Clash Of The Titans
One never could quite ignore Gandhi. 70 years after independence, you can still smell the scent of his presence in the air. He lives on in film, flag and festival, his face is plastered all over history textbooks, proudly printed on our currency, and his name, in a different avatar, still dominates his political party. Gandhi’s greatness began to be glorified while he was still very much alive. In his own lifetime, he was declared the “Mahatma” — father of the nation. He had managed to create a movement so revolutionary that it united an entire nation’s heartbeats with the entirely new notion of non-violence, and finally put an end to two centuries of oppression under colonial power. Gandhi had become such a celebrated icon in India, that nobody dared to even attempt dismantling his sainthood. Except, of course, for the doctor.
Bhimarao Ramji Ambedkar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had met one another on several occasions but were never able to reconcile their differences. It is evident from the hostile tone of their speeches and addresses directed at each other, that they saw far from eye to eye. And so, two of India’s most brilliant thinkers engaged in a decades long disagreement, their intellectual swords were drawn, and the titans clashed.
While both Ambedkar and Gandhi identified untouchability as the fundamental flaw in Hindu society, they had very different ideas of where the issue was rooted, what the remedy should be, and who should be responsible for curing the country of caste.
Ambedkar was the 14th and youngest son of his parents, and belonged to the untouchable Mahar caste. Throughout his life, like that of many of his fellow untouchables, he faced severe discrimination due to his accident of birth. Because of this, his understanding of the caste system was perhaps more comprehensive and realistic as compared to Gandhi, for whom caste was not as visible a factor of life. Ambedkar defined caste as not merely a division of labour- which is necessary in all societies- but also a division of labourers into watertight, unnatural and hierarchical compartments. In the caste system, heredity dictates the appointment of tasks and there is no freedom to answer to one’s personal passions. He commented, “It is a social system which embodies the arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindu’s who were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who had the authority to force it on their inferiors.” Ambedkar, who later converted to Buddhism, was extremely critical of Hinduism and deemed that it was only a collection of castes, without which it would cease to exist. Gandhi had been a lifelong follower of the religion and retorted, “Thank God, in the front rank of the leaders he is singularly alone and yet but a representative of a very small minority.” He contended that nothing in the law of varna warranted untouchability, and that a religion should be judged not by its worst specimens, but instead by the best it has produced. Dr. Ambedkar’s standard would probably fail every faith known to mankind, Gandhi alleged.
“Equality cannot be established unless we pull away the nails which hold together the framework of caste bound Hindu society.”
Here, he referred to the need for removing the prohibition against intermarriage, which according to Ambedkar was at the heart of the problem. He was of the opinion that the fusion of blood was the only method to spark a sense of kith and kin between different castes. Interestingly enough, although Gandhi did change his stance in the 1940’s, two decades earlier, he commented that although untouchability must go, the laws against inter-marriage and inter-dining should continue. He later revised his judgement, stating that there was nothing wrong with inter caste marriage and that children would take forward the crusade against untouchability. He made a seemingly peculiar announcement saying, “If I had my way I would persuade all caste Hindu girls coming under my influenced to select Hindu husbands.”, which comes across as more forceful than forward-thinking. Gandhi also illustrated his conception of an ideal future wherein there is only one caste known as Bhangi, which means the reformer or remover of dirt.
When it came to electorates, Ambedkar was keenly in favour of separate ones for untouchables and insisted that they be treated as an independent minority, different from the Hindus. Gandhi, on the other hand began a fast to protest for a joint electorate. The Poona Pact was signed in an effort to save Gandhi’s life, and with which a joint electorate was created for Hindus, but with a higher number of seats for the Depressed Classes.
Another point of contention became Hindu scriptures. Ambedkar asserted, “The literature of the Hindu’s is full of caste genealogies in which an attempt is made to give a noble origin to one caste, and an ignoble origin to other castes.” Ironically, in a few pages, Ambedkar drew parallels to characters in the Mahabharata, a renowned religious epic of Hindu culture, and in doing so acknowledged its continued relevance today and rebutted his own argument. He affirmed that the Hindu’s themselves were not wrong to observe caste, but it was the fault of their religion. He viewed the shastras as the real enemy, for teaching caste to its followers. Ambedkar believed to solve this, we must destroy the sanctity of the shastras and denounce their authority. Gandhi said that many of the texts quoted by Ambedkar cannot be accepted as authentic since they were not they word of God, and thus claimed his argument was not pertinent.
The French Revolution of 1798 appeared similar to the social revolution Ambedkar envisioned for the lower castes in India. He drew comparisons using the hierarchal structure of both societies, although the French was economic, and the Indian social. Ambedkar went on to state that if there were to be no opposition to the demands of the depressed classes, and if everyone simply followed the path to justice, the revolution would be peaceful. However, he empathised with why the French became violent, and wrote that the actions of the untouchables would be dependent on the conduct of the caste Hindus. Gandhi, whose brand had always been one of non- violence, would have entirely rejected this justification.
As was inevitable when it came to Gandhi and Ambedkar, another disagreement arose on the question of who best to carry out the reforms required to eradicate the caste system. Ambedkar was of the opinion that the time had come for the depressed classes to demand and exercise their rights under their own leaders. He wrote that it was of no use to remain dependent on the upper castes as it was unlikely for a person in power to surrender their privileges and level the playing field for someone else’s benefit. He also observed that upper caste reformers had an “inescapable patronising tinge to their efforts”, which is reflected in the expression and tonality used by Gandhi whilst speaking on the subject of caste. Ambedkar remarked that untouchables were born for the task of empowering themselves, and in doing so, uplifting the nation itself. However, he contradicted the idea that untouchables should not wait for anyone else to pave their path the moment he declared that reform would only be possible via state action.
Ambedkar was also deeply disturbed by Gandhi’s Harijan Sevak Sangh. He believed that under the pretence of helping untouchables, Gandhi was actually perpetuating a slave mentality among young lower caste students towards their “Hindu masters”. Ambedkar thought the Sangh enabled the destruction of lower caste freedom and established a feeling of dependence in the direction of Brahmins. Using the analogy of the demoness Putana, Ambedkar illustrated how even a murderess can disguise herself as a nurse. When the credibility of the Harijan Sevak Sangh was challenged for not involving the harijans themselves, Gandhi defended himself by saying that this was his way of ensuring the upper caste Hindu’s pay penance for the sin of untouchability.
One of the reasons diagnosed by Ambedkar for Gandhi’s failure to appeal to the masses for the removal of untouchability was that since the Mahatma had become the champion for Swaraj, his campaign for the depressed classes got eclipsed and undermined. Ambedkar also accused Gandhi of preaching without any actual practicing, and of pretending to aid the untouchables as long as it did not bother the caste Hindu’s. On the other hand, Ambedkar was incredibly successful in his journey to highlight the plight of untouchability and attracted world-wide attention towards the rights and liberties denied to the lower castes in India. It was the first time in the history of caste that an era of light dawned over the nation and ignited hope for a better future.
Despite being so drastically different, Gandhi and Ambedkar were both at the forefront of the freedom struggle, and played a monumental role in tailoring the very fabric of India as we know it today. Their diversity in thought acts as a stellar depiction of the true essence of a democratic country. We must encourage voices that challenge each other, contrast and clash, for without them a nation will never blossom to its fullest potential.