Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s story is that of immense struggle and courage. It is an extraordinary story of fighting untouchability and voicing the desperate need for equality, dignity and welfare for the Dalits and the marginalized in modern India. He is an inspiration for the Indian Dalit and a symbol of hope for the subaltern. .
Bhim Rao Aambedkar was born in an untouchable community and had realized the oppression and pain of untouchability – being barred from drinking water from certain wells, eating with school mates, entering the Hindu religious place and studying Sanskrit. Sadly, what Ambedkar went through in his childhood and youth remain only marginally altered today for the Dalit community in India.
Amebdkar completed his schooling from a Westernized school. This was a privilege for a Dalit child and was possible because his father Ramji was associated with the British school and thus could afford a westernized education for his son. By his teenage years, the boy’s intellectual abilities had drawn attention from the king of Baroda who referred him to a Brahmin school teacher, who later entitled him ‘ Ambedkar’. And the king helped him financially to attend the prestigious Elphinstone college in Mumbai.
Ambedkar grew up to become one of the most intellectual men in India at that time. During the years of his higher education he was inspired by the ideas of the philosopher John Dewey from whom he learnt about the importance of democratic institutions in bringing equality in society. It was James T. Shotwell, who expanded Ambedkar’s idea of labor and human rights; he realized that the expansion of rights could be a catalyst of social liberty.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was a brilliant scholar and we are aware of how he exercised this knowledge as a tool against untouchablity and oppression.
In 1927, he led a march for equal access to water resources for the Dalits in a Maharashtrian town but the march was disrupted by the upper caste Hindus. The experience convinced him that protesting on the streets is not going to bring about any kind of change in the situation of the Dalits. Thus he decided to make this protest stronger by uniting the untouchables.
Inspired by the ideas of Brooker T. Washington who after associating with the church leaders, the white philanthropist and the political parties brought a strong moment in America against racial discrimination of the black people, Ambedkar too started a sequence of associations with political parties, pressure groups ,communists, Sikhs, and the socialists and brought a new dimension to his struggle. These campaigns were successful and Ambedkar was able to mobilize the untocuchables under the political term/identity called ‘Dalit’. Ambedkar’s articulations in terms of his articles, books, pamphlets, speeches and critical analysis of the Brahminical order along with his grass root activism remind me of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramci’s notion of the organic intellectual. Ambedkar was indeed an erudite scholar and yet deeply embedded to the struggles and aspirations of the ordinary suffering population.
This movement gained immense popularity amongst the untouchables and the minorities
but Ambedkar was aware of the fact that these activities against untouchability could only sustain temporarily and cannot lead to a permanent solution. He thus began to explore a constitutional solution to the problem. He organized a mechanism for the representation of untouchables in the 1930’s round-table conference. Here his clear and sharp argumentative skills brought the attention to the participants. Ambedkar was a nationwide leader of the untouchables and his political aggression stood as a hope for the Dalits who had long suffered the oppression of the caste society. He never seemed to be convinced with alternative/parallel ideas against caste hierarchy in India, he very rigidly believed that the untouchable would have to fight their own battle that he had to champion this cause.
Ambedkar decided to pursue this cause with British help, taking up a post in the Viceroy’s government that eventually turned into an intellectual battle between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Gandhi was not fully convinced with the idea. He was not certain in the potential of the policy for separate electorates for the untouchables. This subsequently gave birth to fundamental clashes and difference of opinion among the two. India was passing through a difficult time -Hindu – Muslim clashes and the partition were difficult events to cope with and Gandhi emphasized that all sections of the society be it the Dalits, the religious groups or the tribals had to be together in this critical moment.
Gandhi’s emphasis was not just on policies or on separate electorates for the untouchables but he believed that untouchality is entrenched in Indian society and can only be eradicated completely if we began altering our own personal attitudes.
This was a matter of individual transformation, This method lay emphasis on realization and experience and thus we see how Gandhi urged us to do various chores considered mundane/polluted such as cleaning toilets but simultaneously reminded us of the importance of cultivating our own consciousness against caste discrimination. Thus for Gandhi the battle outside was incomplete without fighting the enemy inside and he understood that unless both these things went hand in hand we could never arrive at an egalitarian social milieu.
Gandhi’s view was that untouchables had to come together through love, not through electoral arrangements or laws and this brought a new dimension into Ambedkar’s fight.
Gandhi was deeply engaged with mission of fighting untouchability and working on the welfare of the marginalized and on the other hand Ambedkar was popularizing the voice of Dalits through political mobilization. Gandhi engaged with these issues and addressed them by staying with the untouchables in their colonies, sharing their meals and performing all the tasks of cleaning along with them. His followers tried to follow his thinking. Public dinners were organized in which people expressed their feelings against the practice of untouchability by eating with people of different communities.
The battle against untocuhability continued but post partition Gandhi’s attention shifted more towards the victims of the human disaster. Gandhi was in Noakhali, walking for peace and national brotherhood. Gandhi was totally broken after the division of India on communal lines and felt deeply hurt at this tragic moment. And on the 30th of January 1948 at Delhi’s Birla House, three gun shots took Gandhi’s life and along with him died his ideas of unity and Swaraj. Ambedkar continued his work against untochability and went on to become the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the constitution.. Under his leadership a set of fundamental rights were promised to all citizens irrespective of caste, class, religion moreover a set of important measures for protection and empowerment of the Dalits were granted place in the Indian constitution. This achievement brought a new light against untouchability in India.
It is not an extreme paradox that today both Gandhi and Ambedkar have been museumized and confined into symbols of state policy which are appropriated from time to time for the sake of electoral politics and vote banks. Neither the Gandhian aspiration of establishing egalitarian society and fighting Caste and discrimination nor Ambedkar’s mobilization of the Dalits or his powerful argumentations against the caste system in the constituent assembly brought any significant change in the fabric of Indian society. Moreover Ambedkar has become a necessary electoral magnet for any politician who wants the votes of the minorities. What could be a greater disaster than the fact that even the so called followers of Ambedkar have transformed him into merely a political sword for Anti-Brahminical rhetoric but rarely do they engage with his wide ranging ideas, his politico-cultural perspectives and his greater vision. Look at the irony of this appropriation, on the one hand we witnessed an important leader of the ruling party adorn the statue of Ambedkar with a tika( a Hindu religious symbol) and on the other we see how under the same political regime the Gandhian concept of cleanliness has been used to trigger a popular nation-wide campaign which may be only superficially engaging with the concept and not with philosophic-epistemological sensitivity to the Gandhian principles.
Ambedkar’s Conversion into Buddhism was not just an individual act but it symbolized his inner turmoil and complete sense of disgust with the Brahminical – Hindu order which for him could not be repaired or remodeled, thus for him and his followers conversion was the most viable alternative and the chosen voice of dissent. On the other hand Gandhi with the wide political canvas that he was working on realized that casteism could not be fought without transforming the internal world of the person thus for Gandhi abolishing the caste system was not only a matter of legality or policy but rather a joint battle to be fought by the intellect and the heart towards equality and brotherhood among all. Moreover, in the Gandhian line of thought the caste system or its evils were not only the concerns of those who faced its oppressive powers but rather he wanted to arrive at and build an environment where irrespective of caste people related to each other and allowed each to live with dignity and welfare. It is here that I recall an occasion when Ambedkar’s second marriage was taking place and Sardar Patel asked him what he thought Gandhi would have uttered at that moment and Ambedkar replied with a sense of deep gratitude that Bapu would have been happy and would have blessed the both of us.
The question of untouchability occupied the imagination and emotion of both Gandhi and Ambedkar who saw that without addressing this question the dream for an ideal India could never come true. However the paths that both of them took towards the noble mission were diverse and often contradictory. However, when we engage with the issue of caste and untocuhability in today’s context or wish to understand Gandhi and Ambedkar our approach should not be limited and should not merely emphasize the intellectual conflict between the two. Ironically most discussions on the themes are built upon the intellectual battle and are attempted to establish how different the two minds were however if we engage in the debate with an open mind and allow ourselves to learn and grow from both their ideas and see them as engaged in constant conversation and exchange rather than a brutal war then our own understanding of the issue becomes enriched and nuanced. Let us explore the intricacy of the debate and not hurry for conclusions, let us respect the two minds and read them carefully and with an open mind. After all, there are many paths to the same destination.