Dr Ambedkar’s 131st birth celebrated at the House of Lords

Ms Santosh Dass MBE, President, FABO, UK

(Asian Independent)- On 11 May 2022 the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK (FABO UK) organised the 131st birth celebration of Babasheb Dr Ambedkar at the House of Lords. This was the sixth Dr Ambedkar Jayanti organised by Ms Santosh Dass MBE, Arun Kumar and  C Gautam of FABO UK at the House of Lords. As in previous years, the celebrations to mark Dr Bhimrao R Ambedkar’s 131st birth anniversary was chaired by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits.

The theme of the 2022 meeting was Dr Ambedkar and Equality with a focus on equality, social justice and social reform. Most of the speakers focused on Dr Ambedkar, how he has inspired, and continues to inspire people, and wider equality issues in this country including the campaign to outlaw caste-based discrimination in Britain.

As in previous years, alongside members of the House of Commons and House of Lords, FABO UK invited Ambedkarite organisations in the UK and other organisations including representatives from the Ravidassia and Valmik community, and academics, and students who have an interest in Dr Ambedkar and Dalit issues.

The guest speakers included Santosh Dass MBE, Baroness Glenys Thornton, Lord Alton of Liverpool, Steven Gasztowicz QC, Nigel Planer, Dr Raj Chand, and Sushant Singh. A short Question and Answer session followed after the speeches. The meeting concluded with a Buddhist blessing from the Venerable Bodhiddatta Bhante.

On the day of the meeting, apologies were received from two of speakers on the agenda – Anthony Bryan and Dr Annapurna Waughray. Both had been taken ill.

Anthony Bryan was to share his experience of the recent ‘Windrush’ scandal. After living and working in Britain for over fifty years, Anthony, a Jamaican-born man, had found himself wrongly detained and threatened with deportation by the British Home Office. His experience has been documented in the 2020 BBC film drama Sitting in Limbo and is lesson for all law and rule makers, and those interested in racial discrimination. 

Dr Annapurna Waughray, an Ambedkarite, academic, lawyer, and writer, shared her prepared speaking notes with the meeting. Annapurna gives illuminating examples from her own experience of the mainstreaming of Ambedkar’s understanding of equality at local, national and international levels.  This includes her vital input in the campaign to outlaw caste-based discrimination (CBD) in the UK and the legal support she is giving in respect of CBD in the America. Annapurna’s book Capturing Caste in Law: The Legal Regulation of Caste Discrimination (Routledge) was published on 12 May 2022.

 Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth opened the meeting.  He extended a warm welcome to the speakers and attendees – some of whom are students from Indian on their first visit to the UK Parliament.  He also welcomed his colleagues in the House of Lords including the Earl of Sandwich, Baroness Thornton, and Lord David Alton of Liverpool.  Lord Harries said he was delighted to Chair these well-attended and interesting meetings for the 6th time as Chair of the APPG for Dalits. Sadly Covid restrictions had prevented this annual get together in Parliament during 2020 and 2021. Lord Harries said in Parliament, this annual meeting organised by Santosh Dass of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK to mark Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary are one of (if not the best) attended meetings of this nature. Dr Ambedkar’s life and works continue to impact on and improve the lives of millions of people in India and around the world. There are very many meetings and celebrations around the UK including at the Ambedkar Museum London, to mark Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary.  He was keen to hear all the speeches and receive an update on the campaign to outlaw caste discrimination the UK.  Lord Harries invited Baroness Thornton, who had to rush off to a Committee meeting, to says a few words

 Baroness Glenys Thornton extended her congratulations to everyone on the 131 birth Anniversary of Dr Ambedkar’s birth. She said she was pleased to see so many old friends here, particularly from the campaign to outlaw caste discrimination in Britain. Baroness Thornton – now the Labour Party’s Shadow Spokesperson for Equalities and Women’s issues – said, as a Government Minister in 2010, she had agreed a clause that gave Government ministers a ‘power’ to add caste as an aspect of Race in the Equality Act 2010. In opposition, in 2013, she helped make that ‘power’ a ‘duty’ on Government to make caste discrimination unlawful.  Outlawing caste discrimination was unfinished business because people were still suffering from this form of discrimination. She said there were many friends in the Parliament who supported the calls for the law. She looked forward to hearing the latest from the report by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance.

Lord David Alton of Liverpool began his talk recalling attending in June 2021 Gray’s Inn and the unveiling of Dr. Ambedkar’s portrait and the Ambedkar room. There he met Dr Ambedkar’s great grandson, Sujat Ambedkar who he said “like his illustrious forebear is studying in London – reminding us of the centrality of education in addressing caste. Dr. Ambedkar was right to say we must organise, agitate and educate”. He added  “Dr. Ambedkar understood that the great nation of India would never achieve its potential if it remained disfigured and divided by caste”.  “Love of India and its amazing people mustn’t blind us to the suffering of India’s marginalised indigenous peoples – like too many Dalits and Adivasis who have been grievously exploited. Nor should we be blind to the intolerable incarceration of so many defenders of human rights, imprisoned for championing the downtrodden”. Lord Alton had taken part in the House of Lords debate ‘India’s Human Rights’[1] on 22 July 2021. He added India “needs to promote pluralism and the dignity of difference – not be blind to blatant discrimination and persecution and to wrongful arrests and the distortion of justice- as in the case of Stan Swamy”. “The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, at its ninety-second session, November 15­19 2021, adopted this opinion that Stan Swamy’s death in custody will forever remain a stain on India’s human rights record.”

Ms Santosh Dass MBE, President, FABO, UK

Santosh Dass MBE, President of FABO UK and Chair Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance gave a brief introduction to Dr Ambedkar and summarised key developments, and activities related to Dr Ambedkar since 2019 including getting 14 April recognised as Equality Day. She also gave a brief update latest on the Ambedkar House London, and Gray’s Inn, and the campaign to outlaw caste discrimination in Britain her colleague from the ACDA, Dr Raj Chand, would provide later. She thanked Lord Harries for initiating the debate on India’s Human Rights in July 2021 and the other members of the Lords who participated in the debate. She also raised again the plight of those incarcerated without bail in what is known as the Bhima Koregaon case. She said,  “Almost all of the academics, human rights activists and lawyers incinerated in the Bhima Koregaon incident still remain behind bars without bail. Father Stan Swamy died in jail. This is murder. We still have Dr Anand Teltumbde, the husband of Dr Ambedkar’s granddaughter Rama, still in jail and currently pleading for bail. He is a 71 years old”.

Steven Gasztowicz QC of Cornerstone Barristers, Gray’s Inn was the barrister who represented the Government of Maharashtra’s successful Appeal against Camden Council’s rejection of museum status of 10 King Henry’s Road at a Public Inquiry in 2019. Steven said when he was asked to take on the case, he didn’t know who Dr Ambedkar was. He was surprised that was the case considering how much Dr Ambedkar was able to achieve. He stressed “ I only wish I had known of him before, when I was, from a modest background, going through the trials and tribulations of my early years at the Bar  – which would have seemed as nothing whatever compared with what Ambedkar struggled through and what he was able, despite his very modest background, to go on to achieve – in an age when prejudice was much more prevalent and difficult to deal with than now”. Steven added “My experience in learning about Ambedkar in a very much later stage in my life has reminded me that we learn only the history that is placed before us, that is selected for us at an early stage in our lives. But there is so much more of value – and what is selected should definitely include people like Ambedkar”. Steven’s speaking notes are at Annex C.

Nigel Planer is a renowned British actor, comedian, musician, novelist and playwright.  In March 2016, the BBC’s History Magazine published Nigel’s excellent interview with York Membery ‘My History Hero: Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956)’. At the meeting Nigel described in a very entertaining speech how as a nineteen year old he travelled overland to India on his own without telling his parents.  He recalled “I first encountered a statue of Dr Ambedkar at a roundabout named after him – Ambedkar Chowk. It was painted in bright colours, like many statues in India; blue suit, white shirt, red tie – and glasses. It was the glasses that drew my attention, and were unusual on a statue – monkey and elephant heads, fiery demons, Krishna’s blue skin, yes, but glasses and a suit? Was he the God of Civil Servants?” Nigel added Dr Ambedkar had been  “somewhat ‘airbrushed’ from history”. He concluded “thinking of that statue of the man in suit and tie and glasses, that made such an impression on me – Mahatma Gandhi, from one of the privileged castes, had worked in South Africa for 20 years wearing a lawyer’s suit, but, in an astute political move, abandoned his western clothes so that he could dress like one of the ‘poorest of the poor’. Dr Ambedkar, on the other hand, one of the actual poorest of the poor, disobeyed the caste laws forbidding him to wear western clothes – or any clothes above the waist – and in an act of defiance wore his suit and tie.”

Dr Raj Chand updated the meeting on the campaign to outlaw Caste-based Discrimination (CBD) in Britain on behalf of the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance. He recounted how in April 2010, the Labour Government agreed a power in the Equality Act 2010 (EA2010), section 9(5)a, to make caste an aspect of race.  A key impetus for this he said was ACDA’s timely and critical report, A Hidden Apartheid – Voice of the Community in 2009. This confirmed CBD in the UK in the areas covered by the EA2010 (employment, education and provision of services). On 25 April 2013, the UK Government’s ERR Bill (Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill) received Royal Assent, and the ‘Duty’ to outlaw CBD came into force on 25 June 2013. The Government announced in July 2018, based on a flawed consultation, its decision to repeal the caste ‘duty’ in law and issue instead guidance on CBD and the Equality Act. The Equality and Human Right’s Commission objected to the Government decision. Over the past three years, the ACDA have continued to support victims of CBD, and has been involved in number of CBD legal cases.  Two settled out of court and signed non-disclosure agreements, and agreed financial and other remedies. These cases will never count as case law.  In 2019, the case of Agarwal and Meshram vs Tata and Krishnaswami lasted 17days and concluded that there were unlawful acts of harassment, discrimination and victimisation. Unfortunately, the burden of proof in relation to CBD fell on the Claimant who had no funds to secure legal representation. In 2019, ACDA successfully challenged Frimley Health NHS Trust about some casteist guidance ‘Caring for a Hindu Patient’ published on its website. In 2021, the ACDA working with the Ravidassia community, saw the successful prosecution of a man who posted an offensive and casteist video on TikTok. ACDA continue to call for implementation of the law.

 Sushant Singh is currently here from India studying at London’s SOAS. He is the President of the Students Union (welfare and campaigns) at SOAS. He is an Ambedkarite and Advocate LLM (candidate). Sushant said “Dr. Ambedkar’s ideals of equality present themselves in two different forms.  Firstly, as enshrined in the Constitution of India. Secondly, as found in his prolific and voluminous scholarly writings. We also get a closer look at his personal trials and tribulations in some of his more informal writings. I will draw on the last two sources to describe why he has been my biggest inspiration.” Sushant added, “ Today, millions from underprivileged backgrounds like mine can afford an education and dream of studying abroad, thanks to his efforts in the constituent assembly. In 1956, he [Dr Ambedkar] finally embraced Buddhism in the most revolutionary act of his life, thereby making a final bid for complete emancipation and equality.” Sushant concluded by saying “So, what are the takeaways for us here today – The fight for equality and against discrimination in all forms continues. We are aeons away from realizing Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of an equal and equitable society. Inequality anywhere is a threat to equality everywhere.”

 The short discussion that followed the speeches focused on the caste law campaign and discussed cases ACDA had supported; and the Ambedkar Museum. One CBD case that had settled out of court was in the NHS in Scotland. Another one was in England and involved a women being discriminated by a Sikh male colleague. The second case involved ACDA supporting, almost on a daily basis, the lady involved for over several months until the case was settled out of court. Both received five-figure sum settlements. One of a constructive redundancy went to an Employment Tribunal in 2019 and the ET found in the victims favour. There is another legal case CBD in the workplace, is due to go to ET later on this year. On the Ambedkar Museum, it was clarified that the campaign to get the Government of Maharashtra (GOM) to buy the house took over a year. This followed FABO UK’s initial proposal that sought grant funding of nearly £4million for FABO UK in September 2015 from the Congress-led GOM followed by a State Election, and finally a BJP led GOM getting the keys to 10KHR. There were so many delays that cast a doubt on whether GOM actually wanted to spend the money on the house that they had publically agreed to buy.  Within months of the house being bought, Prime Minister Modi visited it in November 2015 as part of his pre-planned official visit to the UK for which a few a rooms on the ground floor were readied. PM Modi declared 10KHR the Ambedkar Memorial resulting in huge public interest in the house. A Dr Ambedkar Memorial London Advisory Committee was set up in February 2017 with India’s High Commissioner to London as chair. This Committee, with the help of a building contractor organised by the India High Commission, repaired and refurbished the house and applied for retrospective planning permission to call it a museum. The trails and tribulations of setting up the Ambedkar Museum will be covered in the book ‘Ambedkar in London’, Hurst Publishing, co-edited by William Gould, Santosh Dass and Christophe Jaffrelot.  The book, due to come out in October 2022, also includes a chapter on the campaign to outlaw CBD in Britain.

The meeting closed with a blessing from the Venerable Bodhiddatta Bhante followed by a group photo in the Jubilee Hall.

© Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations 2022

[1] https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2021-07-22/debates/0047AD4F-56A7-4199-93BE-1CDE99EA4B5A/HumanRightsSituationInIndia

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