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Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar; one of India’s first Feminists

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By Shilpika Srivastava

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, popularly known as Babasaheb, was a leader whose ideas and thoughts continue to be relevant even in the present time. He was the ‘beacon of light’ for the millions of depressed, oppressed and exploited people in India. His knowledge has made him a revered socialist, historian, political thinker, economist, jurist and a cultural revolutionary.

A great supporter of women’s liberation, Ambedkar blamed the Hindu Verna System for the subjugation of Dalits and women. The mounting caste/class division in feminist political discourses makes Ambedkar’s views on women’s oppression, social democracy, caste and Hindu social order and philosophy, significant to modern Indian feminist thinking.

Ambedkar questioned the ancient Hindu code book, Manu Smriti, which categorized women as the lowest rung of humanity. Such declarations in the Hindu Religious texts made him conclude that until and unless we defy the Hindu Dharma Sastras, the ‘change’ in the society cannot be brought.

The Champion of Women Rights

The cause of low social ranking of women along with the wretched plight of Dalits was challenged by Babasaheb throughout his career. He not only discussed a number of problems the Indian women faced, but also fought against them in the Bombay Legislative Council, in the Viceroy’s Assembly as the chairman of the Drafting Committee, and also in the Parliament as the first Law Minister of the Independent India.

Ambedkar’s arguments on the Maternity Benefit Bill and on Birth Critical were highly germane for the recognition of women’s dignity.

His argument was –

“It is in the interest of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the pre-natal period and also subsequently, and the principle of the Bill is based entirely on that principle”.

“That being so Sir, I am bound to admit that the burden of this ought to be largely borne by the Government, I am prepared to admit this fact because of the conservation of the people’s welfare is primary concern of the Government. And in every country, you will find that the Government has been subjected to a certain amount of charge with regard to maternity benefit.”

As the chairman of the Drafting Committee, Ambedkar considered women’s equality in formal and substantial sense and included special provisions for women. Articles like 15(3), 51(A) and so on established his belief in an egalitarian society. For him, law was the instrument of constructing a sane social order in which each individual’s development should be in sync with the growth of the society.

Birth of the Hindu Code Bill, 1948

If we look back in history, the introduction of the Hindu Code Bill in the Parliament was resisted by the opposition in 1948. It was Babasaheb who tried his best to advocate the Bill by indicating the constitutional ethics of equality, liberty and fraternity. However, on the eve of the first elections in 1951, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dropped the Bill by stating that there was “too much” opposition. This fumed Babasaheb who resigned from the post of the Law Minister. His statements for the resignation illustrate how the parliament of independent India deprived its women citizens of even basic rights.

It was only during 1955-56 that most of the provisions proposed by Ambedkar were passed in four Bills on Hindu ‘marriage’ succession, minority and guardianship and maintenances.

The believer of egalitarian society

Ambedkar was the first communist thinker who believed in and supported an egalitarian Indian society. He held the Hindu religious books such as Vedas, Shastras and Puranas etc. responsible for the discrimination between men and women. He proposed to devise the new doctrinal basis of the Hindu religion “that will be in consonance with liberty, equality and fraternity’’. Ambedkar was the one who realized that the societal status of women can only be uplifted by constitutional provisions.

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