South Asian civil rights hero Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was affirmed June 29 as “the true father of India and a preeminent liberator of the oppressed peoples of the world” by over 150 attendees of a centennial conference at Columbia University in New York City.
The conference in Columbia’s Alfred Lerner Hall celebrated 100 years, to the exact day, since Ambedkar’s admission to study at Columbia University. People traveled from across the United States, Canada and India to hear lectures at “Ambedkar’s Century: 100 Years From the USA,” an event by the Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation - International (BRASF).
Panelist Dr. Manisha Bangar, who serves as national vice president of civil rights group Mulnivasi Sangh, said, “There has not been a more urgent need for Dr. Ambedkar’s message of emancipation than today.” She joined five other speakers who mesmerized the audience with a diversity of topics regarding Ambedkar’s legendary fight for the rights of oppressed segments of society, particularly India’s minorities and so-called “Untouchables.”
Praising Ambedkar as “the tallest personality of modern India,” Bangar cited his Columbia experience as his inspiration for adopting “the call of American pragmatism for subjecting all inherited values to scientific scrutiny.”
She enthralled the audience with her argument that Hindu scriptures justify direct denial of basic human rights of Mulnivasis as a divinely proscribed injustice. Ambedkar advocated total rejection of Hindu scriptures to liberate Mulnivasis from the shackles of slavery, she said, stressing that only a new social order can alter the wretched condition of the downtrodden.
National General Secretary of Mulnivasi Sangh Dr. P.D. Satyapal passionately argued that the “cultural politics of Brahminism mythicized the condemnable acts of Gandhi as benevolent, nonviolent dimensions of a ‘Mahatma’ and dubbed Ambedkar as communal, divisive and pro-colonial.”
Satyapal, who works as an anthropology professor at Andhra University, said Ambedkar was manipulated into signing the Poona Pact by Gandhi’s “fast unto death” against the right of representation for the Untouchables.
Satyapal highlighted attempts to blunt Ambedkar’s cultural revolution with Gandhi’s paternalistic reformism and the façade of Gandhi’s humanism which has hypnotized the Western world.
He concluded, “It requires a nationwide movement to create a feeling of sense of social obligation among the victim castes of the Brahminical social order. This is what Ambedkar meant by ‘taking the caravan ahead.’ Therefore, we need to create a feeling of brotherhood among the victims of the Brahminical system to create and strengthen a vibrant, vigilant civil society.”
M.R. Paul, a director of BRASF, inaugurated the conference by noting how Indian nationalists betrayed Ambedkar’s goal of enshrining statutory liberties while chairing the Indian Constitution’s drafting committee. He cited as symbols of inequality the statues of Manu, the mythical creator of the Hindu caste system, which stand outside the High Courts of Jaipur and Rajasthan, calling these a “mockery of the judiciary.”
Paul dubbed rejection of Ambedkar’s proposed “Hindu Code Bill” a missed opportunity for Hindu society to earn an honorable place in annals of history, saying, “A rigid society that can’t be reformed must be altogether rejected for the sake equality, liberty and fraternity.”
Dr. Chatterji, an anthropologist at University of California, Berkeley, spoke about the relevance of Ambedkar’s work in India today. While the benefits of development and the political and economic decisions made as a nation have enhanced the quality of life for many in India, she said, these very indicators of development tell a discouraging story of persistent inequities leading to the brutalization of marginalized groups. Basic human rights, she said, such as the rights to life and livelihood, healthcare, education and freedom of expression, still linger outside the grasp of India’s disenfranchised.
Chatterji, who co-chairs a project on conflict resolution at UC, Berkeley, said about 270,940 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995, including in the major farming zones of Punjab and Haryana. Postcolonial India, she said, was challenged by conflicting agendas of nation-making as the new state struggled with the onslaught of structural adjustments and demands of a rising bourgeoisie.
In the present, Human Rights Watch reports record police mistreatment in India of “lower” caste and class peoples. Sikhs have faced persecution, Muslims, Dalits and other minorities are often ostracized and Christians and Adivasis have been forcibly converted to Hinduism.
Chatterji said it is imperative to address the various types of violence faced by vulnerable groups, including gendered and sexualized violence from non-state armed groups, armed forces and police. She said that gendered and sexualized violence is prevalent across South Asia. In India, this is especially so in parts of the country beset by ongoing armed conflict and mass violence. The regions of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur are differently but persistently affected by conflict, as are areas in central India, while unresolved conflict-related issues intermittently recur in Punjab. Further, areas such as Gujarat and Orissa are impacted by recent and far-reaching violence on minority communities.
Such conflicts have extensive human impact and lead to intense psychosocial and economic suffering of civilian populations, especially of children, youth, women and minorities. This creates broader disruptive cycles of violence that impact national and regional security. Chatterji said sustainable restorative processes must be informed by a vision of gender mainstreaming and inclusivity of affected peoples through conflict resolution work in India.
Pieter Singh rebutted recent attempts by Columbia Law School’s Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Chair (an Indian-state funded enterprise) to reconcile Gandhi and Ambedkar, stating, “Ambedkar and Gandhi mix as well as oil and water, sand and fire, cats and dogs, or snakes and babies. In other words, they don’t go together. They are irreconcilable.” He gave as a key reason Gandhi’s promotion of racial segregation in pre-Apartheid South Africa and lifelong defense of the caste system, adding: “On the one hand, Dr. Ambedkar stood for the annihilation of caste. On the other hand, Gandhi stood for the perpetuation of caste.”
Singh emphasized that Ambedkar’s efforts as architect of the Indian Constitution were overridden, arguing that promoting him as its author “hoodwinks and beguiles the oppressed into reconciling with their oppressors.”
Dr. Amrik Singh of California State University, Sacramento concluded the event with a lecture on Ambedkar’s role in laying the foundation of Guru Nanak Khalsa College (Mumbai) for the education and amelioration of oppressed classes. The current college remains the direct brainchild of Ambedkar, who penned its mission statement and selected the lot where it still stands.
“The idea of India’s freedom,” said Singh, “is just an illusion which is systematically reinforced by targeting lower classes and minorities.” However, he stated Ambedkar’s honesty, sincerity and dedication in his endeavors to reform India’s diabolical system of social tyranny is unparalleled in the history of South Asia.
The eager and attentive audience was reluctant to leave at the conclusion of the conference. Their final act was to join with conference organizers in enthusiastically endorsing a resolution to “move the caravan forward,” a reference to a statement by Ambedkar declaring: “Glory to those who give the flowing of their days, their strength of soul and body, and their nights to the amelioration of slavery.”
BRASF sponsored “Ambedkar’s Century” to memorialize the wide-ranging implications of his life and mission for reforming global social and political institutions. Guru Ravidas Sabha (New York) and its president Nirmal Singh partnered with BRASF to provide logistical support for the success of the conference. BRASF board of directors, including Avtar Singh Adampuri, Dilbag Singh, Isher Singh, and Inderjit Singh from Seattle, Washington, gave time to attend from far and wide across the country.