Ambedkar As A Human Rights Leader

“Dalit rights are human rights” is now a powerful slogan of the Dalit movement, which has finally been able to rally international support and bring the issue of caste oppression in India to the attention of the world.

In fact, Babasaheb Ambedkar, who I believe must be considered the greatest Indian of the millennium, was a fighter for human rights, not only for the most oppressed section of Dalits, but for all the Indian caste-oppressed groups, for workers and farmers, and for women.

Ambedkar fought for the rights of workers and peasants. In the late 1920s and especially in the 1930s when he had formed his Independent Labour Party, he took up the cause of tenants (from both the Dalit Mahars and the caste Hindu Kunbis) in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. With the support of radicals then in the Congress Socialist Party, the ILP organized a huge march of 20,000 peasants to Mumbai in 1938, the largest pre-independence peasant mobilization in the region. In the same year Ambedkar joined with the Communists to organize a strike of Mumbai textile workers in protest against the “Black Bill” which the British government was bringing in the assembly to control workers’ strikes. Ambedkar took the lead in condemning the bill in the assembly and argued that the right to strike was “simply another name for the right to freedom.” In the public rally of over 100,000 Ambedkar noted the support of Communists and stated that,

“I have definitely read studiously more books on the Communist philosophy than all the Communist leaders here. However beautiful the Communist philosophy is in those books, still it has to be seen how useful it can be made in practice…if work is done from that perspective, I feel that the labour and length of time needed to win success in Russia will not be so much in India. And so, in regard to the toilers’ class struggle, I feel the Communist philosophy to be closer to us.”

In this period (about 1935 to 1945) Ambedkar was heavily influenced by Marxism and was defining the enemies of Dalits as “Brahmanism and Capitalism.” His objections to Marxism seemed to be mainly regarding its neglect of caste -- and this of course was a very important objection.

However, Ambedkar ended up disagreeing with Communists in regard to "class" or economic issues also. His academic training had been in economics; in the 1920s he had written two major books on the economic history of India which led an eminent Indian economist to argue that his turning to politics was a tragedy for the field of economics! In the end, he was also disillusioned with the economic answers given by Marxism. While he continued to see class struggle and class oppression (with "classes" definied in a broad sense) as important, he began to look for answers elsewhere. The values he asserted throughout his life were the classic social liberal values of the French revolution - and as his study of Buddhism deepened, he began to feel that it was Buddhism that had pioneered these values in Asia. As the conclusion to his essay on “Buddha or Karl Marx” states,

“Society has been aiming to lay a new foundation as was summarised by the French revolution in three words, fraternity, liberty and equality. The French revolution was welcomed because of this slogan. It failed to produce equality. We welcome the Russian revolution because it aims to produce equality. But it cannot be too much emphasized that in producing equality, society cannot afford to sacrifice fraternity or liberty. Equality will be of no value without fraternity or liberty. It seems that the three can coexist only if one follows the way of the Buddha. Communism can give one but not all” (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 3, compiled by Vasant Moon, Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1987, page 462).

Though Ambedkar followed the patriarchal French themselves in using the “male” term “fraternity” here, he clearly included women in this universal "brotherhood" (for this reason I myself prefer to speak of “liberty, equality and community”). He was one of the greatest champions of women's rights in the pre-independence period (here he followed Jotiba Phule, who is considered by women in Maharashtra -- who know his writings -- as the "founder of the women's liberation movement"). In fact, after chairing the drafting committee for India’s Constitution, his last major political act as a Minister of Government in independent India was to guide a bill through parliament replacing the old, inequalitarian “Hindu Code Bill” with a new law giving rights of inheritance and property ownership to women. This not only evoked a storm of protest from right wing Hindus; even the supposedly liberal and secular Nehru did not support Ambedkar, and he resigned his position as Minister in pro! test. He is perhaps one of the few Ministers in the history of Indian government to have resigned over a principle - in this case, in support of women’s rights.

As a great fighter for Dalit human rights, indeed for all human rights, Ambedkar began to seek answers in Buddhism. His conviction, born out by his own experience, the continuing atrocities on Dalits, and his studies of Indian history, was that caste in Indian society was the major factor responsible for the denial of rights, and that it was indissolubly linked to Brahmanism. As he put it, Brahmanism itself was nothing but the denial of human rights, the denial of liberty, equality and fraternity. What was the solution? After giving some consideration to Sikhism and hearing all other alternatives, he turned to Buddhism, which he was attracted to not only because it was "Indian" but because it was, he felt, an equalitarian and rationalistic religious philosophy. It was Buddhism, he argued, which had pioneered the values of liberty, equality and community (fraternity), and India could be saved from the havoc wrought by caste by turning to Buddhism. Buddhism could be a r! eligion for modern society generally. In The Buddha and His Dhamma, he argued:

“Society has to choose one of three alternatives. Society may choose not to have any Dhamma as an instrument of government...This means Society chooses the road to anarchy. Secondly, Society may choose the police, ie dictatorship, as an instrument of Government. Third, Society may choose Dhamma plus the Magistrate whenever people fail to observe the Dhamma. In anarchy and dictatorship liberty is lost, only in the third liberty survives. Those who want liberty must therefore have Dhamma”

Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism, therefore, was a turn to a religious philosophy he saw in terms of social morality. Thus the essay “Buddha or Karl Marx” gives most of its attention to the Cakkavatti suttanta in the Digha Nikaya which defines the role of a just king as one of preventing poverty and providing wealth to the destitute. The king fails to do this, and the realm is destroyed, in spite of all efforts of the state to halt the growth of crime and anarchy through punishment and power. Ambedkar, in his essay comes to the conclusion that “This is probably the finest picture of what happens when moral force fails and brutal force takes its place. What the Buddha wanted was that each man should be morally trained that he may himself become a sentinel for the kingdom of righteousness” (Ambedkar, 1987: 459).

In his final published work, The Buddha and His Dhamma, he attempted to provide a socially and morally concerned, rationalistic interpretation of Buddhism --- a "Navayana Buddhism," but one which is in agreement with some of the most modern scholarly studies of Buddhism today.

At the time of his death, Ambedkar was working on a Pali Dictionary and Grammar. This was the last work of his life, and strikingly when it was published as Volume 16 of his collected works by the Maharashtra government; it was also the last work done by the editor, Vasant Moon, before he had a stroke and before the newly elected BJP-Shiv Sena government of the state stopped supporting this work of publishing Ambedkar’s unpublished English writing. (See my translation of Moon's autobiography, Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography (Rowman and Littlefield). With the help of this Pali dictionary and available translations, especially thanks to Shalom on the internet, I offer the following translation of two famous passages from early Buddhist writings:

Who is a Brahman?

“Anyone who, though adorned in fine clothes, is tranquil,
who is peaceful, disciplined, self-controlled, virtuous,
who renounces violence to all beings,
This is a great one (Brahman), a holy one (samana), a seeker (bhikku)”
(Dhammapada #142)

Who is an outcaste?

“Birth does not make an outcaste, birth does not a Brahman make;
action makes a person low, action makes him great.
To prove my case I give just one example here –
the dalit Matanga, Chandala’s son, of fame.
This Matanga attained renown so high and rare
that masses of Brahmans and Khattiyas to serve him were drawn near.
He ascended, so they say, in a chariot divine,
defeating lust and hatred, from passion freed, so high
-- nor did his birth or caste bar him from paradise!”
(Sutta Nipata 136-139, Vasala Sutta)

Gail Omvedt, An American Author who wrote Many Books about INDIA

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Published on:April 15, 2002
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