Republic Day

AFTER OUR HONEYMOON in the south of India, we returned to Bangalore, where we disembarked from an overnight bus from Ernakulam (in Kerala) at about 4 am on the 26th of January 1994. Several hours later and incredibly bleary-eyed, we joined many other residents at a gathering in a courtyard of the apartment block in the city’s southern suburb of Koramangala. Mr Zafar Futehally (1920-2013), a noted naturalist and one of the senior tenants, stood by a flagpole and made a brief speech. Then, the flag of India was raised, and everyone dispersed.  It was Republic Day, the significance of which was unknown to me back in 1994, when I made my first visit to India.

Ambedkar in Bangalore

Now, I know that on the 26th of January 1950, two and a half years after India became independent, the Constitution of India came into effect and India became a republic, having briefly been a Dominion since the 15th of August 1947. The Constitution was drafted by a committee that was led by Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956). After leaving school, he was educated at the University of Bombay, then at Columbia University in NYC, and then at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). While in London, he qualified as a barrister as a member of Gray’s Inn.

Long after 1994, I learned that Ambedkar had lived in a part of London with which I am familiar. He resided in a house near Primrose Hill and Chalk Farm, where the Roundhouse is located. In my recently published book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, I wrote:

“Another reformer and patriot lived near Regents Park Road. He was Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), who championed India’s Dalits (‘untouchables’) and formulated the Constitution of India. Between 1920 and 1922 while he was studying at the London School of Economics and for the Bar, Ambedkar lived in a house at 10 King Henrys Road near Regents Park Road. In 2015, the house was bought by the Government of Maharashtra and was then converted into a memorial to Ambedkar. It is open to the public. Visitors can learn about Ambedkar from the well-captioned photographs on the walls of the rooms that they can wander through. The upper floor contains a re-construction of Ambedkar’s bedroom including a four-poster bed, some of the great man’s books, and an old pair of spectacles, which might have belonged to him. Other rooms contain shelves of books and various memorials to Ambedkar. There is also a commemorative plaque to India’s present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who inaugurated the memorial house in November 2015. The garden contains statue of Ambedkar clutching a book (the Constitution) in his left hand. A few years ago, neighbours of the Ambedkar house complained about it, concerned that it would attract swarms of tourists.”

Although he could never have met him, Ambedkar’s home in King Henry’s Road was not far from the house in which Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) lived for several years.

The statue portraying Ambedkar statue in the garden of his former London home is typical of those found all over India. Apart from helping to give birth to India’s Constitution, Ambedkar campaigned for the rights of the Dalits (the ‘Untouchables’), as mentioned in the quote above. The Dalits were excluded from the four caste Varna system of Hinduism and considered by many Hindus as the lowest of the low, fit only for menial tasks that members of other castes would not deign to consider doing. Ambedkar, born into a Dalit caste, campaigned actively for the ending of social discrimination against this class of people. Mochis (cobblers/shoe repairers), who handle leather, are often Dalits. The best place to find a mochi is on the pavement beside a road. Sometimes, they sit on the ground surrounded by their tools and footwear awaiting repair. In other cases, they work from little stalls that can be locked up when they are not at work. These stalls often bear images of Ambedkar in honour of the man who did much to help the Dalits. What with the huge numbers of statues of him and of portraits on the stalls of mochis, Ambedkar must rival Gandhi as being one of the most frequently portrayed politicians of modern India.  

So, every Republic Day, it is appropriate to celebrate the birth of the republic and the adoption of the Constitution, but we should not forget to raise our hats and flags to Ambedkar, the brilliant man who did far more than father the Constitution.

THOSE MORONS

DR BR AMBEDKAR (1891-1956), lawyer and fighter for the rights of dalits (‘untouchables’), was the chief ‘architect’ of the Constitution of India ( adopted for use in late 1949). Highly educated, he had degrees from the Columbia University (USA) and the London School of Economics (LSE). While at the LSE, Ambedkar lived in a house near Primrose Hill, which has been preserved as a museum dedicated to his memory.

While walking along the splendid seaside promenade in Pondicherry, we visited a monument to Ambedkar, the Ambedkar Manimandapam. Opened in March 2008, this memorial complex contains a large statue of Ambedkar, some highly enlarged photos taken during his lifetime, and a small library.

The captions to the pictures are currently in the local language, Tamil, only. One huge painting depicting Ambedkar handing over a copy of the Constitution dated 1952 to various worthies including Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad had no caption identifying the persons in it. We asked a young lady, a Bengali, if she could name any of the men. She pointed at Motilal Nehru, Sardar Patel, and Rajagopalachari in addition to those we could identify ourselves. Pointing at Rajagopalachari, she said: “He must be some kind of ‘southie’.” He was a Tamil.

And then, pointing at the portraits, she added: “If it had not been for that bunch of morons, India would have become independent much sooner. They should have left it to Netaji.” She was referring to her fellow Bengali, the late Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army gave the British an important jolt towards allowing India to leave the British Empire.