My history hero: Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891–1956)

Bhimrao Ambedkar was an Indian lawyer, economist, politician and social reformer – and the principal architect of India's constitution after it gained independence in 1947. Nigel Planer tells York Membery why Ambedkar is his history hero...

Bhimrao Ambedkar, May 1946. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Born into an ‘untouchable’ caste, Bhimrao Ambedkar was a brilliant student and went on to gain degrees at Columbia University, New York and the London School of Economics before pursuing a career in law and politics. A lifelong opponent of the caste system, he also helped inspire modern Buddhism. In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Born into an ‘untouchable’ caste, Bhimrao Ambedkar was a brilliant student and went on to gain degrees at Columbia University, New York and the London School of Economics before pursuing a career in law and politics. A lifelong opponent of the caste system, he also helped inspire modern Buddhism. In 1990, he was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award.

When did you first hear about Bhimrao Ambedkar?

I first heard about ‘Babasaheb’ – as he was affectionately known – Ambedkar when I chanced upon a statue of this pudgy-looking bald chap in glasses on a trip to Rajasthan in the 1970s. He certainly didn’t look very heroic! But when I started reading up about him, I soon realised that he was a truly extraordinary figure.

What kind of person was Dr Ambedkar?

There are few people who you can say were great in terms of both their achievements and willpower – but with him you can. He was born a Dalit – an ‘untouchable’ – so he wasn’t allowed to sit in the school classroom, or even touch the class water jug. Yet he went from that to being post-independence India’s first law minister, and then wrote its constitution – so the trajectory of his achievement is astonishing. He was someone with a great feel for what was right and just. In a way, he was the first modern Indian.

What made him a hero?

In part, the fact that he achieved such great things from such disadvantaged beginnings. Even after qualifying as a professor, students and other academics wouldn’t talk to him – yet his attitude was not one of bitterness, but one of striving to make things better for society as a whole. So for instance, he started a magazine for untouchables, fought for reserved places for Dalits in the Indian parliament and campaigned for women to have equality of marriage, education and inheritance. However, he remained frugal in his private life. All of which, in my mind, are heroic qualities.

What was Ambedkar’s finest hour?

He was the main architect of India’s constitution, which has to be his greatest achievement. Looking back, we assume post-independence India was going to be a democracy, but it was far from inevitable. It could have easily gone communist. Weaving together all those states that made up the Raj, and keeping all India’s ethnic groups onside, was a huge challenge – yet he wrote a constitution that was acceptable to all, and is still pretty much serviceable today.

So why isn’t he better known?

Interestingly, the Indian government has bought the house in Greenwich where he lived when he was studying at the LSE in the 1920s. And last year, prime minister Narendra Modi officially opened Ambedkar House on the site, which is to be developed into an international memorial. So I think that’s going to change…

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I shouldn’t imagine he was a barrel of laughs! He was a pretty serious guy, but he would have had to be, to do all that he did.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

I feel completely inadequate on every front compared to him. He was a brilliant scholar, showed great strength of character and had such patience with the world – whereas my maths is appalling, I’m narcissistic and I’ve never been very good at studying.

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If he came to your dinner party, what would you ask him?

I would ask what he really thought of Gandhi, with whom he had his disagreements. I’d like to know if they got on okay personally – or if they really didn’t much like each other.

Nigel Planer is an actor best known for his role as Neil in the The Young Ones. He is currently appearing in the BBC One series Boomers.