(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)
As the Government and political parties trip over each other to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Bhimji Rao Ambedkar today, it would be a pity if the life of this extraordinary Indian were reduced to one issue - his championship of the Dalit cause - just as much as it would be wrong to gloss over his path-breaking role in that monumental endeavour.
Dr Ambedkar is such an icon today that we fail to fully appreciate the remarkable scale of what he accomplished. To be born into what was called an 'untouchable' family in 1891, and that too as the 14th and last child of a poor Mahar subedar in an Army cantonment, would normally have guaranteed a life of neglect, poverty and discrimination. Not only did Dr Ambedkar rise above the circumstances of his birth, but he achieved a level of success that would have been spectacular for a child of privilege.
One of the first Dalits ever to enter an Indian college, he became a professor (at the prestigious Sydenham College) and a principal (of no less an institution than Bombay's Government Law College). One of the earliest Indian students in the United States, he earned multiple doctorates from Columbia University and the University of London, in economics, politics and law. An heir to millennia of discrimination, he was admitted to the bar in London and became one of India's Founding Fathers as the Chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee. The son of illiterates, he wrote a remarkable number of books, whose content and range testify to an eclectic mind and a sharp, if provocative, intellect.
That was not all: by the age of 40 he was speaking as one of India's recognized leaders at the Round Table Conference in London, and his convictions made him a political giant to be reckoned with in the fight for freedom. An insignificant infant scrabbling in the dust of Mhow in 1891 became the first law minister of a free India, in the most impressive Cabinet ever assembled in New Delhi. When he died, aged only 65, he had accumulated a set of distinctions few have matched; only one remained. In belated recognition of that omission, he was conferred posthumously in 1990 the highest award his country has to offer - the Bharat Ratna.
Dr Ambedkar's greatness cannot be reduced to any one of these accomplishments, because all were equally extraordinary. Think of what he was born into and who he became, and even this bare outline of his life should take one's breath away.
Dr Ambedkar was a self-made man in the profoundest sense of that term. Even his name was his own creation, for he was born a Sakpal, but decided to take a name based on that of his village (Ambavade) as Maharashtrian Brahmins did. (And he married a Brahmin.) It was part of his self-made style that he wore Western suits - not, as some nationalists alleged, in slavish imitation of the colonial rulers, but in rejection of the traditional trappings of a society that had for so long enslaved his people.
It was he who forced India to confront the reality of discrimination by facing up to the reality of caste oppression. And he did so bluntly, in a manner which youngsters today would call "in your face". Not for him the mealy-mouthed platitudes of the well-meaning: he was prepared to rage against the injustice of social discrimination, and to do so in every forum available to him. It was an attitude that Indian society was not prepared for, but at a time when Indians were fighting for their freedom from foreign rule, it was both appropriate and necessary that Indians should fight equally against domestic oppression.
Dr Ambedkar rejected what he saw as the patronizing indulgence of the Gandhian approach to untouchability. The Mahatma called them "Harijans" - children of God. Dr Ambedkar rejected the word - after all, he argued, aren't we all children of God? He used, instead, the Marathi and Hindi words for the 'excluded' (Bahishkrit), the 'oppressed' (Dalit) and the 'silent' (Muka) to define the outcastes.
So even while fighting British rule, Dr Ambedkar was a tireless and courageous advocate of the Dalit cause, an enemy of cant and superstition, and an iconoclast who had contempt for traditions that he felt deserved no sanctity.
As a nationalist, he was sensitive to the charge that he was dividing Indians at a time when they needed to be united against the British. His critics forget that Gandhiji himself acknowledged Dr Ambedkar's "sterling patriotism", brilliantly displayed in the first Round Table Conference. Yet when Dr Ambedkar demanded separate electorates for his people, Mahatma Gandhi undertook a fast unto death until an unconvinced Dr Ambedkar, fearing mass reprisals if the Mahatma died, caved in. Gandhiji, who abhorred untouchability, believed that the answer lay in the social awakening of caste Hindus rather than in building walls of separation.
Dr Ambedkar, who lived with the daily reality of caste discrimination, was not convinced that the entrenched practices of traditional Hinduism could ever disappear. In the end, he found a Constitutional solution to remedy the injustices he fought against all his life.
His faith in democracy, which he shared with Jawaharlal Nehru, is also one of his proud legacies to our country. Whereas some saw Ambedkar, with his three-piece suit and formal English, as a westernised exponent of occidental constitutional systems, he was inspired far more by the democratic practices of ancient India, in particular the Buddhist sanghas.
Ambedkar saw in the institutions of Indian democracy that he was helping to create, the best guarantee for the future development and welfare of his own people, the oppressed and marginalised of India. He fought hard to introduce into the Constitution fundamental protections and guarantees of civil liberties for individual citizens.
Ambedkar also convinced the Constituent Assembly that it was not enough to abolish untouchability: what was needed to undo millennia of discrimination and exploitation was a system of affirmative action to uplift the oppressed, including reservations of jobs in the civil services, schools and universities. This gave India the world's oldest and farthest-reaching affirmative action programme, which guarantees not only equality of opportunity but of outcome, with seats reserved for Dalits in Government jobs, universities and even in Parliament.
Through his role Dr Ambedkar ushered in momentous change into Indian society and politics, but to him it had not come fast enough. He saw the entrenched practices of Hindu society as something he had to reject. "I am born a Hindu," Dr Ambedkar declared in 1936, "but I swear I will not die a Hindu." Twenty years later he died a Buddhist, months after converting with hundreds of thousands of his followers at a public ceremony.
As a political leader, Dr Ambedkar was better at articulating powerful ideas than in creating the structures to see them through. None of the three parties he founded ever acquired the following or the permanence that his ideas deserved. But the Constitution of which he was the principal author remains the best instrument for pursuing his ideas. The leader and spokesman of a community left his greatest gift to all communities - a legacy that belongs to all of us, and one of which we are yet to prove ourselves wholly worthy. Let us hope that this 125th anniversary year is not spent entirely in platitudes, but in an honest recognition of the life and the message of one of the greatest sons of India.
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