With fiery orange hidden under a newfound tricolour, Narendra Modi’s rise to power saw a mushrooming of the RSS and affiliates like the ABVP. Pseudo “nationalism” invaded every campus. The state-induced suicide of Rohith Vemula triggered a broad Dalit-Left unity against the hegemonic designs of the RSS/ABVP. But despite initial success, the unity was short-lived. The fault lay as much with the Left (of all shades) for being unable to overhaul its internal dynamics, as with Dalit groups that fell prey to red-baiting and exclusivist identity politics.
On one side were traditional Marxists, brought up to believe that caste would automatically wither away once the economic base became socialist. On the other were Dalits who understandably did not trust largely upper caste-led formations. Sadly, the idea that individuals are indelibly marked by birth gained currency.
Identity politics is a double-edged weapon. As long as identifiable groups are oppressed, the oppressed unite according to identity. “Black is beautiful” was a necessary movement for Afro-Americans in the US, just as pride in Dalit or Buddhist identity is necessary in India. The trouble begins when this turns into an exclusivist movement. Malcolm X went through a black Muslim phase when he described all white people as “devils”. But in his later years, he completely rejected this for a much more inclusive critique of injustice and inequality. That is when the American “deep state” killed him. Similarly, while a broad section of Dalits are inclusive and understand the distinction Ambedkar made between the ideology of Brahminism and individuals who happen to be born “upper” caste, there is a tiny section that sees birth as all-defining. The fact that Western post-modernists encourage identity politics in preference to class analysis has given separatist politics international acceptance.
The Left and Dalits should have been natural allies. People like Comrade Govind Pansare, Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani have represented this unity and HCU, JNU and many Indian campuses saw its amazing potential. Into this mix, I would add progressive Gandhians — a Narendra Dabholkar, a Medha Patkar, who adhere to non-violence but always fight for the oppressed.
Both Gandhi and Ambedkar recognised that this country was so steeped in religion that atheism or pure rationality would not reach the masses. Each in his own way became a liberation theologist. Unlike Ambedkar, Gandhi did not choose his religion but inherited it. But to this, he applied post-Enlightenment ethical values that were essentially modern. When he began manual scavenging, he destroyed the very basis of the pollution/purity dichotomy at the heart of the caste system. Theoretically, for a long time, he infamously clung to the concept of Varnashrama Dharma, but in actual deed, he destroyed it the day he took up manual scavenging, a job reserved for so-called “untouchables”.
As time went on, Gandhi became ever more radical. He clearly learned from Ambedkar as well as from his own intuition. Later in life, he refused to attend any marriage that was not an inter-caste marriage. He fashioned out of his inherited Hinduism something entirely new. Only the idiom remained, not the original Sanatan Dharma. Whether his reluctance to discard the idiom stemmed from a desire to speak to the Indian masses in a language they could easily follow, or from his own belief system, is debatable. What is unmistakable is that Gandhi’s ethical code bears little resemblance to the hierarchical, vengeful structure of traditional Hinduism.
Unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar clearly saw how oppressive the religion of his birth was, being a direct victim. So, he searched for its best alternative. After examining many religions, he finally chose the one closest to Reason. Buddhism is one world religion that does not posit an external, all-knowing God. While retaining Buddhism’s strong ethical core, Ambedkar discarded irrational tenets like reincarnation that traditional Buddhists follow. So I see Ambedkar and Gandhi as liberation theologists. In the same way that radical Left priests like Ernesto Cardenal in Latin America re-interpreted Jesus Christ as a revolutionary who fought and died for justice to the poor, Gandhi and Ambedkar gave new ethical meaning to the religions they adapted or adopted.
I am not equating the two. Their differences are obvious. One came from a privileged caste, the other from the most oppressed. One was steeped in traditional religion in his formative years, while the other came from a caste denied the right to education but rose to become the best-read, greatest intellectual of modern India.
Neither am I blind to Gandhi’s paradoxes, like his life-long demonisation of sexuality. His insistence on chastity puts him in the same irrational, patriarchal boat as the priests, monks and nuns of many world religions. And yet, by introducing the charkha as a weapon of non-violent resistance, Gandhi brought thousands of women into the mainstream of the Indian freedom movement.
Can Gandhi’s Sarva Dharma Samabhava (all religions are equal) take the place of Ambedkar’s constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights? I think not. We need the Constitution much more than we need holy books. And yet, as many in our country are still hooked to holy books and unholy pretenders, we need liberation theologists who can help people discard the worst features of their inherited religious culture and replace them with ethical, non-exclusivist interpretations. Waiting for everyone to become rationalists may take centuries. Ethics is the answer. Small wonder that Ambedkar and Gandhi, each in turn arrived at individual definitions of ahimsa.
Egalitarian humanists at heart, their affinities are greater than their differences. Take the act of “satyagraha”, a term coined by Gandhi. Ambedkar used this very term and form of struggle to launch his Mahad Satyagraha to claim drinking water rights. There are many other examples of common ideas and action. I was pleasantly shocked to read what Ambedkar had to say in 1932 immediately after concluding the now-infamous Poona Pact (where the idea of separate electorates for Dalits was abandoned in favour of reserved seats for Dalits). The popular theory is that Ambedkar was blackmailed by Gandhi’s fast-unto-death into accepting a bitter compromise. But Ambedkar’s tone in 1932 after signing the pact was totally different. He had high praise for Gandhi and stated that the “Mahatma” (yes, contrary to popular belief, Ambedkar used the term “Mahatma” at this point) offered a much better deal for Dalits in terms of reserved seats than Ambedkar himself had asked or hoped for. There is no denying that Ambedkar did get disgusted with the Congress in later years. How much of the blame for the failures of the Congress is attributable to Gandhi is questionable. We know that Gandhi’s writ did not work in
preventing Partition or the bloodshed that preceded and followed it, and that Gandhi did not attend the flag hoisting on Independence Day. He was busy fighting the communal inferno in the countryside.
Gandhi had a lot of obscurantist ideas to start with, but, as time went by, he kept evolving. In the end, I see him as a great humanist who died for his belief in non-violence and universality. He was also an inventive anti-imperialist (though much earlier, he had supported the British Empire) and an organic naturalist that today’s consumerist, globally warmed world desperately needs.
Throughout his life, Ambedkar fought for reason and justice without resorting to violence. Today, his followers, like the Ambedkar Students Association, are leading the resistance against religious and caste hatred. Against all odds, Radhika and Raja Vemula (Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother) are continuing the fight for justice. With the rising spectre of intolerant authoritarianism, is it not time for all humanists, rationalists and fighters for social and economic justice to unite against the usurpers of our democracy and our history?