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BR Ambedkar: A Personal Tribute

By Chandrabhan Prasad

29 May, 2004
The Pioneer

On January 27, 1919, Dr BR Ambedkar, then 28, submitted his written evidence before Lord Southborough, Chairman of the Franchise Committee. He argued that the distinction between "Untouchables" and "Touchables" are more pronounced than those between Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and Parsees and so on.

"Untouchables are a separate element in India's social life, and hence (should) be treated so, and accorded as a minority, with all the rights and privileges being offered to the religious minorities," was his line of argument. Ambedkar's presentation demanded not only the power of articulation, but the ability to look at 3,000 years of social tyranny in the eye. Something even his own father would not have dared to do.

And, what was the force behind him? In 1917, just 6.63 lakh Dalits were enrolled in schools. How many of them actually read newspapers, no one knows. And when he was submitting the draft copy of India's Constitution, which authoritatively declared illegal the practice of Untouchability, in other words, exclusion, about 21.58 lakh Dalits were in education, from Primary to University stage. Yet, he won the battle, and showed the path.

Cut to 1996-1997. There are now 6.14 lakh Dalits enrolled for graduation courses alone, just 48,000 less than the total enrolment in all schools and colleges when Dr Ambedkar was appearing before the Southborough Committee. By the late 19 90s, the number of Dalits in some educational institution or the other had gone up to 4.08 crore.

Now to a key question. Did a Dalit middle class exist in 1950 when Dr Ambedkar was dealing with the upper-caste dominated Constituent Assembly? We don't have a clear picture on that. But, we do have an idea about the early 1960s. According to the report of the Commissioner for SC&STs of 1962, the total number of Grade III Dalit employees in the Central Government was 7.9 lakh. The number of Grade I Dalit officers was just 211. But in 1995, the number of Grade I Dalit officers alone was more than 67,000. Just think of the vast strides achieved in just a generation.

The credit for this goes to Dr Ambedkar. In his time, he had a very small Dalit middle class and the Dalits were hardly present as an intellectual force. Yet, he had the guts to launch a crusade without an intellectual base or the backing of a strong middle class. Who has ever heard of a revolution without these essential components? But Dr Ambedhar went ahead with the force of conviction which more than made up these shortcomings. Millions of Dalits are now enjoying the fruits of that.

For the record, Baba Saheb Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar has more ideological followers than any leader born in the last 1,000 years. There are more statues and busts of Dr Ambedkar than any individual born after Lord Buddha and Jesus Christ. And, mind you, all this happened without state support. This month, any Dalit, living in any part of the world, is celebrating Dr Ambedkar's birth anniversary. But the largely ungrateful society that is India may ignore Ambedkar, but for the multitudes of the oppressed, he is Christ Plus.

But, Dalit history may always seek the most uncomfortable question: "Why it is that post-Ambedkar, Dalits have not added even one chapter to the saga of the great trailblazer? Why it is so that when more than half the Dalit population is illiterate, the question of education is not the prime issue this April? Why it is so that when half the Dalits are landless agricultural labourers, the question of a new phase of land reforms is beyond the pale of this month's election rhetoric? Why it is so that, when Dalits have near-zero share in India's capital market, the issue of democratisation of the capital market is not even casually mentioned? Is anybody talking of the near zero share of Dalits in media, which by extension means a place in India's opinion market.

This April, we celebrate Baba Saheb's 113th birth anniversary almost like a ritual. I recall my school-going days. My father, the late Saleep Ram, used to donate handsome sums of money for the local Republic day parade. At that time, there was a custom, that, on August 15th, and January 26th, primary school students, led by their teachers, would organise a rally. Holding the tricolour, they would go around the village, almost door to door, to spread the message of universalisation of education. The head of every household was expected to dole out some money.

The money was used to distribute sweets and awards amongst students. My father wanted to be the top donor, and hence, his generous contribution. In the summer of 1973, my elder brother, Dhanai Ram, then a sub-inspector of police who retired a couple of years back as a Deputy Superintendent in UP Police, floated the idea of a Dr Ambedkar Kirti Club.

A notable member of the village, the late Munnoo Rai, a Bhumihar by caste, and a dismissed constable from the Bombay Railway Police, gave it a formal shape. Since 1973,that has been the enduring memory of Ambedkar Jayanti. But, barring the great interventions by Kanshi Ramji, regarded as "Ambedkar-2," nothing much has changed.