The confrontation between Ambedkar and Gandhi was a historic one. It had its beginnings in the Round Table Conferences of 1930-32. Ambedkar had gone for the first, as the prime representative of Dalits, or Untouchables. But when Gandhi finally decided to attend the second conference, he argued fervently that he represented the Untouchables, because they were an integral part of the Hindu fold—which he represented. To Ambedkar, the Untouchables were not a part of the Hindus but “a part apart” (a phrase he had once applied to himself), a uniquely oppressed people. They could accept, even welcome, the coming of independence and its inevitable domination by the Congress (i.e. by caste Hindus), but they needed “safeguards”.
Ambedkar had originally felt that with universal suffrage, reserved seats would be sufficient. But universal suffrage was not given, and the issues at the conference revolved around separate electorates. Gandhi was reconciled to giving this to Muslims; he had already accepted their identity as a separate community. Not so for Dalits. When the Ramsay MacDonald Award gave separate electorates to Dalits, he protested with a fast unto death. And this brought him into direct confrontation with Ambedkar.
For Ambedkar, the problem was simple. If Gandhi died, in villages throughout India there would be pogroms against the Dalits. They would be massacred. Ambedkar surrendered, and the Poona Pact formalised this with reserved seats for Dalits—more than they would have had otherwise, but in constituencies now controlled by caste Hindus.
Ambedkar wrote, many years later, in What Congress and Gandhi have Done to the Untouchables: “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards (which had been awarded to them).” He felt the whole system of reserved seats, then, was useless. For years afterwards, the problem of political representation remained chronic. Ambedkar continued to ask for separate electorates, but futilely. By the end of his life, at the time of writing his Thoughts on Linguistic States in 1953, he gave these up also and looked to something like proportional representation. But the Poona Pact remained a symbol of bitter defeat, and Gandhi from that time on was looked on as one of the strongest enemies of the Untouchables by Ambedkar and his followers.
Following the fast, Gandhi formed what he called the Harijan Sevak Sangh. Here again, crucial differences arose. Ambedkar argued for a broad civil rights organisation which would focus on gaining civic rights for Dalits—entry into public places, use of public facilities, broad civil liberties—and he wanted it under the control of the Dalits themselves. Instead, Gandhi envisaged a paternalistic organisation, controlled by caste Hindus working for the “uplift” of Untouchables. This flowed from his basic theory, which saw untouchability as a sin of Hinduism—but not a basic part of Hinduism, rather a flaw in it which could be removed; upper-caste Hindus should atone for this, make recompense, and take actions for the cleansing and uplift of the Dalits. This included programmes of going to clean up slums, preaching anti-alcoholism and vegetarianism and so forth. For Ambedkar, all of this was worse than useless. He condemned the Harijan Sevak Sangh in strong language: “The work of the Sangh is of the most inconsequential kind. It does not catch anyone’s imagination. It neglects most urgent purposes for which the Untouchables need help and assistance. The Sangh rigorously excludes the Untouchables from its management. The Untouchables are no more than beggars, mere recipients of charity.” He concluded that the Untouchables see the Sangh “as a foreign body set up by the Hindus with some ulterior motive...the whole object is to create a slave mentality among the Untouchables towards their Hindu masters”. This, to Ambedkar, was the major thrust of paternalism.
This debate on the Sangh had as its background a fundamental difference in the very goals of Ambedkar and Gandhi. Ambedkar stood for the annihilation of caste. He saw untouchability as a fundamental result of it, and believed there could be no alleviation, no uplift, no relief without the abolition of caste. Gandhi was not simply a devoted Hindu, but also a fervent believer in his idealised version of “varnashrama dharma”. He felt that what he considered to be the benign aspects of caste—its encouragement of a certain solidarity—could be maintained while removing hierarchy and the evil of untouchability. This was in fact the essence of his reformism.
This was followed by a conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhi over religion. Ambedkar had by now become thoroughly disillusioned with Hinduism. He argued for conversion, and in 1936 made the historic announcement at Yeola that “I was born a Hindu and have suffered the consequences of untouchability. I will not die a Hindu”. Two days later, Gandhi held a press conference, calling Ambedkar’s decision “unbelievable. Religion is not like a house or cloak which can be changed at will”. On August 22, 1936, he wrote in the Harijan (the name given to his newspaper): “One may hope we have seen the last of any bargaining between Dr Ambedkar and savarnas for the transfer to another form of several million dumb Harijans as if they were chattel.” This way of speaking became typical of him; he could not envisage the anger and grief of the millions of Dalits who followed Ambedkar on this issue.
Behind this were different views of humanity. Gandhi did not see untouchables as individuals born into a particular community but rather as somewhat unthinking members of an existing Hindu community; Hinduism he saw as their “natural” religion, their task was to reform it, they should not leave it. Ambedkar, in contrast, put the individual and his/her development at the centre of his vision, and believed this development was impossible without a new, true religion. The confrontation was inevitable.
The feud between Gandhi and Ambedkar did not stop here. The final difference was over India’s path of development itself. Gandhi believed, and argued for, a village-centred model of development, one which would forsake any hard path of industrialism but seek to achieve what he called “Ram rajya”, an idealised, harmonised traditional village community. Ambedkar, in contrast, wanted economic development and with it industrialisation as the basic prerequisite for the abolition of poverty. He insisted always that it should be worker-friendly, not capitalistic, at times arguing for “state socialism” (though he later accepted some forms of private ownership of industry). He remained, basically, to the end of his life a democratic socialist. To him, villages were far from being an ideal; rather they were “cesspools”, a cauldron of backwardness, tradition and bondage. Untouchables had to escape from the villages, and India also had to reject its village past.
In sum, there were important, irreconcilable differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Two great personages of Indian history, posed against one another, giving alternative models of humanity and society. The debate goes on!
(Gail Omvedt is a veteran chronicler of the Dalit movement.)