The issue of the caste system in India – and of so-called ‘untouchables’ – remains a live one even today, but perhaps things would be more divisive still if it had not been for this man, Dr B R Ambedkar.
Mr Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb, was a politician and jurist who fought his whole life for the rights of dalits and other persecuted classes in the Indian social system.
Now the 124th anniversary of his birth has been celebrated with a Google Doodle.
Dr Ambedkar was born in Madhya Padesh in central India in 1891, the fourteenth child of his parents. As a member of the Hindu Mahar caste, who were regarded as untouchable by the upper classes, he himself was the victim of discrimination, and was segregated at school. This continued even after gaining scholarships, studying in the US, and finding a jobs as Defence Secretary to a Maharaja or king, and later as a Professor of Political Economy in Mumbai, where other staff members and students objected to him using the same water jug as them.
He also studied in England, where he was awarded a DSc at the London School of Economics. It was on his return from this trip that he decided to campaign properly against caste discrimination, organising marches and fighting for the untouchables’ right to access to water supplies and to enter Hindu temples.
He worked with Mahatma Gandhi to ensure that dalits would be treated as a normal part of the electorate in the political system, and in 1947 was asked to be the Law Minister of the newly independent country, with a central part of his job being the drawing of its new first constitution.
The text prepared by Dr Ambedkar provided constitutional guarantees and protections for a range of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, the abolition of untouchability and the outlawing of discrimination.
Dr Ambedkar had long studied Buddhism, attracted to its ethos of non-confrontation, and travelled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to join meetings. He wrote a book on the religion, converted, and converted numerous of his supporters. He died in Delhi in 1956, his cremation being attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters and activists. His legacy of forward-thinking social reform echoes down to India today, although his linking of the caste system to Hinduism has made him unpopular to many