Reconciling Gandhi and Ambedkar

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Were Gandhi and Ambedkar really different in their perceptions of the Dalit problem? I am afraid not.

Ambedkar emphasizes the need for and creation of self-respect and a new sensibility. For him, the Dalit is primarily a humiliated person and other dimensions of a Dalit’s personality are secondary. Hence, his repeated emphasis on education and a new personality.

Further, for Ambedkar the entire caste Hindu society is anathema. He cannot accept any identification with the symbols and ethos of caste Hindu society: they are nothing but evil. Apart from this, where exactly is the root of confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar? I think Gandhi represents the traditional Indian mode of tackling the problem of untouchability....the
self and the other are indivisible in that mode of perception. As both Dalit and caste Hindu societies are organically intertwined with each other, the notion of untouchability has to disappear from the mind and heart of caste Hindu society. The other should change. Any attempt to eradicate untouchability will not be fruitful without a constant and deep interaction with the other. Change is possible only when one clings to the other and struggles with the other in a unified state. This is the essence of the Gandhian approach.

Ambedkar represents the modern Western mode and is closer to militant socialist methods of the Western variety. What is crucial is the internal strength of a caste or class, and that caste or class stratification should organize ‘for itself’.Thegreaterthemilitancy, the greater the possibility of realizing its goal. So Ambedkar rules out the path of interaction with the other,
the path of an inevitable clinging to the other. If Dalit society becomes militant and aggressive, caste Hindu society will be forced to come to its senses. This is the logic of the
Ambedkarite method. In a fundamental sense, this mode of action rejects the Gandhian obsession with the other totally.

I also feel more comfortable with this caste/class-for-itself model. The inbuilt militancy of this path has naturally attracted the angry youth among Dalits throughout the country. So, today it is Ambedkar who has become the rallying point for the lower castes, while Gandhi is seen as a pious, politically useless sadhu or holy man. This dismissive attitude is justifiable against the background of the lack of a living tradition of militant Gandhianism today.

Yet let us pause here and offer a critique of the Ambedkarite model, in order to understand its inadequacies. Recently, I had a discussion with a radical group working among the
untouchables in rural Karnataka. They belong to a group committed to the Ambedkarite model. I also had some first-hand knowledge of the improvement in the quality of Dalit life that they were able to achieve in their villages. Traditional forms of violence against Dalits had almost disappeared from those areas. Right of entry to public places was guaranteed. Rights to the services of barbers and washermen were also assured. Naturally, there was no question of a social boycott.

After considering all these achievements, I asked the activists: do you perceive any basic change in the notions of the caste system among caste Hindus? They reflected on the issue for a while and said ‘no’, they were only scared of the militancy of Dalits. To put it in other words, caste equality of a superficial variety has been achieved in these villages. It stops at that. I am not trying to belittle the importance of this achievement but only trying to point out its inadequacies. The equality of caste is qualitatively different from the annihilation of the caste system. Caste Hindu society (the other) will remain aloof and refuse to change itself. As long as they don’t change, the crime of untouchability thrives in many subtle ways. At its heart, caste Hindu society will retain the same old values. It is very difficult to find a long-lasting solution or model of action for this problem within the framework of Ambedkarism. In this context, Gandhi becomes more useful and relevant. His almost metaphysical insistence on clinging to the other, thereby seeking to change the other,  is politically validated.

(Reproduced with the permission of Permanent Black and Amulya Nagaraj)

(D R Nagaraj was a political commentator and a cultural critic who wrote extensively on the Dalit movement and its politics. The following excerpt is
taken from his book, The Flaming Feet and other essays: The Dalit Movement in India)

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