Common ground: Why the Liberation Theology of Gandhi and Ambedkar is as vital as ever

Their ideas can help Leftist and Dalit groups find unity against ‘the usurpers of our democracy and our history’, writes filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.

With the fiery orange of Hindutva coming to dominate the tricolor, Narendra Modi’s rise to power has seen the rapid spread of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Pseudo-nationalism is invading every campus.

At Hyderabad Central University in 2015, the ABVP clashed with the Ambedkar Students Association. Initially both sides were reprimanded and the matter seemed to have been resolved. But after two Bharatiya Janata Party ministers put pressure on the university, five PhD scholars from the Ambedkar Students Association were suddenly expelled from their hostels in the middle of winter. One of them, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide by hanging himself in January 2016. It triggered a united student’s resistance against the ABVP, which soon spread to campuses around the country, including New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Despite initial successes, the unity was short-lived. The fault lay as much with the Left (of all shades) for being unable to overhaul their own internal dynamics as with Ambedkarite groups that fell prey to red-baiting and exclusivist identity politics. On one side were Marxists brought up to believe that caste would wither away once the economic base became socialist. On the other were Ambedkarites who understandably did not trust upper caste-led formations. Sadly, the idea that individuals are indelibly marked by birth gained currency.

Identity politics is a double-edged weapon. As long as identifiable groups are oppressed, the oppressed must unite according to identity. “Black is Beautiful” was a necessary movement for African-Americans in the US, just as pride in Dalit or Buddhist identity is still necessary in India. The trouble begins when this turns into an exclusivist, separatist movement. African-American radical Malcolm X went through a Black Muslim phase when he described all white people as “devils”. But in the latter stages of his life, before he was assassinated, he completely rejected this for a much more inclusive critique of injustice and inequality.

Similarly, while a broad section of Ambedkarites is inclusive and understands the distinction BR Ambedkar made between the ideology of Brahminism and individuals who happen to be born “upper” caste, there is a tiny section today that sees birth as the sole determining factor. The fact that Western postmodern academia encourages such identity politics in preference to class analysis has given separatist politics international acceptance.

Narendra Dabholkar represented a politics of reason that this country desperately needs. Image via Flickr
Narendra Dabholkar represented a politics of reason that this country desperately needs. Image via Flickr

The Left and the Ambedkarites should have been natural allies. We saw the great potential of this unity in the mobilisation across campuses in the wake of Vemula’s death. Govind Pansare, the Communist Party of India leader who was murdered by communal forces in 2015; Kanhaiya Kumar, the former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union; and Jignesh Mevani, the young Dalit leader from Gujarat who led protests against the assaults against four community members in Una in July 2016, have represented this alliance at various times. To these names, I would add progressive Gandhians like rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, the expressly non-violent champions of the causes of the oppressed. Together they represent a politics of reason that this country so desperately needs.

People across the spectrum of India’s freedom movement had struggled with the idea of violence. Even Bhagat Singh, who had killed a British officer, recognised non-violence as the best means for mass movements. According to British records, my uncle Achyut Patwardhan, along with Aruna Asaf Ali, was among the most wanted underground leaders of 1942. They blew up British property, taking care not to take lives. Achyutkaka ran the underground radio and was a master of disguise, among other things, but in later years ensured that history erased him. You hardly hear or read about him anywhere because soon after Independence he became disillusioned with mainstream politics. He did educational and social work but would never discuss the past, even with me. He felt it had all been mostly an illusion.

His elder brother Purshottam, Raukaka to me, was also a freedom fighter and spent over 10 years in British jails. In early January 1948, while he was making an anti-communal speech, a Hindu Mahasabha recruit named Madanlal Pahwa assaulted him. Pahwa was caught but Raukaka, being a Gandhian socialist, did not press charges and the attacker was let off. A few weeks later, Pahwa threw a bomb at Gandhi and was involved in the conspiracy that eventually led to his assassination.

Gandhi’s reinvention

Gandhi and Ambedkar recognised that India was so steeped in the idiom of religion that atheism or pure rationality would not reach the masses. In my view, they were, each in his own way, liberation theologists.

Gandhi, unlike Ambedkar, did not choose his religion. He inherited it. But to this inheritance he applied post-Enlightenment ethical values that were essentially modern. When he began manual scavenging and advocated it to his followers, even forced it, he destroyed the basis of the pollution-purity dichotomy at the heart of the caste system. In theory, he infamously clung for a long time to the concept of Varnashrama dharma – the ancient four-fold division of Hindu society into priests, warriors, traders and workers – but in deed he destroyed it the day he began to clean his own toilet, a job hitherto reserved for so-called untouchables.

As time went on, Gandhi became even more radical. He clearly learned from Ambedkar, and from his own intuitive understanding of the world he saw. In later life, he refused to attend any marriage that was not inter-caste. He had fashioned out of his inherited Hinduism something entirely new. Only the idiom remained, not the original hierarchical Sanatan Dharma. Whether his reluctance to discard the idiom stemmed from a desire to speak to the masses in a language they could easily follow, or from his own deeply held belief system, is a matter of debate. What is unmistakable is that Gandhi’s ethical code bears little resemblance to the hierarchical, vengeful structure of traditional Hinduism.

Ambedkar fought for reason and justice without ever resorting to violence.
Ambedkar fought for reason and justice without ever resorting to violence.

Ambedkar was more fortunate than Gandhi in that he clearly saw how oppressive the religion of his birth was, being its direct victim. So he searched for the best alternative. And after examining many religions he finally chose the one closest to reason. Buddhism is the one world religion that does not posit an external, all-knowing God. However, it has a strong ethical core that Ambedkar highlighted. At the same time, he discarded irrational Buddhist tenets such as reincarnation that traditional Buddhists ardently follow.

This is why I see Gandhi and Ambedkar as liberation theologists. In much the same way that revolutionary leftist priests like Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua interpreted Jesus Christ as a revolutionary who fought and died for justice to the poor, Gandhi and Ambedkar gave new ethical meaning to the religions they adopted and adapted.

Make no mistake: I am not equating them. Their differences are obvious. One came from a privileged caste, the other from the most oppressed. One was steeped in traditional religion in his formative years, the other came from a caste denied the right to education but rose to become the best-read and greatest intellectual of modern India.

I am not blind to Gandhi’s paradoxes and irrationalities, not least his life-long demonisation of sexuality. His insistence on chastity puts him in the same patriarchal boat as the priests, monks and nuns of many world religions. Yet, this same sex-denying man, by introducing the charkha as a weapon of non-violent resistance, brought thousands of women into the mainstream of the freedom movement.

Egalitarian humanism

Can the Gandhian concept of Sarva Dharma Samabhava (all religions are equal) take the place of Ambedkar’s constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights? I think not. We need the Constitution more than we need holy books. Yet, as many in our country are still hooked to holy books and unholy pretenders, we need liberation theologists who can help people discard the worst features of their inherited religious cultures and replace them with ethical, non-exclusivist interpretations. Waiting for everyone to become a rationalist may take centuries. Ethics is the answer. Small wonder then that Ambedkar and Gandhi, each in turn, arrived at individual definitions of ahimsa – non-violence.
The affinities between Gandhi and Ambedkar are clearly greater than their differences. They were both egalitarian humanists at heart. Take “satyagraha”, a term coined by Gandhi. Ambedkar used this very term and form of resistance when he launched his Mahad satyagraha in 1927 to claim drinking water rights for the lower castes. There are many other examples of common ideas and action.

I was pleasantly shocked to read what Ambedkar had to say in 1932, immediately after concluding the now infamous Poona Pact, which abandoned the idea of separate electorates for Dalits in favour of reserved seats for them. Popular theory is that Ambedkar was blackmailed by Gandhi’s fast-unto-death into accepting a bitter compromise. But Ambedkar’s tone after signing the pact was totally different. He had high praise for Gandhi and stated that the “Mahatma” (yes, contrary to popular belief, Ambedkar referred to Gandhi as “Mahatma”at this point in time) offered a much better deal for the Dalits in terms of reserved seats than Ambedkar himself had asked or hoped for.

There is no denying that Ambedkar did get disgusted with the Congress in later years. How much of the blame for the failures of the Congress are attributable to Gandhi is a matter of debate. We know that Gandhi’s writ did not work to prevent Partition or the bloodshed that preceded and followed it, and that he did not attend the flag hoisting on Independence Day. He was busy fighting the communal inferno in the countryside.

Gandhi held a lot of obscurantist ideas to start with but he kept evolving. In the end, I see him as a great humanist who died for his belief in non-violence and universality. He was also an inventive anti-imperialist (swadeshi, charkha, Salt satyagraha) even though in earlier years he had supported the British empire, and an organic naturalist that today’s consumerist, globally warmed world desperately needs.

All his life, Ambedkar fought for reason and justice without resorting to violence. Today, his followers such as the Ambedkar Students Associationare leading the resistance against religious and caste hatred. Against all odds, Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika, and and his brother, Raja, are continuing the fight for justice.

As the spectre of intolerant authoritarianism rises, is it not time for all humanists, rationalists and fighters for social and economic justice to unite against the usurpers of our democracy and our history?

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HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
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HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
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HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
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