[BR] Ambedkar’s politics is an example of the lower caste’s articulation of caste in the public sphere which unsettles the boundaries and strives to “recover a space for the language of caste in the colonial public sphere.” As an example of such power-oriented and indirect language of caste being employed by the upper castes and a direct language of caste-as-caste being employed by the lower castes, the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate on caste becomes significant. Ambedkar and Gandhi, as Arundhati Roy tells us, were not merely involved in a theoretical debate on the issue of caste. Rather both as (public) interlocutors represented very separate interest groups, and their battle unfolded in the heart of India’s national movement.”

Their public debate, as Suhas Palshikar reminds us, became more pronounced on the question of untouchability and the abolition of caste. Let us go into the debate considering (rather imagining) Gandhi (an upper caste Hindu) and Ambedkar (a lower caste Hindu) as two participants within the colonial Indian public sphere to deliberate on the issue of casteism and its annihilation or removal.

The debate starts with Ambedkar’s long text in 1936 titled Annihilation of Caste, where his main focus is to find the elementary foundations of caste hierarchies and to suggest revolutionary remedies (if any can be possible) to transcend the caste barriers of Hindu social life. Ambedkar’s two arguments become significant for our purpose. First, he argues that the defenders of casteism claim that it is actually a division of labour (akin to Pandian’s naturalisation of caste discussed above) necessary for day to day functioning of any civilised society. He argues that the caste system is not only a division of labour but also of the labourers who are divided and graded into hierarchical water-tight compartments.

It goes against the basic logic of classifying labour based on natural aptitudes and instead classifies the labourers based on their heredity and birth. Rather than being a division of labour based on choice, it predefines the division on the beliefs of predestination. The caste system thus becomes a division which subordinates “man’s natural powers and inclination to the exigencies of social rules.”

But where do the social rules come from? And what other social divisions apart from the birth-based division of labour do these rules enforce? Ambedkar’s response to these questions unravels the second argument he makes regarding caste.

The congenital division of labourers into water-tight compartments gives rise to an entire hierarchical set-up which strictly prohibits inter-marriage and inter-dining between the castes. Ambedkar thinks that the mere removal of the prohibition of intermarriage and inter-dining is akin to treating the symptom of a disease, rather than its source. If the real source of the disease of casteism needs to be removed, then the religious sanctity for casteism has to be overthrown from the Hindu’s minds conditioned by religious teachings. For Hindus, casteism is a teaching of shastras, and a way out is to free the minds of Hindus from the sanctity of the shastras. One needs to destroy the authority of the Shastras and Vedas to disinvest caste of its religious and divine basis.

Gandhi as the upper caste interlocutor in this debate wrote a series of responses in 1936 in Harijan. He considers Ambedkar as a challenge to Hinduism and a representative of a very small minority. Gandhi argues that casteism has nothing to do with religion and that religion does not articulate itself through the interpretations of scriptures (shastras) but through the experiences of its seers and saints.

The custom of casteism in the form of hierarchy and untouchability has origins different from the institutions of varna and ashrama in Hinduism. He reduces the meaning of varna to a duty-based division of labour where the Brahman and the scavenger are equal before God for fulfilling and continuing their particular duties of ancestral calling. Varna in no way warrants untouchability.

To invoke Pandian, one can easily figure out how easily Gandhi as an upper caste is hedging on casteism by indirectly focusing on work and ancestry. Further, Ambedkar’s arguments have nothing to do with getting equal benefits in the eyes of God, but rather getting equality and dignity in the social milieu between a human and a human.

In 1937, Ambedkar responds with a lengthy reply to Gandhi. He argues that the question is not about the validity or invalidity of interpretations of shastras. The question ideally is about the people being told that casteism is a religious duty enshrined in the shastras. The saints either do not attack casteism or when they do, it is considered outside the institutional fold to be admissible only to them and not the masses. There can be no solution to the social problem of casteism and untouchability by following what Gandhi says. Keeping varnavyastha intact while seeking solutions for caste hierarchy is futile. It keeps the labels of four castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) alive and as long as the labels continue, caste hierarchy and untouchability are bound to continue. To quote Ambedkar;

If the Mahatma believes as he does in everyone following his or her ancestral calling, then most certainly he is advocating the Caste System and that in calling it the Varna System he is not only guilty of terminological inexactitude, but he is causing confusion worse confounded.  

The terminological in-exactitude and confusion are symptomatic of talking about caste through a language which appears non-casteist but remains one at the core. From the above public debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar, (which is only a small fragment from the colonial public sphere of India), one figures the public positions that Ambedkar and Gandhi take vis-à-vis the issue of caste. Aakash Singh Rathore argues that the starkly opposing and irreconcilable positions of Gandhi and Ambedkar stem from their worldview of “emancipation from what” and “emancipation into what” regarding the problem of untouchability.

What Rathore misses is that the irreconcilable positions are not merely theoretical arms chair positions taken for the sake of formulating a normative imagined community. The positions taken are theoritico-practical, with the practical part being public (with implications) and weighing more on the scale of formulating a response to the questions of “emancipation from what and emancipation into what?”

Gandhi’s arguments take a favourable perspective of the religious sources of casteism by differentiating between varna and casteism. As a critical traditionalist, he is critical of the practice of caste, but at the same time not ready to admit Shastras as its source. Caste for him is a custom originating in the society itself and has nothing to do with the Hindu religion per se. Ambedkar on the other hand is clear in his argument that the origin of casteism is religion and the Hindu shastras extend sanctity to its perpetuation. Ankur Barua argues that Gandhi distinguishes between an “ideal system of four mutually cooperating varṇas,” and regards the caste hierarchy and untouchability “as latter-day excrescences, Ambedkar consistently refused to draw such a distinction.”

Their positions from the perspective of the Hindu religious worldview are antagonistic to each other as far as the existence and removal of casteism is concerned. Gandhi argues akin to Pandian’s upper caste; ready to treat caste as a naturalised custom rather than a religious creed. Ambedkar speaks of caste-as-caste hitting at its source and structure. But the burden of caste is too much to allow a free-flowing rational debate as envisaged in the bourgeoisie or the religious public sphere of Habermas.

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar are arguing as burdened individuals; burdened by their respective positions in the caste system. While Gandhi is freely invoking the religious resource to prove his point and offer reasons, the same religious resource restricts Ambedkar from subscribing to it and seeking an emancipatory path within. The result is a debate which is continuing, with no public opinion (in the Habermasian sense) in sight. The translation proviso of Habermas, necessary for formulating public opinion to be taken over by the strong public sphere for consideration does not apply here. Who is going to choose the religious articulation to be considered for translation, as envisaged by Habermas? Which articulation is worthy of translation? The Gandhian one, or the Ambedkarian one.

Since the translation has to be a mutual exercise, will Gandhi (or Gandhians) accede to translating Ambedkar’s view and vice versa? The questions are endless, and the Habermasian perspective of religion within the public sphere does not provide intellectual resources to tackle with the exception of the Indian public sphere. To quote Ambedkar, “caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste.”

Ambedkar is firmly grounded in his belief that the burden of caste is too much to be shunned while crossing the threshold of the public sphere for rational discourse. Maybe for Ambedkar, a propertied bourgeoisie can turn into home while entering the Habermasian coffee house or salon. But for a Hindu, caste becomes the frame to perceive and engage with things in both the private as well as the public sphere. A casteist cannot become a home and a home cannot be a casteist: one can only be either of the two and that essentially is the source of irreconcilability between Gandhi and Ambedkar.

At a broader theoretical level, this irreconcilability can be extended to the notion of the Habermasian public sphere. Religion as a hyper-dominant resource within the Indian situation makes any free-flowing critical-rational debate between the powerful and powerless, majority and minority, upper caste and lower caste almost impossible. For it is the religion that shapes and determines these binaries within the Indian situation.

Under such circumstances, the Western notion of the agnostic reason is hardly available as a resource for the participants of the Indian public sphere. The agnostic reason presupposes as well draws the boundary for the resourcefulness of religion in the Habermasian framework. The resourcefulness of religion is too hard to be tamed by the agnostic reason in our societies.

We may need an alternative mode of communication, apart from the one anchored in agnostic reason, that can shoulder the native conception of the Indian public sphere. Let us see if the alternative mode of communication and debate can be anchored in rationality at all, or in an alternative framework of debate!

Excerpted with permission from India, Habermas and the Normative Structure of Public Sphere, Muzaffar Ali, Routledge India.