Gandhi and Ambedkar, a false debate

Enemies often share more than friends, and may even enjoy a closer relationship. This is certainly the case with those would-be rivals who attempt either to oppose or to reconcile Gandhi and Ambedkar, seen as representatives of caste thinking on the one hand and its repudiation on the other. Instructive about this increasingly vocal rivalry, among activists as much as academics, is the fact that neither side questions the pairing of Mahatma and Babasaheb, which serves as a stereotyped way of joining the two in ideological debate. But while such a relationship makes pedagogical sense in a classroom, I want to argue here that it is not true to history, and dangerously misguided in the context of today’s politics.

Those who would reconcile Gandhi and Ambedkar acknowledge their many disagreements, but point out that Babasaheb’s resignation from Nehru’s cabinet, rejection of the Constitution he had played such a large part in drafting and turn to religion brought him closer to the Mahatma, who also placed more emphasis on faith and social reform than he did upon the state. For his part, Gandhi is said to have approached Ambedkar in his acceptance of intermarriage, the forsaking of caste occupations and legal measures against discrimination. But how different is the intimacy of this reconciliation from that which insists on opposing the two men in such a way as to make Babasaheb the real father India’s freedom, and so nothing more than the Mahatma’s replacement?

Part of a political narrative The emphasis on paternity and so political legitimacy is a fundamentally conservative one, and part of a narrative that includes the courtroom statement by Gandhi’s assassin, who accused him of being Pakistan’s true founder and therefore India’s illegitimate father. Yet this narrative is also revolutionary, displacing legitimacy from the figure of the son to that of the father, so destabilising paternal authority altogether. To replace Gandhi with Ambedkar, or as Godse did, with Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel, is also to mimic those who had sought to replace British by Indian rule. For without renouncing the kind of violence exercised by the colonial state, claimed the Mahatma, these revolutionaries wanted the tiger’s nature without the tiger.

Now the British had also portrayed themselves as paternal rulers, and Gandhi describes them as impotent as much as carnivorous fathers in Hind Swaraj . These were the very characteristics of feebleness conjoined with ferocity that eventually came to define the Mahatma himself in the eyes of his rivals across the political spectrum. If all this tells us anything, it is that the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate is part of a broader political narrative, one from which it cannot be detached and for which it is in fact accountable. More than the intimacy that exists between opposing accounts of the Mahatma and Babasaheb, in other words, it is the uncomfortable familiarity among Gandhi’s enemies that needs considering.

Why is it the case that Muslims, who comprised the Mahatma’s chief political rivals in his own lifetime, are today absent from the ideological battles that pit the self-proclaimed supporters of Ambedkar and Godse against him? And do the latter share anything in common despite their very real differences? After all Godse had argued that unlike Gandhi he was opposed to caste prejudices, and his political heirs have gone further to claim Ambedkar not only against the Mahatma, but also the Muslims whose true father he is seen as having become. Ambedkar’s partisans in the fight against Gandhi have admittedly not gone in this direction, but by refusing to acknowledge the larger context in which their debate occurs are unable to address its implications.

Invoking the Poona Pact While Ambedkar seems to have promoted his opposition to Gandhi as a principled one, he continued to deploy explicitly Gandhian terms and practices like satyagraha, thus refusing to be defined by this enmity. Rather than a move towards the Mahatma, however, this suggests he recognised their relationship as being neither equal nor exclusive. For while Babasaheb was obliged by political realities to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing about the Mahatma, the reverse was not true, and he is very rarely mentioned in Gandhi’s collected works. It is perhaps because of this asymmetry that those who pose Ambedkar against Gandhi are reduced to relying on a single event, the Poona Pact of 1932, for so much of their argumentation.

Ambedkar himself made of the Poona Pact the chief example of his fight with Gandhi, but at the time it was signed he was assiduous in defending it against all critics, of whom Godse’s fellow ideologues were the most vociferous. The Poona Pact was agreed after the Mahatma went on a fast unto death, ostensibly against the discrimination exercised by caste Hindus against Dalits, but also to protest the British granting separate electorates to them as part of the Communal Award — just as they had earlier to Muslims, and so by default Hindus as well. By its terms Ambedkar relinquished separate electorates for the reservations that in later years he argued were ineffectual, because they made Dalits dependent on caste Hindu votes and support.

Seen by Congress as well as Hindu nationalists as a “divide and rule” policy meant to keep India under British tutelage, separate electorates had also threatened to fragment Hindus as a community and reduce their majority relative to Muslims. Indeed, the grant of separate electorates to Dalits had come out of the Minorities Pact at the Round Table Conference in London, where Ambedkar had allied with Muslim, Christian, Anglo-Indian and other minorities who claimed to represent a plurality of India’s population, thus denying that any majority existed in the country. And if there was no majority in India, then of course there were no minorities either, which meant that these categories could now be redefined beyond the communal identities of Hindus and Muslims.

Ambedkar and others in the Minorities Pact argued that the inequalities of Indian society meant that people’s interests were permanently aligned with their castes or communities. But if Hindus were to become a permanent majority and Muslims a permanent minority after Independence, then democracy was impossible in India, since it required shifting interests that allowed all groups the chance to hold power. Hindus therefore had to be disaggregated by caste, so as to make for changing alliances that produced political rather than communal majorities. The Congress, however, questioned the legitimacy of these minority voices, and maintained that Independence would erase caste and communal distinctions, allowing people to vote along economic lines instead.

While the Poona Pact is much invoked in the battle that sets Babasaheb against Mahatma, interesting about the Minorities Pact is that it is just as regularly ignored. Is this because any acknowledgement of it would immediately reveal that the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate possessed neither autonomy nor integrity, but was instead given meaning by its triangulation with other classes and communities? For although caste relations in everyday life might exclude third parties, they have always been mediated by these latter in the arena of national politics. Thus Godse’s dedication to caste inter-dining was prompted by his fear of Hindu fragmentation in the face of what he saw as Muslim aggression.

By focussing on the relationship between Gandhi and Ambedkar, those who oppose as much as reconcile these men end up confining them to an intimacy that is premised upon caste-like exclusions. And in doing so they are unable to chart the political constellation in which Babasaheb and Mahatma belonged. For if Jinnah has more claim to be Gandhi’s chief rival, he also became an obstacle for Ambedkar, for whom the Muslim League’s domination of opposition politics pushed his Dalit cause into the background. Despite many years of cooperating with the League, Ambedkar also knew that Jinnah would come to an arrangement with Gandhi and his caste Hindu following that would leave Dalits in the political wilderness.

Dalit constituency as model Following India’s partition and the destruction of Muslim politics there, it was the new Dalit constituency created by reservations that eventually came to serve as a model for this minority that had once claimed to be a nation. And while the high caste interests and leadership of many Muslim organisations have meant that such attempts at alliance building continue to be opportunistic, it has assumed a distinctive reality among youth movements and in student politics. The fact that >Rohith Vemula and his friends were declared to be anti-national because they condemned >the execution of Yakub Memon is significant in this respect, as was the subsequent and related invocation of >Afzal Guru alongside Vemula himself at the >Jawaharlal Nehru University .

Without any Muslim issue or organisation being involved in such controversies, this minority has again come to triangulate caste relations as well as conflict between the left and right. In both cases the Muslim issue allowed students in Hyderabad and Delhi to be accused of anti-national activities. But it is important to recognise that the same logic of mediation also permitted Godse to work for an end to caste discrimination among Hindus. In other words, this logic is a structural one, and can assume opposing political forms. And if Ambedkar is omnipresent in today’s controversies, Gandhi is by the same token absent from them. There no longer exists any relationship, let alone debate, between the two.

(Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Fellow of St. Antony’s College in the University of Oxford, where he is also Director of the Asian Studies Centre.)

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