I've been thinking about how social change happens over the weekend. I went to an inspiring event about the life Dr Ambedkar. He's India's unsung hero who devoted his life to challenging the Caste system. Born a Dalit or 'untouchable' he was subject to brutal oppression during his life at the hands of Caste Hindus. Dalits were, and still are in many areas of India, subject to social and economic segregation, being forbidden to drink water from the same places as those of 'higher' Castes, denied access to education and subjected to violence and abject poverty.
Despite experiencing profound discrimination during his childhood, Ambedkar rose to become a prominent India politician. He obtained Masters degrees and PhDs from the University of Colombia in the United States and the London School of Economics where he was also called to the Bar. He was the architect of the Indian constitution post-independence. He ensured seats for the Depressed Classes (now recognised in Indian law as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) within the general electorate, despite fierce opposition from Gandhi. He led his followers in demonstrations of mass civil disobedience to gain access to the temples and wells to which they were denied. Towards the end of his life, 60 years ago last Friday, he converted from Hinduism to Buddhism, taking 400,000 of his followers with him. He chose to convert to Buddhism due to its emphasis on self-respect, compassion and equality - which he saw as being in direct contrast to the hierarchy endemic in orthodox Hinduism.
So what we can learn from him today in the West? Whilst the time and context is very different, there are parallels in any contemporary social justice struggle, from Black Lives Matter, to campaigns against the cuts. There is much to be learnt from Ambedkar's example but there are three aspects which jump out at me about his multi-faceted and determined approach:
1. Education underpins effective social change. Communities need to be empowered to understand their circumstances in light of the inequalities and norms that are shaping them.
2. Sometimes you may be unpopular. He referred to himself as the most hated man in India due to his challenge to Hinduism. Challenging the status quo therefore necessitates utter conviction and resilience in the face of opposition.
3. We need to both 'opt out of' and 'opt in to' the system. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism was an emphatic rejection of the Caste system in favour of a new values framework. But he also worked to reform the system to gain representation for the Dalits. Both strategies are needed - to empower the oppressed and to change the systems which oppress.
My final word of advice to you is educate, agitate and organise, have faith in yourself. 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 human personality.