How far is the Mahatma relevant today to the Dalits’ struggle for equality and justice?The short answer is, not much.
There’s been much celebration, and some consternation, over the recent canonisation of Mother Teresa. By and large, we are happy that a fellow Indian received a recognition that’s so deserving and so rare. But, with one stroke, the Vatican has reduced our Mother to being a Catholic.
As Mother, she was near to us, capable of emulation but also open to scrutiny. As a Saint, she is now far removed from us and her acts of charity as the Mother no longer appears human. Even though she can now grant us our prayers, we cannot criticise her; for doing so would be a sacrilege.
Such are our troubles with saints.
While Teresa obtained sainthood posthumously, Mahatma Gandhi knew he was a saint by the time he entered the freedom movement in 1915 (for Wikipedia, “mahatma” is similar in usage to “saint”). This fact had had implications for India’s future. His moral certitude—a saintly quality, by the way—had been more a hurdle to bringing about reconciliation between contending viewpoints and warring groups.
Gandhi’s differences with Dr B.R. Ambedkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, over caste and communal cleavages, were played out in public for decades. Perceptive observers like Dhananjay Keer recorded how the holier-than-thou attitude of “Gandhi the mystic” was a part of the problem.
Gandhi’s views on caste, untouchability and his legendary quarrels with Ambedkar are well-known. Many scholarly works have been produced on the subject. A more pertinent point to explore is how far Gandhi is now relevant to the Dalits’ struggle for equality and justice. The short answer is, not much.
Does one, then, reject Gandhi lock, stock and barrel? No.
It is one thing to conclude that Gandhi has nothing to offer to the future of Dalits and it is quite another to allege that he didn’t do anything to improve their condition. Does one’s disbelief in the ability of St Teresa to comfort the destitute of Calcutta amount to one’s dismissal of Mother Teresa’s service for decades? No.
It is the contention of this comment here that Gandhi and Gandhism offer ideologies and policy prescriptions that are not conducive to the welfare of Dalits. One, Gandhi’s stand on caste and untouchability need to be placed in its historical context, not as an absolute moral position. Two, we must situate Dalits in his worldview to examine if they can enjoy a place of dignity and equality.
Both during his South Africa days and after he moved to India, Gandhi positioned himself as the spokesman of Indians, whatever “Indians” meant at that time. As his involvement in the freedom struggle increased, his position graduated from merely seeking better conditions for Indians under British rule to demanding complete independence.
Throughout, Gandhi assumed that Indians were one people and he was their sole leader. His sense of oneness of Indians may have been genuine, but that oneness never existed. Nor does it exist now, either. When groups such as Muslims and Depressed Classes (the current Dalits) stood up to assert their uniqueness, Gandhi and other “national” leaders dismissed them as pawns in the hands of the British to divide Indians.
Gandhi and his followers regarded caste as essentially benign, though some groups like Dalits were at the sharp end of the stick. They understood caste as social stratification in an Indian avatar. Therefore, the nationalist discourse sought to de-legitimise caste and communal differences and believed that whatever grievances remained could be sorted out once India gained independence from British rule. So, in this narrative, the British rule was the problem and there was no problem that an independent India could not solve.
By the early 1930s, when Ambedkar emerged as the spokesman of Dalits and the fact was recognised by the British, Gandhi and the Congress had no option but to deal with him. That the British had their own calculations in recognising societal cleavages is beside the point. The logic of one people under one leader caused many avoidable controversies and ego clashes but it failed to prevail.The mindset seemed to be that if the demand for justice did not exist, the problem of injustice would disappear!
This is the context in which the Dalit Question became a contingency and a distraction from the onerous task of fighting British rule.
In 1931, Gandhi went to the Second Round Table Conference as one of a few dozen Indian leaders, reflecting India’s diversity. Though he opposed special safeguards and separate electorates (Communal Award) for Muslims and Dalits, the case of the latter was unacceptable to him, prompting him even to resort to a fast unto death. He believed that separate electorates would do more harm to the Dalits.
The question the Dalits raised then, and do so even now, is: how come the Mahatma preferred death to granting some rights to the community, however imperfect those rights might be? How come the Mahatma never sought to use his brahmastra (fast unto death) in defence of Dalits?
A bit of a chronology may be in order here. It was in the wake of the controversy over the Communal Award and the subsequent compromise (the Poona Pact) that Gandhi founded the Harijan Sevak Sangh in 1932. The following year, he relaunched his journal Young India as Harijan. These acts testify to the existence of a problem that he had rejected in the first place.
The Dalits’ attitude to Gandhi varies from disappointment to resentment and all the way to outright rejection. Disappointment that he could have done more for their cause but didn’t. Resentment that he was somehow complicit in the ceaseless and brutal vilification of Ambedkar. It is not unusual for some Dalits to even treat him as an enemy. It is fair to assert that most Dalits are now indifferent to Gandhi.
If the Dalits could find a Gandhian way to their emancipation, they would have set aside Gandhi’s real or perceived omissions and commissions. Alas! His worldview and his prescriptions for India are out of sync with modern times.
Consider, for example, the case of globalisation, liberalisation and urbanisation which are global phenomena that are reshaping the socio-economic landscape of every country. Of the three forces, urbanisation not only precedes the other two but is a precondition for them to succeed. Rural capitalism is an oxymoron. Is there a Gandhian way to urbanisation?
Dalits’ attraction to these forces is akin to their considerable enthusiasm for colonialism, whose unintended consequence was the marginalisation of the existing elite—their oppressors. Interestingly, mainstream society’s opposition to these forces stems from the fact that all three are disruptive to social stability that is so valued. However, for Dalits, that social stability amounts to the perpetuation of their subordination.
Ironically, Gandhi’s view that untouchability is a caste Hindu problem alone since it is a sin they commit, is not only true but places the onus on caste Hindus to practise his methods to wash off their sin. However, one doesn’t hear much on this front. Though Gandhi’s stand deprives the Dalits of agency (in the sense that they are seen as mere victims of others’ sins and hence incapable of helping themselves), it happily leaves them to their own devices.
Since Ambedkar disapproved of satyagraha or civil disobedience as the grammar of anarchy, Dalits cannot even embrace Gandhian methods for their instrumental value.
Gandhi’s worldview, rooted in tradition and village republics, goes counter to the aspirations of Dalits. And satyagraha is antithetical to rule-based democratic governance. Thus, for Dalits, Gandhi doesn’t stir memories of empathy or hopes of a better future. While commenting on Karl Marx, John Kenneth Galbraith made the point that it’s enough for an economist to be right for his own time. The same is true of philosophers and political leaders, however revered they may be.
Gandhi’s position as a Mahatma and the Father of the Nation is secure because of his stupendous leadership in achieving India’s independence through peaceful means. That is no mean accomplishment and has few parallels in history. The universal adulation he so richly deserves comes from his commitment to peace and truth at any cost. For him, these two are moral absolutes. Gandhi’s sainthood, like the Mother’s, ought to be treated as the recognition of services rendered, but not his relevance into infinity, especially for Dalits.
The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.