Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Rajmohan Gandhi - Independence and Social Justice: The Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate

In 1936, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was invited to deliver a lecture in Lahore – then very much part of India – by a Hindu group opposed to untouchability. When the group saw an advance text of the lecture, which was entitled Annihilation of Caste, they cancelled the invitation because towards the lecture’s end, the author had declared his intention of leaving the Hindu fold. In a riposte to the cancellation, Dr. Ambedkar published Annihilation of Caste. Its contents elicited an immediate comment from Gandhi in his journal, Harijan, to which Ambedkar issued a rejoinder. A major text from India’s recent history, Annihilation of Caste has been republished many times and has been translated into several languages, often with the Ambedkar–Gandhi exchange added to the main text.

In March 2014, a new edition was published in Delhi by Navayana. In this new edition, Annihilation of Caste is preceded by a 153-page text by Arundhati Roy, entitled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, which is presented as an introduction to Ambedkar’s classic ‘undelivered’ lecture. This little book is a response to Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Doctor and the Saint’. However, it also bears an indirect connection to the historic debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi, which took place during a period well removed from our times.

While Gandhi’s assassination occurred nearly seven decades into the past, Ambedkar died in 1956, almost six decades ago. The two were involved in a positive, if impersonal, relationship during the 1920s. Though they did not meet each other in this period, Ambedkar appreciated Gandhi’s concern for the plight of Dalits, and he also welcomed the method of satyagraha that Gandhi had introduced.

However, the 1930s saw sharp, and from a historian’s standpoint revealing, exchanges between the two. The exchanges help our understanding not only of two powerful individuals in history, but also of continuing flaws in Indian society and the tension in the first half of the twentieth century between the goals of national independence and social justice. The first face-to-face meeting between Ambedkar and Gandhi took place in Mumbai in 1931, shortly before their piercing verbal encounters. Begun in the autumn of 1931 in a well-lit London arena (the 1931 Round Table Conference on India’s political future, convened by the British prime minister), these encounters continued in 1932 in a dark Pune prison, where the British had incarcerated Gandhi, and where a successful negotiation resulted. Robust exchanges were, however, resumed before the Indian public in the mid-1930s, mainly via the press.

The Ambedkar–Gandhi debate was interrupted by Gandhi’s frequent imprisonments, resulting from his struggles against British rule. From 1932 to 1934, and again from 1942 to 1944, Gandhi was behind bars. In contrast, Ambedkar, who believed that the battle for social democracy was more important than the fight for national independence, was not only never jailed by the British, he was also included in the Viceroy’s Executive Council from 1942 to 1945… read the full essay:


The article has also appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly