The second half of Essay on Untouchables 3: Politics is the source for this article.
Under the Providence of Mr. Gandhi
In Ambedkar’s view, Mohandas Gandhi was a complete failure at the second Round Table Conference, a meeting in London to define the future relationship between England and colonial India. The treatise by Ambedkar references one of a series of Conferences in which the terms of Indian self-rule, Swaraj, would be defined and a constitution formed.
In Gandhi’s Conference speeches, he stressed religious humility as a sage more than initiating a coherent plan for self-rule. He was not able to get any concessions from the British Government. Not only was he ineffective in dealing with the Brits, but he also insulted many of the Indian delegates. He accused Indian liberal delegates of not having a following. The Muslim and Depressed class delegates fought accusations of not properly representing their demographics. In the end, Gandhi drove a large wedge between all parties involved.
Despite his failure, he returned home to a hero’s welcome. Government and party officials organized a large parade. Mr. Gandhi never expressed any words of thanks because he had taken a temporary vow of silence. Ambedkar questioned if the people’s support was due to blind devotion or misinformation by the press. Gandhi did not fool everyone. A group of Dalits protested Gandhi’s return waving black flags. A riot broke out, and forty people died.
The fact Gandhi preaches against untouchability yet doesn’t aid Dalits in their efforts to achieve equality angered Dalits in attendance. Many Gandhi supporters opposed efforts in Mahad to obtain the rights to use the Chawdar Water Tank. His actions are perplexing since he spoke at length about Indian unity to fight colonialism. Ending untouchability and building a bridge between Hindus and Muslims is the paramount precursor to self-rule. Ambedkar goes further by dissecting Gandhi’s actions before and after the Poona Pact.
Before the Poona Pact, the strategy adopted by most Indians to end British tyranny consisted of three aspects. The first was non-violence. Not only was violence morally wrong, but the Indians also could not beat the strongest military in the world. The second was non-cooperation with the Government. The last was a tax boycott. This plan was codified in February of 1922 in the Indian city of Bardoli.
The Bardoli program not only determined interactions with the colonizers. There were also plans for Indian self-improvement. Programs to encourage domestic yarn spinning instead of buying imports, organizing national schools, and an alcohol temperance campaign were paramount in the freedom struggle. However, the most contentious issue was the method of improving the lives of depressed classes.
Swami Shraddhanand and two others headed the Committee on Untouchables. Mr. Shradddhanad resigned from the committee because it was ineffective at getting results for depressed classes. The committee was an amelioration program not committed to ending separate facilities or marriage prohibition, but to convince people to give up caste. One of their contradictory policies was to fund separate wells not to offend locals while preaching against segregation.
Dalit led civil disobedience campaigns were the only way to end untouchability. When Dalits led their own struggle, Mohandas Gandhi was their biggest opponent. His logic for opposition was extremely puzzling. He claimed Dalits should not fight for their rights because the upper-caste committed the sin, so upper-caste need to end untouchability. The logic was extremely perplexing from a man waging a civil disobedience campaign against the British. Shouldn’t the British do the work to grant India freedom by Gandhi’s logic? Gandhi did not only obstruct Dalit advancement, but he also discouraged non-Hindus, including Sikhs, from helping Dalits. Ambedkar refers to Sikhs as militant and protestant Hindus. He did not see them as fundamentally different from Hindus.
Gandhi’s most detrimental act against Dalits happened at the Second Round Table Conference. An agreement took place in the first Round Table Conference based on a recommendation of the Simon Commission to create a separate electorate for Dalits. Similar agreements to disproportionate representation were extended to Muslims and Sikhs. Gandhi’s protest to the Dalit electorate was not only uncouth; it threatened the ratification of the constitution and the entire independence struggle.
Gandhi then began to collude with Muslims against Dalits. He offered the Muslims weightage in the new Parliament. Weightage having more votes than their percent of the population. In exchange, the Muslims would oppose Dalit claims to a separate electorate.
Gandhi and His Fast
The issue that deadlocked the Second Indian Round Table Conference of 1931 was Communal Electorates. Ambedkar and his faction wanted a separate electorate with reserved seats for Depressed Classes. Depressed Classes are defined as not only untouchables but scheduled caste, scheduled tribes, and other backward castes. Gandhi and his contention wanted only a general electorate. After the Round Table Conference ended, the British Government proposed a compromise.
The compromise, called the Communal Award, reserved 78 seats for Depressed Classes in a general electorate. Most Indians that suffered from untouchability were not happy with the agreement. Those of marginalized groups that did not suffer from untouchability felt it was acceptable. Even though Ambedkar was not entirely satisfied, he could also accept the compromise.
Gandhi felt that Dalits having their own electorate would weaken Hinduism. He felt untouchability and other forms of oppression were moral and religious in origin. A redistribution of political power would not improve the condition of Depressed Classes and destroy Hinduism. Gandhi decides to write a letter to the British Government while in jail informing them he would fast to the death to prevent Depressed Classed from having their own electorate. His fast began on September 20, 1932.
Gandhi’s opposition for a separate electorate for Dalits was inconsistent with his support for disproportionate representation for Sikhs and Muslims. He reasoned the Sikhs, and Muslims were more organized and politically aware. Dalits were less so due to current and historical oppression. The oppression was rooted in Hindus seeing Dalits as different. Therefore, labeling Dalits in a separate electorate would perpetuate the stigma and make things worse.
Ambedkar rebutted this argument by explaining labeling in and of itself is neither good or bad. It is the motivation behind the labeling that makes it good or bad. When Dalits are labeled to be excluded and disadvantaged in society, it is, of course, detrimental. However, to repair the accrued disadvantage, Dalits separate to build their community. The separation will not only help Dalits but the entirety of India. A separate electorate would empower Dalits and be a first step to rebuilding their community.
Gandhi’s fast put Ambedkar in a compromised position. He could not give away the political power the British granted the Dalits. The death of Gandhi could result in the assault of the same Depressed Classes in retribution. Ambedkar decided compromise would be the best solution. The Poona Pact was signed on September 24, 1932, was the result.
The terms of the Poona Pact were that there would be 151 reserved seats for Depressed Classes in the Central and Provincial governments. The reserved seats will be competed from candidates in a separate Depressed Class primary to elevate four candidates. Once the four candidates won the primary, a general electorate would pick the one that wins the reserved seat.
Ambedkar assessed the results of the Poona Pact as less than optimal. The Depressed Class candidates always had to appeal to a majority Caste Hindu electorates. These hamstrung Dalit representatives couldn’t even vote for a measure to allow Dalits into Hindu temples. Ambedkar realized Dalits would never have a voice in Gandhi’s party, the Indian National Congress.
The Indian Nation Congress was, in fact, revolutionary in their civil disobedience campaigns against the British Government. However, they were not radical in they wanted to change the power dynamics in India. Ambedkar wanted a radical party. Only a radical party can secure Dalit rights and a future for India.
The day after the Poona Pact was signed, Gandhi held a public meeting to explain his plan to help people suffering from untouchability. He pledges to start an organization later that month. It was called the All-India Anti-Untouchability League. He then changed the name to The Servants of the Untouchables Society. Finally, he settled on Harijan Sevak Sangh or Sangh for short.
One of the first actions of Sangh was to refer to those that suffer from untouchability as Harijan, which roughly meant “children of G-d.” He did not consult any Dalits when deciding on the name because most Dalits found it offensive. At least being called untouchable is a correct assessment of what they were suffering. Harijan covers the problem providing absolution for Hindus. Also, changing the name did nothing to reduce social stigma because everyone knew that Harijan means untouchable. Finally, it entreats a feeling of paternalism. No matter how old a person was, they would be seen as CHILDREN. It is surprising a person the understands the importance of labels such as Gandhi would make such an oversight.
Even if one excluded the horrible rebranding of people’s social conditions, the group was ineffective. The Sangh believed that only persuasion should be used to get orthodox Hindus to move away from untouchability. Therefore the group funded separate facilities for Dalits in places they were not allowed access to public facilities. By promoting separate facilities, they added to Dalit’s stigma.
Ambedkar challenged Gandhi to use civil disobedience as he did to fight British Imperialism. The reason Gandhi would not use direct action against Hindu’s is 91% of the support for the Indian National Congress came from Hindus. A move against Hindus to support untouchable would be suicide. If Gandhi was not willing to risk his political future to help Dalits, he is no better than the orthodox Hindus that oppress Dalits. The only real difference is that Gandhi claims to be sympathetic to the Dalit cause.
There is a long discussion on the prohibition on Dalit temple entrance. Ambedkar explains how insulting it is to allow animals entrance into Hindu Temples, but not Dalits. The few instances in which Hindus abolished the prohibition involved Dalit populations large enough and educated enough to create a political backlash for Hindus. Ultimately, if a Dalit accepted Hinduism, he accepted his own inferiority. Hinduism must purge the caste system if it expects Dalits to keep the faith.
A Warning To Untouchables
In the last essay, Ambedkar warns Dalits to separate from mainstream Hindu society. Their focus should be on education to dispel the lies the elite tell about Dalit inferiority and increasing political power. Dalits should feel no shame in increasing political power when attempting to combat elite Hindus that currently are unopposed. Dalit’s political power is their ability to strike. Strategic striking can secure Dalit political power.
Many people will say that religion could cause a moral revival that will end all forms of injustice. Ambedkar explains how religion was never designed to bring peace between those of different cultures. It was designed to bring peace to those in the same culture. Even within a faith such as Christianity, there is still conflict between blacks and whites in America. Hinduism is even worse because it is fundamentally non-egalitarian.
Others say reason will bring about the end of oppression because oppression is inherently irrational. However, in practice, most will not change their beliefs or position if it means they lose the advantage. The elite want to maintain their hold on resources and the idea that they have more because they are unique. Being special could mean they are better at the competition of life, or they are genetically / spiritually superior.
It is also impossible to build allies with the privileged class. They will never be more than benevolent despots. Again they have a vested interest in material advantage. There is no real motivator for them to sacrifice for the downtrodden.
Building a class-based struggle is also not realistic. Even within the Proletariat, there is a wealth and privilege stratification. A poor Caste Hindu would never give up his retaliative advantage over a Dalit. A true class-based alliance is not feasible. The relatively privileged poor will always be reformers. The destitute class will be revolutionaries.
Ultimately, Dalits could only depend on political representation from themselves. That is why Dalits need separate settlements and a separate electorate.
November 4, 2019 at 5:43 pm
An excellent post. Well written!
April 22, 2020 at 4:59 am
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