By Promod Puri
(In celebration of Dr.Ambedkar Jayanti and his birthday)
Earlier in the mid 19th century Jyotirao Phule, an activist, reformer, and theologist from Maharashtra initiated the struggle to end the social exploitation of the outcasts. He espoused the word Dalit originating from the Marathi language meaning broken and crushed. He denounced the caste system and focused on the rights of depressed classes.
The campaign against caste system gathered momentum under contemporary leader Dr. Bhumirao Ramji Ambedkar at the forefront. He vehemently opposed the caste-based discrimination and fought against the plight of Shudras and Dalits.
Hinduism, he argued if followed according to Manusmriti, has assigned Dalit “the role of a slave.”
Before his apostasy, Ambedkar was a born Hindu in a Dalit family and experienced firsthand the discrimination and humiliation in early childhood. He set out to eradicate the centuries’ old segregation and stigmatization of fellow human beings classified as Shudras and Untouchables.
His biography states:
“Although able to attend school, Ambedkar and other untouchable children were segregated and given little attention or assistance by the teachers. They were not allowed to sit inside the class. Even if they needed to drink water, someone from a higher caste would have to pour that water from a height as they were not allowed to touch either the water or the vessel that contained it. This task was usually performed for the young Ambedkar by the school peon, and if the peon was not available then he had to go without water; the situation he later in his writings described as “No peon, No Water.” He was required to sit on a gunny sack which he had to take home with him”. (Source B.R.Ambedkar, Wikipedia).
His father was a ranked army officer under the British rule in India. Using his little influence, he got his children educated. Ambedkar being an industrious student and while facing challenges, he did his matriculation, graduation and post graduation in economics and political science. He attended Columbia University and London School of Economics and received doctorate honors. He served as India’s first law minister when the country gained Independence.
Distinguishing himself with several academic degrees and being an eminent scholar was indeed his personal feats which infused a great sense of pride for the entire community of Dalits and under-privileged class.
In his book Annihilation of Caste Ambedkar, while arguing against the deep-rooted caste system in the Hindu psyche, he gives a vivid description of the custom and practices prevalent in the society.
He writes: “Under the rule of the Peshwas in the Maratha country the untouchable was not allowed to use the public streets if a Hindu was coming along lest he should pollute the Hindu by his shadow. The untouchable was required to have a black thread either on his wrist or in his neck as a sign or a mark to prevent the Hindus from getting them polluted by his touch through mistake. In Poona, the capital of the Peshwa, the untouchable was required to carry, strung from his waist, a broom to sweep away from behind the dust he trod on lest a Hindu walking on the same should be polluted. In Poona, the untouchable was required to carry an earthen pot, hung in his neck wherever he went, for holding his spit lest his spit falling on earth should pollute a Hindu who might unknowingly happen to tread on it”.
In his crusade to end the ill-treatment of Dalits, as well as expressing his moral sense, that on December 25, 1927, he led a public protest of the symbolic burning of Manusmriti. The event was attended by thousands of people in a ceremony performed by a Brahmin priest amidst chanting of mantras.
Ambedkar was a fearless and dedicated soldier who fought to uproot casteism from the contaminated soil of India’s social and religious culture.
Combating religious wrongs is more challenging than tackling other social, economic and political issues. Ambedkar was one of those rare personalities in the history of humankind who consciously ruffled with religious sensitivities.
With his intellect, knowledge and rational understanding of the religion, Ambedkar confronted with and impeached the Hindu establishment for its treatment of the Dalits and Untouchables. He awakened the dormant consciousness of the oppressed class who otherwise resigned themselves to the act of fate.
Unlike in Mahabharata, Ambedkar fought the battle against evils thru nonviolent strategies.
When India got Independence and Ambedkar being the principal author of the nation’s constitution and holding the law portfolio in the cabinet, Untouchability was declared unlawful.
Ambedkar believed the law is an instrument to establish a sane social order in which the development of the individual is in harmony with the growth of society.
After centuries of hitherto unchallenged and illegal authority relating to human rights violations, Manusmriti in terms of laws of India became illegal overnight.
Granting equality does not mean justice. But legalities were put in place. Special privileges for the underprivileged members of the society were enshrined in the constitution to break the shackles of virtual economic and social slavery, and to free the Dalits and Shudras from the humiliating social disorder.
As a key person in the drafting of the Indian constitution, he was successful in making adequate inclusions of women’s rights in addition to all other general provisions applicable to all. These inclusions sought to abolish different marriage systems prevalent among Hindus and to establish monogamy as the only legal system, conferment of the right to property, and adoption of women and restitution of conjugal rights and judicial separation.
Ambedkar, in fact, was an inspiration for the progressive Hindu mind, a guide for the rationalist and reformist Hindu, an advocate of women rights, and almost a messiah for lowest of the low which for the first time felt some hope of freedom from their dehumanized status.
Ambedkar helped in the revamping of the Hindu society. He was posthumously honored with India’s highest civil award of Bharat Ratna in 1990.
The technical advances particularly in the social media, promise the societal cleanup of the clogs within the Hindu religion which would see Ambedkar’s dream of social democracy comes true.
(From my book Hinduism Beyond Rituals, Customs And Traditions)