They were rivals, but with the same mission

  • Ramachandra Guha
  • Updated: Oct 26, 2014 08:58 IST

I wrote in my last column about how the politics of today has set Nehru and Patel up as rivals, even enemies, although they worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the first, formative, years of independent India. This column is about another pair of great Indians, Gandhi and Ambedkar. It asks the question — were their visions conflicting or complementary?

Unlike Patel and Nehru, who were lifelong colleagues in the Congress, Gandhi and Ambedkar were never in the same party. When, in the mid 1920s, Ambedkar returned from his studies abroad, Gandhi had already assumed control of the Congress-led freedom struggle. There was a massive halo around him. He was the ‘Mahatma’ everyone deferred to. But, as the late DR Nagaraj once wrote, Ambedkar was too proud a man to play the role of Hanuman or Sugreeva to Gandhi’s Ram. So he charted his own political trajectory, independent of, and opposed to, Gandhi and the Congress party.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, Ambedkar fiercely criticised Gandhi. He thought the Gandhian approach to ‘Harijan uplift’ patronising and condescending. Gandhi wanted to purify Hinduism by removing the taint of untouchability. Ambedkar, on the other hand, rejected Hinduism altogether. He thought the Dalits must convert to another faith if they wished to become equal citizens.

Ambedkar and Gandhi were certainly political adversaries in their lifetime. Now, six decades after their deaths, must we still see them as such? The ideologues of the left and right do. In 1996, Arun Shourie wrote a long book dismissing Ambedkar as a ‘false god’.

He made two main charges against Ambedkar: first, that he sided with the British rather than with the nationalists (he was in the viceroy’s executive council at the time of the Quit India movement); and second, that he used polemical and occasionally abusive language against Gandhi.

Two decades later, Arun Shourie has found his left-wing counterpart in Arundhati Roy, who, in a book-length essay, has dismissed Gandhi as a false Mahatma. She claims that Gandhi was a conservative defender of the caste system who changed his views ‘at a glacial pace’.

Both Arun Shourie and Arundhati Roy see history in black and white, in terms of heroes and villains. A historian, however, must be attentive to nuance, to the shades of gray. So, contra Shourie, one must ask, why did Ambedkar side with the British?

This was because the Congress was dominated by Brahmins, who had of course oppressed Dalits in the past, and might do so again if they came to power in independent India. For the same reason, other great low-caste reformers such as Jotiba Phule and Mangu Ram (the leader of the Adi-Dharm movement in the Punjab) also thought the Raj a lesser evil as compared to the Congress.

As for Roy, it is only by selectively quoting Gandhi out of context that she can paint him as a slow-moving reactionary. As careful scholars such as Denis Dalton, Mark Lindley, and Anil Nauriya have demonstrated, Gandhi steadily became more direct in his critique of caste. To begin with, he attacked untouchability alone, while leaving the other rules of caste intact. Then, through his temple-entry movement, he began advocating inter-mingling and inter-dining as well. Finally, he insisted that the only marriage he would solemnise in his ashram was one between a Dalit and a Suvarna, thus calling into question the very basis of the caste system itself.

Gandhi’s campaign to abolish untouchability may seem timid to the Leftists of today, but it was regarded as extremely daring at the time. It struck at the very core of Hindu orthodoxy.

The Sankaracharyas were enraged that a mere Bania who knew little Sanskrit dare challenge scriptural injunctions that mandated untouchability. In a petition to the colonial authorities, they demanded that Gandhi be ostracised from the Hindu fold. During Gandhi’s anti-untouchability tour of 1933-34, Hindu Mahasabha activists showed him black flags, threw faeces at him, and in Pune in June 1934 even attempted to assassinate him.

Gandhi’s campaign was unpopular within his own party. Nehru, Bose, Patel and company believed the Mahatma should have set social reform aside and focused exclusively on the winning of swaraj.

Remarkably, despite their disagreements, Gandhi persuaded Nehru and Patel to make Ambedkar a member of the first Cabinet of independent India. Gandhi told them that freedom had come not to the Congress, but to the nation. The first Cabinet, he said, must draw upon the finest talent regardless of party affiliation. That is how Ambedkar became law minister.

For those who seek a subtle and scholarly assessment of the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship, the book to read is DR Nagaraj’s The Flaming Feet. Nagaraj writes that “from the viewpoint of the present, there is a compelling necessity to achieve a synthesis of the two”. This is absolutely correct. For, social reform takes place only when there is pressure from above and from below. Slavery would not have been abolished had not guilt-ridden whites like Abraham Lincoln responded to the critiques of the likes of Frederick Douglass. Civil rights would not have been encoded into law had Lyndon Johnson not recognised the moral power of Martin Luther King and his movement.

Although they were rivals in their life-time, from the vantage-point of history one can clearly see that Gandhi and Ambedkar played complementary roles in the undermining of an obnoxious social institution.

For no upper caste Hindu did as much to challenge untouchability as Gandhi. And Ambedkar was of course the greatest leader to emerge from within the ranks of the Dalits. Although the practice of untouchability has been abolished by law, discrimination against Dalits still continues in many parts of India. To end it fully, one must draw upon the legacy of both Ambedkar and Gandhi.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal

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