birthday a 'Day of Equality'. When he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, President R. Venkataraman wrote in his introduction to Ambedkar: The Man and his Message (1991): 'There can be no doubt that the day is not far off when Babasaheb Ambedkar's Dream of 'samata' [equality] will become a reality.' We are still waiting, but his contributions to the struggle for equality remain unrivalled.