Learning from Babasaheb: Harsh Mander

Guest post by HARSH MANDER

Among most  secular progressive people in India today there is the belief – indeed an article of faith – that India has been, through most of its long history, a diverse, pluralist and tolerant civilization – the land of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak, of Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi. It is a culture in which every major faith in the world found through the millennia the space and freedom to flourish and grow, where persecuted faiths have received refuge, where heterodox and sceptical traditions thrived alongside spiritual and mystical traditions, and where ordinary people live and instinctive respect for faith systems different from their own.

All of this is true, and this is why the rise of a narrow, monolithic and intolerant interpretations of Indian culture – what Romila Thapar describes as the right-wing Semitisation of Hinduism – in new India causes us deep disquiet. But what our analysis does not stress often or deeply enough is that all of India, both old and new, has been also built on the edifice of the monumental inequality and oppression of caste, and that this is equally the story of India, old and new. Increasingly therefore as the years pass, I am influenced – and challenged – more and more by Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. You cannot change India until you understand India, you cannot understand India until you understand caste, and you cannot understand caste until you read Ambedkar. For those who celebrate Babasaheb, from Mayawati to Arundhati Roy, the assumption appears to be that it is obligatory to pit him against Gandhi, to discredit all that Gandhi stood for so as to install Ambedkar to his due place in modern Indian history. It is as though Ambedkar can stand tall only if his lifelong political adversary Gandhi is toppled from his high pedestal. I do not agree. I feel that history is too complex and pluralist to be reduced to a simple ordering – and reordering – of heroes and villains. History is expansive enough to admit the role of the two vastly different men who most influenced the making of new India in the years of the anti-colonial struggle for freedom and the immediate years after Independence, Gandhi and Ambedkar.

From Gandhi, too, I have learned much, but foremost maybe is the importance of conformity between means and ends (and that no end however lofty justifies violent, unjust and untruthful means to achieve these), his idea of secularism as equal respect for all faiths, an alternate development economics ‘as if people matter’, non-violence, and the importance of struggling lifelong for greater ethical consistency between a person’s beliefs and the way she lives her life. From feminist philosophers, I have learnt that biology does not, and cannot be allowed to determine a person’s potential, rights, dignity and destiny, about interlocking systems of inequality, about assertion, nurturing, caring and solidarities.

Having said this, I find I agree with many of Babasaheb’s major critiques of Gandhi. He rightly rejects Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship, which undermines the imperative for redistributive policies and laws; ignores the injustice and oppression which underlies a great part of large wealth accumulation; and leaves the dispossessed at the mercy of the ‘goodwill’ of the wealthy instead of as oppressed persons receiving their just due.

He is correct in dismissing Gandhi’s glorification of ‘village republics’, which Babasaheb accurately describes as ‘cesspools’ of caste injustice and bigotry. He denies equally Gandhi’s defence of tradition, because tradition in India has always been implacably hostile to the rights and dignity of people of disadvantaged castes and women. He rejects acutely as a ‘myth’ the idea of a Hindu society or community. He suggests instead that it is a society devoid of a unifying principle, a conglomeration of an ‘amorphous’ group of people. People owe loyalty within it to their sub-caste, whose customs and purity have to be maintained through endogamy and restrictions on commensality; therefore he believes that the system automatically pits one sub-caste against another. He observes that the only time one sub-caste felt unified with another, or one caste with another, was during conflict with other communities. The gradation of castes, with greater rights given to higher castes also prevents the formation of a unified front against the caste system, as each caste ‘takes pride and consolation’ in being graded above certain other castes.

But Gandhi’s greatest failing was his vigorous defence of caste. He opposed untouchability and was an influential champion for the dignity of caste-based scavengers who cleaned human shit with their own hands. He took to cleaning his own toilets which was a radical and humanist act in the times in which he lived. However his monumental mistake – an error so unjust to millions of India’s oppressed castes that it has led to the rejection by many of India’s poorest people of his entire legacy – was in insisting that untouchability was an aberration of caste, and caste was in itself a benign social system for the division of labour.

I cannot understand how Gandhi could defend the idea of caste even if he artificially excised from it the idea of untouchability. How could he defend a system of ordered social hierarchy based on birth? And even more pertinently, how could he have posited the righteousness and justice of a system which traps a child into a profession because she or he was born into a family which belonged to a particular caste, and not by a child’s inclination and strengths.  Babasaheb insisted – and I believe accurately – that far from being an aberration of caste, the cruel system of untouchability was intrinsic to the caste system.  That caste was not a division of labour but a ‘division of labourers’, in which certain groups of people are trapped in devalued work, based on their parents’ social status. It does not allow mobility – therefore he viewed caste as a sort of ‘endogamous, enclosed class’, which further suppresses individual development by forcing people to work in occupations that they do not necessarily like or choose. In this respect, he thought that industrialization and capitalism would create conditions for Dalits to escape the stigma of caste, whereas Gandhi was opposed to modernity and industrialisation.

Further Babasaheb was convinced not only that untouchability was intrinsic to caste, but that caste was inextricable from the Hindu religion. Gandhi was a devout Hindu all his life and is believed to have died with Ram’s name on his lips. But Babasaheb declared in 1936, ‘I was born a Hindu and have suffered the consequences of untouchability. I will not die a Hindu’. He describes Hindu society with what Arundhati Roy aptly describes as a ‘chilling metaphor’: ‘as a multi-storied tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everyone has to die in the storey they were born into.’ This battle against the Hindu faith culminated in his conversion to Buddhism in 1956, along with about a million Dalits, a few months before his death.

Babasaheb, born into an indigent, low-caste Mahad family in an army cantonment Mhow, was able to acquire an education only because his father was a subaltern in the British Army. He studied law at Columbia University on a state scholarship, and returned first to join the Baroda administration but was wounded and angered by the open caste humiliations he endured in office, and instead joined as a professor at the Sydenham College in Bombay[i] around the time Gandhi returned to India to lead its freedom struggle. In 1924, he formed the Bahishkrut Hitkarni Sabha to promote education and socio-economic improvement among the most disadvantaged castes, as well as a forum to voice grievances[ii].

87 years ago, in 1927, he led a movement to assert the rights of traditionally ‘Untouchable’ castes, to draw water from public tanks and wells and to enter Hindu places of worship – known as the Mahad Satyagraha. In Mahad, more than a thousand people marched to the Chavandar Lake and drank water from the tank in the centre of the town. Worried that Babasaheb and his followers were planning to enter a Hindu temple,  a riot ensued. Caste Hindus later ‘purified’ the tank by performing prayers as they believed that untouchables polluted the tank by drinking its water.  They also filed a case against Babasaheb claiming that tank was a private property. On 25 December, Babasaheb publicly burnt the Manusmriti in protest. Years later, in December 1937, the Bombay High Court ruled that untouchables have the right to use water from the tank.

Decades later, in my many district postings and as the head of the department charged with Scheduled Caste Welfare in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, and my later research into the practice of untouchability, I found that in the majority of villages across large swathes of the country, dalits are still barred from access to common wells and temples. In a village in Sagar in Madhya Pradesh, dalit youth raised a demand that since the upper-caste enclaves of the village had many hand-pumps from which dalits were barred, at least one hand-pump should be drilled in the dalit hamlet. But the upper-caste villagers were outraged at their assertion and punished them with boycott and violence which ultimately brought them to their knees. In Bilaspur, a dalit man with great devotion touched a Hanuman statue under a tree in gratitude that his life was saved, and was brutally attacked and exiled from his village. I wrote both their stories in Unheard Voices and Shyam Benegal made these into a film Samar. But these stories are far from unusual. They continue to be so commonplace in rural India that they are for many unremarkable. Babasaheb’s proud words during the Mahad satyagrah in 1927 still ring in my ears:

‘It is not as if drinking the water of Chavadar Lake will make us immortal. We have survived long enough all these days without drinking it. We are not going to the Chavadar Lake merely to drink its water. We are going to the Lake to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality…’

I recall also L.S Rokade’s fierce lament about the injustice of unequal birth:

Mother, you used to tell me

when I was born

your labour was very long.

The reason for your long labour;

I, still in your womb, was wondering

Do I want to be born-

Do I want to be born at all

in this land?

Where all paths raced horizonwards

but to me barred…

Mother, this is your land

flowing with water

Rivers break their banks

Lakes brim over

And you, one of the human race

must shed blood

struggle and strike

for a palmful of water…

 My other debt to Babasaheb is for leading the writing of India’s constitution, one of the finest documents to illuminate just governance in the world. He negotiated painfully and resolutely a document which no doubt reflected political compromise; but in its substantive guarantees and even more in its Directive Principles it lays out the blueprint of a just and equal state and society.

He was acutely conscious right up to his death that political equality as offered by India’s republican constitution did not in itself guarantee social and economic equality, for which a much longer struggle would have to be waged. His speech in an All-India Radio broadcast on October 03, 1954 remain prophetic today: ‘Indians today are governed by two different ideologies. Their political ideal set out in the preamble to the Indian Constitution affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity. Their social ideal embodied in their religion, denies them.’

He reminds us pertinently that the Constitution establishes a higher morality than all our respective faiths, prejudices and beliefs, and this higher morality is binding on us all even if it conflicts with our personal beliefs. Decades later, when passing their historic judgment which wrote down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (that criminalises homosexuality), Justice AP Shah and Murlidhar distinguished between public and constitutional morality. They laid down that when these are at odds or in conflict, the only morality which passes the test of compelling state interest is constitutional morality.

And Babasaheb places as much stress on fraternity as he does on liberty and equality. Fraternity, he says, is nothing other than ‘fellow feeling’ and is an essential element of a just society. It is the ‘disposition of an individual’ to treat others ‘as the object of reference and love’, and the ‘desire to be in unity with fellow beings’. He also declares that ‘I and my neighbours are all brothers…’ He should surely have added ‘… and sisters’.  His greatest conviction – which recognises that the foundation of all contemporary liberal Indian ideas of secularism, pluralism, social equality is ultimately social solidarity, an idea which indeed is the burden of this book – is contained in his incandescent words, that only ‘collective liberty is true liberty’.


[i] Omvedt, G. 2011. “Hinduism as counter-revolution: B.R. Ambedkar” in Understanding Caste. New Delhi. Orient Blackswan 2011. Pp 47-48

[ii] http://www.ncdhr.org.in/ncdhr/general-info-misc-pages/dr-ambedkar

16 thoughts on “Learning from Babasaheb: Harsh Mander”

  1. Very nice article. However it does not quite reflect the truth about Mahatma Gandhi whose views on caste changed over the years due to the influence of Ambedkar and Gora. The paper “CHANGES IN MAHATMA GANDHI’S VIEWS ON CASTE AND INTERMARRIAGE”
    by Mark Lindley contains the following exchange between Gandi\hi and Gora:

    Then, in response to the following remarks in a letter
    from Gora:
    [Citation 50] 1946, Gora: Side by side with the mixing up [of people born into different castes], an attempt also might be
    made to discourage the use of labels of caste and creed which raise imaginary barriers between man and man. Not only should
    the practice of Untouchability go, but the Harijan should not be allowed to continue a Harijan…. Similarly the Hindu and
    Moslem differences might be solved by discarding the labels. Such an attempt will no longer keep the form of communal harmony,
    but it would lead to the growth of one humanity…. Though a powerful personality like Gandhiji might harmonize communities
    for a while, when the personal influence weakened, the communities would clash again. So a permanent solution
    of communal differences is the growth of [the] one-humanity outlook rather than communal harmony.67
    Gandhi replied:
    [Citation 51] 1946: Though there is a resemblance between your thought and practice and mine superficially, I must own that
    yours is far superior to mine.

  2. Thanks to Harsh Mander for such an elaborate exposition of the issues on which Gandhiji and Dr Ambedkar held divergent views with special reference to the problem of Casteism or Untouchability. It is a timely warning as resurgent Hindutva ideologues are trying to put forward Manu Smriti as natural code for Hindus which only denigrates Dalits.

  3. I study in Presidency Univ, which has a left intellectual tradition, but it is surprising that we really do not have an Ambedkarite discourse here. I may be so bold as to extend the analogy to Jadavpur as well.

    I do not know if I am mistaken, has the the Left discourse in West Bengal already ‘dealt’ and ‘debated’ with Ambedkarite discourses, and has the Left discourse already ‘synthesized’ the Dalit movement.

    The dominant Left party in West Bengal has been infamous for playing communal at times, only recently a photo on facebook had gone viral, with a few CPIM leaders holding a hindu scarf that had sickle and stars.

    I think it is important to follow the debate between RoundTableIndia and Ms. Roy and the responses from non-dalit intellectuals. In any case, Ambedkar must be given a new life, in the form of documentaries, reading circles, and seminars..

  4. Reblogged this on Rebelle and commented:
    The foundation of all contemporary liberal Indian ideas of secularism, pluralism, social equality is ultimately social solidarity.

  5. This is a brilliant article. Great job.

    One downside to Ambedkar’s sudden rise in popularity since the 1980s is that, tragically, people do not read his best works. His “Riddles in Hinduism” was released in the 80s, and by then, his understanding of the textual history of Hindu documents was hopelessly outdated.

    Noone talks, however, about how he discovered the idea of Sanskritization before M.N. Srinivas, or his assertion that the arya/dasa-dasyu divide was not racial, which was made long before Western scholarship realized it.

  6. Indian culture of toterance always impressed me, the religiously follow the principle of co-existence, although I had to run away from Jamshedpur during 64 communal riot.

  7. Anil Nuriya has written about the changes in Gandhi’s attitudes towards caste. Harsh Mander has not bothered to check facts before writing this article. Perhaps today it is fashionable to write like this.

  8. Always great to read Harsh Mander. I am reading Annihilation of Caste these days and it’s such an eye opener.

  9. I am always fascinated by responses’ such as one by tu. The minute someone mentions Gandhi’s complete (and maybe also, I daresay, deliberate) misunderstanding of caste in India. The lame excuse of Gandhi’s changing attitude to caste is a permanent feature on this question. I am fascinated also because the very response belies itself. Indeed, a careful reading (which means ‘thoroughly critical reading’) of Gandhi over a period of time tells us that his understanding didn’t improve much. Of course, later in his life, he called for all sorts of means such as blessing only inter-caste marriages only, etc. But he never let go of his moral high-handedness in dealing with the caste question. I wonder how a political visionary like Gandhi never understood the political aspirations of the Untouchables.

  10. Isn’t it interesting that even in France,the progenitor of equality and fraternity, the children of janitors tend to be janitors, the children of doctors and lawyers tend to be doctors and lawyers?
    And America, the global democracy police, also largely tends to repeat these patterns, middle class aspirations eluding black children who mostly dream of being rap stars or basketball players? Of course there are exceptions, just like in India which saw slave-turned-kings and priest-turned-warrior and other permutations.
    Interesting that in most of Europe and America (north AND south) wealth and privilege is connected to skin colour? And this without Manu Smriti.

    Saying that untouchability is built in the very idea of caste is like saying purges are built into the very idea of communism or that dowry murders are built in to the very idea of marriage.

    Dear Leftists,
    Agreed the caste system is a horrible horrible idea as well as practise and should never be condoned in the name of religion. But please don’t get carried away- like it or not, the caste system exists and will exist until human beings learn/decide to give up their urge to dominate their fellows. Male-female, black-white, rich-poor,Dalit -Brahmin ….

  11. I am sorry but this article continues in the Gandhian tradition of patronization and status quo-ism. The author seems to use the tone of pity when talking about Dalits. Ambedkar and the Ambedkarite Dalits do not care for your pity and sympathy, Mr. Nikam. That train left back in the seventies when the Dalit Panthers shook up the establishment and expelled the horrible term, ‘Harijan’ from out national discourse. Round Table India is a far better website if anyone wants to learn more about the evolving Dalit epistemology and critiques of Indian society. This brilliant new paradigm is taking shape fabulously, and I have no doubt that in a few years, it is going to transform the landscape of the Indian academic, famous for its Brahminical bourgeois tendencies. This article (http://kindlemag.in/beef-babasaheb-bhadrolok/) written by a Dalit student of Jadavpur University Women’s Studies is a clarion call for precisely that kind of academic revolution.

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