“The Constitution is not a mere lawyers document. It is a vehicle of life and its spirit is always the spirit of age.” – Babasaheb Ambedkar
On 14th April 1891, in the town of Mhow, now known as Dr Ambedkar Nagar, southwest of the city of Indore, a revolution was born. He was the man who crafted a movement, who was on the conquest of an egalitarian dream, and was the architect of the world’s largest democracy. An eminent jurist, economist, academic and leader of the masses, the legacy drawn by Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is one of history’s most incomparably exceptional glories.
Literature and media that take a cue from Ambedkar’s writings often portray the grave socio-economic discrimination that the people of the Dalit community underwent. Despite losing his mother at a young age, being subjected to untouchability and living in difficult circumstances, Ambedkar remained resolute and unswerving in his path.
A prolific student, Ambedkar earned a degree in economics and political science from Bombay University, a postgraduation from Columbia University, a degree in law from Gray’s Inn, a dual-postgraduate degree in economics and political science from London School of Economics, a Doctorate of Science from the University of London, and a PhD and an honorary LLD from Columbia University. He holds the prestige to be the first Indian to earn a doctorate in economics from a foreign university.
A brilliant young man, Ambedkar gained reputation as a scholar for his research in law, economics and political science. He practiced as a lawyer in the Bombay High Court, served as principal of the Government Law College, Bombay, as Chairman of Ramjas College, Delhi, as professor of political economy at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, and the Perry Professor of jurisprudence. During his three years at Columbia University, Ambedkar unbelievably took up 29 courses in economics. Such was the astounding academic distinction that set him apart from so many.
Upon India’s independence on 15 August 1947, the newly Congress-led government invited him to serve as the nation’s first Law Minister, which he accepted. He was also the first Labour Minister of India. Subsequently, he was appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee and was appointed to write the Indian Constitution. The Constitution, as we see and experience today would not have been a reality without his myriad of knowledge, guidance and perspective.
Ambedkar believed in the Constitution as a tool for social reformation. He felt it was a gap-filler of sorts, for legally equalising India’s social classes. Caste and gender was at the heart of Babasaheb’s cosmic existence. The constitutional text prepared by him guarantees a wide range of legal rights and civil liberties including the abolition of untouchability, freedom of religion and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination. Ambedkar also strongly argued for extensive economic and social rights for women. He won Assembly support for introducing a system of reservations of jobs in the civil services, schools and colleges for people belonging to the present-day Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), thus uplifting India’s most downtrodden communities.
A wise constitutional expert, in his mission to frame democratic and intelligent law, Ambedkar deeply studied the Constitutions of over 60 countries. He advocated the constitutional values of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. His emphasis on Article 32: The Right to Constitutional Remedies portrays him as a radical thinker who had a prime understanding of the mechanics of democracy and freedom of speech.
When asked about Article 32, Ambedkar had said: “If I was asked to name any particular article in the Constitution as most important, an Article without which the Constitution would be a nullity, I could not refer to any other Article except this one. It is the very soul of the Constitution and the very heart of it.”
The Poona Pact of 1932 announced the formation of a separate electorate for Depressed Classes. Ambedkar believed that political representation was the only way to ensure the socio-economic development of the lower-caste communities. In his book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, referring to Gandhi’s fast, he explicated: “It was a foul and filthy act. The Fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards [which had been awarded to them.]”
A revolutionary intellectual and a force of nature to reckon with, Ambedkar’s achievements are unfathomably impressive. His relentless commitment towards the betterment of the marginalised is a true testament to the compassionate reformer he was.
In his book The Problem of the Rupee – Its Origin and Its Solution, Ambedkar raised the currency question in British-India and this became the basis on which the Reserve Bank of India was founded. In Small Holdings in India and their Remedies, he examined the solutions for the agrarian and labour crisis of India.
The credit towards the inclusion of the concept of universal adult franchise in the Indian Constitution must rightfully be due to Babasaheb. Through his radical understanding of society and social reformation, Ambedkar effected a vote-for-all movement inclusive of marginalised communities. The Nehru Commission Report (1928) built on these Ambedkarite values.
Ambedkar insisted on women’s sole ownership of the body, advocated the use of birth control and contraceptives and voiced against the increasing mortality rate of women during childbirth and unwanted pregnancies.
In the Hindu Code Bill, he formulated marriage as a contract, devoid of spiritual or sacramental elevation and advocated the elevation of women’s social status. Ambedkar asserted, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
Perhaps his commitment to equality and justice is best established by his resignation from Cabinet when the bill was dropped by Parliament. Firmly, Babasaheb declared: “I will now refer to another matter that had made me dissatisfied with the Government…the Constitution did not embody any safeguards for the Backward Classes.”
He worked towards prohibiting child labour, made laws for maternity leave, argued against the gender wage gap, introduced measures like medical leave, dearness allowance, minimum wages the periodic revision of pay scales, and advocated equal pay for women labourers.
He emphasised upon the importance of fraternity, meaning the common brotherhood of all Indians. He defined fraternity as a principle of unity and solidarity in social life. Babasaheb’s powerful words in the final session of the Constituent Assembly resonate with great impact even today. On November 25, 1949, he spoke of the need to give up the grammar of anarchy, to avoid hero-worship, and to work towards a social and not just a political democracy.
Conferred the Bharat Ratna posthumously, the gifts of Babasaheb are beyond measure. Through a brilliant Constitution, he envisioned India as a land of equal access to opportunity. Almost 72 years ago, Babasaheb explicated: “I am of the opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? The sooner we realise that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the world, the better for us. For then only we shall realise the necessity of becoming a nation and seriously think of ways and means of realising the goal.”
It would be foolish to not acknowledge that these words apply today as well.
A pioneering scholar, a powerful leader – the legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar has evolved as not only that of history’s greatest reformers but as an existence and a way of life. Perhaps the gratitude we pay back to him must come alive as adopting the Ambedkarite and Constitutional values of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice, and marching towards a more democratic India – not just in politics but also in society.
Shreeja Rao is a law student based in Pune, India. She writes about all things gender, culture and politics from a Dalit feminist lens. Growing up with a marginalised identity, Shreeja strongly believes in social justice for the disadvantaged and aspires to achieve that through her work. She also has a keen interest in academia, which she pursues with an intersectional and inclusive focus. You can find her on Instagram.
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