A renewed appreciation of the ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar would help us not just to critique Mahatma Gandhi, but also to challenge Hindutva ideology

In recent months there has been a vociferous demand from some sections of Dalit intellectual and Ambedkarite opinion that the ideas of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi not be compared, contrasted, or put into any kind of conversation with one another. In this view, to mention Gandhi in the same breath as Ambedkar is to take attention and importance away from Ambedkar, and to blunt the radical edge of Ambedkar’s contribution, to make him part of the same national mainstream of modern political thought in which Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and many others belong. In other words, there is a type of exceptionalism that attaches itself to Ambedkar. Proponents of this exceptionalism bristle at any attempt to discuss Ambedkar together with his peers and contemporaries, starting with Gandhi and including all kinds of thinkers and leaders, especially those who happened to be caste Hindus.

The Gandhi-Ambedkar dialogue

There is no doubt that Ambedkar was indeed exceptional in many respects — as an intellectual, a politician and a human being. He fought unimaginable odds to become one of the greatest men of the historical era in which he lived. But this does not mean that he existed, thought or worked in isolation, apart from a climate of ideas, cut off from a rich inter-subjective context of teachers, mentors, benefactors, patrons, friends, comrades, followers, critics, adversaries, supporters, interlocutors, commentators and interpreters. Like any historically significant individual in the thick of public life, with a long and complex career in law, politics, scholarship and religion, Ambedkar too was surrounded by other people, some of whom helped him while others hindered him. Moreover, even today, long after his death, many different groups continue to vie for his legacy. Dalits and Neo-Buddhists are of course at the forefront of staking a claim to this inheritance, and so they should be, but they are not alone. Anyone who wants to understand the political foundations of India’s modernity has to engage seriously with Ambedkar and all that he stood for.

To think of Gandhi and Ambedkar as paired figures is not a new discursive move. By the early 1990s, the late D.R. Nagaraj had developed a nuanced understanding of their tortured dialogue, reluctant complementarity and intimate enmity. In his classic essay, “Self-Purification v/s Self-Respect: On the Roots of the Dalit Movement” (1993), Professor Nagaraj made several important points: first, that it was Gandhi who initially grasped untouchability as a political problem (albeit his own concerns were spiritual and not material); second, that Gandhi and Ambedkar debated their divergent approaches to the problem of untouchability in a vigorous manner both before and after the Poona Pact of 1932; and third, that by the end of their long encounter with one another, Gandhi and Ambedkar had internalised one another’s ideas. Thus, Gandhi could recognise the village, which he had romanticised as a kind of indigenous utopia, to be a socio-economic space of exploitation and oppression. Ambedkar meanwhile could acknowledge that the yearning for equality and recognition is not answered by a struggle for political rights and social justice alone, but ultimately must assume the dimensions of a deeper quest for transcendent religious truth.

Ambedkar exposed the swamp of caste prejudice that lay beneath the veneer of Gandhi’s instinctive traditionalism. Gandhi alerted Ambedkar to the dangers of fundamentalist modernism: violence against the self, estrangement from an organic community, loss of cultural memory, the return of repressed pasts in frightening, haunting forms, and the erosion of all bulwarks against the onslaught of capitalism. The arch-critic of modernity, Gandhi, and the arch-critic of tradition, Ambedkar, both transformed one another’s views. The truth is that if caste is dehumanising, technology too, can be anti-human. If rural life is steeped in darkness, urban life too, can be hellish. (“Peepli Live” (2010), Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui’s brilliant film about farmer suicides and migrant labour, was a wryly ironic comment on this bitter reality.) India today, as we know it, bears out the truth of both Gandhi and Ambedkar’s views. On the one hand, electoral democracy has reinvented caste as an empowering vector of collective identity, and on the other hand, environmentally-aware social movements have shown up aggressive technological advancement and neo-liberal globalisation as impediments to human flourishing and political emancipation.

But Professor Nagaraj’s abiding insight was to explain how the difference between “Harijan” and “Dalit” is the difference between the caste Hindu’s struggle for self-purification and the outcaste’s struggle for self-respect. The “self” in the two situations is not the same. Ambedkarites today are right to point out that because Gandhi’s Harijan is a completely discredited and defunct category, which no longer has nor has had, in fact, for decades, any moral traction or political appeal, it is not necessary to invoke Gandhi together with Ambedkar in our ongoing discussions about caste. The caste system in Gandhi’s polemics — a web of social relations typical of India, with an attendant set of basically benign religious beliefs and effective economic practices, minus any built-in or inevitable ideology of inequality — is non-existent as an empirically verifiable reality. No one experiences caste in this way; especially not those at the receiving end of its structural violence. Ambedkar raised this objection early on: today, nobody disputes that he was right.

Gandhi made an attempt to defend the Hindu social order on the basis of an innovative interpretation of its authoritative texts, but Ambedkar read those same texts — the Vedas, shastras, puranas, epics, the Gita, etc — as justifying and reinforcing social inequality. For Ambedkar, beyond a point, reform, critique and reason, and even the most conscientious self-scrutiny, rigorous self-sacrifice and exemplary non-violence as advocated by the Mahatma, would fail against the unassailable wall of Hindu caste ideology, which for centuries had yielded the fruit of absolute social dominance, and often also political power for the upper castes. There was no choice, according to Ambedkar, but to “annihilate” caste, to migrate to another religion (namely, Buddhism), that had long ago successfully challenged and rejected the varna vyavastha taught and upheld in orthodox Brahminical texts. Accordingly he declared his intention to renounce Hinduism, in Yeola (near Nasik), in October 1935; some 20 years later, in October 1956, Babasaheb formally took Buddhist vows in Nagpur.

Returning to Ambedkar

Since we marked Dr. Ambedkar’s 123rd birth anniversary on April 14, 2014, three questions have arisen. First, if Indians, by and large, accepted the new Constitutional regime of the independent nation-state and continue to both abide by the idea of equal citizenship and respect the rule of law, then why do caste prejudice, caste violence and social inequality based on caste hierarchy persist in such a rampant way? Second, if Babasaheb unequivocally won the argument against Gandhi, then why did not more people, Dalits as well as caste Hindus, follow him into Buddhism? Why are there numerically so few Ambedkarite Buddhists even today? Third, if the 2014 general election produces a national government led by the Hindu Right, then what kind of attitudes toward caste can we expect will re-enter the public imagination, through the backdoor, if not explicitly and programmatically? Given that Hindutva is founded on a hatred of Gandhi, a dislike of all Gandhian values, and literally, the assassination of the person of Gandhi together with all that he stood for, will we see a glorification of caturvarnya, greater caste pride, a renewed confidence in the religious legitimacy of caste differentiation, and newer forms of humiliation and exclusion inflicted upon Dalits?

It is high time we turned and returned to Dr. Ambedkar — not just within the confines of the Dalit community, whatever its undeniably special relationship with its greatest leader — but as Indians on the verge of entering into a reactionary phase in our political history. Whether through his conflict with Gandhi, or his rejection of Hinduism and adoption of Buddhism; whether through his work on the making of the Constitution and his creation of the basic outlines of a reservation policy, or as a believer in associational forms of collective life, fraternity, equal citizenship and fundamental rights — in all respects, Ambedkar suggested the way forward to a more egalitarian, democratic, and enlightened society than India has ever been. Only by retaining a commitment to his radically progressive vision not just for Dalits, but also for caste Hindus, and for India as a whole, will we be able to survive what promises to be a dark chapter in the political life of the nation.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, 2012. E-mail: vajpeyi@csds.in)

More In: Lead | Opinion