Ambedkar, Gandhi and campaign of untouchables

Babasaheb emerges as the champion of continuous revolution while rejecting the supremacy of politics over civil society.

 |  4-minute read |   20-04-2015
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In 1937, Reginald Reynolds wrote an anti-patriotic book — The White Sahibs in India — with an introduction by Nehru who had not read the book. Reynolds, an Englishman, scathingly conjured Babasaheb Ambedkar as a government lackey nominated to the Bombay legislature. Even before the great fracas, Gandhi assumed Ambedkar was a Brahmin who took an interest in Harijans.

Badly treated

When Ambedkar was appointed as the military secretary to the Gaekwar of Baroda after getting a PhD from Columbia University, he was treated as an untouchable. Peons chose to hurl files at his desk instead of handing them over to him while denying him drinking water. India’s caste system did not care about his American doctoral thesis on financial federalism.

After all these humiliations, but not because of them, he wrote masterly and doctoral dissertations on decentralisation and the "Problem of the Rupee". He was clearly amongst the most educated in the freedom movement. However, he had not forgotten his experience at schools in Dapoli and Bombay where untouchables were segregated in classes like the American negro. The prospect of learning Sanksrit was denied to Ambedkar. Satyagraha became an inevitable option.

Ambedkar led the march to the Chowdhary tank in Mahad, which saw a violent clash over caste. Ambedkar pursued and burnt copies of the Manusmriti before campaigning for an entry into the temple at Nasik in 1930 and supporting the campaign in Daulatabad in 1934. Meanwhile, questions of critical significance were being raised across the country.

Gandhi in a fix

What is required is to purge it of the doctrine of Chaturvanya. That is the root cause of inequality and the ... Parent of the caste system”. Now look at Gandhi’s reply: “I am a Hindu... Dr Ambedkar wants to fight Varnashram itself, I cannot be in his camp because I believe Varnashram to be integral to Hinduism”.

There lay a contradiction in Gandhi’s policy. Let casteism continue but let untouchables have entry into public places. However, Ambedkar said if Hindus were not going to change, it was better for untouchables to leave Hinduism.

Ambedkar and Gandhi knew that the answer lay in politics. But Gandhi went on to question Ambedkar’s leadership. Gandhi wanted to be the exclusive voice for untouchables, with his favourite Congress leaders leading the battle. This is what led to the controversy that culminated in the Poona Pact.

Ambedkar’s political demands were prominent at the Round Table conference. Ambedkar had asked the Simon Commission for joint electorates but raised the demand for separate electorates at the Round Table conference. The Congress declared its position by asking for joint electorates during the Rajah–Moonje pact of 1932. In 1932, the “Communal Award” gave separate electorates to untouchables with Gandhi deciding to go on a fast against the decision. Ambedkar faced the choice to either capitulate or be responsible for Gandhi’s death. He wrote to the Times of India that Gandhi was “not playing the honest foe”. Ambedkar eventually went back to his earlier stance of joint electorates.


The real problem was that Ambedkar, as an untouchable, could not allow Gandhi and the Congress to either usurp the struggle of untouchables or to dilute it. Would Gandhi allow "whites" to take over the struggle against apartheid in South Africa? Gandhi allowed no space for dissent and was ready to go on a fast to disable others.

There is an alleged blot on Ambedkar. Unable to trust the Congress on minorities, he advocated partition in his Thoughts on Pakistan (1940). However, he realised India was left with a significant minority population and went on to strongly protect the interests of minorities while piloting the Constitution.

Why is Ambedkar regarded as the creator of the Constitution when the first step was taken by BN Rao? Ambedkar’s major contribution was to ensure the Karachi Objectives Resolution became the Constitution’s Preamble and asked Munshi to take his place on the agrarian reform debate. Nobody can doubt the role of AK Ayyar, KT Shah, Bhargava, Amrit Kaur and Hansa Mehta, but it was Ambedkar whose contribution was the most significant during the drafting process and on the Assembly floor. It is the reason why the Constitution was Ambedkar’s Smriti.

Ambedkar emerges as the champion of continuous revolution while rejecting the supremacy of politics over civil society. He warned that if political democracy did not achieve real social justice “at the earliest... Those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy, which this Assembly has so laboriously built up”. The message: Social justice now, social movements forever.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)


Rajeev Dhavan Rajeev Dhavan

Supreme Court lawyer.

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