Ambedkar and Gandhi

Ambedkar and Gandhi

Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, in the cantonment town of Mhow near Indore in Central India in an untouchable family. His encounters with humiliation and injustice began in early childhood. He had to sit on a scrap of gunnysack in school so that he would not pollute the classroom floor. Barbers refused to cut his hair, even the barbers who sheared goats and buffaloes.

Gandhi was born in a Bania family on October 2, 1869, at Porbander, Gujrat.   Gandhi did not have to suffer the ignominy of casteism as Banias were high-caste Hindus, but he suffered racial prejudice in South Africa. After completing a law degree in London in 1891, he was invited by Dada Abdullah & Sons, who were running a business in South Africa and wanted to employ a lawyer.

He reached Durban in South Africa in April 1893. When he was travelling to Pretoria in June that year on a first-class ticket, he was thrown out of the train by British officers at Pietermaritzburg railway station.  

Ambedkar matriculated in 1907 from Elphinstone High School. Sayajirao Gaekwad, the progressive Maharaja of Baroda supported him with a scholarship of Rs 25 per month to complete his graduation. The Maharaja also gave him the scholarship to study abroad.

He went to London to study Economics at the London School of Economics and simultaneously took a degree in law at Gray's Inn. He returned to Baroda in 1917 to serve as military secretary to the Maharaja. Ambedkar had to bear ignominy at the office where his staff used to throw files to him from a distance, rather than politely placing them before him.

They would even roll up the carpets when he walked into the office or exited. The Parsi owner of an inn once threw him out of his room into the street in the middle of the night when he came to know Ambedkar was an untouchable.  

When Gandhi returned to India in January 1915, he undertook a nationwide tour for one year without attending a single public meeting, as per the advice of his mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale. He broke his silence in February 1916 at the foundation stone-laying ceremony of Benaras Hindu University on invitation by its founder, Madan Mohan Malviya.

This ceremony was attended by many dignitaries and the kings of various states. Gandhi lambasted the kings on seeing the jewellery they were wearing, saying that there would be no salvation for India unless they stripped themselves of all that jewellery and held their wealth in trust for their countrymen.  It was his first great political speech in India.

Gandhi proceeded to put in place a challenging reform at Sabarmati Ashram against untouchability. The ashramites were sworn to oppose discrimination against untouchables because he felt that "this miserable, wretched, enslaving spirit of untouchableness an ineffaceable blot that Hinduism carried with it."

There was a hue and cry over the 'contamination' of the ashram when Dudabhai, his wife and daughter, an untouchable family, joined. The women in the ashram were particularly offended by the presence of untouchables. Gandhi reacted to this with his characteristic severity on such matters.

At the regular evening prayer meeting one day, he delivered an ultimatum: Dudabhai and his family must be completely accepted; anyone who did not want to accept them must leave the ashram. Maganlal, Gandhi's most trusted disciple, fasted in protest against the admission of untouchables. Gandhi undertook a fast in response. Maganlal and his wife quit the ashram. Gandhi worked for Indigo farmers at Champaran, Bihar, in 1917. It was they who first called him Mahatma.  

Ambedkar started 'Mooknayak'  in January 1920. He wrote in the first issue of this paper: "The Hindu society is like a tower of many stories. It has neither a ladder nor a door to go out. And therefore, there is no way to interchange stories. Those who are born on a particular storey die in that storey. Even if the lowest storey person is worthy, deserving to be promoted to the upper storey, he cannot move to that level. And if the person in the upper storey is most unworthy and undeserving, still he cannot be pushed down society which believes that God exists even in inanimate things, also says that people who are a part of that very society should not be touched!"

How can one forget an incident in 1936, when Ambedkar got the text of his speech printed (500 copies at 8 annas per copy). The speech was to be delivered as a presidential address at Jat Pat Torak Mandal conference in Punjab but it was cancelled at the last moment because the organisers found the contents of the speech "unbearable".

This speech confirmed the mastery of Ambedkar as he demolished the caste system. Gandhi appreciated the speech in his 'Harijan' in the July 11, 1936 edition and declared, "Whatever level he wears in future, Dr Ambedkar is not the man to allow himself to be forgotten." Gandhi further said, "No Hindu who prizes his faith above life can underrate the importance of this indictment. Dr Ambedkar is not alone in his disgust. He is its most uncompromising exponent and one of the ablest among them."

Kabir, the 16th-century saint, declared in Ulat Bansi or 'upside down' couplets, "When the sky rains and the earth wets, everybody knows it; but when the earth rains and the sky wets, few know it."

Gandhi and Ambedkar were both committed to removing untouchability and reforming Hindu society, although Ambedkar was the more forceful of the two in his arguments. We must be grateful to both.  

(The writer is a retired banker)

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