Keynote Speech: 125th birth anniversary celebratory event for Dr. BR Ambedkar

June 4, 2017, Toronto.

Thank you Professor Gautam. I am indeed grateful for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on Babasaheb on the occasion of his 125th birth anniversary.

I have spent quite some time thinking how I should address this august gathering. There are so many distinguished guests, young trailblazers, wise grandparents, tireless activists, professionals, MPs, MPPs… how should I address you all.

I am delighted to say that my university, York, has now forged a special relationship with Dr. Ambedkar. The Ambedkar International Mission, has gifted to York a bronze bust of Dr.Ambedkar, which is proudly displayed in our main Library. I want to take this moment to express my deepest gratitude, once again, to AIM Toronto.

Let me now share a few thoughts about Ambedkar.

Born into a Dalit (untouchable) community and immense deprivation, Dr. Ambedkar began his life as a child who was compelled to sit outside the classroom - so that other children could avoid his touch. He was forbidden to touch the water others would drink. He was forbidden to write on the blackboard – so that his touch will not pollute the lunch boxes of his classmates which were kept near blackboard.

From these beginnings - he went on to become a leading voice in India’s anti-colonial movement, its struggle for justice, democracy and freedom from discrimination. An academic, an activist, a prolific orator, and a legal luminary, Dr. Ambedkar became the principal architect of the constitution of independent India. His most notable contribution was the articulation of the Directive Principles which, like the Canadian Charter of Freedoms, establish the constitutional basis of a just social order.  He also almost single-handedly brought about the legal abolition of untouchability. He has been called, rightfully, the father of modern India – but may I take the liberty, to suggest that he was also in many ways a mother as the changes he brought about came with intense pain – the pain with which every mother gives birth to her precious child. So, let us acknowledge the role of both parents in him – and call him one of the founding visionaries.

It is however our painful reality - for which we must collectively assume responsibility - that the world that Dr. Ambedkar envisioned is yet to materialize. It was only a few months ago that Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student in Hyderabad in India committed suicide. And Rohith was not alone in his death. Several Dalit students have committed suicide in the last decade, often in some of the most prestigious academic institutions.

In Canada, suicide amongst aboriginal youth has reached epidemic proportions.

The common thread here – that binds the suicides in Canada and India - is the quest for justice and inclusion. It is this quest that inspired all of Dr. Ambedkar’s work.

Ambedkar saw education as the most powerful weapon for inclusion. He went on to say how, for the vulnerable and the marginalized, their very ‘existence’ ‘is not safe without education’. And what should be the aim of education, according to Ambedkar?

To cultivate the prowess of the human mind. As he wrote,

Cultivation of the mind should be the ultimate aim of human existence

Consider then the deep irony that a young PhD student, inspired by Ambedkar’s dream, chose to commit suicide. His name was Rohith. Before he got his fellowship, he worked as a manual labourer to fund his education. Rohith found it unbearable that whatever he did, he was constantly reduced to his caste, and not recognized for his mind.

‘Never was a man treated as a mind. A mind: a glorious thing made up of stardust’, wrote Rohith. He wanted to write like Carl Sagan, the famous scientist. He wanted to argue about politics.  He wanted to do all of this as an equal, not as a dalit man caught between pity and gratitude.

It is deeply ironic that Rohith felt this on the campus of a university, the paramount institution that embraces the goal of cultivating, celebrating, empowering minds.

Yes, educational institutions must support particular groups – especially if  they have faced marginalization.
But universities – and all educational institutions -  must also lead a larger process for inclusion - where every participant feels equal, irrespective of one’s color, body, passport, history, status or any other difference. As babasaheb said, this is not a batter for any specific groups, or a few rights for individuals, but

It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality.

Let us recall his inspiring words:

With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle, not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of the human personality

Educational institution must fight and win this battle for what Babasaheb called the human personality.

And they must do so by endorsing an unflinching faith in the potential of the human mind.

This is what would do justice to Dr.Ambedkar’s memory.

Dr.Ambedkar’s life and work teaches us many things. But what he teaches us most is not to lose hope. With his life, and with his intensely painful experience of discrimination, Dr.Ambedkar taught us not to reduce ourselves to our pain. He taught us how invincible the human soul is.

Often when I read Babasaheb, I remember Frantz Fanon’s words in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon is a famous scholar of race and racialization, and incidentally died on the same date as Babasaheb, the 6th December.

Fanon describes  the feelings of a black man:

“I feel in myself a soul as immense as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, I know that my chest has the power to expand without limit”.

This is also the story of so many women, in so many different parts of the world. Time and again, even in the face of what seems like defeat – their souls rise, their words reverberate, and their heads remain unbowed, refusing to accept what is given to them just because they are women.

This is also what we heard loud and clear in Canada as we went through the Truth and Reconciliation process: a resounding human refusal to be mutilated into what they were not, irrespective of the might of the forces they were subjected to. Babasaheb’s life is such an example of victory of the human soul and its cry for justice. As we well know, there is much more to be done. Let us begin here and now and we remember Babasaheb today.