Kannan Thandapani, " Yes, this synthesis of Gandhi and Ambedkar (or Marx) is what is needed, rather than portraying them as antithesis of each other. The increasing polarisation in Tamilnadu of the landowning castes versus Dalits, despite/because of the delinking of economic growth from land, is another vindication of Nagaraj's assessment that this is more a problem of value structure than land. The various forms of subtle and blatant discrimination against educated/well-off Dalits in urban areas too validates the Gandhian obsession with the other (it was indeed an obsession; concern sounds too mild and passive)."
Gandhi and the Dalit Question: A comparison with Marx and Ambedkar
D. R. Nagaraj
I have two heroes before me—Shivaram Karanth's Choma and Mulk Raj Anand's Bakha.1
For me these heroes represent two distinct approaches to the problem of Dalits.
Incidentally, they also reveal a whole range of things about the mysterious process of
creativity. Karanth, still a committed Gandhian in the 1940s when he wrote this novel,
produced a very Marxian novel. On the other hand Anand, a leftist, wrote an intensely
Gandhian novel. To put it differently, Karanth treated the problem of Dalits as a problem
of Land. For Anand, it was a question of Value.
Even inviting the risk of oversimplification, I would argue that Gandhianism and Indian
Marxism have treated the problem of Dalits using these two categories—land and value.
Not that these categories are exclusive but the emphasis of each school is different.
Indian Marxism has always seen the Dalit problem in terms of land and agrarian
relationships. It basically defines the Dalit as Choma, the landless labourer.2 Judging
from the reality of rural India, this mode of understanding the Dalit problem is really
meaningful and vital. Hence, Communist peasant organizations tend to merge the issue of
Dalit with the larger process of restructuring agrarian relationships. Against this
background, one should understand the reluctance of these organizations to launch an
exclusive campaign per se against untouchability. Such an approach suffers both from the
mechanical application of a theory to concrete local situations and a sort of gradualist
understanding of historical change in consciousness. Notwithstanding the inbuilt strength
of this approach, which provides a concrete programme for action, it still remains
inadequate. The land and economic reasoning are just not enough to arrive at a holistic
understanding of the Dalit problem.
A second approach looks at the Dalit problem as a problem of value structure. While
Gandhi is the important representative of this approach in the twentieth century, this
approach has a militant history of several centuries, beginning with the Bhakti movement.
Even today this approach has remained the most powerful and relevant way of
understanding the problem of Dalits and untouchability. The value school has looked at
untouchability as a problem equally related to both Dalit and caste Hindu societies, and it
maintains that the value systems of both these societies should undergo radical change.
Gandhi developed and refined this model seeking to revolutionize the whole of Hindu
society. He holds as crucial the mutual interdependence of Dalit and caste Hindu
societies, which are organically linked with each other. He uses this as a knife-which cuts
both ways. Gandhi invested the inseparability of the self and the other, which was the
philosophical mainstay of the Bhakti movement, with a new kind of radical militancy.
There is no point in changing 'myself', excluding the 'other'. The other should also
experience a process of change. In this sense, Gandhi is a direct descendant of great
radical saints like Basava and Allama. There are striking resemblances in their idioms,
metaphors, and sensibilities. They are not woolly-headed upper-caste liberals who
romanticize the poor and untouchables. For them, guilt is the only authentic emotion visa-
vis untouchability. Gandhi transformed this notion of historical guilt into a concrete
model of action for the present.
Interestingly, it is the 'value' school which highlighted the Dalit problem during the epoch
of nationalist struggle. In this regard, even theoretically, Gandhi and his leftist followers,
such as Lohia, fared better. Marxism, probably the most radical and rigorous system of
analysing social stratifications, was let down badly by its followers. Some irony, indeed!
Later, when Marxists raised the Dalit issue, they described it as a problem of land, of the
agrarian structure. Gandhians responded by arguing that untouchability is a matter of new
values, a new sensibility. Taken to its extreme in practice, they suggested that
untouchability is the greatest sin of caste Hindu society. Hence they proposed an
agonizing process of internal purification wherein lies the only path of salvation for
The land and value schools had stayed separate. Neither realized the tragic implications
of such bifurcation. The concrete and the abstract were kept separate in an artificial way.
The Marxists should have been able to fuse the two but they did not.
Another irony of history surfaced more or less at the same historical juncture. Gandhi and
Ambedkar confronted each other bitterly on the question of Dalits. Were Gandhi and
Ambedkar really different in their perceptions of the Dalit problem? I am afraid not.
And that is the historical irony: both of them had basically perceived this as a problem of
Ambedkar emphasizes the need for and creation of self-respect and a new sensibility. For
him, the Dalit is primarily a humiliated person and other dimensions of a Dalit's
personality are secondary. Hence, his repeated emphasis on education and a new
personality. Further, for Ambedkar the entire caste Hindu society is anathema. He cannot
accept any identification with the symbols and ethos of caste Hindu society: they are
nothing but evil. Apart from this, where exactly is the root of confrontation between
Gandhi and Ambedkar? I think Gandhi represents the traditional Indian mode of
tackling the problem of untouchability. As I said earlier, the self and the other are
indivisible in that mode of perception. As both Dalit and caste Hindu societies are
organically intertwined with each other, the notion of untouchability has to disappear
from the mind and heart of caste Hindu society. The other should change. Any attempt to
eradicate untouchability will not be fruitful without a constant and deep interaction with
the other. Change is possible only when one clings to the other and struggles with the
other in a unified state. This is the essence of the Gandhian approach.
Ambedkar represents the modern Western mode and is closer to militant socialist
methods of the Western variety. What is crucial is the internal strength of a caste or class,
and that caste or class stratification should organize 'for itself'. The greater the militancy,
the greater the possibility of realizing its goal. So Ambedkar rules out the path of
interaction with the other, the path of an inevitable clinging to the other. If Dalit society
becomes militant and aggressive, caste Hindu society will be forced to come to its senses.
This is the logic of the Ambedkarite method. In a fundamental sense, this mode of action
rejects the Gandhian obsession with the other totally. (Was it an ‘obsession’ or a ‘concern’? – Naveen)
I also feel more comfortable with this caste/class-for-itself model. The inbuilt militancy
of this path has naturally attracted the angry youth among Dalits throughout the country.
So, today it is Ambedkar who has become the rallying point for the lower castes, while
Gandhi is seen as a pious, politically useless sadhu or holy man. This dismissive attitude
is justifiable against the background of the lack of a living tradition of militant
Yet let us pause here and offer a critique of the Ambedkarite model, in order to
understand its inadequacies.
Recently, I had a discussion with a radical group working among the untouchables in
rural Karnataka. They belong to a group committed to the Ambedkarite model. I also had
some first-hand knowledge of the improvement in the quality of Dalit life that they were
able to achieve in their villages. Traditional forms of violence against Dalits had almost
disappeared from those areas. Right of entry to public places was guaranteed. Rights to
the services of barbers and washermen were also assured. Naturally, there was no
question of a social boycott. After considering all these achievements, I asked the
activists: do you perceive any basic change in the notions of the caste system among
caste Hindus? They reflected on the issue for a while and said 'no', they were only scared
of the militancy of Dalits. To put it in other words, caste equality of a superficial variety
has been achieved in these villages. It stops at that. I am not trying to belittle the
importance of this achievement but only trying to point out its inadequacies.
The equality of caste is qualitatively different from annihilation of the caste system. Caste
Hindu society (the other) will remain aloof and refuse to change itself. As long as they
don't change, the crime of untouchability thrives in many subtle ways. At its heart, caste
Hindu society will retain the same old values. It is very difficult to find a long-lasting
solution or model of action for this problem within the framework of Ambedkarism. In
this context, Gandhi becomes more useful and relevant. His almost metaphysical
insistence on clinging to the other, thereby seeking to change the other, is politically
validated. (Not just ‘almost’, but solidly founded on the Metaphysical. – Naveen)
A few years ago the Karnataka Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) had launched various
programmes to mark Independence Day celebrations. Among them was a programme
called 'Drink Some Water From Our Hands'. In the villages and small towns, DSS
activists would hold a pot of water, offering it to caste Hindus. Many of my radical
friends ridiculed the emotional content of this programme. But somehow this action
touched a deep chord in me. It had a different kind of theoretical appeal: DSS, a militant
movement following Ambedkar's method, appearing in a very Gandhian way, holding a
pot of water in the midst of a village? Even today I would consider this an imaginative
programme which seeks to achieve a synthesis of Ambedkar and Gandhi. At this
historical phase, only the followers of the value school are in a position to realize
such blending. Unfortunately, the 'land school' displays a pathetic indifference towards
To sum up, the Dalit question is a combination of land and value. The Dalit movement in
Karnataka has understood the dual nature of this problem and their programmes reflect
this understanding in an effective manner. The land school's politics will have to
inevitably learn some lessons from the experience of the Dalit movement. Against this
background, I would argue that Gandhi is increasingly gaining an equal footing again,
along with Marx and Ambedkar.
At last Choma and Bakha seem to unite. Well, they were never really separate. Were
1. Choma is the hero of Shivaram Karanth's classic Kannada novel Chomana Dudi
(1931). Mulk Raj Anand's English novel Untouchable (1935) chronicles a day in the life
of an untouchable youth named Bakha.
2. For Choma, the landless labourer, the lifelong ambition is to get a piece of land that is
his own, and when his Brahmin landlord refuses to fulfill his aspirations, Choma is
prepared even to leave his religion and embrace Christianity.
(From: The Flaming Feet: The Dalit Movement in India, by D. R. Nagaraj, Permanent
Black, 2010. Pgs 75-80)