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Remembering Babasaheb Ambedkar the Lawyer

Shashank Shekhar Singh

What set Dr BR Ambedkar apart from other luminaries of his time was his curiosity to make optimum use of his life and touch upon as many areas and subjects as one can think about.

The journey that started from his ordinary upbringing as a son of a Subedar in the Army and his primary education from Satara’s High School, took him to Elphinstone High School at University of Bombay, and later to Cambridge University and the London School of Economics.

Ambedkar ended up becoming the face of the Mahar community, one of the listed Scheduled Castes in India. He took pride in his identity, and urged the upper class Hindus of that time to give equal space to the Mahars to create a political identity for them, so that the community would not be servile to anyone in an independent India.

Elphinstone College and its famous Alumni
Elphinstone College and its famous Alumni

As India celebrates the 129th Birth Anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, we take a look at his exploits as a lawyer. Despite the fact that a lot has been previously written on Ambedkar, due to the enigma of his personality, not much has been spoken or written on his days as a lawyer.

After getting himself enrolled at Gray’s Inn in Britain, Ambedkar, despite various impediments, was able to finish his law degree in the year 1923. After returning to India, Ambedkar joined the bandwagon of his contemporaries and decided to become a lawyer-leader. These lawyers and stalwarts included Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Dadabhai Naoroji, Chittaranjan Das, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Syed Hasan Imam and others, who were far more privileged than Ambedkar was. They had established their offices and were getting cases from all across the spectrum.

Ambedkar was not oblivious of his precarious position, and therefore, decided to start an appellate court practice where he would not be required to deal with the common man directly. Instead, he was dependent upon the solicitors who would bring cases to him.

The following were some of the cases he argued in.

1. One of the famous cases of its time, in which Ambedkar appeared as a counsel assisting his senior, was the defence of Philip Spratt, a British Communist on whom charges were levelled for causing hatred towards the government because of his pamphlet ‘India and China’.

In this case, the argument of the defence was that no disaffection has been shown towards the Government of India and whatever had been said was referred either to British Imperialism or to the concept of imperialism in general. Thus, the same would not come within the purview of Sedition. Philp Spratt finally won the case, and this marked the beginning of Ambedkar in this field of practice.

2. A catalogue of Ambedkar’s exploits as a lawyer would be incomplete without mentioning his defence of trade union leaders, for whom he stood by in every hour of crisis. Though Ambedkar did not identify with the communist leaders and their politics, he still defended them in courts of law. This included the defence of VB Karmik, Maniben Kara , BT Ranadive and Abdul Majid, among others. Ambedkar succeeded in this defence and was able to demonstrate in court the loopholes present in the Trade Disputes Act, 1929 that allowed strike only for very limited purposes.

3. Another demonstration of his skills as a lawyer was seen in the case where the publisher of the book Deshache Dushman (Enemies of my Country), released in the year 1926, was charged with defamation. The charge levelled against the author was that he defamed Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar by calling them enemies of the nation for their Brahmanical ideas of supremacy.

Ambedkar was again successful in his defence, arguing about the locus of the petitioner, who was not a close relative of Tilak or Shastri. Further, he argued that these eminent personalities were not alive anymore. The argument that there was no basis to file a case of defamation by a third person was accepted by the Judge.

4. Ambedkar defended RD Karve’s journal Samaj Swasthya, against which charges of obscenity were framed.

5. Besides defending labourers and workmen against employers, there was a case in the Supreme Court of India where Ambedkar appeared for the Maharaja of Kapurthala. The case involved challenges to the constitutionality of land reforms and zamindari abolition acts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

It is clear that Ambedkar established himself as an astute lawyer in the few years he devoted to practice. He was always conscious of his defence and the dispute he was arguing, and could never turn a blind eye to the facts of the case. It was not sheer coincidence that Ambedkar stood mostly for workers and trade unions, which suffered greatly in the hands of the employers.

The author and lawyer Rohit De in his essay “Lawyering as Politics” devotes a substantial portion on the years of BR Ambedkar as a lawyer and his choice of practice. He goes on to say,

“His cases were low in volume and value in the 1920’s and he became a law professor in order to sustain a steady income. The contrast comes out starkly in a newspaper article that reported Jinnah representing an insolvency matter of Rs 2,57,000 on the same day that Ambedkar represented a retired Muslim schoolteacher in a breach of trust case valued at Rs 24.”

Lawyering as Politics, Rohit De

Though Ambedkar could not devote much time to lawyering due to his other engagements as a Dalit leader, it could be believed that he had made a considerable mark in the profession in a short period of time.

He should be remembered as a pioneer in human rights lawyering, an area of practice which is motivated by love for humanity and justice.

The author is an Advocate on Record at the Supreme Court of India.

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