BR Ambedkar feels more relevant to most Indians than MK Gandhi, as response to leaders' birth anniversaries shows

Two birth anniversaries of two great leaders that evoke contrary responses: It is a veritable carnival around the country on 14 April, the birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar. This year, too, an estimated 10,000 people thronged the streets to Parliament, the gates of which were opened for people to pay homage to Ambedkar’s statue installed there. Music played at full blast, stalls supplied free food, vendors did brisk business selling Ambedkar mementos.

By contrast, the celebration on 2 October, the birth anniversary of MK Gandhi, is forgetfully staid – politicians make a beeline for the Gandhi memorial at Delhi’s Rajghat. There is an officious ring to the celebration, not least because it lacks the popular fervour of 14 April.

It would seem Ambedkar, in death, has not only trumped Gandhi on the popularity chart, but also Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Yet the Ambedkarites have signaled out Gandhi to lock him and Ambedkar in a posthumous competition, a competition that has become increasingly unequal with time.

There are reasons why they have chosen to pit Ambedkar against Gandhi. It was he who turned the national struggle into a mass movement, drawing into the Congress tent the Scheduled Castes. They flocked to Gandhi because he argued that caste and untouchability did not have the sanction of Hindu scriptures, which recognised only varna or the four-fold division of society based on the ancestral calling of each. Caste was an outcome of the varna system gone askew. From Gandhi’s perspective, untouchability could be rooted out by cleansing Hinduism of the dubious practices that had crept into it.

It would seem Ambedkar, in death, has not only trumped Gandhi on the popularity chart. Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It would seem Ambedkar, in death, has not only trumped Gandhi on the popularity chart. Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar pooh-poohed Gandhi’s formulation. Varna was another name of caste as the division of labour was based on the hereditary calling of each social group. It constituted the very foundation of the structure of caste. Ambedkar, therefore, argued that it was impossible to reorganise Hindu society on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity without repudiating the divine authority of scriptures which sanctified varna and caste.

Their divergent views came to a head after the British government granted the separate electorate to the Depressed Classes on 16 August 1932. It had Ambedkar’s support; Gandhi was vehemently opposed to it because it would divide the Hindus. In protest, he went on a fast unto death on 20 September 1932. Four days later, Ambedkar caved in, agreeing to abide by the Poona Pact, which abrogated the separate electorate. In return, the Depressed Classes were granted reserved seats far higher in number than the legislators they would have elected under the separate electorate.

The Poona Pact symbolised Gandhi’s triumph over Ambedkar. Thereafter, the Congress went in for the kill in the 1937 elections. It fielded the reputed Scheduled Caste bowler, Palwankar Baloo, against Ambedkar, who was contesting from a reserved seat in Bombay. On India’s unofficial tour of England in 1911, Baloo had bagged as many as 114 wickets, a feat that instantaneously turned him into a Depressed Classes hero.

Fielding Baloo was akin to cutting Ambedkar deep. In his magisterial A Corner Of A Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British sport, author Ramachandra Guha points out that it was Ambedkar who had delivered the welcome speech in a reception that Bombay’s Depressed Classes had organised for Baloo on his return from England. Baloo was also among the two who represented Ambedkar in the negotiations to stitch up the Poona Pact.

Undoubtedly, the Congress wanted to teach a lesson to the emerging leader who had the temerity to lock horns with Gandhi. For one, as Guha writes, the list of candidates for Bombay was “vetted by the Congress strongman, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel”. Launching a vicious campaign, the Congress depicted Ambedkar as one who drew support from anti-nationals and reactionary forces and stood against freedom. It is hard to tell whether Gandhi endorsed his party’s “defeat Ambedkar mission” — but he did not seem to have opposed it either.

Ambedkar polled just 2120 votes more than Baloo to emerge victorious, made possible because the third candidate, a labour leader, spirited away nearly 10,000 votes. The Congress had its revenge in the 1946 elections — Ambedkar was defeated. Gandhi’s party did not seem interested in sending Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly.

In fact, Ambedkar was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the Bengal province, courtesy Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Dalit leader and Pakistan’s first law minister. Ambedkar was then inducted as chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution, a role he acquitted with such aplomb that his stature was enhanced beyond his community. It would seem Gandhi did not oppose Ambedkar’s induction as chairman.

But Ambedkar resigned from the Nehru ministry over the Hindu Code Bill in 1951. In the general election of 1952, the Congress pitted against Ambedkar his personal assistant of many years, Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar. It split the Scheduled Castes, for Kajrolkar, like Baloo, belonged to the Chamar caste. Ambedkar lost by 15,000 votes, and failed to win a Lok Sabha by-election two years later.

This historical memory has prompted the Ambedkarites to pit their icon against that of the Congress and the nation — Gandhi. On the face of it, the crowds that Ambedkar’s birth anniversary draws testify that, as far as winning over the Dalits goes, his vision has been proved right, not Gandhi’s. The most eloquent symbol of it is that Dalits no longer use the Gandhian term Harijan (children of God) to describe themselves, discerning in it a humiliatingly patronising undertone.

From this perspective then, Gandhi, in death, has been deserted by Dalits, whose marginalisation he struggled to overcome within the framework of revitalised Hinduism. Ambedkar has triumphed because his vision not only encapsulates the lived experience of the social conflict that Dalits encounter, but also because the story of his rise to eminence from his humble origin symbolises their aspirations.

Let alone Dalits, what is incomprehensible is that Gandhi’s mass support has continued to shrink. Caste, after all, was just an aspect of Gandhi’s politics. He spearheaded the struggle for freedom, championed nonviolence, tried to forge an amicable Hindu-Muslim relationship, and provided a blueprint of economic development that was remarkably different from the Western paradigm. There should have been an enduring romance for Gandhi, as is the case with Ambedkar. Alas, Gandhi seems to bewitch only academicians, evident from tomes written on him.

It is possible that decades after India’s Independence, we take for granted the freedom that Gandhi crafted for us at such a low price. It is even possible to argue that Gandhi has been “tamed” and turned into a symbol of the state and the political class. Not for nothing then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose 2 October 2014 to launch the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Given the declining regard for the political class, Gandhi might just have suffered by association.

No less a reason is the steady decline of the Congress, which has taken down Gandhi with itself. As also perhaps the cult of Nehru-Gandhi that Indira Gandhi fashioned, leaving the Congress with little resolve to reinvent Gandhian ideas in the modern context.

But there are also structural reasons. Regardless of the academicians’ debate, Gandhi was appropriated by the privileged upper castes for furthering their own interests. It included not just the industrialists, but also the landed class. Swami Sahajanand, Bihar’s foremost peasant leader, suggests in his memoir that Gandhi turned his gaze away from the exploitative ways of zamindars. Perhaps the need of the time was to build the widest possible social coalition to challenge the British Empire.

If the upper castes misused Gandhi and his popularity for their selfish ends, their veritable en bloc migration to the Sangh Parivar since 1990, as also of some sections of the OBCs, has reduced him to being a leader who was proud of his religion and unabashedly practiced it. Forgotten in this appropriation is Gandhi’s penchant to reinterpret Hinduism, his quest for social reform. His inclusion in the Sangh’s pantheon threatens to turn him into a caricature.

Then there is the growing middle class which finds Gandhi’s economic blueprint quirky, best to laugh at; and Gandhi’s principle of ahimsa a threat to their masculinity, a surreptitious project to turn them effeminate, one reason why Nathuram Godse pumped bullets into him. Masculine assertion also frames the increasingly fraught relationship between Hindus and Muslims, which has inevitably eaten into the Gandhian plank of composite nationalism.

It is hard to square up to the fact that the name of Gandhi, at a popular level, is recited as a lament, as a dirge, after every incident of communal violence. To the streets people go chanting, in Hindi, these words, “Gandhi we are ashamed, your killers are still alive.”

Indeed, we should be ashamed because Gandhi conceived ahimsa as the weapon of the strong. It signifies a person’s willingness to court death for a cause he or she believes in, accepting lathis and bullets without retaliating. The Gandhian ideals were perhaps irretrievably buried the day the Sabaramati Ashram — Gandhi’s very own creation — closed its gates during the Gujarat riots. It should have been, as the late reformer Asghar Ali Engineer wrote, the principal sanctuary for victims fleeing the murderous marauders.

In an interview to this writer two years ago, political psychologist Ashis Nandy predicted that the catastrophe of climate change, largely because of the unbridled exploitation of nature, would see the rise of hundred varieties of Gandhi. Some hope that! Until then, it won’t be wrong to say that Ambedkar today influences the hearts, and thoughts, and actions, of far more Indians than Gandhi does, a fact highlighted by the public responses to 2 October and 14 April every year.


Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 17:45 PM

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