Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar: The global IndianSaturday, April 10, 2021
I wish to introduce you today to a globally relatively lesser-known Indian whose thoughts and actions have empowered a billion people in India, and who has had the courage and conviction to become the voice of the voiceless anywhere in the world. I am talking about Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, born this week 131 years ago in a depressed class of India that was subjected to socio-economic discrimination for a long time.
He faced social discrimination from primary school to the college level. But by sheer dint of hard work he was admitted to Columbia University and then to University of London, gaining scholarship in law, economics and political science.
Influenced by the germinating movements against racial discrimination in the USA, Dr Ambedkar returned and devoted his entire life to the upliftment of the depressed classes in India. He believed that their emancipation would lead to the progress of the whole Indian society. During his four decades long political activism, he campaigned for India's independence, published journals, advocated political rights and social freedom of people subjected to discrimination, and contributed significantly to the establishment of the Indian State. Through his lifetime, he fought for the abolition of the caste system, the mode of social stratification in India that was perceived to support discrimination between social groups.
After India achieved independence in 1947, Dr Ambedkar became its first law minister and was also appointed the chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. The constitutional draft prepared by Ambedkar provided fundamental rights for all citizens of India, without discrimination or favouritism. These are constitutional protections and guarantees and include the right to life and liberty, freedom of speech, movement, and religion, the abolition of untouchability, the right against exploitation, outlawing of all forms of discrimination, etc.
A man ahead of his time, Dr Ambedkar strongly supported women empowerment. He insisted on greater economic and social rights for women, especially their right to property. He also reserved seats in educational institutions and the civil service for members of the historically discriminated castes, a system akin to affirmative action.
Dr Ambedkar also defended the constitution being the lengthiest in the world saying, “We have created a democratic political structure in a traditional society. If all details were not included, future leaders may misuse the constitution without technically violating it.” This shows that he was aware of the practical difficulties which India would face once the constitution was implemented.
Granville Austin, the American historian, described the Indian Constitution drafted by Dr Ambedkar as “first and foremost a social document”. According to Austin, “The majority of India's constitutional provisions are either directly arrived at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement.” For his contribution in drafting the Constitution of India, Dr Ambedkar is often referred to as the Father of the Indian Constitution.
He had complete faith in democracy and emphasised democracy as a way of life. It meant that democracy should not be confined to only the political domain but must extend to personal, social and economic spheres. For him, democracy must bring a radical transformation in the social conditions of society, without which it would have no meaning.
Dr Ambedkar was also in correspondence with the influential American civil rights activist and academician Prof W E B DuBois and had written to him: “I have been a student of the Negro problem…There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”
At a time when Marcus Garvey was active in the USA and Jamaica, Ambedkar was a scholar at Columbia University. Garvey's thoughts of not depending upon the discriminators for social and political rights, but to believe in one's abilities, is visible in Ambedkar's teachings. Garvey's stress on the economic empowerment of the black community was also Ambedkar's prescription for the discriminated classes of India. Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association was similar in scope to Ambedkar's Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha, as both sought to politically organise the discriminated, and instil in them a sense of pride and self-respect.
In today's India, Ambedkar's thoughts are respected across the political spectrum. His initiatives have transformed the way India employs socio-economic policies, education, affirmative action, socio-economic and legal incentives to deal with issues of inequality and discrimination.
Ambedkar's political philosophy has given rise to a large number of political parties, publications and worker unions that remain active across India. While much remains to be done, the world would do well to realise the relevance of Dr Ambedkar's teachings across space and time. He has presented us with a successful, functional model for bridging the gap between the haves and have-nots, not through violence but the democratic process. In his own words: “Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise, both will wither and die.”
— Rungsung Masakui is the high commissioner of India to Jamaica. Comments can be sent to email@example.com
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