Below is a re-post from Land of Gazillion Adoptees as promised.
I’m also in the midst of re-designing this blog.
One of the more surprising revelations after living in India in 2011, was learning that the Dalits, formerly the “untouchables,” are no fans of Mahatma Gandhi. Coming from the United States and Western society in general, the Mahatma is held up as a paragon of non-violence and civil disobedience. I would guess that most in the US consider his life and his work as one of the most selfless, incredibly beautiful and inspiring of the modern world. The belief is less in India.
Some may remember that Gandhi was killed by a radical Hindu named Nathuram Godse. An Indian was so incensed by Gandhi’s beliefs that he shot him in cold blood on January 30, 1948. I think the tendency of Western society is to dismiss that assassin as a deranged lunatic, who believed something that few Indians did. We tell ourselves that he belonged to a fringe ideology which the vast majority of India did not espouse. I certainly thought that before going to India.
But that view is partially incorrect. Plenty of Indians despised Gandhi and blamed him for the partition of India and Pakistan’s creation in 1947. He was, they said, responsible for giving up part of India to the Muslims. As much as we deify him in the West, a three-hour viewing of the film “Gandhi” reveals the intricacies of his life, ministry and beliefs. He was and is not nearly as revered by some Indians as he is here.
Given this new take on Gandhi’s life, I would have expected the Dalits to be one group which did nearly worship him. After all, he made a number of public pronouncements about their plight, started an NGO to help them, and even gave them the nickname the “harijan,” or children of God. But again, I was mistaken. Some Dalits despise Gandhi and refute what they consider his demeaning and infantile moniker for them: “children of God.” They instead put their allegiance and their hope in the words of a different man, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
Indian historians consider Dr. Ambedkar one of the county’s greatest minds. An intellectual beyond compare and a charismatic leader, Dr. Ambedkar was one of the main architects of the Indian Constitution. But delving into Dr. Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s views on untouchability reveals an interesting ideological split.
Gandhi believed that the Hindu practice of untouchability would be lessened and eventually erased from Indian society as it become more modern and educated. Dr. Ambedkar, on the other hand, believed Hinduism was the problem and that no matter how educated or forward thinking Indian society became, untouchability would always exist. He advocated for the untouchable community to leave Hinduism, because technically caste only exists in Hinduism. Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism.
While Gandhi essentially believed that truth and his words could convince Hindu elite that untouchability was wrong, Dr. Ambedkar saw his endeavor as an illusion. Never, he argued, would Hindu elites and leaders give up the practice of untouchability because it was an integral part of their Hindu belief. Dr. Ambedkar maintained that Hinduism was based on inequality by birth and nothing else. Dr. Ambedkar asserted that no matter how educated Hindus became, how modern or Westernized they acted, because Hinduism’s social hierarchy was based not on merit, but birth alone, the system would remain forever unchanged.
Dr. Ambedkar’s approach was a novel one in that he tried to create a political response to untouchable humiliation throughout history and yet at the same time present them and their plight as separate from the system which caused their discrimination. He accomplished this by focusing on the evils visited upon the depressed classes in a social rather than political context. They suffered from destitution, poverty and illiteracy he argued, because they were minorities, but not because they were untouchables.
One of the ways he advocated to diminish the untouchables’ political exclusion was to give the depressed class two votes in elections. One vote would be for the depressed class candidates and the other for the general Hindu electorate. The idea was a non-starter for Gandhi, who showed his disapproval by refusing to attend the conference where Dr. Ambedkar’s contentious idea was presented. Gandhi believed that giving the depressed classes a separate system for voting would fragment the entire Hindu order and break apart Indian society in the process.
Eventually Dr. Ambedkar dropped the idea, instead focusing on the creation of the “Poona Pact.” The Pact put aside government money for education of the depressed classes along with creating a system of affirmative action in all sectors of Indian society which is still in effect today.
Until he died, Gandhi remained convinced that Hindus themselves would realize the wickedness of their system and reform it from within. Gandhi believed the most effective path of least resistance to caste destruction would be for reformers to begin the practice with themselves. He believed transformation would not arise from demonizing the Hindu orthodox. Instead, he called upon the so-called higher classes to acknowledge their feelings of superiority first and then try to right the situation for the depressed classes.
As an Indian adoptee, the curse of untouchability is an aspect of my birth culture that I find shameful. Unfortunately for Indian society in the 21st century, Dr. Ambedkar’s beliefs rang truer than the Mahatma’s. I wish that I could believe that Gandhi’s hope for Hindu reform was possible, but at this stage in India’s development he seems to have missed the mark.
Living in India allowed me to see this juxtaposition of views between Gandhi and Ambedkar in my daily interaction with Dalit activists. It was yet another consequence of my ability to spend time in the land of my birth and examine its many complexities.