In India, it is almost impossible to imagine one not having heard the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He, who is widely regarded as the ‘father of the nation’ in India had been elevated to the title of a ‘Mahatma’ or a ‘great soul’. Having followed the path of non-violence and Satyagraha, he was recognised as a prime actor in the Indian freedom struggle with the British, not just in India but also in the West. However, perhaps many of us have forgotten another vibrant, powerful, and equally if not more, well-suited candidate of a titular ‘father’. It is none other than Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, fondly remembered as Babasaheb Ambedkar.
It is a well-known fact that during each of their lives, both Ambedkar and Gandhi were in an inflammatory contention of ideologies with each other, a moment in time which occurred right when the freedom struggle in India was intensifying. By placing their contention in the same context and following major themes of debates between the two men in areas concerning the caste system, women and feminism, movement of the working classes, and a general picture of a ‘free, modern Indian’ that both of them philosophised, this article argues that Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was the true ‘father of the nation’.
Challenging the Indian Caste System
The question of the caste system within Indian society was the topic of a most heated debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar. While Gandhi acknowledged the evil that Untouchability was ridden with, he was not very comfortable with the idea of completely doing away with the caste system, a stand that Ambedkar had always critiqued.
For Ambedkar, the caste system was concomitant only to one thing; subordination and indignity of lower castes (Shudras) and the outcastes (Atishudras or Avarnas). Gandhi believed that all the outcasted communities must be brought into the foray of Hinduism, which would bring about unanimity among all Hindus. However, this is exactly the idea that Ambedkar challenged, especially in one of his most radical pieces of writing, The Annihilation of the Caste System. The text is the speech that Ambedkar was supposed to deliver at the Jat-Pat-Todak Samaj, upon being invited by them to address the members, most of whom belonged to the upper castes. However, when the Samaj discerned the contents of his speech, they barred him from addressing the members most of whom were indefinitely upper-caste Hindu men. (Roy, 2017)
Quite similar to the members of the Samaj, Gandhi seemed to have deep anxiety that if the caste system was truly annihilated, it would bring about the destruction of the Hindu society. However, for Ambedkar, this was the exact goal he envisaged for the Indian society. Having personally witnessed the heinous levels of atrocities committed against the Dalits in the name of caste purity, Ambedkar had narrowed down Hinduism to be the root cause of the suffering of the lower caste communities in India. His statement “To the Untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors.” (Ambedkar & Moon, 2014 as cited in Roy, 2017) very aptly captured the nature of the caste system as experienced by those who did not earn the privileges of being born in a higher caste. Gandhi liked to believe that the atrocities within the caste system were an age-old practice, a notion that indeed got upholstering in the ongoing reformations within upper-caste Hindu societies.
However, if we observe the state of affairs when it comes to the caste system in India, it would be a gross disservice to the legacy of Ambedkar to not recognise the newly fuelled hatred that our present society is levying against the Dalit community in India, a fact that no longer needs substantiation from government statistics. Suffice it to say that Ambedkar was right about the future of modern India if the caste system was to be left unblemished.
Contribution to the Indian Feminist Movement
The Indian feminist movement owes a great deal to Ambedkar’s tracing of the root of Indian women’s subordination in society to the evil duality of Brahmanical Patriarchy. Ambedkar, being perhaps the first one to invoke this idea, had by this time stoked the fire against caste-based hegemony. However, to associate gender violence with caste-based hegemony, while being unprecedented, was to foreground the impact that caste hierarchies had on the idea of gender.
Again, when it came to the status of women in India at the time, Gandhi’s opinions were not one of the most feminist ones out there. Although historians attribute the galvanization of women in the freedom struggle to him, Gandhi was not in favour of women being given civil liberties and wished for them to lead lives only in the domestic space. The notion of a ‘father of the nation’ itself is a patriarchal one, which essentially gets accentuated by Gandhi’s standing on women’s liberation.
Although not widely accepted, Ambedkar has been a crucial contributor to civil rights and liberties for women. One of his most noteworthy contributions has indeed been his codification and reformation of the Hindu personal laws in India in the form of the Hindu Code Bill in the 1950s. This was a step in the right direction as for the first time, the law recognised women as citizens of the country. So, it isn’t just the Dalit community, but also women across all castes who were being recognised as enfranchised citizens of post-independence India.
Ambedkar believed that women were the ‘gate-keepers’ of the caste system, owing to the strict rules of endogamy and exogamy that were practised by most Hindus. He questioned the strong notions of shame and honour that were associated with women’s sexuality and social identity. (Ambedkar & Rege, 2013) On the other hand, a recent inquiry into his life has pointed out how Gandhi resorted to the exploitation of his young women followers by asking them to sleep naked beside him as a test of his own ‘celibacy’. (Pisharoty, 2020) As uncomfortable as this notion is, it does not negate the fact that Gandhi had some questionable notions about human sexuality in general, especially at the expense of women.
A lot of the areas addressed in the feminist movement inescapably has to do with women’s social and sexual rights, something that Gandhi was not too keen on. Modern-day feminist critique of Gandhi certainly has addressed this and also been at the receiving end of a re-analysis of the ‘true implications’ of the Gandhian approach to feminism. (Gudavarthy, 2008) Perhaps, we must all recognise the much more refreshing take that Ambedkar had on this front and also understand that his writings and ideas are an integral part of the Indian feminist movement.
Also Read: Women’s Movements in India
Solidarity with the Indian Peasant and Working-Class Movements
The Indian movement of the working classes is a key phenomenon within Ambedkarite politics. As mentioned above, although he is always associated with the Dalit movement against the upper castes, his contribution to the peasant struggle in India is quite noteworthy.
One of the main tenets of the peasant movement during the lifetime of Ambedkar was the conjoined solidarity of the marginalised castes as well as classes of people. This began with Ambedkar’s intervention into the Anti-Khoti movement in the Konkan region of Maharashtra during the late 1940s. His attempt to congregate the peasants and the Dalit community was a crucial point in the working-class struggle, highlighting his well-thought-out objective to bring about greater solidarity against the political power of both colonial and caste-overlords in India. (Pol, 2021)
Ambedkar has also been responsible for framing several laws keeping the notion of the ‘welfare state’ in mind, such as the Mines Maternity Benefit Act, Labour Welfare Fund, Women and Child Labour Protection Act, Maternity Benefit for Women Labour, and Restoration of Ban on Employment of Women on Underground Work in Coal Mines, among the many others. As for Gandhi, his writings while extensive and even profound, were very well ridden with subtle (and often overt) embellishes of casteism and even racism, two phenomena in India that have been responsible for the constant marginalisation of several communities.
Must India recognise a new ‘father of the nation’ ?
The contentions between Ambedkarite and Gandhian philosophy are manifold, with both parties engaging in a robust critique and iron-clad defence of each other. The new perception of Gandhi and his ideas are bound to make us question everything we ever knew about the ‘father of our nation’. However, this point in history is quite crucial because deifying certain individuals for their contributions tend to generate problematic historical essentialism, which in the wrong run, will do only harm to a young country like India.
Gandhi certainly won hearts by his doctrine of Satyagraha and non-violence. His benevolence made it easy for the world to like him. On the other hand, people have always been afraid of Ambedkar, thanks to the radical nature of his politics. Perhaps, a young India needs exactly that to change itself, to heal itself, to nurture itself. What India needs is, to recognise a new ‘father’.
When Ambedkar envisioned a modern India, he saw a young nation actively adapting to ideas of liberty and equality as he witnessed in the West. Gandhi feared that in pursuit of a Westernised lifestyle, Indian society and culture would perish. While Gandhi’s ideas were crucial for the solidarity amongst Indians, he failed to see and acknowledge that he envisioned a benignant, but predominantly Hindu society, which was ridden with a deep-seated disregard for true socio-political equality and justice. What we need to accept is that the question of Ambedkar being the true father of the nation will inevitably be a question in contrast to Gandhi’s contributions. Perhaps the answer to that question is affirmative; yes, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is the true ‘father of the nation.’
- Ambedkar, B., & Moon, V. (2014). Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (1st ed., p. 296). New Delhi: Dr Ambedkar Foundation in Roy, A. (2017). The Doctor and the Saint. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
- Ambedkar, B., & Rege, S. (2013). Against the Madness of Manu (1st ed.). New Delhi: Navayana.
- Gudavarthy, A. (2008). Gandhi, Dalits and Feminists: Recovering the Convergence. Economic and Political Weekly, 43(22).
- Pisharoty, O. (2020). Yes, Gandhi Was No Feminist But Should We Cancel Him For It? Retrieved 21 April 2021, from https://feminisminindia.com/2020/10/09/gandhi-feminist-racist-cancel-culture/
- Roy, A. (2017). The Doctor and the Saint. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
- Pol, P. (2021). Ambedkar’s Legacy Lives on in Anti-Caste Peasants’ Movements. Retrieved 21 April 2021, from https://thewire.in/caste/ambedkars-legacy-lives-on-in-anti-caste-peasants-movements