Gandhi-Ambedkar Interface …when shall the twain meet?


Gandhian and Ambedkarian discourses are not antithetical. Both are concerned with the issue of emancipation. At present when the legitimacy of the emancipatory discourse is being challenged and the dominant discourse upholds capitalism, it is all the more essential to broaden the scope of Gandhian and Ambedkarian discourses. 
Suhas Palshikar ( is the Director of Lokniti and teaches at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Pune. 

This article was published in 3 August, 1996
issue of EPW. We are re-publishing this article to encourage debate in
light of the recent discussions around Ambedkar and Gandhi.

Gandhi and Ambedkar would have agreed an as many issues as they would
have disagreed upon. They could not find much ground for co-operation
and collaboration. In popular perception – and in the perception of many
of their followers too-they remained opponents. Both indulged in verbal
duels in order to expose the weaknesses of each other’s thought and
actions. This legacy could never be abandoned by the Ambedkaiite
political movement even after the 1950s. The disappearance of both
personalities from the social scene, and a change in the political
context have not altered the standardised positioning of the two as each
other’s enemies. Against this background it is proposed to enquire into
the differences in the discourses of Gandhi and Ambedkar.
Two general points may be noted before we proceed to a discussion of
the relationship between the Gandhian discourse and the Ambedkarian
discourse. Movements for social transformation are based on emancipatory
ideologies. At the present juncture in the Indian society we find that
movements for social transformation are weak and localised. Further, the
dominant discourse today does not believe in the project of
emancipation. In this context it becomes necessary to tap the
possibilities of realignment of emancipatory ideologies. It would be
inadvisable to be persuaded by the exclusivist claims of any ideology to
the project of emancipation.
Secondly, personality clashes need not be the decisive factor in the
assessment of thought. Also, we need to accept that immediate political
interests of Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed. Ambedkar began his political
career as leader of the untouchables and continued to claim to be the
authentic representative of the untouchable community. Gandhi, on the
other hand, appeared to be denying the existence of separate interests
of untouchables in the context of the freedom struggle. Ambekdar was
always suspicious of the social content of freedom struggle and believed
that Gandhi was not adequately sensitive to this. Since Gandhi was at
the helm of the freedom struggle, Ambedkar thought it necessary to
position itself against Gandhi. Given these historical circumstances, is
it necessary that we sit in judgment to decide the case in favour of
either Gandhi or Ambedkar?
The present note proceeds with the assumption that Gandhi-Ambedkar
clashes resulted from their personalities, as well as their respective
positioning in the contemporary political contexts. However, beyond
these clashes and differences of assessment of contemporary politics,
there exists some ground where the agenda of Gandhi and Ambedkar might
actually be complementary. To realise this, it is necessary to throw
away the burden of proving whose political position was correct or
The question of separate electorates for untouchables is a case in
point. Was Gandhi wrong in opposing separate electorate for
untouchables? Was he wrong in forcing Ambedkar into acquiescence through
the fast? I would tend to argue that such questions are largely
irrelevant given the fact that ‘separate electorates’ do not form the
core of Ambedkar’s thought, in other words, Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship
needs to be probed in the context not of personalities or political
strategies, but in terms of their respective emancipatory projects.
Caste Question
The centrality of the caste question in Ambedkar’s thought cannot be
overemphasised. He believed that untouchability was an expression of
caste system. Therefore, Ambedkar chose to study the caste system and
critically analyse the justification it received from Hindu scriptures.
His thought does not deal merely with removal of untouchability which
was but one part of the anti-caste movement. He was also concerned with
the overall annihilation of caste. Gandhi, of course, was in favour of
abolition of caste- based discriminations. In personal conduct too, he
did not practise caste. But caste question does not occupy a place of
urgency in his thought. He tended to emphasise untouchability more than
the caste question. For Gandhi, untouchability formed the core of caste
system. Once untouchability was removed, there will be no caste system.
Gandhi was right in identifying untouchability as the most abhorring
expression of caste-based inequality and attendant inhumanity. But the
crucial question is, would caste disappear if untouchability is not
practised? If so, why should there be internal differentiation and
hierarchical separation among the touchable castes? Gandhi would argue
that untouchability stands tor everything ugly in the caste system and
therefore, it must go instantly. Extending this logic he could further
claim that untouchability could be fully and finally removed only when
caste-consciousness is removed. Removal of untouchability would thus
symbolically bury the caste system. In the light of development of
Gandhi’s views on the caste issue, there is no doubt about Gandhi’s
ultimate preparedness to abolish caste. And yet, caste question does not
become the core of Gandhi’s discourse.
Consequently, Gandhi did not extend the scope of satyagraha to caste
and caste-based inequality. Gandhi extended support to temple entry
movements but did not allow such movements to occupy centre-stage in his
movement. Similarly, Gandhi undertook fast to convince the Hindus of
the sinfulness of practising untouchability and exhorted people to
abolish the practice. But the philosophy of satyagraha does not
adequately answer the question of tackling injustices perpetrated by
one’s own society and sanc- tioned by religion. Satyagraha as a
political weapon is adequately demonstrated by Gandhi’s thought and
practice. But it satyagraha is to become a moral purifier what kind of a
struggle is necessary against untouchability and caste? In the case of
untouchability, Gandhi could argue that the responsibility of removing
untouchability lies with the caste Hindus. Hence the reference to sin
and penance. However, as Ambedkar put it squarely, untouchability exists
as a stigma on the body of the untouchables. As the ones suffering from
injustice, how should the untouchables fight against their plight in
the Gandhian framework? Even it they were to offer satyagraha, how could
this act prick the conscience of caste Hindus who were under the
ideological spell of religious sanction to caste and who were getting
material advantages from the caste-based order? Apart from practising
untouchability, the caste society presents a number of other possible
sites of injustice where different caste groups may be located in
antagonistic situations. Gandhi’ s discourse does not direct
intellectual attention and political energies to the question of waging
struggle against the caste system and more importantly against caste
groups deriving advantages from the caste system, instead, Gandhi tends
to search possible areas of co-operation and integration of castes.
Therefore, he refuses to recognise caste divisions even at the
analytical level.
Gandhi’s constant appeals to caste Hindus not to practise
untouchability clearly indicate his awareness that one section of the
society was being treated unjustly by another; it was not a ‘personal’
relationship but a group relationship. Inspite of this division of
society at the empirical level, Gandhi refused to concede separate
political identity to untouchables through separate electorates. He
would allow ‘reservation of scats’ but the representational character of
those elected through reserved seats would not be ‘communal’, i e, not
as representatives of untouchables but as representatives of the general
electorate. Gandhi’s relative neglect of developing satyagraha against
caste probably derived from this position of not recognising the
political nature of social divisions.
Although he uses the term ‘harijan’ for untouchable ‘brethren’, Gandhi
stoutly refused to recognise that caste-based divisions could actually
be analytical categories for understanding the complex network of
structures of injustice in the Hindu society. Ambedkar draws the
distinction between untouchables and caste Hindus; he also suggests the
possibility of using the categories of savarna and avarna where the
latter would include untouchables and tribals, aborigines, etc. Before
him, Phule visualised the categorisation in terms of ‘dvij’ status
shudra- atishudra and ‘trivarniks’. The logic behind such categorisation
is to locate the main contradiction in the caste-ridden society, either
as varna or as ‘dvij’ status, While Gandhi would accept the empirical
reality of caste, he was not prepared to posit in it the ideological
basis of anti-caste struggle. Hence, his insistence on identifying the
untouchables as part of the Hindu fold. The relative unimportance of
caste question in the Gandhian discourse is prominently expressed in the
writings of almost all Gandhian intellectuals who tend to virtually
exclude the issue of caste from their expositions of Gandhism.
Bane of Capitalism
The Gandhian discourse evolved through and along with his struggles
against racism and colonialism. These struggles amply acquainted him
with the evil side of western society. Yet, Gandhi was not trapped in
formulating anti-west nationalism. He realised that the malady of the
west lay in its peculiar production process. The modern process of
production led to commodifica- tion and consequent degradation of human
character. Therefore. Gandhi directed his attention to the modern
lifestyle and the artificial generation of false materiality. The
transformation of human beings into consumers from producers was the
main step in the degeneration of human society.
In this sense the Gandhian discourse can be squarely situated in the
context of the problematique of capitalism. Although Gandhi rarely
attacked capitalism directly, his analysis of modern civilisation
unmistakably indicts capitalism. His assessment of the exploitative
nature of modern process of production, dehumanising effects of
consumerism and his overall assessment of the modern society do not make
sense unless understood as analysis of the capitalist social order.
Similarly, were not Gandhi demolishing the claims of capitalism, he
would not have given so much prominence to the ‘Daridranarayan’. His
entire project hinges upon the juxtaposition between ‘Daridranarayan’
and the satanical nature of capitalist enterprise. Gandhi’s advocacy of a
simple life, insistence on abnegation of wants, and swadeshi must be
seen as counterpoints to crass materiality and instrumental
interdependence nurtured by capitalism. In this sense, Gandhi’s swadeshi
calls for redefinition of the scope of material development and an
outright rejection of capitalism as the instrument of development. It
must be borne in mind that Gandhi was not opposed to modern civilisation
per se but as a social order based on capitalism.
Where does Ambedkar stand in relation to this Gandhian position,
regarding capitalism and modern civilisation? Two points arc striking in
this context. Firstly, for the most part of his political career,
Ambedkar did not employ his expertise in economics to his political
agenda. Secondly, his early economic treatises do not substantially
depart from the ideological position and standard wisdom prevalent in
economics during his time.
It may be said that the main concern of Ambedkar was to understand
sociologically the operation of caste system and to understand the
socio-religious justifications of the same. His political struggles, too
occurred on very different terrain from the economic. Thus, though he
was aware of the economic aspects of caste system he chose to
concentrate on the social, cultural, religious and political aspects of
caste. Besides, Ambedkar’s writings manifest a constant vacillation on
his part as far as assessment of modern capitalist economy is concerned.
For one thing, he was not persuaded by the soundness of communist
economics. For another, Ambedkar was wary of any alternative that would
tend to glorify or justify a semblance of the ‘old order’ in which caste
occupied a pivotal role. Thus, autonomous village communities, small
industry, mutual dependence, etc, were not appreciated by him for fear
of indirectly furthering caste interests. He might have looked upon
forces of modernity as cutting at the root of caste society and
therefore was not convinced of the ‘evils’ involved in modernity.
And yet it would be wrong to believe that Ambedkar upheld capitalism
uncritically. Not only was he critical of many aspects of capitalist
economy, Ambedkar was even prepared to reject it for a more egalitarian
and democratic system of production. Ambedkar has noted the political
fallout of capitalism, viz, sham democracy. He was not averse to a
search for alternative economic system although he did not devote his
energies to this project. Thus, Ambedkar would have no hesitation in
either taking up economic issues to the centre-stage of popular
struggles or in developing a critique of capitalism. But his emphasis on
caste question gave an impression that he had no sympathy for radical
economic agenda. Unfortunately, this resulted in many of his followers
literally seeing ‘red’ at the mention of economic issues! This has led
to a false dichotomisation between caste question and economic question.
Ambedkar’s speeches and Marathi writings suggest that he did not
subscribe to such dichotomisation. He was aware of the threat to
liberty, equality and fraternity not only from brahminism but from
capitalism also.
Perspectives on Tradition
It is interesting to sec how Gandhi and Ambedkar negotiate with
tradition. Gandhi engages in a creative dialogue with tradition. He
tries to find out the element of truth in tradition and emphasises it.
In many cases he attaches new meanings to traditional symbols. He gives
an impression that he is asking for nothing new in substance, but for
the continuation of the ‘old’ tradition. The secret of Gandhi’s ability
to arouse revolutionary potential among the masses lies partly in this
method of not claiming anything revolutionary, and in the appeal to the
conscience of the masses through tradition. For this purpose, he not
only chose popular traditional symbols but those symbols which have been
associated with truth and justice. Assuming the role of interpreter of
our ‘great tradition’ Gandhi takes the liberty of developing his own
normative framework on the basis of tradition.
Ambedkar, on the other hand, was in search of the ideology of
exploitation. He felt that tradition was this ideology. Injustice based
on caste could not have continued unless it was legitimised by
tradition. He also believed that the tradition of Hindu society was
predominated by brahminical interests. As such, he could not ignore the
role of tradition in situating caste as a moral code of Hindu society.
This prompted Ambedkar to take a critical view of the entire Hindu
(brahminical) tradition. It is also possible that Ambedkar realised the
role of tradition in the contemporary context. All reform was stalled
throughout the 19th century in the name of ‘our great tradition’ and its
correctness. Thus, it was not tradition but forces upholding tradition
that must have made Ambedkar a staunch critic of tradition. Yet did he
really forsake tradition in its entirety? Much of Ambedkar’s critical
attack on tradition was either directed against glorification of
brahminical tradition. It is possible to argue that Ambedkar was engaged
in demolishing the tradition of brahminism and rejected the vedic
ideological tradition. But he was not rejecting all traditions or else
how could he search in that same tradition the path of the dhamma? Nor
was he opposed to liberating traditions in the form of different sects.
He was complaining against a lack of adequate emancipatory space within
the traditional framework.
Tradition in an unequal society will always be caught between
crossfire. Inequality will be cogently placed as part of tradition and
tradition will be glorified as ‘anadi’, ‘sanatan’ and infallible. The
same heritage will be sought to be condemned for all sins of the
society. Gandhi, sensing the emotional power of tradition, appropriated
it in order to save it from chauvinist glorifications. But even an
appropriation of tradition requires a strong critique. Such critique is a
constant reminder that tradition may have the potential of aligning
with forces which perpetuate inequality. An all-round criticism of
tradition further sensitises us to the fact that in many cases tradition
actually gives credence to the system of exploitation. In other words,
the supporters of inequality are always comfortable under the aegis of
tradition. Thus, appropriation of tradition and employing it for
purposes of building a just society requires a strong will to reject
large parts of tradition and situating tradition in a different context
from the one historically associated with it. In this sense, Ambedkars
critical assessment of tradition provides a useful counterpoint to the
Gandhian attempt of appropriating tradition. And the Gandhian project
too, does not presuppose an uncritical appropriation of all tradition.
Meeting Ground
In a very general sense both Gandhi and Ambedkar strived to visualise a
community based on justice and fraternity. The Gandhian discourse
identities the elements of community in the form of love, non-violence,
dignity of human life and dignity of physical labour and a
non-exploitative process of production symbolised by rejection of greed.
From the vantage point of this vision of the community, Gandhian
discourse makes an assessment of colonial and capitalist reality. It
develops a trenchant critique of modernity. The Ambedkarian discourse
unfolds in a different manner. It commences from the critical evaluation
of Indian social reality. Therefore, it concentrates on Hindu social
order, its religious ideology and Hindu tradition. Thus, Ambedkar’s
discourse takes the form of critique of Hindu religion and society.
Ambedkar was constantly aware of the need to situate this critique on a
solid basis of communitarian vision. Although liberty, equality and
fraternity beckoned him constantly, Ambedkar transcends liberalism and
socialism to finally arrive at the conception of the dhamma.
The difference in the structures of their discourses notwithstanding,
Gandhi and Ambedkar thus came to share similar visions. Both believed
that social transformation could come about only by social action.
Therefore, they relied heavily on mobilising people against injustice.
Social action perceived by Gandhi and Ambedkar was democratic; it was in
the form of popular struggles. Gandhi many times appeared to be
favouring compromises and avoiding ‘conflict’. Ambedkar, too, is seen by
many (even his followers) as a supporter of non-agitational politics.
But the core of their politics as well as their position on social
action leave us in no doubt that Gandhi and Ambedkar not only pursued
popular struggles but they valued struggles as essential and enriching.
They did not visualise removal of injustice without struggles and
without popular participation. Further, Gandhi and Ambedkar would have
no difficulty in agreeing upon the value of non-violence.
The discourses of Gandhi and Ambedkar respect the materiality of human
life. Fulfilment of material needs, and a stable and enriched material
life are seen by both as forming the basis of human activity. Therefore,
they would not deny the legitimacy of the goal of providing material
basis to society. Moreover, Gandhi and Ambedkar have a striking
similarity in their views on morality. They believe moral values to be
eternal and necessary for co-ordinating material social life.
At the root of this similarity is the common conception of secular
religion. This conception rejected all rituals, bypassed the question of
existence of god and other world, and brought morality to the
centre-stage of discussion of religion. It is not a mere coincidence
that both Gandhi and Ambedkar should be treated as heretic by religious
orthodoxies of Hinduism and Buddhism, respectively. Both claim that
religion and scriptures need to be understood in the light of conscience
and morality. Wherever scriptures contradict conscience, religion
demands that conscience should be followed. In this sense they were
sceptical not only about scriptures, but ‘priestly authorities’ deciding
the meaning of scriptures. This view cut at the root of any notion of
an organised, closed religion. Gandhi and Ambedkar shift religion from
the realm of metaphysics and situate it onto the terrain of secular
matters such as truth, compassion, love, conscience, social
responsibility and enlightened sense of morality. Understood thus,
Gandhi’s sanatan dharma and Ambedkar’s dhamma do not confine to
individual and private pursuits of good life but operate as the moral
framework for social action. Religion becomes secular and part of the
‘public’ sphere. When the so-called religious people were busy counting
numbers, Gandhi and Ambedkar tried to turn religiosity of common man
into a force for social transformation.
Struggle for truth and non-violence has to incorporate caste struggle
because caste is a structure of violence and injustice. Just as Gandhi
denounces the satanic culture of the west, Gandhism can be a
denunciation of caste-based injustice. Gandhi does not forbid the use of
soul-force against the satanic tendencies in one’s own society. If
contemporary Gandhism fights shy of caste struggles, it has lost the
core of Gandhi’s discourse. The restrictive interpretation of Gandhi
will have to be rejected in favour of a creative interpretation.
Non-recognition of categories like shudra-atishudra does not form the
core of Gandhism. In fact, use of a term like ‘daridranarayan’
presupposes readiness to understand social reality on the basis of
exploitative relations. Therefore, political mapping of social forces on
caste basis can be incorporated into Gandhian discourse. Gandhi’s
strong rejection of religious authority behind untouchability, his later
views on intercaste marriage, his non- orthodox interpretation on varna
in early years and loss of interest in varna in later years, and the
constant exhortation to become ‘shudra’, – to engage in physical labour –
all point to the possibility that caste question can form legitimate
concern of the Gandhian discourse. It should be of some interest that
Gandhi does not eulogise the ‘trivarniks’ or their roles while
constantly upholding dignity of labour. His sanatan dharma is
characteristically uninfluenced by brahminism.
Similarly, Ambedkar’s position on capitalism and modernity can be
extended and reinterpreted. He located the primary source of
exploitation in the caste system in the Indian context. But he never
disputed the exploitative character of capitalism. His espousal of
socialism (eg, Independent Labour Party) and state socialism apart, he
tended to take the view that concentration of wealth and exploitation
gave rise to ‘dukkha’, His conception of dhamma makes it clear that
Ambedkar made a distinction between material well-being and insatiable
lust. This is the ground on which critique of modernist life can be
figured within his discourse. It is true that Ambedkar’s rejection of
tradition and traditional life-style appears to be modernistic. But it
must be conceded that Ambedkar had to take into consideration immediate
interests of untouchables. Thus, his plea to move to cities need not be
understood as a modernist project. Also, Gandhi’s espousal of village
life should not be seen as justification of existing village life.
Grounding Ambedkar’s interpretation in his conception of dhamma can open
up the possibility of bridging the distance between Gandhi and
The discourses of Gandhi and Ambedkar were not antithetical. Therefore,
it is possible to think in terms of common concerns and potential
grounds for dialogue between the two discourses. Further, both Gandhi
and Ambedkar were concerned with the question of emancipation. As such, a
broadening of the scope of their discourses is all the more essential.
As mentioned earlier, at the present moment, legitimacy of emancipatory
project is being challenged. The dominant discourse today tends to
underplay the caste question and legitimises capitalism. In contrast the
movements of social transformation appear to be fragmented or stagnant.
The theoretical strength required to meet this challenge can be gained
partly by building bridges between the two rich discourses of our times.
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