Perhaps one of the most formidable challenges Mahatma Gandhi faced while performing his moral-political role during the freedom struggle was from BR Ambedkar. Unlike the others who critiqued the Mahatma, Ambedkar had the force of rationality and logic behind his arguments. And yet, the man who would emerge as the country’s foremost Dalit icon had to either concede defeat or sulk after compromises he was compelled to make despite his giant intellect.
One such example is found in the issue of separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes — then called the Depressed Classes. It involved the clash of two titans. Simply put, Ambedkar wanted the Scheduled Caste voters to elect their leaders from within their community in a free and fair election. Mahatma Gandhi was vehemently opposed to the idea on two grounds. One, he was uncomfortable with the division in Hindu society that a separate electorate threatened. Two, he believed that social changes could not come about by discriminatory provisions (such as this) but through a change in the mindset of the upper castes.
The Mahatma’s silence over, or at times approval of, separate electorates also resulted in the pro-Hindu organisations telling the people of the Congress party’s appeasement of the Muslim community.
But the British were determined to push through the plan for separate electorates for the “Untouchables’. In response, the Mahatma declared that he would launch a fast unto death against the proposal. This was in September 1932. He opposed the “statutory separation” of the Depressed Classes from the “Hindu fold”. On his part, Ambedkar announced that he would deviate from his “pious duty” of opposing joint electorates since they robbed the exploited classes of an “independent leadership” of their choice.
Initially, it appeared that Gandhi could be persuaded to cut short his fast, but the Mahatma was resolute. In the days to come, his health deteriorated to the point when doctors said he would not live long if he continued with his protest. Frantic efforts were made by intermediaries to hammer out a solution that would satisfy both the Mahatma and Ambedkar; the latter too was worried over Gandhi’s failing health but had stuck to his position. A proposal was finally crafted, which called for a two-tier system: a primary election where only the Depressed Classes would vote for their candidates, and a secondary election where a joint electorate would cast their votes. Ambedkar was not happy with the idea since he wanted clear political power for his community.
As the Mahatma’s health worsened, pressure began to mount on Ambedkar, and people began to say that if anything tragic happened, he would be held squarely responsible. Babasaheb capitulated and the Poona Pact was signed on September 24. Instead of the 80 seats that the British proposal had awarded, the Depressed Classes got 148, but through the two-tier system. Ambedkar expressed satisfaction but was to later turn spew venom against the agreement, saying it was a betrayal of the cause of the Depressed Classes.
All through, there had been a fundamental difference in the approach of the two leaders on the subject of empowering the Depressed Classes. While Babasaheb Ambedkar called for nothing less than the annihilation of the caste system, the Mahatma — the Dalit icon was to later say that he did not consider Gandhi a “political Mahatma” — Gandhi found the idea impracticable, working instead to persuade the upper castes to do away with their discriminatory attitude. Ambedkar’s supporters said that Gandhi was siding with the upper castes while his critics claimed that Ambedkar was seeking to fragment Hindu society for which he appeared to have developed a deep dislike.
Several other developments were taking place related to the ideological clash between the Mahatma and Babasaheb. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who became the working president of the Hindu Mahasabha in the early forties, plunged himself into the task of uniting the majority community by breaking caste barriers. His efforts began to attract the attention of the people that mattered, at least in Bengal to begin with. Both the masses and the intelligentsia were open to his campaign. Mookerjee was opposed to separate electorates for the Depressed Classes, and while he had many differences with Mahatma Gandhi’s approach in general to the political situation in the country, he could not go along with Ambedkar’s disruptions ideas.
But while Mahatma Gandhi strenuously opposed the concept of separate electorate for the Depressed Classes, he was not as assertive in criticising a similar plan for the Muslims, which came about through the Indian Councils Act of 1909. It can be reasoned that he was not around when the Act was passed, but there were many occasions later on after Gandhi had become an iconic figure, when he could have opposed separate electorate for Muslims. He did not. Many people would argue that, had the Mahatma done so, he could have taken the sting out of the likes of RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. The decision galvanised the various provincial units of the Hindu Mahasabha and they came together to launch the All India Hindu Mahasabha. Ironically, Mahatma Gandhi was present at an event to launch the pan-India organisation and even expressed happiness over the efforts of the majority community towards empowerment and the dilution of caste divides.
The Mahatma’s silence over, or at times approval of, separate electorates also resulted in the pro-Hindu organisations telling the people of the Congress party’s appeasement of the Muslim community. In the years to come, the Mahatma did little to dispel this perception; instead, he did things that strengthened the impression. If he had erred in backing the Khilafat movement in the 1920s, he blundered by going soft on the bloodbath that had occurred on the streets of what was then Calcutta, and other parts of Bengal, as a consequence to the Direct Action day call by the Muslim League in August 1946. Shockingly, on his visit to Bengal to appeal for communal harmony, he shared the stage with people believed to be the perpetrators of the violence and held forth on the virtues of non-violence and communal brotherhood. The Mahatma’s admirers praised him for his commitment to peace, but others were not as impressed. Mookerjee, for one. He stated, “But if Muslims show overmuch of devotion to their own religion and try to dominate the Hindus, then should the Hindus not think how they can defend themselves?”
Notwithstanding these aggressive positions that struck a chord in the minds of the people, the All India Hindu Mahasabha failed to make a significant mark in electoral politics. The aura of Mahatma Gandhi was too overwhelming. Besides, he had the backing of what was then the country’s single-largest political organisation, the Congress party — though there were people within the party who were at complete variance with the Mahatma’s thinking.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.