The Celebration of Social Justice and Empowerment - Legacy of Dr BR Ambedkar Parliament House, Canberra Australia, March 26, 2016
Ladies and Gentlemen
SLIDE 1: It is a great honour and a pleasure to take part in this historic meeting, in Parliament House, the heart of democracy in Australia, the country in which I was fortunate to be born..
Winston Churchill, who led the British people during World War II, said in the House of Commons, in the British parliament, a similar system of government to that which the Australian system is based on, that “It has been said that many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
However, it is worth recalling that Churchill, despite his great courage and leadership against Hitler was, at least in his early life, not only racist, including towards anyone born in India, but also opposed to giving the vote to white women born in his own country – apparently against the wishes of his own wife, Clementine. Churchill was particularly upset by the violent tactics of the women, the suffragettes, who in turn argued that men would only listen to force. It is also worth recalling that Churchill had a major role in the decision to invade Turkey in 1915, an action that caused immense suffering and thousands of pointless deaths not only to Australian troops but to many Indians.
SLIDE 2: But let me go back. 1789 marked the French revolution, which culminated in the execution of the French head of state and was the first time democratic forces really took power in Europe, although the reign of democracy was initially brief. This period also saw a distinct rise in gender equality, with the release of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791.
SLIDE 3: Across the Channel, in England, which at that time had not only just lost its American colonies (after a form of democracy spread there - but excluding representation to both slaves and its Indigenous people) but had also invaded the continent this meeting is on, there was great fear that there would be a contagion of democratic aspirations, as indeed briefly occurred in Austrian dominated Holland. In England, in the Brabant Revolution, in 1819, soon after Waterloo, the battle that ended the Napoleonic wars (which England won) there indeed were signs of this, with a large public gathering (perhaps 60,000) at St Peter’s Field, in Manchester, many dressed in their best clothes. Manchester was in the throes of the industrial revolution, with great hardship endured by many people.
At that time, only 2% of adults could vote. This drawing, to celebrate what was created soon after called “Peterloo” (to try to embarrass the troops), reflects some of the outrage that followed the official reaction to this protest, which led to 18 unarmed people dying including a woman and a child. Over 700 people were said to be injured. Some of the text says “cut him down, cut him down” and “Oh pray sir, don’t kill mammy, she only came to see Mr Hunt”. News of this brutality spread quickly in England, and the authorities never again were quite as brutal, perhaps recognising that to do so could foment even more resistance. This event also contributed to the birth of the Guardian newspaper, which is still campaigning. To do this day there is concern that the event has been poorly memorialised, a campaign is underway for a better memorial.
SLIDE 4: My next slide is one of the earliest photographs ever taken. It shows a great crowd at Kennnington Common, near the Oval, in south London. Many of this crowd were police, there to make sure the gathering remained peaceful. It is regarded as the last great gathering of the Chartists, a movement then about 10 years old, which sought to gain a wider franchise, a movement towards democracy, not only for men but for women.
SLIDE 5: This shows Rani Jhansi a rebel in the 1857 attempt to overthrow the British, in India who were acting as a kind of super-caste, oppressing almost all Indians. She was called, by some, the Indian "Joan of Arc" (who also fought against the British.). (If you look closely you can see a small boy - her stepson - lashed to her back, as she rides.)
SLIDE 6: My next slide is about 50 years further into the future, it shows a great gathering of women marching for the vote in London. They were unsuccessful, but in 2013 the suffragette cause was further stirred by the martyrdom of Emily Davidson, a suffragette who had endured more than 50 forced feedings and who had been in prison many times. She was trampled by a galloping horse during the Derby, in view of the king. She may have been been trying.to pin a suffragette banner onto the king's horse.
SLIDE 7: These pictures give you a tiny taste of the long struggle for greater equality and a fairer go, which Dr Ambedkar is a great part of. I feel other speakers here are far more qualified and knowledgeable than I am to speak of his role, but it is my sense that there is still a need not only for Dr Ambedkar but many other champions of greater fairness, both in India and beyond India. We also need champions for the environment, and for species other than our own.
SLIDE 8: Finally I want to say a few words about BODHI. BODHI is an organisation which I co-founded in 1989 with my late wife Susan. There is a picture of Susan and I, taken with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in India, in 1990. BODHI is one of the world’s mainly Buddhist charities. Since 2005 we have supported projects with followers of Dr Ambedkar, mainly in Pune, Maharashtra. One of these followers is Karunadeepa, one of whose grandfathers took part in the original conversion in Nagpur, in 1956. Here is Karunadeepa getting an award for her social work, only last month.
SLIDE 9: Karunadeepa is part of a larger organisation inspired by Ven Sangharakshita and Dr Ambedkar, called TBMSG. Sangharakshita's book on Ambedkar can be downloaded for free at www.sangharakshita.org/_books/Ambedkar_and_Buddhism.pdf.
Thank you so much, especially to the organisers, for the opportunity to speak to you today.
Slides are also available at http://www.slideshare.net/ColinButler/democracy-dharma-the-long-struggle.