Soul mates or Enemies?
The birth anniversary of Bharat Ratna Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was celebrated with great pomp and show, after the lean period of two years in Corona. It was celebrated in many other countries apart from India. We have given Buddha to the world, but the two great Indians have also been a source of inspiration to the world - Dr. Ambedkar and Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution, is known all over the world for his immense knowledge while Gandhiji for truth, non-violence and satyagraha.
The inspiration derived from Babasaheb’s thoughts is becoming a source of hope with each passing day. Wherever conflicts have emerged, especially in the last seven years, people had Babasaheb’s picture in their hands. Dalits were subjected to atrocities in Unnao, Gujarat. In this struggle, people held firmly the image of Babasaheb in their hands and the slogan of ‘Jaibhim’ resonated vociferously in their voice. Babasaheb was all-pervasive - be it the issue of Nationality (NRC) or the farmers’ movement across the country; with Mahatma Gandhi at his side at all times. If this is the reality, are Gandhi and Ambedkar complementary or antagonistic? If they are opponents then why? What is the common link between the two? Let us try to examine these issues on the background of Ambedkar Jayanti.
After returning from South Africa, Gandhi first expressed his views at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi in February 1916. Dr. Ambedkar read an essay in the Seminar on Anthropology at Columbia University, USA in May, 1916. This was the first speech given by Dr. Ambedkar on a public platform. Gandhiji was talking about the independence of the country and Ambedkar wanted such freedom that was free from the caste system.
The Gandhi-Ambedkar controversy started with the issue of untouchability. Gandhi was an influential figure at that time and had an influence on the Congress as well. The process of taking socio-political decisions was being carried out at the great counsel of Gandhi. However, Ambedkar was of the opinion that Gandhi did not show this effect in relation to untouchability as a result. Gandhi and Ambedkar differed on the issue of untouchability because of their different experiences of the same. Gandhiji was born in a congenial environment. He was looking at untouchability from the religious and spiritual point of view. Ambedkar, on the other hand, had to bear the unbearable pain of caste and humiliation. He was distinctly saying that Hinduism, which believes in untouchability, is unjust. Untouchability is a crime. Although Gandhiji was a staunch Hindu, a supporter of the caste system, yet he considered untouchability a sin.
Ambedkar’s work started with the organization of the untouchable society. Untouchables were prohibited from entering temples. Moreover, the untouchables were not allowed to draw water from public wells. These practices were linked to religion. A movement started against this inhumanity. Babasaheb travelled all over Maharashtra and the country, uniting Dalits and instilled a sense of self-respect in them. Ambedkar’s message was - learn, organize and fight...
The Mahad Satyagraha under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar is an important link in the history of Shudra/Atishudra struggle. The upper caste leaders influenced by Ambedkar’s ideas were also involved in this movement. On March 20, 1927, the ‘Manusmriti’, which justified the four Varnas, was burnt to ashes. Mahad Parishad was started on December 25, 1927. People interested in eradicating caste discrimination gathered from all over Maharashtra for the present council. Different slogans were written all over the pavilion. There was only one picture on the stage and that was of Gandhi.
Babasaheb must have considered Gandhi’s non-violent Satyagraha as ideal at that time. On the other hand, Gandhiji might not have even heard about the revolution going on in Mahad. He never even mentioned it anywhere.
Satyagraha began in 1930 to demand entry to the Kalaram Temple in Nashik. There were attacks on the helpless Dalit community. The news of that movement reached even England. The British government took seriously the injustice inflicted on the untouchables. Babasaheb was invited to represent the untouchables in the Round Table Conference. This was worrying for Gandhiji as he had been working for Dalits for years, but now comes centre-stage – Ambedkar! Questions like - Who is this Ambedkar? How can he be the representative of the backward? - pestered Gandhiji. So before leaving for the Round Table Conference, Gandhi invited Ambedkar over. On August 14, 1931, this meeting was fixed at Mani Bhavan in Mumbai which was an extremely interesting first meeting.
Babasaheb expected that something positive would come out of this meeting. Both were punctual. Ambedkar reached there on time as per the plan, but Gandhi ignored Ambedkar completely. He was busy playing with a goat. Why this contempt? It was to be astonishing if Babasaheb didn’t get angry. This went on in silence for a long time. Eventually, Babasaheb got up and said, “I don’t have time. I take your leave.” Immediately upon this reaction from Ambedkar, Gandhi came to him for discussion. While presenting his role, Ambedkar said, “Mr. Gandhi, where is my motherland?”... Gandhiji was rendered speechless. He had made a mistake!
Gandhi was erroneous in considering Ambedkar a Brahmin. He believed that just like Agarkar and Bhandarkar, Ambedkar was a brahmin too. Gandhi was not interested in a Brahmin representing the untouchables. Gandhi was unaware of Ambedkar’s caste. He could not respond to Ambedkar’s questions and stood speechless even after Ambedkar left. Gandhi ji confessed to his assistant Mahadevbhai saying, “I have made a huge mistake today.” But this experience led to Ambedkar’s anger towards Gandhi. Gandhiji was a diplomat saint, says so the researcher-thinker Hari Narke.
WHY WAS THERE TENSION BETWEEN GANDHI AND AMBEDKAR?
Babasaheb’s effective rationalism resulted in the Round Table Conference. The British government declared independent constituencies for Dalits just like for Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Anglo-Indians. Dalit candidates in 71 constituencies and only Dalits to have the right to vote. Gandhiji did not approve of this at all. Considering this a ploy to divide Hindus, Gandhiji announced a fast-unto-death. The British Prime Minister said that Gandhi and Ambedkar should discuss and come to an agreement.
Gandhi started his fast at Yerwada Jail in Pune on September 20, 1932, and there was a tense buzz all around. The pressure on Ambedkar increased. He became a villain and was threatened. The world’s attention was reduced to the role of Ambedkar. And thus said Ambedkar, “I am ready for discussion, but Gandhiji should come up with a new proposal.” But Gandhiji had no other such option or proposal. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Madan Mohan Malviya and other leaders started a round of talks with Ambedkar and Gandhi.
On September 22, Babasaheb went to Yerwada Jail to meet Gandhi where tension prevailed. Seeing Gandhi, Babasaheb’s aggression subsided. He sat near Gandhi’s bed and elaborated on his role in a contained calm tone. He also definitely said that you are doing injustice to us.
“You have all my sympathy. Doctor, I am with you in what you are saying. But you do want me to live?”– Gandhi “Yes, Mahatmaji. If you give your all for my people, you will be the great hero of all”– Ambedkar “You are untouchable by birth, and I spontaneously. May we all be one and inseparable. Think, if you want to keep me alive” – Gandhiji
After this, the Pune Pact was concluded. The proposal for reserved seats instead of independent constituencies was agreed upon. Babasaheb signed the Pune Accord on September 24, 1932, with 148 reserved seats for untouchables. Even after this agreement, Gandhi-Ambedkar met once. But the Pune Pact created bitterness in the minds of Ambedkar’s followers.
Babasaheb had said that it is impossible to reform the Hindu religion. Gandhiji was shocked at this. After the Pune Pact, Gandhiji started working against untouchability through the Harijan Sevak Sangh. He toured the country from November 1933 to July 1934. A sum of Rs. 8 lakh was collected for the prevention of untouchability. His role also changed regarding inter-caste marriages. However, this initiative was not yielding concrete results. Gandhi was making efforts, but his efforts for reforms were not getting support of Hindus - Babasaheb also knew this very well.
In fact, before the Pune Pact, Gandhi did not know enough about Babasaheb nor did his associates give enough knowledge about Ambedkar to him. It was during Gandhiji’s fast, that the process of talks started between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Had it occurred earlier, there might not have been any bitterness in the Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship.
Dr. Ambedkar was elected from the Bengal province to the Constituent Assembly in July 1946 with the help of Jogendranath Mandal and Muslim votes. Congress leaders were impressed by Ambedkar’s scholarship in the Constituent Assembly. After partition, that constituency of Ambedkar in Bengal merged with Pakistan. Jinnah invited Ambedkar. But he was ‘AMBEDKAR’! Gandhiji insisted that Babasaheb should be in the ‘Ghatnaa Samiti’. Congress leaders were not ready for this. Of course, at Gandhiji’s behest, the Congress elected him to the Constituent Assembly in July 1947 from the Mumbai province. Ambedkar was included in the first national cabinet. Lord Mountbatten has confirmed this.
Everyone knows the history ahead. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar did a remarkable job as the Chairman of the drafting committee. Ambedkar became the ‘Architect of the Indian Constitution’. Gandhi and Babasaheb have also taken some inspiration from each other. Senior ideologue Raosaheb Kasbe says that both kept their respective roles intact, yet broadening their horizons with interconnected experiences.
Bhikhu Parekh, a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons in England, has written in his books thus, “Ambedkar and Gandhi should both be considered complementary to each other. Because both did the same work in their different styles. Both wanted to bring about a change in the Indian caste system and the outlook of the society and both gradually accomplished it.” While answering a question in England Gandhiji said, “I can understand the criticism of Dr. Ambedkar. He also has the right to even spit on me. The treatment of untouchables by all upper caste Hindus is a sin. They have every right to spit on us. If they do so, I will accept it.” This was Gandhi’s restlessness.
Ambedkar was certainly a Gandhian critic, but he also displayed decency and tenderness for Gandhi several times. On September 06, 1954, Dr. Ambedkar advised tax on salt and suggested to name it ‘Gandhi Nidhi’.
Gandhiji wondered at the question of which religion Dr. Ambedkar would adopt, leaving Hindu religion behind. In 1956, Babasaheb, along with his lakhs of followers, adopted Buddhism in Nagpur. Gandhiji was not present there to see that. Babasaheb followed the thoughts of Buddha. Gandhiji had imbibed the values of peace, non-violence and compassion from Buddha himself. Had Gandhi been there, he would have said in unison with Ambedkar... ‘Buddham Sharanam Gachhami!’
Author is a spokesperson in Mumbai Regional Congress Committee