Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) was an In dian social reformer and politician who devoted himself to improving the life of untouchables, particularly of his own caste, the Mahars.

Bhimrao Ambedkar was born at Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. He attended Columbia University during 1914-1916 and received a doctorate in 1926. While at Columbia, John Dewey and other prominent teachers inspired Ambedkar and reinforced his commitment to social reform.

Two avenues existed for altering the conditions of Hindu untouchables in the early 20th century. Ambedkar rejected the more traditional approach of changing a caste's habits and image so that they resembled the norms associated with high castes. Instead, he tried to supplant such norms with the Western-based notion that all men, including Mahars, have rights of liberty and equality. Ambedkar made it his mission to create circumstances in which those rights could become fact. Sophisticated, articulate, with a political sense and an independent spirit bordering on egotism, Ambedkar set out to modernize untouchable castes.

Prior to 1935 Ambedkar sought to unify the Mahars through caste conferences, campaigns to enter temples hitherto closed to untouchables, and creation of newspapers for propaganda and communication. In 1924 Ambedkar organized the Depressed Classes Institute of Bombay, which carried on economic and educational uplift. Ambedkar also moved into the political arena because he believed that untouchables must take advantage of opportunities afforded by British constitutional reforms. As a member of the Bombay Legislative Council, he helped the Mahars and other depressed castes receive reserved legislative seats and employment. In the London Round Table Conferences, Ambedkar championed constitutional safeguards for untouchables.

These activities brought Ambedkar in collision with Mahatma Gandhi. Although Gandhi paternally sought to improve the condition of untouchables, he rejected Ambedkar's militant demand that untouchables mobilize politically and be given a status separate from that of other Hindus. Conflict between the leaders continued, punctuated by threats of fasts to the death and shaky compromises.

Ambedkar moved in new directions after the 1935 Government of India Act. He established a series of political parties which became foci for untouchable demands. In 1942 he served as legal member on the Governor General's Executive Council and contributed to the drafting of the Indian constitution.

Although political maneuvering brought limited benefits to untouchables, Ambedkar became convinced that he and his caste could not attain self-respect and economic well-being within Hinduism. Following 2 decades of exploring affiliation with other Indian religions, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism just prior to his death on Dec. 6, 1956. This dramatic rejection of Hindu restrictions and a concomitant effort to affirm a new way of life validated Ambedkar's claim to represent the interests and will of his people. Half a million Mahars followed him into Buddhism.

Further Reading on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission (1954; 2d ed. 1962), provides a useful survey of Ambedkar's life.

Additional Biography Sources

Bhandari, C. S., Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, an outstanding patriot, New Delhi: Suruchi Prakashan, 1991.

Chandra Mowli, V., B.R. Ambedkar: man and his vision, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers; New York: Distributed by Apt Books, 1990.

Dr. Ambedkar: pioneer of human rights, New Delhi: Bodhisattva Publication, Ambedkar Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1977.

Kuber, W. N., B.R. Ambedkar, New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1978.

Lobo, C. H. Jacob., Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: the champion of social democracy in India, Bangalore, India: Hilerina Publications, 1984.