A panel discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Saturday on the legacies and forms of mass mobilisation adopted by Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar during the freedom movement threw a new light on the “difficult, yet accommodating” relationship between the two leaders described in different manners by different historians. Speakers also defined the notion of trusteeship from the perspective of rights in modern democracy.
Historian Sunil Khilnani, social activist Aruna Roy, journalist M.J. Akbar and authors Joseph Lelyveld and S. Anand addressed the session on “Gandhi, Ambedkar and the crossroads at Jantar Mantar” moderated by feminist Urvashi Butalia.
The discussion centred on the relevance of protest methods of Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar in the contemporary politics with activists like Anna Hazare being compared to Gandhiji in his fight against corruption. Jantar Mantar in New Delhi has been used of late as a rallying point for hunger fasts and mass gatherings.
Speakers said while Gandhiji had used non-violent protests to appeal to the “sense of morality” of the oppressor, Dr. Ambedkar believed more in taking recourse to law for fighting oppression against Dalits. There were some points of convergence between the two great leaders after the signing of the Poona Pact at Yerawada Jail in 1932.
While Gandhiji made all-out efforts to eradicate untouchability in the Hindu society, he had to balance several causes he was pursuing during the freedom struggle. In contrast, Dr. Ambedkar had a single cause for devoting his entire energy, said Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Lelyveld.
Mr. Lelyveld, author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India released in 2011, said there were several months of cohesion between Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhiji after the Poona Pact, but the latter was rather dissatisfied towards the end by the way Independence was achieved for the country.
“Gandhiji's own experiments did not often work out to his own satisfaction. In his view, his initiatives for Hindu-Muslim amity, abolition of untouchability and establishment of a just social order did not quite work brilliantly,” said Mr. Lelyveld, whose book has been banned in Mahatma Gandhi's home State Gujarat.
“I am a survivor of a fatwa from the great Gandhian Chief Minister of Gujarat who banned my book,” said the celebrated author, taking a dig at Narendra Modi.
Ms. Aruna Roy said septuagenarian activist Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign was not inclusive in character because it ostracised Dalits, and the people who joined it had little sympathy for the similar ongoing struggles, such as Irom Sharmila's indefinite fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur.
“In fact, the middle class of Indians who joined Anna Hazare's drive wants unfettered powers to the security forces and military rule in Jammu and Kashmir and in northeastern States. Inconsistencies are [inherent] in such a movement,” said Ms. Roy, who had dissociated herself with Mr. Hazare's core team following differences over the Lokpal Bill draft.
The Magsaysay Award winner said the concept of trusteeship popular during the freedom struggle had been replaced by “social contract” in modern democracy with the citizens expecting certain rights from the State. When public ethics were not complied with, civil rights movements take shape, she added.
Mr. Akbar said Gandhiji had understood the power of “silent cruelty” when he adopted the end of discrimination against Dalits as the focal point of his social movement. With an identical significance, Dr. Ambedkar should be credited for adoption of the Hindu Code Bill just after Independence, which brought a great social reform in the Hindu society.
Mr. Anand said that despite the largest-ever conversion into Buddhism in 1956, Dalits had rarely launched a movement against the state since Independence and had reserved their rage for the so-called higher castes. This approach, he felt, had genesis in Dr. Ambedkar taking a legalistic view in most of the Dalit issues.
Confidence in law
Mr. Khilnani said Dr. Ambedkar had put a greater confidence in the impartiality of law than Gandhiji, who devised most of his protests in a way that embarrassed the British and compelled them to act differently. “The notion of political representation [also] got different shapes among the followers of the two leaders.”