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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 15, April 13, 2024

Dr. Ambedkar: Moving from the Margins to the Mainstream | Pradyumna Bag

Friday 12 April 2024



Despite being born in an untouchable family and experiencing persistent caste discrimination, Ambedkar remained steadfast in his fight for justice and dignity for the depressed classes, including women. His contributions to public life were overlooked, and the social elites dismissed his overall accomplishments, labelling him only a Dalit leader. However, Dr. Ambedkar was a city on a hill that could not be hidden, a beacon of knowledge that simply refused to dissipate. How the boy who was forced to sit forlorn at school rose to prominence and became a national and an international figure. 


The caste system has assigned Dalits the most inferior place and forced them to live on the margins of society in appalling conditions. The ’graded inequality’ of caste and the practice of untouchability have significantly impaired their socio-economic and political lives. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was born to this marginalised identity, and his life’s mission was to secure justice, rights, and dignity for what he described as the ‘Depressed classes’. Ambedkar grew in stature, wisdom, and leadership through this relentless struggle against the oppression and exploitation by the upper castes. He became the most reviled person by the upper castes because of his outspoken criticism of caste, untouchability, M.K. Gandhi, the Congress, and for raising the issues of the untouchables on national and international platforms. However, he refused to be intimidated or influenced by the thronging crowd and instead confronted them with astute knowledge and excellent debating skills. The problems that Dalits faced, such as caste-based discrimination and exclusion, lack of freedom, and cruel untouchability practices, remained on the periphery of public attention, much like the Dalit self. Ambedkar’s unrelenting demand prompted the ruling elites to pay attention to the pitiable condition of the untouchables. His struggle for a just and equitable society is well received across the globe now, and even the United Nations acknowledges his contribution for the marginalised. For a long time, India was reluctant to embrace a Dalit as a national icon, but things are changing, and even Ambedkar’s detractors can no longer deny his rising prominence. The boy who was forced to sit forlorn in class due to his ‘low caste’ origin proved himself worthy of being bestowed upon the country’s highest civilian award, the ‘Bharat Ratna.’

Growing up on the margins of the caste system

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born at Mhow as the 14th child of Ramji Sakpal and Bhimabai Sakpal in a family of the untouchable Mahar caste, on April 14, 1891. At a very young age, caste prejudice and discrimination tormented Ambedkar since he experienced them in all forms both inside and outside of school. He experienced prejudice and stunting remarks in school, and was forbidden from going near certain locations, such as water sources. The children of the touchable castes could easily reach water and just needed the teacher’s permission, in contrast to Ambedkar, who was barred from touching the tap and thus was unable to quench his thirst without the tap being opened for him by a touchable person. The school peon was in charge of turning on the tap, so Ambedkar had to go without water in his absence [1].

The boy who was barred from various school activities, made to sit away from the upper caste pupils, and was not allowed to learn certain subjects, such as Sanskrit, due to his caste, has attained an unimaginable feat of success. He has transformed himself from the stone the builders rejected into the cornerstone upon which he built himself into the towering figure he is now. The academic journey that started from Satara primary school to led him to Colombia University (MA, PhD), a DSc from the London School of Economics, and a Bar-at-Law from Gray’s Inn in London. Through advocacy, activism, and incorporating the rights of the marginalised into the Indian constitution, he made it his life’s mission to advance the rights of the oppressed. In terms of scholarly orientation, dedication to the life of the mind, and trained intellectual abilities, no other national figure in Indian politics could be compared to him among his contemporaries.

Advancing towards mainstream

He pushed the issues of Dalits to the forefront of the independence struggle and worked watchfully with the colonial British government and the upper caste leaders in order to secure justice for the most marginalised segment of Indian society. He was convinced that neither the upper castes nor the British cared about the rights and dignity of the Dalits, and instead of bringing social and economic reforms to liberate Dalits from the clutches of caste and untouchability, the upper caste appropriated their issues to enhance their own agenda.

A society that was so entrenched in caste and birth-based entitlements was reluctant to recognize Ambedkar as a worthy individual, much less as an equal. And despite all his accomplishments in academics and public life, he was habitually treated with contempt and disgrace by his upper-caste counterparts. They were infuriated by his forthright critique and fearless approach particularly against caste, untouchability, Gandhi and the Congress. His aptitude for reasoning and arguments that were backed up by empirical evidence infuriated his upper-caste counterparts because he challenged their most cherished beliefs and the associated privileges without fear or hesitation. Unable to reason with him with comparable proficiency despite claiming to be superior on all counts due to their ‘superior birth’, they intensified their attacks from all sides, wilfully misread him, and undervalued his contributions. One of the leading attacks by the upper caste elites against Ambedkar was questioning his patriotism and his contribution to the freedom struggle. But they often ignored the fact that Ambedkar was striving to liberate the Depressed classes from thousands of years of yolk under the caste system in addition to the British rule, as India struggled to overcome 200 years of British yolk. He was resolute in his position that social reform must take precedence over political independence.

Ambedkar critically examined the issue of independence and Swaraj while taking into account the ‘graded inequality’ in the caste system. Without being liberated from the caste system and its pervasive impact on the socio-economic practices, the fate of the Depressed classes will be unduly dependent on the whims of the upper caste. Therefore, Ambedkar systematically made a distinction between the independence of the country and the independence of its people. While the upper caste leaders throw their weight behind the independence of the country, they pay little attention to the appalling living conditions of the masses and their liberation. The caste system has systematically ‘denied equality before the law and equal opportunity in public life’ [2], to the untouchables, which has impaired the social and economic conditions of the Dalits. The transfer of power only replaces one set of rulers with another and does not liberate the masses from centuries of caste oppression and exploitation. Ambedkar feared that without substantive equality in the line of democratization of society and economic resources, the formal equality will achieve nothing meaningful and the Dalits’ situation would get worse.
He was conscious that caste-based discrimination and untouchability constitute essential parts of Hinduism, and the upper castes have no interest in eradicating them. Ambedkar raised the plight of the untouchables in various forums, and his efforts began to gain recognition when he was first invited to the Round Table Conference as a separate constituency. The Congress, Gandhi, and the apathetic upper caste were understandably outraged by this.

Disregard for Ambedkar among the upper castes

In 1919, Ambedkar testified in writing to the Southborough Committee on Electoral Reforms, arguing for a separate electorate for the untouchables. His testimony before the Simon Commission and the Lothian Commission concerning the population size of the untouchables and their distinct challenges in order to demand a separate electorate all sparked the upper castes’ resentment. However, the upper caste’s resentment eventually spilled out when Ambedkar accepted the invitation from the British for the First Round Table Conference and demanded separate electorate for the untouchables, which the British eventually conceded (which, Gandhi nullified later with his fast unto death). The separate electorate not only recognises the Dalits as a distinct community but opens up possibilities where Dalits can occupy public office and pursue a dignified life that was previously denied to them. The caste system passes down power on the basis of birth, which Ambedkar fears would ceaselessly reproduce a hereditary subject class and a hereditary ruling class. This will undermine the principle and purpose of independence and democracy as Ambedkar affirms: ‘rulers are always drawn from the ruling class, and the class that is ruled never becomes the ruling class’. 

Through this and a series of other events, Ambedkar systematically distanced the issue of untouchables from the conventional control of the upper castes, who prevented any intervention with the excuse that it was an ‘internal matter’ of the Hindus and would be resolved mutually. Why embarrass the nation before the international community? In fact, the government of India applied the same methods to prevent Dalits from raising the caste issue at the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban. The belief that underpinned the protest was that injustice, indignity, and economic exploitation based on certain ascribed identities cannot simply be justified because they are ordained by religion. 

When ignoring him is no longer an option

The caste system rendered Dalits ‘untouchable’, ‘unapproachable’ ‘unseeable’, and even ‘unlikeable’. Ambedkar was often underestimated, despised, and vilified because of the causes he campaigned for and the manner in which he did it. The fact that he was a Dalit was sufficient for the upper caste to discredit him and be hesitant to accord him legitimacy because it goes against the Varna or caste order. This advocates that the upper castes are preordained for noble purposes while the Dalits are condemned to filthy tasks. Ambedkar was the antithesis of what the upper caste expected a Dalit to be, what Arundhati Roy (2014) would call ‘breach of peace’. The versatility of Ambedkar has put the ideology and beliefs on trial, which the upper castes find exceedingly unsettling because their privileges and power rested on these beliefs. His scholastic prudence and popularity unquestionably called into doubt the Varna or caste system’s divine foundation. His academic accomplishments, progressive outlook, and contributions to the nation’s social, economic, and political issues were widely ignored by upper-caste nationalist leaders.

Gandhi, the self-styled leader of the untouchables, ignored Ambedkar until Ambedkar confronted him at the Roundtable Conference. In spite of this, he was condescending in his demeanour as he exposed his deep-seated prejudice with or without intent that mistook Ambedkar for a Brahmin. An obvious mistake the casteists continue to make due to predictable caste prejudice is that Dalits lack leadership skills, or for that matter, any desirable, admirable traits or abilities. 

Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar shared several traits since both, albeit to different degrees, adopted progressive ideals. However, in keeping with his Pandit tradition, Nehru did not approach Ambedkar until 1939 because it is customary for a Dalit to solicit assistance from the upper castes. Of course, Ambedkar was made the first law minister of independent India, but he eventually resigned due to the indifference attitude of the incumbent government towards a number of crucial issues, notably the Hindu Code Bill. 

While many leaders and writers, like Arun Shourie, have accused Ambedkar of being unable to rise beyond his caste identity, they have wilfully ignored the role that caste politics played in the national movement [3]. But these same enlightened individuals willfully overlook the disdain for the idea of social reform by many nationalist leaders like B.G. Tilak. Tilak publicly opposed social reforms, including educating the women and members of the lower castes. Even a paid advertisement announcing the release of ‘Mook Nayak’, the first journal started by Ambedkar, was rejected by Tilak’s newspaper, ‘Kesari’ [4] .

His inclination to emancipate the Depressed classes and his commitment to equality and justice in the way resources are distributed and the people are treated should have made Ambedkar an ideal ally of the communists, but his experience had taught him otherwise. For instance, the Girni Kamgar Union, the first and one of the largest communist trade unions, was championing the cause of the textile workers under the leadership of S.A. Dange, a Maharashtrian Brahmin. Due to their caste status, the untouchables were forced to work in inferior, low-paying jobs in the mills. Dange turned down Ambedkar’s request to take on this issue and bring justice to the untouchables. 

The liberals, the radicals, the conservatives, and the communists are all divided by political ideology but are united by Hinduism and the ideology of caste. For them, social reform means making some cosmetic changes within the system without upsetting the caste system. Ambedkar was insistent on fundamental structural reforms like the caste system and the abolition of untouchability, whereas the upper caste had a narrow vision of social reform, limiting it to matters like removing the prohibition on widow remarriage or banning child marriage. The upper caste detested Ambedkar because the demands for justice by the oppressed seemed like atrocities to them.

Unlike many of his upper caste contemporaries in public life, Ambedkar’s aims were wider than his personal gains. He was never far from the toiling masses, the Depressed classes. However, the official history is not just unkind to him but has ignored him just as the caste system has ignored untouchables. The Mahad and the Dandi Satyagraha were unparalleled epochal events in the history of the subcontinent, but the former led by Ambedkar is being systematically erased in modern Indian historiography despite the fact that it drew attention to an egregious atrocity: that even the birds and the beasts were allowed to drink water from public ponds but the untouchable were forbidden. Ambedkar was not just critical about anything for the sake of criticism, he always offered a valid, reasonable, and achievable alternatives.

Becoming a global icon

Ambedkar’s life mission was to ‘improving the condition of the Depressed Classes by emancipating them from the social tyranny of their high caste masters’, and the United Nations now recognises him as the global icon for the marginalised people. Ambedkar’s contributions and stature withstood all attempts to confine him to being a leader of the Dalits and attempt to prevent him from becoming a national or international figure have proved unsuccessful. He was a city on a hill that could not be hidden, a beacon of knowledge that simply refused to dissipate.

India was long reluctant to accept a Dalit as a national icon. Ambedkar’s busts and statues were previously only to be found in the homes, bastis, and on the street corners of Dalits. However, his ideas, vision and exemplary crusade against caste discrimination has elevated him to the status of a global icon. His busts, life-size statues, and figurines are everywhere—in the university, on the premises of the parliament, in the state assembly, and at the important landmarks of the city. On the important life events of Ambedkar, such as his birth (April 14), Mahaparinirvan Diwas or death (December 6), and conversion to Buddhism (October 14, which frequently coincides with the festival of Vijayadashami), thousands of people throng to his statues and locations of significant life event in different parts of the country. The assertive and aspirational Dalit salutation ‘Jai Bheem’ is becoming increasingly popular among the Dalits. Jai Bhim is a greeting that signifies aspiration for an alternative to the dominant cultures and values.

Unlike most of his contemporary upper caste leaders, Ambedkar applied universal values to assess and judge ideology, institutions, and practices found in society. A group or individual must not be denied rights, justice, or dignity under the guise of religion or culture. His quest for an ideal society—one founded on liberty, equality, and fraternity with multiple channels of mobility—has made him a global icon. 

(Author: Pradyumna Bag has a PhD from J.N.U., New Delhi, and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia (a central university), New Delhi)

[1Keer, Dhananjay (2015 [1956]) Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Popular Prakashsan.

[2Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches. (2014 [1979]), Vol. 1, 2, & 3, Re-printed by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Compiled by Vasant Moon, New Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation.

[3Shourie, A. (2012) Worshipping False Gods : Ambedkar, and the Facts Which Have Been Erased

[4Roy, Arundhati (2014) Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition B.R. Ambedkar

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