“Many women are superior to men. Geniuses as well. They give birth to male children, many of whom become kings”
— Lord Buddha’s dhamopdesh to Kosal’s King Prasanjit who was upset for fathering a girl child.
“No man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty” — Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s valedictory speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949 quoting Daniel O Connell, an Irish patriot in emphasizing equal treatment of women.
It is, indeed, perhaps the strangest paradox of our time to see that women who constitute half of humanity on this planet earth are still crying for just and equal treatment along with their male counterpart. Since time immemorial and still today, women have been treated as second class citizens or at best expected to play the second fiddle to men best fitted into the subservient roles as their mothers, sisters, wives et al. Women have never been seen as an equal partner of men. A woman has been viewed merely as a powerless object best suited for satisfying men’s lust and carrying out the job of procreation. They must, therefore, shut their mouths and open their wombs. Worst still, such inhuman and uncivilized practices have been bestowed with ‘divinity’ of religious scriptures which ‘virtuous’ women are expected to obey and whose ‘disobedience’ warrants strict punishments to the protesting ‘sinful’ women!
Noble human beings have been descended on earth to rescue women from such rampant caste cum gender based discriminations and become the protector of the rights of women.
Dr B. R. Ambedkar was, perhaps, the greatest feminist thinker and doer after Lord Buddha, who dedicated his entire life fighting for securing a better world for women giving them legal, economic, political and social rights for their real empowerment in his vision of making an egalitarian and equal India.
In the Sakta school of Hinduism, woman has always been worshiped as the divine incarnate of SHAKTI or power. Hence, it is useless to talk about ‘giving power’ to women. The right question is how to get this ‘power within’ manifests itself propelling India as a great power in the comity of nations.
The status of women was, indeed, very high in the early Vedic period. In fact, on many counts, they were even superior to men on many aspects. They were well educated, well dressed, highly cultured possessing vast knowledge of holy scriptures so much so that a young woman called Gargi defeated a renowned religious pundit Yajnavalkya in shastarth (religious debate). Learned scholars like Gargi and others came to be known as Brahmavadinis or one who knows the God with great commands over Vedas.
But in the post-Vedic period around 500 BC, women’s exalted status deteriorated with such pace rendering the recovery of the ‘lost glory’ of ‘being women’ beyond redemption. Above all, Manu Smriti did death blow to the hitherto existing ‘equal status’ of women. It proscribed studying Vedas by women. It made killing a woman a minor offence like drinking liquor. It further said, “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to the sons; a woman must never be independent.” (Manu Smriti V: 148). Further, the Islamic conquest of India brought the evil practice of ‘purdah’ (veil) while patriarchical practices of Brahminical Hindu religion like Sati (burning of women on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband), child marriage and enforced widowhood made women emancipation unthinkable, forget about empowerment of women
Meanwhile, Gautam Buddha was busy restoring ‘equal status’ to women amidst Manu’s deafening anti-women cacophony ‘glorified’ by the Brahminical orthodoxy. He established independent Sanghas for Buddhist nuns. The Buddhist scholar-nuns like Sumangal Mata, Gautami, Amrapali et al wrote Therugatha (songs of the Buddhist sisters) deconstructing the Vedic notions of emancipation, re-birth and salvation, rekindling the ‘lost’ Hindu tradition of Brahmavadinis.
While, undoubtedly Lord Buddha is the first feminist of the world in treating men and women as equal partners, the genesis of the modern feminism can be traced back to Christine de Pisan’s “Book of the City of Ladies”, published in Italy in 1405 where she advocated women’s rights to education and political influence. Feminist like Mary Astell (1666-1731), Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759-97), Elizabeth Candy Stanton (1815-1902), Susan Anthony (1820-1906) in United States, and Harriet Taylor (1807-58) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73) in Britain popularized the feminist discourse making the ‘personal’ as ‘political’. It started ‘waves’ of feminism. When the ‘first wave’ of feminism demanding universal adult suffrage reached India to form a new social awakening, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born at Mhow, in the erstwhile Central Province of British India on 14th April 1891. It is worthy to note here that the term ‘womanism’ as “a consciousness incorporating ‘racial, cultural, sexual, national, economic and political considerations’ was coined by Alice Walker in 1893, just two years after Ambedkar’s birth.
He became the highest educated Dalit and the highest decorated economist of India till date with PhD and DSc degrees being the proud alumnus of the renowned foreign universities viz Columbia University (USA), University of London and London School of Economics of UK. He knew very well that education holds the key to economic upliftment and economic upliftment to social mobility in caste hierarchy of the Chaturvarna system of Hinduism.
Ambedkar was not a feminist ‘made’ but the one ‘born with’ who worked hard to educate two of his sisters – Manjula and Tulasa after the death of his mother. That’s why a 25 year old Ambedkar from New York could write a letter to his father’s friend observing, “We shall see better days soon and our progress will be greatly accelerated if male education is persuaded side by side with female education…” His first academic paper “Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” presented in a seminar conducted by the acclaimed anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser in 1916, too, quite interestingly, began with showing his concern for women. He identified the Hindu caste system as the main reason for subsequent degradation of women in India in post-Manu period till date. In can be said undoubtedly that Dr B R Ambedkar was the first feminist thinker in India who first studied gender issues linking it with caste.
Returning from abroad in 1917, a young Dr Ambedkar started his career in Bombay (now Mumbai) with his wife Ramabai whom he married in 1906 when he was just 15 years old and she was 9.
Dr Ambedkar began his movement for an equal and just society since 1920 onwards enjoining women for achieving this noble cause. Venubai Bhatkar and Renubai Shambharakar were two of his early disciples. He started two fortnightly journals viz Mooknayak (Leader of the Silent) in 1920 and Bahiskrit Bharat (Excluded India) in 1927 for the dissemination of ideas centered around various women issues. In 1924, he formed Bahishkrit Hitakarni Sabha to work for the socio-political equality of depressed people and promoting their economic interests.
In December, 1927 Dr Ambedkar began the Mahad Tank Satyagraha and Temple Entry Movement where about 500 women, including caste women like Shandabai Shinde, too participated marching alongside with men. In addressing exclusively to the women on the theme of “Importance of participation of women in the struggle of the depressed”, he said that men alone could not eradicate the tyranny of caste system stressing that women must also come out and fight to end this monster – the main reason behind their present pitiable conditions. Here, he organized public bonfire of Manu Smriti which humiliated shudras (untouchables) and women which was burned by G. N. Sahasrabuddhe, a Brahmin.
In January 1928, a women’s association was founded in Bombay with Ramabai, Ambedkar’s wife, as its president. Along with the Depressed Classes Conference in Nagpur in 1930, women also held their separate conference. In the Kalram Temple Entry Satyagraha at Nasik in 1930 five hundred women participated and many of them were arrested along with men and ill treated in jails.
On 20th July 1942, All India Dalit Mahila Conference was organized where 25,000 women participated. On 6th January 1945, the All India Untouchable Women’s Conference was held in Mumbai attended by over one lakh women.
After independence, Dr Ambedkar was appointed as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee to write a Constitution for India. He took this opportunity to include as many ‘special provisions’ for securing women’s rights along with men such as:
- Article14 – Equal rights and opportunities in political, economic and social spheres.
- Article15 – Prohibits discrimination on the ground of sex.
- Article 15(3) – enables affirmative discrimination in favour of women.
- Article39 – Equal means of livelihood and equal pay for equal work.
- Article 42 – Just and human conditions of work and maternity relief.
- Article 51(A) (c) – Fundamental duties to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.
- Article 46 – The State to promote with special care, the educational and economic interests of the weaker section of the people and to protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
- Article 47 – The State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health and so on.
- Article 243D (3), 243T (3) and 243R (4) provides for allocation of seats in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs).
As India’s first Law Minister, Dr Ambedkar proposed enactment of the Hindu Code Bill in Parliament on 11th April, 1947 to unify the scattered Hindu personal laws into one. It sought to abolish polygamy while securing right to property and divorce to the Hindu women. But the Bill was withdrawn by PM Nehru in 1951 amidst strong opposition from the Hindu orthodoxy, mainly from Hindu Mahasbha, and Bharatiya Jana Sangh. These forces with their Manuwadi mentality derided Dr Ambedkar like anything. But Dr Ambedkar refused to budge and resigned from his post on 27th September, 1951. However, it was later passed with some amendments with the original Bill ‘reorganized’ into four separate Bills on Hindu ‘marriage’, ‘succession’, ‘minority and guardianship’ and ‘maintenance’. Its subsequent enactment once again proved Dr Ambedkar’s great vision for women empowerment.
He was dead against the prevailing unjust and exploitative systems of Hinduism and converted to Buddhism with millions of his followers on 14th October, 1956 since celebrated as the Mahaparinirvan Day.
Issues such as women’s liberation, female education, participation of women in political struggle, women suffrage et al formed the centrality of many of Dr Ambedkar’s copious works viz “The Riddle of the Woman”, “The Woman and the Counter Revolution”, “The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women”, “The Annihilation of Caste”, “Who are the Shudras?”, “Caste Abolition”, “The Untouchables”, “Buddha and His Religion”, “The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women”, “Caste in India”, “Buddha and the Future of His Religion” and last but not the least “Which is the Road of Emancipation?”
His mind was always preoccupied with thoughts on furthering the cause of women empowerment. In 1938, as a member of Bombay Legislative Assembly, Dr Ambedkar raised the issue of ‘family planning’ measures, realizing being the 14th child of his mother that it got a negative impact on mother’s health. In 1942, he also introduced Maternity Benefit Bill during his tenure as Labour Minister in Governor General’s Executive Council. He also raised his voice against child marriage because he wanted ‘a woman to be her husband’s friend, an equal partner and not his slave.’
His ideas such as universal adult franchise to all citizens of India irrespective of caste, colour and sex etc were so ahead of his time because even in ‘developed democracies’ like UK and USA it took hundred of years to realize what Dr Ambedkar did with mere single stroke of his pen as the Father of Indian Constitution. His ideas influenced enactment of many subsequent ‘women friendly’ Acts viz Sati Prevention Act, 1987, Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, the Family Courts Act, 1984, Protection of Human Right Act, 1993, The Maternity Benefit Act 1961, Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, The Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, The National Commission for Women Act, 1990, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, to cite a few. In 2005 via an amendment in the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, daughters became co-equal sharer of their father’s property; hitherto an exclusive right reserved for sons only. Fulfilling his dream of political empowerment of women, 50% seats are being ‘reserved’ for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) but the Women Reservation Bill earmarking 33% seats for women in both Houses of Parliament could not see the light of the day. Had Babasaheb been alive, he would have ensured 50% seats for women! He was not a mere arm-chair intellectual, he was a doer and above all a great social reformer cum truly great men who practiced what he preached and said what he believed.
Dr Ambedkar was a rare dynamic personality, the greatest Indian feminist of post-independent India and above all a humanist statesman of un-parallel genius and highest intellectual heights who emphasized on ending caste based oppressions for building an egalitarian society based on gender equality.
He said so sagaciously, “There must not be an oppressed class. There must not be a suppressed class.” Only Dr Ambedkar could say like this in spite of being subjected to face the scourge of innumerable inhuman casteist practices since his childhood. Because his fight was not against Hinduism but was against its inhuman, uncivilized practices such as sati, untouchability, enforced widowhood and child marriage etc. He said, “Hinduism belongs as much to the untouchable Hindus as to touchable Hindus.” He, therefore, concluded that if casteism is allowed to survive, Hinduism will perish.
In conclusion, it can be rightly said that Dr Ambedkar had the rare foresight for empowering women as the panacea to all social evils and achieving gender equality. As a thinker, social reformer and the chief architect of the Indian Constitution; he incorporated as many provisions for empowering Indian womenfolk as he could. None but Dr Ambedkar can truly symbolize the ‘conscience’ of a modern India.