Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


November 8, 2010, turned out to be an historic day. The United States first Black President was speaking to both houses of India’s Parliament. Millions in India tuned in to watch and hear him speak.

Towards the end of his speech, President Obama turned to the camera as if he was speaking directly to the Indian people. He said the US would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with every Indian has each one worked to realize his full God-given potential.

He said they could reach their potential just as Ambedkar had, a Dalit who rose up to be the writer of India’s Constitution.

The Parliamentarians responded with wildly enthusiastic applause. Those images flash before my eyes even today.

We felt immense pride. Ambedkar had gone global.

Barack Obama became the first US President to name B.R. Ambedkar and the word Dalit when speaking in India.

obamaPC: The White House / Pete Souza (flickr)
US President Obama addressing Joint Session of the Parliament of India on November 8, 2010.


Other Prime Ministers and heads of State have referred to other great Indians, but not to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Their speechwriters were unaware of this great son of India.

April 14, 2015, marks the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar.

Indian political parties are scrambling to co-opt him into their fold. It is an irony that some who claim him now, opposed and distanced themselves from him when he was alive. Anyway, those who are co-opting him and his ideals now could join in to constitutionally abolish the caste system.

India has globalized Mahatma Gandhi since Independence. However, they have most of the time ignored the memory of B.R. Ambedkar.

It is the forward march of Indian history that now compels her political and societal leaders to give Ambedkar his due.

India should have globalized B.R. Ambedkar soon after his death along with Gandhi. We did not. Did it have to do with the deep-seated caste-based prejudice that still besets us?

Our global image would have been different if Ambedkar was also internationalized.

Gandhi+Ambedkar as India’s greatest sons would have been a winner for India’s global reputation. This despite their sharp differences on issues of caste and religion. A A Gandhi+Ambedkar profile would have forced the necessary changes in societal attitudes and practices towards caste discrimination.

Successive Indian governments would not need to shirk when caste and Dalit issues came up for discussion at forums like the United Nations. There would be no sense of India being defamed because in Ambedkar we would have acknowledged what was wrong in our society. In doing this we would have stood tall.

Gandhi+Ambedkar. One was an apostle of non-violence, the other an apostle of the oppressed. Ambedkar was ahead of the other apostles of the oppressed such as Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.

The growing global recognition of Ambedkar has been a long time coming.

Most people don’t realize that without Ambedkar the history of ‘majority’ India would be different.

The Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the OBCs, the women and the minorities owe an incalculable debt to him.

This is the majority India that now feels included in the ‘idea of India’ along with the others who have always had access to power and money.

Ambedkar’s life work is remarkable because he had to work against the tide all throughout his life.

During his day he had to contend with someone like Gandhi on the issue of caste and untouchability. He had to burn the ‘manusmriti’, the book that codified the caste system.

He wrote “Annihilation of Caste” and self-published it as no one wanted to print it.

He took his absolute stand on the caste system and criticized it vehemently. It was not just Hinduism that came under his attack. He criticized the Indian Christian Church for betraying the teachings of Christ on human equality and dignity.

Mahatma Gandhi remarked that Ambedkar would not allow history to forget him. He was one of the finest prophetic minds India had produced.

India could neither ignore nor forget him. He left behind a great body of written work which none of the founding fathers of the nation could match. This work has fed and motivated the minds of countless Indians.

While various Governments built many memorials to Gandhi, poor villagers built memorials to Ambedkar. There is no Dalit locality in India where there is not a memorial to Ambedkar. Now governments also build memorials to him.

Gandhi’s birthday became a national holiday immediately after his passing away. It was only recently, almost five decades later, that Ambedkar’s birthday has received the same honor! India is coming to terms with this great son of India.

Today Ambedkar is the greater political force than Gandhi. Ask any political party. They ignore him at their own peril.

Ambedkar’s impact on the formation of modern India is enormous and history will do further justice to his contribution. Ambedkar was not about just one issue.

On the rights issue he addressed it all: Dalits, Tribals, Sudras, the Minorities, the Women and the Poor.

On the issue of development he had no time for a backward-looking India, something that has become a hobby of some modern-day politicians.

His dream was that of a developed India of the future. He campaigned for equal education and for modernization. He was a critic of Marxism even though he was for social justice. He was for scientific temper in life and was against superstition and myths.

All this is very pertinent and relevant for our times.


Freedom of religion is a hot issue in India.

Prime Minister Modi has come out in support of the Constitutional right to freedom of religion and the rights of all citizens. He has again reiterated the same in France. How this plays out with some in the Sangh Parivar who are against religious freedom is another matter.

Nations that have full freedom of conscience and religion rise to the top as this stand provides for the unfettered mind.

The ‘enquiring mind’ can only flourish where there is freedom of belief, thought and expression. Scientific progress and development is the product of the ‘unfettered enquiring mind’.

For religious leaders and religions this is one of the most worrying human freedoms. It does not allow any religion to take the devotees of their faith for granted.

If God gives man freedom of will and thought, to believe or not to believe, no human institution has the right to take away this freedom.

Cultures that shut out freedom of religion and conscience invariably suffer the consequences. Reform and evolution in the culture become impossible. Scientific development and modernization is seen as opposed to religion and culture.

European history went through the medieval period of a politicized, hard, dogmatic religion where ‘enquiry’ and ‘freedom’ suffered. Religion became a means of exploitation. Religious figures that indulged in moral turpitude were not held accountable. The period was also known as the ‘dark age’.

The German priest Martin Luther’s enquiry and action based on the Bible challenged an ‘empire’. Luther saved both Christianity and European civilization. Time Magazine was right in designating him as the ‘man of the millennium’.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar could be the man who saved our pluralistic Indian civilization.

His incredible, courageous example of turning to Buddhism in 1956 forced the issue of religious and cultural reformation. His religious conversion was a non-violent revolt against a caste system that would not change and would not be abolished. It was a body blow against a system Indians did not have the courage to confront.

It was courageous because Ambedkar and his followers did not have support from those in power: they profited because of the system. When they converted they knew that they would lose the benefits of reservation at that time.

His statement “I was born a Hindu but will not die a Hindu” echoes through the decades. It is not a statement just for Hindus.

It is a statement that can be applied to anyone in any religion. It is a call to break from any religious system that builds and perpetuates oppressive socio-spiritual systems and a practice that exploits and degrades other humans.

The Old Testament prophets provide many examples of such condemnation and exhortation.



President Obama reminded us that Ambedkar now belonged to the world just as Gandhi or a Mandela or a Mother Teresa.

We can celebrate this on his 125th birth anniversary.

+Joseph D’Souza
Bishop Moderator,
The Good Shepherd Church & Associated Ministries India.
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