Seventy-five years ago this month occurred an extraordinary debate in an Indian newspaper that retains enormous resonance today. On the surface, the debate concerned India’s system of caste, regulating both employment opportunity and social standing based on the accident of birth. On a deeper level, the debate concerned the role religion should play in matters of governance.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born in 1891 into a family of Mahars, one of India’s “Untouchable” castes. That alone would have sealed his fate to a life of abject degradation (9 of his 13 brothers and sisters died in childhood), but for the fact that his father was employed by the British Army, and used the contacts he made there to secure his children an education denied to virtually every other Untouchable in the land. Young Ambedkar made the most of his opportunity, and wound up earning advanced degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.
As one of the only well-educated Untouchables in all of India, Ambedkar rose to political prominence as the leading representative of his caste. Throughout the 1920s, he fought tenaciously for more equal treatment, and was rewarded with a seat at the table in 1931 when the British convened a “Round Table Conference” to move India closer to self-rule.
The star of that show, though, was not Ambedkar but Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi fused religion with politics; he led a campaign of civil disobedience in 1921 that brought India to the brink of independence, but suddenly called it off because a handful of followers were not conducting themselves as God intended. Again in 1930, Gandhi led a civil disobedience campaign, initially centered on opposition to the salt tax. India’s prisons overflowed with tens of thousands of protestors, rendering the country virtually ungovernable – until Gandhi agreed to a one-sided “compromise,” without consulting anyone, that didn’t even modify the salt tax. It did, though, lead to the Round Table Conference.
The Muslims who comprised a quarter of the population had supported Gandhi’s campaigns enthusiastically at first, but became disenchanted by his capriciousness and his insistence that his actions were dictated by the “Voice of God” he heard inside his head. At the Round Table Conference, they insisted on “separate electorates,” with Muslims given the right to elect a fixed proportion of the new Parliament, to protect themselves from being swamped by the Hindu majority. Gandhi was willing to accept that, because the Muslims were so politically powerful.
Ambedkar then made the case for similar treatment for India’s Untouchables, who were nearly as numerous as the Muslims. In fact, for anyone who believes in the equality of human worth, the argument for the Untouchables was far stronger than the argument for the Muslims. They had been oppressed so severely, for so many centuries, that the only way to begin to dig themselves out of their hole was to become a voting bloc in Parliament to be reckoned with.
Gandhi was fiercely opposed, because he could count. If you give away a quarter of the seats to the Muslims, and nearly a quarter to the Untouchables, then throw in the complication of the Sikhs and a smattering of Christians, then suddenly his upper caste Hindu working majority might not be a majority anymore. Besides, the Untouchables were Hindus, and he – Gandhi – was God’s choice to speak for the Hindus.
The more secular British listened to Gandhi, they listened to Ambedkar, and they made a decision: Ambedkar was right – the Untouchables should have a separate electorate just like Gandhi had agreed the Muslims could have. This would last for a period of 70 years, which was judged to be sufficient time for them to achieve equality.
Gandhi responded to not getting his way in a calm, mature, and sportsmanlike manner. He announced that he was going to kill himself. More than just announcing it, he started doing it, by means of a “Fast Unto Death” that he would maintain until the British agreed to reverse their position on political rights for the Untouchables.
Gandhi’s fast riveted the attention of the entire world, no one more than Ambedkar. He saw the riots breaking out across India, and he could picture the bloodbath that would ensue against the entire Untouchable population if it were blamed for murdering the revered Mahatma. As Gandhi lay on his suicide bed, Ambedkar reluctantly concluded that he had to surrender the only victory his people had ever won. The resulting compromise ended the dream of the separate electorate, in exchange for a promise that a fixed number of seats would be filled by Untouchables who had been hand-picked by their higher-caste superiors. Nothing, of course, prevented the selectors from filling the quota with Uncle Toms, which Ambedkar believed is exactly what ensued.
Realizing that he needed to shore up support, politician Gandhi then embarked on a campaign to urge upper caste Hindus to treat Untouchables more like human beings, even to go to the extreme of occasionally sitting at the same dinner table with them. The rhetoric was strikingly similar to that of American Protestants 80 years earlier, urging slaveholders to treat their property more humanely while preserving the institution of slavery itself. The results were pretty much the same as well: pious promises to do better, followed by nothing at all. Two years later Gandhi abandoned the campaign, after God sent him a message (by means of an earthquake in Bihar province) that he should be working on something else.
In 1936, a group of Hindu reformers sympathetic to Gandhi’s “Be kind to Untouchables” push invited Ambedkar to speak at their conference. They were aghast, though, when they received the text of what he proposed to say. The first ¾ of what Ambedkar called The Annihilation of Caste was bad enough, with Ambedkar's devastating critique demanding not kinder treatment but the complete dismantling of the whole rotten structure. What pushed them over the edge, though, was the closing, where Ambedkar blamed caste on Hinduism itself and boldly announced his personal decision to abandon forever the religion of his ancestors.
The organizers neatly eliminated this headache by canceling the entire conference. Gandhi, though, realized he needed to do more than that. If Ambedkar led 50 million Untouchables out of the Hindu fold – especially if they landed (Rama forbid) in Islam – his claim to speak for the Indian majority would evaporate. He tossed Ambedkar a bone by allowing him to publish his undelivered speech in Gandhi’s own newspaper, where he could later publish his own rebuttal to calm the troubled waters.
So 75 years ago this week The Annihilation of Caste appeared in Gandhi’s newspaper. “Why is it that the large majority of Hindus do not inter-dine and do not inter-marry?” asked Ambedkar.
There can be only one answer to this question and it is that inter-dining and inter-marriage are repugnant to the beliefs and dogmas which the Hindus regard as sacred. … the Hindus observe Caste not because they are inhuman or wrong headed. They observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy you must grapple with, is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras [Hindu scriptures] which teach them this religion of Caste. … The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the Shastras. … You must destroy the Religion ...
Reformers working for the removal of untouchability, including Mr. Gandhi, do not seem to realize that the acts of the people are merely the results of their beliefs inculcated upon their minds by the Shastras and that people will not change their conduct until they cease to believe in the sanctity of the Shastras on which their conduct is founded. No wonder that such efforts have not produced any results. … To agitate for and to organise inter-caste dinners and inter-caste marriages is like forced feeding brought about by artificial means. Make every man and woman free from the thraldom to the Shastras, cleanse their minds of the pernicious notions founded on the Shastras, and he or she will inter-dine and inter-marry, without your telling him or her to do so. …
You must not only discard the Shastras, you must deny their authority, as did Buddha and Nanak [founder of Sikhism]. You must have courage to tell the Hindus, that what is wrong with them is their religion—the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of Caste. Will you show that courage?
Next week: Gandhi’s reply