Bhimrao Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. His father was a leading administrator in a military school, and his family had been involved in the military for generations. Military service was common for hundreds of years in Ambedkar’s subcaste of Mahars. The Mahar community also had a history of fighting for equality.
Ambedkar’s family pushed for him to become educated. He went to a school reserved for upper caste children. As a Dalit, the school segregated him from the other students. After graduation, which in and of itself was a feat for a Dalit, he was able to obtain Ph.D.’s from Columbia University and London School of Economics. His thesis “The Problem with the Rupee” was a seminal work in economics. He became a Barrister at Grey’s Inn. Finally, he worked as a consultant to the anthropology department; he began to debunk the Aryan Invasion Theory. This theory was the scientific justification of the caste system and British rule. The work eventually became the book “The Annihilation of Caste.”
He began his career as an advocate for India by joining the Indian Home Rule League. He eventually left because they were not concerned with ending untouchability. The Depressed Classes Mission was the most popular anti-untouchability movement during Ambedkar’s early career. Ambedkar criticized this organization because it did not have Dalits in its leadership or consult with Dalits on strategy. Ambedkar will ultimately oppose the Mission in the Southborough Commission. For the first time, Ambedkar was an advocate to the ruling elite for Dalit rights including the right to a separate electorate.
The water rites of untouchables was always a contentious subject. Under the caste system, Dalits could not drink from the same water sources as upper caste individuals. Ambedkar began a publication for Dalit water rights in 1930.
At the time of Ambedkar, there were various visions for an independent India. Ambedkar saw that the Dalits had to issues to solve. The first was building an egalitarian society within India. The second was freeing India from British Rule. Ambedkar always cared more about fighting the caste system then overthrowing the British. The quality of life in India was more important than merely being free. Also, British rule will allow Indians to concentrate on social reform because the British would take care of running the state.
The famous confrontation between Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi took place during the round table conferences. Both men claimed to represent the interest of Dalits. However, Gandhi saw the Dalits as a group of people the upper caste needed to care for and manage. Ambedkar believed in Dalit self-determination. Ambedkar secured a separate Dalit electorate for 78 seats in Congress through the Communal Award. Gandhi saw that a separate Dalit electorate would weaken the Hindu position concerning Muslims and Sikhs. Gandhi then went on fast to build public support against separate Dalit electorates. Their standoff ended with the Poona Pact which doubled the number of seats allocated to Dalits, but a general electorate would elect the Dalit candidates.
Ambedkar opposition to Gandhi and the Indian National Congress with the creation of the Independent Labor Party 1936. The party of Ambedkar had a moderate socialist bent and saw the enemy of the working class being both Brahmanism and Capitalism. Through the party, Ambedkar would advocate for citizenship and economic opportunity. Later he would form the Samata Sainik Dal as a youth league focused on self-defense. The league would later form the Scheduled Caste Federation in 1942. All these political organizations focused on building an egalitarian society and funneling resources to underprivileged communities.
Upon Indian Independence, India appointed Ambedkar as first Law Minister. In this position, he got to draft the Indian constitution.
Women’s rights were fundamental to the building Ambedkar’s new India. He saw the subjugation of women as essential to preserving the caste system. Once women were free to marry whom they want or no one at all, the rest of the system would come crashing down. He advocated for the Hindu Code Bills which, among other things, would establish some gender equality.
Ambedkar’s first wife was ill and died when she was forty. She wanted to make a pilgrimage to a Hindu holy site. Ambedkar would not let her go because the priest at this site would not conduct the last rites while facing a Dalit. He promised her to build Dalits their holy sites. Ambedkar began to study and court the leaders of various world religions. The plan was to facilitate a mass exodus of Dalits out of Hinduism. After much deliberation, Ambedkar accepted Buddhism and oversaw the first mass conversion in modern Buddhism on October 14, 1956. This mass conversion earned Ambedkar the moniker of the father of modern Buddhism.
Due to complications from diabetes and other illnesses, Ambedkar died on December 6, 1956. He is remembered fondly in India with more statues than any other modern Indian. There are several schools and organizations named in his honor. The airport in Nagpur was named in his honor. His school of Buddhism, Navayanna, has inspired many downtrodden people including the Romani of Hungary. There are now many Navayanna Buddhism in India and Hungary. Ambedkar’s secular philosophy is still encouraging revolutionaries and other freedom organizations.