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An Untouched History

His stature as a social actor often obscures the value of his scholarship

An Untouched History
Illustration by Sorit
An Untouched History

When Gandhi and Ambedkar met in 1931, soon after the first session of the Round Table Conference, they had a fierce disagreement about Congress initiatives regarding untouchables. It is significant that Gandhi thought Ambedkar was an intemperate Brahmin who took interest in ‘Harijan’ matters. This misassumption on Gandhi’s part provides a historic clue about the incredibility of an untouchable’s entry into national consciousness.

In the years to come, the Gandhi–Ambedkar stand-off became marked not only in the political battleground but also in the way they viewed history, politics and ethics. For Gandhi, politics was a means to escape the violent traps of history and embrace a non-violent condition of ‘truth’. The mode for the attainment of such a truth formed the impetus behind Gandhi’s experiments with ahimsa. Ambedkar was more interested in the violence of history as a reliable source for understanding the truth of politics. In contrast to the centrality of ‘self’ in Gandhi’s schema of politics, Ambedkar emphasised 'caste' as the cardinal category for understanding Hindu identity and Indian history.For Gandhi, if ‘truth’ was outside history, for Ambedkar that truth was untouchability.

Ambedkar conceded that deciphering “the origin of Untouchability is not the same as writing history from texts” but a case of “reconstructing history where there are no texts”. So he tried to interpret what the texts “conceal or suggest”, risking uncertainties about the ‘truth’. The risk allowed Ambedkar to traverse with acumen between the textual and the social. For example, the Sanskrit word antya in ancient Hindu law books, meaning ‘born last’, is associated by orthodox Hindu scholarship with the untouchable who comes last in the order of creation. But Ambedkar pointed out that in Vedic theory the last born is a shudra. So if the untouchable is antya it would mean not someone born at the end of creation, but at the end of the village. By that interpretative masterstroke Ambedkar connected Hindu society’s language of othering with its corresponding practice of ostracising untouchables.

The historian D.D Kosambi was optimistic that the “supposed unshakeablity and inherent strength” of the caste system would “vanish as soon as new forms of production come in”. Kosambi’s view that passenger trains, factories and non-caste guilds among workers would transform caste into class was echoed by other historians including Irfan Habib, as well as by Nehru. There was a universalist assumption regarding the progressive transformation of social relations, based on a scientific vision of history. In contrast, Ambedkar’s speculative history of caste today better explains the persistence of caste with the advent of colonial modernity. While other prominent left historians probed the issue of caste mainly through political economy, Ambedkar read the caste system prominently as an entrenched norm of power relations, both suggesting and hiding its exception: the barbaric effacement of untouchables.

From the late nineteenth century phase of the nationalist movement, the Gita became a source of intense debate about the relationship between morality and politics. Tilak and Aurobindo, among others, upheld the text’s moral sanction of bloodshed, while Gandhi claimed that once the elevated ideal of detached action was followed, it was impossible to be violent. But they were all in accord that the Gita presented a symbolic context for a human being’s duty-bound predicament and they found the text an ethic for individual action.

Ambedkar, on the other hand, stressed that the Gita was “concerned with the particular and not with the general”. He explained how its terminologies of karma and jnana were untranslatable into the generalised, modern notions of ‘action’ and ‘knowledge’. Ambedkar held the Gita to be “neither a book of religion nor a treatise of philosophy” but a text which defends certain religious dogmas, like the chaturvarnya, on “philosophic grounds”. In Hegel’s commentary on the Gita, the philosopher observed that the “moral principles” and “rules of conduct” in the text can “only be understood from the caste law”. Hegel and Ambedkar found the Gita incapable of transcending its casteist context and becoming an individual ethic. Beyond the debate about whether the Gita propagates violence or non-violence, Ambedkar alone took pains to historicise the constitutive violence of the text’s casteist framework.

Ambedkar believed in the Buddhist doctrine which differentiates between ‘the will to kill’ and ‘the need to kill’. He also believed in ‘absolute non-violence’, where he endorsed violence for just ends in the fight against inequality and oppression. The distinction between ‘will’ and ‘need’ is a tricky one in the context of the justificatory discourse of state (or any other) violence. But Ambedkar placed his optimism in the institution of the state in order to overcome the institution of caste. Gandhi’s political idea of non-violence, as a “method of securing rights by personal suffering”, was on the other hand an oppositional politics of counter-sovereignty against the state. But while Ambedkar saw the possibility of the state reflecting an assertive caste consciousness, Gandhi did not engage with the state’s class and caste character.

Ambedkar had once made a distinction between the “learned”, limited by class interests, and the “intellectual”, emancipated from class considerations. Among the many learned Indian nationalists, Ambedkar was a rare intellectual.

A slightly shorter, edited version of this appears in print. This article was edited online on August 11, 2012.

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