He was born Bhimrao on April 14, 1891, at Mhow in Central India in an austere and religious Mahar family with a military service background and considerable respect for education. In school (Satara and Bombay), college (Bombay), service under the Maharaja of Baroda (brieﬂy in 1913 and again between July and November 1917) and study abroad (Columbia University, the London School of Economics, Gray’s Inn, the University of Bonn), he displayed a scholarly orientation, a commitment to the life of the mind and trained intellectual gifts that no other national ﬁgure in Indian politics could match over this century.
He beneﬁted from opportunities which had just opened up, which none in his family (or, for that matter, in the recorded history of his people) had access to over the centuries; yet every one of his academic, intellectual and professional achievements was hard earned, in social battle, against entrenched oppression, discrimination and anti-human prejudice.
By the time he was ﬁnished with his formal studies in the early 1920s, Dr Ambedkar had acquired qualiﬁcations that surpassed the M.A., Ph.D., M.Sc. (Econ), D.Sc. (Econ), Barrister-at-law he had added, by right, to his name and title; the young man had been through a real life educational experience which most people (including the most renowned scholars) do not manage to acquire in a lifetime.
There may be various opinions on the formidable range of issues and controversies in which Dr Ambedkar ﬁgured as a protagonist over 40 years of his public life—which can be said to have begun with the sharp and insightful paper on “The Castes in India, Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” which he did for Dr Goldenweiser’s anthropology seminar in New York in May 1916.
He was a searchingly honest, challenging, analytical eclectic liberal thinker who was attracted to utilitarianism (and eventually to Buddhism) in philosophy and to the ideals of the French Revolution as much as to the socially forward-looking and humanistic elements and values in Indian culture and civilisation over the millennia.
He delved into the Marxist classics… but was not persuaded either by the revolutionary theory or the practice. He was emphatically opposed to Gandhism and to the Congress ideology, although on some social issues he shared common points with Jawaharlal Nehru—who badly let down his Minister of Law on the Hindu Code Bill in the early 1950s.
Right from his early days, Ambedkar made a mark as a restless and courageous experimenter who, obviously, did not always get it right in the matter of trade-offs (and did not claim to). He fell in love with ideas as a socially oppressed and humiliated schoolboy who refused to be taken for a ride by anyone, including Baroda’s royalty. Throughout his life (which ended on December 6, 1956, a couple of months after he publicly embraced Buddhism along with his followers), he was interested in the big picture.
But the boy who was socially barred from playing cricket with his schoolmates in Satara (by the curse of untouchability) never took his eye off the ball. He concentrated in his public life on attainable, practical goals and never became too big to go into speciﬁcs, details, doubts, books, the problems of ordinary people, especially the lowliest of the low in Indian society.
What is absolutely clear is that Dr Ambedkar represented, in the truly national sense, the profound side of the socio-political struggle which formed an irrepressible part of the nationalist movement, although it was not often understood (by conservatism and orthodoxy in politics) to be such. Politically moderate, he tended towards radicalism and uncompromising struggle in the social arena in which he generalled many battles.
His lifelong concern with religion, morality and justice in the idealistic sense was marked by a restlessly serious attempt to get the intellectual, social and political measure of these things. He did not believe in class analysis, but intuitively and intellectually grasped the link between caste and class in India.
Ideologically, Dr Ambedkar occupied the “centre”, frequently the space right of centre, but at times he moved sharply the other way, to the radical side. This happened especially when his ideas, campaigns and political organisational work were backed by powerful mass movements (in the “radical” second half of the 1930s, for example, during the 1938 workers’ struggle in Bombay against the anti-strike Bill).
He was the builder of the Independent Labour Party, which did not take off in an all-India sense, but yielded some valuable political, ideological and organisational lessons to the Opposition round the nation. Despite his chairmanship of the Constitution Draft Committee in the Constituent Assembly and his stint in the Union Ministry under Nehru, Dr Ambedkar can be considered as a founder of non-Congressism in Indian politics.
Even while championing social egalitarianism and popular liberties and criticising the sway of big business and landlordism, campaigning for social and economic democracy, he remained a conscious ideological and political adversary of Marxism and Communism—for the basic reason that he found them challenging in the same way he found Buddhism inspiring.
He had a number of interesting things to say about tricky national problems—Kashmir, language, nationhood, citizenship, ethnicity and so on—and his analysis lit up the ﬁeld for a proper democratic understanding of federalism and Centre-State relations in India.
On international questions and foreign policy, his approach was that of a centrist-conservative dissenting from non-alignment and from the Nehruvian world view. The social and class basis of the following he commanded; the non-philanthropic, non-petitioning nature of his social questioning; his passion for social justice and democratic liberties; his openness to modern, scientiﬁc and rational ideas, his unyielding secularism and progressive views on a number of questions, especially on the condition and future of women and on what it took to make a civil society; his great intellectual gifts and wide-ranging interests; his ability to concentrate on attainable, practical goals and his constructive sense of realism—these marked him out as a unique kind of leader.
Dr Ambedkar emphasised the anti-social, anti-progress character of an unjust social order as well as its vital connection, through networks of force and ideology, with political power.
One battle in which social orthodoxy and opportunist politics allied to defeat progress was the instructive ﬁght over the Hindu Code Bill in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The leading author of the Constitution led the effort to institute a reasonably forward-looking and egalitarian Hindu Code law (especially from the standpoint of women), but it was sabotaged by orthodox elements. The Congress party, despite Nehru’s claim to rationality and progressivism, refused to support the Bill.
His solid contribution to institution-building apart, he had a great deal to say about democracy as a real way of life and about citizens’ rights, about authoritarianism and also about a healthy democratic political system. He detested hereditary, dynastic rule and a one-party system. “To have popular government run by a single party is to let democracy become a mere form for despotism to play its parts from behind it,” is a typical Ambedkar formulation.
He warned: “Despotism does not cease to be despotism because it is elective. The real guarantee against despotism is to confront it with the possibility of its dethronement, of its being laid low, of its being superseded by a rival party.” Dr Ambedkar clearly had little use for political stability premised on a single party’s rule, or on a social philosophy of “letting sleeping dogs lie”.
Two other political principles which he focussed on have been honoured in their systematic and cynical violation over the years. Do not lay liberties at the feet of a great man; in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation. Make political democracy a social democracy; resolve the contradictions, else they will undermine, or blow up, democracy itself. Over a historic century, the many-sided achievement of Dr Ambedkar inspires awe.