A Foster Father to the Nation


Beware of Mr Gandhi: The untouchables are not the only community in India who thinks of Mr Gandhi in these terms. The same view of Mr Gandhi is entertained by the Muslims, Sikhs and Indian Christians.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar

Titles can be non-inclusive. India has in abundance, both, epithets and exclusivity. The most famous Indian of the past century – MK Gandhi – is commonly referred to as ‘Father of the Nation’. There is little doubt that Gandhi played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s Independence Movement that resulted in the birth of a free India. But, the man whose socio-legal expertise in drafting the Indian Republic’s Constitution helped nurture the young nation into becoming the world’s largest democracy is the lesser appreciated Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar – one who could rightfully and logically lay claim to be the ‘Foster Father of the Nation’.

The relationship between the Gandhi and Ambedkar was littered with distrust, conflict and hostility. Gandhi belonged to a well-to-do higher caste family and went to train Law in London’s Inner Temple. Ambedkar, hailing from the lowest caste in Hindu society had struggled to graduate college before receiving a scholarship from a Princely Ruler to study Economics at Columbia University. Both men returned to India within years of each other and went on to become icons who set India on to its path of freedom and self-rule.

In many ways, the lives of the two men were conjoined but their politics ensured they never allied. Both men wanted a free India, but each differed on what freedom would mean. At the time of their first encounter, on 14 August 1931, Gandhi was the preeminent leader of the Indian National Congress and the moral leader of the freedom movement. In comparison, Ambedkar was a lawyer who had been nominated as a member of the Bombay Provincial Council. But, if that was to put the younger Ambedkar at a disadvantage, he certainly did not show it.

During that meeting, Ambedkar confronted Gandhi with a chargesheet of allegations against the Indian National Congress; chiefly that Gandhi and his associates had done very little to alleviate the continued sufferings faced by the Untouchables at the hands of casteist Hindu orthodoxy. Few years later, at the height of their disagreement, Ambedkar would allege that Gandhi was a “deep-dyed Hindu” who has “outdone the most orthodox of orthodox Hindus”.

The Hindu religion was – and is – stratified according to ancient texts and belief systems, creating four hereditary varnas (classes). On the basis of one’s birth, the hierarchy of social position was established in society. Those who were at the lower end of this social spectrum – Untouchables – were not allowed to walk on the public streets, draw water from public ponds, own even small parcels of land or indulge in a living of their choice. The Untouchables were considered impure and their polluting presence relegated them to living in hamlets outside the villages and towns. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar recognized that this was a deeply divided nation but each went about addressing the scourge of caste in very different ways.

Social inequalities in India had resulted in centuries of cumulative injustice. Gandhi advocated a social reforms at the individual level; he encouraged higher caste Hindus to shun caste discrimination. But, at the same time, Gandhi saw no need for political solutions for what he considered was a social problem. Gandhi was of the firm belief that the Indian National Congress represented all sections of Hindu society, including Untouchables. Ambedkar resented Gandhi’s tactics and was deeply skeptical of the Indian National Congress. He insisted that the Untouchables would not be content with purely social reforms; and demanded that political power should be shared by all communities in a proportional manner. Ambedkar made it clear that he batted for affirmative action in political representation.

Owing largely to Ambedkar’s articulation of the oppressive forces within the Hindu society and his advocacy of distributive political power, the British Government, in August 1932, granted a Communal Award that created separate electorates for the Untouchables. Upon hearing this, Gandhi announced a “fast unto death” against the Communal Award as he felt that separate electorates would be “harmful for them [Untouchables] and Hinduism” as it would “vivisect and disrupt” the religion. As Gandhi’s famous fast gathered immense public interest, senior leaders of the Indian National Congress began negotiations with Ambedkar to find an amicable solution. Eventually, considering Gandhi’s deteriorating health, Ambedkar had to give in and he agreed to reservation of a certain number of seats within joint electorates. Ambedkar would later on refer to the system of joint electorates as a “blow inflicted upon the Untouchables”. The relationship between the two men had soured so much that Ambedkar released a critique of Gandhi and Gandhism titled What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. In the book, he lays the blame on Gandhi squarely for a number of policy decisions which have caused irreparable harm to the empowerment of the community of Untouchables.

The conflict between Gandhi and Ambedkar extended from political to religious matters. Gandhi, initially indifferent to varna system, held on to the belief that Untouchables should seek salvation within Hinduism. He even forbade Untouchables from employing civil disobedience protests against “kindred and countrymen” who were Hindus of higher castes. At the bottom of this was Gandhi’s devotion to this own faith; and his acceptance of Hinduism wholeheartedly, warts and all. So much so that when Gandhi was assassinated, his last words were believed to be “Hey Ram” (Dear Lord).

Ambedkar, having suffered caste discrimination in his own life and witnessed the gross injustice around him, was not convinced about a religion that sanctioned such inequalities. Ambedkar had led a massive march for the rights of Untouchables to draw water from a public pond in Mahad. A few years later, when he attempted a similar protest at a Hindu temple that had denied entry to Untouchables, the resistance from higher caste Hindus was severe. A clearly exasperated Ambedkar had this to say at the Yeola Conference of Untouchables in 1935:

Would it not be better to give up Hinduism and embrace another faith that would unreservedly give us an equal status? Unfortunately, I was born a Hindu Untouchable – there was nothing I could do to prevent it. However, it is well within my power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions. I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.

Some years later, Ambedkar attended a World Conference of Buddhists, wrote a book on Buddhism and converted himself and 500,000 of his followers belonging to the Hindu Untouchables community.

Modern India could not have treated both characters differently. Gandhi, revered by the entire nation, has been India’s soft power export to the western world; Ambedkar has been the symbol of hope for the Untouchables who are still fighting oppression within society. It is a telling symptom of this treatment that even Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi biopic does not have even a scene with Ambedkar. However, few can forget the role played by Ambedkar and his rivalry with Gandhi for its impact on the social conscience of the nation and for creating a Constitutional rule of law that has stood the test of times.

Author: Manu Sundaram

Manu Sundaram has trained as a lawyer and worked as a Policy and Legislative Advisor to Elected Representatives in India. He is a Media Spokesperson for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party. His articles have appeared in The Caravan, The Hindu, Times of India and he is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. He writes regularly on aspects of contemporary politics and social policy in India.