Gandhi and Ambedkar are India’s most popular thinkers, and also the most romanticised ones. While Gandhi is called the “father of India”, Ambedkar is called the father of the text that makes India a democracy (on paper), the Constitution. People often worship these figures, but usually do not read, thus begins the saga of romanticisation.
These thinkers aren’t read properly by people and are credited with issues they actually shouldn’t be credited with. This term paper, however, isn’t just about my criticism of these thinkers, but their criticism of one another. What makes their debate so interesting is the ideas of these thinkers on ‘Caste’. Both these thinkers were revered personalities in their constituencies and had an authoritative stance of British India’s polity and society.
Both were mass mobilisers, although Ambedkar’s mass mobilisation is hardly studied and appreciated. The Ambedkar-Gandhi debate isn’t just an intellectual debate, it was a debate that determined the destiny of the so-called lower caste individuals of India.
Gandhi and Ambedkar were born exactly thirty years apart, the former in 1861, and the latter in 1891. In 1916, when Ambedkar returned to India from New York as a PhD graduate from the University of Columbia, Gandhi was establishing his foothold in India, after having practiced law as an Attorney, and successfully led anti-colonial protests in South Africa.
Ambedkar was at the verge of realising that despite his academic excellence, he wouldn’t be allowed to live with dignity owing to his birth in a low caste – the Mahar caste, a Dalit caste. Gandhi was about to realise that he could help lots of workers from factories and Mills get fair wages.
Gandhi used his mobilising strategy to inspire the toiling Indian masses to rise up against the British rulers, not with their sickles or hammers, but by being non-violent. Ambedkar didn’t campaign much for the independence of India, for he wanted to understand caste oppression and the social structure. He, more or less supported the British regime not because it was beneficial to Indians, but because the British didn’t discriminate on the basis of caste, and would introduce the untouchables to western knowledge.
He, however, didn’t treat the British as the messiah of the untouchables, because even the colonial regime ignored the issue of untouchability like the Congress did. Ambedkar would choose the ignorant British regime any day over the consciously discriminating upper-caste Hind regime of Indians. Thus, the core essence of the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate was he debate between as I would term it as ‘the Indian Question versus the Dalit Question’.
The Ambedkar Thesis
Ambedkar’s agony against caste stems from his personal experience of being an untouchable and his sociological analysis. In a 1916 essay, Castes in India, he managed to establish how the control of a women’s sexuality (endogamy) leads to the origin of the caste system, an argument that Suvira Jaiswal would eventually desecrate in her monograph Caste.
Gradually, over time, Ambedkar realised that it is the Hindu religion that is at the centre of the exploitation of the Dalits, and the only way untouchables could be emancipated when Hinduism ends. In 1936, Ambedkar was invited to preside over an anti-caste conference organised by the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal in Lahore. The conference was meant to sensitise the so-called upper-caste individuals to the ills of the caste system in India.
After having received a copy of Ambedkar’s inaugural lecture that he titled “Annihilation of Caste”, Sant Ram, the host of the conference who invited Ambedkar revoked his invitation as the content of the AoC was intolerable to him. Ambedkar in his lecture not only asked the Hindus to let go off caste, but Hinduism itself.
He called all “Caste Hindus” (a term he used for upper-caste individuals) to “destroy the religion of srutis and smritis”, thus, annihilation of Hinduism is the pre-requisite to ‘annihilation of caste’. The members of the Mandal including Sant Ram and Har Bhagwan urged him to change the provocative parts of the address, but Ambedkar wouldn’t comply.
Rejection of the Hindu religion, the Vedas and other religious texts is at the centre of Ambedkar’s ideas. Ambedkar believed that Hinduism is directly proportional to the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, values that he learnt while living in the USA, and especially from the American Experimentalist (Pragmatic as he liked to call it) scholar, John Dewey, who taught Ambedkar at Columbia.
Later on, he found these principles embedded into Buddhism as well, and during the last two months of his life, he was a Buddhist. Ambedkar declared at a public talk that “I was born with the blot of untouchability, but I will not die a Hindu”.
Caste is an integral aspect of the Hindu religion and can’t abolished until the enabling social structure is abolished. Conversion to Buddhism, or at least leaving the Hindu fold is the only solution to the caste problem, believed Ambedkar.
The Gandhi Thesis
Gandhi looked at both ‘Caste’ and Hinduism differently. Gandhi was against the Ambedkarite essentialisation of Hinduism and ‘Caste’. In fact, he was against the backing of any claim that essentialises the inherent relationship between caste and Hinduism. This attitude makes Gandhi a post-modernist thinker.
Gandhi understood the plight of the untouchables, and wanted to address this issue, however, his approach was radically different from that of Ambedkar. While Ambedkar considered caste a problem, Gandhi considered, untouchability as an act/ social behaviour/ practice, a problem. Gandhi was a devout supporter of the “Varna” system and deemed it “predetermination of Man’s choice of profession”.
Gandhi in one of his writings in Young India writes “The law of varna is that a man shall follow the profession of his ancestors for earning his livelihood. Varna therefore is in a way the law of heredity. Varna is not a thing that is superimposed on Hindus, but men who were trustees for their welfare discovered the law for them.
It is not a human invention, but an immutable law of nature – the statement of tendency that is ever present and at work like Newton’s law of gravitation.”This clearly represents how Gandhi believed that caste division isn’t a human-made institution, but an objective, scientific reality. After having read AoC, Gandhi ridiculed Ambedkar’s claims and accused him of going against the common heritage he and Dalits share with the “so-called Savarnas”.
As opposed to Ambedkar’s view, for Gandhi, all Hindus were one and the former’s categorisation of a ‘caste Hindu’ was redundant. It is noteworthy that Gandhi was a staunch supporter of Varnashram, a supposed classification of people into different varnas (we can use the term ‘Caste’ for our convenience) based on natural law and not a human made economic principles.
The Essence of the Conflict
While analysing this conflict, we mustn’t fall prey to the post-ideological perceptions of identity politics to understand this issue; we mustn’t reduce this conflict merely between an upper-caste Hindu, an Indian nationalist versus a Dalit leader.
‘The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate’ could only be understood through analysing three conceptual issues: (i) Analysing both the thinker’s historical method; (ii) Understanding power structures that govern the Indian society; and (iii) How liberal constitutionalism views the Dalit question.
The third point is a posthumous extension of the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate that had, and still has implications on the rights of Dalits in independent India.
Both Ambedkar and Gandhi had conflictual views on history, for it is history that makes any ideology relevant. An ideology poor with the ‘sense of history’ is bound to fail, which why the Hindu-right fails at creating an intellectual class of its own. For Gandhi, (Hindu) religion and varna were two separate entities.
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While the religion and customs have roots in the behaviour of the society, varna was based on natural law. Gandhi considered untouchability a social evil, and an impediment to India’s (especially, Hindu) social fabric. Ambedkar, on the other hand, looked at history as caste-struggle between the “Savarnas” (upper-caste, including the Shudras) and “Avarnas” (Untouchables).
Gandhi and other akin to his thought, considered varna as a form of ‘division of labour’; Ambedkar rejects this claim, calling caste not only a ‘division of labour’, but also “division of labourers”. Varna didn’t just divide labour, it arranged them into a hierarchical order wherein one class (caste in this context) is superior to another class. He called the caste system – “Graded inequality”. As opposed to Gandhi’s view, this graded organisation was a part and parcel of Hinduism, and cannot be annihilated if Hinduism isn’t annihilated.
Gandhi didn’t develop any idea on power structures. He classified acts as either ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’, which is why he couldn’t be said to have actually developed any social theory. Ambedkar on the other hand developed ideas on power structures, both because he understood the plight of the untouchables, and also because he was inspired by libertarian socialism to some extent.
Ambedkar in his AoC discusses his idea of power while criticising the socialist thesis; he wouldn’t agree with the socialists that it is only economic interpretation of history that was a reason for oppression. For him, both economic and social power were sources of oppression. Many thinkers on the Left feel that Ambedkar didn’t focus on material reality, however, there is ample evidence that he did.
In Evidence Before the Southborough Committee, Ambedkar writes “From the point of view of material interests, there are no such people as Mohammedans, Parsees, Hindus, etc. There will be in each of these groups landlords, labourers, capitalists, free traders, protectionists, etc., each of the groups having community of interests which are material will be composed of Hindus, Mohammerdans, Parsees, etc. Consequently, a Hindu candidate can very well represent the material interests of the Mohammedans and vice versa”.
At this point of time, Ambedkar practiced the most un-Ambedkar thing, by actually looking beyond the idea of identity. Nevertheless, we need to focus on Ambedkar’s idea of social power being equal to economic power. According to him, the material reality and religious sanctity that the upper caste possess is used to oppress the lower castes, especially the Dalits. Gandhi, however, focused more on morals and ethics.
He wanted the abolition of untouchability simply because practicing ‘untouchability’ is an immoral practice. The third point brings us to post-independent India. India opted for a bourgeois-democratic order after the transfer of power from the British parliament to the interim government. India adopted its constitution in 1950, with one important article to our discussion – Article 17 (Abolition of Untouchability).
Those who romanticise Ambedkar and never read him (both generally and intelligently) fail to acknowledge that the idea of the ‘abolition of untouchability’ is inherently is a Gandhian idea. Ambedkar didn’t only want the ‘practice’ of untouchability to end, but wanted the ‘annihilation of caste’.
Article 17 considers the individual act of treating someone as an untouchable and an individual act of being treated as an untouchable, a problem. It doesn’t focus on the structure, the unequal relations of production that lead to the creation of castes, and then untouchability.
Ambedkar and Gandhi, both were radically different thinker, their idea of modernity was different, their understanding of a traditional society was different, all in all, both represented different intellectual strands. This difference was due to their castes, indeed, and also due to their respective educational backgrounds.
Gandhi was educated at Kings’, a British university and Ambedkar at Columbia, an American university (although he later studied at the London School of Economics too, but his foundations were created at Columbia). Ambedkar’s American education played an important role in his intellectual development, which is why his ideas on Indian society were different from all the foreign educated Indians, including Gandhi.
The Ambedkar-Gandhi debate although has a special place in the academic discourse, is largely a redundant debate that needs our recognition but not our attention, for both the ideas on Dalit emancipation lack theoretical rigour. Both the thinkers emphasised on religious texts. Their debate was basically about ‘whether Hinduism inherently promoted caste or not’.
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This debate is redundant simply because both the thinkers ignored the semi-feudal, semi-capitalist mode of production that prevailed in India. Both Ambedkar and Gandhi had poor understanding of political economy. While Gandhi called for a British free India where the Indian capitalists would become trustees of the society, Ambedkar wanted the British Imperialists as the rulers of India instead of an upper-caste ruling class in a so-called independent India.
Ambedkar chose one oppressor over another, and so did Gandhi. Ambedkar in AoC writes how the reign of the Mauryan kings was the best period in history for the untouchables, for during this time, Brahmanism lost state patronage and Buddhism rose; even here Ambedkar ignores feudal relations of production, and focuses merely on religion.
For a man who earned two Masters’ degrees and two PhD positions in Economics at two prestigious universities, being this fallacious in economics is both surprising and disappointing. Gandhi and Ambedkar are relevant in India simply because they are important symbols of the so-called independence. In theory, however, their ideas and debates make no significant contribution.