NEARLY a decade ago, I had the opportunity to teach modern Indian history to Class X in a school in Chennai for two consecutive years. The period to be covered was 1857-1947. It was an exam class and I was not sure how much I could do to amplify content given in the textbook. I decided to try in any case, and my students got to read original texts from certain periods from that rich and fascinating history – by Mahatma Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Ramasamy Periyar, B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, and from fiction that dealt with Partition and communist organizing in Andhra and Bengal.
One of the assignments that I set my students had to do with the Poona Pact, and Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s divergent views on the matter of dalit representation and separate electorates. Two of them opted to do this assignment: they read extracts from What Congress and Gandhi did to the Untouchables, and Gandhi’s and K. Santhanam’s responses to Ambedkar’s criticisms.
For clarity of their arguments, I still hold priceless those two papers. Both papers in different ways noted they could understand Ambedkar’s clear, rational analysis of dalit rights and representation, but were not sure of what ‘Gandhiji meant’ though they enjoyed reading him. They also said that as far as they could tell, Ambedkar’s position was right and fair, and Gandhi’s unclear and confusing. One of the two students observed that it was evident to him that Ambedkar had been unfairly served by Gandhi and Congress.
The second year that I taught Class X, a girl was incensed by Gandhi’s obduracy with respect to dalit representation and declared grandly that she could never forgive Gandhi for holding Ambedkar to ransom. Later on, when we dealt with Partition, and I read out extracts from Gandhi’s speeches from the last few months of his life, she relented and exclaimed that were it not for these speeches, she would continue to think poorly of Gandhi for what he did to Ambedkar.
It struck me then and it strikes me now, ten years later, that the responses of these young people suggest that the issues at stake have to do with the conundrum that is justice, and different ways of thinking about it. The Poona Pact and the terrible violence of Partition, each in its own way raised questions about the relationship between suffering, justice and compassion on the one hand, and oppression, exploitation and violence on the other. Gandhi and Ambedkar came to these concerns from very different perspectives: we are familiar with Gandhi’s views, and less so with Ambedkar’s and are likely to read him in tandem with the great events of his time, and the so-called great men and their views. Seldom do we see him as germane to the events that unfolded in his lifetime, or as making and remaking history in response to and in anticipation of these events. If one actually did that, one would be bound to acknowledge the limitations of those verities we take for granted.
In what follows I would like to examine the thought world of Ambedkar, and the manner it configured justice, and the implications of this configuration for our understanding of that period, particularly Gandhi and his wrestling with questions of right and wrong.
Ambedkar was a keen student of historical modernity and its promises. He valued the idea of the republic, associational life, public culture that was given to equality and mutuality and that grand word, liberty. The modern, rational state that would mandate social change through just but firm laws fascinated him. He argued for the importance of either in a culture and civilization, set in authority and against rights held in common and a common humanity.
On the other hand Ambedkar was all too aware of the thwarting of modernity in India: not just by the persistence of past customs, hatred, divisions, doctrines, and faith, but by the logic of the Hindu social order – of graded inequality that frustrated all attempts at an equal coming together of people. The impossibility of fraternity in the Hindu context and the desirability of fraternity as an ideal and embodied norm frustrated him beyond measure:
Fraternity is the name for the disposition of an individual to treat men as the object of reverence and love and the desire to be in unity with his fellow beings. This statement is well expressed by Paul when he said ‘Of one blood are all nations of men. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female; for yet are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Equally well was it expressed when the Pilgrim Fathers on their landing at Plymouth said: ‘We are knit together as a body in the most sacred covenant of the Lord… by virtue of which we hold ourselves tied to all care of each others’ good and of the whole.’ …The Hindu social order is based on the doctrine that men are created from the different parts of the divinity and therefore the view expressed by Paul or the Pilgrim Fathers has no place in it. The Brahmin is no brother to the Kshatriya… the Kshatriya is no brother to the Vaishya… As no one is a brother to the other, no one is the keeper of the other.1
In a social world, where no one seeks to include the other in a fellowship, where no bonds of social affection cut a swathe through prejudices and interests, dalits stood to suffer the most. Being ‘a part apart’ as he described them, they bore a unique burden. A section from an incomplete essay titled ‘Frustration’ notes:
The Untouchables are the weariest, most loathed and the most miserable people that history can witness. They are a spent and sacrificed people. To use the language of Shelley they are – ‘pale for weariness of climbing heaven, and gazing on earth, wandering companionless among the stars that have a different birth.’ To put it in simple language, the Untouchables have been completely overtaken by a sense of utter frustration. As Mathew Arnold says [f1] ‘life consists in the effort to affirm one’s own essence; meaning by this, to develop one’s own existence fully and freely, to have ample light and air, to be neither (…)[f2] nor overshadowed. Failure to affirm one’s own essence is simply another name for frustration. Its non fulfilment of one’s efforts to do the best, the withering of one’s faculties, the stunting of one’s personality.2
In the face of such anomie, what could historical modernity achieve in the Indian context? From 1919, when he appeared before the Southborough Committee on political reforms to the Constituent Assembly debates, Ambedkar explored the possibilities and limits of modernity: accepting its liberal promises in the sphere of law and legislation in good faith, and inscribing within their limits, but at their very core, the principle of historical redress for dalits, whether by way of separate electorates or reservation or through punitive means. The incommensurability of a wrong that was ancient and powerful with all the means that were wrought to set it right appeared starkly evident in the course of the Hindu Code Bill debates, and it is not surprising that within the next few years he journeyed out of the legislature and towards the dikshabhoomi.
In making that move, he charted a route out of the bind of what had become for him a stifling modernity – one which adhered to consensual principles of law and justice, but could not legislate compassion. Thus, he set about pursuing a path that would take him to a place and time, a position or a historical location that would and could ‘authorise’ social affection.
The Gandhian universe was not lacking in social affection. Gandhi was at all times aware of the counselling of love and, as is well known, cherished Corinthians 13 (4-7):
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Love, in Gandhi’s lexicon endured, inhered in practices of the self, in self-communion. Based on this love, which he elevated to the plane of truth, he sought to build a political community, forged in the context of passive resistance, orsatyagraha. However, satya, or the truth that made resistance possible and desirable was an elusive creature, known only in the recesses of conscience and manifest in the power of endurance the satyagrahi possessed. This meant that the ideal satyagrahi’s proclivity for truth was expressed in and through his or her experience of it, and inhered in his or her privileged relationship to it. Satya and its bearer, in this sense, accommodated each other in a seamless way. From Chauri Chaura through Yeravda to the killing fields of Delhi, Gandhi fasted in remorse, to cleanse himself, cleanse the world – and all the time it was the experienced and proclaimed moral loftiness of his mission, and the fact that he was perfectly willing to die for his cause, that served as the measure of truth.
Gandhi’s satya is a curious value: it held an empire in check, confounded it with its own pieties, enabled a new structure of feeling into existence that allowed men and women to view themselves as zealous and non-violent fighters in the cause of a common good and, most important of all, worked its effects through example in and through active acts of love, friendship, and care. It made for a distinctive community, grounded in collective practices of the self through prayer, diet, labour and service.
Yet, the ashram, the locus of this community, while not hierarchical was not horizontal either in its comradeship: there were dalits and others from working communities, who lived in the Gandhian ashram from time to time, but seldom do we get a sense of their responses to the Gandhian experiment with truth, untouchability, and labour. The dalit in the Gandhian universe remains in its shadows, the object of caste Hindu penitence and service, as the case may be. To understand the nature of community and fraternity in the Gandhian universe we need to examine the intriguing relationship between truth, love and justice that were at play in that world.
Towards the mid-1920s, when Hindu-Muslim relations were fraught on the ground, both due to specific and enumerable local causes as well as on account of Congress intransigence on the subject of minority rights, C.R. Das announced conciliatory concessions to Muslims. Gandhi described his actions as having ‘brought the science of surrender to perfection.’ Whereupon, he was criticized for his condescension for making it seem that Das was granting privileges that Muslims were not entitled to. Gandhi argued in turn:
Let us not be hyper-sensitive or devoid of imagination. To surrender is not confer favour. Justice that love gives is surrender, justice that law gives is a punishment. …By justice why should not a Mussalman kill a cow every day in front of me? But his love for me restrains him from so doing… I should become a loathsome creature if I exercised my just right of playing tomtom precisely at his time of prayer… So long as Hindus and Mussalmans continue to prate about justice they will never come together. Might is right is the last word of justice and nothing but justice. Why should Englishman surrender an inch of what they have earned by right of conquest? Or why should Indians when they come to power not make the English disgorge everything their ancestors robbed them off? And yet when we come to a settlement as we might someday, we shall not weigh in the scales of justice so called. But we shall introduce into the calculation the disturbing factor of surrender otherwise called love or affection or fellow feeling.3
Gandhi’s peculiar conflation of justice and love raised more questions than answered them in other instances as well, for instance the Poona Pact that he signed with Ambedkar regarding dalit political representation. Gandhi insisted that while justice demanded that he conceded the need for communal electorates, the claims of love were different: the love that caste Hindus ought to bear towards their untouchable brethren needed to be acknowledged and given a chance. For, without love leavening the claims of justice, argued Gandhi, a merely just resolution would leave the Hindu community permanently at war with itself.
Importantly, in the wake of Partition, which witnessed the eclipsing of both justice and love, Gandhi leavened the claims of love with justice: wandering through the camps, he counselled compassion, but insisted that justice be done to Muslims, their institutions, including their places of worship. Justice, in this sense was the face of compassion.
This uneven and problematic balance of love and justice, evident in the contrasting positions that emerged in two important instances, is characteristic of Gandhi’s moral universe. How may we understand this perplexity that both confounds one’s ethical sense, even as it appeals to it?
Ambedkar had no use for penitent love that surrenders: his vision of compassion was encapsulated in the idea of maithri. As The Buddha and His Dhamma makes clear, maithri, for him, is an ethical as well as philosophical response to the non-moral Hindu social order, and the deformed and alienated selves that it constitutes. It signifies a going forth in a spirit of compassion, and with the insight of knowledge, of pragnya or discerning wisdom that knows right from wrong and deliberately chooses right. Knowledge in this sense is active, not abstract, and is acquired throughvidya or free exercise of the mind, such that it is not bound to the tyranny of texts, custom and faith in supernatural beings, God and non-purposive discourses on the soul, rebirth and so on.
This going forward is also a going away from greed, avarice, from what Ambedkar calls lobha and krodha: these are to be condemned because they cause strife, hurt, violence, and quarrels. Glossing over the Mahanidanasutta on which he draws for his arguments in this context, Ambedkar notes: ‘That this is the correct analysis of class struggle there can be no doubt.’4
The compassion that marks the movement away from avarice and possession is not mere karuna or love. For, greater than karuna is maithri, an instance of active fellowship with the world, a fellowship that does not elaborate, codify and render every difference an aspect of hierarchy and inequality.5 Maithri expresses an annulment of differences between oneself and the larger world in a particular sense: one is to be mindful of differences; yet the point is to go forth from one’s situation and enter another context and world in a spirit of righteousness. Ambedkar had always held that the problem was not that there were groups in society, but that there existed no meaningful, common ethical life that allowed groups to interact and communicate.
In an ideal society there should be many interests consciously communicated and shared. There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellow men.6
It is, therefore, not surprising that he set great store by what he called sadhamma. Sadhamma requires one to practise righteousness towards others, but importantly, it also requires that one invite others to observe dhamma, sharing with them the knowledge of it, a knowledge that is not abstract, but an exercise in pradanya or moral insight. Pradanya meanwhile has to coexist with sila, with virtue.7 Above all, sadhamma meant that one realizes and accepts that neither birth nor any other form of privilege grants a person a right, a choice that is unavailable to others. Sadhamma, in Ambedkar’s lexicon, was the form of that ethical consensus that we forge with each other, maintaining amongst ourselves that we hold and shall exercise rights and compassion in common.8
The penitential self of Gandhi’s moral world was forged in the quick of passive resistance directed at a state that appeared evil and an imposition. It insisted that it did not hate what it fought, claiming instead that it spoke in the name of ‘anguished love’. Given the colonial context of passive resistance, the enormous condescension that it actually expressed seemed a fit civilizational response to a racist and extractive political culture, and in some cases invited the oppressor into a common humanity. But when it was directed against socially unjust norms and practices, and spoke in the name of those who were victims of the latter, this condescension appeared less attractive and rather shrill.
Gandhi’s exercises in social affection bound him to a vast network of friends from diverse contexts with whom he carried on contentious, abrasive but always fulfilling conversations. However, the science of surrender that he counselled sat ill with his own practice of comradeship and, while it made for great and sometimes effective political dramaturgy, did not always make for a fellowship that invited into its moral universe truths other than one’s own. It is not that these truths were not registered, they were, but they were not given a habitation. The caritas that Gandhi invoked was more often than not on his own terms, of satya and surrender, and whatever going forth there was, inevitably signified a return. This is evident in the Harijan tours, which mark a going forth, but their usefulness, the universe they opened up turned out to be the familiar one of the ashram, where service remained the norm, and fellowship was of the elect.
The way of maithri indicates just how limiting such a universe can be. For, loving kindness does not call attention to itself, and is starkly different from love that seeks absolution, and proceeds from remorse and penitence. Rather it seeks friendship, and the forging of a covenant with fellow human beings. Justice in this scheme of things has to do with recognition, of not only injustice but a common and shared humanity – it is not what is granted the victim of a wrong in a spirit of surrender, but a recognition of that wrong as a perversion of fellowship that keeps the world together.
3. Young India, 9.7.1925. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, CD-ROM version, volume 32, pp. 105-07.
8. Paraphrased from: http://www.ambedkar. org/buddhism/BAHD/45A.Buddha%