Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar might be the most famous Indian you’ve never heard of. Yet if you go into any village, any town, any city, anywhere in India, you will see statues, paintings, and shrines devoted to him. Did you know that there are more statues in his image than of anyone else in the country? You will hear people every day, if you listen carefully, greeting one another with “Jai Bhim”. “Long live Dr. Ambedkar and his comitment to humanity” they are saying, inviting his memory and inspiration into the exchange. Did you know that he was a contemporary of Gandhi, and active in the Indian Independence movement? That he wrote India’s Constitution, and that he was India’s first Law Minister, serving in Nehru’s First cabinet? He studied at Columbia University in New York, with his beloved teacher and mentor, John Dewey, described by Dr. Cornel West as “the towering public intellectual in the first half of the 20th century.” If you visit the library at Columbia, you will see a bust in Ambedkar’s image, often garlanded by quiet pilgrims. Did you know that he corresponded with W.E.B. DuBois, whom Dr. West called “a scholar and a public intellectual, as well as an activist”? This correspondence is preserved at The DuBois Library at UMass Amherst. Did you know that Ambedkar was from the community traditionally-considered “untouchable”, now self-identified as “Dalit”? That at the end of his life he stepped out of the caste system by converting to Buddhism, and that on that day, October 14, 1956, 500,000 other “untouchables”, dressed in white and traveling from all corners of India to Nagpur, converted with him, sparking a Buddhist revival? That he has also sparked a social justice movement, active now for more that 65 years? And that he has inspired a Jai Bhim movement in the gypsy community in northeast Hungary, where a Dr. Ambedkar High School has been established in the countryside? Who is this man and why have we never learned about him? Why indeed!
According to Gail Omvedt, in her biography “Ambedkar: Toward an Enlighted India” , Ambedkar was a “world figure… not simply a philosopher reinterpreting the world, but a leader of those who wanted to ‘reconstruct the world’ by abolishing exploitative social structures.” She goes on to write that Ambedkar “rejected the ‘quietistic’ view of life of traditional India and the principle of limiting needs, later identified with Gandhism.” He wrote that “the future of the untouchables, indeed of all the Indian poor, did not lie in the villages, but in the development of an urbanize and industrialized modern economy.” For Ambedkar it was clear that “caste discrimination was all-pervasive, that it involved both economic cost and personal himiliation, and that this prejudice extended from the lowliest villages and urban slums to the most sophisticated arenas of Indian life.”
Ambedkar traveled across India gathering stories of how caste affected people in their daily lives, and he wrote these essays in the collection “Waiting for a Visa”, compiled online by Prof. Frances W. Pritchett from Columbia University. Introducing these essays, Ambedkar writes, “Foreigners of course know of the existence of untouchability. But not being next door to it, so to say, they are unable to realize how oppressive it is in its actuality.” He explains that, “in choosing these illustrations I have drawn partly upon my experience and partly upon the experience of others. I begin with events that have happened to me in my own life.” He tells real-life accounts of a new mother and baby who died becasue the village doctor refused to touch them because of caste superstition, and of a young clerk who was humiliated at his library job until he quit. And Ambedkar’s own accounts of being humiliated, ignored and threatened his entire career because of his caste status. These stories are also beautifully-portrayed in the accessible graphic novel “Bhimayana”, published by Navayana Press, divided into thee sections; Water, Shelter, and Travel.
What exactly is the caste system? India’s Hindu Caste System is based on The Vedas, Sanskrit texts and the foundation of all social strata in India. Dr. Ambedkar described the caste system as “a system of graded inequality”. Caste Hindus are divided into 4 major groupings, but within it there are 2,000 to 4,000 different groups. Below the line of caste are the community formerly-considered “untouchable”, now identified as “Dalit”. This community is also officially referred to as “the scheduled castes” and “depressed classes”. There are 429 different communities in this sub-caste grouping. Dr. Ambedkar was considered an “untouchable”. He said that within the Vedic/Hindu caste system “all are unequal, but some are more unequal than others.” “Untouchables” are at the very bottom of the caste system. “Untouchability” is inherited from parents and transmitted to children, and traditionally one may not marry out of caste. Dr. Ambedkar explained that “the Hindu society insists on segregation of the Untouchables.”
The caste system has resulted in thousands of years of exclusion and oppression, which continue to this day. Dalit villages are burned to the ground, women are raped, families are murdered. And on a daily level Dalits face discrimination and humiliation at school, at jobs and in their communities. These atrtocities, largely unreported in the media and unknown in the West, are documented by Human Rights Watch and recognized by The United Nations an international human rights issue.
In his most important work “Annihilation of Caste”, Ambedkar writes that caste has no scientific origin and that it prevents common activity. He writes that caste is by nature anti-social, thatit prevents solidarity, that “the result of the caste system has made co-operation even for a good cause, impossible.’ He says that caste kills public spirit and destroys public charity, as loyalty is restricted to ones caste only. He states that “emancipation of the mind and soul are a necessary preliminary for political expansion of a people.”
Ambedkar’s “ideal society” is one “based on liberty, equality and fraternity.” He stresses the importance of the liberty to choose one’s profession and equality based on a person’s power and own efforts. He explains that “it is good for the social body to get the most out of its members. It can get the most out of them only by making them as equal as possible.” He believed that “you cannot build anything on the foundation of caste”, that “caste is a notion, a state of mind.” Therefore, “the destruction of caste is a notional change.”
Ambedkar’s story was kept alive for decades by folk songs, street theater and the publication of his many writings by small presses, his story told mainly within his own community, handed down generation to generation. Dalit activists have started social projects all over India, particularly inspired by Ambedkar’s commitment to educating youth. Our Dalit friends have created hostels, opened schools, created afterschool martial arts programs, meditation centers, foreign language courses, initiated mobile maternal health projects and much more. They bring their own creativity and vision for social change, guided by Dr. Ambedkar’s example. Jai Bhim!
Dayamudra is Creative Director at Jai Bhim International, and splits her time between San Francisco, California and south India.