DR B.R. Ambedkar popularly known as the father of the Indian Constitution, was a social reformer and a crusader against caste system. When we celebrate his birth anniversary, we must also remember him as a lawyer of the marginalized, and a voice of the voiceless.
Dr Ambedkar’s interaction with the law was at multiple levels: as a practicing lawyer, as a professor of law, as a legislator, as a policy maker, as the framer of the Constitution, and as social reformer. He practiced at district courts, courts of princely states, High Courts, and the Supreme Court. He was Professor of Law at Government Law College, Bombay and thereafter its principal. He was a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Bombay Presidency. He was Labour Minister in the Viceroy’s Executive Council, and the first Union Law Minster of independent India. He was Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. He led many social movements and struggles for emancipation of the Dalits and the working class. In his multiple writings, he conceptualized the purpose and role of law in human life and society.
Born on April 14, 1891, in an untouchable family, he did his schooling in Satara in Maharashtra, and then attended Mumbai’s Elphinstone High School. Bhimrao Ambedkar became the first student from the ‘untouchable’ community to pass the matriculation exam, which was considered to be a difficult examination at the time. He later pursued B.A. at Elphinstone College. He also secured an M.A. and a Ph.D at Columbia University in United States, and an M.Sc. and a D.Sc. at the London School of Economics in Britain. He spent two periods of study at Gray’s Inn in London, before being called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn.
Upon returning to India after his higher studies, Dr Ambedkar started his law practice at the Bombay High Court in July 1923. He didn’t have enough money to pay the registration fee for enrollment. His friend Naval Bhathena came to his rescue and gave him the requisite Rs 500. (Bhathena was from a well-to-do Parsi family whom Dr Ambedkar first met while studying at Columbia University. They remained close friends throughout their lives, though their life trajectories were different. Bhathena remained a friend cum benefactor, helping Dr Ambedkar out financially at crucial junctures, especially when he wanted to complete his studies in London.)
It was a time when many upper caste lawyers who were political leaders gave up their respective law practice and joined the freedom struggle, but because of poverty and untouchability, Dr Ambedkar never had this privilege. He was the only earning member of his family.
Though highly qualified, Dr Ambedkar would not get the necessary cooperation at the Bombay High Court, so he would work at the district court as well. Despite being so profoundly educated, he was without a brief for about a year and a half. His office was in a small room in the Social Service League building, Poyabaodi, in Bombay. Later he moved his office to the first floor of Damodar Hall, Parel.
It was a time when many upper caste lawyers who were political leaders gave up their respective law practice and joined the freedom struggle, but because of poverty and untouchability, Dr Ambedkar never had this privilege. He was the only earning member of his family. He also had the liability to repay the loan he took for his studies abroad. Nevertheless, Dr Ambedkar rose to become one of the finest lawyers of his time and a jurist par excellence.
He undoubtedly earned his bread and butter by practising law in court. The master of details and analysis that he was, law for him was not an exercise in arguments, but was also a quest for justice. Despite his hectic public schedule, he built a flourishing practice. He handled civil, criminal and libel cases, and dabbled in all forms of legal matters. A few of his cases are discussed here.
Defamation case against Jedhe and Jawalkar
Dr Ambedkar was influenced by the life and work of Mahatma Phule, the votary of a classless society and women’s upliftment. But he never joined the non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra. He always considered himself a disciple of Mahatma Phule for whole of his life.
In 1926, he got a brief of a defamation suit filed against the militant leaders of the non-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra: Keshavrao Jedhe and Dinkarao Jawalkar. Jawalkar had authored a book called ‘Deshache Dushman’ (“Enemies of the Country”). Though committed to Phule’s stress on equality and social reform, Jawalkar departed from him on the question of nationalism: in his opinion, Indians must depose their alien British rulers, but Brahmin leadership, because it kept the masses divided and sought its own caste interest, would never be able to lead this struggle. In his book, Jawalkar described Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar, the revered heroes of the elite of the time, as ‘enemies of the country’. Jedhe was the publisher.
The petitioners were represented by Adv. L. B. Bhopatkar, a very well-known lawyer of Pune. The trial court convicted Jedhe and Jawalkar and sent them to prison. Dr Ambedkar took up the case in appeal on behalf of them and won the case with his unmatched arguments. Dr Ambedkar argued that the petitioners had no locus standi as they were not close relatives of Lokmanya Tilak or Chiplunkar, and also stressed the fact that both Tilak and Chiplunkar were not alive. The Judge agreed with the contention that there were no grounds for filing a case of defamation by a third party, and consequently, Jedhe and Jawalkar were set free.
During the Chirner jungle satyagraha on December 25, 1930, the police opened fire at the protesters. The tehsildar and some protesters died in the incident. The government filed cases against 47 people.
Babasaheb took up the cases for four. At that time, he was appointed by the British Government for the Round Table Conference. Despite this, he decided to fight the case against the government for people’s cause.
Dr Ambedkar conceived the State as an organization, the aim of which is to maintain the rights of every individual. It should remove social, political and economic inequalities by providing better opportunities to the submerged classes. Each person should be able to enjoy freedom from want and freedom from fear. His struggle for justice is reflected in his practice of law in law courts.
The trial began on June 2, 1931. For two days straight, Babasaheb made his argument for around ten hours to prove the innocence of his clients. He said, “We must remember that the freedom and rights of the citizens is more important than the stability of the government.” On July 2, 1931, 29 of the accused were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, while the rest were released.
Obscenity case against R.D. Karve
Dr Ambedkar defended social reformer Raghunathrao Dhondo Karve in an obscenity case filed against him. Karve published ‘Samaj Swasthya’, a magazine that aimed at creating awareness about sexual health, despite facing severe opposition from people due to its sensitive subject. He advocated sex Education. The topics which are still spoken of in whispers today, Karve used to speak of freely in those days.
An officer who claimed to be an ‘oriental translator’ found some content in the December 1933 Gujarati edition of the magazine (in the section on answers written to some correspondence) to be vulgar, and the government filed a case against Karve.
By now Dr Ambedkar was a national leader. He had led the Mahad satyagraha (to assert the right of Dalits to use water from the Chavdar lake and other public water bodies which they were forbidden from doing), the Kala Ram Mandir satyagraha (to assert the rights of Dalits to enter and worship in temples, which was till then forbidden to them), fought for the rights of untouchables at the Round Table Conference, and entered the Poona Pact with Mahatma Gandhi. But still he decided to fight Karve’s case.
Why did he feel it was important to defend Karve? Maybe because he supported the cause for which Karve had dedicated his life – sex education and family planning. Continuing his undaunted support for any progressive activist, Dr Ambedkar decided to fight his case.
In his arguments, he brought to the notice of the court the observations made by the Bombay High Court in the case of Emperor vs. Vishnu Krishna Puranik (1912) that vulgarity does not lie in the content, but in the form of expression, and what is vulgar and what is not does not depend on its meaning but in the way something is said or written. He marshalled extensive arguments about the meaning of vulgarity but lost the case.
The first political party formed by Dr Ambedkar was the Independent Labour Party. He and his party fought against caste and economic exploitation. He fought against the feudal Khoti system of the Bombay presidency – an exploitative land revenue system prevalent in the Konkan region of Maharashtra which led to the detriment of the actual cultivators. As a lawyer, he fought cases on behalf of the tenants of the Khots. He also defended trade union leaders in cases filed against the union leaders. He had defended Communist leader Shamrao V. Parulekar in a case filed against him by the factory owners, for a strike organized by him in Ambarnath.
In 1937, he introduced bills in the Bombay Legislative Council for the abolition of Khoti, Mahar watan and Hali (bonded labour) systems. He also joined hands with communists to oppose the Industrial Disputes Act of 1938, which sought to limit the right of the workers to strike.
As the Labour Member in the Viceroy’s Council, he was in charge of labour, irrigation, power, social work and mines. He had the daily working hours of industrial labourers reduced from 14 to eight. He also introduced the provision for paid leave, and had employment exchanges established for skilled and semi-skilled labourers. He played a key role in getting Bills on Employees State Insurance, review of the parameters for fixing wages of labourers, a labour welfare fund, minimum wages, maternity leave for women and many other similar labour welfare measures passed, and had them implemented.
Dr Ambedkar conceived the State as an organization, the aim of which is to maintain the rights of every individual. It should remove social, political and economic inequalities by providing better opportunities to the submerged classes. Each person should be able to enjoy freedom from want and freedom from fear. He attached importance to the eternal struggle of man for freedom. His struggle for justice is reflected in his politics, writings, teachings and practice of law in law courts. He will always be remembered as a defender of human rights and a lawyer of the marginalized.