Santosh Dass MBE, keynote speech on Equality Day 14 April, 2022 at Council House, Coventry, UK.

(Coventry City Council in collaboration with Equality Group celebrated 14 April, Dr Ambedkar’s birthday as an Equality Day in the Council Chambers. Coventry becomes the first town in the UK where Babasaheb’s birthday was officially celebrated. Ms Santosh Dass MBE, President of federation of Ambedkarite & Buddhist Organisations, UK was invited as a key note speaker. Attached is her key note speech in the Council chambers. It is a very informatory speech that set a road for others to work on the work and life of Dr Ambedkar and recognise 14 April as an International Day of Equality.)

(Asian Independent)- Lord Mayor, Councillor Mr John Nicholas, Deputy Mayor, Councillor Mr Kevin Maton, my dear friend Councillor Mr Ram Lakha, my friend Ms Parmjeet Jassal Chair of the Equality Group Coventry, distinguished guests, thank you for inviting me to your celebration of Equality Day this year.

Celebrating it at Coventry’s Council House, today on 14 April – the 131st birth anniversary of the great Indian social reformer, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s birth, is extra special. For Coventry, a city of Equality, and the UK’s City of Culture to hold its Equality Day Celebrations on this date is very significant for the thousands of his followers from the Indian diaspora in the UK.

I first visited Coventry in 2003. I’m in awe of this city’s long history of men and women fighting for justice and equal rights. Whether it’s Lady Godiva’s battle for fairer taxes, or activists fighting for better housing, pay and conditions, or its residents fighting for justice for victims of caste discrimination that has been imported to this country.

Your city is packed with women who have spoken up on behalf of the oppressed or that voiceless. It’s city of women who have fought for social change from the suffrage struggle, to the miners’ wives. It might therefore be of interest to the women here today that Dr Ambedkar, who as Independent India’s first law minister in 1948 introduced the Hindu Code Bill. This bold legal initiative saw several laws passed in the 1950s that facilitated the legal recognition of women as equal citizens. It granted Hindu women the right to a divorce from an unhappy marriage, the right to inheritance of her husband’s property, and also her father’s. We take this for granted. The plight of Hindu women had already taxed Dr Ambedkar for over three decades. In his 1917 published paper called ‘Castes in India – The Mechanism, Genesis and Development’ he set out in the Indian context the ways in which women and their sexuality was controlled. There was massive resistance to the Bill from those who argued that Government had no right to interfere with the personal laws of Hindus. Even if this made society more just!

So who was Dr Ambedkar? Dr Ambedkar was a great visionary, a politician, lawyer, barrister, economist, a prolific writer, staunch egalitarian, non-violent revolutionary, a progressive humanist, and a key figure in the revivalism of Buddhism in India. He is a figure on par with Dr Nelson Mandela, and Dr Martin Luther King when it comes to civil rights.

I can’t even begin to cover in this short speech Dr Ambedkar’s academic credentials; his vast published writings on numerous topics, the decades long movement he led on passive resistance, and the many social reforms he introduced including the farsighted Constitution for India for a vision of a society based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Even the Reserve Bank of India set up in 1935 was in accordance with his guidelines. Dr Ambedkar fought hard to be able to give a voice to the millions of Dalits – previously labelled ‘Untouchables’ in India’s Caste system. He continued to do so until the end of his life on 6 December 1956.

From the few lines of introduction I have given about Dr Ambedkar just now, it may interest you to know that there is not even a walk-on part for Dr Ambedkar in Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi. The Indian Government funded the film.

Dr Ambedkar came from humble beginnings. He was born in a military cantonment town of Mhow in the Central Provinces of India (now in Madhya Pradesh) on 14 April 1891. His family was from Maharashtra and belonged to a community treated as ‘Untouchables’ in India’s caste system that has existed for thousands of years. He was a very bright student. With scholarships, and later with savings, he attained degrees and doctorates from India, America and the United Kingdom. His many qualifications include a Phd in 1917 from Columbia University, Doctor of Science in 1923 from London School of Economics, and a Barrister at Law in 1922 from Gray’s Inn, London.

Dr Ambedkar arrived in London the second time in 1920 to complete his studies at the LSE and Gray’s Inn that he had enrolled in 1916, but could not complete because scholarship had ended. He came with a letter of introduction from the Maharaja of Kolhapur who wrote to his friend Sir Alfred Pease. I’ll quote some text from the letter:

“He [Dr Ambedkar] intends to lay before the enlightened public of England the viewpoint of non-Brahmin Hindus who are unanimous in the opinion that in asking for home rule the real object of Brahmins has been to regain and establish their long lost power…. The present scheme of self government of India will not make the people free and equal, but will only make the Brahmins powerful. Request Sir Please give patient hearing to Dr Ambedkar.”

Overcoming great obstacles, Dr Ambedkar became involved in the negotiations for India’s independence campaign. He published journals that advocated political rights and social freedoms. On 20 March 1927 he led a satyagraha [passive resistance movement] in Mahad, Maharashtra to draw, and drink water from a public tank. A law had been passed in 1923, to allow the so-called Untouchable community to draw, and drink water from the main water tank of the town. But the higher castes had not allowed this prior to assertion of their rights. The ‘Mahad Satyagraha’ began three years before Mr Gandhi’s much publicised ‘Salt March’ in 1930 as an act of civil disobedience to protest against British Rule. But Dr Ambedkar’s ‘satayrashas’ not only on the water tank issue, but other social rights issues, never did get same level of international attention.

In the 1930s Dr Ambedkar attended three landmark Round Table Conferences in London on the future of India. There he championed the needs (political, social and economic) of the so-called Untouchables after Independence. His robust lobbing resulted in the British colonial government’s announcement in 1932, of the formation of a separate electorate for “Depressed Classes” in the Communal Award. Mr Gandhi opposed this and went onto a fast unto death by way of protest in his prison in Poona. On 25 September 1932, Dr Ambedkar reluctantly signed what is known as the Poona Pact. This resulted in significantly reduced pro-equality representation for the Depressed Classes in the Provisional legislatures within the general electorate. We can only imagine what a difference political representations of Dalits might have made if Mr Gandhi had not resisted Dr Ambedkar’s calls for proportionate representation.

In 1936, Dr Ambedkar published a bold, and significant undelivered speech, the Annihilation of Caste. He was to deliver this at a Conference in Lahore, India, but the organisers withdrew their invitation unless Dr Ambedkar made changes to the content. The bit they had an issue with was where he said he was not having a choice about being born a Hindu but would not die as one. He refused and published the speech instead. If you haven’t read it, do get a copy. The annotated version with Arundhati Roy’s introduction ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ is really good to get a wider perspective.

To me, the Annihilation of Caste is Dr Ambedkar’s unapologetic truth of the caste system, and the everyday impact of it on the so-called low-Caste and so-called Untouchables. The speech is as relevant today as it was then. A Dalit by birth, Dr Ambedkar knew Caste and its impacts. In the speech he calls for social reform. He examines Caste in the contexts of other societies – Roman, Greek, Irish – and demonstrates his deep consideration and analysis of those societies. He quotes from the British social activist, amongst many other talents, William Morris’ poem ‘A Dream of John Ball’. In the speech, he paraphrases the hedge priest’s preachings and sermonising that fed the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. “…The great treading down the little, And the strong beating down weak, Cruel men fearing not, Kind men daring not, And wise men caring not.”

Ambedkar saw William Morris’ potential for ‘transferability’. ‘A Dream of John Ball’ illustrates what it means to live under the weight of feudalism. Call it Caste. Call it a kind of a social apartheid.

In the speech, he poses the question, “Should we treat them [that is, the Untouchables] as unequal because they are unequal? He sets out his thoughts on the principles and practices a society should be based on. He says, “My ideal would be a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity”. These principles later dissolved and resolved into the preamble to India’s Constitution – with a complete recipe for delivering equality of treatment and opportunity.

Dr Ambedkar held numerous significant roles in politics. He was India’s first Minister of Labour (22 July 1942 – 20 October 1946) in the British Viceroy’s Executive Council. He was the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee (29 August 1947 – 24 January 1950) and the chief architect of India’s Constitution. This saw the abolition of Untouchability and the introduction of affirmative measures in the form of reservations for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in public sector jobs. This levelling up agenda’s aim was, and continues to, to uplift the SC and STs economically.

As independent India’s first Law minister (3 April 1947 – 6 October 1951) Dr Ambedkar actively oversaw laws to improve labour rights. He promoted trade unions, reduced working hours for factory workers, and introduced maternity rights for working women. As mentioned earlier, he also went on promote the rights of Hindu Women as part of the Hindu Code Bill.

Dr Ambedkar died on 6 December 1956. His contribution to his homeland was magnificent. Yet it took the Indian Government until 1990 to posthumously confer him with the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India. Dr Ambedkar left a huge body of works. His star continues to rise around the world. He is followed by hundreds of thousands of the Indian diaspora in this country, and millions of people around the world.

He has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies as someone who has made a significant contribution to the UK.

At Gray’s Inn, in London, he has the ‘Ambedkar’ room named after him. This was unveiled on 30 June 2021 and FABO UK donated a new portrait (Gray’s Inn already has two portraits on display) for the room. Dr Ambedkar is the only Indian to be given such an honour . On 28 June 2022, Gray’s Inn and FABO UK and jointly marking at Gray’s Inn the centenary of Dr Ambedkar being called to the Bar.

In 2020, Camden Council approved the museum status of 10 King Henry’s Road NW3 – the house where Dr Ambedkar lived from 1921-22. It already had a commemorative blue plaque unveiled in 1991 by Roy Hattersely MP and the actress Glenda Jackson. The Government of Maharashtra bought the house in 2015 after a year’s worth of lobbying by FABO UK. Permission for museum status was refused by Camden Council following which a Public Inquiry was held in 2019, and in March 2020 Mr Robert Jenrick, the then Secretary of State of Housing, Communities and local Government, who had ‘recovered’ the appeal in the case in September 2019, agreed with the Pubic Inquiries’ findings and granted retrospective permission for the Ambedkar Museum London. Do visit it if you are in London.

Since 2015, Lord Harries of Pentregarth has hosted FABO UK’s celebration of Dr Ambedkar’s birth in the House of Lords. We are holding the event on 11 May this year have a number speakers including Nigel Planer, the actor, recently described Dr Ambedkar as his hero.

Moving on to caste discrimination. Dr Ambedkar in his paper Castes in India describes India’s caste system as having features that include hierarchy, endogamy, graded occupation and restrictions on temple worship. It is over 70 years since Untouchability was made unlawful in India’s Constitution. Yet crimes against this branch of humanity continue in the worst of ways and numbers. There are those on the crime sheets. More never get logged. More go unreported. There are human rights activists and academics incarcerated in jail with bail on spurious changes by the Indian Govement. One of them is Dr Anand Teltumbde, the husband of Rama Ambedkar, the granddaughter of Dr Ambedkar.

Its amazing how well Caste and Caste discrimination travels! Here in the UK, research has confirmed that Caste affects South Asian communities..

We are fortunate to have equality and human rights laws that help prevent and if necessary, deal legally with many forms of discrimination in the UK. Many migrants like me who arrived in London have benefited from protection and opportunities these laws give us.

There is ample evidence of Caste-based discrimination in the Government-commissioned and independent reports like that by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance. Take the case of a very old and vulnerable Indian woman in Derby who was not given full care in accordance with her care plan by a ‘higher Caste’ female carer. Or the bus company manager in Southampton who had to completely re-organise the shift system in order that a lower Caste driver wouldn’t coincide with a ‘higher Caste’ inspector’s shifts.

We don’t tolerate other forms of discrimination in the UK. Why continue to ignore or tolerate Caste-based discrimination in this country and provide equality on this issue? There are many more examples of this form of discrimination set out my organisation’s – the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance’s – 2009 report. We called it A Hidden Apartheid for good reason. And then there is the government’s own commissioned report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Bringing about anti-Caste discrimination law in the UK won’t cure our society. It is one way of dealing with the discrimination so many faces.

Caste discrimination has also raised its head in other countries including the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

Promoting Ambedkar’s life, work, and the books he has left us is key to understanding how we can go about making more just societies – no matter where we are based. His final message to us was ‘Educate, Agitate, Organize’. It is the slogan that first appeared in print in 1883 as the Political Manifesto of the Democratic Federation of which William Morris, whom Dr Ambedkar refers to in his ‘Annihilation of Caste’ speech – was the treasurer. This slogan became a slogan for the Fabian Society. In simple terms, social reformers believed success can only be achieved by organised effort. To me the 1883 leaflet spells this out beautifully and we can understand why Dr Ambedkar used this slogan.

Educate: We shall need all our intelligence
Agitate: We shall need all our enthusiasm
Organise: We shall need all our force

Dr Ambedkar’s star continues to rise around the world as beacon for social justice. In 2020, 2021and 2022 the City of Burnaby Canada proclaimed 14 April as ‘Dr B. R. Ambedkar Day of Equality’. The City of Surrey, Canada, marked a similar proclamation in 2021. This April, the Province of British Columbia made the same proclamation and also proclaimed April a Dalit History Month.

In the United States, the State of Colorado proclaimed 14 April 2022 as ‘Dr B R Ambedkar Equity Day’.

These very bold moves by City Councils in American and Canada are welcome. They are shining a light on Dr Ambedkar and his mission for a more just world.

I therefore congratulate Coventry’s Equality Group and Coventry Council on its pioneering work on marking its Equality Day on 14 April and remembering Dr Ambedkar. I am honoured to be part of this celebration.

I will end with some words from Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of caste, speech:

‘A just society is that society in which ascending sense of reverence and descending sense of contempt is dissolved into creation of a compassionate society’

Happy Equality Day.
Thank you.