It’s been more than 75 years: Lawyers demand Ambedkar statue at the Supreme Court

A sanitation worker garlands a statue of India's social reformer BR Ambedkar on the occasion of his 64th death anniversary, in Amritsar on 14 April 2020. Ambedkarite lawyers have asked that a statue of BR Ambedkar be installed on the Supreme Court lawns. NARINDER NANU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
19 December, 2022

On 6 December, members of the group Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Lawyers for Social Justice, submitted a letter to DY Chandrachud, the chief justice of India, asking that a statue of BR Ambedkar—India’s first law minister, often called Babasaheb—be installed on the Supreme Court lawns. In recent years, BALSJ members have led efforts for the official commemoration of Ambedkar, who spearheaded the drafting of the Constitution, at the country’s highest court. The letter has raised important questions of who is commemorated and honoured in public memory.

Pratik Bombarde, a member of BALSJ, told me, “Ever since I joined practice here, I looked around the Supreme Court and I was shocked not to see a single photo of Babasaheb. I spoke to several others and they too agreed we should demand it.” The BALSJ was founded by six lawyers in 2014, and the installation of a portrait was among their first demands.

Their request was accepted by Dushyant Dave, then president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, or SCBA. A portrait of Ambedkar was installed in the SCBA Library-1 of the Supreme Court annexe, situated across the street from the main court campus. The portrait was painted by Paresh Maity, a Padma Shri winning artist, and was inaugurated in an event on Ambedkar’s 124th birth anniversary, in 2015.

The library already had portraits of several other lawyers, including MC Setalvad, CK Daphtry and RK Jain. Ambedkar, the president of the drafting committee of the Constitution, had not been pictured or commemorated until 2015. 

Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, 14 April, is a holiday in the Supreme Court. “So, we started to gather at the library on 13 April to pay homage to Babasaheb,” Bombarde said. They also began to gather there every year on 6 December, Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Each year, the number of attendees grew.

“Every year, when we all Ambedkarite lawyers gather for such occasions, because of limited space in the Library-1, inconvenience gets caused to other members of the Bar,” the letter states. “Time and Again we have raised this issue with SCBA and Supreme Court Administration, but no one pays any heed to our request.” As a result, the BALSJ asked that a statue of Ambedkar be installed by the Supreme Court administration or the Indian government on the Supreme Court lawns which would allow for bigger gatherings “so that we all can pay tribute and homage to him in true sense.”

The letter added, “Sometimes we Ambedkarite Lawyers fail to understand the fact that, every year on 26th November programme”—Constitution Day—“all the dignitaries quotes Dr. Ambedkar in their respective speeches but no one raise this issue of installation of his Statue inside Supreme Court.” Bombarde said that though the SCBA helped inaugurate the painting, it was silent on the subject of the statue. “We keep wondering, whenever elections happen, they ask us for votes, but none ever make any promises about a statue of Babasaheb,” he said. “Why can’t they make that one of their promises?” 

The BALSJ’s demand follows a tradition that is already in place in various public institutions. In February 2022, the Karnataka High Court resolved to place the portrait of Ambedkar at all official functions of the courts, such as Republic Day, Independence Day and Constitution Day. It resolved to do so in the high court’s principal bench at Bengaluru, its benches at Dharwad and Kalaburagi—as well as in all district and taluka courts in the state.

In August 2022, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court ordered that Tamil Nadu’s director of legal studies issue a circular mandating the installation of the portrait of Ambedkar in all government law colleges in the state. “Dr. Ambedkar is the architect of the Indian Constitution,” The Hindu quoted the judge as saying. “He is the very symbol of social liberation. His scholarship is unparalleled. He can be the greatest inspiration for every law student.”

A statue of Ambedkar is present in Parliament as well. It was installed in the 1970s, after a struggle led by Bhaurao Gaikwad, a senior Ambedkarite leader from Maharashtra and a founding member of the Republican Party of India. On Ambedkar’s death anniversary this year, the senior most leaders of the government and the opposition including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Droupadi Murmu, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, and the Congress’s former president Sonia Gandhi, paid respects at the statue.

In 2018, the BALSJ received permission from Dipak Misra, the chief justice at the time, to hold an event on the lawns of the Supreme Court—designated as a high-security zone—on 14 April that year. The atmosphere was sensitive at the time. The Supreme Court had recently passed an order that diluted the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by removing immediate arrest upon complaint as a mandatory provision. This triggered an unusually massive protest from Dalits across the country—called the Bharat Bandh—without a call from any political party. Given the situation, the BALSJ wanted the event to be sensitively handled.

“We got a large portrait and placed it on a painting stand at the Supreme Court lawn,” Bombarde told me. “We garlanded the painting and distributed sweets.” Seventy lawyers attended the event. “What touched me most was the reaction of the safai karamcharis”—sanitation workers—Bombarde said. He continued, “They had all worked there for several decades and had never seen a photo of Babasaheb in the premises. They were so happy they joined us and helped us with organising the whole event.” He said that several members of the Supreme Court administrative staff also joined them. “It was the first time we all recognised each other,” he told me. “Because it was a sensitive time, we gave no speeches. We all chanted the slogan ‘Jai Bhim,’ and ended the event soon after. But it was exhilarating to know the amount of support there was. If so many people came for just a painting, then a statue could bring so many more. We sensed the momentum.”

The lawns already play host to two statues, that of Mohandas Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. It is widely agreed that Ambedkar’s contributions to the legal field far exceed those of Gandhi and Tilak.

“Despite Gandhi’s statue being here for so many years we don’t see any commemorations there, we see no major gatherings there on his birth anniversary,” Bombarde said. “There are so many who come to remember Babasaheb, they come every year. Doesn’t that show us why a statue of Babasaheb is important?” Pointing to Ambedkar’s centrality to Indian legal discourse, the BALSJ’s letter says, “Even no Constitution Bench hearing of Hon’ble Supreme Court goes without mentioning his thoughts on respective articles of our Constitution.”

Bombarde expressed shock that in more than seventy-five years since Independence, none of the people passing through the court had thought to ask why a portrait or statue of the architect of our Constitution was not present. “Did no law minister ask about this? Did no judge ask about this previously? How come none of them did?”

Ambedkarites—the followers of Ambedkar’s anti-caste writings—have argued that judicial monumentalisation of Ambedkar is vital to honour his foundational contributions to the nation. Many Dalit communities display statues of Ambedkar to celebrate his values of social justice and caste equality. These statues are vandalised with an almost monthly regularity—garlanded in footwear, smeared in black paint or torn down by dominant caste communities to denigrate Dalits and crush their attempts at asserting themselves in public spaces.

In 1989, the Rajasthan High Court installed an 11-foot statue of Manu—the author of the Manusmriti, a Brahminical legal code which prescribes harsh penalties against women and oppressed caste communities. Ambedkarites have protested against the installation of the statue since, but an order for its removal was stayed by the high court based on a public-interest-litigation filed by a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader. The PIL is reportedly the oldest writ petition pending in the high court. When it was last heard in 2015, proceedings were disrupted by a group of protesting Brahmin lawyers. In 2018, Sheela Pawar and Kantabai Ahire, two Ambedkarite activists from Maharashtra, sprayed black paint on the statue and were arrested for harming public property and “hurting religious sentiments.”

In Parliament, reservation provisions have ensured some representation of marginalised castes and tribes. The demand for an Ambedkar statue was raised by a Dalit parliamentarian. No such demand has risen within the judiciary. Of the 28 current judges of the Supreme Court, only two—BR Gavai and CT Ravikumar—hail from Dalit communities. This is the first time since 1990 that two Dalit judges are sitting on the Supreme Court. In all its history, the Supreme Court has seen just one judge from Adivasi and tribal communities: HK Sema, a member of a Naga tribe.

Bombarde told me that the BALSJ had even made inquiries regarding the cost of the statue. He was confident that if it came to it, Ambedkarites across the nation would have raised the money required to this effort. “This country has millions of Ambedkarites who would happily donate money for this. There are Ambedkarite politicians who would even donate a gold statue if needed,” he said. “But this is a battle for recognition. It should not be donated under any individual’s name, it should be installed and paid for by the Supreme Court itself. The court should recognise how much Babasaheb has given for this profession, how important he is to every working of our legal system.”

On 6 December this year, the BALSJ requested the Supreme Court’s judges to join the commemorating event. Both Gavai and Chandrachud attended. It was at the event that BALSJ handed over its letter to the chief justice. Bombarde remembers Chandrachud saying, “I will certainly look into this. Whatever we are today, we are because of his vision.” The BALSJ has received no formal reply yet from the CJI, but Bombarde said the representation had been given only recently “so we will wait and see.”

The letter ends with a quote from one of Ambedkar’s speeches in the Constituent Assembly: “Let us leave aside slogans, let us leave aside words which frighten people. Let us even make a concession to the prejudices of our opponents, bring them in, so that they may willingly join with us on marching upon that madness, which as I said, if we walk long enough, must necessarily lead us to unity.” Bombarde told me, “This is a statue that can awaken so many to the ideals that Babasaheb represented for everybody, the ideals that should be kept alive in this court. It gives us all the hope to fight for justice.”