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Has the time come to elevate Ambedkar over Gandhi?

By  Abhay Vaidya

Like it happens every year, yet another birth anniversary of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar passed by this 14 April, less than 10 days ago. The occasion was a day of high celebration and festivity primarily for Dalits across the country. For the rest, it was just another holiday, a little less enjoyable because it fell on a weekend.

As the man who emancipated the untouchables and other depressed classes and freed them from a 2,000-year-old curse, it is debatable whether Ambedkar’s stature in India stands taller than that of Mahatma Gandhi’s.

Even 60 years after Independence, the caste system has a stranglehold on large parts of Indian society and rears its head at the time of marriage. Innocent youngsters, even from well-educated families, are reprimanded if they try to break the caste barrier by attempting love marriages. Sometimes, they are even put to death in the name of “honour killing” — predominantly a north Indian custom that has now become visible even in a state like Maharashtra that was in the forefront of the social reforms movement.

Ambedkar thought very deeply about the caste system and — 85 years ago, during the 1927 Mahad satyagraha — spoke of inter-caste marriages as a lasting solution to the caste problem. As he said, “We need to pull away the nails which hold the framework of caste-bound Hindu society together, such as those of the prohibition of inter-marriage, down to the prohibition of social intercourse so that Hindu society becomes all of one caste. Otherwise untouchability cannot be removed nor can equality be established…”

Born as an “untouchable” in the Mahar sub-caste, Ambedkar went on to secure scholarships and study at Columbia University, the London School of Economics and at Gray’s Inn, UK, from where he became a Bar-at-Law.

When he entered public life in India and began fighting for the liberation of the depressed classes, he tirelessly exhorted the poor to doggedly pursue education and become self-reliant. He established the People’s Education Society and opened a string of educational institutions and night colleges to provide the poor with access to education. This constant emphasis of his on education continues to be relevant even today, especially when India is debating the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.

Ambedkar’s message to his followers was to “educate, agitate, organise”. Dalit leaders today seem to only agitate for anything and everything. AFP

What has happened in India today is that this extraordinary crusader, architect of India’s Constitution and one of the founding fathers of the nation, has been reduced to an icon of just one section of Indian society. This is perhaps best exemplified by what happens in prominent cities of Maharashtra on 14 April when Ambedkar Jayanti gets reduced to a noisy street event of the Dalits with cacophonous, slow-moving processions causing irritating traffic jams on busy roads.

Instead, the occasion ought to be one of intense soul-searching for the nation with a reflection on his thoughts and ideas and new initiatives and programmes to further weaken the caste system. One cannot expect the Dalit community to take the lead in this as it is politically and intellectually fragmented and trapped in inter-personal rivalries and jealousies.

Ambedkar’s most critical satyagrahas were the 1927 Chavdar Lake movement at Mahad to bring access to public sources of drinking water, the Kalaram temple-entry movement at  Nashik and the symbolic burning of the Manusmriti - the ancient book of law of the Hindus which ordained the caste system. The final blow that he delivered against the caste system, six weeks before his death, was his mass conversion to Buddhism as a way to secure freedom from tyranny in Hindu society.

Politically, Ambedkar was bitterly opposed to Gandhi and was seen as pro-British as he gave priority to securing rights for the depressed classes over anything else. His most famous clash with Gandhi was over separate electorates for the depressed classes announced by the British government in 1932.

Arun Shourie’s Worshipping False Gods takes an uncharitable view of Ambedkar, questioning his patriotism and criticising his politics and rivalry with Gandhi while completely ignoring his stupendous work in bringing dignity and self-respect to the untouchables.

On the other hand, Ramchandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India, is in agreement with Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer. Keer wrote that it was for the first time in 2,500 years that someone like Ambedkar had emerged to focus the world’s attention on the civic, social, political rights and liberties of the untouchable castes “who had been treated worse than animals”.

What Ambedkar did was to awaken “in them a sense of human dignity, a feeling of self-respect and a burning hatred of untouchability that was worse than slavery,” says Guha quoting Keer.

In an essay in 1945, Why the Untouchables distrust Gandhi, Ambedkar said that Gandhi’s anti-untouchability campaigns failed because he was primarily seen as a political leader and his campaign was looked upon as “a fad if not a side-show.” Therefore, said Ambedkar, “Hindus respond to his political biddings but never to his social or religious preachings…” Ambedkar also maintained that Gandhi failed because “he did not go beyond sermons on untouchability”.

In all fairness to Gandhi, Guha notes that in spite of the bitter criticism from Ambedkar for nearly two decades, it was Gandhi “who seems to have been personally responsible” for Ambedkar’s selection as India’s first law minister after Independence.

Ambedkar’s message to his followers was to “educate, agitate, organise”. Dalit leaders today seem to only agitate for anything and everything. Although possessed by the larger issue, Ambedkar also touched upon the issue of empowerment of women and rather evocatively said, “The progress of the country should be measured by the progress of women”.

The people of India are being unfair to Ambedkar when they see him as a leader of the Dalits alone. He ranks amongst the foremost icons of modern India.  His birth anniversary ought to inspire schools, colleges and the society at large to reflect on strategies to weaken if not erase caste barriers, the value of education and the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity that he said form the bedrock of the Indian Constitution.

By “fraternity” he meant the spirit of oneness among Indians, not separated by linguistically-driven chauvinism, religion and caste.