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Ambedkar As A Human Rights Defender

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

05 December, 2007

Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed on December 10th, 1948 and a majority of nations including the so-called imperial power, newly independent states, every one, agreed to certain principals of human life which would be guiding principals for the 20 th century. But to say that human rights and struggle for human rights came into effect after Universal Declaration of Human Rights were signed, would be a negation of historical struggle for social reform and human rights right from Buddha to Thomas Paine to Jyoti Ba Phule, to Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar. The struggle for human dignity and human rights are as old as the exploitation of human beings who some of ancient people termed as 'lesser fortunate'. That clearly reflected a mindset, which justified everything in the name of religion, and customs hence exploited communities were termed as 'unfortunate'.

Ambedkar was not only the son of a down trodden but a son of modernity and globlisation. I mean, had he not been educated at Columbia and then in the London School of Economics, he might have accepted the same 'term' of being 'lesser fortunate' or being 'unfortunate'. Yet, education in United States and England showed him what exactly freedom was as he could mix with students of other countries and races. The feeling of humanness that he developed after facing torturous days of humiliation in India. came only after his stay in Europe and America. He did not confined to Indian social system but broaden his philosophy and ideas. Therefore Ambedkar is child of internationalism where scholarship is respected and acknowledged. While there is no need for me to explain Ambedkar's understanding of human rights and international law.

Having faced the discrimination on the basis of his birth and understanding fully well that varna system of caste is not merely the issue untouchability but much beyond that Ambedkar clearly suggested that if Hindu Society has to improve it must be formed on the basis of equality, fraternity and liberty.

It is the greatness of the man and quintessentially humanist attitude that Ambedkar wanted not only challenge the Vedas and other holy texts but also change them according to modernity. It is here that he was thoroughly disgusted with Gandhi who mentioned that any one who does not believe in Shastras can not be a Hindu and that Shastras can not be changed. For Ambedkar human dignity and humanity was much bigger issue than any religion.

' We do not value Hinduism, we value human dignity.' [Gore 1993: 97]. We want equal rights in the society. We will achieve them as far as possible while remaining within the Hindu fold or if necessary by kicking away this worthless Hindu identity.'[Ibid . 91] (Debrahmanising history pg.357

Ambedkar was a proponent of modernity and human right. Unlike Gandhi, he was a man of reason and good senses who was not prepared to submit to a tradition that defy human dignity and self respect. When Gandhi ask the Scavenger community to continue with their profession since it was based on their caste and that they would be serving it according to tradition, Ambedkar decried Gandhi.

If Gandhiism preached the rule of poverty for all and not merely for the shudra, the worst that could be said about it is that it is a mistaken idea. But why preach it as good for one class only? Why appeal to the worst of human failings, namely pride and vanity in order to make him voluntarily accept what on a rational basis he would resent as a cruel discrimination against him. What is the use of telling the scavenger that even a Brahmin is prepared to do the scavenging when it is clear that according to the Hindu Shastras and Hindu notions, even if a Brahmin did scavenging, he would never be subject to the disabilities of one who is born a scavenger? For, in India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth, irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not. If Gandhisim preached that scavenging is a noble

Profession, with the objective of inducing those who refuse to engage in it, one could understand it. But why appeal to scavengers pride and vanity in order to induce him and him only to keep on to scavenging by telling him that scavenging is a noble profession and that he need not be ashamed of it. To preach that poverty is good for Shudra and for none else, to preach that scavenging is good for the untouchables and for none else and to make them accept these onerous impositions as voluntary proposes of life, by appeal to their failings is an outrage and a cruel joke on the helpless classes which none but Mr Gandhi can perpetrate with equanimity and impunity.


Then came the historical occasion for Ambedkar to enter into a debate on the issue of caste and Varna with Gandhi on his writings in ' Harijan'. Gandhi as usual considered himself an expert on every subject, from theology to spirituality. Unfortunately, his ridiculous religious beliefs that any one who did not believe in Varna or caste cannot be a true Hindu were stronger enough to compel Ambedkar think for alternative to Hinduism. None of the Gandhian questioned his fanciful ideas. In fact some of them went on to support Gandhi and chided others. Indian media is full of such jokers who have nothing to do with Gandhi and yet they are ready to exploit Gandhi and his upper caste Indian dream. Gandhi's retrogressive views on caste were well exposed in his debate on the issue with Ambedkar.

"If caste and Varna are convertible (interchangeable) terms and if Varna is an integral part of shastras which define Hinduism. I do not know how a person who rejects caste i.e. Varna, can call himself a Hindu". 59. (Annihilation of caste by Dr B.R. Ambedkar)

For Ambedkar such orthodox views by a leader who considered him not only awaking the political people of India but soul of India, came as a shock. His famous remark followed this: " Though I am born as a Hindu, I shall not die as a Hindu'. Ambedkar therefore considered emancipation of Dalits as more important to freedom of India, which he felt was a mere transfer of power to the upper caste Hindus which could be detrimental to the interest of Dalits in India.

Rights of Women

Ambedkar was a great votary of women's emancipation. He believed that the Varna system has not only subjugated Untouchables but also women.

It would however be a mistake to suppose that only the wrongs of men are a religion to him. For the Brahmin has given his support to the worst wrongs that women have suffered from in any part of the world. Widows were burnt alive as suttees. Widows were never allowed to remarry. The record of Brahmins as law givers for the Shudras, for the untouchables and for the women is blackest as compared with the record of the intellectual classes in other parts of the world. For, no intellectual class has prostituted its intelligence to invent a philosophy to keep his uneducated countrymen in a perpetual state of ignorance and poverty as the Brahmins have done in India.

(Baba Saheb Ambedkar's Writings and Speeches: Volume-9 page 215-216

There can be no doubt that there has been an utter down fall in position of women in India from what it was once was. One cannot say much about the part they played in ancient time in the state craft. But there is no doubt they did occupy a very high position in the intellectual and social life of the country.

He questioned Manu and Manu Smriti and felt it was solely responsible for the down and fall of Hindu woman.

' It is the nature of women to seduce man in this world. For that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.

In fact Ambedkar resigned from Nehru's cabinet after the Hindu Code Bill could not be passed as visualized. His fight for the right of the women for divorce was opposed fiercely in the Parliament by not only the right wing Hindus like Shyama Prasad Mukharje but also like Dr Rajendra Prasad and K D Malviya. He was thoroughly dejected because of Nehru's failure to get the bill passed.

Campaign for Civil Rights

In November 1932 Ambedkar wrote to A.V.Thakkar, known as Thakkar Bappa, General Secretary of anti untouchability League. Ambedkar and Thakkar Bapa did not go together. Even when Thakkar Bapa asked for the opinion of Dr Ambedkar on various matters yet the following advise given by Dr Ambedkar was not even acknowledged. I am quoting this important letter of Ambedkar and Thakkar Bapa to give you a direct understanding of how Ambedkar was a true champion of human rights and he took the battle of Dalits and untouchability from the perspective of human rights.

' I think the first thing that the league should undertake is a campaign all over India to secure the depressed classes the enjoyment of their civic rights such as taking water from the village wells, entry in the village schools, admission to village chawdi, use of public conveyance etc. Such programmes if carried into the villages will bring about the necessary social revolution in the Hindu society, without which it will not be possible for the depressed classes to get equal social status.'

The salvation of the depressed classes will come only when the caste Hindu is made to think and is forced to feel that he must alter his ways. For that you must create a crisis by direct action against his customary code of conduct. The crisis will compel him to think and once he begins to think he will be more ready to change than he is otherwise likely to be. The great defect in the policy of the least resistance and silent infiltration of rational ideas lies in this that they do not compel thought, for they do not produce crisis. The direct action in respect of Chawdar Tank in Mahad, the Kalaram temple in Nasik and the Gurwayur temple in Malawar have done in a few days what million days of preaching by reformers would never have done.

Equality of Opportunity

Much of the misery and poverty of the depressed classes is due to the absence of equality of opportunity, which in its turn is due to untouchability.

Much can be done by the private firms, and companies managed by the Hindus by extending their patronage to the depressed classes and by employing them in their offices in various grades and occupations suited to the capacities of the applicants.

Social Intercourse

The best way of achieving it is to establish closer contact between the two. Only a common cycle of participation can help people to overcome the strangeness of feeling which one has, when brought into contact with the other. Nothing can do this more effectively in my opinion than the admission of the depressed classes to the houses of the caste Hindus as guests or servants. The live contact thus established will familiarize both to a common and associated life and will pave the way for that unity which we all are striving after. (78-83)

He was very forthright and was never prejudiced and hence when Savarkar wanted to discuss the issue of removal of untouchability he wrote to him (Letter to V D Savarkar on 18.2.1933)

' If the untouchables are to be a part and parcel of the Hindu society, then it is not enough to remove untouchability, for that purpose you must destroy the Chaturvarna.

In a letter to Laxmi Kabir on Gandhi's death Feburary 8th, 1948

' Great men are of great service to their country but they are also at certain times a great hinderance to the progress of their country.

Mr Gandhi had become a positive danger to this country. He had choked all free thought. He was holding together the congress, which is a combination of all the bad and self seeking elements in the society who agreed on no social or moral principals governing the life of the society except the one of praising and flattering of Mr. Gandhi. The death of Gandhi he said ', will release people from bondage to a superman, it will make them think for themselves and it will compel them to stand on their own merits.

( page 205)

Political, Economic Social Rights invisible

On the social plane we have in India a society based on the principal of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26 th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In Politics we will have equality ' one man one vote and one vote one value, and in social and economic life we will have inequality. We must remove this contradictions at the earliest possible moment or else who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has so laboriously built.

'If there is any cause of freedom in this Indian turmoil for independence, it is the cause of the untouchables. The cause of Hindus and the cause of Musalman is not the cause of freedom. Theirs is a struggle for power as distinguished from freedom. Consequently, it has always been a matter of surprise to me, that no party, no organisation devoted to the freedom has so far interested itself in the untouchables.'
( From Emancipation of Dalits by Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar ).61.

Right to Self Determination : Ambedkar talked of self determination in the form of separate electorate. That is why when Ambedkar pressed for the separate electorate demand for Dalits, Gandhi opposed it tooth and nail. It was the same Gandhi who had nothing against Muslim demand for a separate electorate. When the Poona pact was awarded in 1932, Gandhi could not tolerate his defeat at the hands of an articulate Dalit leader. As soon as he came back to India, Gandhi decided to fast unto death against such an award that would have brought a lot of changes in the quality of Dalit leadership in India. For Dalits would not have depended on the upper caste Hindus to get elected. Ambedkar succumbed to the blackmailing tactics of Gandhi and commented ' Mahatmas have come, Mahatmas have gone but the lot of Dalits remain the same'. Ambedkar feared that death of Gandhi would spark backlash against Dalits in the villages where the upper caste tyranny was still prevalent. He entered into a deal with Gandhi and signed Poona Pact, which allowed reservation of seats for Dalits in Parliament and state assemblies. Gandhi saved his upper caste interest and made Dalit leadership dependent on upper castes votes. Ambedkar himself became a victim of this and could not win Lok Sabha election from the state of Maharastra as all the upper castes joined hand against him.

Right to choose your faith

Ambedkar redefined history and linked the Dalits with Buddha. His efforts to reform Varna religion failed and he embarked on rational path of Buddhism. In fact, he mentioned very clearly that ", Unfortunately, I was born a Hindu. It was beyond my power to prevent that, I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu."

Justifying his viewpoint on Conversion, Dr Ambedkar said,' There are two aspect of conversion as well as religious, material as well as spiritual. Whatever, may be the aspect or line of thinking it is necessary to understand the beginning, the nature of untouchability and how it is practiced. Without, this understanding, you will not be able to realise the real meaning underlying my declaration of conversion. In order to have a clear understanding of Untouchability and its practices in real life, I want you to recall the stories of the atrocities perpetrated against you. But very few of you might have realised as to why this happened.. This is the root of their tyranny. To me it is very necessary, that we understand it. This is not a feud between two rival men. The problem of untouchability is a matter of class struggle. It is a struggle between caste Hindus and untouchables. It is not a matter of doing injustice against one man. This is matter of injustice being done by one class against other. This struggle starts as soon as you start claiming equal treatment with others…

Dr Ambedkar said that there is no place for individual's identity in so-called Hindu dharma as it does not appeal to my self respect and self conscience.." I tell you very specifically, religion is for men and not Man for religion. To get human treatment get converted. convert for getting organised. Convert for becoming strong. Convert for securing equality. Convert for getting liberty. Convert so that your domestic life may be happy."

He told the people from his experiences ", Three factors are required for the upliftment of an individual. They are: Sympathy, equality and liberty. Can you say by experience that any of these factors exists in Hinduism?"

Conclusion : Ambedkar championed the cause of the down trodden. But to confine him to mere as a leader of Dalits will do him great injustice. He was the most accompalished political leader and philosopher among his contemporaries. He was much ahead of his time which is reflected when he was drafting the Hindu Code Bill. It was a bill which gave Indian woman a right which they never imagined. Unlike other political leaders including some of the Dalits who could not challenge the religion and text books, for Ambedkar human dignity was bigger than any religion and religious text book. The famous Satyagraha for the rights of the dalits to fetch water in Mahad is well known to be mentioned here. No human rights discourse in India could be complete with out detailed discussion on the outstanding work of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

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