Deconstructing Ambedkar through the Gandhi-Ambedkar Debate
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was one of the architects of the Indian Constitution. The significant contributions of Ambedkar to both British and modern India has been his work for the socioeconomic inclusion of the ‘Dalits’. Ambedkar’s efforts to eradicate social evils like untouchability and caste restrictions were remarkable. The political views of Ambedkar are brought to relief in his exchange of ideas on caste and untouchability with Mohandas Gandhi, after the publication of his ‘Annihilation of Caste’. This essay examines this debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi to understand Ambedkar’s political position.
Ambedkar’s Political Life
In 1936, Ambedkar founded the independent labour party, which won 15 seats in the 1937 elections to the central legislative assembly. He published his book ‘The Annihilation of Caste’ in the same year, based on the thesis he had written in New York. Attaining popular success, Ambedkar’s work strongly criticized Hindu religious leaders and the caste system. He protested the Indian National Congress (INC) decision to call the untouchable community ‘Harijan’, a name coined by Mohandas Gandhi. Ambedkar served on the Defense Advisory Committee and the Viceroy’s Executive Council as Minister for labour. Ambedkar oversaw the transformation of his political party into the ‘All India Schedule Castes Federation’, although it performed poorly in the elections held in 1946 for the constituent assembly of India.
Ambedkar’s opinion on partition remained in a state of confusion for many. Between 1941 and 1945, he published a large number of books and pamphlets, including ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’, where he criticized the Muslim league’s demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. While in the chapter ‘A nation calling for a home’, in his book ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’ Ambedkar eloquently stated that the things that divide are more crucial than the things which unite. He also stated that depending upon certain commonality of Hindu and Muslims social lifestyle, common language, common race and common country, the Hindus are mistaking what they consider accidental and superficial to what actually is essential and fundamental. The political and religious antagonisms divide the Hindus and the Muslims far more deeply than the so-called common things that are able to bind them together. Ambedkar considered that the Muslims have developed a ‘will to live as a nation’. For them, nature has found a territory, which they can occupy and make it a state as well as a cultural home for the new-born Muslim nation. While justifying the partition of India, he condemned the practices of child marriage in Muslim society, as well as the mistreatment of Muslim women (Hamdani, 2014).
Ambedkar and Jinnah had a friendly association with each other. As men of the law and as leaders of groups outside the upper caste milieu of Hindudom and Congress, they considered each other as the great resistance to the Hindu caste domination in India. At the time when the Congress quit the government in 1939, Ambedkar joined Jinnah in the celebration the day of deliverance along with Periyar E V Ramasamy Naicker of the Dravidian movement. While he criticised Jinnah, publicly and privately, wherever and whenever he felt Jinnah was making a mistake and Jinnah took it uncharacteristically. He argued that Hindu and Muslims should segregate and the state of Pakistan be formed, as ethnic nationalism within the same country would only lead to more violence. He cited precedences in historical events such as the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Czechoslovakia to bolster his views regarding the Hindu-Muslim communal divide (Hamdani, 2014).
The Poona Pact
Ambedkar was a critic of Gandhi and the INC. Gandhi had an arguably romanticized view of traditional village life in India and a sentimental approach to the untouchables. Ambedkar rejected the epithet ‘harijan’ as condescending. He encouraged his followers to leave their home, villages, move to the cities, and get an education. In his book ‘Gandhi & Gandhism’ he strongly criticized Gandhi as an incapable leader who failed to fulfil his promise given to the untouchables in Satyagraha through temple entry bills.
The Poona Pact refers to an agreement between the ‘Untouchables’, who were excluded from the varna system (then called Depressed Classes, now called Dalits) of India led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and the upper caste Hindus of India that took place on 24 September 1932 at the Yerawada Jail in Poona.
During the first Round Table Conference of 1930-1931, Ambedkar supported the move of the British Government to provide a separate electorate for the oppressed classes which was done in the case of other minorities, like Muslims, Sikhs and others. The British Government invited various Indian leaders for Round Table Conferences during 1930-32 to draft a new constitution which would include self-rule for Indians. Mahatma Gandhi was absent from the First Round Table Conference but attended the latter ones. At that time, Gandhi strongly opposed the proposal of separate electorate for the depressed classes, , which was initiated by the British Government and supported by Ambedkar. He thought that it would disintegrate Hindu society. Gand then went on an indefinite hunger strike from September 20, 1932 against the decision of the then British Prime Minister J Ramsay Mac Donald. Ramsay who granted a communal award to the depressed classes and he gave them a separate place in the constitution for governance of British India (Poona Pact, 2012).
The whole country was agitated at Gandhi’s fast. A mass upsurge began in India to save the life of Gandhi. Dr B.R Ambedkar had undergone great pressure and was forced to soften his stand on the separate electorate for the depressed classes. The compromise between the leaders of caste Hindu and the depressed classes was achieved when Dr B R Ambedkar signed the Poona Pact on September 24, 1932. The resolution was then announced at a public meeting held on September 25, 1932, in Bombay, which declared that “henceforth, amongst Hindus, no one shall be regarded as an untouchable by reason of his birth and they will have the same rights in all the social institutions as the other Hindus have”. This was a red letter day in the Dalit movement process in India that gave a share to the Dalits in the political empowerment of democratic India (Poona Pact, 2012).
The Annihilation of Caste
‘The Annihilation of Caste’ was a speech that Ambedkar was going to deliver in Lahore. Ambedkar never gave the lecture as he was asked by the organisers to modify its content. Later he published it as a book. He did not accept the defence of caste on the basis of division of labour and stated that it was a division of labourers. The former was voluntary and depended upon one’s choice and aptitude and rewarded efficiency. The latter was involuntary, forced, killed initiative and resulted in job aversion and inefficiency.
In the book, Ambedkar reflected mainly on the caste issue and Hindu social system. He cites from D R Bhandarkar’s paper ‘Foreign Elements in the Hindu Population’ stating that there is hardly any caste or class system in India left untouched with a foreign strain in it. These castes and classes are an admixture of foreign blood not only among warrior classes but also among the Brahmins who happily consider themselves to be free from all foreign elements. Ambedkar thus makes a strong argument for the caste system having no scientific basis. Ambedkar states that caste has destroyed the concept of ethics and morality. He said that “The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed the public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound.” Ambedkar found the solution to the problem of caste in inter-caste marriage (Mungekar, 2011).
In ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, Ambedkar’s critique of the Hindu social order was so strong that Mahatma Gandhi, in the weekly journal ‘Harijan’, described Ambedkar as a ‘challenge to Hinduism’. Ambedkar wrote a reply to Gandhi. He was convinced that political empowerment was a key path to achieve the socioeconomic development for the untouchables. Therefore, he demanded a separate electorate for the depressed class in the Second Round Table Conference in 1932. When the British agreed to fulfil his demand, Gandhi started his historic fast unto death at the Yerawada jail. Pressure aroused from all corners that mounted on Ambedkar to forego the demand for a separate electorate as Gandhi’s life was at stake. Unwillingly Ambedkar agreed to the formula of a Joint Electorate with reserved seats in legislatures for untouchables (Mungekar, 2011). Ambedkar thought that only through the abolition of untouchability and the eradication of caste would India become a unified country (Mungekar, 2011).
A statesman, scholar, crusader of the downtrodden and above all a spiritual guide, Dr. Ambedkar has left an indelible impression in the Indian history. Throughout his life, he fought for the rights of the untouchables and during his political career, he remained a strong critic of Gandhi. Gandhi had a more positive, arguably romanticized view of traditional village life in India and a sentimental approach to the untouchables. This essay was a reflection on the contradictory principles of Gandhi and Ambedkar and on the debate that took place between them throughout their political career.
Mungekar, B. (2011, July). Annihilating Caste. Frontline. 28 (15). Retrieved December 18 from http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2815/stories/20110729281509500.htm
Hamdani, Y.L. (2014, March 10) Ambedkar, Jinnah and Muslim nationalism. Daily Times. Retrieved from http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/opinion/10-Mar-2014/ambedkar-jinnah-and-muslim-nationalism
B. R. Ambedkar. (n.d.). In New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 1 July 2015 from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/B.R._Ambedkar
Poona Pact (2012). Retrieved on 1 July 2015 from http://www.indianetzone.com/15/the_poona_pact.htm
(An economics graduate and a keen follower of contemporary debates, the author is a postgraduate student of MPP: Master of Public Policy (2016) at the National Law School, Bangalore.)
Featured image source: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/doctor-and-saint