Abolition Vs Absolution: Understanding The Gandhi-Ambedkar Clash - Part 1

Abolition Vs Absolution: Understanding The Gandhi-Ambedkar Clash - Part 1

by Dr. Vivek Prahladan - Sunday, October 23, 2016 03:42 PM IST
Abolition Vs Absolution: Understanding The Gandhi-Ambedkar Clash - Part 1B R Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi
  • The negotiations of September 1932 was an epic event which saw Gandhi and Ambedkar coming face to face with each other and engaging in a heart-to-heart dialogue for the first and the last time.

The views of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar on the question of the 1932 Poona Pact must be seen in the context of the political sociality of emerging castes along with the emerging constitutional discourse. It asks the question: Was Gandhi prompted into this decision to fast on the issue of caste perhaps due to the way he was correlating the linkages between caste as a political construct and nationalism as a movement?

Did the emergence of caste as an expression of political intent indicate the dangers of such a discourse if it were to remain outside the purview of nationalism? Did Gandhi’s decision to fast establish historical sediment of entanglement between caste and nationalism, wherein Gandhian nationalism worked towards blunting caste as an oppositional category to nationalism?

Did Ambedkar in agreeing to the negotiations and having meetings with Gandhi indicate that he was willing to explore a possibility of entanglement of caste with Gandhian nationalism? The contest between the words ‘Dalit’ and ‘Harijan’ embody this entanglement of discontent between caste and Gandhian nationalism.

Indian academic and author Ananya Vajpeyi writes that “the Gandhian ‘Harijan’ (‘Child of God’) interpreted low caste subjectivity within a political theology of redemption, purification and salvation”. Susan Bayly, professor of historical anthropology at Cambridge University, writes that the term ‘Dalit’ carries with it “connotations of modernity and militant class struggle rather than pious self-effacement”.

“Gandhian nationalism was larger than the struggle for independence”, writes William Roger Louis in a foreword to Simone Panter-Brick’s Gandhi and Nationalism: The Path to Indian Independence. Simone uses the term ‘Gandhianity’ to explain this larger philosophical sediment which was much more substantial than a specific ideology. According to Simone, “Gandhianity creates the proper environment to studying Gandhi and nationalism in spite of the fact that Gandhi was not a theorist but a man of action.”

Was Gandhi’s fast an attempt to seek an alignment between caste and the national movement by appropriating the desire of caste to present itself as a political argument in the political culture of popular politics and thereby bring it within what David Hardiman calls “an incorporative nationalism”?

Gandhi’s efforts at temple entry for Dalits in the following year, 1933, must be seen in the context of this Gandhian incorporative nationalism. Nehruvian nationalism did not offer any entanglements to caste as a political argument. American academic administrator Nicholas Dirks lends some support to this view, saying “Nehru did not like the caste system anymore than he admired the…spiritual foundations of Indian civilisation, but even he felt ambivalent about it”.

Historiography has been focused on the hagiography of the events of 1932 without correlations with the emerging political culture of caste and the parallel force of Gandhian nationalism. The ideas of anger and anguish have captured the narrative imagination, and the ideational binary between Ambedkar and Gandhi substitutes also for the binary between caste and nationalism. Gandhi considered the independent political argument of caste outside the influence of nationalism and sought to ring it within the ethical argument of absolution.

French political scientist Christopher Jaffrelot writes that Gandhi's fast “forced Ambedkar to relinquish his demand for separate electorates and to sign the Poona Pact.” The telos of this argument is continued with Dirks who writes, “Ambedkar was unable to withstand public pressure to defer to the force of Gandhi's fast.”

Similarly, Dhananjay Keer, who has written biographies of both Gandhi and Ambedkar, evokes the same sentiment of defeat and conquest. “So crushing and effective was the victory of Gandhi that he deprived Ambedkar of all the life-saving weapons and made him a powerless man as did Indra in the case of Karna.”

Legal scholar Upendra Baxi writes, “In 1932, Gandhi gambled on Ambedkar's self-restraint and won.” Indian politician and social reformer Kanshi Ram conceptualised time and caste through the idea of an inaugural ‘Chamcha age’. The idea of political power had not yet entered Ambedkar’s political and intellectual pursuits by 1932. Caste as an unreduced expression of political intent aimed at capturing power started with Kanshi Ram, who said “Political power is the master key with which you can open each and every lock”.

He has been quoted on the Bahujan Samaj Party website as saying:

Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted to take the downtrodden people from Dark Age to bright age. But Gandhi intervened in this process of change. Hence we entered into a different age then onwards, which I have named as the age of Chamchas – the Chamcha Age – the era of stooges.

There was also the question of legacy in historiographic formulations of the events of 1932.

The hysteria surrounding the legacies of Gandhi and Ambedkar coincides with the history of caste relations in India. The negotiations of September 1932 was an epic event which saw Gandhi and Ambedkar coming face to face and having a heart-to-heart dialogue with each other for the first and the last time.

The Fast

Consider Gandhi’s fast from 23 September 1932 onwards. It was a Friday morning and on this day was to be discussed what were Ambedkar's ‘minimum irreducible demands’. In other words, once Sapru’s scheme had been accepted by Gandhi, Ambedkar, in turn, was ready to proceed with the contentious negotiations surrounding numbers. As we shall see in the unfolding of the negotiations, there was nothing ‘minimum’ about Ambedkar's terms. In fact, Ambedkar would consistently put forward maximum numbers, after which the negotiators at the table would attempt to bring down his numbers to a more ‘reasonable’ level.

Negotiations commenced at Madan Mohan Malaviya’s residence. Ambedkar, Srinivasan, M C Rajah, T B Sapru, G D Birla, M R Jayakar and C Rajagopalachari were seated around a hexagonal marble table. The panel system as suggested by Gandhi, to be applicable to all seats and not just 71, was agreed upon without exception because Gandhi had made it clear the day earlier to the deputation that he would either have it for all seats or none at all.

The next question to be decided upon was the number of seats to be reserved for the depressed classes. The Prime Minister's Communal Award gave the depressed classes 71 seats. When asked for his opinion, Ambedkar put forward a figure of 197. This was thought to be beyond the acceptable upper limit. A V Thakkar, also known affectionately to his colleagues as Thakkar Bapa, and Sjt Bakhle were unanimously entrusted with the calculations as they were the most thorough with issues of statistics and census. Rajagopalachari said, “Thakkar Bapa made a meticulous examination of population figures”, “province by province.” Thakkar and Sjt Bakhle had been working on the statistics for the last few days. These two number-crunchers, along with Ambedkar, first resolved this matter among themselves and then it was put to the deputation for discussion.

Ambedkar, Thakkar and Sjt Bakhle went into Malaviya's study. The rest of the contingent broke up into groups and discussed the many propositions at hand. After about couple of hours, the three gentlemen came out of Malaviya’s study and joined the rest of the contingent once again. Thakkar announced that at present they had settled provisionally for the figure of 160. The principles based on which the numbers had been arrived at were agreed upon by all. The number was purely provisional at this stage.

Next came the matter of the number of candidates to be part of the panel in the primary elections. Solanki pointed out that in Ambedkar's draft of 20 September, it was only two. Sapru’s scheme had provided for three. Gandhi, however, in his conversation with Ambedkar had asked for it to be five. It was resolved to average out the two figures, i.e., three as suggested by Sapru’s scheme and five as wanted by Gandhi. Finally, Ambedkar accepted the figure of four for the panel system in the primary elections.

The next issue for consideration was what was clearly outside the scope of the Communal Award of the Prime Minister, yet found its way on to the negotiating agenda due to insistence upon the same by Ambedkar in his draft proposal, i.e., representation in the central legislature. This development disturbed many as according to them, these negotiations were for the singular task of overcoming separate electorates, and so it ought not to involve itself in additional tasks. Rajagopalachari argued that this would delay the entire process and that it may be advisable to leave this for a later and more appropriate occasion.

However, here Ambedkar said, “I am afraid that I insist nothing be left unresolved, thus, I am keen on deciding the matter once and for all.” This provision was insisted upon by Ambedkar who wanted nothing left to possible future misinterpretation. Why? Ambedkar's principal objection to the Communal Award was that “special depressed class constituencies shall come to an end after 20 years if they have not been previously abolished” and this proviso did not require the consent of the depressed classes, unlike the separate electorates of the Muslims. In regard to this, i.e., proviso 9 of the Communal Award, Ambedkar wrote on 21 August 1932 to Secretary of State Samuel Hoare, “I am unable to see my way to make the depressed classes accept the Award with this proviso.”

Eventually, the contingent came to the agreement that 18 per cent of the seats allotted to the general electorate be reserved for the depressed classes in the central legislature.

Pyarelal recounts, “It was already 4 pm in the afternoon; the redoubtable Doctor, strongly supported by his colleagues, fought every inch of ground.”

The strong concessions that had been secured by Ambedkar owed less to the generosity of the leaders opposing separate electorates and more to Ambedkar's strategy of maximum ‘extraction’. (Remember when Ambedkar in his first conversation with Gandhi said, “I want my compensation?”). Here lies the importance, once again, of the ingenuity of Ambedkar’s besiegement of the conference from the outset followed by the critical concession of Gandhi’s assent to the principle of reservation of seats even before he had met with Ambedkar. Further, Ambedkar was the central figure in the conversations with Gandhi. Gandhi's concession with respect to reservation of seats, accommodating five seats in the panel and extending the primary election to all seats (Sapru’s scheme provided for primary election to 71 seats) meant that the gravity of Gandhi's pressure was on caste Hindus more so than on anyone else. The primary election was but a softer form of separate electorates.

This gave Ambedkar the necessary traction “to drive a hard bargain” upon the leaders of the 'Bombay Conference', among whom were a healthy counting of important orthodox Hindu leaders, all desiring joint electorates that would quench Gandhi's vow. Gandhi's acceptance of reservation of seats had, on 20 September, led to B S Moonje refusing to participate further in the Bombay Conference, who chose to leave for Delhi instead. Moonje wrote in his diary that “those who had kept their reason intact could see that Mahatmaji had climbed down to save his life though they would not like to say so openly.”

Finally, the issue of referendum, i.e., the time frame and mechanism for ceasing or extending reservation as the case may be. Ambedkar's scheme had put forward 25 years in total, wherein primary elections would end without any recourse to change after 10 years and an additional 15 years for a referendum of depressed classes on reserved seats. This added up to a long gestation period of 25 years in all. This was a very strong demand keeping in mind that Gandhi did not provide for referendum at all and the cut-off period for separate electorates was 20 years. Besides, Ambedkar had already secured reserved seats in the central assembly, which again did not form part of the Communal Award in so far as it concerned the depressed classes. Ambedkar’s reasoning was that “Gandhiji had accepted his claim and that the caste Hindu leaders should now agree to it.” Pyarelal recounted that “this changed the position. He was right.”

This was an unprecedented instance of Ambedkar invoking Gandhi for his own proposal. This was the first, though not the last time, that Ambedkar was to invoke Gandhi. This was followed up by another one in 1933, when Ambedkar defended the Poona Pact in the face of growing caste Hindu opposition to the Pact in Bengal. On that occasion, Ambedkar, strongly against any reopening of the Poona Pact, said that “Mahatma Gandhi himself was against reconsideration of the Poona Pact.”

After “nine hours’ discussion, the leaders of the Conference broke up and all the leaders jumped into waiting motor cars and dashed off to Yerwada jail.” The meeting with Gandhi had been scheduled for 4 pm, but the negotiations could only conclude, though inconclusively, by 9 pm. However, the deputation was still unable to provide Gandhi with a clear drafted text. But the meeting had to proceed because as things stood, the agreement had turned out to be a whole series of agreements and this meant that if there was disagreement over any one of the points, the whole compromise could collapse.

The second encounter between Gandhi and Ambedkar, Yerwada Prison, 9 pm

Ambedkar: “Mahatmaji, you must come to our rescue. Some of these friends are opposing our demand for a referendum at the end of the stated period.”

Gandhi: “On the principle of referendum I am with you, I am not against the referendum but would welcome it.”

Ambedkar: “That makes us glad, Mahatmaji.”

Gandhi: “I like the idea of putting the mettle of caste Hindus on trial. But the referendum should be taken immediately, say in one year, and if that was unsuitable, then in five years. If once I could infect you with my terrible sincerity, I say put us on our honour.”

There was an interjection, and the conversation was immediately brought to a stop. The talk thus remained inconclusive.

By now, 24 September 1932, the Yerwada Central Prison was virtually doubling as a Post and Telegraph office. The prison had begun to receive correspondence which included, in addition to the pre-existing flow of sensitive government correspondence to and from Gandhi, from Gandhi's well-wishers from all around the country and the world. The jail’s post and telegraph operations had come to rival those of the city's biggest post offices.

D D Gilder, also Secretary of the Temperance Association, was the doctor in charge of examining Gandhi. He was assisted by a group of jail medical officers. On this day, Gandhi's health report read – a good heart rate, blood pressure at 188 mm (systolic) and 100 mm (diastolic). This event transcended above and beyond a ‘national’ one and became an international phenomenon due to Gandhi's newly gained international status after his visit to London for the Round Table Conference and the accompanying whirlwind tour of Europe.

A foreign newspaper read, at Yerwada “sits the little spectacled saint of India's millions whose breath is important to Bombay, London and New Delhi.”

Saturday morning, 24 September 1932, at Malaviya’s residence

The issue of referendum was brought to the table once again. Ambedkar said, “Gandhiji, from what I could gather from the discussion with him yesterday evening, supports our claim.” Ambedkar was, once again, invoking Gandhi. But this time the negotiators were not convinced with Ambedkar's claim. So there was another stalemate in the negotiations. “Nobody is ready to agree to the original demand Rajagopalachari argued that the referendum might be taken at the end of the fifth year.”

Matters came to a stalemate again on the issue of referendum. Rajagopalachari suggested that a deputation of Ambedkar, Srinivasan, Solanki, Sapru and himself leave for Yerwada and ascertain Gandhi’s opinion, which could not be completed satisfactorily the day before. Thus, all four of them jumped into a car and rushed to Yerwada to put the all-important issue of the timing of this referendum, i.e., the cut-off time after which the safeguards (primary and secondary election, reservation of seats, etc.) of the Poona Pact were to lapse, in front of Gandhi.

Third and final encounter between Gandhi and Ambedkar, Yerwada Prison

Gandhi: “Now tell me what you want. Don't you want a heart unity between untouchables and caste Hindus? I want to live, if only to establish that unity. We promise you that this is the minimum number of seats that you should get. That will be the test of our good faith. If they are not returned automatically, you have a referendum and immediately we make the separation so far as the Hindu part is concerned. My proposal is infinitely superior to that of a referendum at the end of five or 10 years. Let me have one year of grace. Let me work. You have got me as your hostage.”

Ambedkar: “Mahatma, men are not immortal.”

Gandhi: “I know!”

Ambedkar: “So, is there any guarantee that you will live for one year and be able to work? If we were sure you had the necessary span of life to upturn the whole of the Hindu social fabric, then possibly you might bring about the results you expect. That is one thing. Then the generosity and sympathy that is bubbling forth right now may soon subside. We cannot build on a psychology developed in a crisis. We are living a sort of habitual life, it cannot be all of a sudden converted into a rational life.”

Gandhi: “Now you need not develop your argument. As a judge, I declare that you have floored me. I see why you choose the more cautious remedy. Let us come to the next point. Why do you want 10 years?”

Ambedkar: “Ten years should be required to stabilise opinion. And Mahatmaji, you should make a concession to our prejudices. Neither the referendum nor the period is a direct issue in the vow.”

Gandhi: “The direct issue is there. What is the substitute? It should be infinitely superior to joint electorates. I assure you five years is the maximum period. You will not want me to swerve from what I consider the truth. You surely cannot say that 10 years is a matter of conscience to you whereas I count it as a matter of conscience. In fact, your insistence of 10 years would make me doubt your honesty. There you are. Five years or my life. Tell your followers that is what Gandhi says and plead my case before them, and if they do not accept this from you surely they do not deserve to be called your followers. My life is in your pocket. I may be a despicable creature, but when the truth speaks through me I am invincible. You have a perfect right to demand cent percent security by statutory safeguards, but from my fiery bed, I beg of you not to insist upon that right. I am here today to ask for a reprieve for my caste Hindu brethren.”

The deputation left Yerwada and got back to Malaviya’s residence. This was the critical moment in the negotiations. The issue of referendum had ignited a firestorm of a disagreement, an issue which was unforeseen by all negotiators. The momentum of agreement that had been built up over the last few days was routed in a single sitting of Gandhi and Ambedkar. Rajagopalachari recollected that “Ambedkar returned dissatisfied. He was adamant about 10 years. It appeared as if the whole thing would break down on this point.” But the reasons are not so hard to surmise. Ambedkar's single most significant critique of the Communal Award, in his letter to Samuel Hoare, was his concern regarding the ‘timeline’ of special safeguards and their lapse. Ambedkar wrote, “What has come as a shock to me is limiting the special constituencies for a period of 20 years.” For Gandhi, the period of referendum was, more than anything, a terminal point for the success or failure of the whirlwind social reform programme he had in mind.

A wave of trepidation had swept the negotiations unlike any other in the last few days of volatile and difficult dialogues. Then, shortly, Mahadev Desai arrived from the prison with a message from Gandhi. He huddled up with Malaviya, Jayakar and Sapru. In the message, Gandhi said, “They shall not take any hasty steps on my account. They should endorse only that which they feel is right. If in doing so my body falls, let it be so. My stand is, either agree to referendum after five years or let me die.”

Meanwhile, Ambedkar, along with his colleagues Solanki and Srinivasan, proceeded to discuss among themselves, but were unable to agree to anything less than 10 years as far as the timing of the referendum was concerned. The rivets that had been, till now, holding the negotiations and negotiators together were threatening to give way.

At this point, Rajagopalachari had a brain rush. He went with Ambedkar into a separate room and said to him, “Let us cut the Gordian Knot.”

He attempted to convince Ambedkar that “there need be no reference at all to a referendum and may be, at a future date, determined by mutual agreement between the communities concerned in this settlement.”

To everyone's relief, this formula of Rajagopalachari was agreed to by all. That is, they agreed to disagree on this issue of referendum, as there could be no compromise on this between Gandhi and Ambedkar.

Yerwada Prison, 3 pm. Gandhi was on his bed under the mango tree, surrounded by Mahadev Desai, Kasturba Gandhi, Vallabh Patel and Sarojini Naidu. Rajagopalachari arrived to explain the recent development on the referendum issue. He told Gandhi, “I have done it on my own responsibility, thinking that you can not but agree. We have agreed to leave the whole question to be decided by mutual agreement in the future. Ambedkar and his friends have accepted this solution.”

Gandhi asked him to repeat the same. Rajagopalachari explained to Gandhi that “It (referendum) may be early or late but will depend on mutual consent with or without a referendum.” Gandhi, in turn replied, “Excellent!”

Armed with this portentous news, Rajagopalachari returned to Malaviya’s residence at 3.30 pm. They finally had secured the whole chain of compromises that could now be formally drafted as an agreement. This draft was prepared in a short time. The leaders of the conference signed the agreement on the same marble table (hexagonal) around which they had been negotiating tirelessly.

First to sign was Malaviya, then Ambedkar, who exchanged pens with Rajagopalachari. Sapru drafted a cable of the agreement to be sent to the prime minister. Next, Sapru visited Rajah and secured his signature. At 4 pm, the text of the agreement was cabled through by the son of Pandit Malaviya, Pandit Govind Kant Malaviya, to the prime minister.

The following day, 25 September, Sunday morning, the Deccan Queen carried the entire negotiating team from Poona and left for Bombay. By 2 pm, they joined the Bombay Conference at Churchgate, Indian Merchants Hall. The participants of the conference convened a historic session to formally accept the Poona Pact. Mathuradas Vasanji moved the resolutions for ratifying it. Resolutions ratifying the ‘Poona Pact’ were passed at the Bombay Conference. (More on these resolutions later.)

In England, the Premier Ramsay McDonald hurried from his visit to Chequers, and Secretary of State Samuel Hoare hastened to London from his visit to Cromer, to discuss the Poona agreement. Gandhi had stated earlier in the day that “the fast can be broken on unconditional acceptance of agreement by the cabinet.” Gandhi's clause of ‘unconditional acceptance’ almost scuttled the Poona agreement at the very last moment, as we shall see in the occurrences of the next day. But for now, everything rested upon the British to accept the agreement and amend the Communal Award in so far as it concerned the depressed classes.

To be continued

Read Also:

Rajah-Moonje Pact: The Forgotten Model For Social Justice And Integration Of Dalits

Gandhi And The Dalits

The author is a Researcher, Keio University, Japan and a formerly Visiting Researcher Kings College London.

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