Putting the Ambedkar–Gandhi debate into context for those unfamiliar with its history and its protagonists will require detours into their very different political trajectories. For this was by no means just a theoretical debate between two men who held different opinions. Each represented very separate interest groups, and their battle unfolded in the heart of India’s national movement. What they said and did continues to have an immense bearing on contemporary politics. Their differences were (and remain) irreconcilable.
Both are deeply loved and often deified by their followers. It pleases neither constituency to have the other’s story told, though the two are inextricably linked. Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty. Equally, to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice, because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways.
The Indian national movement, as we know, had a stellar cast. It has even been the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster that won eight Oscars. In India, we have made a pastime of holding opinion polls and publishing books and magazines in which our constellation of founding fathers (mothers don’t make the cut) are arranged and rearranged in various hierarchies and formations. Mahatma Gandhi does have his bitter critics, but he still tops the charts. For others to even get a look-in, the Father of the Nation has to be segregated, put into a separate category: Who, after Mahatma Gandhi, is the greatest Indian?
Dr Ambedkar (who, incidentally, did not even have a walk-on part in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, though the film was co-funded by the Indian government) almost always makes it into the final heat. He is chosen more for the part he played in drafting the Indian Constitution than for the politics and the passion that were at the core of his life and thinking. You definitely get the sense that his presence on the lists is the result of positive discrimination, a desire to be politically correct.
The caveats continue to be murmured: “opportunist” (because he served as Labour Member of the British Viceroy’s Executive Council, 1942–46), “British stooge” (because he accepted an invitation from the British government to the First Round Table Conference in 1930 when Congressmen were being imprisoned for breaking the salt laws), “separatist” (because he wanted separate electorates for Untouchables), “anti-national” (because he endorsed the Muslim League’s case for Pakistan, and because he suggested that Jammu and Kashmir be trifurcated).
Notwithstanding the name-calling, the fact, as we shall see, is that neither Ambedkar nor Gandhi allows us to pin easy labels on them that say “pro-imperialist” or “anti-imperialist”. Their conflict complicates and perhaps enriches our understanding of imperialism as well as the struggle against it.
History has been kind to Gandhi. He was deified by millions of people in his own lifetime. Gandhi’s godliness has become a universal and, so it seems, an eternal phenomenon. It’s not just that the metaphor has outstripped the man. It has entirely reinvented him. (Which is why a critique of Gandhi need not automatically be taken to be a critique of all Gandhians.) Gandhi has become all things to all people: Obama loves him and so does the Occupy movement. Anarchists love him and so does the Establishment. Narendra Modi loves him and so does Rahul Gandhi. The poor love him and so do the rich.
He is the Saint of the Status Quo.
Gandhi’s life and his writing – 48,000 pages bound into ninety-eight volumes of collected works – have been disaggregated and carried off, event by event, sentence by sentence, until no coherent narrative remains, if indeed there ever was one. The trouble is that Gandhi actually said everything and its opposite. To cherry pickers, he offers such a bewildering variety of cherries that you have to wonder if there was something the matter with the tree.
For example, there’s his well-known description of an arcadian paradise in “The Pyramid vs the Oceanic Circle”, written in 1946:
“Independence begins at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world...In this structure composed of innumerable villages there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village...Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”
Then there is his endorsement of the caste system in 1921 in Navajivan. It is translated from Gujarati by Ambedkar (who suggested more than once that Gandhi “deceived” people, and that his writings in English and Gujarati could be productively compared):
“Caste is another name for control. Caste puts a limit on enjoyment. Caste does not allow a person to transgress caste limits in pursuit of his enjoyment. That is the meaning of such caste restrictions as inter-dining and inter-marriage...These being my views I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the Caste System.”
Is this not the very antithesis of “ever-widening and never-ascending circles”?
It’s true that these statements were made twenty-five years apart. Does that mean that Gandhi reformed? That he changed his views on caste?
He did, at a glacial pace. From believing in the caste system in all its minutiae, he moved to saying that the four thousand separate castes should “fuse” themselves into the four varnas (what Ambedkar called the “parent” of the caste system). Towards the end of Gandhi’s life (when his views were just views and did not run the risk of translating into political action), he said that he no longer objected to inter-dining and intermarriage between castes.
Sometimes he said that though he believed in the varna system, a person’s varna ought to be decided by their worth and not their birth (which was also the Arya Samaj position). Ambedkar pointed out the absurdity of this idea: “How are you going to compel people who have acquired a higher status based on birth, without reference to their worth, to vacate that status? How are you going to compel people to recognise the status due to a man, in accordance to his worth, who is occupying a lower status based on his birth?”
He went on to ask what would happen to women, whether their status would be decided upon their own worth or their husbands’ worth.
Notwithstanding stories and anecdotes from Gandhi’s followers about Gandhi’s love for Untouchables and the inter-caste weddings he attended, in the ninety-eight volumes of his writing, Gandhi never decisively and categorically renounced his belief in chaturvarna, the system of four varnas. Though he was given to apologizing and agonising publicly and privately over things like the occasional lapses in his control over his sexual desire, he never agonised over the extremely damaging things he had said and done on caste.
Still, why not eschew the negative and concentrate instead on what was good about Gandhi, use it to bring out the best in people? It is a valid question, and one that those who have built shrines to Gandhi have probably answered for themselves. After all, it is possible to admire the work of great composers, writers, architects, sportspersons and musicians whose views are inimical to our own.
The difference is that Gandhi was not a composer or writer or musician or a sportsman. He offered himself to us as a visionary, a mystic, a moralist, a great humanitarian, the man who brought down a mighty empire armed only with Truth and Righteousness. How do we reconcile the idea of the non-violent Gandhi, the Gandhi who spoke Truth to Power, Gandhi the Nemesis of Injustice, the Gentle Gandhi, the Androgynous Gandhi, Gandhi the Mother, the Gandhi who (allegedly) feminised politics and created space for women to enter the political arena, the eco-Gandhi, the Gandhi of the ready wit and some great one-liners – how do we reconcile all this with Gandhi’s views (and deeds) on caste?
What do we do with this structure of moral righteousness that rests so comfortably on a foundation of utterly brutal, institutionalised injustice? Is it enough to say Gandhi was complicated, and let it go at that? There is no doubt that Gandhi was an extraordinary and fascinating man, but during India’s struggle for freedom, did he really speak Truth to Power? Did he really ally himself with the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of his people?
“It is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and of the lowest of the low,” Ambedkar said. “The question whether the Congress is fighting for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom is the Congress fighting.”
In 1931, when Ambedkar met Gandhi for the first time, Gandhi questioned him about his sharp criticism of the Congress (which, it was assumed, was tantamount to criticising the struggle for the Homeland). “Gandhiji, I have no Homeland,” was Ambedkar’s famous reply. “No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.”
Excerpted with permission from The Doctor and the Saint: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate, Caste, Race and Annihilation of Caste, Arundhati Roy, Penguin Books. (Originally published by Navayana as the Introduction to BR Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste.)