Gandhi commemorated in Surrey, but Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar's legacy is also being celebrated

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      Yesterday, there was a gathering in Surrey to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the death of Mahatma Gandhi.

      But some of the organizers would prefer if another hero of the Indian independence movement, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, were just as famous as the high-caste Gujarati lawyer who became a global icon for embracing nonviolent resistance to the British Raj.

      Ambedkar was born a Dalit ("untouchable") in 1891 and was scorned and bullied in school by upper-caste Hindus.

      According to a December cover story on Ambedkar in Surrey-based Radical Desi magazine, Dalits were so discriminated at the time that barbers refused to cut his hair and he was forbidden from studying Sanskrit.

      Ambedkar attended high school in Bombay (now Mumbai) and later travelled to the United States and England where he obtained doctorates from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

      He returned to India to lead the struggle for equal rights for Dalits, who were barred from even entering Hindu temples.

      Ambedkar sometimes disagreed intensely with Gandhi. That's because in Ambedkar's view, Gandhi was more keenly interested in promoting harmony between Hindus and Muslims than fighting the caste system that led to such discrimination against Dalits.

      (Former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld covered their rivaly, including a serious schism over discrimination in the state of Kerala in 1925, in his 2011 book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India.)

      Had Gandhi been more forceful in challenging the caste system instead of adopting a gradualist approach, he probably would have lost the support of Hindus, who comprised the vast majority of India's population.

      After India secured independence in 1948, Ambedkar became law minister and chaired the drafting of his country's constitution, which guarantees equal rights and prohibits untouchability.

      However, he remained skeptical whether equal political rights without economic reforms would truly level the playing field in his country.

      "In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality," Ambedkar said. "In politics we will be recognizing 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? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril."

      It's a message that should resonate nowadays in Canada and the United States in an era of sharply increasing inequality.

      Ambedkar quit the cabinet in 1951 after concluding that the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was not willing to fight opponents of equality within the government.

      After he was defeated in the 1952 election, Ambedkar was appointed to the upper house where he sat until his death in 1956.

      Later in life, Ambedkar became a Buddhist after first considering whether to convert to Sikhism.

      Prior to leaving the cabinet, Ambedkar had worked with Nehru to on laws dealing with Hindu marriages, guardianship, property, and adoption, which eventually passed in 1955 and 1956.

      After Ambedkar's passing, Nehru praised his contributions to bringing forward laws to address the caste system.

      "I am happy that he saw that reform in very large measure carried out, perhaps not in the form of that monumental tome that he had himself drafted, but in separate bits," Nehru said in parliament.

      Ambedkar remains famous within India, but he's not very well-known in Canada and the United States outside South Asian communities.