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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

Savita and Bhim Rao Ambedkar: A Most Unusual Partnership | Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Saturday 20 May 2023, by Deepti Priya Mehrotra



by Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Babasaheb: My Life with Dr Ambedkar, by Savita Ambedkar

translated from the Marathi by Nadeem Khan

Vintage, Penguin Random House India
2022, p. 337 HB. Rs 599
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0670096695
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0670096695

Accepting and Treasuring One Another 

Savita Ambedkar writes, of her relationship with BR Ambedkar, ‘despite our most unusual circumstances, we accepted each other and treasured each other like something precious.’ But, she rues, ‘Being the wife of a great man is an ordeal, and this I have learnt from personal experience.’

Savita Ambedkar née Sharada Kabir, married Bhim Rao Ambedkar on 15 April 1948. He continued calling her `Sharu’, though he had given her the name `Savita’, meaning ‘as shining as the sun.’ To most people, she was known as `Maisaheb’. This book tells the story of their lives together, during nine charged and eventful years.

It was a surprising partnership, as we learn from this delightful book, recently translated from the Marathi (Dr Ambedkaranchya Sahavaasaat, 1990, 4th edition 2020). Hours before he passed away, he wrote, in the preface to The Buddha and His Dhamma:

‘...At some stages my condition had become so critical that doctors talked of me as a dying flame. The successful rekindling of this dying flame is due to the medical skill of my wife and Dr Malvankar, the physician who has been attending me. I am immensely grateful to them. They alone have helped me to complete this work.’

Outliving him by several decades, she admits, ‘The personal experience that I gained from having been his wife has lit up my entire life.’

Two Doctors: A Medico and an Economist

BR Ambedkar, scholar par excellence, renowned leader of Dalits, chair of the Constituent Assembly Drafting Committee, and first Law Minister of independent India, was a lonely man. He spent 16 to 18 hours a day working: he had much to do. Relentless pressure, as well as the pain of humiliation faced as an untouchable, drove him ill: from his thirties onward, he suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, rheumatism, and neuritis; by the time he was fifty he could barely walk without support.

Bhim Rao had been married young, had five children with Ramabai, four of whom died in infancy; the eldest, Yeshwant, survived. BR in any case hardly lived at home: he traveled, studied, and worked ceaselessly towards amelioration of the conditions of his community. Ramabai passed away in 1935. Well-wishers urged him to marry again, especially for the sake of his health.

Sharada Kabir grew up in Mumbai, and spent her youth studying. She studied medicine at Grant Medical College, Mumbai, staying in the hostel in order to study undisturbed. She became Chief Medical Officer of a 200-bed hospital in Gujarat, where she also headed the department of physiotherapy in the general hospital. The work was extremely strenuous, and her health deteriorated. She returned to Mumbai, and began work at a clinic run by Dr Malvankar, physiotherapist and medical consultant.

Sharada was in her late 30s and BR in his mid-50s when they met by happenstance, at the house of common friends. She was ‘overawed by Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarship and his deeply impressive and illustrious personality... his grand forehead, his bright piercing eyes..., the lustre that rested upon his visage.’ They struck up conversation, on topics ranging from politics to Buddhism. Within a few months, hesitant friendship grew between them. He began to take treatment at the clinic where she worked.

Clearly BR required a strict regimen, if he were to regain a semblance of bodily health. Since 1942, he had lived in Delhi, alone. She offered to come for a month to set up a regimen for him. He declined, saying ‘a young and beautiful doctor’ living in the same house and looking after him would be a blot on his reputation. Thinking over things, he proposed to her:

‘Look, doctor, my people and my colleagues have been insisting that I should get married, but it is very difficult for me to find someone to my liking, of adequate qualities and suitable to my state.... I begin my search for the right person with you.’

She kept silent, not knowing what reply to give. Soon, from Delhi, he sent a letter (25.1.1948), reiterating: ‘I am beginning my search for a wife with you, that is, of course, if you are agreeable to it. Think about it and let me know.... Considering the difference in age between you and me, and also considering the state of my health, if you turn down my proposal, I shall not be offended at all....’ He wrote of having been very much afraid of marriage, and children, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer responsibility of bringing them up.

Sharada Kabir took two of her brothers into confidence; one of whom pointed out she would become the law ministerin of India, and must not turn down the proposal; the other advised her to send an instant yes, arguing that Ambedkar’s followers loved him more than they loved their own lives, and if they got to know that doctorin bai had turned him down, they would very likely kill her!

She did agree to BR’s proposal, for reasons of her own. She was drawn to the man, though she realized that the going would not be easy. A strong-minded, independent woman, she wondered, ‘Would I be able to live up to this great, difficult, and hazardous responsibility?’

BR was delighted to get her assent, sent her a gold chain and a pendant shaped like an anchor, which, he wrote, ‘stands for deep love and attachment. I felt I could not select a better symbol and token of my feelings for you.’ At the same time, he recounted facts about himself, to give her an idea of what a difficult customer she had to deal with:

`I am a difficult man. Ordinarily, I am quiet as water and humble as grass. But when I get into a temper I am ungovernable and unmanageable. I am a man of silence. There is a charge against me that I don’t speak to women—ie other women. But I don’t even speak to men, unless they are my intimates. I am a man of moods. At times I can talk endlessly: at other times I shall not utter a word.... My companions have to bear the burden of my austerity and asceticism. My books have been my companions, they are dearer to me than wife and children....’ (1 February 1948).

Mutual Love and Understanding

Their pre-nuptial correspondence shows up an Ambedkar very different from the public figure; and yet, it is a completion of the same picture. Between January and mid-April ‘48, when they married, many letters passed between them, and almost daily telephonic conversations. She reflects, ‘Since he had been denied love all his life, the dam burst for him, and he inundated me with a torrent of love and extreme affection. I responded to him in equal measure.’

He called her Dearest Sharu, and wrote of marriage founded on love. He felt he had

`...realized a dream, of finding a woman possessed both of virtue and intellect to be my wife—and the joy [that] has come in its wake.... How strange and mysterious are the ways of destiny! Who could have thought that I and you would be husband and wife. Born in different strata, lived in different circles, trodden different paths, here we are meeting as patient and nurse and then led to the altar. Destiny has been kind to me in establishing this contact.... . Let us make a determination to make each other happy’ (16 February 1948).

He proposed they marry under the Civil Marriage Act. At that time, he was not only drafting the Constitution of India, but also working on the Hindu Code Bill. Both parties, in this case, had progressive views about marriage and the partnership between woman and man. Sharada wished to address him in the singular, rather than the traditional Hindu mode of address; he readily agreed, noting that husband addressing his wife in the singular, and she addressing him in the dual `is a relic of the past which has placed the wife on a lower footing than the husband.’ She proposed to wear no mangalsutra, and he had no objection.

She wrote one letter in Marathi; he responded the same evening (19 February 1948) confessing he had lost touch with Marathi, and felt no confidence that he could write in it ‘something which could have the charm, the simplicity and the grace which you seem to be able to produce.’ Of her writing in English, he remarked: although ‘even Englishmen have admired my English prose... I have to confess that your style of English writing is much superior to mine. I can never imitate or reproduce the homely touches you give to your thoughts by some very original phrasing, which has a charm all its own.’

To Dr Malvankar, he wrote, ‘Dr Kabir... deserves all the praise you have bestowed upon her. I have no hesitation in saying that she is a woman of high intellectual attainments and (though my knowledge of her is very meagre) of high character and virtue....’

To her, he reveals that people have a wrong notion about him: that he is all head and no heart. In fact, ‘I am too weak, too tender and terribly subject to emotion.... I hope you won’t regard me as a weakling for the tears I shed’ (12 March 1948).

There is fun, too, entwined with tenderness: ‘You have said that in me you have found one nearer to your ideal. I wonder how much away I am from your ideal and would like to know what you will do if you subsequently find someone equal to your ideal. On my part, I can say that in you I have found one who is better than and above my ideal. You needn’t therefore have any such fear as I have about you.... This is just banter. I know you will not exchange me for the world. Will you?’ (19 March 1948)

Marriage Inter-caste: A `Revolutionary Event’ 

She was a Saraswat Brahmin and well aware of the wider implications...’

To Bhaurao Gaikwad of his own community, Ambedkar gave a sedate explanation for marrying Dr Sharada Kabir. Beginning with the fact of his extremely poor health, he wrote: ’A woman to be my wife must be educated, must be a medical practitioner and must be good at cooking. It would be impossible in our community to find a woman who would combine the three qualifications and also suit my age....’

She is well aware of the wider implications of marrying inter-caste: ‘Dr Ambedkar himself was an active social revolutionary, which was why he married me and gave impetus to national unity.’

She flew down to Delhi on the day of their marriage. They had been very quiet about their plans, in deference to the grim atmosphere prevailing in the country, with Partition, communal violence, and the assassination of Gandhi. The marriage took place in BR’s bungalow, 1 Hardinge Road, with fifteen to twenty select people. Afterwards they visited Sardar Patel, who blessed them saying, ‘Daughter, you have shown great courage in marrying Doctor Saheb.... I feel sad that Bapu is not with us to witness this revolutionary event.’

Congratulatory and complimentary messages poured in, from Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad, Lord Mountbatten, C. Rajagopalachari, and hundreds of colleagues and friends, from India, England, and America.

Their Daily Life

Their life soon settled into a tenuous routine. As his resident doctor, she made a timetable, finely calibrating his meals, rest, medication, and work times. She taught him and supervised his yoga. Morning massage, administered by his driver, was essential. She made his breakfast, serving a new dish almost every day which he consumed `with great joy and relish.’ She saw him off, for ‘the great task of writing India’s Constitution.’ He returned home for lunch, and often during the meal they spoke on specific articles of the Constitution, discussing matters point-wise and in detail, he listens closely to her thoughts. After some rest, he returned either to the Constituent Assembly office or Parliament, coming home by 9 or 10 in the evening. He would be utterly exhausted. The two would sit in the garden, chatting and relaxing. After a light dinner, he would again work, writing and preparing notes, till an hour or two past midnight.

Her writing sparkles with many joyous recollections. There was a happy, relaxed honeymoon in Simla. There was a picnic she organized, at Okhla, where her husband took over the cooking, producing a delicious meal of chicken curry, dry mutton, biryani, coconut chutney and potato curry, and pressed everyone to take extra helpings, looking around victoriously and asking, ‘So, how was the cooking?’ There were times he tried learning to play the violin; to sculpt a Buddha-face; to drive a car. In this last, she was his teacher. However, he kept mixing up accelerator, brake and clutch, making a mess of it, and gave up within a week, acknowledging incapacity; she said, ‘Whoever asked you to learn?’

As the foreword to the book notes, `Bhimrao largely directed his own life’s journey, but—in more ways than one—Savita took charge of some of the driving’ (Scott R. Stroud).

BR was elated when Savita became pregnant (in 1953): he wanted a daughter. They talked of names. During that period, they traveled to Kashmir on the invitation of Sheikh Abdullah, with whom BR had discussions every day. One afternoon, Savita felt dizzy and threw up; immediately they flew back to Delhi, and went straight to hospital. But she had had a miscarriage: `a terrible assault on our married life.’ She talked to him of adopting a daughter, and they planned to do so, but it never materialized.

Public Life, Political Commitments

Savita Ambedkar is throughout cognizant and appreciative of BR Ambedkar’s epochal contributions. The book is fascinating in its layering of personal with political, interweaving multiple strands.

She describes events of his childhood and youth, as he related them to her: slights he suffered because he belonged to the Mahar caste; struggles to survive, study, and unite the Dalits. She engages deeply with his concerns; she always had a great interest in questions of equality, education, women’s emancipation, democratic life, and Buddhism.

She walked the path with him as he drafted India’s Constitution; formulated the Hindu Code Bill; stood for open elections, twice; organized the Scheduled Caste Federation; invested energy in educational institutions such as Siddhartha College and Milind College; and the conversion to Buddhism.

The Constitution, the world’s most voluminous, came into existence in her presence. She witnessed its creation and the golden moment when BR handed over the [draft] Constitution in November 1948. She recalls his speech on the occasion, wherein he spoke of castes as anti-national; and the many difficulties to be overcome if India was to become a nation in reality.

He sculpted the Hindu Code Bill, holding discussions with Hindu religious pundits, and reading voluminous commentaries and religious tomes. She would update him on the distress suffered by abandoned women in their in-laws’ house and often, natal home as well; she insisted that the Hindu Code Bill must make provisions for matters such as equal distribution of property, prohibition of bigamy, and alimony for divorced women. He included also inter-caste marriage, and divorce, arguing it is a healthy practice, allowed by the shastras, and currently prevalent among 90 percent Hindus, that is, the shudras. When the Congress failed to table the Bill, BR Ambedkar resigned from the Cabinet (in September 1951); she details about his reasons. Later, the Congress adopted articles and sections, in bits and pieces, and took the credit. After BR’s resignation, the couple moved to a rented house, 26 Alipore Road, Civil Lines.

In the first general elections, 1952, BR stood from the reserved Lok Sabha constituency of North Bombay. For the Congress it became a prestige issue, they strategically played the game so that their candidate, Narayanrao Kajrolkar, won. A cartoonist drew BR standing huge and tall, while near his foot, barely reaching the heel of his shoe, stood Kajrolkar. Yet for BR, the electoral loss was a big blow: he was disappointed and depressed. But when one day Kajrolkar paid a visit, BR greeted him warmly, and Kajrolkar placed his head on BR’s feet. BR lifted him up, congratulated him, and invited him to come for advice of any kind. In fact Kajrolkar often did so, and BR always assisted and guided him. In 1954, BR again stood for elections, but lost a second time. Savita notes the reasons: Congress stratagems on the one side, and on the other the absence of unity among Dalits.

Fortunately, he was appointed in the Rajya Sabha, as one of the members from Bombay state. From April 1952 until his demise, he remained a Rajya Sabha member.

The Buddhist Saga

Deep interest in Buddhism was one of the strongest bonds between Savita and BR Ambedkar. She reveals an important but little-known fact: both of them took deeksha as early as May 1950, at the hands of Bhante Aryavansh at the Buddha Birla Mandir. They accepted the trisharana (threefold refuge) and panchsheel, and became practicing Buddhists.

In his first public address on Buddhism, at a function presided over by the Burmese ambassador, BR noted that the resurrection of Buddhist philosophy had begun in India. He pointed to the Ashoka chakra on the national flag, and the three lions on the national seal, as symbolic of Buddhism. Swearing-in of the President of India was witnessed by a statue of the Buddha, installed in the hall, rather than statues of Hindu gods and goddesses. He asserted, ‘In Buddhism, ‘ethics has taken the place of god.... The social principles of Buddhism are founded upon inequality, while Buddhism is founded on equality.... No god can stand comparison with the Buddha—not Rama, not Krishna, not anyone else.’

On 25 May 1950, the two went to Sri Lanka, accompanied by Rajbhoj, secretary of the Scheduled Castes Federation, for a conference by the World Fellowship of Buddhists with representatives from 27 countries. On 5 June, BR addressed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association in India on ‘The Progress and Annihilation of Buddhism in India’, discussing the birth of Buddhism in India in order to oppose inequality, authority and divisions of society which Brahmanism had introduced; and tracing the decline of Buddhism, not to the dialectics of Shankaracharya but rather to the rise of Vaishnavism and Shaivism which adopted and absorbed many good points of Buddhism; as well as Islamic invaders.

In January 1951, at the Buddha monastery in Worli, he spoke of Buddhism having been prevalent in India for 1200 years, and now, after another 1200 years, `it shall again become the religion of the country.... The three attributes—equality, love and fraternity—necessary for the upliftment of the world, are present in this Buddhism.’

After losing the 1954 Lok Sabha election, BR was deeply disappointed, but felt he must remain in politics for the sake of the Dalits and impoverished masses. Savita constantly was at his side encouraging him to take the work of Buddhism in hand—she felt this was essential for his mental health and contentment. He suffered a heart attack in 1953, during which he kept saying, ‘Let me go, Sharu. I want to go now’.

Savita practiced the religion along with him, both finding it beneficial. She urged him to write, made her own readings and notes on Buddhism, and discussed many points. Both travelled to take part in the Third World Fellowship of Buddhists Conference in Rangoon, in May 1954. From that eventful trip, they brought back two identical statues of the Buddha, delivering a sermon, with his eyes open. BR would say, the Buddha traveled 45 years on foot right from Jammu to Kanyakumari, suffering all kinds of travails; `it was with open eyes that he observed the sorrows of the world.’

They installed one statue in a Buddha Vihar on Dehu Road on the Pune-Mumbai highway; BR spoke on the occasion, ‘The honour of installing the Buddha’s statue after 1200 years belongs to us people of the Dalit community; this is a very important occasion, and it shall certainly be recorded in history.’

They placed the other in their own house, in a glass case; in front of it they recited the Buddha vandana morning and evening. Later, she saw to it that this statue was installed at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Memorial and Museum, in Pune.

On 14 October 1956, both Savita and BR Ambedkar took deeksha from Mahasthavir Chandramani, a massive public event, in which BR then gave deeksha to lakhs of Dalits. They recited the trisharana, panchsheel, and the twenty-two point oath. As we are aware, this was a momentous event; the book provides a fascinating intimate account.

She tells us of their journey to Kathmandu on 12 November, to attend the World Buddhist Conference, where he made the historic speech on ‘The Buddha and Karl Marx’. They then toured Buddhist holy sites Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinara, a pilgrimage which was deeply moving and meaningful for BR. On 30 November they left for Delhi.

The Last Days

Upon return, he was completely fatigued and could barely get up. Yet on 2 December, Savita and BR Ambedkar went to the Ashoka Buddha Vihara, Mehrauli, to participate in a welcome ceremony for the Dalai Lama! The Dalai Lama was to proceed to Bodhgaya, to attend a program marking the 2500th year of the Buddha’s passing. Surely it is an amazing coincidence that the two Buddhist leaders should meet, the elder just about to pass away, as if he was handing over the baton to the young man.

On 3 December, BR walked down to see their gardener, who was unwell. He said, `That poor gardener is afraid of death, but I am not afraid at all. It may come any time. I am waiting for it.’ On 4 December, BR attended the Rajya Sabha. Every evening, he wrote for quite a while, finalizing The Buddha and His Dhamma, The Buddha and Karl Marx as well as Revolution and Counter-revolution. All these were nearing completion. On the 5th he spent hours working on the books.

On 5 December evening, `the singing of the Lord’s prayer Buddham Sharanam Gacchami [I take refuge in Lord Buddha] floated out from the drawing hall in the peaceful, mellifluous voice of Saheb. Whenever he was in a peaceful and happy state of mind, he would sing this prayer and some couplets of Kabir.’ After dinner he sang Kabir’s couplet Chalo Kabir Tera Bhavsagar Dera [Come Kabir, this is your temporary abode]....

A little later he got busy giving final shape to the preface of The Buddha and his Dhamma. By hand he wrote on the typewritten manuscript, acknowledging his indebtedness to his wife, and to Dr Malvankar, for keeping him alive, ‘rekindling this dying flame.’

On 6th morning, Savita went for a walk around the garden, as was her habit. Coming back, she made tea, and went with the tea tray, to wake up BR. But he had passed away, in his sleep. She was shocked and in grief.

People came, filing by his body, to pay their respects. She took him the next day to Bombay, where lakhs of people came to pay their last respects. He was duly cremated, his son Yeshwant performing the last rites.

Reinstating Savita Ambedkar: in Life and in History

The trauma of BR’s death was made all the more intense, for Savita because of the extreme disrespect with which some of his associates treated her. Due to their petty ambitions, canards were spread: that she had poisoned him. A parliamentary committee was set up, which investigated and came to the conclusion that it was unambiguously a natural death, caused by cardiac failure. However, the damage was done, and Maisaheb’s reputation suffered. BR’s son Yeshwant filed a case claiming his father’s property and belongings. She laid no claim to his property, but she did treasure his personal effects. She struggled to preserve the house where he lived and died, wishing to convert it into a museum; however, it was demolished. She persuaded Symbiosis Foundation, Pune, to build the Ambedkar memorial, and sent his personal effects there, where they are well preserved. [Much later, a garish museum has been built on 26 Alipore Road, which barely mentions his work with Dalits, scholarship, or Buddhism conversion.]

It was her Buddhist practice that saw her through the years of grief, humiliation, and isolation, after BR’s death. She declined a Rajya Sabha seat and the offer of a good job as a doctor. From 1970, she became more visible in public, at Dalit movement events, protesting deletion of Riddle of Hinduism from Ambedkar’s collected works, receiving the Bharat Ratna award in 1990 on her deceased husband’s behalf, unveiling his bust at Columbia University in 1995, garlanding his statue every year without fail at Chaitya Bhumi, Dadar, and supporting various causes. She notes that while institutions set up by him splintered and crumbled due to infighting, there is hope in new Dalit formations, and younger generations, who are thoughtful and honest.

She passed away in 2003, a natural end to a long and eventful life.

Synergy between the Two Individuals: Gross Neglect Even By Scholars

The question remains, why Savita Ambedkar’s contributions have been grossly neglected, and scarcely recognized in the literature? It seems inexplicable why it took more than 30 years for her book to be translated from Marathi into English.

The foreword notes:

‘...she thought and fought alongside him. But the traditions of the time kept her from taking a larger role in public affairs and the habits of our times often leave her stories and contributions unnoticed.... There was a synergy between the two individuals—committed to Buddhism and to each other’s development as they both were—that most observers often overlook....

’[The book] reveals her own significance as a thinker and activist. Norms and social pressures prevalent in her day have deprived us of works that Savita might have written in conversation with the texts and struggles we associate with Bhimrao’s own efforts. Not much can be done about this past gender-based silencing....’

The publication of this book, in English, has at last made available her thoughts and writing to a wider public. Nadeem Khan, with support from Vijay Surwade, has made a lot of effort to provide an excellent translation. It brings alive the words and worlds of Savita Ambedkar, and through these, valuable insights into very significant social and political processes from 1947 onwards.

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