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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 35, August 15, 2009 (Independence Day Special)

Dr Ambedkar—A Conscience-keeper of Gandhiji

Wednesday 19 August 2009, by Shyam Chand

Dr Ambedkar was against hero worship. But the Dalits worship him as a liberator, a social reformer and a great crusader who fought for their political rights. Dalits, who have read Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhiji, not only equally revered Gandhiji but regard them like two streams that meet at the confluence to merge with each other.

It takes quite long to understand the Hindu social system and its vexing corpus. After matriculation Gandhiji went to England to study Law and then to South Africa. It took him many years to understand the caste system after Gandhiji came back to India. His humiliating experience in South Africa impacted his mind.

In the beginning the Indian National Congress used to hold meetings of the Social Congress alongside the Congress sessions. When Tilak became the President of the Congress party, his followers opposed the holding of the meeting of the Social Congress. In 1919-20, Gandhiji revived the Social Congress to transform it as an instrument of social and political change.
The more Gandhiji studied the social system, the more he turned out to be a social reformer. Dr Ambedkar described Manu as the originator and progenitor of the caste system and wrote volumes on him. Gandhiji dismissed Manu in one sentence: ‘We do not know that a Rishi named Manu ever lived.’ (Arun Shorie in Hinduism)

To Dr Ambedkar, untouchability was a sin against humanity. Gandhiji said:
If the Indians have become the pariahs of the Empire, it is retributive justice meted out to us by a just God. Should we Hindus not wash our blood-stained hands before we ask the English wash theirs? ...........so long Hindus wishfully regard untouchability as a part of their religion, so long Swaraj is impossible. India is guilty, England has done nothing blacker.

When Gandhiji said ‘God is Truth’, he was demolishing the very theory of two levels of truth. According to the youthful Arun Shourie (Hinduism),
The thesis of two levels of truth became a handy instrument in the hands of ideologists......it ended up introducing double think into the vexy heart of corpus..... it became a justification for differing moral codes. One code for Aryans, and another for non-Aryans.......one set of punishment for the crime commited by individuals from one caste, another set of punishment for the same crime commited by individuals from another caste. And so on.

Ancient literature, according to Dr Ambedkar, gives sustenance to the Hindu social system which is described as ‘divinely ordained’. Gandhiji does not accept the so-called religious texts as Dharma Shastras. For him, they are the works of poets and nothing else. He does not accept their spiritual authority. ‘I would reject all the spiritual authority if it is in conflict with sober reason or the dictates of the heart.’ ‘Blind worship of authority is a sign of weakness of mind.’ He further says:

I accept no authority or no Shastra as infallible guide. Hinduism is not a codified religion. We have in Hinduism hundreds and thousands of books whose names we do not even know which go under the short name of Shastras. Whatever falls from truth must be rejected, no matter where it comes from........

Moreover, these so-called ‘sacred texts’, according to him, have been passed on from generation to generation by rot. Through centuries these texts have undergone interpolations, mutations, distortions and concatenations in retrospect.

Lastly Gandhiji suggested that ‘we bring out a revised edition of scriptures’.

The certainity that the whole mass of Hindus and persons accepted as religious leaders will not accept the validity of such authority need not interfere with sacred enterprise. Work done in the long run will assuredly help those who are badly in need of such assistance.

Orthodox Hindus turned against Gandhiji.

In the beginning of 1925 a number of merchants of Mumbai, among who were included the leading public men, convened a meeting of orthodox Hindus. Almost every speaker denounced what they called the heresies of Gandhiji in respect of untouchability and declared that the Hindu religion was in danger at his hands. (Professor G.S. Ghurya, Caste and Race in India)
On June 25, 1934 at Poona, a bomb was thrown on a car believed to be carrying Gandhiji, injuring its seven occupants. The protestors offered the government full support against the Congress and Civil Disobedience Movement, if it did not support the Anti-Untouchability Campaign. The government obliged by defeating the Temple Entry Bill in the Legislative Assembly in August 1934. (Professor Bipin Chandra, India’s Struggle for Independence)

DR AMBEDKAR was a strong advocate of universal suffrage, though Churchill had told him that adults franchise was not a practical proposition. Dr Ambedkar did not accept that only those, ‘who could be expected to make intelligent use of it’, be given the right to vote. He said that ‘the exercise of vote was itself an education’.

The Dalits criticise Gandhiji for his fast unto death over separate electorate. After signing the Poona Pact, Dr Ambedkar said:
There was before me the duty which I owed as a part of humanity to save Gandhi from sure death. There was before me the problem of saving for the untouchables the political rights which the (British) Prime Minister had given them.

The Poona Pact was not a bad bargain. Dr Ambedkar got reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes both in the State Assemblies and Lok Sabha and their right to contest from any general seat. Under the separate electorate the majority community among the Dalits would have grabbed all the reserved seats and this arrangement would have collapsed before now under protests of the minority communities among them.

The Resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Changes was drafted by Gandhiji for the Karachi Congress in 1931 and it included the right to adult suffrage, free primary education and freedom from serfdom. Dr Ambedkar had also been fighting for these rights.

Dr Ambedkar apprehended some apposition from orthodox elements in the Congress party with regard to reservation to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. He approached Gandhiji through somebody on the eve of introduction of that bill. Gandhiji contacted, on phone, all important MPs and impressed upon them the urgency of supporting the Bill.

Dr Ambedkar aspired for a casteless society based on social union. For a casteless society intermarriage was imperitive. ‘Nothing else will serve as solvent of caste...... Fusion of blood alone can create feeling of being kith and kin. Without this feeling of being kindered caste cannot vanish,’ he said.
Was Gandhiji fascinated by Sanatana Dharma? Or was it a calculated option? At that time Hindus were divided between Sanatana Dharma, Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and later the RSS. Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS were against Muslims. Sanatana Dharma had reconciled, compromised and cooperated with Islam over centuries. For Hindu-Muslim unity, to be a Sanatani was a good policy.

But his war on the evil of untouchability forced him to fight the obnoxious caste system so that the Dalits were not alienated from the Hindu society. He discarded Varnashram based on birth. He encouraged intercaste marriage. Here again he opposed Manu. He recommended Pratiloma marriage, marriage between a high-caste woman and a low-caste man, as against Manu’s Anuloma marriage, marriage between a high-caste man and a low-caste woman. Gandhiji wrote to Dr Ambedkar: ‘At the end of the chapter, I hope that we shall all find ourselves in the same camp.’

Gandhiji’s son was married to a Brahmin girl. Dr Ambedkar married a Brahmin girl, Dr Savita Kabir. That was after the assassination of the Mahatma. When Dr Ambedkar saw Pyare Lal standing before the present Khadi Bhandar, Connaught Place, he got down from the car, went up to him and said: ‘Had Bapu been alive, he would have blessed our marriage. We did not understand him.’

Had Gandhiji been alive, Dr Ambedkar would not have floated the Republican Party in 1952. After Gandhiji’s assassination there was no person to campaign for social reforms and fight for the rights of Dalits. His defeat at the hustings gave a rude shock to the Dalits. Dr Ambedkar had a strong sense of history, including the economic history of India. His thesis, Commerce in Ancient India, is a masterpiece of research. With such a background, choice of an elephant as the election symbol was not a good omen. From Porus to Dahir to Ibrahim Lodhi to Peshwas, any king who mounted this animal might have won a battle but never a war!

On September 6, 1954 speaking in the Rajya Sabha, Dr Ambedkar paid Gandhiji the highest tribute when he said: ‘All of us (that is, including Ambedkar himself—S.C.) knew that the Dalits were the nearest and dearest to him.’

The author is a former Minister of Haryana.

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