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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 6, New Delhi, January 25, 2020 - Republic Day Special

Gandhi-Ambedkar Debate

Monday 27 January 2020

by Ashok Celly

Gandhi was the inventor of the world’s most original non-violent revolution called Satyagraha. He thought it would prove India’s most effective weapon in her fight for freedom against the British. And it did. The British left India in 1947. Gandhi was also a great crusader against untouchability (and later the caste system). He thought it was a great social evil and a blight on India’s culture. And he did his utmost to root out this evil but he didn’t use very special, and most potent, weapon against it. Why?

The vital difference between Gandhi’s approach to the Harijan problem and that of Ambedkar was that while Gandhi didn’t want to use such a revolutionary weapon against the caste Hindus as he thought it might completely alienate them from the Harijans, Ambedkar was convinced that the caste Hindus didn’t consider the Harijans as a part of the Hindu community. In Ambedkar’s words, “The caste system is the first of the governing rules of the Hindu religion. The second is that the castes are of unequal rank. They are ordered in a descending series of each meaner than the one before.” (“The Revolution Against Caste”, cited from Ramchandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India, p. 208)

Gandhi believed that he could reform the caste Hindus by appealing to their conscience, to their sense of morality. In fact, his speeches and writings on this issue are full of phrases like “repentance” and “reparation”. (The “Abolition of Untouchability”, Makers of Modern India, p. 165)

Satyagraha, Gandhi believed was not to be used against one’s own people. Gandhi was not only unwilling to use Satyagraha in his fight against untouchability, he went to the extent of condemning the Harijans who had the audacity to use Satyagraha against the caste Hindus. To quote Ambedkar, “ 1929 the untouchables in the Bombay Presidency opened a campaign of Satyagraha against the Hindus for establishing their civic rights in the matter of temple-entry and taking water from public wells. They hoped to get the blessings of Mr Gandhi in as much as Satyagraha was Mr Gandhi’s own weapon to get wrongs redressed. When appealed to him for support, Mr Gandhi surprised the untouchables by issuing a statement condemning their campaign of Satyagraha against the Hindus. (“Why the Untouchables Distust Gandhi”, Makers of Modern India”, p. 222)

Satyagraha, one would have thought, was a weapon against injustice and oppression and not just the foreign oppressor, that is, the British. So Gandhi’s distinction between one’s own people, no matter how oppressive they may be, and the foreign oppressor sounds bizarre. Also, it must have taken some sheen off Satyagraha as a weapon of universal applicability. The universal relevance of Satyagraha as a weapon was later demonstrated by people like Martin Luther King and others.

History seems to have proved Ambedkar right. The Harijans to this day have not become a part and parcel of the Hindu community. In his book that he published in 1945, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, Ambedkar observed, “After 25 years of labour, hotels have remained closed, wells have remained closed and in many parts of India—particularly in Gujarat—even schools have remained closed.” (Makers of Modern India, p. 220)The situation is not very different even today. The great divide continues in spite of Gandhi’s best or less-than-best efforts. It is true that some sections of the Harijan community are better-off thanks to the reservation of jobs for the Harijans largely because of Gandhi’s campaign for their betterment. But the kind of assimilation and integration that Gandhi dreamt of hasn’t materialised. The big, and somewhat bitter divide, continues.

Gandhi-Ambedkar debate on the Harijan problem and Gandhi-Tagore debate on Non-cooperation were the two most fascinating debates during the freedom struggle. It seems because of Gandhi’s towering presence in Indian politics his views have prevailed and those of
Tagore and Ambedkar haven’t received the kind of attention they deserved. We really need to look at them again because of the importance of the issues involved for a better understanding of our contemporary history.

The author retired from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi as a Reader in English. He is now a freelancer.

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