‘Bahishkrit Bharat’: Ambedkar’s decisive challenge to Brahmanism
On 3 April 1927, Ambedkar launched the Marathi fortnightly ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’. In one of its many editorials severely critical of upper-caste Hindu society, Ambedkar likened the British rule and the Brahmanical rule to two leeches incessantly sucking the blood of the Indian people, writes Siddharth
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the launch of ‘Mooknayak’, we remember the journalist Ambedkar that founded it. His journalism began in 1920 and continued till 1956. The first issue of ‘Mooknayak’ came out on 31 January 1920, while his last newspaper ‘Prabuddha Bharat’ was launched on 4 February 1956.
We will be publishing a series of articles in the run-up to the centenary of the day when Ambedkar’s journalistic journey began. The focus of these articles will be Ambedkar the journalist and the standards, values and ideology of his journalism
In July 1920, Dr Ambedkar arrived in London to resume his studies. He took admission in the London School of Economics and Political Science and also started studying law at Gray’s Inn. Even while pursuing his education in England, Ambedkar continued to guide his associates working in India. His letters of that period were focused on the issue of the liberation of the Untouchables and are testimony to his deep commitment to the cause. He also travelled to Germany, where he studied Sanskrit at Bonn University. During his stay in London, he presented a thought-provoking research paper titled “Responsibilities of a Responsible Government in India” at the gathering of students organization of students. British Economist and political theorist Harold Laski opined that the “views expressed by Dr Ambedkar in this paper are of a revolutionary nature”. Due to financial constraints, he was forced to return to Bombay in April 1923. He rewrote his research paper and was awarded DSc on it by the London University (Moon, pp 23-24). In just two and half years, he thus obtained both MSc and DSc. He began practising in the Bombay High Court in July 1923.
He academic distinctions were not for personal gain or for grabbing a position of eminence. The future of the Untouchables and the ostracized, forming one-third of India’s population, was his chief concern. Will they get the right to live with dignity? Will all Indians treat the ostracized as their equals? What should the ostracized do to secure their rights? These questions led him to the founding of an organization to fight for the wider interests of the ostracized. The Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha came into being on 20 July 1924 with Dr Ambedkar as president of its executive committee (Keer, pp 53-54). Ambedkar wanted to achieve his objective of liberation of the Untouchables through this organization.
The year 1927 brought a decisive turn in Ambedkar’s life. At the beginning of the year, he paid tribute to the valiant Mahar soldiers who had made Peshwa’s army bite the dust, at the Bhima-Koregaon War Memorial. It was in 1927 that he launched the Mahad Satyagraha. On 27 December of that year, he burned the Manusmriti. Finally, in the same year, he was nominated as a member of the Bombay Legislative Council. This was the year in which he launched a decisive battle against social, cultural, religious and political discrimination. That sparked a slew of hurtful attacks on him. The newspapers and magazines controlled by the Dwijs hurled a volley of baseless allegations at him. He felt the need for a newspaper to rebut the arguments of his critics, using facts and logic. It was to fulfil this need that on 3 April 1927, he launched a Marathi fortnightly titled Bahishkrit Bharat.
Dr Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer writes: “How meaningful and touching the title of the newspaper was: Two Indias – ostracized India, but India all the same; India, but ostracized India. Through Bahishkrit Bharat, Ambedkar started attacking his detractors and advising his people. Like Tilak, he roared, ‘Punashya Hari Om’ (Again, Hari Om). Mooknayak represented his first roar and this was the second one.” Bahishkrit Bharat was launched almost four years after the closure of Mooknayak and it continued publication for two years. Its last issue was published on 19 November 1929. Many a time, Ambedkar couldn’t bring out an issue of the newspaper, and so to compensate for it, he would publish joint issues. Even while fulfilling his other responsibilities, Ambedkar continued to write prolifically for the newspaper. Only he could have accomplished the task of writing up to 24 columns for the newspaper single-handedly (Vasant Moon, p 40).
Bahishkrit Bharat’s editor was very different from the editors of other publications. For him, the newspaper was not a business venture aimed at minting money. It was a means for awakening the people with unwavering commitment. Battling adverse circumstances, Ambedkar continued with the publication of the newspaper (ibid). Though he was the de facto editor of Mooknayak, his name was not published as such. However, Bahishkrit Bharat carried his name as the editor. The editorial published in the inaugural issue of Mooknayak was reproduced in Bahishkrit Bharat (Sheoraj Singh Bechain, Bahishkrit Bharat, preface, p 15). Around 33 leaders and 150 articles published in Bahishkrit Bharat are available (ibid). A compilation of the editorials of Bahishkrit Bharat, published under the editorship of Prabhakar Gajbhiye, comprises 33 pieces (Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi). As many as 16 articles have been compiled in Bahishkrit Bharat, edited by Sheoraj Singh Bechain (Gautam Book Centre, Delhi).
On 20 April 1927, Ambedkar broke centuries-old brahmanical norms by taking two sips of water from the Chavdar Talab in Mahad. This was a challenge to Brahmanism. The Mahad Satyagraha holds a key place in the history of the Dalit movement and also in the life of Dr Ambedkar. The first three editorials of Bahishkrit Bharat were focused on the Mahad Satyagraha. Their titles were, “The religious battle of Mahad and the responsibility of Savarna Hindus”, “The religious battle of Mahad and the responsibility of the British government” and “The religious battle of Mahad and the responsibility of the Untouchables”.
In the editorial titled, “The religious battle of Mahad and the responsibility of savarna Hindus” he detailed the avowed ideals and principles of the Hindu religion and showed how the Hindus did not adhere to them in practice. He also wrote about the violence unleashed by the Hindus against those who marched to the Chavdar Talab. This piece was written on 22 April 1927. This editorial contains his much-quoted statement: “We have to say only this much. Till today, we believed what Mahatma Gandhi said – that untouchability is a big blot on the Hindu religion. But now we have changed our view. We now believe that Untouchability is a blot on us. As long as we believed that untouchability was a blot on the Hindu religion, we gave the responsibility of removing it to you. But now that we know that it is a blot on us, we have decided to take in our hands the sacred task of removing this blot. And we will not back out even if some of us have to risk our life for success in this venture. You people have done the most despicable act by purifying the tank (Chavdar Talab).” (Bahishkrit Bharat, Samyak, p 28-29). That is not all. Ambedkar, who had an abiding faith in non-violence and democratic means, wrote at the end of this editorial, “We earnestly wish that blood is not spilt in this important endeavour for our liberation and for the liberation of our people. But if there is blood-spilling due to the obduracy of the people stricken with Brahmanism, we won’t be responsible for it. They should remember this.” (ibid)
In the editorial titled “The religious battle of Mahad and the responsibility of the British Government”, published on 6 May 1927, Ambedkar compared the obscurantist and traditional brahmanical norms with the laws of the British government and argued that it was in accordance with the British laws and rules that the Untouchables had marched to Chavdar Talab. But the brahmanical elements refused to accept their right and attacked them. Besides the brahmanical forces, Ambedkar also criticized the British government for not coming forward to protect the rights of the Untouchables and allowing the Savarnas to indulge in violence. He wrote, “The Untouchables put up with the goondaism, the injustices and the atrocities of the Savarnas at Mahad only because they were hopeful that the British government would give them due protection. But this hope proved futile … If the government dilly-dallied in helping the Untouchables thinking that it should not rub the savarnas the wrong way at this juncture, then this would paralyze the government and would cripple the system of governance” (ibid, p 39-40).
The third editorial on the Mahad issue is addressed to the Untouchables. This editorial was published on 20 May 1927. It begins thus: “In the last two issues, we had analyzed the duties of the savarna Hindus and the government vis-à-vis the Mahad issue. In this issue we propose to discuss what our Untouchable brethren should do” (ibid, p 41). He goes on to explain how the Mahad incident had proved that the Hindu religion considers the Untouchables as impure. After analyzing in detail the foundations of the notions of purity and pollution, he underlined the fact that untouchability persists because those who were branded as Untouchables accepted it meekly. He writes, “The reason why the system of untouchability persists is that the Untouchables never expressed any doubts about its validity. Had they had questioned the system and objected to it the Savarnas would have altered their views long ago” (ibid, p 44). Dr Ambedkar then advises his own people. “Hence, our advice to Untouchable brothers is that what they have done at Mahad, they should do at all other places, too. Nothing will be achieved without confrontation” (ibid p 45).
Ambedkar was well aware that the Savarnas would bitterly oppose any struggle by the Untouchables against the practice of untouchability. He writes: “The path of resistance which we have suggested is the right path but it is a difficult path. The Savarnas will retaliate. But our untouchable brethren should not be fearful. We should be ready to resist their retaliation. Nothing will be achieved without that. We Untouchables should show our valour” (ibid, p 49). At the end of the piece, he makes an appeal to the Untouchables: “Those among the Untouchables who have realized who they really are and what have they come to, should take the plunge into this religious battle to efface the blot on their community and should pave the way for the liberation of the Untouchables and for the deliverance of humanity” (ibid, p 50).
Bahishkrit Bharat’s fifth editorial “Elimination of untouchability: A child’s play’ views the practice of untouchability in its historical context and analyzes the presence of other forms of the practice in other religions and communities. In this editorial, Ambedkar compares the British and the brahmanical domination: “In our view, the British rule and the Brahmanical rule are like two leeches stuck to the bodies of the Hindu people and they are incessantly sucking the blood of the Indian people. The British rule has enslaved the bodies of the people while the brahmanical rule has enslaved their soul (mind). The British rule has exploited the wealth of India while brahmanical rule has deprived it of the mental wealth of self-respect” (ibid, p 33).
In the eighth editorial titled “Our critics”, Ambedkar has answered the critics of Bahishkrit Bharat. This piece was published on 29 July 1927. He writes: “The policy of Bahishkrit Bharat is criticized on various counts. It is not possible for us to reply to each of them and to satisfy all our critics. This we know very well. But we would like to clarify our policy for the sake of our bona fide critics, who have developed some misconceptions regarding it” (ibid, p 24). In this editorial, Ambedkar presents a detailed description of the ideology that guided Bahishkrit Bharat. He also issues a warning to those who trying to hurt the movement of the ostracized. He writes: “Directing your criticism at other issues or trying to subdue Ambedkar or holding condemnation sessions to oppose Bahishkrit Bharat won’t lead to the rout our movement. Our critics should understand this clearly. No stratagem for undermining our movement by dividing the untouchable class would work. We are not ready to give any leeway to those who are proffering various excuses for not eliminating untouchability, and that is why our upper-class critics are livid with us. We know that very well” (ibid, p 81).
The 16th editorial was written to mark the first anniversary of the publication of Bahishkrit Bharat. It talks of the objectives and the achievements of the newspaper and the challenges facing it. Talking about the achievements of the journal, he writes: “That Bahishkrit Bharat has kicked up a storm in the Hindu community of Maharashtra needs no elaboration. But how can this editor take up the leadership of the newspaper without knowing whether he has enough material to stand up to this storm?” (ibid, p 144). While talking of the achievements of the newspaper, he also refers to the problems confronting it. “It is with great pain that this editor wants to tell you that the condition of Bahishkrit Bharat is very pitiable. After accounting for the income and the expenditure to date, we have discovered the Bahishkrit Bharat has run up a loan of Rs 500. There is no reason why Bahishkrit Bharat should have been in such a pitiful state. All newspapers face problems in paying the salaries of the editor, managers and other workers, including peons. This newspaper, established for achieving lofty social objectives, can also not expect to be free from such problems. But Bahishkrit Bharat is an exception. The editor and the manager of Bahishkrit Bharat have not taken a paise as salary for the pains they took and the work they put in over the past one year. Besides expenses on printing and postal expenses, Bahishkrit Bharat has two other expense heads. First, rent of the office and second, salary of the peon. But the expenditure on these two accounts is so small that it does not even deserve mention. The total rent paid during the year was Rs 258 and 8 annas and the salary of the peon was Rs 98. Undoubtedly, no other newspaper in Maharashtra must be so frugal. But despite that, Bahishkrit Bharat has got burdened with a loan of Rs 500 in a year. If this continues, the burden of loan will go on increasing every year and ultimately, Bahishkrit Bharat will have to be closed down. Some permanent way has to be found out to make up for this loss” (ibid, pp 144-145).’
Amid financial problems and challenges, Bahishkrit Bharat completed one year of its journey. Ambedkar’s last editorial titled “Parvati Satyagraha of Pune” was published in the newspaper on 15 November 1929. He wrote about the stand of the ostracized on Congress’s demand for Swaraj: “Give us our rights and only then will we support the demand for Swaraj. When the Muslims are following this policy, why not the Untouchables? In our view, a person who says, ‘Wait till we get Swaraj’ must either be naïve or selfish and the person who believes this must be a fool. We want to urge our untouchable brethren that they should start working for securing their rights without wasting a moment. They should brace themselves to take on their opponents” (ibid, p 254).
Explaining the reasons behind the closure of Bahishkrit Bharat, Vasant Moon writes, “It was becoming increasingly difficult for Ambedkar to continue with the publication of the newspaper. He requested for financial help from the public but no one came forward. On 29 June 1928, a fortnightly called Samta began publication under the guidance of Dr Ambedkar. The first issue of the second year of Bahishkrit Bharat came out on 19 November 1928. Subsequently, issues of Bahishkrit Bharat and Samta were published on alternate Fridays. This experiment continued for some months. But ultimately, Bahishkrit Bharat had to be closed down. Its last issue was published on 19 November 1929 (Vasant Moon, p 54).
Though Mooknayak and then Bahishkrit Bharat had to close, Ambedkar’s journalistic journey continued through Samta (29 November 1928) and Janata (24 November 1930) to Prabuddh Bharat (4 February 1956). He never compromised with the journalistic standards he had set for himself.
- Rege, Sharmila, Manu ki Vikshipta ke Virudh, Chayan Evam Prastuti, trans Anupama Gupta, The Marginalised Prakashan, 2019
- Ambedkar, B.R., Mooknayak, Trans. Vinay Kumar Vasnik, Samyak Prakashan, 2019
- Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar: Sampoorn Vangmay, Dr Ambedkar Shanti Pratisthan, New Delhi
- Omvedt, Gail, Dr. Ambedkar Prabuddha Bharat ki Aur, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2005
- Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Government of Maharashtra, 1993
- Keer, Dhananjay, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Jeevan-Charit, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai 2018
- Moon, Vasant, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, National Book Trust, 1991
- Shahare, M.L. and Anil, Nalini, Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar ki Sangarsh-Yatra Evam Sandesh, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2014
- Ambedkar, B.R., Mooknayak, trans and ed Sheoraj Singh Bechain, Gautam Book Centre, Delhi 2019
- ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’ mein Prakashit Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar ke Sampadkiya, trans Prabhakar Gajbhiye, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2017
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)