Gandhi & Ambedkar are arguably the two most powerful personalities in modern India. They both have collided and collaborated in their journey of 25 years. Our Constitution is the synthesis of these two great titans.
Today, the BJP is trying its best to distort history, divide & demean both these titans and to re-write the Constitution based on ‘Manusmriti.’ This has already started taking a toll on the empowerment of marginalized sections, particularly the Dalits and women leading to structural violence.
Post-independence for almost 70 years, the nation was in the path of Empowerment but for the past 7 years, it is in the path of Enslavement. Considering the fact that Dalits constitute only 16% in India and with the Hindutva majoritarianism taking over, it is imperative to revisit the topic of what Congress & Gandhi(s) did for Dalits in the last 100 years.
Until 1915, when Gandhi came to India, Congress was a group of elite thinkers and educated class from India. As soon as he came, he travelled across the country for a year and understood the diversities. After Gandhi, Congress became a mass movement. While mobilizing the masses, he observed three broad sections in the Indian society, the caste Hindus, the untouchables and the Muslims. He realized that he had to deal with them separately based on their socio-political needs. Gandhi figured that the major problem for the untouchables was untouchability at that point of time. Given this context, in 1915 itself, Gandhi ensured to take up the cause of untouchables and brought the issue of untouchability to the table of discussion with Muslims and caste Hindus which was generally avoided.
He basically sensitized caste Hindus towards the issue of untouchability. Ambedkar or Phule or any person from the Dalit community talking about untouchability is obvious, but a Baniya or a Brahmin talking about untouchability is much more important to communicate with the majority.
Dalits in the country are just big minority, but they are just a minority still. Therefore, a person communicating to the 55% of backward classes from the Hindu background was important and more so to communicate with the 10-12%forward communities. Liberation is not only for the oppressed but more for the oppressors.
By the time Ambedkar arrived in India in 1922 after his studies, Gandhi had already created an ecosystem where the Dalit issue was in discussion. Indian National Congress in its annual session in 1917, for the first time since its inception and at the instance of M.K. Gandhi, passed an affirmative resolution concerning the social disabilities of the depressed classes. In fact, one of the reasons the caste Hindus were critical about Gandhi was that he brought the issue of untouchability and Dalits into the discussion and highlighted it in a big way.
After Gandhi, practising untouchability was considered to be a crime or a sin and it has become a part of the consciousness of the Congress party. Whether to eradicate caste or not is a bigger question and Gandhi did not want to address it, as he was also a politician who had to mobilize the majority around the single point of fighting against the Britishers.
Ambedkar was clear that caste, promoted as part and parcel of the religion which was practised by the majority, was the primary cause for systemic graded inequality, which is reflected in all walks of our lives even today. He insisted firmly that the core issue for Dalits was not untouchability (Gandhi’s focus) but the institution of caste.
Only the intellectual class of those times was aware of what Ambedkar was speaking about. Later as he also started travelling, he understood the dynamics amongst different castes/communities in different states and learnt how to place issues in the political framework. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar in their initial stages had certain theoretical ideas but once they started moving with people, they started learning and exchanging their views through letters, newspaper articles and interactions which had a lot of impact on both the sides.
Ambedkar influenced Gandhi & Congress sociologically and Gandhi influenced Ambedkar politically. As a pragmatist, Ambedkar understood that a collaborative process was unavoidable. Though he had other platforms to express his views he felt that in the long run he had to collaborate with the Indian majority led by Gandhi and the Congress.
We have to recognize that Gandhi was a seasoned, astute politician who was able to mobilize the majority around his ideas and political agenda, a primary quality of a good politician. Though Ambedkar was strong on moral and ideological grounds, he found it difficult to cut across all communities and communicate due to his social background. In late 1940s in-spite of various differences, he collaborated with Congress and ensured that before his lifetime, he got certain affirmative measures enshrined in the Constitution, as he felt that after his death nothing much will be there for his people to hold and move ahead.
This journey of Gandhi and Ambedkar is vital for Dalits particularly, who happen to be a major minority, if we consider them as an aggregate of communities. As a Mahatma, Gandhi was glorified globally but on the other side, he was considered an enemy to RSS, a person who was hated by certain Dalit leaders and was criticized by Jinnah. The fundamentalist caste Hindus hated him because he brought the social issues. The fundamentalist Muslims hated him because they felt that his freedom struggle was based on the Hindu philosophy. The Dalits felt that he was taking up the issue of Dalits from the upper caste perspective.
In-spite of having disagreements on all three fronts, Gandhi tried to keep all three communities together which was needed to fight the Britishers and moreover, through the path of ‘Ahimsa.’ Due to the concept of ‘Ahimsa,’ weaker sections such as women, Dalits, tribals and minorities also had a role to play in the freedom struggle.
In conclusion, the three areas of differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar are religion, the grama swaraj (romanticising village) and the role of state. The first is religion. Gandhi felt that there are problems in Hinduism whereas Ambedkar felt that Hinduism itself is a problem, thereby underlining a phenomenal difference in their approaches.
The second point of difference was in their view on the rural village setup and grama swaraj. Gandhi glorified the village and he felt that villages were the primary basic unit of the country which has to be given autonomy. Whereas, Ambedkar always felt that it is better for people to move towards urban areas which will reduce the stigma and will pave way for the marginalized particularly the women and Dalits to get out of the clutches of the caste system promoted in a agrarian rigid society.
The third point of difference is the role of the State. Gandhi was a person who had to fight with the state through non-violence and hence he had to literally be an anarchist. Whereas, Ambedkar strongly believed that the role of the state was very significant to enforce the social democratic values and to safeguard the rights of the marginalized.
The Constitution is a product of the convergence of Gandhi, Congress and Ambedkar. Until Independence, Gandhi and his politics kept the RSS away for almost 30 years and we all realize now that another Gandhi is needed to restrict the RSS. It will be difficult for Ambedkars and Phules to keep the RSS away because they deal with only the socially marginalized. Who is going to deal with and influence the majority ultimately matters in a democracy like ours?
To draw a parallel, Periyar of Tamil Nadu or Periyarism practised by Dravidian parties have been successful up till now in keeping the Hindutva forces away because they appeal to the majority, backward classes which is almost 70% including the religious minorities. This major section, who are considered to be the Shudras are sentimentally influenced by Periyar’s idea. If not for his atheist view, at least the backward class reservation has been a very important consolidating factor.
Though Ambedkar criticized Gandhi for various reasons, still he travelled with Gandhi for almost 25 years which culminated with the Constitution. Hence, this journey of both the titans is of great significance for the emergence of the marginalized sections & Modern India, which was taken up by Nehru, post-independence.
Nehru, the architect of Modern India, took the sentimental aspects of Gandhi and the scientific aspects of Ambedkar and brought them together into his first 14 years of politics and nation building. Nehru’s process of institution building had a great influence of Ambedkar.
The irony here is, Gandhi was a Baniya who for all practical reasons had to soft pedal on religious sentiments whereas Nehru, a Brahmin was more modern, scientific and closer to the views of Ambedkar and his approach. Instead of trying to judge them, we will have to get into their shoes and try to understand the context and find out the ironies within each personality. That is the beauty of history and personalities. We might find such ironies amongst friends, leaders and political parties around us. We need to contextualize them appropriately and understand them critically to collaborate successfully, based on pragmatism and not opportunism.
The Author is a Secretary, AICC