An Outcast in India, Pak History


India’s feisty Dalit leader Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar scarcely finds place in our historical consciousness, having been airbrushed from much of the discourse about the freedom movement though he has been assigned the innocuous pedestal of the father of the Indian constitution.

Ambedkar has been virtually deleted from the India-Pakistan debate as well though he wrote possibly the most level-headed critique of the run-up to Partition. His bitter fights with Mahatma Gandhi to win social justice for scores of millions of India’s ‘untouchables’ who had remained outside the pale of the Congress party’s political pursuits are mostly researched and treasured by his Dalit followers.

I believe part of the explanation for Ambedkar’s pointed exclusion from mainstream discourse, both in India and in Pakistan, can be found in the upper caste prism through which Hindu and Muslim scholars have tended to see their colonial history. Take a prototype of a typically liberal discussion in the Hindu-Muslim binary, and how it seeks to bury the Dalit issue.

In 1858, the Queen of Awadh, Begum Hazrat Mahal, appealed to her subjects to not be wooed by Queen Victoria’s promise of post-Mutiny accommodation under British rule. Mahal claimed, as liberals still do, that Hindus and Muslims on her watch were treated equally. “Men of high extraction, be they Syed, Sheikh, Mughal or Pathan, among the Mohammedans, or Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaish or Kayasth, among the Hindoos, all these retain the respectability according to their respective ranks. And all persons of a lower order such as a Sweeper, Chamar, Dhanook, or Pasi cannot claim equality with them.” Mahal’s parting shot defined a pervasive attitude of a type that has continued to loom over contemporary social discourse. It must have tormented Ambedkar.

In a new book, containing a book-sized essay titled ‘The Doctor and The Saint’, on the Gandhi-Ambedkar duel, writer and activist Arundhati Roy has sought to restore to the Dalit icon his premier role as a leading thinker and social reformer of 20th century India, possibly ahead of Gandhi. The extensively researched essay is an eye-opener, and serves as an introduction to Ambedkar’s own brilliant piece, The Annihilation of Caste.Roy’s intervention is two-pronged. She persuades us to read Ambedkar and equally crucially prises open a treasure trove of shunned or buried evidence through which she evaluates Gandhi and his bête noire in new light.

Ambedkar’s main argument with Gandhi was that the Hindu caste system and its concomitant inbuilt apartheid were abhorrent to the purposes of a modern nation-state. He also critiqued entrenched discrimination against women and other depressed sections within Hindu society. Political reform should be predicated on social reform, the Dalit mascot argued. The Congress, even before the advent of Gandhi, had derided such a view.

“Are we not fit,” thundered W.C. Bonnerjee at the 1892 Congress, “because our widows remain unmarried and our girls are given in marriage earlier than in other countries? … because our wives and daughters do not drive about with us visiting friends? … because we do not send our daughters to Oxford and Cambridge?” (Cheers from the audience)

Annihilation of Caste was published in 1936, a year after Ambedkar renounced Hinduism on his way to becoming a Buddhist. Roy quotes Gandhi as responding to Ambedkar with an essay that throws a light on the Mahatma we are not used to seeing him in. Though Gandhi could often contradict himself, he wrote the essay — The Ideal Bhangi — about the caste that cleaned and carried human refuse. Gandhi observed that it was the “Brahmin’s duty to look after the sanitation of the soul, the Bhangi’s that of the body of society.” He was saddened that Bhangis were mistreated when they should have been given status equal to the Brahmins (without of course disturbing the hidebound groups to which they would continue to belong).

“What qualities therefore should such an honoured servant of society exemplify in his person?” Gandhi continued. “In my opinion, an ideal Bhangi should have a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation. He should know how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it.… My ideal Bhangi would know the quality of night soil and urine. He would keep a close watch on these and give a timely warning to the individual concerned.”

Ambedkar found Gandhi hypocritical. Roy sees early tendencies of this during Gandhi’s fabled struggles in South Africa. He joined the British war effort in the Boer Wars with the ambulance corps as his duty to the Empire. On another occasion, when he was jailed for protesting against a ban on Indian traders in Transvaal, Gandhi wrote:

“We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the Whites, but to be placed on the same levels with the Natives seemed to be too much to put up with.… Kaffirs as a rule are uncivilised — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.”

Finally, do you remember who played Ambedkar in the award-winning Hollywood movie on Gandhi? There was no such character, not even a walk-on role, as Arundhati Roy notes. As far as I am aware, he didn’t figure in the movie on Jinnah either, even though Ambedkar had an excellent bonding with the Quaid. They both needed protection from the Congress, and even got it briefly at the 2nd Roundtable Conference.

-the writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi

-by arrangement with

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