Shri R. Venkataraman’s views on Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

On the occasion of the birth centenary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the then President R. Venkataraman had expressed his views about him. – R Venkataraman on Ambedkar

R. Venkataraman's views on Dr. Ambedkar
R. Venkataraman and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

The President views about Babasaheb

Ramaswamy Venkataraman (4 December 1910 – 27 January 2009), widely known as R. Venkataraman, served as the 8th President of India from 25 July 1987 to 25 July 1992, and the 7th Vice President of India from 1984 to 1987. He was a four-time MP and three-time cabinet minister. As a lawyer, he practised in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court of India. In his young age, he was an activist of the Indian independence movement. He was appointed as the member of the Constituent Assembly of India.

The period from 14 April 1990 to 14 April 1991 was observed as the “Year of Social Justice” in the memory of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar by the Government of India. On 14 April 1990, on the occasion of Babasaheb’s 99th birthday, he was honored with the Bharat Ratna Award, presented by the then President R. Venkataraman. On 14 April 1991, the birth centenary (100th birth anniversary) of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was celebrated all over India. On the occasion of the birth centenary of Dr. Ambedkar, the then President Ramaswamy Venkataraman (1910-2009) had expressed his views about him.


R Venkataraman on BR Ambedkar

Then President R. Venkataraman wrote in his introduction to Ambedkar: The Man and his Message (1991) :

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s is a household name in India—whether in his home state or in the far-flung areas of India, the intelligentsia as well as the humble folk look up to his memory with admiration and respect. His portrait adorns not just the walls of our legislatures and public buildings, but also those of countless humble dwellings in factory premises, workers’ linerooms and busties all over the country. The people of India have perceived in Babasaheb Ambedkar a man who felt in his own arteries the pulsations of his poor brethren.

Bhimrao Ambedkar was born in the oppressed community of Mahars and was personally witness to the many humiliating privations which were being heaped upon the so-called untouchables of India. During his school days, young Bhimrao realised what the stigma of untouchability meant. The story is told of how, when Bhimrao and his brother were once going to Goregaon from Masur railway station, they secured a bullock cart. Hardly had the cart gone a few yards when the cartman learnt that the two boys in the cart were ‘untouchables’. The cartman promptly got off the cart. Bhimrao’s elder brother had to drive the cart while the cartman followed the cart on foot, for fear of pollution! Also, they could not get drinking water for the whole journey for the same reason.

Being an ‘untouchable’, Bhimrao was also forced, while at school, to sit apart from the rest. He could not fraternise with other boys or play games with them. The teachers, it is said, would not touch his notebook, while some of them would not even put questions to Bhimrao and others of that caste for fear of being polluted. When they felt thirsty in the school, they were not given glasses of water, instead they were required to raise their heads and cup their mouths so that somebody could funnel drinking water towards their lips. But, most galling of all, they were prohibited from learning Sanskrit. To Bhimrao, this was the indignity that perhaps rankled the most. For who has the right to put a lock on people’s minds?

But, as the saying goes, “Where there is a will there is a way”. Bhimrao Ambedkar overcame all the disabilities, humiliations and poverty by the sheer quality of his intellectual calibre and determination. Before long, his outstanding abilities came to be recognised. Thanks to the foresight of the progressive Maharaja Sayaji Rao of Baroda, Bhimrao was able to enter Elphinstone College in Bombay and after graduation join the Baroda State Service. Shortly thereafter, the Maharaja, who was sending some students to the USA for higher studies at the Columbia University, included Bhimrao among them. Professor Seligman, the well-known economist, was his teacher there. In 1915, Bhimrao obtained Master’s degree for his thesis, “Ancient Indian Commerce”. In May 1916, he presented a paper on “The Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development”, at the Anthropology Seminar sponsored by Dr. Goldenweiser. In June 1916, he submitted his Ph.D. thesis entitled “National Dividend for India: A Historic and Analytical Study”, which was published eight years later under the title: The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India. Bhimrao dedicated the book to Maharaja Sayaji Rao. In his introduction to the book, Prof. S.A. Seligman stated: “Nowhere to my knowledge, has such a detailed study of the underlying principles been made.” Bhimrao was, thereby, launched in academics. He studied Economics, Law and Political Science in America and, later, at the London School of Economics and Bonn University, where he wrote The History of Indian Currency and Banking.

Savita receiving Bharat Ratna on behalf of Dr Ambedkar by then President R Venkataraman on 14th April 1990
Dr Savita Ambedkar receiving Bharat Ratna on behalf of Dr BR Ambedkar by then President R Venkataraman on 14th April 1990

One trait marked Babasaheb during his student days and, in fact, throughout his life: He was a voracious reader. He had an insatiable thirst for books. He bought books by curtailing his daily needs. In New York he is said to have purchased about 2,000 old books. And it is recorded that at the time of the Second Round Table Conference in London, he bought so many books that they had to be sent to India in 32 boxes.

It is important to record here one major influence on Dr. Ambedkar. While in the USA, he was drawn to the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution of the USA which gave freedom to the Black Americans. He saw at once the parallel of the situation for the Depressed Classes in India. On returning home, Babasaheb came to be greatly influenced by the life-work of Mahatma Phule, the votary of a classless society and women’s uplift. The need as well as the feasibility of reform impressed itself on Babasaheb’s mind and he decided to devote all his time and talents for the amelioration of his underprivileged brethren. Newspapers started by him such as the Mooknayak, Bahishkrit Bharat and Samata were at once recognised as authentic voices of the Depressed Classes. Likewise, institutions set up by him such as the [Bahishkrit] Hitakarini Sabha and the Independent Labour Party of India became vehicles of change. During the same period, Gandhiji was pioneering his epic reform of Indian society which included the uplift of the Depressed Classes whom Gandhiji had termed Harijans. Babasaheb’s work did not form part of the programmes of the Indian National Congress led by Gandhiji.

But we can now see from the vantage point of history that both Gandhiji and Babasaheb represented different facets of the same awakening. Not many are aware that when Gandhiji started his new weekly, Harijan, he requested Babasaheb Ambedkar to send a message for the first issue. Babasaheb sent a statement for publication in the magazine which said:

The outcaste is a bye-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu faith of the odious and vicious dogma.

Publishing these words in his weekly, Gandhiji paid a remarkable tribute to Dr. Ambedkar, and I quote from Gandhiji’s words as published in the Harijan:

Dr. Ambedkar is bitter. He has every reason to feel so. He has received a liberal education. He has more than the talents of the average educated Indian. Outside India he is received with honour and affection, but in India, among Hindus, at every step he is reminded that he is one of the outcastes of Hindu society…. This is the caste Hindus’ shame, not his, but I would like him to feel that there are today thousands of caste Hindus who would listen to his message with the same respect and consideration that they would give to that of any other leader and that in their estimation there is no person high and no person low.

The differences between Gandhiji and Babasaheb on the question of separate electorates were marked. Babasaheb signed the famous Poona Pact with misgivings. He was to declare later that the Pact had “resulted in disenfranchising 60 million untouchables.” And yet, for all his discontent, Babasaheb Ambedkar never allowed his emotions to turn into cynicism. He believed in constructive action and used every opportunity that was available to him to embody his ideals in constitutional programmes.

Babasaheb was elected to the Bombay Legislative Assembly in the elections under the Constitution of India Act, 1935. The Congress had declared that it was entering the legislatures to wreck that Constitution. Babasaheb was determined to make it work. The objective was the same, although the techniques differed. Babasaheb made effective contributions to the debates in the Assembly on a variety of subjects. His flair for legislative work became evident to the whole nation.

Soon the Constituent Assembly of India afforded Dr. Ambedkar the opportunity to give the most notable and permanent shape to his social philosophy and to his undying faith in the dignity of human beings. Babasaheb was not in the Congress, but it must be said to the credit of the farsighted and objective leadership of the Indian National Congress that it requested Dr. Ambedkar to serve on the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly and made him its Chairman.

As Chairman of the Drafting Committee, Dr. Ambedkar anticipated every conceivable requirement of the new polity. Drawing from the examples and experiences of other nations and the distinctive needs of our own society, he raised, brick by brick, the magnificent edifice which now stands as the Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of India. There were, of course, other luminaries on the Committee like Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, K.M. Munshi and N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar who also made vital contributions to the process of Constitution-making. But if there is one person who will be remembered as the pilot of the various provisions of the Indian Constitution, it will surely be Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It devolved on Dr. Ambedkar to explain (to the Assembly), with a combination of tact and frankness, and utmost patience, the meaning and scope of the different provisions of the Draft Constitution. He had the rare gift of unravelling the most complicated legal concepts in a language which the laymen understood. Dr. Ambedkar, aided by the indefatigable Constitutional Adviser, B.N. Rau, performed this task matchlessly.

Dr. Ambedkar had a clear perception of the mutuality of the three pillars of State—the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. He realised that the jurisdiction of each should be clear and untrammelled. At the same time, he had a sense of the limitations of these three pillars of democracy and of the importance of the role of citizens.

The following observation he made is significant:

The Constitution is a fundamental document. It is a document which defines the position and power of the three organs of the State—the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. It also defines the powers of the executive and the powers of the legislature as against the citizens, as we have done in our chapter dealing with Fundamental Rights. In fact, the purpose of a Constitution is not merely to create the organs of the State but to limit their authority, because, if no limitation was imposed upon the authority of the organs, there will be complete tyranny and complete oppression.

Jawaharlal Nehru chose Dr. Ambedkar to be the first Law Minister of independent India. This was a recognition of Dr. Ambedkar’s skills in the field of law and legislation as also a tribute to his vision of social justice—a vision which was sought to be infused into the new Indian polity. But above all, this was a tribute to the success of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s own campaigns against social injustice. Who could have dreamt that one born to a Mahar family would one day become not only a Law Minister but a Law-maker and be hailed as the modern Manu?

In the four decades and more since Independence, much progress has been achieved in providing equality of opportunities to the people. Members of the Scheduled Castes find doors which had been closed to them for centuries being opened. No legal bars exist today for self-expression or self-advancement. They are enrolling themselves in institutes of higher learning and entering public services. They have come to occupy high offices of State, both at the Centre and in the States. Judges, ambassadors and governors have been drawn from their ranks. And they have acquitted themselves creditably in all these positions of responsibility.

And yet, much remains to be done on the social plane. The Annual Reports of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes list several violations of the law and several instances where, notwithstanding the statute book, members of the Scheduled Castes have been discriminated against. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s work will be truly complete only when social discrimination is completely eliminated from our society.

Babasaheb Ambedkar always stressed the importance of constitutional methods to achieve social objectives. In an interesting observation, he once described the methods of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha as the “grammar of anarchy”. The observation assumes importance in the context of public agitations in free India. It is one thing to utilise these methods in a struggle against an alien power. The right to rebellion is recognised against a government without people’s consent, be it alien or national dictatorship, but not in a democracy based on free and fair elections. Misdirected and volatile, such agitations invariably result in the loss of lives and public property.

In commemorating Babasaheb Ambedkar, we shall do well to remember that the methods for the redressal of grievances available in a parliamentary democracy are efficacious and must be used, eschewing other methods. The march towards a casteless and classless society should be through dialogue and discussion, education and legislation. This requires not just statesmanship but sagacity.

About 2500 years ago the Buddha had questioned the caste divisions in India. He said “The only valid divisions are the divisions between those who are noble and wholesome and those who are ignoble and unwholesome.” The Tamil poetess Avvai had said, similarly, that there are only two castes in the world, namely, the charitable who give and are superior, and the misers who do not and are, therefore, inferior. Throughout the course of Indian history, great sages and saints exposed the hollowness of these divisions and sought to bring all the communities of India together in a creative partnership. But caste, by virtue of its power structure, showed itself to be firmly entrenched.

Under the policy of “Divide and Rule”, the British rulers exaggerated caste distinctions and divided the people of India further to strengthen their hegemony over us. It was given to two great Indians of our time, Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar, to repudiate caste and to proclaim the oneness of the Hindu community. Gandhiji did so by reminding the higher castes of their duty towards the Depressed Classes. Babasaheb Ambedkar did the same by reminding them of their inherent rights to equality with the higher and more powerful castes. One stressed the duties, the other stressed the rights; together, they brought about a veritable revolution in social thought.

In course of time, Babasaheb embraced Buddhism. It is important to remember that this act of Babasaheb Ambedkar was the result of deep thinking. He was drawn to the concept of dukkha in Buddhism, for he was aware of the sorrows of human society. He was drawn to the classless concept of the Buddhist sangha, for collectivism as opposed to social fragmentation had been his aim. Babasaheb’s lecture in Kathmandu (in Nepal) on “The Buddha and Marx” is a classic of its kind. It shows how Babasaheb was working towards a revolution through peaceful, inner change.

When Babasaheb passed away, in December 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru made a moving reference in the Lok Sabha. Describing Babasaheb as “a symbol of revolt”, he said:

I have no doubt that, whether we agreed with him or not in many matters, that perseverance, that persistence and that, if I may use the word, sometimes virulence of his opposition to all this did keep the people’s mind awake and did not allow them to become complacent about matters which could not be forgotten, and helped in rousing up those groups in our country which had suffered for so long in the past. It is, therefore, sad that such a prominent champion of the oppressed and depressed in India and one who took such an important part in our activities, has passed away.

There can be no doubt that the day is not far off when Babasaheb Ambedkar’s dream of samata (equality) will become a reality.

R. Venkataraman, the President of India

October 1, 1990

  • Source : Dr. B. R. Ambedkar — The Man and his Message : A Commemorative volume (1991)
  • This thoughts of the President has been kept as a lesson (Dr. B.R. Ambedkar by Sri R. Venkataraman) in the 10th standard English book of the state of Karnataka.

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