In an unassuming street in London’s posh Primrose Hill, there is a buzz about a particular house that was purchased last September by India’s state government of Maharashtra, and opened as a museum and learning centre by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Its blue plaque reads: ‘Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, 1891-1956, Indian Crusader for Social Justice, lived here 1921-22’. To Dr Corinne Lennox, he was also a true visionary and ‘one of the world’s greatest defenders and philosophers of human rights.’
Tomorrow [14 April 2016] marks the 125th birthday of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a key figure in the global story of human rights but one whose contributions are not adequately understood or recognised. His birthday is widely celebrated in India, where he is best known for drafting the Indian Constitution, in which he embedded several provisions for the protection of rights of the most marginalised. His statue is dotted throughout the country but his leadership is most significant for the Dalits of India, who continue to occupy the lowest rungs of Indian society despite the elevated heights to which Dr Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, was able to reach.
Dr. Ambedkar is one of the world’s greatest defender and philosopher of human rights. He was a true visionary, contributing to a global evolution of this idea, to the legal enshrinement of rights, and to this day, he continues to inspire human rights defenders.
Why do I call Dr Ambedkar a human rights defender? Some might see him narrowly as a defender of the rights of Dalits but not of human rights more broadly. His lifelong efforts to eradicate caste-based discrimination arguably count as his greatest achievement. Moreover, the language of ‘human rights’ was still in its infancy during his lifetime, even if the standards had earlier roots. A proper examination of his writings and his actions show, however, that he was very much cosmopolitan in his philosophy of justice and in his legal and political work, which demonstrate his support to norms embodied in universal human rights as we have since come to know them.
To illustrate my point, I will highlight three key progressive strands of his thinking on principles of human rights, and how this projected where the international human rights movement would go in the decades to follow.
First is the interdependence of human rights. A constant refrain in his writings is his call for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Equality and non-discrimination are clearly at the core of his conceptual framework of human rights. Yet, in contrast to the use of these principles in the French and American declarations, Dr Ambedkar placed social and economic equality alongside political and civic equality.
For example, as India became an independent state, he said, ‘On the 26 January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality, and in social and economic life we will have inequality. How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.’ He was also critical of the efforts in Communist states of the period in supporting economic and social rights at the cost of liberty.
The global human rights movement was dominated for decades by a focus on civil and political rights and only latterly brought economic and social rights more to the forefront of human rights advocacy. Dr Ambedkar was prescient in his recognition of the interdependence of civic and political rights with social and economic rights, even at a time when states were working to divide these norms across the two international human rights covenants.
Second, Dr. Ambedkar said, ‘I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.’ He strived through efforts, including his proposed Hindu Code Bill, to secure rights for women in India in areas such as inheritance and divorce. Importantly, he was of course referring to all women, not just the progress of elite women, approaching gender equality as he was from the point of view of Dalit women.
The recognition of inequalities within the international women’s movement itself is still something that we are grappling with, and which came relatively late to the gender equality debate. Emphasis on the concept of ‘intersectionality’ in gender discrimination is also fairly recent.
Today the voice of women in the Dalit movement has been growing ever stronger, as has the voice of Dalit women in the women’s movement, both nationally and internationally. For example, Asha Kowtal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, or AIDMAM), led a group of Dalit women on a US tour last autumn, bringing attention to the egregious human rights violations faced by Dalit women, and connecting with others in the global movement, such as the women leaders of Black Lives Matter.
Third, Dr Ambedkar was visionary in his understanding that democracy alone is not a guarantee for the protection of the rights of minorities. He attempted to build into the constitution several protections for different minority groups in India (as later detailed along with other minority rights proposals in his ‘States and Minorities’ (1947)). Many of his efforts in this regard were blocked, including by Gandhi, pushing him to settle only for reserved seats for Dalits in government under the Poona Pact (1932).
This is still an area of human rights where there is a great deal of misunderstanding of how protecting minority groups from discrimination through various tools, such as affirmative action ‘reservations’ used in the public sector in India today, is essential to members of those groups fulfilling their human rights. Far from being a privilege, these measures are a basic tool for achieving substantive equality in the face of discrimination. In the words of Dr Ambedkar, ‘Discrimination is another menace which must be guarded against if the fundamental rights [of the Indian Constitution] are to be real rights’.
The global Dalit movement continues to strive towards these aims in their struggle to eliminate caste-based discrimination, to achieve fulfilment of their human rights and for the restoration of dignity and justice. Leaders of this movement look to Dr Ambedkar for inspiration, putting into practice his famous mantra: ‘My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organise; have faith in yourself’. Indeed, his words could be a rallying cry for human rights defenders everywhere.
Dr Corinne Lennox, is lecturer in human rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is also trustee of the Dalit Solidarity Network UK and in 2012, was Visiting Fellow at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.