Home Opinion Ambedkar was wrong, Gandhi wrote against untouchability in Gujarati journals too

Ambedkar was wrong, Gandhi wrote against untouchability in Gujarati journals too

BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi
BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi | Commons

Ambedkar said it at a time when not many authentic compilations of Gandhi’s writings were available.

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s scathing views on Mahatma Gandhi and his approach towards caste are well-known. But he levelled a serious and sweeping charge on Gandhi in an interview he gave to BBC in 1955.

Replying to a question on whether Gandhi fundamentally changed India, Ambedkar said, “He (Gandhi) was all the time double dealing”. He summarily charged Gandhi for “deceiving the people”.

“In the English paper, he posed himself as an opponent of the caste system and of untouchability… But if you read his Gujarati magazine, you see, you will see him (as) most orthodox man. He has been supporting the caste system, the Varnashram Dharma, and all the orthodox dogmas… ” He then added, “The Western world only reads the English paper where Mr Gandhi in order to keep himself, you see, in the esteem of the Western people who believe in democracy was advocating democratic ideals, you see.”

Ambedkar suggested someone should “write Mr Gandhi’s biography by making a comparative study of the statements made by Mr Gandhi in his Harijan and the statements made by Mr Gandhi in his Gujarati paper”.

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Ambedkar said it at a time when not many authentic compilations of Gandhi’s writings were available.

But now we have 100 volumes of Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) along with its Hindi and Gujarati translations. It is hosted by Gandhi Heritage Portal (gandhiheritageportal.org). The same portal also has all the issues of all the journals published by Gandhi and his associates, including the ones referred to by Ambedkar.

Gandhi’s articles in Gujarati journals Navjivan (1919-1932) and Harijan Bandhu (1933 onwards) are also meticulously translated in English and have been included in the volumes of CWMG. So, Ambedkar’s claim in the interview that “all the biographies that have been written of him… are based upon his Harijan… and Young India but not upon the Gujarati writing of Mr Gandhi” was right in 1955. But it no longer holds true, with the publication of CWMG.

Gandhi asked Ambedkar to send a message for the first issue of Harijan, the English weekly. Ambedkar didn’t send one but wrote a note, which was published with Gandhi’s own comments (‘Dr Ambedkar & Caste’, Harijan, 11 February 1933 p.3). Contrary to Ambedkar’s claim about Gandhi in the interview, the latter had always remained firm in his opinion that “(caste system) has its limitations and its defects, but there is nothing sinful about it, as there is about untouchability”. He continued, “And, if it is a by-product of the caste system, it is only in the same sense that an ugly growth is of a body, or weeds of a crop. It is as wrong to destroy caste because of the out-caste, as it would be to destroy a body because of an ugly growth… .” (‘Dr. Ambedkar & Caste’, Harijan, 11 February 1933 p.3)

One may have many disagreements with Gandhi’s ideas, but he can’t be accused of presenting a different face to “the Western world”.

Let’s check Gandhi’s Gujarati writing. The editorial of the first issue of Harijan Bandhu, the Gujarati weekly started in March 1933, is titled ‘Gujaratione” meaning “To Gujaratis”. (Harijan Bandhu, 12 March 1933, p.4)

Harijan Bandhu | Credit: Gandhi Heirtage Portal, Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad

The article has been translated verbatim and included in corresponding volume of CWMG, like all his Gujarati articles. He clarified at the outset that “I am not at all eager to publish Harijan Bandhu merely for the sake of publishing it. I do not have that much time. Do not get upset by the fact that it will mostly contain translations from English… I shall have to write at least something addressed to Gujaratis only. I shall have to bear some burden therefore. To me, Harijan Bandhu is a special atonement. I have been pouring soul into this movement.” (CWMG Vol. 54, pg.62-64)

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He wrote to Gujaratis in the same piece, “I am not eager to die. I am eager to live and commit untouchability to the flames. And if I have to die in order to see that glorious hour, I am ready to die. The mantra of my life consists in making preparations of it. To live while untouchability lives is like cup of a poison to me.”

In fact, he wrote: “I should spend all my energy to kill the Ravana of untouchability”. (Harijan Bandhu, 12 March 1933 p.4) It was translated in English in CWMG as “employ whatever strength to subjugate the demon of untouchability”. (CWMG Vol.54, p.64)

Reflecting on Ambedkar’s threat of conversion, Gandhi wrote an editorial titled ‘Limitation of Reformers’ in Harijan (21 March 1936, p.44). Categorically criticising the conduct of “vast number of Hindus who call themselves sanatanists”, Gandhi wrote, “The wonder is that any more Harijans than already have, have not left Hinduism (sic).” This article was translated and published as an editorial in Harijan Bandhu titled ‘Sudharak Ni Maryada’ without slightest dilution or change of tone. (Harijan Bandhu, 22 March 1936, p.12)

The Harijan papers were banned in August 1942 due to the Quit India movement. After the ban was lifted and the papers were revived in 1946, Gandhi once again told his Gujarati readers to excuse him if they find in the Gujarati paper “more translations of my English articles than original Gujarati articles”. (CWMG Vol 83, p.113)

Harijan Sevak | Credit: Gandhi Heirtage Portal, Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, Ahmedabad

He published a translation of his English editorial (‘Its Implications’, Harijan, 10 February 1946, p.4) in Gujarati with the title ‘AshprushyataNivaran no Arth’ (Harijan Bandhu, 10 February, p.5) without any dilution. He said, “A Brahmin may be a depraved man in spite of his learning. It would be preposterous to call him one… It is character, not occupation, that determines the man. The Bhangi is or should be on a par with the Brahmin in all social relations… I would be happy to see the day when a Bhangi, working as such, is in the Presidential chair (of Congress).” (Harijan, 10 February 1946, p.4) The Gujarati translation used the word ‘durachari’ for ‘depraved’ and ‘julam’ for ‘preposterous’, making the Gujarati expression more direct and more pointed.

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Ironically, the accusation made by Ambedkar has had a long afterlife, and it keeps surfacing on the Internet and social media every now and then. But unlike in 1955, the veracity of his charge can easily be checked today by anyone who wants to learn the truth.

Urvish Kothari is a senior columnist and writer in Ahmedabad.