Ram Madhav
September 30, 2023

Gandhi and Ambedkar, Then and Now

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on September 30, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Gandhi is indispensable. You may love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. Escorting the world leaders attending the G-20 summit to the Gandhi Smriti, the black marble memorial built at the place where Gandhi’s last rites were performed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated the same, saying, “Gandhiji’s timeless ideals guide our collective vision for a harmonious, inclusive and prosperous global future.”

Gandhi’s personality is profound. One should approach it with a blank slate, putting aside one’s ideological biases. Because Gandhi engulfed all ideologies and went beyond them. He became a creed himself.

No world leader has produced as much literature as Gandhi did. His complete works run into a hundred volumes. While going through this vast literature, there is always a temptation to misquote or quote Gandhi out of context. Gandhi needs to be read and understood with an open mind.

The good thing about Gandhi, unlike many others, was that he knew about his own infallibility. “Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh …. Therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the latter of the two on the same subject,” he submitted with courage and humility.

October 2 is Gandhi’s birth anniversary. This month has another significant date. On October 14, 1956, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Gandhi’s arch-rival in politics and on social issues, quit the Hindu Dharma and embraced Buddhism along with over 3,00,000 followers. That event is also celebrated annually.

Gandhi and Ambedkar held opposing views on certain fundamental social issues like varna and caste. They had detailed discussions over these contentious questions. Eventually, it was on these questions that the two agreed to ink the famous Poona Pact. The Pact was the most historic development in the last century, the failure of which would have resulted in catastrophic consequences for Hindu society. Gandhi pledged his life on it, and Ambedkar his honour.

The Poona Pact was an agreement to provide quotas for the Depressed Classes within the Hindu framework. Ambedkar, who initially championed the cause of separate electorates for the Depressed Classes at the Round Table Conferences with the British, relented and agreed to quotas within Hindu society, partly due to the pressure mounted on him by the fast unto death undertaken by Gandhi.

Initially, Ambedkar was adamant that the “welfare of untouchables is dearer” to him than Gandhi’s own life. More than any disrespect to Gandhi, Ambedkar was determined about his principles. Gandhi too was adamant. “You should not care for my life. But do not be false to Harijans,” he told Ambedkar.

A close scrutiny of the discussions leading to the Poona Pact reveals that while there were significant and fundamental differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar, a certain optimism drove both to conclude the matter.

On the question of the status to be accorded to the Depressed Classes, who faced inhuman cruelties like untouchability, both Gandhi and Ambedkar were unanimous. Gandhi claimed that while Ambedkar was a born untouchable, he was “an untouchable by adoption”.

In fact, Gandhi believed that without “eradicating untouchability root and branch” and treating untouchables “on par with caste Hindus in every respect,” the honour of Hinduism cannot be saved. Normally a sober and mild-mannered person, he aggressively called upon the “entire untouchable community” to unitedly “rebel against the Sanatanists”. “I will raze to the ground the fort of Sanatanists with dynamite if all the untouchables are one and united,” he thundered.

However, the critical disagreement between the two was not over the treatment of the untouchables but on its philosophical underpinnings. Ambedkar wanted that philosophical foundation, in the form of the four-fold segregation of society, sanctioned by the Hindu scriptures, to go.

But Gandhi, at least in principle, was more inclined to go with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj in 1875. The Swami believed that it was imperative to replace the hereditary caste system with the Vedic system of varna, in which an individual will be assigned a varna based on his wisdom through an examination of his qualities, actions and nature.

Gandhi held this position throughout his deliberations with Ambedkar. “Caste, insofar as it is based on untouchability, is an institution of the devil, and we must get rid of it at any cost. But I have explained repeatedly that caste expressed as varna dharma is an eternal law which we may not break except at our own risk …. The law of varna was discovered by our ancestors ages ago; and … it has appeared to me a wholly beneficent law,” he wrote in 1934.

Ambedkar was not convinced. He believed that the varna dharma was at the root of the problem. He demanded that the Hindus produce some “sacred authority” for removing it, not just superficial changes like temple entry or co-dining. He told the depressed classes to not regard Gandhi as their friend since he “wishes to retain caste [that is, varna] and abolish untouchability”. “The underlying idea that caste and untouchability are two different things is founded on a fallacy. The two are one and inseparable,” he insisted.

In the end, the Poona Pact remained just a political agreement for power sharing. But the social challenge of casteism and untouchability remained. Gandhi fervently appealed to Ambedkar that by signing the Poona Pact, he would concede to remaining a Hindu. Ambedkar rejected it and in a couple of years declared that he wouldn’t die a Hindu.

Gandhi, meanwhile, became the target of criticism from both the Sanatanists who believed that he was destroying their dharma and the oppressed classes who thought he was not doing enough. And caste, varna and Sanatan Dharma continue to be debated animatedly in the country even today.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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