Ambedkar exhibition relives a revolution
By Gunvanthi Balaram

MUMBAI: ``You may ask why do not the untouchables organise and begin to enforce their rights. I will give you the answer.

Imagine the condition of the untouchables. If they exercise their right and displease the village folk, there's a social boycott: they are stopped from coming into the village; the village banker is prevented from giving (them) loans; the village shopkeeper will not sell (them) any provision. There is also another reason why they are helpless. The government cannot come to their rescue. For the government says that the caste people have given to them by custom. Their customary rights are protected.''

These arguments put forth by Babasaheb Ambedkar at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931 are famous. But seeing the original notes made by the great man before this event, and some of his other profound pennings, is a moving experience. They bring the leader and his revolution alive, especially for the generation that did not encounter him in the flesh.

Ambedkar's writings are on display at a commemorative exhibition being held by the Mumbai Archives at the Elphinstone College hall. The exhibition, which opened on Tuesday, his death anniversary, will run until December 14 (from 10.30 am to 5.30 pm daily).

``We thought it would be edifying for the people to see some of Dr Ambedkar's writings in the original,'' says Mahesh Shukla, director of the Mumbai Archives. ``And what better time to hold the exhibition than now, the week of his death anniversary, when the city is flooded with his followers from all over the country.''

The archivists, led by Ashok Kharade, have culled from their vast collection about 350 articles, letters, speeches and notes by Dr Ambedkar on untouchability, Buddhism and, of course, the drafting of the Constitution. They've also included newspaper clippings and photographs of the significant agitations he spearheaded, and a nice touch of the personal--Babasaheb's correspondence with his benefactor Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur (who partially financed his studies in England in the early 1920s) and his notes on the violin, an instrument he loved to listen to, and learned to play.

So, we have news reports on the Mahad satyagraha in 1927, in which Babasaheb led an agitation for Dalits to be allowed to draw drinking water from the local tank, and the 1930 Kalaram Mandir dharna, when they demanded entry to the Nashik shrine.

We learn also about the handbills circulated in Mumbai's Bhuleshwar temple district and letters shot off to popular newspapers like the Bombay Chronicle during the mandir dharna--angry, passionate letters from both sides of the Hindu divide, ``some so brutally honest and controversial that current-day newspapers would never have the gumption to run them'', as a historian visiting the show points out. ``You know, these letters would be very relevant in many parts of India even today,'' adds another researcher.

Then there are clips on the September 1932 Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Both reformers had a vision of equality for the untouchables, but Ambedkar, as these exhibits highlight, had strong differences with Gandhi over his approach to the struggle against untouchability and the evils of the caste system.

Another instructive exhibit is an essay on `Buddha and his Dharma', written in 1950 by Ambedkar in response to two articles in the Eve's Weekly on the Buddha's attitude to women. The first had claimed that the Buddha had contributed to the downfall of women in India because he had counselled his bhikshus to stay away from them, while the second had been a firm rebuttal of this theory. Ambedkar supported the latter, needless to say.

``We hope that this exhibition will be of interest to both the scholar and the lay person, and of course bring happiness to Babasaheb's followers,'' says archivist Ashok Kharade, as he dusts a photograph of the Poona Pact. ``Of course it will,'' says Jennifer Deshpande, a history teacher, adding, ``Such exhibitions are very welcome, especially given that the Dalits are still downtrodden and our media is increasingly neglecting critical issues like social empowerment and poverty.

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