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Author: Vaibhav Chaturvedi, II year of BA,LL.B from Lloyd Law College

“If I find the constitution being misused, I shall be the first to burn it.”

Well versed with many disciplines, Dr. Ambedkar’s career with the bench remains under-studied. The study of law has a crucial role to play in his journey of being known as the most prominent and well-read scholar[1]. The path, however, was not an easy one. Managing bread for his family and continuing scholarship for universities abroad,[2] were not the only tasks. He faced severe discrimination by the upper caste at every stage of his life until he stood for the rights of the downtrodden. In 1916, he enrolled for the Bar course at Gray’s Inn (one of the four Inns to practice law); also getting into the London School of Economics to work on a doctoral thesis. However, he had to return after a year as the scholarship from Baroda ended. Finally, in 1921, he completed his master's degree.[3] After getting himself enrolled at Gray’s Inn in Britain, Ambedkar, despite various hindrances, was able to duly complete his law degree in the year 1923. [4] It was the era of stalwarts like Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Dadabhai Naoroji, Chittaranjan Das and Jawahar Lal Nehru. As compared to these established personalities, practising law was not a smooth road for him due to unstable financial conditions and caste-based discrimination. He failed to get the cases he could have handled as the upper caste was not so welcoming to a new face from the Dalit community. Moreover, he did not directly participate in the freedom struggle because other national leaders cold-shouldered him for the stand he took on social, economic and political issues.[5] All his life, Ambedkar continued to be a bitter critic of both the British imperialists and the Indian national leaders.[6] With his two doctorate degrees (PhD and DSc) in economics and Law, Ambedkar was one of the most highly qualified scholars in entire Asia.[7] Despite his knowledge and depth of the subjects, he had to struggle his way back at home to earn bread in the initial days.

Whatever be the size and extent of his practice, Ambedkar’s skills were appreciated as he was invited to be a judge of the Bombay High Court.[8] It would not be incorrect to say that his legal practice had a strong cause to serve society. His past unfortunately is full of incidents of discrimination, against which he firmly opposed by the backing of the law. As mentioned earlier, the bar had most of the politicians, actively practising law. The domination of politics by legal professionals has been used as shorthand for class to attribute the bourgeoisie character of mass politics in India. [9] Others have suggested that the presence of lawyers led to the evolution of a certain moderate constitutional form of politics.[10] His calibre, confidence and the will to make a change could be traced back to an incident, wherein he was offered a position of a District Judge with a promised promotion to the High Court in three years.[11] It was his advocacy for the deprived that the title of ‘Civil rights lawyer’ was conferred to him.

Dr Ambedkar’s first major appearance in a criminal case was in the defence of Philip Spratt, a British Communist who was one of the founders of the Communist Party of India.[12] The case revolved around a pamphlet Spratt wrote titled ‘India and China’; which allegedly was seditious. Therein, Ambedkar strongly argued by articulating that Spratt referred to British Imperialism and not the government of India. The courtroom witnessed a round of applause followed by the acquittal of Philip Spratt.[13] Then the controversial Trade Disputes Act of 1929, which allowed strikes for very limited purposes. Further, there were four primary demands of the labour union; repeal of anti-labour legislation, freedom of speech and right to assembly; maternity benefits and employment insurance; could only be granted by the government and not the employers. Over this dispute, he represented the community by arguing about the above-mentioned demands along with other hardships that they face. The trial court acquitted all the trade unionists, agreeing with Ambedkar’s that merely monetary loss to mill owners could not be put parallel to the hardship faced by the community. Taking a literal view of corporate ownership, the magistrate held that the mills were a limited company whose stocks were held by thousands of shareholders, so the eventual loss to an individual was a small pecuniary amount and acquitted the leaders.[14] Another case involved the defence of the Dalit writers, publishers and printers of the 1926 book “Deshache Dushman” (Enemies of my Country). It was a defamation case filed by a Brahmin Lawyer. Herein, the two-fold argument by Ambedkar established that two people defamed are dead and the lawyer is not a close relative; further establishing how the book was not targeting these two individuals but the entire Brahmin community. The verdict was in his favour as the court called the act a “mischievous one” but not illegal. Then we have the infamous case of Chavdar Tank agitation, wherein Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti. It took 10 years for the final verdict, still, the rights were well defended.

We further have the ‘Gore case where ironically Ambedkar helped establish that the Chitpavan brahmins, many of whom were implacably opposed to Ambedkar, were a distinct community. The contention was about 50,000 rupees that were left behind by a rich Brahmin for his ‘community’. Another set of advocacy that paved the way for liberal interpretation and progressive thinking was the case where he famously defended Prof R.D Karve‘s journal Samaj Swasthya on charges of obscenity. The journal addressed the crucial and less discussed issue of sexual hygiene and sex education. Ambedkar lost the particular case but continued to be engaged in the promotion of family planning. Soon after the Karve case, his party proposed a resolution in favour of birth control in the Bombay legislature.[15] Dr. Ambedkar was also frequent to the cases concerning the death penalty where the accused is generally of Dalit and OBC communities.[16] The journey full of hardships with the curiosity to learn and the will to change made him the reformative civil lawyer that he became. From refusing to become a judge deliberating on cases where money was never an incentive, he always prioritized the issues that the working class deals with. Always articulating people’s rights with the impeccable details of legal arguments led him to make a mark in his limited cases. To earn bread and a decent livelihood, he also taught law as a professor. His stand, values and articulation on his issues were crystal clear to him. His determination could be glorified with a contrast, wherein Jinnah fought an insolvency suit of Rs 2,57,000 and Dr. Ambedkar, on the same day argued the cause of a retired Muslim school teacher who suffered a breach of trust for Rs. 24. [17]

[1] University of Mumbai (B.A., M.A.), Columbia University (M.A., PhD), London School of Economics (M.Sc., D.Sc.), Gray's Inn (Barrister-at-Law)

[2] He had been awarded a Baroda State Scholarship of £11.50 (Sterling) per month for three years under a scheme established by Sayajirao Gaekwad III that was designed to provide opportunities for postgraduate education at Columbia University in New York City.

[3] His thesis was on "The problem of the rupee: Its origin and its solution"

[4] Shashank Shekhar Singh, Remembering Babasaheb Ambedkar the Lawyer, Bar and Bench, 14th April, 2020.

[5] Sumit, Ambedkar: A jurist with no equals, Forward Press, 13TH July 2017.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] He was offered the position of a District Judge in 1923 with a promise of promotion to High Court in 3 years, he was again invited to be a High Court judge in 1942. “Speech by Dr Ambedkar at the AISCF Rally at Jullunder, 1951” Nanak Chand Rattu ed., Reminiscences and Remembrances of Dr Ambedkar (1995) 77

[9] Mithi Mukherjee, India in the Shadows of Empire: A Legal and Political History 1774-1950 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010)

[10] Samuel Schmittenher, “A Sketch of the Development of the Legal Profession in India” Law & Society Review, Vol. 3, No. 2/3, Special Issue Devoted to Lawyers in Developing Societies with Particular Reference to India. (Nov., 1968 - Feb., 1969), pp. 337-382.

[11] “Speech by Dr Ambedkar at the AISCF Rally at Jullunder, 1951” Nanak Chand Rattu ed., Reminiscences and Remembrances of Dr Ambedkar (1995) 77

[12] Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbe, Lawyering as Politics: The Legal Practice of Dr. Ambedkar, Bar at Law. Ambedkar (London and New Delhi, Penguin 2019).

[13] “ Bail Application: Spratt’s Trial Next Session”, The Times of India, Sep 27, 1927, p. 9; “Mr Spratt’s Acquittal” , The Times of India, Nov 25, 1927, p.11

[14] “ Trade Disputes Act Case,” The Times of India, Aug 27, 1935, p.14

[15] Harish Narkeed,, Speeches and Writings of Dr. Ambedkar, Vol II, 2nd edition, (Dr Ambedkar Foundation, New Delhi, 2014) 263.

[16] The Times of India, April 24, 1937;. Narayan Ramchand Jarag v. Emperor, Criminal Appeal 196 of 1947; Vijay B. Gaikwad ed., Courtcases Argued by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, (Thane, 2012)

[17] Rohit De, Lawyering as Politics: The Legal Practice of Dr. Ambedkar, Bar at Law, Academia.

1 commento

Neha Sharma
Neha Sharma
18 mag 2021

Well written! 😊

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