Remembering Ambedkar: The trials of an ‘untouchable’ boy

Remembering Ambedkar: The trials of an ‘untouchable’ boy

To understand what a remarkable man he was, let’s rewind to BR Ambedkar’s childhood

By Anand Ranganathan

Published on :

Science and scripture — both have it in them to not only alter the world, but also to destroy it. In 1891 were born two men who understood this perfectly and who discovered, through life’s journey, this fundamental truth. This is their story.

James Chadwick was born in a Britain scarred with class distinction while Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, in an India damaged to its core by caste prejudice. Chadwick was the son of a railway storekeeper and a maidservant; Ambedkar, the son of a subedar and an uneducated mother of 13 children.

Class and caste were the gatekeepers of human progress back then, as they had been for centuries. But 1891 was also a year of great intellectual upheaval. Ideas that would shape the future world had not yet gained general acceptance. Communism was yet to take root. Imperialism, on the other hand, had. The scramble for Africa was underway. Darwinism was gaining ground (even though it had its detractors). The Descent of Man, published two decades earlier, was under the hammer – the very thought that man shared a common ancestry with apes or with other men had appalled the believers. The Theory of Evolution was threatening the religious sanction of slavery. Meanwhile, quantum science was still a decade away; Einstein, a little more. The atom had not yet been discovered. And while the electric bulb had just gone into mass production, India was still in darkness — a darkness that no light, natural or artificial, could penetrate. The darkness of untouchability.

But first Britain, where was rising slowly a tower of babel built by the loot of the world, snatched from people who couldn’t understand what they were giving away, and could only gape in awe at the wonder that was this small island. It was the centre of the modern world, the nucleus around which hovered like electrons dozens of colonies, supplementing the core, nourishing it selflessly. But what was inside this nucleus? Poverty.

A quarter of Britain’s population lived below subsistence level. Those who were unemployed had to enter workhouses that came to be feared by the destitute. Disease, hunger, unemployment, low wages – this was not the glorious, opulent Raj that Naipaul once described as a fantasyland built to satisfy the conqueror’s itch. Rather, it was the ugly underbelly of the mother country. Times were hard for those at the bottom of the social rung. Chadwick’s parents could not afford to send their son to a grammar school. Later, and undeterred, the young Chadwick won a scholarship to Victoria University, Manchester. At the university, so poor that he decided to skip having lunch altogether in the three years he was an undergraduate, he found recourse in his mentor, Ernest Rutherford. Together they would embark on a journey that would change the world. Only they didn’t know it yet.

Back in India, the young Ambedkar, whose family had moved to Bombay in 1897, was scaling unknown heights; unknown only because centuries-old barbarity had turned him into an unwitting pioneer of sorts. He became the first untouchable to enroll in Elphinstone High school, the first untouchable to graduate from Bombay University, the first untouchable to receive a scholarship to study at Columbia University. First Untouchable — an epithet used without knowing what evil lay within it, an epithet laced with unfathomable shame.

Meanwhile, Chadwick won a scholarship to Berlin, where he would study under the guidance of Hans Geiger, just as Ambedkar was packing his bags to leave for America to study under the guidance of John Dewey at Columbia. The year was 1913. The next five years would prove to be the most tumultuous yet in the history of mankind. Chadwick was in Germany when the Great War broke. He was imprisoned. Ambedkar was in America. He was liberated, from the shackles put on him by his motherland, of caste prejudice and untouchability. Ambedkar later wrote: “My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable…”.

Remember the ellipsis at the end of the quote above, for the sentence is unfinished. It has been cleaved in half and the half that contains within it a cry of despair, a cry so loud it rings still in the ears of those who have read it, that half would be quoted later.

Back from Germany, Chadwick got down to business with Rutherford, first at Manchester and then soon at Cambridge, at the famous Cavendish laboratory. The coming decade was one filled with frustration and failure. They had the electron and proton pinned, but much as the duo tried to complete the jigsaw that was the atom, the one missing piece eluded them. Then, in 1932, came a lucky break.

Ambedkar was not so lucky. His joyous years – joyous only because for the first time in his life he had experienced what being treated as a human felt like – at Columbia and then at London behind him, he returned to India. He wrote:

“…On my arrival I straightway went to Baroda…My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable, and that an untouchable wherever he went in India was a problem to himself and to others, but when I came out of the station, my mind was considerably disturbed by a question, “Where to go? Who will take me?” I felt deeply agitated. Hindu hotels, called Vishis, I knew there were. They would not take me. The only way of seeking accommodation therein was by impersonation. But I was not prepared for it, because I could well anticipate the dire consequences which were sure to follow if my identity was discovered – as it was sure to be.”

In America, Ambedkar was in the company of some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, like John Dewey and James Shotwell and Edwin Seligman and James Harvey Robinson. But he left them all and returned to his motherland, where a familiar friend awaited him. Manu.

Manu was at the railway station, at the boarding lodge, at the restaurant, on the road, in the park, at the market; Manu was everywhere, on the lookout for Ambedkar, chasing him, chasing even his shadow. Manu was omnipresent, Manu was that warning to the unsuspecting, to withdraw the hand that was about to touch Ambedkar, about to give him a glass of water, about to welcome him inside a home. Ambedkar wrote, “I had friends in Baroda who had come to America for study. “Would they welcome me if I went?” I could not assure myself. They may feel embarrassed at admitting an untouchable into their household. I stood under the roof of the station for some time, thinking where to go, what to do.”

Luck — it ran out for Ambedkar, but it turned for Chadwick. Time had come for him to stand on the shoulders of Frederic and Irene Curie and look further. Replicating their experiment where, using radioactive Polonium as a high-energy source for bombarding Beryllium and then employing the resulting radiation to in turn bombard paraffin wax, Chadwick discovered the released energy that ejected protons from the wax was in the form of uncharged particles. Neutrons. The contents of the atom had finally been deciphered. The atomic age was here and in this atomic age, the trials of Ambedkar were just beginning.

Of all the blights this world has to offer, the most vile is the rejection of one man by another. Nothing comes close to it in bloodthirstiness, of mind and of spirit; and no one who has not experienced it can even begin to imagine the horror of it. Ambedkar wrote, “It is difficult for them to understand how it is possible for a few untouchables to live on the edge of a village consisting of a large number of Hindus; go through the village daily to free it from the most disagreeable of its filth and to carry the errands of all and sundry; collect food at the doors of the Hindus; buy spices and oil at the shops of the Hindu Bania from a distance; regard the village in every way as their home – and yet never touch or be touched by any one belonging to the village.”

Can open wounds heal? Can there be reconciliation without truth; forgiveness without remembrance? Can there be justice without Nuremberg?

When Ambedkar was nine years old, he travelled to Koregaon. His recounting of the journey can make one lose faith in humanity. It takes us to a place where the souls have turned to stone.

“We told him [Stationmaster] that we were bound for Koregaon, and that we were waiting for father or his servant to come, but that neither had turned up, and that we did not know how to reach Koregaon. We were well-dressed children. From our dress or talk no one could make out that we were children of the untouchables.”

“Children of the untouchables.” How smoothly ran the ink that wrote these words. Without irony or outrage, without quotes, without the crutches of human kindness that Ambedkar never received so he could pause and reflect, deconstruct this cruel cataloguing.

Ambedkar continues:

“Indeed the stationmaster was quite sure we were Brahmin children, and was extremely touched at the plight in which he found us. As is usual among the Hindus, the stationmaster asked us who we were. Without a moment’s thought I blurted out that we were Mahars. He was stunned. His face underwent a sudden change. We could see that he was overpowered by a strange feeling of repulsion. As soon as he heard my reply he went away to his room, and we stood where we were. Fifteen to twenty minutes elapsed; the sun was almost setting. Our father had not turned up, nor had he sent his servant; and now the stationmaster had also left us. We were quite bewildered, and the joy and happiness which we had felt at the beginning of the journey gave way to a feeling of extreme sadness.”

“There were many bullock-carts plying for hire. But my reply to the station-master that we were Mahars had gone round among the cartmen, and not one of them was prepared to suffer being polluted, and to demean himself carrying passengers of the untouchable classes. We were prepared to pay double the fare, but we found that money did not work. The stationmaster who was negotiating on our behalf stood silent, not knowing what to do. Suddenly a thought seemed to have entered his head and he asked us, “Can you drive the cart?” Feeling that he was finding out a solution of our difficulty, we shouted, “Yes, we can.” With that answer he went and proposed on our behalf that we were to pay the cartman double the fare and drive the cart, and that he should walk on foot along with the cart on our journey. One cartman agreed, since it gave him an opportunity to earn his fare and also saved him from being polluted.”

Later, when it was time to sleep:

“The bullocks had been unyoked, and the cart was placed sloping down on the ground. We spread our beds on the bottom planks inside the cart, and laid down our bodies to rest. Now that we had come to a place of safety we did not mind what happened. But our minds could not help turning to the latest event. There was plenty of food with us. There was hunger burning within us; with all this we were to sleep without food; that was because we could get no water, and we could get no water because we were untouchables.”

No one touched him. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was untouched.

Ambedkar described this incident as one that left “an indelible impression on my mind”, despite the fact that it was not the first time that his caste identity had been impressed upon him.

“Before this incident occurred, I knew that I was an untouchable, and that untouchables were subjected to certain indignities and discriminations. For instance, I knew that in the school I could not sit in the midst of my classmates according to my rank, but that I was to sit in a corner by myself. I knew that in the school I was to have a separate piece of gunny cloth for me to squat on in the classroom, and the servant employed to clean the school would not touch the gunny cloth used by me. I was required to carry the gunny cloth home in the evening, and bring it back the next day.

While in the school I knew that children of the touchable classes, when they felt thirsty, could go out to the water tap, open it, and quench their thirst. All that was necessary was the permission of the teacher. But my position was separate. I could not touch the tap; and unless it was opened for me by a touchable person, it was not possible for me to quench my thirst. In my case the permission of the teacher was not enough. The presence of the school peon was necessary, for he was the only person whom the class teacher could use for such a purpose. If the peon was not available, I had to go without water. The situation can be summed up in the statement—no peon, no water.”

No peon, no water.

This isn’t fiction; this isn’t an attempt to rouse the reader, to make him dread closing his eyes in case he begins to imagine the horrors. This isn’t a pretender writing these words. This is a man who has lived them, every last one of them. Does a parallel exist in literature, one may ask? Mulk Raj Anand’s intense first novel, Untouchable, comes to mind. So does Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, which is a deeply affecting, harrowing account of a black man in an America before Rosa Parks and Dr Martin Luther King. There is a passage in the book, early on, where the narrator – who begins the book with the words “I am an invisible man” – is promised a scholarship by his white benefactors, but on the condition that he boxes another black man, for show, and blindfolded.

“The smoke was agonizing and there were no rounds, no bells at three-minute intervals to relieve our exhaustion. The room spun around me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from nose to mouth, the blood spattering upon my chest.

The men kept yelling, “Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!”

“Uppercut him! Kill him! Kill that big boy!”

Ellison’s prose is harrowing to read, but not as harrowing as Ambedkar’s. One cannot but be ashamed of India, of Indians, of a people so deeply entrenched in prejudice and bigotry that their every pore sweats barbarism. Ambedkar wears the reader down, his words pierce and jab and singe until they can singe no more, until you are gasping for air, and while you come up for it, you ask: how is this even possible? What was the point of human progress and science and culture if in the end it all boiled down to one human treating another as untouchable? What was the point of discovering the neutron when, in a village thousands of miles and a few dreams away from the Cavendish, a little boy of nine had to drive a bullock cart by himself and go thirsty the whole night because he was not allowed to drink water?

The answer was given by none other than Ambedkar. His standing up, his fighting for his rights, his drafting the Constitution, his saving India from barbarism, his keeping India alive, was the answer. His life was the answer.

Chadwick won the Nobel Prize in 1935. He headed the British team in the Manhattan project, was instrumental in the making of the atomic bomb. He was appointed to the UN Atomic Energy Commission after the war ended, but quickly got disenchanted with his duties and returned to the lab bench. He did not sign the Russell-Einstein manifesto that said, “Remember your humanity, forget the rest”. He did not attend the Pugwash conference that called for a ban on use of nuclear weapons. He simply retreated. The man who discovered the neutron turned neutral.

But not Ambedkar. No, not him. “To be neutral is to take sides.

When talking of human cruelty, one cannot at the same time talk of human genius. One cannot let anger subside; the veins must not lose their bulge. And so one cannot discuss the greatness of Ambedkar; his genius, his phenomenal role in the making of modern India, a nation that gave him nothing. Nothing. The love he got was from those who also were never loved, by those who also were given nothing by Bharat Mata. And that is why nations are not mothers; they are but a landmass. Nations become mothers only when they are capable of giving love, which is possible only when their people are capable of giving love. It is a miracle that Ambedkar chose to stay in this cruel land. Many of those who now profess their unbound love for India wouldn’t hesitate to leave at the first instance of injustice or for a better career opportunity and a better standard of living. But Ambedkar stayed even though he was denied love, denied a touch, a simple human touch.

On May 10, 2015, one hundred years to the day Ambedkar delivered his landmark lecture, “Castes in India – Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, the transcript of which later became part of his remarkable book The Annihilation of Caste, in a small village in Ratlam a Dalit bridegroom arrived for his marriage on a horse. Only, there was something unusual about him. He was wearing a helmet. Why?

No, it is not possible to understand Ambedkar. Ambedkar was not a mahatma (a great soul). Ambedkar was a great man. And therein lies the difference between the soul and the body, between religion and science, between fear and fearlessness. Ambedkar was not Gandhi – he could not touch that which we admire in those who can, this non-existent thing called the soul. Ambedkar touched something more important than the soul. He touched the mind.

And because he touched the mind and not the soul, we cannot understand him, we cannot follow him; we can only worship him. This we do, in granite, in newspapers, in parks, in conferences, in calendars, in the names of inert buildings. But he doesn’t live on there. He lives in his words.