Book review: How Gandhi stoops to new lows in the eyes of Ambedkar

It is necessary to be acquainted with Ambedkar’s critique of Gandhi and Gandhism because no study of Gandhi and Gandhism will be complete without taking into account how Ambedkar saw the man and his ideology from his place at the bottom of the caste order, says Kanwal Bharti

Why talk about Ambedkar-Gandhi differences when both are dead and gone? Why dig up old feuds? 

It is because the differences between the two were ideological. They represent two different ideologies. Ambedkar symbolizes modernity, Gandhi stands for conservatism. Ambedkar wants to build a new India based on liberty, equality and brotherhood. Gandhi wants to resurrect Hindutva based on the concept of Ram Rajya. 

Forward Press has recently published a book titled Ambedkar ki Najar Mein Gandhi aur Gandhivad. Siddharth and Alakh Niranjan have edited the book. It introduces its readers to a reality about Gandhism that was kept under wraps by historians as well as the critics of Gandhi. It brings to light a missing chapter from the history of modern India and is therefore a must-read. 

Gandhi’s thinking was well established as an “ism” during his lifetime. Even today, scores of Gandhian institutions and individuals are actively propagating his ideas. It is imperative to understand what Gandhism is and also what its implications are to the wellbeing of the Dalits. Looking at Gandhism through the eyes of Ambedkar would be an interesting exercise. 

You may well ask as to why it is important to know how Ambedkar saw Gandhism? I can think of at least three reasons. 

For one, according to Gandhi himself, the touchstone of Gandhism is its usefulness for the last man in the last row of society. Ambedkar definitely is a representative of that last man. 

Secondly, the new generation ought to know about the issue that led to a confrontation between Ambedkar and Gandhi. This is essential for a proper understanding of the political history of modern India.

Thirdly, and most importantly, Ambedkar’s thinking represents the third school of Gandhi’s criticism. Until now, Gandhi and Gandhism have only been seen from the perspective of the Left and the Right. Both have some reservations about Gandhism but are broadly in agreement with it. Jayaprakash Narayan did criticize Gandhism bitterly for patronizing capitalism but later, he too, like Ram Manohar Lohia, made peace with Gandhism and Sarvodaya. Marxist-turned-humanist M.N. Roy was a bitter critic of Gandhi. In 1942, Marxist leader P.C. Joshi had assailed Gandhism as a “negative system”. But these critics could not expose Gandhi to the extent Ambedkar did. 

Brahmin intellectuals dominating Indian thought did not acknowledge Ambedkar as a political thinker, an economist or a sociologist. That is why critiques of Gandhism don’t even mention Ambedkar’s views. Both left-wing and right-wing historians gave no importance to what Ambedkar had to say about Gandhi. However, no study of Gandhism and Gandhi would be complete without taking into account what Ambedkar had to say about them. Only Ambedkar could see the real Gandhi because he stood on the last rung of the Hindu social order. 

‘Ambedkar Ki Najar Mein Gandhi Aur Gandhivad’, edited by Dr Siddharth and Dr Alakh Niranjan and published by Forward Press.

In an interview with BBC, London, on 26 February 1955, Ambedkar talked about how he saw Gandhi. He said: “I met Mr Gandhi in the capacity of an opponent. I have a feeling that I know him better than most other people, because he had opened his real fangs to me. I could see the inside of the man, you see, while others who generally went there as devotees, saw nothing of him, except the external appearance, which he had put on as Mahatma. But I saw him in his human capacity, the bare man in him, and so I say that I understand him better than most of the people who have associated themselves with him, you can say” (Siddharth and Alakh Niranjan (Ed), Ambedkar ki Najar Mein Gandhi Aur Gandhivad, Forward Press, p 153). 

The interviewer asked him, “You don’t feel that Gandhi brought about fundamental changes?” Ambedkar’s answer to this question has not drawn the attention of any intellectual or researcher to date. Ambedkar answered in the negative: “He conducted two papers, one in English the Harijan, before that Young India, and in Gujarat, he conducted another paper you see, which is called [Harijan Bandhu]. If you read these two papers you will see how Mr Gandhi was deceiving the people. In the English newspaper, he posed himself as an opponent of the caste system, and of untouchability, and [as a] democrat. But if you read his Gujarati magazine you will see him [as a] more orthodox man, [who] has been supporting the caste system, the varnashrama dharma, or all the orthodox dogmas which have kept India down all through ages” (ibid). 

He added: “All the biographies that have been written of him … are based on his Harijan… and Young India but not on the Gujarati writings of Mr Gandhi, there are seven volumes of it” (ibid).

When asked whether Gandhi had done anything to end untouchability and caste discrimination, Ambedkar said Gandhi had done nothing. He said that Gandhi was not a reformer but an orthodox Hindu. He opposed untouchability only to associate the Dalits with the Congress. He was not like William Lloyd Garrison who struggled for the emancipation of the Negroes. 

Ambedkar said that Gandhi was not a Mahatma but a politician. In Ambedkar’s view, Gandhi did not deserve the title of a Mahatma. 

Poona Pact

The first and the most historic confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar was on the issue of the political rights of the Dalits. This confrontation led to the Poona Pact. However, the students of Indian political history know little about it. That is because the historians have not given any importance to it. It was during this confrontation that Ambedkar saw the “fangs” of Gandhi. This confrontation introduced Ambedkar to the real Gandhi who was opposed to the progress of Dalit castes. 

This confrontation had its genesis in the announcement by the British in the second decade of the 20th century that they would be granting independence to India. But before quitting India they wanted to ensure that the political rights of all communities were protected in the future constitution of India so that no community could point an accusing finger at them later for unjust treatment. A round table conference was organized in London for talks with the representatives of different communities. But the problem was that independence of India would have translated into freedom only for the Hindus and Muslims. There was no indication as to what would be the status of the Dalits in independent India. Independent India would be ruled by these communities and Dalits would not get any representation in the government. They would be at the mercy of the Hindus. Ambedkar was not ready to accept this situation. He said that if we didn’t rise from our slumber, we would lose everything. Meanwhile, different Dalit organizations of the country were petitioning the British not to leave India. A resolution to this effect, passed by the Adi Dravida Jana Sabha of Madras, has been quoted by Katherine Mayo in her book Mother India. It reads: 

“The caste system of the Hindus stigmatizes us as untouchables….Our improvement in the social and economic scale began with and is due to the British Government. The Britishers in India – Government officers, merchants, and last but not the least, Christian missionaries love us and we love them (in) return…We need not say that we are strongly opposed to Home Rule. We shall fight to the last drop of the blood any attempt to transfer the seat of authority in this country from British hands to so-called high caste Hindus, who have ill-treated us in the past and would do so again, but for the protection of British laws.” [Mother India, by Katherine Mayo (translated into Hindi by Kanwal Bharti)].

There is little doubt that before the British, no one paid any attention to the travails of the Dalits. It was the British who had some sympathy for the Dalits, outlawed untouchability and opened the doors of education to them. The Mutiny of 1857 was the joint rebellion of the upper-class Hindus and Muslims against these reforms initiated by the British. 

Dalits could have got political representation only if they emerged as the third pole in Indian politics after Hindus and Muslims. Ambedkar tried to achieve exactly that. He sought a separate electorate for Dalits. He told the conclave that Dalits formed a fifth of the population of British India. The number of Dalits in India was equal to the population of England or France. But their condition was worse than that of serfs and slaves. He said that Dalits, as a group, were distinct and separate from the Muslims. Although the Dalits were considered Hindu, they were not a part of the Hindu community. 

Over three sittings of the conference, Ambedkar made a strong case for the rationale, need and importance of a separate electorate. He also answered the queries of the British representatives. As a result, on 17 August 1932, the British prime minister accepted the demand of the Dalits. 

At the time, Gandhi was incarcerated in the Yerwada prison. He began a fast-unto-death in the jail to protest against the acceptance of the demand of the Dalits. That led to a huge uproar. Slogans hailing Gandhi and deprecating Ambedkar filled the air. Gandhi argued that the decision would lead to disintegration of Hindu society. However, this scenario that Gandhi warned against wasn’t in the realm of possibilities. The issue was limited to the provision of a separate electorate, under which the Dalits themselves would elect a fellow Dalit as their representative. But Gandhi wanted representatives of Dalits to be elected by a joint electorate. Gandhi’s health started deteriorating. Hindu doctors declared that his condition was critical. Hindu leaders then approached Ambedkar, asking him to give up his demand. At the same time, Ambedkar started receiving letters with death threats. He went on to write a long article on Gandhi’s fast, which is included in his collected works. Ambedkar allayed all the apprehensions of Gandhi but Gandhi’s threatening to take his own life on the issue left him helpless. Had Gandhi died, Ambedkar would have been termed his murderer. That would have led not only to wholesale massacre of the Dalits. Ambedkar wouldn’t have been spared either. This was a Hindu trap that left Ambedkar with only one option: sacrificing the interests of the Dalits. Ultimately, Ambedkar had to bow to Gandhi’s demand to prevent the massacre of the Dalits. A pact, accepting Gandhi’s demand for a joint electorate, was drafted, and was signed by leaders of both the parties on 24 August 1932. Though it was Gandhi who had forced this pact, he himself did not sign it. 

It is because of the Poona Pact that the Dalit representatives in Parliament and state assemblies do not raise their voice in the interests of the Dalit communities. They are elected not by the Dalits but by the upper castes. 

Harijan Sevak Sangh 

After the Poona Pact, Gandhian leaders from all over the country resolved to put an end to untouchability. Gandhi gave Dalits a new name – Harijan – and established the Harijan Sevak Sangh for their upliftment. But for him, emancipation of the Dalits meant turning them into Gandhians and associating them with the Congress party. Branches of the Sangh were set up in each district but no Dalit was named as the head of any of the branches. The parent unit was also not headed by a Dalit. The organization was run by savarna Hindus, mostly Brahmins. None of their plans worked – the Hindu community refused to change – and untouchability persisted. Ambedkar compared Harijan Sevak Sangh with Putna, a character in the Bhagwat Katha. He wrote that the Sangh was to the Untouchables what Putna was to Krishna, who had mandated her with killing Kansa. According to Ambedkar, when the Dalits demanded that the Sangh be handed over to them, Gandhi, the shrewd man, refused. He said that the Harijan Sevak Sangh was the means by which Hindus were atoning for their sin of practising untouchability and it was the Hindus, and not the Dalits, who donated money needed for running the organization, hence Dalits couldn’t be given any role in running it. Ambedkar wrote that Gandhi’s refusal could have been tolerated but his arguments for the refusal were so humiliating that no self-respecting person would have anything to do with the sangh. Ambedkar said that the real reason why Gandhi didn’t want to hand the sangh over to the Dalits was that he feared losing control over the organization and the Dalits no longer being at the mercy of the Hindus. This would have defeated Gandhi’s intent of keeping the Dalits chained to the Hindu religion.


What is Gandhism and what is its role in the upliftment of the Dalits? Ambedkar critiqued Gandhism from this angle, too. Gandhism needs to be critiqued because many Gandhians believe that it is an alternative to Marxism. Is Gandhism really an alternative to Marxism? Let us see what Ambedkar had to say on this issue. 

Ambedkar writes, “At the outset it is necessary to state that some Gandhists have conjured up a conception of Gandhism which is purely imaginary. According to this conception, Gandhism means returning to the village and making the village self-sufficient. It makes Gandhism a mere matter of regionalism … making villages self-sufficient means enforcing the Varna order” (Siddharth and Alakh Niranjan (Ed), Ambedkar ki Najar Mein Gandhi Aur Gandhivad, Forward Press, p 44). Rahul Sankrityayan, taking a dig at Gandhism, describes it as returning to the age of the caveman. In his book Vaigyanik Bhatuikvaad, he writes, “If you really want to return to the age of a caveman, become a caveman first. Go to a forest where there is no sign of today’s civilization, let alone seths and sethanis.” 

Ambedkar writes that Gandhi saw the Varna system as solely being about livelihood. A person of one Varna could acquire the knowledge or skills of another Varna but as far as livelihood went, he had to adopt the hereditary profession of his Varna. This was Gandhi’s ideal village. Ambedkar writes that anyone who has read Gandhi’s book Hind Swaraj will conclude that he was against modern civilization. Gandhi wrote in Young India that India would gain by abandoning modern civilization. In other words, India would benefit by shunning knowledge and science and the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy – all of which are gifts of modern civilization. Gandhi thus favoured an ancient civilization ordained by religion in which the occupations of the people were decided by their Varna. Gandhi was a supporter of theocracy or monarchy in which the social, political and economic leadership would be in the hands of the Brahmins and other Dwijs and the Shudra castes would only be slaves. Gandhi’s ancestors gave up the profession of a trader and accepted the position of a Diwan, which was an occupation of the Brahmins. When it came to his profession, he chose law over the weighing scale. Then, he abandoned law and became half-politician, half-saint. He scrupulously kept away from business (ibid, p 142).

Critiquing Gandhian economics, Ambedkar wrote that the idea that machines and factories would render lakhs of workers jobless and that development of large cities would lead to smoke, dirt, noise, foul air, lack of sunshine and outdoor life, slums, prostitution and unnatural living are old and worn-out arguments. He wrote that the ideas that made up Gandhism are just primitive. It is a return to nature, to animal life. The economics of Gandhism are hopelessly fallacious. That machinery and modern civilization have produced many evils could be no argument against them, for machinery and modern civilization are not the reason for the evils. They are due to wrong social organization which has made private property and pursuit of personal gain matters of absolute sanctity. If machinery and modern civilization have not benefited everybody the remedy is not to condemn machinery and modern civilization but to alter the organization of society so that the benefits are not be usurped by the few but will accrue to all (ibid, p 85).

Ambedkar wrote that Gandhi opposed machinery so that the people did not get any leisure for spiritual and cultural development. In the olden times, Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishayas had enough leisure for their spiritual and cultural development. However, the perpetually toiling Shudra castes had no such time to spare. It is impossible to have leisure unless we find ways to reduce the toil required for producing goods necessary to satisfy human needs. To do this, there can be nothing better than machines. Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute, and for providing him with leisure to make a life of culture possible (ibid, p 86). 

Thus, Ambedkar argued that Gandhian economic philosophy was opposed to mechanization and modern civilization and was a well thought-out trick to block the spiritual and cultural development of Dalits and the backward castes. He said that Gandhism was loved by those who didn’t believe in democracy. Gandhism was the philosophy of those who, by opposing mechanization and modern civilization, wanted only a handful to be cultured while the majority toiled. He argued that a democratic society should strive for more and more mechanization and modernization. Under Gandhism, the common man would have to do back-breaking labour for nominal wages. Ambedkar said that what Gandhism meant by going back to nature was going back to nakedness, squalor, poverty and ignorance for the vast masses (ibid, p 87).

Ambedkar has analyzed Gandhism in great detail. His analysis is so clear and logical that whosoever reads it will realize that the real intent of Gandhism was destruction of democracy. Whosoever studies Gandhism will not be deluded by Gandhi’s protestations in favour of democracy and against capitalism, and will discover that Gandhism is not at all a revolutionary philosophy. It is a philosophy that wants to rejuvenate the dead past of India (ibid, p 84). 


Title: Ambedkar ki Najar Mein Gandhi aur Gandhivad
Editors: Dr Siddharth and Dr Alakh Niranjan
Publisher: Forward Press, New Delhi
Price: Rs 200 (paperback), Rs 400 (hardback)

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

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