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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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

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According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

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Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.