INDIAN FESTIVALS : Saviours of Untouchables
Gandhi and Ambedkar
By Sheshrao Chavan
Gandhi and Ambedkar
The approach of Gandhi and Ambedkar for the removal of untouchability was diametrically opposite. Gandhiji firmly believed that untouchability should be removed by change of heart by Hindus. Ambedkar emphatically felt that it cannot be removed only by change of heart. He insisted on safeguards and political rights for his people.

Gandhiji felt that he was the natural guardian of the untouhables, whereas Ambedkar said that he was the natural leader of the untouchables. They criticised each other, but each was conscious of the other’s necessary place in any final solution of the problems of the untouchables.

The paths of Gandhiji and Ambedkar, while often diverged, ultimately converged, forcing on the Indian conscience the problem of untouchability as an issue of national importance.

Whatever the position the untouchables have today in Indian society, it is the result of the genuine efforts made by Gandhiji to change the Hindu heart and the constant attacks made by Ambedkar on Hindus and Hinduism. However the impact of Gandhiji was overriding which is evident from the fact that when the Constituent Assembly of Independent India made a legal provision on 29 November 1948, nine months after the assassination of Gandhiji, the house resounded with slogans of “Mahatma Gandhi-ki-jai” right in the presence of Ambedkar who was present in his capacity as the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. The irony of the moment was lost on those who were present-a legalistic measure was taken in the name of Gandhiji, who had no use for legalism. And only three years before, Ambedkar had ended his book, “What Congress and Gandhiji have done for untouchables”, with the bitter comment that the untouchables have ground to say, “Good God, is this man Gandhiji our saviour”?

Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer says: “When we consider the stature and achievements of Ambedkar as an intrepid warrior for socio-economic liberation of the lowliest, the lost and the last, especially the dalits and the exploited tribals there is no doubt that without diminishing the tremendous conscientisation of the Hindu community by Gandhiji vis-à-vis untouchability and Harijan debasement Bhim Ramji Ambedkar’s ceaseless war on behalf of the Panchama proletariate, in its widest connotation is incomparable. And yet, the irony of history is that as the house passed the provision abolishing untouchability on 29 November 1948, the hallowed walls resounded with shouts of ‘Mahatma Gandhi-ki-jai’ although present at the session as Chairman of the Drafting Committee was Ambedkar, an untouchable himself and Commander-in-Chief of the Untouchable Army which waged a war against the reactionary system which sustained the Social Status-Quo Ante’.

 “When the pre-independence saga of India comes to be written, only prejudice can assign a higher role in the liberation of the backward most brackets to anyone above Ambedkar. While both Gandhiji and Ambedkar were the symbols of the revolt against the caste, conscious oppressors within the Hindu fold, they chose different paths, strategies, and different ideologies. If Gandhiji was a deliverer of Indians including the weakest sector from the British Raj, Ambedkar was the spearhead of black power against the Varna front. There were many issues on which the two militant giants would not agree, the obvious reason being that Gandhiji wanted reforms to end injustice. While Ambedkar demanded rebellion for the annihilation of the caste system itself, Gandhiji was Vaishya and insisted on eradication of shudrahood and untouchability.

 “Ambedkar was mahar and indignantly insisted on the abolition of the Varna structure, thereby levelling up all castes into one oceanic unity or human sagar, Ambedkar was historic necessity, a dialectical demand if social democracy was to be India’s desideratum. The fire of this mahar was rare in the Indian public life of his time.” In his characteristic forceful manner, Justice Iyer adds to this appraisal a complementary sentence, “To go against Gandhiji, to fight the National Congress, to demand equal share of power for the depressed classes, to draft legislation for womanhood’s equality needed the courage of an iconoclast, and Ambedkar was just that.”
Gandhiji softened the Hindu heart, Ambedkar awakened self-respect and interest in politics among the untouchables.

During decades proceeding independence, the policies and programmes have been profoundly affected by the difference in views of Gandhiji and Ambedkar on the key questions like what is the ultimate goal—assimilation of the untouchable minority or the establishment of separate but equal status in a reformed version of the traditional social order? If change is in order who should change-the untouchable minority or Hindu majority? Given a commitment to change, how might it best be implemented-through voluntary means or government coercion? Gandhiji’s answers to such questions were rooted in his belief that the caste Hindus were primarily responsible for writing the wrongs done to the untouchables. Meaningful change therefore must arise from a change of heart on the part of the Hindus. Gandhiji suggested that the real method of abolishing the distinction between caste Hindus and Harijans is by caste Hindus performing the purification ceremony of ridding themselves of untouchability and becoming Harijans themselves. He advised caste Hindus to declare themselves as such and to live also as such. This was according to him, the substantial and organic method of amalgamating the two into one body.

Gandhiji said: “I was wedded to the work of the extinction of untouchability long before I was wedded to my wife. There were two occasions in our joint life when there was a choice between working for the untouchables or remaining with my wife and I would have preferred the first. But thanks to my good wife, the crisis was averted. In my Ashram, which is my family, I have several untouchables and a sweet but naughty girl living as my own daughter.”

During the last days of his life, Gandhiji declared, “I would rejoice to think that we had a sweeper girl of a stout heart incorruptible and of crystal purity to be our first president, assisted in the discharge of her duties by a person like Jawaharlal Nehru”.

Gandhiji directed his energies on the eradication of the sin of untouchability. Only the sinner could expiate the sin, he felt, and throughout his public life he exhorted the caste Hindus to do so. He did more than anyone else to make untouchability a public issue and to create public opinion against it.

Gandhiji pushed the issue to forefront of the Congress platform and did his best to keep it there for 25 years despite the objections of his colleagues that it sometimes diverted public energies away from the top priority goal of achieving independence.

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