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Gandhi and Ambedkar: Continuing tussle between two distinct worldviews on nation-building

Dr Ambedkar wanted a reorganization of political power in India on the basis of the Western concept of democracy, which recognizes liberty, equality, justice, fraternity and human dignity. On the other hand, Gandhi was in favour of Ram Rajya – an authoritarian system of governance which has proven anti-people, writes Alakh Niranjan

Both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar are counted among great, influential personalities of the 20th century. They were a generation apart. Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 and Ambedkar, on 14 April 1891. Gandhi’s eldest son Heeralal was born on 23 August 1888. Thus, Ambedkar was 22 years younger to Gandhi and three years younger to Gandhi’s eldest son. But both Gandhi and Ambedkar entered the Indian political scene at almost the same time. Gandhi returned to Bombay from South Africa in 1915. He wanted to educate his children in India and practise law. Gandhi made his first public appearance in India in February 1916, when he addressed a group of Indian nationalists and rulers of princely states at a function in Kashi Hindu University, Varanasi. It was clear that he intended to enter politics. Dr Ambedkar read his research paper at a Humanities seminar in Columbia University, USA, on 9 May 1916. This was the first time he spoke from a public platform. From the contents of his speech and his tone and tenor, it was apparent that he planned to join active politics in India. 


The speeches of both the great men left their audience amazed and shocked. In his speech, Gandhi brutally critiqued the Swaraj Movement while Ambedkar introduced the world’s intelligentsia to the bitter and horrific truths about caste in India. The subsequent years and decades witnessed a clash between the thinking of Gandhi and Ambedkar. They had different visions on the rebuilding of India. They had contrasting worldviews. For Gandhi, rebuilding India involved establishing the values of Vedic culture. Ambedkar wanted to lay the foundation of a new India based on modern Western values and link them with the values of the Buddhist civilization. Even today, Indian politics is about a tussle between these two worldviews. The two statesmen had different goals. As their ends were different, their means were bound to be different. 

Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar

Gandhi wrote three books in his lifetime – Hind Swaraj in 1908, My Experiments with Truth in 1929 and Key of Health in 1948. Hind Swaraj delineates Gandhi’s political views. He also shared his views in his speeches and his articles for different magazines and newspapers. Though Gandhi himself wrote just three books, thousands of books have been written on him and are still being written. There are upwards of 1,000 biographies of Gandhi in English alone. Then, there are innumerable biographies of his in Indian and foreign languages, including Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and French. The published collection of his speeches, letters and articles runs into 100 volumes. His life and works find an important place in curriculums – right from the primary classes to higher education. 

Ambedkar wrote around 20 books on economics, politics, society, religion and other subjects. But the number of books on Ambedkar in all the languages taken together must be not more than a few hundred. The number of his published biographies is not even 100. The collection of his writings, letters and speeches has been published in 17 volumes in English and has been translated into Hindi and other Indian languages. A large portion of his articles published in magazines and newspapers, and his speeches, letters and interviews have yet to assume the form of books. Neither Ambedkar nor his works figure in the curriculums. 

By elevating Gandhi to the status of a demigod and treating Ambedkar with disdain, the Indian ruling class has revealed its true character. Some years ago, a TV news channel commissioned a survey of who the people considered the “Greatest Indian after Mahatma Gandhi” and announced that it was Ambedkar. By excluding Gandhi from the survey, the TV news channel made it clear that in its view, Gandhi was the indisputably the greatest Indian. The channel feared that if Gandhi was included in the survey, he would get fewer votes than Ambedkar. That fear was not unfounded. Today, Ambedkar has sped past Gandhi. All the present movements for saving democratic values in the country consider Ambedkar as their icon. Ambedkar has emerged as the symbol of the struggle for democratic values. The world-famous Gandhian historian Ramchandra Guha, who has spent his life singing paeans to Gandhi and written voluminous texts on him, has not been able to set aside time to write even 10 pages on Ambedkar. But even Guha holds aloft Ambedkar’s picture while participating in demonstrations. This speaks of the real character of the Indian intelligentsia. Had the savarna intellectuals spared a tenth of their efforts on establishing Gandhi in India and abroad for establishing Ambedkar, historians like Guha would not have had to take to the streets waiving Ambedkar’s picture. Gandhi was never in favour of the democratic rights and institutions that Guha and thousands of savarna intellectuals like him are fighting to save today. Gandhi considered them Western. He believed that values like democracy, liberty, equality, justice and fraternity are Western values. That is why today we are turning to Ambedkar to uphold these values and the institutions created for preserving and promoting these values. 

In his book, Hind Swaraj, Gandhi addresses the British thus: “We believe that the schools and the courts established by you are of no use to us. We want them to be replaced by our old pathshalas and Panchayati courts.”

Gandhi addressing a public meeting (Photo courtesy: The Hindu)

Indian intellectuals have spread Gandhi’s philosophy far and wide, projecting “Gandhism” as a new and unique philosophy. The fact is that Gandhi had only repackaged the values of the Vedic culture. Gandhi’s values, which he described as Indian civilizational values, were, in fact, the values of the Vedic culture. Ancient India cradled two civilizations – Indus Valley and Buddhist. Concepts like Ram Rajya formed part of neither. Ram Rajya is a concept rooted in the Vedic culture. According to Gandhi, Ram Rajya is the rule of god. “Rule of god” had no place in Buddhist civilization. It is a concept of the Vedic culture. Ahimsa and Satyagraha are means of presenting one’s views before the ruler and the ruled. But they are being projected as original and unique concepts. Ahimsa and Satyagraha are means of democratic protest and are older than Gandhi. Jotirao Phule used them. Why did Gandhi refer to democratic movements as Ahimsa and Satyagraha? He could have simply referred to them as democratic movements. The reason is that Gandhi was an extremely gifted and ambitious man. He had complete faith in the values of the Vedic culture and wanted to re-establish these values in India, but the times in which he lived were not conducive to such an exercise. The British were ruling the country and their civilizational values were contradictory to the values of the Vedic culture. Christianity had no place for concepts like purity and pollution. That is why the British consumed both beef and pork. Muslims eating beef was a big challenge for the Vedic culture. The Untouchables and the Adivasis had no attachment to Vedic values. Hence, Gandhi presented Vedic values in a new wrapping, describing them as his original philosophy. He himself used to say that Ram Rajya does not mean the rule of the Hindus but the rule of god. Then why Ram Rajya? Why not the rule of god? Similarly, Swarajya at that point in time was generally understood as freedom from British rule. But Gandhi said that Swarajya meant ruling one’s mind and heart. This is a moral concept. Gandhi tried to discover the truth and concluded that god is the truth. Then, why did Gandhi not say that his quest was for god? Gandhi gave a new meaning – very different from the prevalent one – to all the words which he crafted as representing his original philosophy. This is not something a philosopher does; this is what politicians do. So, Gandhi was not a philosopher. Basically, he wanted to protect the Vedic culture but as he could not do it openly, he deliberately kept his basic ideas vague so that when an opportune time came, Ram Rajya could be easily replaced with Hindu Rajya, Ahimsa with Hinsa, Satyagraha with Duragraha (chauvinism) and Swarajya with “throwing the British out of India” and so on. 

Also read: Ambedkar on Adivasis and Gandhi on Dalits

Gandhi, the protector of Vedic religion and culture, shows his true colours when he supports the Varna and caste system. He says, “Caste system is a system of social organization which has been given a religious veneer in India. Other countries could not understand the value of the caste system. While it continued to exist there, it was only in a loose form, so they could not benefit from it as much as India did.” Who benefited from the caste system in India? Obviously, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas did. Even today, these castes control the resources of India. All the Indian billionaires are Banias or Vaishyas. Brahmins, Kshtariyas and Kayasthas dominate the judiciary, administrative services and universities. It is due to the caste system that 85 per cent Indians are forced to live like animals. Even today, 90 per cent Dalits are landless and 80 crore people have to make do with less than Rs 20 a day. Are these 85 per cent Dalitbahujans, who have not benefited from the caste system, not a part of India? Just as Gandhi believed that Vedic culture was Indian culture, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, ie the dwijs, also believe that exploiting the resources of India is their birthright and that the Shudras, women and the Dalits are meant to serve the three higher Varnas. But the Savarva intellectuals did not let Gandhi be exposed. In the latter part of his life, Gandhi softened his stance on the caste system but he supported the Varna system till his last breath. Gandhi said, “I believe that the division of Varnas is not based on birth. There is nothing in the Varna system that prevents Shudras from acquiring knowledge or from learning the military art of attack and defence. At the same time, Kshatriyas can opt for a service or a job. The Varna system does not stop them. The Varna system does say that Shudras are not allowed to pursue teaching as a profession and Kshatriyas are not allowed to earn a living through service. Similarly, Brahmins can learn the art of war or commerce but they are not to turn them into their livelihood. Vaishyas can also acquire knowledge or learn the art of war but they cannot use it to make a living. The Varna system concerns livelihoods. There is no harm in a person of any Varna learning the science or art or acquiring the knowledge that is the specialty of another Varna but he would have to adopt the profession assigned to his Varna, the profession of his ancestors. Varna means determination of the profession of a person before his birth. The Varna system does not allow a human being to choose a profession. His occupation is determined by his family tradition.” Savarna scholars have declared Gandhi, who held such beliefs, as the greatest personality of modern India. The Varna system is the backbone of the Vedic culture. By protecting it, Gandhi was protecting the Vedic religion. Can a new India be built on the basis of the Varna system? The Gandhian scholars should definitely mull over this question. Should a Shudra, MBBS, MD, choose the medical profession or should he follow his Varna Dharma? Gandhi was clear that he should serve others as ordained by the Varna system. 

Ambedkar with members of the Simon Commission

The economic views of Gandhi are even more strange and contradictory than his social and political views. Commenting on the Gandhian concept of Trusteeship, Ambedkar writes, “The idea of trusteeship which Gandhism proposes as a panacea by which the moneyed classes will hold their properties in trust for the poor is the most ridiculous part of it. All that one can say about it is that if anybody else had propounded it the author would have been laughed at as a silly fool who had not known the hard realities of life and was deceiving the servile classes by telling them that a little dose of moral rearmament to the propertied classes – those who by their insatiable cupidity and indomitable arrogance have made and will always make this world a vale of tears for the toiling millions – will recondition them to such an extent that they will be able to withstand the temptation to misuse the tremendous powers which the class structure gives them over servile classes.” The fact is that earning more and more profit through exploitation and capital is the basic principle of capitalism. A capitalist cannot become large-hearted and philanthropist even if he wants to. In a capitalist society, there is a competition between capitalists and unless they want to be thrown out of the race, they would have to exploit the workers. The exploitation of workers can stop only on one condition – the State takes over the economy and eliminates the capitalists. Hence, Gandhi’s principle of trusteeship is a sham. The biggest evidence of this is the fact that no capitalist in any part of the world considers himself the trustee of his wealth. Why did Gandhi craft such an illusory concept? Ambedkar’s answer: “The first special feature of Gandhism is that its philosophy helps those who have, to keep what they have and to prevent those who have not from getting what they have a right to get.” 

In contrast, Ambedkar wanted Western philosophical values to be the basis of rebuilding India. “Western” is not a geographical concept. Western philosophy means philosophy based on logic and reason whereas non-Western philosophy is based on faith and beliefs. India was home to both the philosophical traditions. The philosophy of Charvak and Buddha was based on reason while the Vedic philosophy was founded on faith. Savarna writers and intellectuals, including Gandhi, have designated the Vedic tradition as the Indian tradition. However, this is an erroneous view. If the theory that the Aryans were alien invaders is true, then the philosophies of Buddha and of Charvak are Indian while Vedic philosophy is non-Indian.

Coming back to the original issue, Ambedkar wanted to build a new India on the basis of modern values which are centred on humans, not god; on science, not religion; and on public welfare. That is why, in contrast to Gandhi, Ambedkar expressed his views clearly and logically. Gandhi wanted to rebuild Hindu society on the basis of the Varna system while Ambedkar believed that the Varna system can never be the foundation of the new India. Ambedkar has delineated his views in his booklet Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar believed, “1) That Caste had ruined the Hindus. 2) That the reorganization of the Hindu Society on the basis of Chaturvarnya is impossible because the Varnavyavastha is like a leaky pot or like a man running at the nose. It is incapable of sustaining itself by its own virtue, and has an inherent tendency to degenerate into a Caste System unless there is a legal sanction behind it which can be enforced against everyone transgressing his Varna. 3) That the reorganization of the Hindu Society on the basis of Chaturvarnya would be harmful, because the effect of the Varnavyavastha would be to degrade the masses by denying them opportunity to acquire knowledge, and to emasculate them by denying them the right to be armed. 4) That the Hindu Society must be reorganized on a religious basis which would recognize the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. 5) That in order to achieve this object the sense of religious sanctity behind Caste and Varna must be destroyed. 6) That the sanctity of Caste and Varna can be destroyed only by discarding the divine authority of the Shastras.” At the heart of the Varna system is inequality and this inequality is supported by the scriptures and god.

All civilizations of the world, during the course of their development, gave birth to inequalities, but in no civilization did inequality enjoy the support of religion and god. Vedic religion is the only religion whose scriptures support inequality on the basis of caste. The Bible or the Christian god does not back discrimination between the Blacks and the Whites. That was why Ambedkar advocated applying the dynamite to the scriptures of the Vedic religion. He had himself burnt the Manusmriti in 1927. Elaborating on his concept of an ideal society, he said, “My ideal would be a society based on liberty, equality and fraternity.” Here, when Ambedkar talks of reorganizing Indian society, he includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, the Untouchables, Adivasis and all other social groups. However, Gandhi only talks of reorganizing Hindu society. 

Ambedkar’s views on reorganization of Indian society were also very clear. He wanted it to be done on the basis of the principles of State socialism, with industrialization as its key element. He also proposed industrialization of agriculture and wanted banks, insurance and all other basic and large industries to be under State control. In his book, State and Minorities, Ambedkar has listed the following points with respect to reforming Indian economy: “1) That industries which are key industries or which may be declared to be key industries shall be owned and run by the State; 2) That industries which are not key industries but which are basic industries shall be owned by the State and shall be run by the State or by Corporations established by the State; 3) That Insurance shall be a monopoly of the State and that the State shall compel every adult citizen to take out a life insurance policy commensurate with his wages as may be prescribed by the Legislature; 4) That agriculture shall be State Industry.”

Thus, like his views on society, Ambedkar’s views on economy are also unambiguous. He wanted an Indian polity based on democratic principles. He defined democracy “as a form and a method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed”. He further said, “Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.”   

According to Ambedkar, political democracy rests on four premises: “1) That the individual is an end in himself. 2) That the individual has certain inalienable rights which must be guaranteed to him by the Constitution. 3) That the individual shall not be required to relinquish any of his constitutional rights as a condition precedent to the receipt of a privilege. 4) That the State shall not delegate powers to private persons to govern others.”

Dr Ambedkar wanted a reorganization of political power in India on the basis of the Western concept of democracy, which recognizes liberty, equality, justice, fraternity and human dignity. He wanted the powers of the State to be divided between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. On the other hand, Gandhi was in favour of Ram Rajya – an authoritarian system of governance which has proven anti-people. 

Thus, Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi represented two different ideologies. In global terms, Ambedkar stood by Western philosophy (based on reason) while Gandhi was a votary of non-Western philosophy (based on faith). In the Indian context, Ambedkar represented Buddhist philosophy and Gandhi, Vedic. Savarna intellectuals argue that the ultimate goal of Gandhi and Ambedkar was the same though their paths might have been different. The truth is that both their goals and paths were different. Ambedkar was a votary of modernism and Gandhi wanted a resurgence of the Vedic religion. The conflict between these two value systems is at the root of the social, political and economic conflicts in India. The sooner India’s Savarna intellectuals accept this reality, the better it is for the country. 

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)

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About The Author

Alakh Niranjan

Alakh Niranjan is a Dalit commentator who writes regularly for various newspapers and magazines. He is the author of 'Nahi Raha ki Koj mein: Dalit Chintak' (Penguin)

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