[Dalit History Month Special] Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: The Making of a Messiah

Baba Saheb faced severe discrimination and untouchability during his formative years, which shaped his resolve to fight against the caste system in India.
[Dalit History Month Special] Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: The Making of a Messiah

As the second week of Dalit History Month begins, we celebrate the pivotal events of the Birth of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jyotiba Rao Phule. This week, the focus of The Mooknayak shifts to the life of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar himself. We will delve deeper into the making of the man who would later shape the destiny of the nation and capture the imagination of the world.

The Family Background

The ancestral village of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar is Ambavade, in the Dapoli Taluka of the Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra. In his autobiography, "Waiting for a Visa," Ambedkar notes that, "From the very commencement of the rule of the East India Company, my forefathers had left their hereditary occupation for service in the Army of the Company." His grandfather, Malnak Sakpal, retired as a soldier from the British Army.

The Birth

On 14th April 1891, Subedar Ramji Sakpal and Bhimabai were blessed with their fourteenth child at the Military Headquarters of War (MHOW) in the Indore district. Unfortunately, seven of their children had already died before Bhim Rao came into the world.

Ramji Sakpal retired from the army when Bhim Rao was only two years old and moved to Satara. However, this was not going to be an easy journey for the family.

Demise of Mother: A Setback Too Early to Comprehend

Bhim Rao was just five years old when his mother passed away. As a young boy, he was too naive to understand the implications of such a tragic incident. His sisters, Manjula and Tulsi, were already married and lived with their families.

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Later in life, Ambedkar paid homage to his mother at her funeral site in Satara whenever he got the time.

Attainment of Education – A Daily Struggle

Bhim Rao initially received his education in the Dapoli taluka of Ratnagiri before moving to Satara when his father secured a job at C.P.W.D. in Goregaon.

However, for an untouchable boy like Bhim Rao, it was not easy to receive a formal education. Very few people possessed the patience and determination required to succeed in such an environment, without having to drop out. Bhim Rao and his brother were made to sit outside the classroom on a separate bench. In fact, during one of his conversations with his typist and close confidant, Ambedkar once said, "You can imagine how much I could have grasped in this way, when I tell you that I had to sit apart with the boys of my caste outside the classroom".

Unfortunately, no one cared to teach him, and the only question the teacher would ask after the class was whether they had learned the lesson. Despite such adversities, Bhim Rao remained steadfast in his pursuit of an education.

Ambedkar's Struggle for Basic Facilites

Ambedkar faced numerous hardships in his pursuit of education. For instance, he was not allowed to drink water from the tap himself as he could not touch the faucet. Only when another boy or a school peon helped him in turning the faucet could he drink water. As he notes in "Waiting for a Visa," "the permission of the teacher was not enough, and if the school peon was not there, I had to go without water."

Bombay: A City Rife with Discrimination

Ambedkar was eventually enrolled at Elphinstone College in Bombay, where he completed his education from the 5th to the 7th grade. Unfortunately, the city of Bombay was no different when it came to the adherence to the norms of untouchability. Even here, Ambedkar faced numerous challenges.

For instance, he was supposed to have a separate gunny bag to sit on, and the servant assigned to clean the room would not touch the cloth used by him. Furthermore, during a math class, the teacher asked him to solve a problem on the board. However, the rest of the students got unnerved by this and opposed it. They said that their lunchboxes were kept behind the board and they would get polluted if this "untouchable boy" touched them. The teacher refrained from berating the children who were engendered with such thinking.

The Struggles of Being an Untouchable: When Money Could Not Obscure the Scourge of Caste

If receiving an education was a difficult task for Ambedkar, living a public life was no different. For instance, barbers refused to cut his hair, and his sisters had to cut his hair themselves. In his book, "Waiting for a Visa," he has narrated an incident that speaks volumes about the tribulations of the people who were considered to be untouchables at that time.

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In 1901, when his father was posted in Goregaon (Satara district), his siblings decided to visit him during their summer vacation. Since they were considered untouchables, they could not stay in the local dharmasala (a public resting place for travelers of all castes). Instead, they had to stay in an open field under the scorching heat of the sun. Despite being well-off and having enough money to pay for better accommodations, the scourge of untouchability prevented them from doing so. This incident got imprinted in Ambedkar's mind and highlighted the reality of the struggles faced by the people who were considered untouchables.

The Incident at Masur Railway Station

When Ambedkar was just seven years old, he left with his brother and his sister's son to meet their father in Goregaon. They had written him a letter before leaving and asked him to send someone to the station. They boarded a train and got off at Masur railway station, which was the closest railway station to their destination.

However, to their disappointment, nobody came to receive them as expected. They waited for their father or his servant to come, but to no avail. Meanwhile, a curious station-master asked about their caste, to which Ambedkar blurted out, "We are Mahars."

Unfortunately, Ambedkar's innocent response to the station-master caused problems that they never anticipated. "My reply to the station-master that we were Mahars had gone round among the cartmen and not one of them was prepared to suffer being polluted and to demean himself carrying passengers of the untouchable classes," he writes. The incident serves as a stark reminder of the scourge of untouchability that plagued Indian society at that time.

Lessons Learned During the Journey to Goregaon

The journey from Masur railway station to Goregaon had many lessons in store for Ambedkar and his siblings. The station master had arranged for a cartman to carry them to their destination, but the cartman refused to let them ride in his cart due to their untouchable caste.

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However, the cartman proposed that Bhim and three of his sibling-nephews could have dinner at the riverbank since they would not get water on the way. He also suggested having his lunch in the village while they ate. Bhim's elder brother agreed and even gave him part of the fare.

Unfortunately, when they reached the river to quench their thirst, they found it thick with urine, mud, and cow and buffalo excreta. Their hopes of quenching their thirst were dashed. The cartman returned after a while, and they realized they were running late and started getting anxious.

The journey was a clear reminder of the hardships that people from lower castes had to endure simply because of their birth. Ambedkar's experience highlights what many members of the so-called untouchable caste faced on a daily basis, especially during their travels. It shows that the scourge of caste discrimination was deeply ingrained in Indian society, and it was not easy to overcome it.

Disappointment at the Toll-Collector's House

As night fell, the cartman informed Ambedkar and his siblings that they would have to sleep outside the toll-collector's house since they were still far away from their destination. However, they were refused access to water despite having plenty of leftover food. In an attempt to get water, Ambedkar pretended to be a Muslim but was unsuccessful.

They finally made it to Goregaon the next morning. However, they learned that despite writing a letter informing their father of their arrival, his servant failed to give him the letter. This mistake brought a bitter taste of untouchability that they had experienced in their daily life. The event got etched in Ambedkar's mind for the rest of his life.

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Despite the numerous obstacles he faced due to his caste, he managed to pass his matriculate and graduation from Elphinstone College, which was affiliated with the University of Bombay in 1912. He became the first Mahar to do so. In 1915, he obtained his MA degree from Columbia University, and in 1916, he enrolled in the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science.

These first-hand experiences had a significant impact on Ambedkar's life, shaping him into the man he became. His resolution to annihilate the caste system became stronger as his life progressed. We will discuss this further in the second part of the series.


1. "Little Known Facts of Dr. Ambedkar" by Nanak Chand Rattu

2. "Waiting for a Visa" by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

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