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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 44, New Delhi, October 16, 2021

Gandhi vs. Ambedkar Debates and Search for Real Swaraj | Badre Alam Khan

Friday 15 October 2021, by Badre Alam Khan


To celebrate 152 Jayanti of Mahatma Gandhi, on the one hand, most of the political parties from the Left to Right (barring a section of Ambedkarites) including secular parties are busy in celebrating Gandhi’s Jayanti with much compassion and commitment. In this respect, civil society and public intellectuals have written several articles in the newspapers and posted messages on social media to express their tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on said occasion. On the other, a section of Hindu nationalist organization (supporters of Nathuram Godse, a killer of Gandhiji) is busy in defaming Gandhiji on the Twitter and Facebook.

 It is a worthwhile exercise to defend Gandhi in the times of cultural and social tensions and amid the rising threat of environmental catastrophe, currently prevalent in Indian society in particular and the global community in general. It is a fact that no any nationalist stalwart can stand with Gandhiji, as far as his role in making of the Nation and contributions in the freedom struggle is concerned. It was Gandhiji who taught us high moral values such as, humanism, non-violence, truth, tolerance, satyagraha, universal brotherhood, care for the destitute (the least advantageous person in Rawlsian sense) and respect for the fellow citizens. Keeping in mind his commitments towards the nationalist cause in particular and universal humanism in general, it is worthy to celebrate and cherish Gandhi’s moral values and his social and political thought on the said occasion.

It is unfortunate to note that the rich legacy of Gandhi and his progressive moral values and secular teachings are under threat, since the rise of the Hindu nationalist politics in recent times. Note that Gandhiji was assassinated by the Hindu fanatic (Nathuram Godse) due his commitments towards the Hindu-Muslim unity, communal harmony and standing with the cause of Muslims amidst the Partition. Still, a section of the Hindu nationalist organizations revered Godse more than Gandhiji. The current BJP’s M.P. Prayaga Singh Thakur’s statement on Godse can be taken as a case in point. For Thakur, Godse (a killer of Gandhiji) was a true patriot.

 Having underlined the Gandhiji unwavering commitments towards the nationalist cause, let me come to discuss stand of Gandhi and Ambedkar on caste system, Varna, and untouchability and other social problems. It is a historical fact that Gandhi was amongst the first nationalist thinkers who seriously opposed the in-human practice like untouchability, widely prevalent in the Hindu caste society. He had also opposed the ban on temples entry for the untouchuables. Besides, it was Gandhi who rejected the practices of child marriage, sati system and other social evils which violate the human rights of women and children. In other words, Gandhi had not accepted everything (evil social practices) in the name of customs and traditions which infringe the most basic human rights of the people.

 However, I am not fully convinced by Gandhiji who defended the Varna and caste system that is based on hierarchical power relations and social inequality. In this respect, Ambedkar reminded us that the caste system is not simply division of labour but also labourers (based on caste identities, not individual talents). On the project of Annihilation of caste, I am more persuaded by Babasaheb Ambedkar than Gandhiji. For Ambedkar, without Annihilation of caste and rejection Hindu Shastras( which advocate caste and Varna based social order), the menace of untouchability cannot be wiped-out from the Indian society.

 It has to be noted that on the question of caste system, and brahmanical patriarchy, Babasaheb was more radical and had taken a firm ethical stand than Gandhi. For Ambedkar, without fighting twine enemies, for instance, capitalism and brahmanism at the same time, we cannot achieve the “Real Swaraj” in the hierarchical and caste based society like India. However, commitments of Gandhi with regards to problems of untouchability, communal questions, wide-range of social evils and gender-based discriminations cannot be entirely ignored.

 In the context of colonial rule, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (INC) had given more primacy to fight against the exploitations of the colonial masters (who destroyed the Indian economic and constructed communalism), rather than caste based inequality prevalent in the realm of civil society. Unlike the nationalist thinkers, for Ambedkar and other Bahujan thinkers (such as Periyar and Phule) without “Annihilation of caste” there will be no “social revolution” (for instance, we cannot achieve the agenda of real swaraj in India).

The purpose of this essay is not to create unnecessary tensions between Gandhi and Ambedkar rather to find out some points of convergence and divergence between them and search for the conception of ‘Real swaraj’ (by reading Gandhi and Ambedkar on said problems creatively in today’s context) which can address the concerns of subaltern masses in the present times. To explain the Amdekarian’s perspective of swaraj, a noted scholar Aakash singh Rathore stated:

 “For Ambedkar, svaraj means profound democratization, tied up with the agency of the governed. Savraj is not a time travel back, but a place-travel down, to the lived experience of the masses” (See Rathore, Indian Political theory: Lying the groundwork for Swaraj, 2017, p-12).

 While highlighting the paradox of Gandhian notion of swaraj, Ambekar had said that Gandhi and the Congress Party wanted freedom from colonial rule but they had not shown genuine commitments to dismantle the existing hierarchical caste-based social order, prevalent in the realm of civil society. In this respect, Rathore further writes:

  “Ambedkar argued that Gandhian svaraj is a ‘paradox’: it stands for freedom from foreign domination, which means destruction of the political order. But it keeps intact the social order, which permits one class to dominate the other”. (Rathore, Ibid, p-197)

 It is a fact that India had got formal political democracy in 1947 but the agenda of ‘social democracy’ and ‘economic democracy’ is still an unfinished task. The path of Gandhi and Ambedkar might be different in their approach but both wanted to address the social and economic problems from their own vantage points to achieve the goal of real swaraj. No doubt, Ambedkar was more ethical and unequivocal in his approach, as far as the caste and Varna system are concerned.

 However, Gandhi also wanted to see India as a “self-reliant” in the realm of the socio-economic and moral/spiritual spheres by conceptualizing an alternative modernity(different from the western civilization). Gandhi in his powerful text like Hind Swaraj( written in 1909) had conceptualized the idea of Swaraj (Self-rule) by rejecting the colonial modernity and evils of western civilizations. In doing so, Gandhi also wanted to address the sufferings of the toiling masses. In this respect, Gandhiji had said on 29th January 1948;

  “The agenda of social, moral and economic freedom still needs to be achieved. As India will move ahead to achieve the target of Lok swaraj, the power of citizens will become more effective and strong in comparison to military power” [ cited by Prof. B.M. Shrama, Dr. Ram Kirshna Dutt Shrama, and Dr. Savita Sharma in,“Gandhi Darshan Ke Vividh Aayam”,(Various dimension of Gandhi’s philosophy, translation is mine ), 2017, p-v]

 In a similar vein, while underlining Gandhi’s conception of Swaraj, a noted scholar like Rudrangshu Mukherjee writes:

 “In Gandhi’s philosophy, swaraj for the nation did not mean merely political dependence from British rule. Swaraj, for Gandhi, was something more substantive, involving the freedom of each individual to regulate their own lives without harming one another”. (Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Economic & Political Weekly, 2009, p 35-36)

 For Gandhi, real swaraj will only be realized when masses are empowered and able to resist the authoritarian power. In this respect, Gandhi says:

 “Real swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.” [Cited by Dr. Apoorvanand, “What swaraj meant to Gandhi and why the government wants to bury that vision of freedom” [1] ]

 To sum up discussions, it is critical to reflect on Gandhi vs. Ambedkar debates afresh, keeping in mind the wide-range of problems such as caste based discriminations, untouchability, communal questions, majoritarianism, capitalism, limits of western civilizations and climate change. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar had expressed their concerns on these issues and problems in the context of colonial India. In doing so, they had tried to address these critical problems from their own vintage points. Despite some differences, both (Gandhi and Ambedkar) believed in democracy, dialogue and wanted to overcome the said problems through the methods of non-violence and satyagraha (struggle for truth) rather than by brute force and violent means.

 On the occasion of the 152 Gandhi’s Jayanti, it will be a worthwhile exercise to seriously ponder over Gandhi and Ambedkar’s critical engagement towards each other, to conceptualize the idea of real swaraj in times to come. In doing so, it will help us to reconstruct the Indian society and politics on the lines of egalitarian philosophy. On the said occasion, this essay invites the readers to look at creatively, Gandhi vs. Ambedkar debates in the current pathetic political and social scenario, to address the mentioned issues and problems.

* ( The Author is a research scholar at Department of Political science, University of Delhi.)

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