My slogan, ‘Life should be great rather than long’ enlightened the masses globally. Education and various degrees like MSc, M.A., and PhD, made me famous, and I was called the symbol of knowledge. I always believed knowledge never goes in vain. It only enhances the quality of our life.
Books like ‘The Constitution of India’, ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’ and ‘The Philosophy of Hinduism’ are to my credit. Many students were inspired by my actions, words, and lifestyle and followed my footsteps.
My journey, however, wasn’t so easy. To get here, I had to suffer and endure great hardship.
Born in a Dalit family, my parents named me Bhimrao Ramji Sakpal. I was the youngest child. We lived in Ambadawe village in Ratnagiri. My father, Shri Ramji Rao, was a subedar in the army, and from the beginning, he encouraged us to study and work hard.
After my mother’s demise, our paternal aunt came to look after us.
It was common here in Maharashtra to have a surname after a village, irrespective of caste or religion. Girls during our times were not allowed to go to school. So my father taught my sisters at home and registered my elder brothers’ and my name in a nearby school. Our surnames were changed to Ambadawekar (after our village) instead of Sakpal.
Dalits were prevalent in our village. We were labelled as untouchables and considered impure by the Brahmins.
Nobody was ready to play with me. I was only five years old when I understood what caste prejudice meant in real life.
My brothers and I suffered humiliation due to the stigma attached to our caste. We were made to sit on the floor of the classroom on gunny bags, which we took back home every day only because the peon would not touch it.
We were also denied access to clean drinking water. One day, I couldn’t resist my thirst and drank water from a public faucet. On seeing this, some people brutally thrashed me. A pain stabbed my heart, my throat felt choked and my voice trailed off weakly.
Everyone treated our family like street animals. Other students in my class frequently bothered me. They mocked at me and tore up my books. Even though the torment was intolerable, I persisted.
The villagers provoked my Marathi Brahmin teacher, Krishna Keshav Ambedkar Ji, to expel me from class. However, my guru supported me not because he had a soft spot in his heart for me but because he recognised my aptitude for learning. He even lent his surname ‘Ambedkar’ in school records and protected me.
In my earlier days, I had a liking for the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, for me, was like a gold mine of literature & grammar. But no one was willing to teach me. So I picked up the fundamentals, listening to the teachers, mentoring other students and later went to Bonn University in Germany to learn in depth.
A few years later, when I turned 15, my father forced me to get married. My wife was only 09-years-old then. One day she came to my study room to give me tea and stood quietly.
I asked her, “Do you want to say something?”
She nodded and said, “Those your age have started going to work, and you are still stuck with your books. Why don’t you work? Like others, you, too, will get a position at the mill. Why do we lower caste people need to learn so much? Moreover, you should now help your father financially.”
At first, I did get angry, but my anger quickly ceased. It was not Rama’s fault. It was due to a lack of education.
I took a deep breath and said, “Do you know Rama, why do people in our fraternity do odd jobs like cleaning, labour, polishing shoes etc.?”
“Yes. It is our job. What else we lower cast people can do? Why are you asking me this stupid question?” Ramabai asked.
“No, you are mistaken. It’s because society doesn’t want us to grow and continue doing such odd jobs forever till we die. When we educate ourselves, the world will pay attention to us. When our community changes, our work will change, and we will do better jobs.” I said.
Her facial expressions said she didn’t comprehend much, but I was determined to educate and teach her what it’s like to dream and fulfil, along with accomplishing my dreams.
Reading and writing are the only ways a person can become a scholar. Prior to changing society, my wife and my family’s thought process need to alter, too. Equal opportunities for a livelihood should be available to everyone, I felt.
Shortage of money often disrupted my education. But the urge and an unquenchable hunger for learning kept me moving.
Once again, lady luck smiled, and I received a scholarship from Baroda under a scheme established by Sayajirao Gaekwad, the ruler of Baroda. My joy knew no bounds. This scholarship took care of my higher studies at various universities in the United States, Britain, and Germany.
I gave it my all, heart and soul. In 1912 I earned degrees in political science and economics. I travelled to the USA in 1913 to pursue my post-graduation and earned my Master’s degree in 1915. In 1916, after completing my Doctorate in Economics and Barrister-at-Law from London, I returned to India as I had ran-out of scholarship money. I did odd jobs in clerical posts and as an accountant to feed my family.
I had left my research work mid-way and was desperate to complete it. So I used my savings to go to London to submit my work. I was awarded the Doctor of Science degree by the University.
I returned to India again to devote the rest of my life to the service of society. Participating in many campaigns for the independence of India and writing books for the social freedom of Dalits became my priority.
In my early career, I was an economist, professor, and lawyer. When I started practising law in the Bombay (now Mumbai) High Court, I tried to promote education to depressed classes, also known as Schedule castes and Schedule tribes, to uplift them. I even marched for the rights of this community.
I strived for principal human rights and gender equality. There were times when I fought by myself and suffered many atrocities. My battle was not against the upper-class people, rather I wanted to abolish untouchability in this nation. I firmly criticized caste-based society. After much effort, we were allotted rights and given certain reservations.
However, I did not impose a time limit on caste-based reservations in the constitution because if they persisted for a longer period, then people might take undue advantage and will get everything without much effort which would be unfair to the general category. So with great reluctance, I agreed for 10 years.
In 1936, I entered politics and founded the Independent Labour Party. My political career was not a smooth ride. There were many ebbs and flows.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister appointed me as Minister of Law in 1947. It was a pleasant surprise. I was instrumental in the constitution making process in India. The constitution’s draft was made by a seven-person committee. I was chosen to serve as its chairman together with Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, N. Gopalaswami, K.M. Munshi, Mohammad Saadulla, B.L. Mitter, and D.P. Khaitan.
The Constitution was adopted in November 1949, and in January 1950, this came into force. I was conferred the prestigious title ‘The Father of Indian Constitution,’ The highlights of this constitution were the Right to Equality, the Right to freedom, the Right against exploitation, the Right to freedom of Religion, Cultural and Educational Rights and the Right to Constitutional Remedies.
With time, conflicts started rising between Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru and myself regarding safeguarding the position of the Scheduled Castes, the foreign policy of the country and portfolios given to other ministers. I was made to feel left out. However, the Hindu Code Bill, which Mr. Nehru shelved after promising to move further, was what provoked and prompted my resignation in 1951.
In 1952, I contested in Indian General Election for the first time but lost to Congress Party and moved to become a member of the Rajya Sabha. I tried to enter Lok Sabha again in the by-election of 1954 but couldn’t win.
Within a short period, I resigned due to a lack of influence in the government. In October 1956, in despair, I renounced Hinduism and decided to become a Buddhist.
Though I liked the spiritual aspects of Hinduism, I strongly felt a degradation when it came to untouchables. This news spread like fire and was the talk of the town.
When the Nizam of Hyderabad came to know about my thoughts, he immediately sent a letter wherein he asked me to convert myself into a Muslim and offered huge sums.
However, I declined his offer since I felt confident in my choice. I believed Buddhism was the best option and would improve the oppressed class’s social standing. At a ceremony in Nagpur, thousands of people made the decision to leave the Hindu faith and joined forces with me to embrace Buddhism.
But soon, my health began to deteriorate, pushing me to step down from my key duties while waiting for a peaceful end.
Indian society is divided into 5 castes
- Brahmins: the priestly caste. After their religious role decreased they became the caste of officialdom.
- Kshatriya: warrior caste.
- Vaisya: the commoner caste.
- Sudras: represented the great bulk of the Indian population. …
- Untouchables: descendants of slaves or prisoners
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