While nearing the conclusion of his famous last speech in the Constituent Assembly, titled Three Warnings, BR Ambedkar, India’s first law minister and the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution said, “On the 26th of January 1950”—the day India’s constitution came into effect—“we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.” He decried the country’s caste Hindu society as antithetical to its political vision. “In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man, one vote, and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?” Mirroring a previous question he had raised about whether the Hindu religion had empathy, equality and freedom, Ambedkar pointed to three ideals that India had to achieve if it wished to become a true democracy: liberty, equality and fraternity.
Seventy years later, it is safe to say the country has yet to fully achieve this. In Three Warnings, Ambedkar argued that the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that he espoused, were not from the French revolution. “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha,” he said.
To mark his belief that only the ideals enshrined in Buddhism could ensure socially democracy in a caste-ridden country, on 14 October 1956, on the banks of the Nag River in Nagpur, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, along with more than six lakh others. Since that year, 14 October became the Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas—the day of “setting in motion the wheel of dhamma,” the Buddha’s doctrine—celebrated by Ambedkarites and Buddhists across much of the subcontinent. According to Ambedkar, the first Dhamma Chakra Pravartan was done by the Buddha in Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon, and Ambedkar set the motion of wheel of dhamma again by breaking the age-old shackles of caste hierarchy and untouchability imposed by the Hindu religion, walking towards the same path of emancipation which the Buddha showed the world two millennia earlier.