Gandhi vs. Ambedkar Debates and Search for Real Swaraj

Gandhi Ambedkar

 To celebrate 152 Jayanti of Mahatma Gandhi, most of the political parties from the Left to Right (barring a section of Ambedkarites) including secular parties are busy in celebrating Gandhi’s Jayanti with much compassion and commitment. In this respect, civil society and public intellectuals have written several articles in the newspapers and posted messages on social media to express their tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on the occasion.

It is a worthwhile exercise to defend Gandhi in the times of cultural and social tensions and amid the rising environmental catastrophe, currently prevalent in Indian society in particular and the global community in general.  It is a fact that no nationalist stalwart can stand upto Gandhiji, as far as his role in making of the Nation and contributions in the freedom struggle is concerned. It was Gandhiji who taught us high moral values such as, humanism, non-violence, truth, tolerance, satyagraha, universal brotherhood, care for the destitute (the least advantageous person in Rawlsian sense) and respect for the fellow citizens. Keeping in mind his commitments towards the nationalist cause in particular and universal humanism in general, it is worthy to celebrate and cherish Gandhi’s moral values and his social and political thought on the said occasion.

It is unfortunate to note that the rich legacy of Gandhi and his progressive moral values and secular teachings are under threat, since the rise of the Hindu nationalist politics in recent times. Note that Gandhiji was assassinated by the Hindu fanatic (Nathu Ram Godse) due to Gandhi’s commitments towards the Hindu-Muslim unity, communal harmony and siding with the Muslims amidst the Partition. Still, a section of the Hindu nationalist organizations revered Godse more than Gandhiji. The current BJP’s M.P. Prayaga Singh Thakur’s statements on Godse can be taken as a case in point. For Thakur, Godse (a killer of Gandhiji) was a true patriot.

Having said that, let me first confess that I am not fully convinced by Gandhiji who defended the Varna and caste system that is based on hierarchical power relations and social inequality.  In this respect, Ambedkar reminded us that the caste system is not simply division of labour but labourers (based on caste identities, not individual talents). On the project of Annihilation of caste, I am more persuaded by Babasaheb Ambedkar than Gandhi. For Ambedkar, without Annihilation of caste, the menace of untouchability cannot be wiped-out from the Indian society. However, it is a historical fact that Gandhi was amongst the first nationalist thinkers who seriously opposed the in-human practice like untouchability, widely prevalent in the Hindu caste society. Besides, it was Gandhi who had also opposed child marriage, sati system and other social evils which violate the human rights of women and children. In other words, Gandhi had not accepted everything in the name of customs and traditions which infringe the most basic human rights of the people.

It has to be noted that on the question of caste system, crony capitalism and brahmanical patriarchy, Babasaheb was more radical and had taken a firm ethical stand than Gandhi. For Ambedkar, without fighting the twin  enemies, for instance, capitalism and brahmanism at the same time, we cannot achieve the “Real Swaraj” in the hierarchical and caste based society like India. However, commitments of Gandhi with regards to problems of untouchability, communal questions, wide- range of social evils and gender- based discriminations cannot be entirely ignored.

Given the historical context, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress had given more primacy to fight against the exploitations of the colonial masters (who destroyed the Indian economic and moral fabric of society), rather than caste based inequality prevalent in the realm of civil society. Unlike the nationalist thinkers, for Ambedkar and other Bahujan thinkers (such as Periyar and Phule) without “Annihilation of caste” there will be no “social revolution” (for instance, we cannot achieve real swaraj in India).

The purpose of this essay is not to create unnecessary tensions between Gandhi and Ambedkar rather to find out some points of convergence and divergence between them and search for the conception of ‘Real swaraj’ (by reading Gandhi and Ambedkar creatively in today’s context) which can address the problems of subaltern masses in the present times.  To explain the Ambedkarian’s perspective of swaraj, a noted scholar Aakash singh Rathore says:

“For Ambedkar, svaraj means profound democratization, tied up with the agency of the governed. Savraj is not a time travel back, but a place-travel down, to the lived experience of the masses” (See Rathore, Indian Political theory: Lying the groundwork for Svaraj, 2017, p-12).

While highlighting the paradox of Gandhian notion of swaraj, Ambedkar had said that Gandhi and the Congress Party wanted freedom from colonial rule but they had not shown genuine commitments to dismantle the existing hierarchical caste based social order, prevalent in the realm of civil society. In this respect, Rathore further writes:

   “Ambedkar argued that Gandhian svaraj is a ‘paradox’: it stands for freedom from foreign domination, which means destruction of the political order. But it keeps intact the social order, which permits one class to dominate the other”. (Rathore, Ibid, p-197)

It is a fact that India had got formal political democracy in 1947 but the agenda of ‘social democracy’ and ‘economic democracy’ is still an unfinished task. The path of Gandhi and Ambedkar might be different in their approach but both wanted to address the social and economic problems from their own vantage point to achieve the goal of real swaraj. No doubt, Ambedkar was more ethical and explicit in his approach, as far as the caste system was concerned. However, Gandhi also wanted to see India as a “self-reliant” in the realm of the socio-economic and moral/spiritual spheres by conceptualizing  an alternative modernity(different from the western civilization).  In doing so, Gandhi also wanted to address the sufferings of the toiling masses. In this respect, Gandhiji had said on 29th January 1948;

The agenda of social, moral and economic freedom still needs to be achieved. As India will move ahead to achieve the target of  Lok swaraj,  the power of citizens will become more effective and strong in comparison to military power” [See Prof. B.M. Shrama, Dr. Ram Kirshna Dutt Shrama,  and Dr. Savita Sharma, “Gandhi Darshan Ke Vividh Aayam”,( Various dimension of Gandhi’s philosophy, translation is mine ), 2017, p-v]

In a similar way, while underlining Gandhi’s conception of Swaraj, a noted scholar like Rudrangshu Mukherjee writes:

In Gandhi’s philosophy, swaraj for the nation did not mean merely political dependence from British rule. Swaraj, for Gandhi, was something more substantive, involving the freedom of each individual to regulate their own lives without harming one another”.( Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Economic & Political Weekly,  2009,p- 35-36)

To round up discussion so far, it is crucial to reflect on Gandhi vs. Ambedkar debates afresh, keeping in mind the wide-range of problems such as caste based discriminations, untouchability, communal questions, majoritarianism, capitalism, limits of western civilization and climate change. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar had deeply expressed their concern on these issues and problems in the context of colonial India. In doing so, they had tried to address these pertinent issues from their own vintage point.  Despite some differences, both (Gandhi and Ambedkar) believed in democracy, dialogue and wanted to overcome the said problems through the methods of non-violence and satyagraha (struggle for truth) rather than by brute force and violent means.

On the occasion of the 152 Gandhi’s Jayanti, it will be a worthwhile exercise to seriously ponder over Gandhi and Ambedkar’s critical engagement towards each other, to conceptualize the idea of real swaraj in times to come. In doing so, it will help us to reconstruct the Indian society and politics on the lines of egalitarian philosophy.  On the said occasion, this essay invites the readers to study creatively, Gandhi vs. Ambedkar debates and think seriously to conceptualize the idea of Real Swaraj in the current pathetic political scenario.

 Badre Alam Khan is a research scholar at Department of Political science, University of Delhi.

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