Gandhi, Ambedkar, and the Eradication of Untouchability1
- By Sudarshan Kapur*
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) and Bhimjirao Ambedkar (1891-1956) are among the major makers of modern India. Their public careers began early — Gandhi's in South Africa in the mid-1890s and Ambedkar's in western India in the early 1920s. They built on the work of nineteenth century and early twentieth century religious and social reformers such as Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901), Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), Swami Dayananda (1824-1883), and Jotiba Phule (1827-1890). Each fought with rare persistence and exceptional vigor to rid India of oppression from within and without. Once they entered the public arena, there was no turning back for either of them. They maintained the momentum in their struggles for justice and equality until the very end of their lives. Gandhi and Ambedkar offered specific goals for and pathways to the creation of a just social order in India. They differed over objectives as well as the methods for achieving their ends. In their long public careers, both of them addressed a number of crucial social and political issues. How best to remove untouchability was a major issue over which the two had fundamental differences from late 1920s onward.
Perhaps it was to be expected that their very different backgrounds and commitments took them on different paths in the struggle against internal and external oppression. Gandhi believed that standing at the heart of the inherited Hindu tradition, including its caste system, it was possible to overcome untouchability. "In my opinion, untouchability is a blot on humanity and therefore upon Hinduism. It cannot stand the test of reason. It is in conflict with the fundamental precepts of Hinduism,” he insisted.2 Untouchability was reform “custom masquerading under the name of religion.”3 He set out to reform but not to reject Hinduism. According to the Mahatma, "the caste system is a hindrance, not a sin. But untouchability is a sin, a great crime, and if Hinduism does not destroy this serpent while there is time, it will be devoured by it."4 He firmly believed that ultimately the removal of untouchability depended on the change of heart of millions of caste Hindus.5
For his part, Ambedkar initially sought equality within the Hindu tradition, hoping to gain a place of religious and social equality with caste Hindus. For more than a decade, he struggled to overcome untouchability while staying within the Hindu fold. Finding Hinduism too flawed to be a force for justice and the Hindu orthodoxy too resistant to change, he gave up on Hinduism. Reflecting on his more than two decades of activism, he said:
When I started on my public career and long thereafter I considered that for good or for evil we were part of Hindu society.... I thought for long that we could rid the Hindu society of its evils and get the Depressed Classes incorporated into it on terms of equality. . . . Experience has taught me better. I stand today absolutely convinced that for the Depressed Classes there can be no equality among the Hindus because on inequality rest the foundations of Hinduism.6
After years of reflection and in the hopes of carrying along with him Dalits as well as caste Hindus, a few days before he died, Ambedkar turned to Buddhism.
Yet, in spite of their different approaches to ridding India of untouchability, each helped to significantly weaken the hold of Hindu orthodoxy and as a consequence strengthened the social and political status of the untouchables. Making the practice of untouchability unlawful by the new Indian Government in 1950 was helpful, but it did not eradicate untouchability. Neither "affirmative action" nor exclusively Dalit led and Dalit organized politics is as effective today as in earlier years.7 Sixty-two years after Gandhi's assassination and fifty-four years after Ambedkar's death, Hindu society remains caste- bound and the untouchables are all too frequently brutalized. As we move further into the twenty-first century, political leaders and social activists will do well to revisit Gandhi and Ambedkar and ask what, if anything, that can be learned from them.
As a caste Hindu and the son of a prime minister of the princely state of Kathiawar, Gandhi knew what it was like to be "somebody." His father's position and the family's standing within the caste hierarchy gave Gandhi social status. All that changed once he got to South Africa, where he, not unlike his compatriots, was subjected to racial prejudice and many humiliations. For the first, time he was "nobody." Before emerging on the national scene in India, while still in South Africa, with deep study and deliberate care he crafted the concept of Satyagraha — the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance. And he also posited an alternative vision of a just society based on simplicity, nonviolence, and individual autonomy.
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Ambedkar, an untouchable of the Mahar caste from Maharashtra, "knew first-hand the many humiliations, including physical beatings, from orthodox Hindus. In a world defined and controlled by caste Hindus, he did not count for much; he was "nobody." Ambedkar's stellar academic record and the timely intervention of a philanthropist would open the pathway to his liberation. His thirst for knowledge took him to the USA, England, and Germany, where he studied with distinction at some highly prestigious institutions of higher education and where for the first time he experienced social equality, a sense of being "somebody." If Gandhi idealized village India, Ambedkar rejected it for its backwardness, especially the oppression of untouchables. Unlike the Mahatma, Ambedkar was a modemizer with a tolerant eye for the West. In the radical tradition of the nineteenth century social reformer, Jotiba Phule, Ambedkar insisted that social democracy was even more important than freedom from foreign rule.8
Gandhi began to question the practice of untouchability at the age of twelve. An untouchable named Uka used to clean the toilets in the Gandhi household. Gandhi's mother forbade him to touch Uka.
If I accidently touched Uka, I was asked to perform ablutions, and though I naturally obeyed, it was not without smilingly protesting that untouchability was not sanctioned by religion.... I told my mother that she was entirely wrong in considering physical contact with Uka as sinful.9
His questioning, however, went deeper and gained its anchor in the Hindu scriptures. In a certain sense, the roots of Gandhi's rejection of untouchability and the belief that it is not central to Hinduism lie in the Ramayana. The study of the Ramayana led him to ask: "How can the Ramayana in which one who is regarded nowadays as an untouchable took Rama [incarnation of God] across the Ganges in his boat, countenance the idea of any human beings as 'untouchables' on the ground that they were polluted souls?"10 “I do not pretend that this thing had crystallized as a conviction in me at the age of twelve, but I do say that I did then regard untouchability as a sin."11 Untouchability thus became a religious question for Gandhi early; he never wavered in that understanding.
In 1893 Gandhi, the failed attorney-at-law, decided to try his luck in South Africa, where he stayed until 1914. Initially, he worked and identified himself with the merchants from the Indian community. But once he began to work closely with indentured laborers in South Africa, his understanding of and sympathy for the poor — many of whom were untouchables — deepened.12 Untouchables were among the foremost resisters in the civil disobedience campaign in 1914. The South African years thus strengthened Gandhi's resolve to challenge Hindu orthodoxy. He rejected the notion that the work of a sweeper was polluting and refused to make distinctions between Brahmins and untouchables.
berated as cowardly satyagrahi prisoners who would not eat food touched by untouchables or sleep near them in gaol for fear of tyrannical reaction at home; and he told a Tamil meeting that they would have come to South Africa in vain if they brought with them the caste divisions which were so strong in their native Madras."13
Though South Africa afforded Gandhi the freedom to relate to people across caste, ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, he yet ran into domestic conflict over the issue of untouchability.
Born as he was into an untouchable home, Ambedkar, unlike Gandhi, was on the receiving end of stigma and social disabilities that came with his birth. As an untouchable, the religious and social constraints — the lack of access to public wells, education, Hindu temples, barbers, etc. — were an inescapable part of his childhood experiences. Yet he didn't fully awaken to the depth of caste-based oppression until he began to travel beyond his familiar village setting, which became necessary for his studies. Ambedkar's first rude and shattering shock" came when one summer on a visit home from high school to see his father, he along with his brother and nephew were denied access to drinking water.14 For hours, late into the night, they "travelled with their mouths parched with thirst; but nowhere could they get drinking water on the way. Every time people either pointed to the filthy water or asked them to go away."15 It was then that Ambedkar learned anew that he was an untouchable. On another occasion, when he stealthily drank water from a public facility, Ambedkar was "beaten black and blue."16 His experiences at school were no different; he would sit in a corner, so as not to "pollute" caste Hindus. His teachers preferred to ignore his physical needs and to even deny him his academic ambitions. For instance, he was not permitted to take up the study of Sanskrit at school.
Without the means to pursue graduate studies, driven by an "insatiable thirst for knowledge and the spur of ambition," Ambedkar applied for and won a scholarship, offered by the Maharaja of Baroda, to study at Columbia University.17 For the first time Ambedkar was in a social environment where he had the freedom to grow in new ways and to be himself. It helped that he was now removed from the all-too-familiar life of daily humiliations and deprivations that he had known in India. Columbia University and New York City opened for Ambedkar a vast new world of learning and fellowship. In the open and intellectually vibrant environment, his awareness and sense of solidarity with the marginalized deepened.18 With a doctorate from Columbia University, which he completed in three years in June 1916, Ambedkar left for London to do law from Grays Inn and economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. When, the following year, his scholarship period ended, without completing his studies in England, he returned home to fulfill his commitment to serve the State of Baroda.
Back in India, Gandhi's anti-untouchability stance awakened in childhood and nurtured in South Africa entered a new phase, a public phase, at Satyagraha Ashram, founded by the Mahatma in May 1915 in Kochrab village near Ahmedabad. The ashram was the linchpin of Gandhi's philosophy of action; it was a laboratory where visions of a just society were conceived and where women and men trained to carry forward Gandhi's political and social agenda. It was also a setting where methods to transform society were worked out. At the heart of the ashram was its discipline of vows and the elimination of untouchability was one of the vows all members of the ashram took.19 Considering that Gandhi had already positioned himself in opposition to untouchability, it was only to be expected that its eradication would become one of Satyagraha Ashram's major activities.20 "Untouchability had not only no place in the Ashram, but its eradication from Hindu society was one of our principal objectives," Gandhi stated.21 It was in the ashram setting that Gandhi's position on untouchability ceased to be purely personal and private; his stand against the practice of untouchability became part of the public debate. And it took the Mahatma on a collision course with orthodox Hindus.
All of humanity for Gandhi was one large family without distinction of race, religion, or nationality. Untouchability stood in opposition, to his notion of divinely gathered family and community. When an untouchable family sought its membership of the Satyagraha Ashram, Gandhi welcomed them. Several members of the ashram, including Kasturba and Maganlal Gandhi, the Mahatma's chief lieutenant, and his wife, Santok, objected to the presence of the untouchable family in the ashram; they even threatened to leave. Mrs. Gandhi "could leave me and we should part good friends," the Mahatma wrote to V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, his "revered friend."22 Kasturba changed her mind and stayed, but Maganlal and Santok left only to return later.23 Gandhi's decision "created a flutter amongst the friends [in Ahmedabad] who had been helping the Ashram."24 Ashram funds dried up and there was talk of a social boycott of the ashram. Gandhi held his ground and refused to remove the untouchable family from the ashram. Just then help came from an anonymous benefactor. The ashram survived with the untouchable family staying on. Gandhi, it should be noted, was ready, to close down the ashram and move to an untouchable settlement.25
Gandhi addressed the application of Satyagraha in caste reform more than once, but he never led a Satyagraha campaign over the question of untouchability.26 Nor did he support Ambedkar in the Satyagraha campaigns the Dalit leader led. The Mahatma's lack of support for Ambedkar's Satyagraha initiatives "increased the distrust on the part of Ambedkar and his followers for the Congress and Gandhi."27 Gandhi's acts of personal witness against the practice of untouchability, however, continued. In 1918, at the second Depressed Classes Mission Conference, popularly known as the untouchables' conference, Gandhi read out the resolution that called for political rights for the untouchables. Upon realizing that there were no untouchables present at the conference, he declined to move such a resolution. The conference had no right to act on behalf of the untouchables, Gandhi declared, and he added: "He who demands swaraj must give swaraj to others. It is a principle in law that he who seeks justice should render it to others."28 His emphasis on personal witness remained integral to his overall program of social reform in general and the removal of untouchability in particular.
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As might have been expected, the India that Ambedkar came back to after his studies in the West yet saw him and continued to treat him as an untouchable. Discrimination at the hands of caste Hindu co-workers and community leaders resurfaced. "He was treated by . . . [the Maharaja's] staff... as a leper," writes Keer.29 The Parsee-run hostel, where he was staying in Baroda, threw him out when the Parsee community learned that Ambedkar was an untouchable. Ambedkar had "defiled" their facilities. According to Keer, "No Hindu, no Muslim would give him shelter in the city. He sent a note to the Maharaja, who referred him to the Diwan, and the Diwan expressed his inability to do anything in the matter. Tired, hungry and fagged out, he sat under a tree and burst into a flood of tears."30 Unable to find a place to stay in Baroda, Ambedkar returned to Bombay, where he started a brokerage business, buying and selling stocks and shares. That also ended prematurely when Ambedkar's clients came to know of his caste status. Late in 1918, he joined the faculty of Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, Bombay. Here, too, Ambedkar was subjected to discrimination. How can an 'untouchable' teach us, the students wondered, and orthodox Hindus on the faculty "objected to [Ambedkar] drinking water from the pot reserved for the professional staff?"31
Painful as these setbacks and the many personal insults and humiliations were, Ambedkar turned his energies to tackling the root causes of untouchability. He soon realized that the removal of untouchability will require the mobilization and the organization of untouchables. As Ambedkar engaged with the issue of untouchability in the public domain, he grasped important insights which he often shared with his people. Early on, he articulated the view that freedom from British rule was not enough. He firmly believed that social, religious, and economic freedoms were of even greater importance than freedom from foreign rule.32 He feared that without social and economic equality, caste Hindus would continue to oppress the untouchables in free India. The caste system, therefore, must be abolished, he was convinced. He had no faith, if ever he had any, in "any organisation started by the caste Hindus for the uplift of Depressed Classes."33 When, in 1917, the First All-India Depressed Classes Conference was held, Ambedkar refused to participate, in part, because he questioned the legitimacy of an initiative which left leadership in the hands of caste Hindus. Caste Hindus did not "know their mind."34 Three years later, when the untouchables convened their first All-India Conference, Ambedkar not only participated in it but made sure that representatives to the conference were selected by untouchables and not by external agencies, as Karmaveer Shinde, a caste Hindu, of the Depressed Classes Mission had designed. He called upon the British authorities to guarantee the rights of the Depressed Classes. Over his position on leadership as well as political representation, then, he was to have major differences with the Mahatma. These and other concerns related to the welfare of the untouchables, he highlighted in the columns of Mook Nayak, a fortnightly paper he helped to found in 1920.
Meanwhile, Ambedkar was feeling impelled to finish the studies he had begun in England. In May 1920, he went back. Having completed his studies in economics and law, he returned to India in 1923 to begin the next phase of his struggle to rid India of untouchability. Within months of returning home, in January 1924, he founded Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha, an organization to further the educational, cultural, and economic needs of the untouchables, and to represent their grievances before the government. The motto of the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha was "Educate, Agitate and Organize."35 Recognizing the disabilities facing the untouchables, the Sabha opened hostels, libraries, and reading rooms for the untouchable youth.
Important as the fight for economic, religious, political, and social rights was, Ambedkar also impressed upon the untouchables the necessity of self-help, self-elevation, and self-respect — themes he was to return to throughout his life.36 He encouraged them to take charge of their destinies and to fight for their fundamental rights. Ambedkar also spoke against their practice of eating carrion. Not unlike Ambedkar, Gandhi encouraged the Dalits to give up eating carrion and to take responsibility for their personal welfare even as he challenged caste Hindus to remove untouchability.37 There was no use depending on the benevolence of caste Hindus, Ambedkar warned them. As long as caste Hindus were for the caste system, and against dismantling it, they were irrelevant. According to Ambedkar, with the caste system intact, the untouchables were bound to remain oppressed and kept on the margins of society.38
Committed as he was to the eradication of untouchability, Gandhi yet refrained from resorting to nonviolent direct action as a means to end it. He knew all too well the enormous control Hindu orthodoxy exercised. After all he was just eighteen when the caste elders threw him out of his caste community for going to England.39 Given his personal background as well as many experiences in the three decades of public work, Gandhi felt that a different approach was needed to make orthodox Hindus realize that the continuation of untouchability was both immoral and destructive of Hinduism. Gandhi's reservations about not resorting to nonviolent direct action in his opposition to untouchability, however, were not shared by everyone. The instrument of Satyagraha was there in the public consciousness and at least some were ready to apply its principles and to confront the proponents of untouchability.
Inspired by the Indian National Congress's resolution which called upon its "Hindu members to remove untouchability," caste Hindus, a Syrian Christian, and untouchables in Vykom village in Travancore State aided by the District Congress Committee leadership made arrangements in early 1924 to start a Satyagraha campaign to remove the restrictions on the use of public roads that went alongside the local temple.40 Gandhi, who had recently been released from prison and was recuperating from an illness, supported the Satyagraha campaign from a distance.
In the dozens of letters he wrote to the organizers over the duration of the life of the Vykom Satyagraha, Gandhi communicated the philosophical, tactical, and strategic aspects of Satyagraha. He also wrote often and in detail about Vykom in Young India, a bi-weekly he published in English. The Mahatma was the satyagrahis' guide and teacher in the art and science of nonviolent resistance. In a lengthy article titled "Vykom Satyagraha," he stressed that
Satyagraha is a process of conversion. The reformers ... do not seek to force their views upon the community; they strive to touch its heart— It beho[o]ves the organizers, therefore, to set even the most orthodox and the most bigoted at ease and to assure them that they do not seek to bring about reform by compulsion (Vykom Satyagraha] is... a movement to purify caste by ridding it of its most pernicious result.41
In another communication, he advised the satyagrahis "not to overawe the orthodox."42 As before, Gandhi eschewed direct confrontation of Hindu orthodoxy. The essentials of Satyagraha that Gandhi was passing on to the satyagrahis, a Vykom were largely ignored by Ambedkar and his followers in the Dalit-led Satyagraha campaigns. Nonviolence was never "a way of life for Ambedkar."43
Stressing the religious dimension of untouchability, Gandhi discouraged persons from other religious communities from playing leadership roles in the Vykom Satyagraha. To underscore his point, Gandhi referred to the Congress resolution which called "upon the Hindu members to remove the curse of untouchability."44 In an interview Gandhi gave to the Hindu newspaper, he elaborated his position on exclusively Hindu leadership in these words,
Satyagraha should be confined to the Hindus only and that, too, as far as possible to the volunteers drawn from Kerala, and, at the most, from the Madras Presidency.... I think I have said sufficiently in the pages of Young India to show why non-Hindus cannot possibly offer satyagraha in respect of a religious question which is exclusively Hindu.45
Self-suffering was an essential first principle of nonviolent resistance for Gandhi. In a speech he gave at a public meeting in Cochin, Gandhi said: "Ever since I have been in India, after my sojourn in South Africa . . ., I have been telling the Hindus that we have in our religion a black spot which must be removed."46 Careful not to alienate caste Hindus, he added "I have not come in order to argue with the orthodox people. ... I have come to tell them that the satyagrahis who are fighting against great odds at Vykom are not out to destroy religion, but to reform it."47 Clearly, for Gandhi the removal of untouchability was essential in itself but also for the optimal functioning of Hinduism.48
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Meanwhile, with the founding of the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha in 1924, Ambedkar's energies and attention focused primarily on the removal of untouchability. His talents and place in his community made the authorities take note of him. Early in 1927, at the initiative of the Governor of Bombay, Ambedkar joined the Bombay Legislative Council. Based on the 1923 and 1926 resolutions of the Council, the Mahad Municipality had granted untouchables access to the Chawdar Tank, a public water facility. Membership in the Council provided Ambedkar the context out of which to play a prominent role in mobilizing and organizing his community into action.
The untouchables of Kolaba District, where the Chawdar Tank was located, decided to put the decision of the Mahad Municipality to test. Ambedkar, local untouchable leaders, and their caste Hindu allies organized a conference of the Depressed Classes attended by nearly ten thousand people at Mahad on 19 and 20 March 1927. In his presidential address, Ambedkar returned to the theme of self-improvement and self-help. "Take a vow from this moment to renounce eating carrion….. Make an unflinching resolve not to eat the thrown-out crumbs. We will attain self-elevation only if we learn self-help, regain our self-respect, and gain self-knowledge," he said.49 As the delegates listened to Ambedkar and several caste Hindu delegates, the conference resolved to test the untouchables rights to take water from the Chawdar Tank. Ambedkar, supported by several leading Brahmins, and in the company of thousands of protesters, marched to the Tank and took water from it. The delegates, numbering thousands, followed Ambedkar's lead in asserting their right to the Tank. "This Conference [of the Depressed Classes] was a great and momentous event, the opening of an epoch in the history of Hindustan. It was an event which changed both Dr. Ambedkar's personal life and the current of social and national reorganization."50 Not only did Ambedkar confront caste bigotry openly but in these ways he also gained a broader base of leadership.
Outraged at the "desecration" of the Chawdar Tank, caste Hindus spread the rumor that the untouchables were also planning to enter Veereshwar, a local temple. This was enough to move some to physically attack several conference participants as well as local untouchables, including women and children. Orthodox Hindus now focused on "purifying" the "polluted" waters of the Tank. Considering Muslims, Christians, and even the cattle owned by the untouchables had access to the Chawdar Tank, Ambedkar and his followers found this response of caste Hindus offensive in the extreme. Angered, they readied themselves for another Satyagraha to overcome their stigmatization by caste Hindus and to win their rights. The Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha was given the responsibility of spearheading the Satyagraha struggle.51 25 December 1927 was set as the date for another conference "to establish their right of using water at the public tank and in the event of any prohibition to launch a Satyagraha movement."52 On 12 December, orthodox Hindu leadership responded to these developments by filling a suit in the Civil Court against Ambedkar and several untouchable leaders of Mahad. Two days later, the court issued a temporary injunction against the defendants. The defendants were thus prohibited by the court from taking water from the Tank.
Undeterred, the untouchables went ahead with their plans to hold the conference leaving open the possibility of another Satyagraha. In his address to the conference, Ambedkar spelled out the purpose of the Satyagraha. It was not that they believed "that the water of this particular tank has any exceptional qualities, but to establish our natural rights as citizens and human beings," he said.53 In other words, their struggle was for fundamental human rights, to participate fully in decision-making, to be part of the ruling element of society. He demanded that employment in the courts, military, police, and commerce be opened up to the untouchables.54 His was a cry for equality and the abolition of the caste system. "We are avowedly out to smash the steel-frame of the caste-system. . . . That the caste- system must be abolished if the Hindu Society is to be reconstructed on the basis of equality goes without saying. Untouchability has its roots in the caste-system."55 Unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar did not see a way of removing untouchability while "leaving the caste-system alone." As for the Satyagraha, he said: "We wish to carry on our movement as peaceful as we can. However, our determination to remain non-violent will to a large extent depend upon the attitude of our opponents."56 Gandhi's nonviolence was never conditional; it was a way of life. Neither in defining of the problem nor in its solution, including the practice of Satyagraha, Ambedkar did not see eye to eye with Gandhi.
Ambedkar ended his address with a scathing attack on the Hindu scriptures. Unlike Gandhi, who approached Hindu orthodoxy cautiously and with care, Ambedkar had no such qualms. "We refuse to be controlled and bound by the 'Shastras' and 'Smrities' composed in the dark ages and base our claims on justice and humanity," he argued.57 The conference resolved that "all Hindus should be considered as one of varna [class] and . . . law should be enacted prohibiting the use of class words [such] as Brahmin, Kshtriya etc."58 G. N. Sahastrabuddhe, a Brahmin supporter of the Mahad Satyagraha struggle then read from Manusmriti sections dealing with the treatment of the low caste and untouchables.59 The satyagrahis who saw in Manusmriti a violation of human rights, resolved to burn it. According to Ambedkar, "the bonfire of Manusmriti was quite intentional. We made a bonfire of it because we view it as a symbol of injustice under which we have been crushed across centuries."60 The court's injunction, however, dissuaded the protesters from going ahead with the Satyagraha. Late in February 1928, the injunction was dissolved, but the decision to resume Satyagraha was left with the Satyagraha Committee of Bombay. When it was over, the Mahad Satyagraha had awakened "the spirit of self-assertion among" the untouchables.61
At the height of the Mahad Satyagraha, Ambedkar also raised the question of untouchables' entry and worship in Hindu temples. In his remarks at a gathering of the temple entry movement as early as November 1927, Ambedkar said that the image of God should be accessible to all seekers and rejected the notion that a temple is polluted by the presence of an untouchable. He also rejected the idea of separate temples for the untouchables and insisted on access to the existing I ones. "The most important point we want to emphasize," he reminded the caste Hindus, "is not the satisfaction you get from the worship B/ the image of God, but the plain fact that a temple is not defiled by the presence of an Untouchable, nor is the purity of the image affected by V it. That is why we oppose the idea of separate temples for us and insist on entering the existing one."62 Building on the momentum thus gained, early in 1930, Ambedkar mobilized thousands of his people to pressure the trustees of Kalaram Temple at Nasik to open its gates to the untouchables. When the trustees refused to do so, on 3 March 1930, aided by more than a hundred women and men, Ambedkar launched a temple entry movement at Nasik. Caste Hindus retaliated by denying untouchables access to roads and the local market; they also suspended the children of the untouchables from schools. In spite of the daily hardships, the Satyagraha continued until the fall of 1935, when, disillusioned with Hinduism, Ambedkar gave up on temple entry as a way of raising the social standing of the untouchables.63 Gandhi, on the other hand, continued to believe in the importance of temple entry.64
Meanwhile, the Gandhi-led salt Satyagraha sufficiently weakened British resolve to hold on to India.65 Though initially he was not seeking a separate electorate for the untouchables, the second Round Table Conference (1931), called by Westminster to discuss the future I of India, gave Ambedkar an opening which he seized.66 Ambedkar now pressed for statutory guarantees and political power for the untouchables. Based on the 1916 Lucknow Pact that gave separate electorates to Muslims and Sikhs, he demanded a separate electorate for the untouchables. When, on 17 August 1932, the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald announced his decision to grant a fixed number of legislative seats under a separate electorate to the untouchables, Gandhi threatened to resist MacDonald's decision with his life; he resolved to go on a fast unto death.67 Gandhi insisted that a separate electorate would "arrest the marvelous growth of work of Hindu reformers who have dedicated themselves to the uplift of their suppressed brethren in every walk of life."68 MacDonald's proposal was "harmful for [untouchables] and for Hinduism," he believed.69 And Gandhi added that "the political aspect, important though it is, dwindles into insignificance compared to the moral and religious issue."70 Ambedkar called Gandhi's decision to go on a fast "a political stunt."71 The Mahatma had put him in an unenviable position, Ambedkar claimed. Ambedkar insisted on a statutory guarantee and warned that "I... trust the Mahatma will not drive me to the necessity of making a choice between his life and the rights of my people. For I can never consent to deliver my people bound hand and foot to the Caste Hindus for generations to come."72 On 20 September, the Mahatma started his fast.
Gandhi saw the fast differently. The fast, he claimed, was "intended to sting the Hindu conscience into right religious action."73 Not only that, he believed that the lives of the untouchables "are so intimately mixed with those of the caste Hindus in whose midst and for whom they live, that it is impossible to separate them. They are part of an indivisible family."74 For Gandhi the fast was also an attempt on his part to "represent and identify" with the untouchables.75 Before the fast could end, Gandhi and Ambedkar signed an agreement called the Poona Pact. The agreement allotted the untouchables 148 reserved legislative seats instead of the seventy-eight they would have received under the separate electorate plan drawn up by the British Government and agreed to by Ambedkar. Under the Poona Pact, caste Hindus agreed not to treat any Hindu as an untouchable and to ensure access to public roads, schools, wells to one and all. Ambedkar demanded and received a separate primary election and the promise of financial support for the education of untouchables in every provincial budget.
As it turned out, Gandhi's fast touched Indians in some remarkable and unexpected ways; thousands of caste Hindus underwent a change of heart. Untouchables were given access to public wells, and temples opened their doors to untouchables all over the country. Caste Hindus publicly embraced untouchables and participated in inter-caste dinners. The Hindu Leaders' Conference called to meet the concerns raised by both the Mahatma and Ambedkar, resolved that "amongst Hindus, no one shall be regarded as an untouchable by reason of his birth and those who have been so regarded hitherto will have the same rights as the other Hindus in regard to the use of public wells, public roads and other public institutions."76 The resolution drafted by Gandhi further stated that "it shall be the duty of all Hindu leaders to secure, by every legitimate and peaceful means, an early removal of all social disabilities now imposed" on the untouchables.77 According to Fischer, "a cold political agreement between Gandhi and Ambedkar, without a fast, would have had no such effect on the nation."78 This conference of caste Hindus also founded the All-India Anti-untouchability League in October 1932, renamed and restructured in 1933 as the Harijan Sevak Sangh to further the social and material conditions of untouchables everywhere. The constitution of the Harijan Sevak Sangh stated its methodology and overall objectives in these words:
The object of the [Harijan Sevak] Sangh shall be the eradication by truthful and non-violent means of untouchability in Hindu Society with all its incidental evils and disabilities, suffered by the so-called untouchables hereinafter described as Harijans in all walks of life and to secure for them absolute equality of status with the rest of the Hindus.79
With the fast over, Gandhi focused primarily on the removal of untouchability; he embarked on a nine-month long tour in 1933-34 covering 12,000 miles and visiting every province. Gandhi's less than devout religious colleagues in the Indian National Congress questioned his action. Gandhi, they argued, was spending far too much of his energies on a "religious issue to the 'detriment' of political activity."80 In his travels he impressed on caste Hindus to banish the practice of untouchability both because it is a sin and for the health of Hinduism. Along with it, he also pushed for programs of village upliftment. As part of his anti-untouchability campaign, in February 1933, he launched an English language weekly, the Harijan, successor to the now-banned journal, Young India, to organize caste Hindus as well as untouchables to confront the evil of untouchability. The Mahatma invited Ambedkar to send a message for the first issue of the Harijan, but Ambedkar declined to do. Instead, Ambedkar submitted a statement which was a call for ending the caste system. It read:
The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu faith of this odious and vicious dogma.81
The Mahatma published Ambedkar's statement with his comments in which he made his all too familiar argument that Hinduism needs to be reformed by removing untouchability. Gandhi also gave Sabarmati Ashram for Harijan welfare work.
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The well-meaning intentions of caste Hindu leaders notwithstanding, the impact of Gandhi's 1932 fast soon dissipated. Neither the enthusiasm for reform nor the goodwill toward untouchables that Gandhi's fast had generated among caste Hindus lasted long. Hindu orthodoxy remained firm in its opposition to fundamental reform. That the untouchables would never overcome inhuman treatment at the hands of caste Hindus began to be confirmed for Ambedkar. Whatever hopes he might have had left him with the persecution of the untouchables in 1935 in Kavitha village in Ahmedabad district. When the Kavitha village untouchables demanded that their children be admitted to the local school, they were assaulted and forced out of the village.82 He was now ready to give up on caste Hindus and Hinduism. Within days of the Kavitha episode, on 14 October 1935, at a conference convened by the leaders of the Depressed Classes, Ambedkar called upon the untouchables to go it alone and to disassociate from Hinduism. He announced his now famous decision to leave Hinduism.83 "I solemnly assure you," he told the 10,000-strong gathering of untouchables, "that I will not die a Hindu."84 That the untouchables had a choice, he made plain in these words:
If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion.
Gandhi understood, he said, Ambedkar's outrage over the atrocities against the untouchables in Kavitha and other villages. At the same time, he felt that "religion is not like a house or a cloak which can be changed at will."86 In spite of the compassion Gandhi had for the Dalits, he failed to fully appreciate Ambedkar's deep yearning for a religious home.87 Persisting in his hopes to carry the entire untouchable community out of Hinduism with him, the following year, Ambedkar returned to the matter of leaving Hinduism again.
Change of religion for Ambedkar was a form of resistance, a way out of religious and social oppression. Religious identity for Ambedkar was a choice and not destiny.
The conversion Ambedkar spoke of did not take place for another twenty years, but from 1936 onwards, he began to explore the possibilities of conversion to another religion for himself as well as all Hindus.88 Christian, Muslim, and Sikh religious leaders made overtures to Ambedkar urging him to enter their respective fold. The year he announced his decision to leave Hinduism, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party to address the needs of peasants as well as landless laborers. In the meantime, he continued to strengthen the self-respect and self-help movement and to create opportunities for the untouchables in the educational and political arenas.89 At the encouragement of the Mahatma, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first Prime Minister, appointed Ambedkar its first Minister of Law.90 In that capacity, Ambedkar guided and helped to frame the Constitution of the Republic of India in 1950, which made the practice of untouchability punishable under the law. With that India took a major step against caste-based oppression.
Even before the completion of the draft of the Indian constitution, Ambedkar had begun work on the Hindu Code Bill, codifying the rules of Hindu Law which were "scattered in innumerable decisions of the High Courts and of the Privy Council."91 As early as April 1947, the Hindu Code Bill was introduced in Parliament. Among the provisions the bill addressed were the laws related to the rights of property, marriage, divorce, adoption, the order of succession. Ambedkar regarded the Hindu Code Bill as "the greatest social reform measure ever undertaken" by the Indian Parliament, an initiative dear to his heart.92 When he failed to enlist the necessary support of Nehru's government and the bill languished and ultimately did not come up for a vote, Ambedkar was heartbroken. Disappointed, on 10 October, 1951, he resigned from Nehru's cabinet. Any links that he had with the ruling Congress Party also ended with his departure from the cabinet.
Isolated from the mainstream of national politics and faced with the persistence of the Hindu orthodoxy to maintain the status quo, the thought of leaving the Hindu fold now gained some urgency for Ambedkar. Hinduism was rooted in inequality and as such it was not possible for the Dalits to rise to their full potential, he argued. "Inequality is the very basis of . . . [Hinduism], and its ethics is such that the Depressed Classes can never acquire their full manhood."93 His decision to leave Hinduism was "a deeply deliberated decision." His exasperation with Brahmanical Hinduism also led him to sever links with Hinduism and to join another religion. And the religion which he chose after carefully considering Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism was Buddhism. By the end of 1954, Ambedkar resolved "to raise the banner of Buddhism." He embraced Buddhism partly out of a sense of conviction and partly because it challenged Hinduism, especially the caste system. As an uncompromising nationalist, Ambedkar did not wish to weaken the nation: "I will choose only the least harmful way for the country. And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism; for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bharatiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land," he once told Gandhi.94
Believing that untouchability is a religious issue, Gandhi sought to abolish the "pernicious custom" of untouchability not the caste system. He also avoided taking up the issues of intermarriage and inter-dining. Hindus, he believed, owed it to themselves and to Hinduism to eradicate untouchability. "We must clearly realize that we have to attain not. . . [untouchables'] salvation but ours by treating them as equals, by admitting them to our schools, etc.,"95 He pressed caste Hindus to a change of heart and pushed the untouchables to integrate into Hindu society. Orthodox Hindus refused to accept his interpretation of Hinduism. "The fight against sanatanists [orthodox] is becoming ... increasingly difficult. . . . The more I ignore their abuses, the fiercer they are becoming/' he wrote to Nehru.96 After decades in public life, at the height of his anti-untouchability campaign in 1933, he acknowledged that "the evil (of untouchability) is far greater than even I had thought it to be."97
Two year later, in November 1935, in an article titled "Caste Has to Go," Gandhi argued that the caste system of the scriptures "is today non-existent in practice…… The sooner public opinion abolishes…… [the caste system as it exists] the better... [T]here was and should be no prohibition of intermarriage or inter-dining."98 As before, he was against compulsion. Gandhi did not introduce a new initiative to dismantle the caste system; he left the matter in the hands of "public opinion. He was against forcing people to marry or dine across caste lines, a position he had taken all along. On both counts his tactics and strategy remained as before. Clearly, he understood the nature of tradition well and chose to constructively respond to it. Not surprisingly, he grounded his struggle against injustice in love, tolerance, and forgiveness. Ambedkar, on the other hand, chose to take Hindu orthodoxy head on. In purely rational terms, it made sense, but given the pervasiveness of the caste system which cut across all strata of Indian society, not just caste Hindus, Gandhi's approach merits attention.
On the matter of religious conversion, taking an essentially Hindu position, Gandhi held that every person "must find his salvation within his own [religious] community."99 Because untouchability was a matter that concerned Hindus and their practice of Hinduism, it was pointless for the untouchables to turn to other religions, he argued. Given the persecution of untouchables, Ambedkar thought differently, certainly from 1935 onwards. Ambedkar's decision to leave Hinduism came at the end of long road of unceasing struggle and personal reflection to create an honorable and a humane station for untouchables. His decision to embrace Buddhism was neither sudden nor easy; certainly it was not casual. His acceptance of Buddhism, at an emotionally chargedDiksha (conversion) ceremony on 14 October 1956 in Nagpur, two months before his death, was his last major act to resolve his and his community's religious, social, and political predicament. "By discarding my ancient religion which stood for inequality and oppression today I am reborn. . . . Buddhism is a true religion and I will lead a life guided by the three principles of knowledge, right path and compassion,” Ambedkar declared.100 Three hundred thousand Dalits followed his lead, took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and became Buddhists within minutes of Ambedkar's joining Buddhism.101 Change of religion was an act of liberation for Ambedkar and also for a sizable community of Dalits. In time, Ambedkar's decision to join Buddhism touched millions. Considering how hard Ambedkar had labored to carry the Dalit as well as the wider Hindu community out of the Hindu fold and into another religion, not many joined him. In this respect also, Gandhi better understood the hold Hinduism had over its followers than Dr. Ambedkar.102
Yet Ambedkar had generated enough energy that continued to motivate Dalits to take on Buddhism. Within the first five years, following Ambedkar's conversion, over three million Dalits became Buddhists. By 1971, there were nearly four million registered Buddhists in India, most of them former untouchables.103 In Buddhism, the Dalits have found psychological liberation. Buddhism is helping the Dalits be aware of themselves as human beings.
Conversion to Buddhism has transformed many lives in religious as well psychological terms. Millions of former untouchables can and do identify with the sense of liberation that Ambedkar spoke of in 1956. Clearly, this is a remarkable development. As Buddhists, former untouchables can now practice their faith without fear or constraints. Herein lay the power of escape from the debilitating stranglehold of caste-ridden Hinduism that Ambedkar recognized and millions of Dalits have experienced.
On the other hand, the rise of the neo-Buddhist movement, an outgrowth of Ambedkar's adoption of Buddhism, is almost exclusively made up of the untouchables of the Mahar caste. As such adoption of Buddhism by the Dalits has failed to undermine the caste system and instead "become yet another (low) caste movement."104 Ironically, untouchables who have converted to Christianity have also encountered caste-based discrimination in church and society.105 Thus, religious conversion, though liberating in some respects, has not fundamentally altered the perception of untouchables by the larger society. In leaving the Hindu fold they have not entirely overcome the societal stigma of their low caste origins. Here, Gandhi's fundamental intuition and political astuteness about the inappropriateness of conversion has proven true. Nor can the importance he attached to the reform of Hinduism be ignored.
Gandhi's vision, by bringing those on the periphery to the center, and lifting the traditionally downtrodden people to a participatory position in society weakened the power of the high caste Hindu elite.106 Ambedkar's confrontational approach and assertion of rights has created openings for the Dalits to gain a greater sense of self- respect, self-confidence, and self-worth than they had before. While Ambedkar relied more heavily on formal politics and religious separation as a mechanism for change, Gandhi, without ignoring the political dimension, emphasized personal witness and the change of heart of a broad mass of caste Hindus. Yet caste-based oppression remains after all this time, which leads Andre Beteille to suggest that,
In a sense both leaders failed. Gandhi failed because the change of heart did not go far enough or deep enough. Ambedkar failed because conversion to Buddhism or any other religion has rarely led to escape from the stigma of pollution. Both failures testify to the weight and pervasiveness of hierarchical values in Indian society.107
We need both Ambedkar and Gandhi.
When Charles F. Andrews, the Mahatma's English friend and coworker, accused Gandhi for subordinating the removal of untouchability to the issues of Indian independence and Hindu-Muslim unity, he reminded Andrews that untouchability "is a bigger problem than that of gaining Indian independence but I can tackle it better if I gain the latter on the way. It is not impossible that India may free herself from the English domination before India has become free of the curse of untouchability."108 For Gandhi the removal of untouchability was "a vital part" of his life's program, "not the sole part of it."109 Ambedkar, who knew the reality of untouchability from the inside, gave the removal of untouchability primacy over and above every other issue, India's independence included. He stood against the patronizing attitudes of well meaning, do-good caste Hindus; and he insisted on Dalit-controlled and Dalit-led initiatives. A just society cannot be built without shared leadership and participation of all of its components.
As caste Hindus and the Dalits assess the nature and function of tradition that they are working with (or against), they might also find that Gandhi is more relevant than he has been given credit. Among the many insights that he bequeathed is the insight that the most effective strategies for achieving change are, in the long run, those that employ reconstructions of a tradition's inherited symbols rather than strategies that discard those symbols for alien ones. Ends are important, but means are more important. Satyagraha is not merely a technique of social change. It is a pathway to the building of a just and humane social order. Without harmonizing the vision and the way, it is not possible to break the cycle of oppression. Gandhi still offers an alternative to the path of intolerance, vengeance, violence, separation, and a path to light.
Notes and References
Courtesy: Adapted from 'Gandhi Marg', Volume 32, Number 1, April-June 2010.
PROFESSOR SUDARSHAN KAPUR, founder of Naropa University's Peace Studies Department, has taught extensively at the Iliff School of Theology, the University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Boulder in the areas of religion and social change, peace and conflict studies, African-American religion and history, and Gandhian Studies. Sudarshan Kapur has published several essays, produced educational videos and is the author of Raising Up a Prophet: The African American Encounter with Gandhi, named an outstanding book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights. In 1993, he was nominated for the PEN Center USA West Literary Award in nonfiction. Email: email@example.com.