The 125th birth anniversary of the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Ambedkar was held in California last week. And it was noteworthy that for the first time in history, the Indian government participated in celebrations for Bhimrao Ambedkar, commemorating the contributions of the Indian patriot who tirelessly campaigned for the rights of Dalits and women, and declared that true democracy could only be accomplished when the caste system was abolished. The event was organized by the San Francisco Indian Consulate and the local Indian American community, and was held at the India Community Center.
The evening celebration was rounded out by Odissi dancing from students of the Jyoti Kala Mandir; kuchipudi by students of Mythri Natyalaya; a performance by the Aero Dance School; and bhangra by Dance Karishma. Alka Bhatnagar kicked off the celebration by singing the Indian national anthem; Margret Hurtado sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Though he was not allowed to sit alongside other schoolchildren due to his status as an “untouchable,” Ambedkar prospered educationally nevertheless, and was at one time one of India’s most educated citizens: he was the first untouchable to attend the University of Bombay, and went on from there to earn his Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York and a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics.
Returning to India in 1917 after finishing his studies, Ambedkar was appointed finance minister to the Maharaja of Baroda, but had to quit his job due to ill-treatment from his co-workers because of his caste. Caste discrimination also made it difficult for Ambedkar to find a home to live in.
Throughout his legal career with the Bombay High Court, Ambedkar fought for the rights of Dalits and equality of opportunity for women. Serving as the first law minister for a newly-independent India, Ambedkar drafted the country’s Constitution, abolishing untouchability and caste discrimination, among other provisions. Ambedkar resigned from his post in 1951 when he received no support from the Indian Parliament and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for his “Hindu Code Bill,” which aimed to set down equality in the laws governing marriage and inheritance. Ambedkar’s death in 1956 in Delhi drew one of the largest crowds the young nation had ever seen.
In his keynote address at the ICC event, Prof. Ronki Ram, dean and the head of the Political Science department at Punjab University in Chandigarh, noted that Ambedkar aimed to bring the concept of “social democracy” to India. “If we were to create a democratic nation, there must be changes in the social set-up,” said Ram, paraphrasing Ambedkar, and noting the Indian statesman’s view that a democracy is unsustainable if its people are divided by caste.
Ambedkar tried to make a distinction between religion and caste, arguing that religion should be based on rationalism, not fundamentalism, said the professor. “Society remains mum and justice remains silent,” stated Krishna passionately, noting this was the first time the Indian government had celebrated Ambedkar’s birthday, an occasion normally only marked by Dalits. Krishna advocated that all Indian government offices, consulates and embassies bear a portrait of Ambedkar alongside a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
Indian Consul General in San Francisco Venkatesan Ashok praised Ambedkar in a speech onstage at the ICC event. “He was the chief architect of a constitution that is the inspiration of democratic countries throughout the world,” said Ashok, noting that “Baba Saheb” was ahead of his time with many concepts such as birth control for women and equal rights for women, along with investments in agriculture to grow the economy of the agrarian nation.
“I am very impressed that the community has come together to celebrate this great son of India,” said Ashok, noting that the Bharat Ratna – one of India’s highest awards – was conferred on Ambedkar posthumously in 1990. Ashok also revealed that the Indian government has given its approval to refurbish the Gadar Memorial in San Francisco, a tribute to the Northern California-based Gadar Party founded in 1915 to support the movement for India’s independence.
“These sons laid down their lives at a time when India had no idea where it would go,” stated Ashok, adding that the modalities of rebuilding the Gadar memorial would now have to be worked out with the city of San Francisco.