Babasaheb Ambedkar: A Thinker in Politics

Ashok Gopal’s new biography raises the bar for Ambedkar scholars

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar with Dadasaheb Gaikwad and local government officials at Collector Office, Nashik, 1946
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar with Dadasaheb Gaikwad and local government officials at Collector Office, Nashik, 1946

Ashok Gopal

On the night of 13 October 1935, addressing thousands of his supporters in Yeola, a small town near Nashik, in what was then known as the Bombay province, Babasaheb Ambedkar declared that he was going to renounce the Hindu religion.

There was no horde of pressmen jotting down what he said. In the Marathi-speaking regions of the province, most media publications were political weeklies, and none had large teams of reporters. Moreover, most of them had no compelling reason to send reporters after Ambedkar to a small town over two hundred kilometres from Mumbai or Pune, the nearest media centres.

Ambedkar had by then become a national figure, but he did not belong to any of the major political camps—of Gandhians, Congressmen (who were not all Gandhians), the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League, Communists, Congress Socialists, or assorted Moderates. Outside the category of Depressed Classes (DCs)—not yet officially called Scheduled Castes—he was not a popular person.

English-language Indian newspapers of the day had labelled him a ‘careerist’ who allowed himself to be ‘exploited by the enemies of Indian freedom’, a ‘nominee’ of the British government with ‘egregious pretension’ and a person who ‘blows his own trumpet’ without mass support.

Book cover: A Part Apart
Book cover: A Part Apart

For the media, there were events of greater importance taking place across the world. Mussolini’s troops were running over Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and there was a spectre of war in Europe.

In India, all the attention was on a forthcoming session of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC), where the largest political party leading the freedom movement, the Indian National Congress, was going to decide whether it should hold positions of power after the provincial elections expected to be held soon.

Two days after the Yeola event, The Bombay Chronicle, a major English daily published from Mumbai, carried this headline across its front page: ‘Nemesis overtakes Hindu orthodoxy? Ambedkar throws bombshell’. But the report on his speech was brief. Abyssinia and the AICC hogged the space.

Only one Marathi weekly, Vividh Vritta, published from Mumbai, reported Ambedkar’s speech at Yeola extensively. Its founder-editor, Rambhau Tatnis, a Moderate opposed to Gandhi, was one of the few savarna Maharashtrians to support Ambedkar. Ambedkar knew Tatnis well and was certainly the source for the report published in Vividh Vritta on 20 October 1935. According to the article, Ambedkar made the following statements in the course of his speech:

I had the misfortune of being born with the ‘Untouchable Hindu’ stain; that was not in my hands. Nevertheless, I can shake off this degrading status and improve my condition. I do not have the slightest doubt that I will do that. Let me make it clear: I will not die as a person who calls himself a Hindu!

The first part of the declaration pointed to an immense human freedom, the power to change one’s birth-determined condition, which Ambedkar affirmed as a choice beyond the purview of any force in the cosmos. But the weight of that assertion was drowned by the last part of his statement.

In the first English-language biography of Ambedkar, Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission by Dhananjay Keer, a prolific biographer based in Mumbai, the statement is reported as: ‘I will not die a Hindu’. Keer was in his early twenties and nowhere near Ambedkar or Yeola in 1935. Nevertheless, as his work was the only book on Ambedkar in English for several decades, ‘I will not die a Hindu’ has been repeatedly cited in numerous publications.

The statement, ‘I will not die a Hindu’, connotes religious belief and/or social affiliation. But the words quoted in Vividh Vritta (Me Hindu mhanvat marnar nahi) suggest that Ambedkar was not talking about his religious beliefs; he was not saying that his faith defined him as a Hindu. Rather, he was talking about a group affiliation he had received without seeking it.

He was talking about rejecting that affiliation, by publicly disassociating himself from the large group of Indians who called themselves Hindus. He did not speak of taking a people then known as the Depressed Classes (DCs) along with him into the fold of another religion, but, considering his standing among the DCs, a mass shift of group affiliation was implied.

That was also the gist of the resolution passed at Yeola after his speech, reported in The Bombay Chronicle on 15 October 1935 (‘Nemesis’): ‘Complete severance of the Depressed Classes from the Hindu fold and embracing any other religion guaranteeing them equal status and treatment with other members of the faith.’

In the communally charged atmosphere of the time, the message spread rapidly. Among the first to react was Mahatma Gandhi. ‘The speech attributed to Dr Ambedkar seems unbelievable,’ he told the Associated Press news agency a day after the announcement at Yeola.


Ambedkar’s Yeola announcement, Gandhi suggested, was an impulsive, angry response to reports of atrocities against Untouchables. The most publicised of these incidents had taken place in Kavitha, a village in the present-day Anand district of Gujarat. In August 1935, Untouchables had sent their children to the village school, run on government funds.

The Caste Hindus of the village reacted by withdrawing their children from the school, beating up the Untouchables, breaking into their homes, damaging their belongings and enforcing a social boycott on them. Denied labour work and prevented from grazing their cattle, the Untouchables gave an undertaking that they would not send their children to school.

Yet, as reported in Gandhi’s Harijan (24 August, 31 August, 5 October 1935), the boycott was not lifted immediately, and kerosene was poured into the wells used by the Untouchables. Gandhi attributed these acts to the ‘weaknesses’ of some ‘unfaithful followers’ of the Hindu religion; their acts were not to be used to judge the religion itself.

Ambedkar rejected Gandhi’s interpretation. Speaking to The Bombay Chronicle on 15 October 1935, he said:

‘Let none think I have done this [announcement at Yeola] in a huff or as a matter of wrath against the treatment meted out to the Depressed Classes at Kavitha or any other place. Kavitha does not represent an isolated incident but is the very basis of the [caste] system founded in the ancestral religion of the Hindus.’ (‘Ambedkar: made up my mind’ 1935, emphasis added).

How did Ambedkar arrive at that judgement? How did it fit in with the rest of his ideas and work as a public figure? And how was it related to the mass conversion to Buddhism led by him in Nagpur on 14 October 1956?

A Part Apart attempts to provide answers to these questions.

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