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Ambedkar and Gandhi


In his article “Ethics in Ambedkar’s Critique of Gandhi” (EPW, 15 April 2017), Gopal Guru questions the hitherto unexamined and largely accepted antagonism between Ambedkar and Gandhi on the problem of untouchability. Those who take rigid positions, for or against the two leaders, fail to locate the space in which the “inclusive discourse of emancipation” is possible. For this reason, the tone of Guru’s article is reconciliatory as he finds Gandhi involved in the emancipatory struggle of Dalits, just as Ambedkar makes efforts to involve Gandhi and the caste Hindus in the interlocutory framework of conversation.

The question of untouchability can be properly understood and resolved if the approaches of the two leaders are taken together. Gandhi mainly looked at the problem of untouchability from a moral standpoint, whereas Ambedkar looked at it from a rational, intellectual and political point of view.

Gandhi was reluctant to accept Ambedkar’s contention that the problem of untouchability was rooted in caste which was supported by religion and thus, could be solved only when scriptural support is withdrawn. Ambedkar’s indictment of caste Hindus in the Annihilation of Caste is unsettling. According to him, Hindus ill-treat untouchables not because they are inhuman or cruel; they do so because they are deeply religious. In order to judge the veracity of Ambedkar’s contention, Gandhi asked some high-caste Hindus to find evidence in the Hindu scriptures in support of untouchability. At a meeting with the head priest of the Shiva Temple, he failed to convince the priest that the untouchables should be treated like the other castes and be given equal status. The priest justified the distinction on the basis of past karma. Gandhi, though apparently unsatisfied with this argument, could not defend his position. Despite this, Gandhi agreed with Ambedkar that the caste problem was historically created and therefore, could be historically solved.

Ambedkar finds genuineness [truthfulness] in Gandhi’s acceptance of the truth of untouchability and moral and ethical consciousness “in his effort to create moral reason among the caste Hindus.” Just as Gandhi was able to rise above his caste self to see the reality of untouchability, Ambedkar was able to transcend his embittered self to modify his earlier stand that not all Brahmins practise discrimination, but only those who have the mindset of Brahmins do. Ambedkar never gave up his effort of persuading the caste Hindus, Gandhi in particular, to accord equal status to the untouchables.

While Guru’s article provides an ethical perspective for evaluating Gandhi’s thought on untouchability, it also suggests that Dalit consciousness can be represented by non-Dalits. U R Ananthamurthy rightly calls Gandhi a “critical insider.”

S D Kapoor


Updated On : 29th Jul, 2017


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