Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956) was one of the great men of the twentieth century, though he is virtually unknown in the west.
Ambedkar was born into the “untouchable” caste of Mahars in the Indian state of Maharashtra. At the time, untouchables suffered under legal restrictions that made the Jim Crow laws of the United States look mild by comparison. They traditionally performed jobs considered “unclean” by Hindu theology: a religious and economic catch-22 in which they were ritually unclean because of the work they did and could only do certain types of work because they were ritually unclean. They were not allowed to enter Hindu temples–in some regions they couldn’t even walk on the road in front of a temple. In the South Indian state of Travancore, untouchables had to carry a bell that announced their presence so higher caste Hindus would not be defiled by their proximity.
Like African-American reformer Frederick Douglas, Ambedkar became a spokesman for an oppressed people thanks to education. At a time when fewer than one percent of his caste could read, Ambedkar was supported in his quest for education by both his family and high caste Hindu reformers who recognized his talents. Between 1912 and 1923, he earned a BA in Bombay, an MA and PhD in economics from Columbia University, and a MA and D.Sci in economics from London University–and passed the bar from Grey’s Inn in London.
Back in India, Ambedkar devoted himself to improving the lives of untouchables. He soon found himself in conflict with Gandhi, who had declared himself an untouchable by choice. They disagreed at both the symbolic and the practical level. Both men recognized the power of abandoning the term “untouchable”. Gandhi proposed Harijans (people of God) as a substitute. Ambedkar rejected Harijan as patronizing, preferring the term dalit (oppressed). Gandhi wanted to improve the lives of Untouchables by appealing to caste Hindus to abandon untouchability. Ambedkar recognized that it was easier to change laws than to change people’s hearts and heads. He preferred to lead dalits in campaigns designed to improve access to education and to secure basic civil and religious rights, including the right to use the public water system and to enter temples.
In 1935, after an unsuccessful five-year campaign to gain the right to enter Hindu temples, Ambedkar decided if you can’t beat them, leave them. He declared “I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu” He urged untouchables to “change your religion”: reject Hinduism and convert to a religion that doesn’t recognize caste or untouchabliity.
Both Christianity and Buddhism fit the description, but Ambedkar leaned toward Buddhism, which had ceased to be a living religion in India when Muslim invaders destroyed its temples and monasteries in the twelfth century, On October 4, 1956, after twenty years of study and writing on the subject, Ambedkar and thousands of other dalits converted to Buddhism in a massive ceremony. In the following years, more than four million dalits declared themselves Buddhists and stepped outside the mental framework of the caste system.
Ambedkar fought bitterly with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress on issues of dalit rights and representation throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But when India achieved independence, Nehru named Ambedkar India’s first Minister of Law. More important for the position of dalits in independent India, the new nation’s temporary assembly elected Ambedkar chairman of the committee that drafted its constitution. Under his leadership, the constitution legally abolished untouchability and included safeguards for depressed minorities.
Since independence, India has implemented affirmative action programs for the benefit of what are officially called the “Scheduled Castes and Tribes”. In 1997, fifty years after independence, India elected its first dalit president–an event what would have been unthinkable during Ambedkar’s lifetime. Nonetheless, dalits still suffer from discrimination on many fronts. (Does any of this sound familiar to my fellow Americans?)
Ultimately, both Ambedkar and Gandhi were right: in order to abolish untouchability or other types of political and economic discrimination, it is necessary to change not only laws but also people’s hearts.