Saturday, 28 April 2012

Dalits and Indian Left - Part II

 Dalits and Indian Left _Part II

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against
Untouchability and the Caste System

Christophe Jaffrelot

Working Paper Series
Indian Institute of Dalit Studies
New Delhi


Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) has been amongst the first research
organisations in India to focus exclusively on development concerns of
the marginalised groups and socially excluded communities. Over the last
six years, IIDS has carried-out several studies on different aspects of social
exclusion and discrimination of the historically marginalised social groups,
such as the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Religious Minorities
in India and other parts of the sub-continent. The Working Paper Series
disseminates empirical findings of the ongoing research and conceptual
development on issues pertaining to the forms and nature of social
exclusion and discrimination. Some of our papers critically examine inclusive
policies for the marginalised social groups in Indian society as well as in
other countries.
This working paper is based on the first Ambedkar Memorial Lecture
organized by Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) in 2008 and delivered
by the well-known French Scholars of Indian studies, Professor Christophe
Jaffrelot. Professor Jaffrelot’s book on Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability:
Analysing and Fighting Caste has been widely regarded as an important
contribution to Ambedkar Studies. Taking forward his work, Professor
Jaffrelot provides us in this paper an overview and understanding of the
different strategies that Dr. Ambedkar experimented with during public
life to work for uplift of ex-untouchable communities of India. Professor
Jaffrelot identifies four different strategies that Ambedkar used in his
struggle. First of all he tried to write an alternative history of the exuntouchables and gave them a new identity of being “sons of the soil”.
Second, he experimented with electoral politics to gain representation
for “his people”. Third he worked with those in power and tried to
articulate the voice of India’s Dalit masses. He worked both with colonial
rulers and with the Congress Party with a single minded purpose of
representing the Dalit case. The final strategy of Ambedkar discussed by
Professor Jaffrelot for Dalit liberation was conversion to Buddhism.
IIDS gratefully acknowledges Christian Aid (India) for funding our first
Ambedkar Memorial Lecture and publication of the Working Paper series.
We hope our Working Papers will be helpful to academics, students,
activists, civil society organisations and policymaking bodies.
Surinder S. Jodhka
Director, IIDS


1. Introduction 1
2. Identity Building: Untouchables As Sons of the Soil 2
3. Electoral Politics: From Separate Electorate
to Party-building 3
4. Working with the Rulers: From the British Raj
to the Congress Raj 6
5. Conversion, the Ultimate Strategy 11
6. Conclusion 16
Endnotes 17
References 22

Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against
Untouchability and the Caste System
Christophe Jaffrelot

1. Introduction

Dr. Ambedkar analysed Hindu society before starting his struggle against
untouchability and the caste system. He was a scholar as much as a man of
action – in any case before becoming one. In his writings, Ambedkar tried hard
to show the mechanisms of the caste system and clarified the origin of
untouchability in order to support his fight for equality. For him, if the lower
castes were not in a position to overthrow their oppressors, it was because of
two reasons: they had partially internalised hierarchy; and because of the very
characteristics of caste-based inequality. The internalisation of hierarchy was
largely due to what M.N. Srinivas was to call the sanskritisation process that
Ambedkar, in fact, had identified more than 20 years before. As early as in
1916, Ambedkar presented his first research paper at Columbia University and
explained that the caste system could not have been imposed by the Brahmins
over society, but that it took shape when they were able to persuade other
groups that their values were universally superior and that they had to be
emulated by others, including endogamy, a marital rule which closed the system
upon itself1.
The kind of inequality inherent in the caste system is called “graded inequality”
by Ambedkar in a very perceptive way. In Untouchables or the Children of the
India’s Ghetto, he contrasts it with other varieties of inequality which were
not so difficult to abolish or correct2. In the Ancient Regime, the Third State
was able to raise itself against the aristocracy and the monarchy. In industrial
societies, the working class can raise itself against the bourgeoisie. The type
of inequality from which the caste ridden society suffers is of a different kind
because its logic divides the dominated groups and, therefore, prevents them
from overthrowing the oppressor. In a society of “graded inequality”, the
Bahujan Samaj is divided into the lower castes (Shudras) and the Dalits and
the Shudras and the Dalits themselves are divided into many jatis. One of the
main objectives of Dr. Ambedkar was first to unite the Dalits and, then, the
Bahujan Samaj and, second to endow them with a separate identity that would
offer them an alternative route out of sanskritisation. In order to achieve this
two-fold objective, he implemented five different strategies in the course of
his almost four-decade long public career.

2. Identity Building: Untouchables As Sons of the Soil

Ambedkar tried to endow the lower castes with a glorious history of sons of
the soil to help them acquire an alternative – not-caste based – identity, to
regain their self respect and overcome their divisions. In The Untouchables,
who were they and why they became Untouchables? (1948), Ambedkar refutes
Western authors explaining caste hierarchy by resorting to racial factors3. His
interpretation is strikingly complicated. He explains that all primitive societies
have been one day or the other conquered by invaders who raised themselves
above the native tribes. In breaking up, these tribes as a matter of rule give
birth to a peripheral group that he calls the Broken Men.
When the conquerors became stationary then, they resorted to the services of
these Broken Men to protect themselves from the attacks of the tribes which
remained nomadic. The Broken Men therefore found refuge, as guards of
villages, in the suburbs of the latter because it was more logical from a point
of view of topography and because the victorious tribes did not accept
foreigners, of a different blood, within their group. Ambedkar applied this
theory to India by presenting the Untouchables as the descendants of the Broken
Men (Dalit, in Marathi) and, therefore, the original inhabitants of India, before
the conquest of this country by the Aryan invaders4.
According to Ambedkar these Broken Men were the most constant followers of
Buddha soon after he began his teachings in the 6th century BC. And they
remained Buddhists when the rest of the society returned to the Hindu fold
under the pressure of Brahmins. Ambedkar drew two conclusions from it:
“It explains why the Untouchables regard the Brahmins as inauspicious, do not
employ them as their priests and do not even allow them to enter into their
quarters. It also explains why the Broken Men came to be regarded as
Untouchables. The Broken Men hated the Brahmins because the Brahmins were
the enemies of Buddhism and the Brahmins imposed untouchability upon the
Broken Men because they would not leave Buddhism5.”

3 Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against Untouchability and the Caste System
Christophe Jaffrelot

Thus, Ambedkar did not contend himself with elaborating a theory of castes
which culminated in the idea of graded inequality; he also devised an untouchable
tradition susceptible to remedy the former. If they recognised themselves as
sons of the soils and Buddhists, the Untouchables could better surmount their
divisions into so many jatis and take a stand together as an ethnic group
against the system in its entirety. Omvedt underlines that by the end of his life
Ambedkar was working on a grand theory of the origin of the Untouchables and
the conflict between their civilisation and Hinduism. The notion of autochthony
played a key role in this theory. Ambedkar argued that if Hindu India had been
invaded by Muslims, Buddhist India had been subjugated by Brahmins outsiders
much before. Omvedt considers that there was ‘a racial ethnic element in all
of this, in which Ambedkar identifies his heroes to some extent with non-
Aryans, for instance, arguing that the Mauryan empire was that of the Nagas…’6
3. Electoral Politics: From Separate Electorate to Party-building
The young Ambedkar was consulted at the beginning of 1919 by the
Southborough committee, the body which had been entrusted with redefining
electoral franchise within the framework of the constitutional reform -that
was to be called “Montford”, after the names of Montagu and Chelmsford.
Unlike the other Dalit leaders who had been consulted, Ambedkar did not owe
this hearing to the fact of belonging to any association but because he was the
only Untouchable who held a graduate degree in the Bombay Province. In his
testimony, he explained that the real line of cleavage, among the Hindus, was
set not between the Brahmin and non-Brahmin but between the
“Touchables” and Untouchables. He thus rejected an electoral system which
would be based on territorial constituencies because the latter would then be
in a minority and therefore deprived of representation. As a remedy, he
recommended “either to reserve seats […] for those minorities that can not,
otherwise, secure personal representation or grant communal electorates”7.
The two options then seemed equally valid to him8.
Before the Simon Commission, in 1928, Ambedkar submitted a memorandum
on behalf of his association, the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha. He argued in
favour of the granting of universal franchise and a quota of seats for the
Untouchables rather than for separate electorates9. He explained, during his
speech before a delegation of the Simon Commission at Poona, that in case
universal suffrage was not being granted for the Dalits, then he would campaign
for separate electorates10. This stand suggests that he still nurtured great
hopes towards the upper castes and that he still had nationalist scruples which
prevented him from severing his links with social and political mainstream.
The report of the Simon Commission finally granted reserved seats to the
Depressed Classes, but candidates who would take part in them would have,
first of all, to get their competence endorsed by the governor of the province.
This profoundly annoyed Ambedkar. Anyway, this report remained a dead letter
since the main political force of the country – the Congress – had not been
involved in its making. To get out of this deadlock, a Conference was held in
London in 1930, and then a Second Round Table Conference in 1931. None of
them bore fruits.
The arbitration given by the British following the Second Round Table Conference
as regards the status of various communities in the Constitution to come,
called the Communal Award, was announced on August, 1932. This award
recognised the right of the Untouchables to have a separate electorate.
Henceforth they were given the right to vote at the same moment within the
framework of general constituencies and within 71 separate constituencies
which could only be filled up by Dalit candidates. Immediately, Gandhi, who
was then imprisoned at Poona for having revived the Civil Disobedience
Movement, went on fast. A few days later, he proposed Ambedkar that the
Untouchables should benefit from a number of reserved seats larger than the
one that would have come to them within the framework of the separate
electorate, in exchange for the renunciation by him of this system. Ambedkar
had to resign himself to this defeat. “The Poona Pact” finally established a
system of reserved seats, in which 148 seats (instead of 71 as put forward by
the Communal Award) were granted to the Untouchables in the Legislative
Council. But it excluded the principle of separate electorates: in 148
constituencies – those where the Untouchables were the most numerous - the
members of the Depressed Classes (the official phrase) would designate by
themselves the four Dalit Leaders who would be the candidates among whom
all the voters of the constituency, mixed of all castes, would then have to elect
their representative11. This scheme, as a matter of fact, ruined the hopes of
Dr. Ambedkar of constituting the Dalits into a political force before which
elected MPs and MLAs would have to be accountable.
Dr. Ambedkar, yet, continued to pursue an election-based strategy by creating
a political party, the Independent Labour Party, in 1936. The ILP, as its name
indicated, was not intended to be confined to the Untouchables. As party
president, Dr. Ambedkar tried to set up himself as a leader of the “labouring
masses”. This shift was largely due to his need for an electoral strategy. He
had become aware of the necessity of widening his social basis. Indeed, the
Untouchables appeared only as labourers in the program of the ILP, which pays
a lot of attention to economic questions and to a criticism of capitalism.
Ambedkar considered that the Indian labourers were victims, at the same
moment of Brahminism and capitalism (Brahmanshahi and Bhandwalshahi),
the two systems dominated by the same group12.
At the same time, Dr. Ambedkar did not believe in Marxism.Caste hierarchies
were the most important ones in his view and they had (almost) nothing to do
with the groups’ relationship to the means of production. The contradiction
between the philosophy projected by the ILP and the speeches of Dr. Ambedkar
justifying his rejection of Marxism is however obvious: on the one hand, he
claimed to represent the labourers in general; on the other, he denied a real
significance to class analysis and emphasized that caste remained the basic
unit of society.
This contradiction was evident from the results of the 1937 election: most of
the candidates of the ILP were Dalits, and among them, a large majority was
Mahar; on the list of candidates, there was only one Mang and the other non
Mahar was an Untouchable from Gujarat. The Chambhars, whose level of socioeconomic
development was superior to that of the Mangs, but also to that of
the Mahars were not at all represented in the ranks of the party. Dr. Ambedkar
resigned himself to his status of Dalit leader in 1942 when he founded the
Scheduled Castes Federation (Dalit Federation in Marathi). The Scheduled
Castes, in this perspective, had to be considered as a minority in the same
way as the Muslims and, as a consequence, had to get the benefit, not only of
a separate electorate, but also of separate territories.
Reacting to the Cripps proposals, the Executive Committee of the SCF declared
in September, 1944 in Madras that “the Scheduled Castes are a distinct and
separate element in the national life of India and that they are a religious
minority in a sense far more real than the Sikhs and Muslims can be and within
the meaning of the Cripps Proposals”13. Another resolution stipulated that no
Constitution would be acceptable to the Scheduled Castes if it did not have
their approval. Now, this proposition was conditional to the fulfillment of several
demands: a separate electorate, a guarantee of representation within the
executive power and a toll tax for their own villages14. The notion of Dalit
villages took shape around the same time. In 1944, Ambedkar confited to a
British officer – Beverley Nicholas:

“In every village there is a tiny minority of Untouchables. I want to gather
those minorities together and make them into majorities. This means a
tremendous work of organisationn – transferring populations, building new
villages. But we can do it, if only we are allowed [by the British]15. »
The SCF lost heavily in the 1945-46 elections. The party gained only two seats
in the provincial assemblies, one in Bengal, the other one in the Central Provinces
and Berar. This setback was partly due to the voting system16. Another
explanation for the defeat of the SCF laid in the very small number of candidates
nominated by the party: the SCF could not field any in 129 out of the 151
reserved seats for Untouchables. This situation reflected the weakness of the
party’s organization. As Bandyopadhyay points out: “the Federation had no
organizational machinery »17. It had no network of party branches and only a
handful of cadres. In fact, the party’s activities relied on the shoulders of
In addition to the SCF’s lack of organization, its defeat was also due to the
remarkable popularity of the Congress, including among the Untouchables,
because of its dedication to the freedom movement. In contrast, Ambedkar
would be termed ‘un-patriotic’ because of his joining the Viceroy’s government.
The SCF won only two seats in the Lok Sabha, one in Hyderabad and the other
in the Bombay Presidency where Ambedkar was defeated and where the
performance of the party was very much lower than his expectation.
The political parties created by Ambedkar in the 1930s and 1940s oscillated
between a socialist-like program aiming to widen his caste base and an effort
to defend the interests of the Untouchables alone. None of these strategies
proved to be successful and the setbacks registered by the SCF led Dr. Ambedkar
to return to a non-caste based party-building exercise with the creation of the
Republican Party of India, which was to see the light after his demise – but
which was to meet the same electoral faith as his predecessors.
4. Working with the Rulers: From the British Raj to the Congress Raj
Dr. Ambedkar’s political action was not confined only to his efforts to develop
parties. He also tried hard to influence the governments in his personal capacity,
whether they were of the British or Congress, for better serving the cause of
the Untouchables. Under the British Raj, Ambedkar was prisoner for some
time of a dilemma: on the one hand, he rejected the movement for
independence given that it was dominated by a party, the Congress, which he
saw as the expression of the upper castes, whereas he found himself closer to
the British, with whom he shared egalitarian values and from whom he hoped
for a protection against the “caste Hindus”. On the other hand, he was an
Indian and could not resign himself to see his country dominated by a foreign
power, which, on the top of it, trampled the values of equality, freedom and
brotherhood that he cherished most. After years of hesitations, in the 1930s,
his hostility towards the Congress eventually overrode his nationalist feelings.
He then expected from his rapprochement with the British substantial gains
for the Untouchables.
He was named in July 1941 to the Defence Advisory Committee set up by the
Viceroy to involve the Indian leaders in the war effort and to give to this
forced participation of India in the conflict a greater legitimacy. One year
later, he entered the Executive Council of the Viceroy as Labour Member, an
office that he hoped to use for improving the condition of the Untouchables.
Indeed, he worked relentlessly to develop the social legislation. One of the
most significant bills that Ambedkar managed to have passed was the Indian
Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill, making compulsory the recognition of a trade
union in every enterprise provided it fulfilled certain conditions, particularly in
terms of representation.
In November, 1943, assessing his governmental actions during a meeting,
Ambedkar emphasized above all the fact that henceforth 8.33 percent of the
posts of the national administration were reserved for the Scheduled Castes,
as it was already the case previously in Madras Presidency, that places were
also reserved for them in the institutions of technical education in London,
that the quota in the Central Assembly had been increased by one seat and
that a seat was reserved for them in the Council of the State (the Upper House
of what was meant to be a Parliament)18.
The cooperation of Ambedkar with the British did not allow him to achieve his
objectives in terms of association of the Dalits to the negotiations preceding
independence – after the defeat of the SCF in the 1945-46 elections, Dr.
Ambedkar was not listened to any more. However, he obtained substantial
concessions for the Untouchables, in terms of representation in the
administration for instance. The fact that India was very fast moving from
1946 towards independence brought him, a pragmatist par excellence, however
to get closer to the Congress, the obvious candidate for power. Dr. Ambedkar’s
pragmatic approach to politics is not to be mistaken for a pure opportunism.
For he did not change allies because of the posts which one or the other could
offer to him, but according to what could best serve the cause of the
In August 1947, Nehru made Ambedkar, doubtless under Gandhi’s19 pressure,
his Law Minister in the first government of independent India. Ambedkar
accepted the invitation of the Prime Minister because, as he said later, “in the
first place the offer was not subject to any condition and secondly it was
easier to serve the interests of the Scheduled Castes from inside of the
government than from outside”20. As member of the Constituent Assembly, Dr.
Ambedkar did not have his say in a systematic manner, though. His disillusion
with his taking part in the Minorities committee headed by Sardar Patel is a
case in point. Ambedkar proposed to the committee that at least the candidate
of a minority should be declared elected only if a minimal proportion of the
members of his group (here he had in mind the Untouchables) voted for him,
but he was not followed by the sub-committee. Patel emphasised that such a
scheme would be as harmful as separate electorates21.
Dr. Ambedkar, however, was in a position to make a strong impact on the
making of the Constitution after he was appointed president of the “Drafting
Committee”. This Committee, while it was not responsible for drafting the
primary texts, had the essential function to get these into shape on the basis
of articles proposed by other, issue-based, Committees, before submitting
them to the Constituent Assembly. The Assembly made several readings and,
each time, Drafting Committee members – and most often its chairman, Dr.
Ambedkar – guided and channelised the discussion. In addition, he was one of
the few members of the Constituent Assembly who belonged, besides the
Drafting Committee, at the same time, to more than one of the 15 Committees
– including the “Minorities Committee” where safeguards for the Dalits were
discussed22. On this account he was able to follow closely all along the debates
on articles as important as those concerning the rights of the mi norities.Most
importantly, as president of the Drafting Committee, it was to him that were
sent the propositions of the various committees. Therefore, it was for him,
and the secretary of the committee, S.N. Mukherjee, to whom he would pay
later a warm homage, to reformulate the obscure articles –and most of them
needed some clarification work. These editorial tasks also rested largely on
his shoulders because of the chronic absenteeism from which the Drafting
Committee suffered.

Dr. Ambedkar defended in the Constituent Assembly values and political models
with which he had become immersed since his youth during his studies in the
United States and England. This moved him closer to Nehru but brought him to
take contrary positions to Gandhi. Like Nehru, Ambedkar believed in
parliamentary democracy. He opposed moreover the criticisms of the left which
wanted to qualify the Indian Republic, from the very first article of the
Constitution, as “socialist”. According to him, this would have had the effect
“simply of destroying democracy”23, because it was for the government
designated by the people to choose the best form of social organization, as he
explained it on November 19, 194824. Another indication of his attachment to
the values of liberal democracy was found in his proposing an amendment in
favour of a strict separation of executive power and the judiciary25. Some
representatives opposed it in the name of the authority of the State, by arguing
that too strict a legal control would weaken it. Nehru took part in this debate
even though his responsibilities as Prime Minister did not let him much time,
because he wanted to support Dr. Ambedkar’s amendment26. It was adopted
and became article 50 of the Directive Principles. Dr. Ambedkar later defended
the setting up of a judicial system of British inspiration27. In his view, separationof powers would not, on any account, weaken the State.
Dr. Ambedkar was, on the contrary, a supporter of a strong Centre, on grounds
that too much federalism would hamper the uniform application of the
Constitution on the entire territory of India. He argued, for example, that the
article abolishing untouchability (see below) would not be evenly enforced if
the states enjoyed too large an autonomy28. This centralizing option offended
naturally the supporters of Gandhi, who had always appeared very concerned
about decentralizing power right up to the village level. In a sense, Ambedkar
took, at the Constituent Assembly, a posthumous revenge on the Mahatma
since he succeeded in pushing aside the propositions of the most radical
Gandhians, or at least weakened their influence regarding Panchayati Raj,
Cow protection, etc.
If none of the articles of this text abolished castes, the discriminations based
on religion, race, caste, sex and birth-place were declared illicit because of
the paramount importance of the right to equality, which was to become Article
15 in the 1950 Constitution. It prohibited also any limitation based on the
same criteria concerning access to shops, restaurants, hotels, public places
dedicated to leisure activities, wells, streets and other public places benefiting
from any financial support by the State. Above all, Article 17 abolished
untouchability. Hard labour and any other begar (forms of servitude often
hereditary of which the Dalits were the first victims) were declared illegal by
the Article 23.
However, Dr. Ambedkar failed to make a strong impact on one of his priority
areas that is personal laws a key domain for social reform. During the debates
in the Constituent Assembly, he had demonstrated his will to reform Indian
society by recommending the adoption of a Civil Code of western inspiration.
He had then opposed the delegates who wished to maintain personal laws,
especially Muslim representatives who appeared to be very concerned with the
fate of the Sharia. As a result, Dr. Ambedkar did not obtain anything more than
an article of the Directive Principles stipulating that: “The State shall endeavour
to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of
After the promulgation of the Constitution, Dr. Ambedkar militated in favour
of the reform of the Hindu personal law. He wanted to implement in a revised
manner the Hindu Code Bill that the British had gradually evolved. After more
than one century of legislation – ranging from the Abolition of Sati (1829) to
the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act (1937) – they had decided in the
1940s to consolidate in one code the reformed Hindu personal law. Among its
main provisions were the facts that daughters were given a share of the
inheritance along with sons after the demise of parents, the widows were
granted absolute estate, monogamy was a rule of law and divorce was allowed
under certain circumstances. The Code was introduced in the legislature in
April 1947 but the political circumstances – Independence and Partition – did
not allow this body to discuss the text. In 1948, Nehru entrusted the drafting
of the new code to a sub-committee of the Assembly and nominated Dr.
Ambedkar as its head29. The latter got written in it essential principles such as
equality between men and women on the question of property and adoption,
the granting of legal status to monogamous marriage only, the elimination of
‘caste bar in the civil marriage’30 and the necessity of justifying concretely a
petition for divorce – a procedure which too often until then was a case of a
repudiation of the wife by her husband31. This questioning of the customs
governing the private life of the Hindus aroused a profound emotion, not only
among the traditionalists of the Hindu Mahasabha, but also among leaders of
the Congress including Rajendra Prasad, who, after being president of the
Constituent Assembly had become the first President of the Indian Republic32.
Many other Congress bosses, including the party president, Pattabhi Sita
Ramayyan, opposed the bill, lest it could alienate the local notables –
conservative landholders in the largest part – before the general elections of
Jawaharlal Nehru was attached to this code in which he saw, quite as Dr.
Ambedkar, one of the corner stones of the modernisation of India. He even
announced that his government would resign if this bill was not passed33. Dr.
Ambedkar pressed him to submit it as quickly as possible to the Parliament.
The Prime Minister asked him for a little bit of patience and even split the
Code into four subsets for defusing the opposition before submitting it to the
Assembly on 17 September 1951. The debate which followed confirmed then
the hostility of the most traditionalist Congressmen. Finally, on September 25,
the portion of the Hindu Code Bill concerning marriage and divorce was deformed
by amendments and finally buried without Nehru uttering the least protest.
Considering that he had not been supported enough by the Prime Minister,
Ambedkar sent him his letter of resignation from his government on 27
The strategy of collaboration with the rulers had shown its limits, but it had
bore fruits. The modernisation of the Indian society that the Constitution was
supposed to permit could give hope to Dr. Ambedkar of the advent of a more
egalitarian society. But he left the government a bitter man – and he became
even more disillusioned with the political system after losing his seat in
Parliament in the 1951-52 elections. He then returned to a strategy he had
thought about before: conversion out of Hinduism.
5. Conversion, the Ultimate Strategy
The idea of converting to another religion in order to escape from the caste
system logically ensued from Ambedkar’s analysis of Hinduism, whose originality
and strength laid in its demonstration that in this civilisation social hierarchy
was consubstantial to religion. To leave it was thus the only means to attain
The first reference made by Ambedkar to a conversion of the Untouchables
dates back to 1927. During the Mahad Conference, he had indeed declared:
“We want equal rights in society. We will achieve them as far as possible while
remaining within the Hindu fold or, if necessary by kicking away this worthless
Hindu identity. And if it becomes necessary to give up Hinduism it would no
longer be necessary for us to bother about temples 35”. On 29 March 1927,
during the Jalgaon (Berar) Depressed Classes Conference, which he chaired, a
resolution was voted in this direction. Some days later, a dozen Mahars converted
to Islam to the great displeasure of the many orthodox Hindus who acted
immediately in a way that the Untouchables of the region had an access to two
new water wells36. The fear of en masse conversions of the Untouchables seemed
to open the possibility of an intense blackmail. Dr. Ambedkar saw however
conversion as a strategy only at the beginning of the 1930s.
Dr. Ambedkar announced his decision to leave Hinduism in 1935, during the
famous Yeola Conference: “The disabilities we have suffered, and the
indignities we had to put up with, were the result of our being the members of
the Hindu community. Will it not be better for us to leave that fold and embrace
a new faith that would give us equal status, a secure position and rightful
treatment? I advise you to severe your connection with Hinduism and to embrace
any other religion. But, in doing so, be careful in choosing the new faith and
see that equality of treatment, status and opportunities will be guaranteed to
you unreservedly. ( ...) Unfortunately for me I was born a Hindu Untouchable.
It was beyond my power to prevent that, but, I declare that it is within my
power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions. I solemnly
assure you that I will not die a Hindu”37.
After comparing different religions and the willingness of their leaders in India
to welcome the Untouchables, Dr. Ambedkar announced his preference for
Sikhism in August 1936, because he thought “to have some responsibility as
for the future of the Hindu culture and civilisation38” and did not want to beak
with the majority community. In September 1936, he sent a delegation of 13
of his supporters to Amritsar to study the Sikh religion39. In November, he went
to England to sound out the British leaders about the guarantees which they
would be ready to grant in the new Constitution to the Untouchables who would
have converted to Sikhism40. The British authorities replied that these provisions
would apply only to the Sikhs of Punjab, which, in his views, was an irrelevant
proposition. At the beginning of 1937, negotiations continued between Dr.
Ambedkar and the Sikh leaders but meetings became less frequent and by the
end of the year Dr. Ambedkar ceased to mention the idea of conversion.
This turnabout cannot be explained only by the response of the British to his
demand of extension of the Sikh quota to the converts. Among the other factors
accounting for his decision were first the fact that Sikh Dalits had conveyed to
Dr. Ambedkar the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Jats – which
undermine all hope of emancipation41and, second, the opposition to such
massive conversion among the Sikh political class: the Akalis – including Master
Tara Singh – feared that the leadership of the community would be taken over
or, at least, that their authority would be diluted42. The challenge that a mass
conversion would have represented for the upper caste Hindus also made Dr.
Ambedkar afraid of the retaliatory measures, some of which, as testified by
the threats of social boycott, had already materialised in 1935-36.
When Dr. Ambekar contemplated conversion once again, in the context of the
1950s that we had mentioned above, he chose Buddhism. The familiarity of
Ambedkar with Buddhism goes back up to his youth. In 1908 one of his teachers,
K.A. (alias Dada) Keluskar, impressed by his aptitude, had offered him on the
occasion of his success in the Matriculation examination, the biography of
Lord Buddha he had published 10 years before. This text exercised a profound
influence on his mind43, even though he never referred to it for years. In 1934,
he built at Dadar (Bombay) a house that he named as Rajgriha, the name of
the capital of ancient Buddhists kings of Bihar.
In 1935-36, during the first movement in favour of conversion, he did not
envisage leaving Hinduism for Buddhism. But his interest in this religion grew
in the mid-1940s, as he named his first college Siddharth, after the first name
of Buddha44. In 1948, he republished The Essence of Buddhism whose author,
Lakshman Narasu, as he emphasised it in the foreword, fought against castes
and against British authoritarianism. The same year, he published The
Untouchables, a work in which he presented Untouchables as the descendants
of the Buddhists who had been marginalised when the rest of society crossed
over to Hinduism. At the same time, his activities within the Constituent
Assembly prepared the ground for his conversion to Buddhism and the official
recognition of this religion. In May 1947, he opposed K.M Munshi’s amendment
which intended to forbid the conversion of minors, thus risking to hamper all
He also contributed to get Buddha Jayanti, the anniversary festival of Lord
Buddha, put in the calendar of official holidays. Lastly, he was involved in the
adoption of the multiple Buddhist symbols with which the Indian Republic
endowed itself between 1947 and 1950: the chakra (the wheel of Dharma) on
the Indian flag, the lions of Ashoka, the Buddhist emperor of ancient India as
the national emblem and the inscription of a Buddhist aphorism on the pediment
of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the President of the Republic46. In
1950, he went to Sri Lanka and began a compilation of Buddha’s writings and
called upon the Untouchables to convert to Buddhism47. He repeated this appeal
on his return, in the autumn of the same year48 and converted in October
1956, a few weeks before his death on 6 December 1956. Buddhism formed
the best possible choice for Dr. Ambedkar because it was an egalitarian religion
born in India – not the creation of outsiders49. The fact that Buddhism was
perceived by him as an alternative to the Hindu social hierarchy is clearly
reflected in the speech he made during the ceremony of his conversion in
Nagpur on 14 October 1956:
“By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression
today I am reborn. I have no faith in the philosophy of incarnation; and it is
wrong and mischievous to say that Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu. I am
no more a devotee of any Hindu god or goddess. I will not perform Shraddha
(the Hindu funeral rite). I will strictly follow the eightfold path of Buddha.
Buddhism is a true religion and I will lead a life guided by the three principles
of knowledge, right path and compassion”50.
These words reflected the anti-Hindu social motives of Dr. Ambedkar’s
conversion. All the more so as they were followed by 22 oaths of which the first
six, the eighth and the nineteenth were directly pointed against Hinduism:
Box 1: 22 Oaths Taken by Dr. Ambedkar1. I shall not recognise Brahma,
Vishnu and Mahesh as gods, nor shall I worship them.2. I shall not recognise
Ram and Krishna as Gods, nor shall I worship them.3. I shall not recognise
Gauri and Ganapati as gods nor shall I worship them.4. I do not believe in the
theory of incarnation of god.5. I do not consider Buddha as the incarnation of
Vishnu. 6. I shall not perform Shraddha [a Hindu rite that one carries out for
the safety of the deceased] nor shall I give offerings’ to god.7. I shall not do
anything which is detrimental to Buddhism.8. I shall not perform any religious
rites through the agency of a Brahmin.9. I believe that all human beings are
equal.10. I shall endeavour to establish equality.11. I shall follow the eight fold
path of the Buddha.12. I observe the ten Paramitas (observances) of the Buddha
[the virtues in which a follower of the Buddha has to restrain himself].13. I
shall be compassionate to all living beings and I shall nurture them with care.14.
I shall not steal.15. I shall not lie.16. I shall not commit adultery.17. I shall not
drink liquor.18. I shall lead my life striving to cultivate a harmonious blend of
the three basic principles of Buddhism [Enlightenment, Precept and
Compassion].19. I thereby reject my old religion, Hinduism, which is detrimental
to the prosperity of human kind and which discriminates between man and
man and which treats me as inferior. 20. I fully believe that Buddhism is
Saddhamma.21. By my embracing Buddhism I am being reborn.22. I hereby
pledge to conduct myself hereafter in accordance with the teaching of the

Hundreds of thousands of Dalits – mostly Mahars – got converted along with Dr.
Ambedkar on 14 October 1956 in Nagpur. The anti-Hindu dimension of these
waves of mass conversions was reconfirmed, subsequently, by the elimination
of the Hindu deities from the untouchable localities of Maharashtra, sometimes
in a way of provoking the upper castes. The palanquin of the village goddess,
generally kept with the Mahars, was returned to the upper caste Hindus.
Similarly, the Untouchables rejected more and more obligations and functions
attached to their ritual status, which did not go without causing violent
The impact of conversion to Buddhism varies according to groups (even
individuals) and places. In Maharashtra, the conversion of the Mahars had
mixed consequences. Their break with Hinduism seemed quite relative and
the converts therefore did not get emancipated from caste hierarchy. Their
name changed. They now called themselves “bauddha” in Marathi, but this
move was only slowly and partially reflected in the emergence of a new collective
identity. E. Zelliot highlights that conversion freed the bauddha “from the
sense of being a polluting person”53, but this outcome remained abstract enough
because ”the mass of Buddhists in the slums of cities or the landless in the
rural area, live in much the same fashion as the desperately poor in any
culture”54. However, E. Zelliot admits that the glass is half full too:
“What has happened is that even in areas where observers report ‘no change
at all’, one finds that Buddhists no longer carry out what they feel are ritually
submissive, degrading, or impure duties; that some young people, far more
than in other Untouchable and backward communities, become educated; and
that Buddhists do not participate in the Hindu public practices so long denied
to them, not now out of a prohibition but out of a sense of separateness”55.
The outcome is particularly mixed because the conversion of 1956, and those
which followed, concerned almost exclusively the Mahars: if, in 1956, 55 per
cent of the Untouchables of Maharashtra were converted to Buddhism so that
the Buddhists crossed in numbers from 2,500 in 1951 to 2.5 millions in 1961 –
almost all the bauddha came from the Mahar milieu. The coincidence between
this new religious community and the frontiers of caste made it more difficult,
for the former, to become emancipated from the status of the latter. Above
all, this phenomenon complicated the emergence of an identity common to all
the Untouchables, transcending the cleavages of caste because of the reference
to Buddhism. The Chambhars not only did not convert to Buddhism but opposed
any project aiming to grant the benefits of the politics of positive discrimination
to “bauddhas”. Besides, a number of converted Mahars continued to observe
some Hindu customs, particularly when they were too poor to afford a break
with their original milieu56.

6. Conclusion

Dr Ambedkar has tried all kind of strategies during his life for eradicating
caste and, more especially, for emancipating the Dalit from this oppressive
social systems. In the political domain, he promoted separate electorate, party
building and public policies like reservations – and did not hesitate to collaborate
with the ruler of the time – be it the British or the Congress for having things
done. In the social domain, he militated in favour of reforms at the grass root
level – education being his first goal – and reforms by the state – as evident
from the Hindu code bill. None of his strategies really succeeded during his life
time: he could not have separate electorate introduced, he could not build a
Dalit or a labour party, he could not have the Hindu code bill passed – and he
became a bitter man.
As a result, conversion to Buddhism became the strategy of last resort. But it
was not an exit option: Dr Ambedkar did not take refuge in religion, but looked
equality and social reform in religion since Buddhism was likely to endow the
Dalits with a new identity and a sense of dignity. More than sixty years later,
his contribution to the making of modern India is possibly more substantial
than that of any other leader of his generation. He has not only prepared the
ground for a silent revolution, but has also played a key role in the drafting of
the Constitution of India which has set the terms for the development of the
world largest democracy.
Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against Untouchability and the Caste System
Christophe Jaffrelot
1 B.R. Ambedkar, “Castes in India. Their Mechanism, Genesis and
Development”, Indian Antiquary, May 1917, vol. 61, reproduced in Dr
Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, Bombay, Government
of Maharashtra, 1979.
2 B.R. Ambedkar, “Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto” in Dr
Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol.5, Bombay, Government
of Maharashtra, 1989, p. 101-102.
3 B.R. Ambedkar, “The Untouchables. Who were they and why they became
Untouchables?” in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol. 7,
pp. 290-303.
4 The idea that the Untouchables were the first inhabitants of India had
been already spread by Gopalnak Vitthalnak Walangkar, a former Mahar
soldier who had been influenced by Jotirao Phule and who had founded,
in 1886, the first Mahar association, notably to get the British to make a
wider place for this caste in the army.
5 B.R. Ambedkar, “The Untouchables”, art. cit. , p. 317.
6 Ibid., p.134.
7 Ibid., p. 252.
8 This ambivalence explains that according to Keer, he considered both
options (Dr Ambedkar, op. cit.,p. 40) whereas for E. Zelliot, he prioritised
“a common electorate with reserved seats” ( “Learning the Use of Political
means”, art. cit. p. 41).
9 This attitude is all the more surprising, as at the same moment, 16 out of
18 Dalits organizations consulted by the Simon Commission in Bombay
Presidency had clearly expressed themselves in favour of separate
electorates. For instance, the common testimony of the Depressed India
Association and the Servants of Somavamshiya Society before the Simon
Commission stipulated: “experience has shown during the last two decades
that it has served as a powerful lever to raise our Muslim brethren who in
consequence are making rapid headway and coming into line with more
advanced sections.” (The Servants of Somavamshiya Society, Bombay, July
9, 1928, p. 2 in Private Papers of Ambedkar, reels 1/2).
Indian Institute of Dalit Studies
Volume III, Number 04
10 “Evidence of Dr Ambedkar before the Indian Statutory Commission one
23rd October 1928”, ibid. p.465. Ambedkar justified this demand of universal
suffrage for the underprivileged persons (who never could reach tax quota
for voting rights) because they were the first to need it to protect
themselves from the dominant castes (“ Report on the Constitution” op.
cit., p. 338). He added that in spite of their illiteracy, they are rather
intelligent for it (“ Evidence of Dr Ambedkar” op. cit., p. 473).
11 For the complete text of the pact, see R. Kumar, “Gandhi, Ambedkar and
the Poona Pact, 1932”, op. cit., p. 153-155.
12 J. Gokhale, From Concessions to Confrontation, op. cit., pp. 132-133.
13 “The political demands of the Scheduled Castes - Resolutions passed by
the Working Committee of the All-India Scheduled Caste Federation”, App.
XI to B.R. Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the
untouchables, op. cit., p. 346-347.
14 Resolution 8 considered that “in the absence of an alternative system,
the Parliamentary system of Government may have to be accepted” but
the SCF demanded that Ministers representing the minorities should be
inducted in the government after being designated by the minority
communities themselves. Resolution 11 demanded that the Constitution
should establish a framework “for the transplantation of the Scheduled
Castes from their present habitations and form separate Scheduled Castes
villages away and independent of Hindu villages “ - a formula already used
by Ambedkar in 1942. (Ibid., p. 353).
15 Cited in B. Nicholas, “Below the Bottom Rung’ : a British Estimate of Dr.
Ambedkar, 1944”, in K.C. Yadav, From Periphery to Centre Stage, op. cit.,
p. 47.
16 The SCF had gained more votes than Congress in the Presidencies of
Madras and Bombay and in the Central Provinces, during the primaries
where only Untouchables voted. The situation in the United Provinces
was even more revealing of the distortions inherent in the electoral system.
In these provinces 20 seats were reserved for the Scheduled Castes,
including four urban seats. The SCF decided to contest only these four
seats. In the primaries, the party could get elected nine candidates as
against four on the Congress side – but in the second round, the latter
won all the seats thanks to the support of non Dalit voters. The most
dramatic result took place in Agra where the four SCF candidates had
polled 46.39% of the valid votes as against to 27.1% to the four Congress
Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against Untouchability and the Caste System
Christophe Jaffrelot
16. This state of things could only strengthen Ambedkar’s stand in favour of a
separate electorate for the Untouchables.
17 S. Bandyopadhyay, ‘Transfer of power and the crisis of Dalit politics in
India, 1945-47’, Modern Indian Studies, 34(4), 2000, p. 913.
18 Lelah Dushkin, “ Special Treatment Policy “ in The Economic Weekly, vol.
XIII, n ° 43-46 and E. Zelliot, Dr Ambedkar, op. cit., p. 265. In 1946, the
quota of 8.33 % was increased to 12.5 % so as to be proportional to the
population of the Untouchables.
19 A veteran of the Constituent Assembly, R.M. Nalawade, emphasized that
Nehru and Patel were hardly favorable to the allocation of a ministerial
office to Ambedkar but that Gandhi imposed his name so as to associate
him with the work of national construction (S.M. Gaikwad, “Ambedkar
and Indian nationalism “, Economic and Political Weekly, in March 7, 1998,
p. 518). This hypothesis is accredited by a conversation of 1946 between
the Mahatma and two Protestants - Muriel Lester, an English Quaker, and
Miss Descher, an American missionary - during which he expressed the
wish that Ambedkar should become a part of the first government of
independent India. (M.S. Gore, The Social Context of an Ideology, op.
cit., p. 18).
20 Quoted in G. Austin, The Indian Constitution, op. cit., p. 19-20.
21 CAD, p. 415.
22 Ambedkar was a member of the two sub-committees of the Advisory
Committee (the one on fundamental rights, the other one on rights of
the minorities) and of the Union of the Powers Committee.
23 Ibid., p. 494
24 Ibid., p. 494.
25 Ibid., p. 582.
26 Ibid., p. 589.
27 Ibid., p. 952.
28 Ibid., p. 1139.
29 CAD, vol. 5, Speech of April 9, 1948.
30 M. Yasin, ‘Hindu Code Bill and Dr Ambedkar’, Towards Secular India, 2(1),
Jan-March 1996, p. 24.
Indian Institute of Dalit Studies
Volume III, Number 04
31 Reba Som, “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code: A victory of Symbol
over Substance?” Modern Asian Studies 28 ( 1 ) , 1994, p. 171.
32 Quoted in D. Das (ed.), Sardar Patel Patel Correspondence, 1945-1950,
Ahmedabad, Navajiyan, 1947, vol. VI, p. 40a.
33 D. Keer, Dr. Ambedkar, op. cit., p. 426.
34 Ibid.,pp. 435-436.
35 Quoted in M.S. Gore, The Social Context of an Ideology, op. cit., p. 91.
36 D. Keer, Dr. Ambedkar, op. cit.,p. 130-132.
37 Bhagawan Das, Thus spoke Ambedkar, vol. 4, op.cit., p. 108.
38 Bhagwan Das, Thus spoke Ambedkar, op. cit., p. 307.
39 Exceeding their mission, they were converted before returning to Bombay
where Ambedkar received them without much warmth (D. Keer, Dr
Ambedkar, op. cit.,p. 284).
40 E. Zelliot, Dr Ambedkar, op. cit.,p. 225.
41 D.C. Ahir, Dr Ambedkar and Punjab, Delhi, B.R. Publishing, 1992, 12).
42 H. K. Puri, ‘Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community’, EPW, 28 June 2003, p.
43 On May 24, 1956, during a meeting organized in honour of the anniversary
of Buddha, he declared: “At the very young age of fourteen, Mr. Dadasaheb
Keluskar had in a meeting presented me with a biography of Bhagwan
Buddha. Since then my mind has always been under the influence of
Buddhism”. (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, “ Buddhism and Hinduism are not
the same thing”, a talk given on May 24, 1956 (Marathi), Private Papers of
44 In 1951, he named the second college he created the “Milind College”,
after the name of the Greek king who had converted to Buddhism.
45 Constituent Assembly Debates, New Delhi, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1989,
vol. 3, p. 501.
46 D. Keer, Dr Ambedkar, op. cit., p. 481.
These symbols received the general approval of secular personalities such
as Nehru because they allowed India to root the new Republic in a
nationalist past, being quite neutral on a religious plane, as distinct from
Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against Untouchability and the Caste System
Christophe Jaffrelot
the most numerous and politically aware communities – the Hindus, Muslims,
Sikhs and Christians.
47 Interviews of May 5, 1950 and of May 25, 1950 in D. Keer, Dr Ambedkar, op.
cit., p. 421.
48 Ibid., p. 423-424.
49 For example, Hinduism took over Lord Buddha by making him Vishnu’s
seventh incarnation.
50 D. Keer, Dr Ambedkar, op. cit.,p. 500.
51 Cited in G.S. Lokhande, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, New Delhi, Intellectual
Publishing House, 1977 [1982], pp. 255-6.
52 E. Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit, op. cit.,p.138-9
53 E. Zelliot, From Untouchable to Dalit, op. cit., p. 219.
54 Ibid., p. 220.
55 Ibid.,
56 Ibid., p. 195.
Indian Institute of Dalit Studies
Volume III, Number 04
Ahir, D.C. (1992), “Dr Ambedkar and Punjab”, New Delhi: B.R. Publishing.
Ambedkar, B.R. (1917), “Castes in India. Their Mechanism, Genesis and
Development “, Indian Antiquary, May 1917, vol. 61, reproduced in Dr
Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol. 1, Bombay, Government
of Maharashtra, 1979
– – – , “Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto” in Dr Babasaheb
Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol.5, Bombay, Government of
Maharashtra, 1989, p. 101-102.
– – – , “The Untouchables. Who were they and why they became Untouchables?
“in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol. 7, pp. 290-303.
– – – , “Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto” in Dr Babasaheb
Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, vol.5, Bombay, Government of
Maharashtra, 1989, p. 101-102.
– – – , “The Untouchables. Who were they and why they became Untouchables?”
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Dr. Ambedkar’s Strategies Against Untouchability and the Caste System
Christophe Jaffrelot
Keer, D. (1971), “Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Bombay, Popular Prakashan,
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Kumar, R. (1985), “Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Poona Pact, 1932 “, Occasional
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Lokhande, G.S. (1977), “Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar”, New Delhi: Intellectual
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Puri, H. K. (2003), “Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community”, the Economic and
Political Weekly, 28 June 2003, p. 2698.
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over Substance?” Modern Asian Studies 28 (1), p. 171.
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New Delhi: Blumoon Books p. 225.