Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Film as a Lost Opportunity

EPW Commentary April 8-14, 2000
By: Sukhadeo K Thorat

Following a decision taken during the birth centenary year of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the union ministry of social justice and empowerment and the Maharashtra government have jointly produced a film on the life and contributions of Ambedkar. The film project, which started in the early 1990s, took almost nine years to complete under the direction of Jabbar Patel.

The period between the early 1920s and mid-1950s, which coincided with the Ambedkar-led movement, was crucial in Indian history as it saw the evolution of the political, economic and social framework of the present-day India. This period also brought forth a galaxy of eminent leaders who contributed significantly to the making of the Indian state as a nation. Ambedkar stood apart from his eminent contemporaries because he combined in himself the distinction of being a social revolutionary, a statesman, a scholar and a visionary. It is a daunting task for a film director to project Ambedkar's multifarious contributions and his controversial positions on several issues. To what extent is the film able to capture the life and contributions of Ambedkar can be subjected to interrogation.

In the beginning, the film portrays Ambedkar's personal life, covering the period between 1913 and early 1920s. Later on, it focuses on Ambedkar as a civil rights activist, social revolutionary, Constitution-maker and political leader (only to the extent that he obtained minority status and representation in central and state assemblies and government jobs for the untouchables). Finally, the film shows that Ambedkar found the ultimate solution to the problems of the depressed classes in conversion to Buddhism.

In my view, the film presents only the 'known and popular Ambedkar'. It ignores Ambedkar's role as a labour leader, as a contributor to the formulation of post-war economic plans, and as a scholar whose writings influenced the main political events between 1920s and mid-1950s. Above all, it fails to reveal Ambedkar as a visionary political leader who had an ideology and an agenda for the social and economic transformation of the dalits and other weaker sections of the Indian society.

The opening scenes of the film are about Ambedkar's days as a postgraduate student at the Columbia University, New York, from where he did his MA and PhD in economics between July 1913 and June 1916, his life at the London School of Economics and Grays Inn, where he read law from July 1916 to August 1917, and his stay at the same institutes, when he completed his studies for MSc, DSc and Bar-at-Law from September 1920 to April 1923. This period of seven years in his life was of unparalleled hard work and is depicted most effectively in the film.

The film traces Ambedkar's turbulent personal life during 1917-1932. He had been humiliated by the high caste Hindus in Baroda during his short tenure as a military secretary to the maharaja of Baroda in 1917. Even the maharaja could not help him when he had been ill-treated by his junior staff and had not been able to get accommodation in any part of the city. This had led the lonely and frustrated Ambedkar to spend most part of a fateful night under a tree in anguish and helplessness. "Tired, hungry and fagged out, he sat under a tree and burst into tears", says Dhananjay Keer (1954:108), Ambedkar 's biographer. At Bombay's Sydenham College, his faculty colleagues had not allowed him to drink water from their vessel. The film dwells with sensitivity on his family life in a cramped two-room flat in Bombay's 'improvement trust chawls' and the death of his son Rajratna and wife Ramabai.

But Jabbar Patel shows, only in very quick flashbacks, Ambedkar's upbringing as an untouchable child in a socially hostile environment of the Hindu society. He selects three incidents of caste-based discrimination and humiliation. These were the refusal by a barber to cut Ambedkar's hair (his sister had to be his barber for several years), the denial by a high caste bullock cart driver to carry him and his brother after he had discovered their caste, and the rejection of his request to take Sanskrit as an optional subject for undergraduate studies by Bombay's Elphinstone College. These three brief episodes hardly give an idea about his socially torturous childhood that became the foundation of his stormy career. Instead, the director could have cut out unimportant scenes in London and elsewhere, like the one which shows him playing the violin.

Ambedkar's life had begun as a social and political activist in 1918 and gathered momentum after the establishment of 'Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha' (Association For The Welfare Of Depressed Classes) in July 1924. The period between mid-1920s and 1930s had been marked by widespread protests against caste discrimination and untouchability in Maharashtra [Khairmode 1956 (vol 2), 1964 (vol 3), 1968 (vols 4 and 5)]. The director has rightly picked up two major agitations to show Ambedkar's civil rights activities, which triggered off protest movements in several parts of urban and rural Maharashtra. These two incidents relate to the assertion of the lower castes to obtain access to a public water tank in Mahad and to gain entry into the famous Kalaram temple in Nasik.

Both agitations had their origin in the resolution that had been moved by social reformer S K Bole in the Bombay legislative council and adopted by the government. In pursuance of this resolution passed in 1923, the Mahad municipality had thrown open the Chawadar water tank to the untouchables. The Kalaram temple issue had also come under the purview of the Bole resolution and had raised the hopes of the untouchables.

The film presents a moving account of the Mahad conference of March 19-20, 1927, the drinking of water from the Chawadar tank by the untouchable masses, which they had been prohibited from doing for several years, and the subsequent attacks on the delegates by the high caste orthodox Hindus. In these attacks, 20 persons had been seriously injured. The film also shows the purification ceremony in which the high caste Hindus had hurled 108 earthen pitchers of curd and 'holy' water into the tank filled with cow-dung and urine, while the brahmin priests chanted mantras. This is how the high caste Hindus had purified the tank water for their use.

Terribly hurt by the actions of the high caste Hindus, Ambedkar again organised an agitation in Mahad. He burnt a copy of Manusmriti to show his condemnation of the holy scriptures which had become synonymous with inequality, cruelty and injustice. In this, his brahmin friend Sahasrabuddhe had taken the lead. Regretfully, the film does not show that Ambedkar finally succeeded in obtaining access to the Mahad tank after a long-drawn court battle in March 1937, exactly a decade after the agitation of March 1927.

Similarly, Ambedkar's agitation to secure temple-entry in Nasik provoked violent attacks on him and several other participants. The protest about Kalaram temple in Nasik also went on for a decade but in this case, the orthodox Hindus never yielded. It would have been useful if the film had shown the efforts made by Gandhi, Munje of the Hindu Mahasabha and Kurtokoti, a Shankaracharya, to change the minds of the Hindus. Keer describes the opposition of the Hindus as follows: "it was felt that even Rama himself would be thrown aside, if he were to tell the orthodox Hindus to throw open the temple to the untouchables" [Keer 1954:138].

During the 1920s and 1930s, Ambedkar was also deeply involved in convincing the British government and Gandhi about the necessity of granting minority status and special representation in central and provincial assemblies and government jobs to the depressed classes, like the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Anglo-Indians. An intense encounter had taken place between Ambedkar and Gandhi over separate electorate for the depressed classes. The British government had accepted the proposal for separate electorate but Gandhi opposed it tooth and nail and went on fast unto death as the last resort. The fast resulted in the Poona Pact of 1932 that provided for reservation of seats in assemblies and parliament.

The film, however, does not present Ambedkar's ultimate position in favour of separate electorate which he had stated in the manifesto of the 'All India Scheduled Caste Federation' in 1942 and in 'A Memorandum: State and Minorities' in 1947. Ambedkar reiterated his views when he lost the Lok Sabha election against the Congress candidate Kajrolkar in Bombay in 1952 and the by-election against the Congress candidate, Borkar in Bhandara, in 1954.

Major Lacuna

After depicting the events of the Poona Pact, the film quickly moves on to Ambedkar's appointment as a labour member in the Viceroy's executive council in 1942, his part in drafting the Constitution and the Hindu Code Bill and his conversion to Buddhism. The film does not seriously consider his contributions as a labour leader, an influential scholar and above all as a political leader of the dalits and the poor. Gail Omvedt has described this phenomenon as 'Ambedkarism', an ideology for the liberation of the dalits from the social and economic exploitation involved in caste and capitalism [Omvedt 1994:224-59].

Let me elaborate these points briefly to make my position clear. Between 1925 and 1942, particularly, after he had formed the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1936, Ambedkar had been an important economic and political radical. As a member of the Bombay legislative council (1925 onwards), as the leader of the ILP (1936-42) and the labour minister in central cabinet (1942-46), Ambedkar worked in a number of ways for the cause of agricultural labour, industrial workers and peasants. He introduced the Khoti System bill and the Mahar Watan bill to reform agrarian relations. The Khoti bill was introduced to abolish the 'khoti' landlords and secure occupancy right for the tenants. With the Communist Party, Ambedkar had organised the biggest pre-independence mobilisation of peasants in Maharashtra. He led a march of 20,000 poor peasants to the Bombay assembly to demand reduction in the irrigation rate, debt relief and minimum wages for agricultural labour.

The peasants' agitation was followed by another equally dramatic event. Along with the moderate labour leaders and communists, Ambedkar had organised a general strike of textile workers in November 1938 against the industrial dispute bill of September 1938 which made strike illegal under certain circumstances and affected the rights of the workers. Nearly one lakh workers from 60 different unions participated in the strike. This was the climax of the dalit-Left unity. The ILP also organised agitations on behalf of the labour in several parts of Maharashtra.

The labour policy advocated by Ambedkar sought (i) provision of safeguards and social security measures, (ii) equal opportunity for workers and employers to participate in formulation of labour policy, and (iii) establishment of a machinery for enforcement of labour laws and settlement of disputes. To achieve this, Ambedkar wanted (a) setting up of an Indian labour conference and standing labour committees, (b) enactment of labour laws, (c) establishment of chief labour commissioners, (d) constitution of investigative labour committees, and (e) recognition of trade unions. These pioneering ideas have made a significant impact on the labour movements and industrial relations in India. This role of Ambedkar is entirely missing in the film.

The film also omits his contributions in the formulation of the post-war economic plan during 1942-46 [Thorat 1998]. His suggestions for irrigation and electric power development led to the formulation of a water policy at the all India level, the establishment of two technical organisations, i e, the central water commission and the central electricity authority, and acceptance of the concept of the 'river valley authority' to manage projects of interstate rivers. Above all, Ambedkar set in motion India's two major multipurpose river valley projects, namely, Damodar and Hirakud.

Nor does the film consider Ambedkar's impact as a prolific writer and thinker. The period between the early 1920s and mid-1950s saw crucial political, economic and social developments for the future of India. The question of minorities took a serious turn during this period and ultimately led to the partition of India. Independent India witnessed the reorganisation of different states. Ambedkar made scholarly expositions on each of these issues.

Ambedkar contributed at all stages to the framing of the Constitution of India. He submitted statements before the Southborough (franchise) reform committee in 1918, the Simon Commission in 1928 and the first and second round table conferences in the early 1930s. He presented the outline for the Constitution in the form of the historic memorandum 'State and Minorities: What Are Their Rights and How to Secure Them in The Constitution of Free India' in 1947. In this, he had visualised the Constitution of the United States of India and in 21 articles dwelt on the fundamental rights, the minority rights and the safeguards for the scheduled castes.

Earlier when the question of representation of the minorities had arisen, he had expressed his views in the book 'Communal Deadlock and Ways to Solve It' in 1945. When the issue of a federal structure for India was being discussed, he had published 'Federation versus Freedom' in 1943. Later, on the question of Pakistan, he had made a scholarly presentation in 'Thoughts on Pakistan' in 1944. A revised edition 'Pakistan or the Partition of India' came out in 1945. In the first edition, he had foreseen the inevitability of partition and the formation of Pakistan. In the revised edition, he had set out, by way of contrast, the experiences of other countries to show that given the will to live together it was not impossible for diverse communities and even diverse nations to live in the bosom of one state.

He had criticised the state reorganisation committee in two books 'Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province' (1948) and 'Thoughts on Linguistic States' (1955). In principle, he agreed that language should be made the basis for the creation of a state as a linguistic province produced social homogeneity. But he favoured the creation of small states and believed that a linguistic group could belong to different units. He had laid down five guiding principles for the formation of a state: (a) efficient administration, (b) need of the area, (c) sentiments of the area, (d) proportion between the majority and minority, and (e) protection of the minority.

In his books 'Caste In India: Their Mechanism, Genesis And Development' (1916), 'Annihilation Of Caste' (1944), 'Who Were Shudras' (1946), 'Untouchables: Who Were They And Why They Become Untouchables' (1948), 'Philosophy of Hinduism' (published for the first time in 1987) and 'Buddha and His Dhamma' (1957), Ambedkar tried to understand the origin of the caste system and explore ways to reform the Hindu society and religion.

He had interpreted India's history in terms of conflict between social systems representing different religious and social ideologies. He had rejected the earlier attempts of interpreting social and cultural history or caste differences in terms of racial theory (or divide) or in terms of non-Aryan origins of dalits or adi-ideologies which looked upon the dalits as the original inhabitants and brahmins as the aryan conquerors. He had discerned revolution and counter-revolution in Indian history. He had considered the origin of the untouchables and shudras in the context of the conflict between Buddhism and brahmanism and the clash of civilisations in the process of the social evolution in India [Omvedt 1994]. I think that all this should have been in the film because it reveals the vision of a statesman for reconstructing the Indian state as a nation [Thorat 1999].

A major oversight in the film is that it does not take into account Ambedkar 's role as a political leader who had an ideology for the emancipation of the dalits and other weaker sections of the Indian society. Ambedkar had come in close contact with various ideological groups, particularly the Gandhians, Indian communists and democratic socialists. His close interaction with them helped him to develop his own ideological position. He interacted with Gandhi quite closely between 1930 and 1940. The only common ground between them was their desire to eradicate untouchability. They could not cooperate because they had very different views on how this could be achieved.

Firstly, Gandhi had opposed untouchability but had supported the caste system till 1945. Secondly, he could not see the connection between untouchability, caste system and the Hindu social and religious philosophy. Gandhi had stated in 1936: "Caste has nothing to do with religion.... further there is nothing in the law of varna to warrant a belief in untouchability" [Ambedkar 1946]. Gandhi suggested a modified form of the varna system in place of the caste system but did not favour a radical reform of Hinduism [Thorat 1999]. On the other hand, Ambedkar forcefully argued that both untouchability and caste system had their roots in the Hindu philosophy, which was based on the doctrine of inequality. He had demanded a drastic reform of the Hindu religion. Ambedkar alsosought a socialist transformation of the Indian society and emphasised on industrialisation and scientific development. Gandhi stood for trusteeship, and village and cottage industries and had a general dislike for the western civilisation [Ambedkar 1970:132-60].

In the same period, Ambedkar came in close contact with the Indian Marxists and his caste and class paradigm got shaped in the course of this interaction. He agreed with the Marxists that class conflict between classes and private ownership of property had been the root cause of exploitation. But he differed with their approach towards the caste question. In the mid-1930s, he posed serious theoretical questions to the Marxists on the interlinkages between the economic structure and the superstructure. He argued that social and religious status were also sources of power. The social, religious and philosophical elements in Hinduism had justified, supported and perpetuated the inequality and exploitation associated with the caste system. This had made the caste system an extremely stubborn social institution even if its economic base was destroyed. The reform of the Hindu social and religious order was a necessary precondition for political changes. Ambedkar said that the "dalits will not join in socialist revolution for equalisation of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed". He had asked, "Can it be said that the proletariat of India, poor as it is, recognises no distinction of caste. Karl Marx argued that the proletariat have nothing to lose except their chains. But the artful way in which the social, religious and even economic rights are distributed among different castes whereby some have more and some have less, even the high caste poor know that if a general dissolution comes they stand to lose more of their privileges than their low caste counterpart" [Ambedkar 1989:33-87, 82].

The Indian Labour Party was converted into the 'Scheduled Caste Federation' (SCF) in 1942. The SCF was finally converted into the Republican Party of India (RPI) in 1956. The frequent change in the name of the political party had been result of the change in Ambedkar's political and economic ideology at different stages. The joint struggle against 'brahminism and capitalism' had been the central focus of the ILP. The SCF had kept the specific thrusts of the ILP programmes but had added two new demands - separate village settlements for scheduled castes and separate electorate on the ground that in any joint electorate, even with reserved seats the dalits would be overshadowed by caste Hindus [Omvedt 1994, chapters 5, 6].

The final crystallisation of Ambedkar's ideological position emerged in the book State and Minorities: What Are Their Rights And How To Secure Them In The Constitution of Free India in 1947. In this book he forwarded a socialist economic framework which he argued for in the constituent assembly and emphasised it in his comments on the 'Jawaharlal Nehru Resolution' on the 'Aims and Objective of the Constitution' in 1946 [Government of Maharashtra 1994:6-14, vol 13]. He said: "I must confess that coming as the resolution does from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who is reputed to be a socialist, this resolution, although non-controversial, is to my mind very disappointing. I should have expected him to go much further than he had done, ....there are certain provisions which speak of justice, economic, social and political. If this resolution has a reality behind it and sincerity, of which I have not the least doubt coming as it does from the mover of the Resolution, I should have expected some provision whereby it would have been possible for the state to make economic, social and political justice a reality and I should have from that view expected the Resolution to state in most explicit terms that in order that there may be social and economic justice in the country, that there would be nationalisation of industry and nationalisation of land" [Ambedkar 1947].

Even after his death in 1956, Ambedkar's ideology has inspired and influenced the dalits of all religions - dalits in the Hindu fold, neo-buddhists, dalit Sikhs, dalit Christians and dalit Muslims, who together form nearly one-fourth of India's population. The film misses this point too.

Though the film would be appreciated, despite its limitations, by the dalits particularly, it gives only a partial view of Ambedkar. Jabbar Patel, who was supposed to capture and present the life and contributions of Ambedkar in totality (and not selectively), has lost a rare opportunity. He is unlikely to get a second chance to fill this vacuum.

[I am thankful to Tulsi Ram, Ghanshyam Shah of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Bharati Bhargava for useful comments.]


Ambedkar, B R (1946): Pakistan or the Partition of India, Thackers, Bombay.

- (1945): What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchable, Thackers, Bombay.

- (1970): Gandhi and Gandhism (compiled by Bhagwan Das), Bheem Patrika Publications, Jalandhar.

- Annihilation of Caste, Bheem Patrika Publications, Jalandhar.

- (1994) "Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings And Speeches" and "Dr Ambedkar: The Principal Architect of The Constitution of India", vol 13, Government of Maharashtra.

Dhawan, S K (1991): Dr B R Ambedkar: A Select Profile, Wave Publications, Delhi.

Kadam, K N (1991): Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Significance of the Movement: A Chronology, Popular, Bombay.

Keer, Dhananjay (1954): Dr Ambedkar - Life and Mission, Popular, Bombay.

Khairmode, C B: Dr Bhimrao Ramaji Ambedkar (biography in 15 volumes in Marathi), vol 2 (1956), vol 3 (1964), vols 4 and 5 (1968), Sugava, Pune.

Omvedt, Gail (1994): Dalits and the Democratic Revolution - Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, Sage, Delhi.

Thorat, S K (1998): Ambedkar's Role in Economic Planning and Water Policy, Khama, Delhi.

- (1999): 'Ambedkar and National Reconstruction' in Anand Kumar (ed), Nation Building in India: Culture, Power and Society, Radiant, Delhi.

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