Ambedkar & Gandhi

A brief consideration of their approaches to the problem of caste

In 1915, when the 48 years old Gandhiji arrived in India from South Africa, he was already famous as the one who had challenged the mighty British with his spiritual weapon of satyagraha. For about a year he was to travel to different parts of the country, especially the countryside, in order to familiarise himself with the problems of this vast country, before launching his non-violent fight for India’s Independence. His non-violent battle against British imperialism is a significant part of the story, the larger part consists in his systematic, rather calibrated fight against the proven social ‘evils’; that is, he spent greater part of his time and energy in addressing the socio-economic and cultural problems of the country .

In 1915, when Gandhiji arrived in India the 24 years old Ambedkar was still in America studying for his MA degree and Ph.D. It was as a student in Columbia University that Ambedkar read a paper on ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis & Development’, which marked the beginning of his critical and political engagement with the caste system in India, which was to last until his death in 1956.

The 1920s was a decade of great political ferment; in particular, during this period, socio-political trends with far-reaching consequences began to develop. It was the period of great political mobilisation of the oppressed and the exploited sections of the society. The peasants, depressed classes, even women began to organise themselves into unions, sanghas or sabhas to voice their protests against injustice, and fight for their freedom and dignity. It was also the period when Hindu nationalism began to consolidate its support across the country.

Around this time, the Congress Party too, under the leadership of Gandhiji, made the removal of untouchability and the amelioration of the depressed classes an integral part of its movement. For, in Gandhiji’s view, political swaraj or freedom would be meaningless and empty without freedom from social tyranny and economic poverty.

Dr. Ambedkar, who was trained in Western Political Sciences and was quite familiar with the political, historical struggles of the oppressed people the world over, and an insightful understanding of Indian history, was somewhat cynical about the social movements started by non-dalits. He suspected, not without reason, that these movements were not geared towards bringing about changes in the power structures of the Hindu society, which should put a Dalit on equal footing with a caste Hindu. The social reform movements started by persons such as Dayananda Saraswathi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, even Ranade, Gandhi and several others, were all right when they tackled the problems related to remarriage of widows, women’s right to property, education of women, education and general amelioration of the economically poor and so on. But when it came to tackling caste tyranny, removal of all forms of caste discriminations, they were not radical enough. They all began at the top and not at the bottom. The urgent task, however, was complete abolition of the caste system, and the reconstruction of Hindu society on the basis of equality.

More importantly, Ambedkar hated the dalits dependency on caste Hindus for their betterment. He knew from history that saints through ages had propounded philosophies and notions of bhakti according to which all human beings were equal before God, but that could not lead to the creation of an egalitarian society. Mahatmas had come and gone, but the conditions of the dalits had not changed. All this only showed that ultimately, injustice or the problems of the dalits could not be removed until the dalit, the victim and the sufferer himself did away with it by his own exertion and action. So long as the conscience of a slave did not burn with hatred for his victimhood or slavery, there was no hope for his salvation. Self-help, Self-elevation and Self-respect were the mantras Ambedkar offered to his people to goad them into action. And he gave yet another rallying call to his people to ‘educate, organise and agitate’ if they had to truly free themselves from the centuries-old religious, social and economic oppression by the caste Hindus and the upper classes.

Among the several socio-political activities and protest movements initiated by Ambedkar, the Mahad Tank Satyagraha and the burning of pages of manusmriti are most notable, for the kind of impact they had on the cultural politics of the country, and for galvanizing the dalits in a way never seen before. And these protest movements made Ambedkar the unquestionable leader of the depressed classes.

In seven years time after his return to India (1923), Ambedkar became a force to reckon with. In 1930, along with political bigwigs, he too was invited to London to attend the First Round Table Conference. As was expected, he drew the attention of the British Government and the world at large to the terribly inhuman condition under which the dalits lived in India, which was in many ways comparable to the racial discrimination the Black community suffered in America. Indeed he made the British Government become more acutely aware of and recognise the problems of the depressed classes, and thus prepared the ground for securing the rights of the depressed classes and their representation in legislatures, in the cabinet, and in government services.

The same year, he was once again invited to participate as the representative of the depressed classes in the Second Round Table Conference. Before he left to London to attend the conference, he met with Gandhiji. This was his first meeting with Gandhiji. Till then, it seems that Gandhiji was under the impression that Ambedkar was a non-dalit who took up the cause of the depressed classes a little more passionately than required. Only after the report of Ambedkar’s good work at the First Round Table Conference reached Gandhiji, did he come to know that Ambedkar was actually a Dalit.

However, the first meeting between Gandhiji and Ambedkar would have ended in a disaster if Ambedkar had not held on to his patience and waited for Gandhiji to finish his long chat with his party members. When at last Gandhiji turned to Ambedkar and straightaway asked him why he did not support his work and the Congress policy regarding the removal of untouchability, Ambedkar was brutally frank in stating that the Congress was not genuinely interested in changing the power structure of Hindu society which was based on caste hierarchy. Reportedly the meeting ended on a note of disappointment and disagreement between the two masters with regard to the issue of separate electorate for the depressed classes.

The Second Round Table Conference (1930) marked the first among many battles between Ambedkar and Gandhi, in which Ambedkar used all the weapons in his armoury to attack Gandhiji’s position. The impression one gets of Ambedkar is that he was passionate, angry, even arrogant and rude, but always deeply concerned about the fate of the depressed classes in free India. And that of Gandhiji as one who was not at his best, a little wily, quite out of wits, yet deeply disturbed and sad to witness the polarisation of Indians into almost irreconcilable groups on the basis of caste and religion.

We do not know but can only speculate as to what could have been the possible impact on Indian politics had Gandhiji and Ambedkar cooperated with each other and worked as co-workers at the Second Round Table Conference. It was not to be, and it marked the beginning of the battle between the two masters which in many ways affected and involved the nation in its tortuous march towards political freedom and abolition of untouchability.

Months later, Gandhiji’s fast, against what was called the Communal Award or Separate Electorate for the depressed classes, deepened the quarrel between Gandhiji and Ambedkar. Later on, Ambedkar regretted his compromise with Gandhiji and for signing the Poona Pact; however, it was historically significant in two ways: one, by signing the Poona Pact Ambedkar saved Gandhiji from possible death, which would have had disastrous consequences as far as the dalit issues were concerned. Two, it forced Gandhiji to address himself to the problem of caste system with a greater sense of political vigour and urgency.

Gandhiji started Harijan Sevak Sangh aimed at the total removal of untouchability, education of the dalits, promotion of inter-dining, temple entry, and the economic development of dalits. But with most of its executive members being non-dalits, the Sangh had certain inherent weakness and lacked the radical thrust to initiate revolutionary changes. Actually, Gandhiji had envisaged it as a way of cleansing caste prejudices on the part of the caste Hindus. But Ambedkar, who had willingly become a member of the Sangh, resigned on the ground that the Self-purification approach of the Sangh could hardly initiate the much-needed social revolution he desired. It seemed a mere pious wish and gesture which failed to combine within its approach the fight for civil rights and political empowerment of dalits.

However, in late 1930s, Gandhiji began to realise the importance of inter-caste marriages to break the caste hierarchy, but still did not take up the issue with the seriousness it deserved. Ironically, his anti-untouchable programme, just as his efforts at building Hindu-Muslim unity, won him more enemies among the caste Hindus. If the Hindu fundamentalists hated him for what they believed to be his pro-Muslim stance, now the caste Hindus turned against him for his anti-caste activities, and both the groups saw him as an enemy of Hinduism.

Still, Ambedkar was not impressed, for he thought Gandhiji was not radical enough. At this time, one of Ambedkar’s undelivered speeches was published as a book ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (1936).  This cogently argued book against the evils of caste system pushed Gandhiji to react yet again in defence of varnashramadharma. Ambedkar’s response to Gandhiji was long and ruthless, which exposed Gandhiji’s defence of chaturvarna as unrealistic, spiritually untenable and politically retrogressive.

It took almost another ten years for Gandhiji to realise that ‘the evil’ was far greater than he had thought it to be and completely give up his defence of chaturvarna and accept not only the need for but the inevitability of the annihilation of caste if India were to reach anywhere near his idea of ahimsa, truth and swaraj. In this context, Gandhiji’s association with Ramachandra (Gora, the atheist, who was a champion of inter-caste marriages) probably helped him make the radical shift in favour of the total abolition of caste system. In 1946, he began to directly support and even preside over inter-caste marriages. In his reply to a correspondent, which was published in Harijan, he said: ‘It is certainly desirable that caste Hindu girls should select Harijan husbands. I hesitate to add that it is better. That would imply that women are inferior to men. I know that such an inferiority complex is there today. For this reason, I would agree that at present the marriage of a caste girl to a Harijan is better than that of a Harijan girl to a caste Hindu. If I had my way I would persuade all caste Hindu girls coming under my influence to select Harijan husbands.’

When Gandhiji was assassinated on Jan 30, 1948, by a Hindu fundamentalist, Ambedkar maintained a conspicuous silence. He issued no statement either against the killing or about Gandhiji. Eight years later, on the day he decided to renounce Hinduism and embrace Buddhism, he remembered Gandhiji. To the press reporters he said that once he had told Mahatma Gandhi that though he differed radically from him on the issue of untouchability and chaturvarna, when the time came for him to renounce Hinduism, he would ‘choose only the least harmful way for the country and that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism, for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bharathiya Culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.’

The unity of purpose between the two approaches

Dalit groups all over the country continue to draw inspiration, ideas and strategies from Ambedkar’s life and work for their political struggles against caste prejudices, against the collusion of the Law, Police, Bureaucracy, the landlords and upper castes in the oppression and exploitation of the dalits. But what is unfortunate about their struggle is not only the ideological divide between Gandhiji and Ambedkar, but a certain self-conscious hatred and rejection of Gandhiji. This has not helped the cause of the dalits.

As we have seen, however briefly, history shows that both Ambedkar and Gandhiji affected each other deeply and cured each other of their excesses. While the question of untouchability was a civil rights issue and required legal measures against it, to Gandhiji untouchability was a problem of the Hindu self, and it needed to be cleansed and transformed inwardly and totally. Although the Self-Purification approach and Self-Respect movement may appear to diverge, they do merge at a deeper level and strengthen each other. The spiritual and political, and the moral and legal are not necessarily exclusive or cancel each other, rather they profoundly complement each other. And as we have seen, the intense debate and confrontations between Gandhiji and Ambedkar that spread over for more than two decades changed each other radically. As a result of this, in the words of the late D. R. Nagaraj, ‘Gandhiji took over economics from Babasaheb, and Ambedkar internalised the importance of religion.’

Gandhiji’s Khadi programme, his idea of Village Swaraj or Village Reconstruction was geared towards the welfare of village as a whole, but they were intimately related to the problem of the Harijans as well. Eventually, Gandhiji shed much of his ambiguity regarding caste as he realised that ‘the evil’ of chaturvarna was far greater than he had thought it to be, and he unreservedly supported and argued in favour of inter-caste marriages.

More importantly, it must be understood that much before Ambedkar arrived on the political scene, Gandhiji had made untouchability one of the crucial issues of Indian politics. And his effort at the removal of untouchability, both directly and indirectly did complement Ambedkar’s efforts to bring about structural changes, and in working out the constitutional safeguards for the depressed classes. It is not as if the conflicts and differences between the two leaders cannot be resolved; rather, the differences in their approaches should enrich and sharpen our understanding of the problems faced by dalits, women and other marginalized groups, and enable us to develop an alternative cultural praxis to fight against all forms of discrimination and social injustice. This is not to say that such understandings and efforts have not been there at all, but only to stress the point that the work must be carried on, and the deep-seated animosity transcended.

In other words, Gandhiji’s experiments and Ambedkar’s trials with truth are far from over; rather, the underlying unity of purpose between the two and the historical necessity of the present should make us appreciate the need to creatively combine the two approaches in the search for an alternative cultural politics in the cause of the marginalized, dalits, women and the rural poor.