While differences in opinion and methodology divided Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, their respective beliefs nevertheless continue to guide India and its people
In an interview before the BBC in 1955, Dr BR Ambedkar said about Mahatma Gandhi: "I always say that I know him better as an opponent". This statement goes a long way to encapsulate the relationship between the two trendsetters of modern India, namely, Dr BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. The relationship between the two has been one of doubt and antagonism as Ambedkar went on to say, in the above-stated interview that Gandhiji was no 'Mahatma' and he could see the bare man in Gandhi with his fangs. Ambedkar believed that Gandhiji was an episode and not an epoch maker in Indian History. However, history does not essentially testify to any stringent remarks made by Gandhiji about Ambedkar, particularly when we note Ambedkar's comments about Gandhiji being personal and sometimes derogatory too. But our understanding of a figure like Gandhi is incomplete without grasping his relationship with someone like Dr BR Ambedkar.
The confrontation between Gandhiji and Dr Ambedkar had its beginnings in the Round Table Conferences of 1930-32. Ambedkar attended the conferences as the prime representative of the Dalits or the untouchables. Gandhiji eventually decided to attend the second conference. He argued fervently to have represented the 'untouchables' because according to his understanding the 'untouchables' were an integral part of the Hindu fold. Gandhiji as a representative of the Congress also vouched for social justice to the Dalits. This ignited the flames of an ideological conflict between Ambedkar and Gandhiji. Ambedkar believed that the "Untouchables were not a part of the Hindus but 'a part apart'".Ambedkar was also of the consideration that the Dalits would welcome the independence and its eventual situation of domination by the Congress (whom Ambedkar considered to be an upper-caste Hindu representation). But the problem intensified with the issue of a separate electorate declared by the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.Gandhiji was not prepared to accept the Dalits as a separate community and so he disagreed with Dalits enjoying separate electorate status. Ambedkar thought the diametric opposite. His views were in favour of a separate electorate because his original belief about the execution of universal suffrage did not happen. When the Ramsay MacDonald Award gave separate electorates to the Dalits, Gandhi decided to go into a fast unto death. This resulted in the 'Poona Pact' between Gandhi and Ambedkar which was formalised with reserved seats for Dalits but in constituencies now controlled by upper-caste Hindus.
Ambedkar could not accept the Poona Pact from heart, but he thought that if anything amiss happened to Gandhiji, then it would result in a scathing attack on the Dalits by the upper caste Hindus. Much later, Ambedkar wrote, "There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The fast was not for the benefit of the 'untouchables'. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against helpless people to give up the Constitutional safeguards(which had been awarded to them)". Ambedkar, even in later years, asked for a separate electorate but in vain. Thereby, the 'Poona Pact' remained a symbol of bitterness to Ambedkar and Gandhiji featured before him as an enemy, as someone who had robbed the rights of the Dalits.
While making an attempt to track the cause of differences between two such luminaries like Ambedkar and Gandhiji, one feels that the two had different approaches to the same problem and these two different approaches were non-conforming in nature. Gandhiji thought that the upper caste Hindus had to make reparations for the sins they inflicted on the untouchables and so whatever had to be done, had to be done within Hindu society. Ambedkar thought that there was no redemption in Hinduism and because he personally had been a victim of the caste system and its humilities, he was relying on his intuitive understanding of the problem, which was again, not altogether, absolutely illogical. Ambedkar stood for the annihilation of caste and was of the disposition that nothing but abolition of the caste system could redeem the plight of the Dalits. Gandhiji, in contrast, was a believer of the idealised version of the 'Varnashrama Dharma' and he believed in reformism within Hinduism by removing the doctrine of hierarchy and untouchability.
This was further followed by Ambedkar's statement in 1936 when he said ''I was born a Hindu and have suffered the consequences of untouchability. I will not die a Hindu." Two days later Gandhiji expressed his views on Ambedkar's statement "Unbelievable. Religion is not like a cloak which can be changed at will". To an extent, Gandhiji could not gauge the agonised anger of millions of Dalits who saw Ambedkar as their redeemer.
Ambedkar was absolutely firm in his notion that Gandhiji was wrong in his idea of upliftment of the Dalits under upper-caste Hindu patronage. He argued for broader civil rights like entering into temples, public places and other civil liberties. Therefore, Ambedkar opposed Gandhiji's 'Harijan Sevak Sangh' and vehemently resorted to the dictum that Gandhiji was absolutely wrong in thinking that the upper caste Hindus would make atonement for the sin of untouchability. Different programmes initiated by Gandhiji like cleaning up of slums, non-alcoholism and such were rejected by Ambedkar. Ambedkar also criticised Gandhi with the allegation that the Sangh was subservient to no purpose as it did not allow the representation of the Dalits in its management. It is interesting to note that throughout his long battle to champion the rights of the untouchables, Ambedkar regarded Gandhiji as his adversary.
It is often found that great men have great differences and this difference between Ambedkar and Gandhi remained so great that it could not be bridged. Behind such differences, were also different views towards humanity. To Gandhiji, the untouchables were not just individuals but part of a community. Ambedkar, on the other hand, had an individual-centric vision for the development of the Dalits. Ambedkar also contrasted with Gandhiji in his opinion that it would be industrialisation and not the development of villages under the concept of 'Ramrajya' that would lead to the desired growth of the economy. Untouchables, to Ambedkar, would have to escape the village model of the past for a prosperous future.
The fundamental difference between Ambedkar and Gandhiji thus remained, never to be reconciled. It is unfortunate that the two could not come to terms of amity, which might have made things brighter for the class of people whose benevolence both of them endeared. We also need to stay attuned to the differences in opinion and method, represented by Gandhi and Ambedkar, respectively, for the argumentative Indian would let the argument continue and our future should receive the halo of guidance from both these enlightened minds.
The writer is an educator. Views expressed are personal