Ambedkar rose to eminence as a social reformer and a leader of the Depressed Classes of India. As such, he worked hard for their upliftment from the downtrodden position they were living in, as a result of social, economic, religious and political disabilities, sanctioned by religion and imposed by custom. The Indian society, according to him was a most undemocratic society, where the people were compartmentalized into classes and castes, not according to aptitude, ability or profession but because of birth, and this position to continue indefinitely, the son confirming himself to the hereditary calling of his father.
The main aim and mission of Ambedkar’s life was to try to lead the Depressed Classes towards a higher social, political and economic status and to free them from the stigma of Untouchability that lay upon their foreheads. In other words, he desired to secure for the Depressed Classes, complete equality, equality at par with the Hindus.
Ambedkar realized that for this extremely difficult aim, he would have to plan an all-round attack on the system of Caste and Untouchability. The first step in this direction would be for him to explain in a convincing manner the defects, shortcomings, and evil impacts of the caste-system and how they hindered the removal of Untouchability, apart from leading to dismal, negative, disunited and separatist trends in the Hindu Society. He wrote a number of books for this purpose. But the greatest contribution of Ambedkar lies in the fact that as a leader of the Depressed Classes, he was able to awaken them to an awareness of their lowly existence and the life of degradation and ignominy that they were leading. He made them conscious of their weakness and told them how these rendered them powerless. In short he enthused in them a new spirit of restlessness, a questioning attitude and a determination to have justice done. It is on this account that he is known as a regenerator of their spirit and the inaugurator of the self-Respect Movement among the Untouchables. He made them conscious of their united strength and their power to vote. He organised them and led them to agitate in a peaceful manner for the vindication of their rights. “Education, Organisation and Agitation” were the key-words of his Self-Respect Movement.
He had aroused and awakened them against social injustice and installed in them the spirit of self-reform, self-emancipation, self-reliance, self-respect and self-confidence. He tried to free their minds of the inferiority complex that these people had because of their belief that they belonged to the lowest strata of the Hindu society, and which was inculcated in their minds by custom and usage, sanctioned by religion.
But this was only the spadework for future reforms. Immediately he laid great emphasis on education-schooling for the Depressed Classes children and all possible facilities like hostels, libraries, books and stationery. Ambedkar himself was instrumental in getting a number of such institutions opened.
Finally, Ambedkar told the Depressed Classes that they should stop observing caste and Untouchability among themselves. “Charity must begin at Home”. He encouraged them to participate in inter-caste dinners and contract marriages amongst the various untouchable castes’ ranks, he believed. If they could not do this, they would not be just on their part to ask the Hindus to do away with the institutions of caste and untouchability. Ambedkar himself never missed any opportunity to attend such inter-Caste feasts and marriages.
And finally, he organised them for joint action, on peaceful and constitutional lines. He trained them for satyagraha. He made them conscious of the power accruing from their right of franchise. In short, he brought about a great change in the life, outlook and general behaviour of the Untouchables.
This was so far as his programme of the uplift of the Depressed Classes was concerned. There was still much more to be done. He had to arouse the conscience of the Hindus, explaining to them the injustice and inhumanity involved in the practice of Untouchabilty and pointing out to them how ugly the face of Indian Society looked with this stigma of untouchability upon its forehead.
While Ambedkar carried on his work in the direction of arousing the Depressed Classes to the injustice involved in the caste-system and untouchabilty, he also carried on the work of organising them for agitation against these social wrongs. He worked equally hard right from the beginning of his career to stress upon social legislation for the Depressed Classes. He believed that while efforts for social reform must continue steps should be taken to bring about a change in the attitude of society and departure from the existing norms of behaviour. Intrinsically this is a slow process but a very essential one. Until this change comes social legislation was necessary to protect the weaker section from social persecution. The two were supplementary to each other. This, one has to agree, was a very sound approach to the Depressed Classes problems.
His love for the Depressed Classes was unbounded. He was very sad in the later years of his life it is stated, because there would be not proper leader for “these poor ignorant people” after he would die, and also because the fruit of his labour had reached the educated persons more than the uneducated.
Ambedkar stated: I have not been able to fulfil my mission. I wanted to do more for the Scheduled Castes People, and to see them as a governing class in my life. Whatever I have been able to do, is being enjoyed by the educated people. I now wanted to divert my attention to the uneducated masses, but life seems short. The second worry to my mind is that I wanted that somebody from the Scheduled Castes should come forward and take the responsibilities from me. There, however, seems none to shoulder such a heavy responsibility.
Whatever may Ambedkar’s own estimate of the work done by him be, his contribution in attempting to elevate the mental, moral, physical, religious, intellectual and political standards of the Depressed Classes cannot be underestimated. But that was not at all. He had wanted to expose and explain the defects like the caste system and untouchability that had crept into the Hindu society through the ages; and how they were weakening its structure and demoralizing the Hindu Society in general. As early as 1916 he had studied the problem of caste and written his paper on its origin growth and spread. In 1936 again he made a complete exposition of caste in his lecture “Annihilation of Caste.” The purpose of both these writings was largely fulfilled, it must be realized. It led to an introspection attitude among the progressive Hindus, and also among the social reformers.