Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Dalit question

Thanks to the wayward ways of the present day politics in India, an average Indian finds himself bombarded with bewilderingly different images of Gandhi, manufactured and processed very much like the mutually competing luxury soaps by the political parties and pressure groups of all types and hues. Gandhi with his remarkable humanity and vision would have endured all such distortions but one. The distortion of the Mahatma that he’s a petty agent of the upper class, Brahmanical Hindu orthodoxy, ever ready to conspire against the interests of the Dalits by the so-called champions of the downtrodden would certainly helping to him. The present essay is, in brief, an attempt to analyze some of his views with regard to the Dalit question.

In Gandhian terminology the term “Dalit” refers to a “Harijan” or an “untouchable”, the possibility to other significations notwithstanding. Even during the lifetime, Gandhi ji was severely criticised by the orthodox Hindus for his fearless crusade against the monster of untouchability. For example, Gandhi was advised by the senate of the Gujarat Vidhyapith to exclude the Harijans from dust from the struggle for Swaraj. Undaunted and undeterred by adverse criticism, he replied: “If I have even a little of the true Vaishnava in me, God will also vouchsafe me the strength to reject the Swaraj which may be won by abandoning the Antyajas.” (The collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, volume 19, Page 73.) Such a one can never stoop to conquer the Dalits by betraying their cause. To him “untouchability” was a blot on the Hindu religion and he devised his own ways of fighting against the evil. Firstly, he cleaned the latrines himself and even inspired the Brahmins to do the same; secondly, he made certain proclamations confirming his deep identifications with the most wrong the person on the earth. For example, he said: “If I were to be reborn, I should be born as an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrow, sufferings and our friends levelled at them, in order that I may end over to free myself and then from that miserable condition” Quoted in Rajmohan Gandhi’s The good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi, New Delhi: Viking 1995, p.229)

The distortion of the Mahatma that he’s a petty agent of the upper class, Brahmanical Hindu orthodoxy, ever ready to conspire against the interests of the Dalits by the so-called champions of the downtrodden would certainly helping to him. The present essay is, in brief, an attempt to analyze some of his views with regard to the Dalit question.

In order to slander Gandhi, his detractors may twist the logic by saying that since he was only wanted to be reborn as an untouchable, he was far from working to end this social stigma. But they miss Gandhi‘s message as he wanted to fight against the against this demon through words and action both. That’s why he insisted on cleaning the latrines and being born as a Dalit. The so-called Dalit leaders have to listen to him first before granting him as a Manuvadi agent: “It is no good quoting verses in defence of this orthodoxy. A number of them are quite meaningless… (cited in Rajamohan page 237. Moreover, he went on to attract the perverted religion lock, stock and barrel, if it continues to perpetrate untouchability: “This religion, if it can be called as such, stinks in my nostrils. This certainly cannot be the Hindu religion. I shall put up a lone fight, if need be, against this hypocrisy… The dirt that soils the scavenger is physical and can be easily removed but there are those who have become soiled with untruth and hypocrisy, and this diet is so subtle that it is very difficult to remove it…” (cited in Rajmohan page 237). Will it not suffice to label the Mahatma, to upset the (BSP) applecart of the critics, as an ardent agent of the Dalits? Tell me, if you can, who amongst the Dalit leaders will ask (or even force as Gandhi did) his wife to clean others dirt? Maybe Gandhi‘s commitment to the Dalit cause made him temporarily an autocratic husband to Kasturba as he confesses and repents in his Autobiography. The problem is this: What else the man called Gandhi is expected to have done to win the hearts of his people especially Dalits to make them realise that he was sincere to their cause as any of their so-called leaders was not? Are we not subjecting Gandhi to too many impossible tests?

Let it be known, then, to his sworn detractors that he had a vision of India in which he wanted: “If I have my way, the first president of Indian republic will be a chaste and brave Harijan girl… If such a girl of my dreams becomes president, I shall be her servant…” (cited in Rajmohan, page 263). Can it be dismissed nearly as claptrap? To him, the freedom of India had little to sing and dance about since it continued to perpetuate the practice of untouchability in various walks of life. To his critics, his views on the relevance of the Varnashrama-Vyavastha (caste-stage -in-life) appear a bit skewed and conservative. The limited space of this essay forbids me to analyse this issue thoroughly. I will, however, make a few observations to counter this allegation. First, Gandhi did not want to know the age-old Varnashrama-Vyavastha overboard as he wanted to overhaul it completely to make it a working proposition under the changing and changed circumstances. No doubt he agreed that it contained some anomalies and shibboleths that have been used by the dominant classes and exploit the weaker sections of the society. To him, a varna did not mean jati (caste). Varna to Gandhi meant occupation or profession. In his vision, there was no hierarchy in the Varnavyavastha – a Brahmin is as respectable as a shudra. The so-called jati is not a deciding factor in assigning a Verna to an individual. Varna is usually determined by one’s birth. Gandhi wanted it to be determined or conditioned by one’s Karma or action or profession. The so-called evils of the decadent caste system may disappear gradually), if only, according to Gandhi, The orthodox Hindus become ready to readjust and adapt themselves to an altered radical reformed varna system which has no taint of untouchability, class hatred, violence and unequality.

We have to realise that it would do no good to the people (even the Dalits) of India by pitting a great Gandhi against a “greater” Ambedkar. What we tend to forget is that both of them dedicated their lives to the cause of the most oppressed (Dalit) of our people — in their own “unselfish” ways. Both of them wanted to make a new India free from all types of injustices and oppressions to usher the Indian in an era of peace, harmony and understanding.

Courtesy: Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Dalit emancipation: Edited by N Radhakrishnan

This article was first published on March 13, 2019

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