BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi
BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi | Commons
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At the Round Table Conference [in London], Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed, both claiming that they were the real representatives of the Untouchables.

The conference went on for weeks. Gandhi eventually agreed to separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, but would not countenance Ambedkar’s argument for a separate electorate for Untouchables. He resorted to his usual rhetoric: ‘I would far rather that Hinduism died than that Untouchability lived.’

Gandhi refused to acknowledge that Ambedkar had the right to represent Untouchables. Ambedkar would not back down either. Nor was there a call for him to. Untouchable groups from across India, including Mangoo Ram of the Ad Dharm movement, sent telegrams in support of Ambedkar.

Eventually Gandhi said, ‘Those who speak of the political rights of Untouchables do not know their India, do not know how Indian society is today constructed, and therefore I want to say with all the emphasis that I can command that if I was the only person to resist this thing I would resist it with my life.’

Having delivered his threat, Gandhi took the boat back to India. On the way, he dropped in on Mussolini in Rome and was extremely impressed by him and his ‘care of the poor, his opposition to super-urbanisation, his efforts to bring about co-ordination between capital and labour’.


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


A year later, Ramsay MacDonald announced the British government’s decision on the Communal Question. It awarded the Untouchables a separate electorate for a period of twenty years. At the time, Gandhi was serving a sentence in Yerawada Central Jail in Poona. From prison, he announced that unless the provision of separate electorates for Untouchables was revoked, he would fast to death.

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He waited for a month. When he did not get his way, Gandhi began his fast from prison. This fast was completely against his own maxims of satyagraha. It was barefaced blackmail, nothing less manipulative than the threat of committing public suicide. The British government said it would revoke the provision only if the Untouchables agreed. The country spun like a top. Public statements were issued, petitions signed, prayers offered, meetings held, appeals made.

It was a preposterous situation: privileged caste Hindus, who segregated themselves from Untouchables in every possible way, who deemed them unworthy of human association, who shunned their very touch, who wanted separate food, water, schools, roads, temples and wells, now said that India would be balkanized if Untouchables had a separate electorate. And Gandhi, who believed so fervently and so vocally in the system that upheld that separation, was starving himself to death to deny Untouchables a separate electorate.

The gist of it was that the caste Hindus wanted the power to close the door on Untouchables, but on no account could Untouchables be given the power to close the door on themselves. The masters knew that choice was power.

As the frenzy mounted, Ambedkar became the villain, the traitor, the man who wanted to dissever India, the man who was trying to kill Gandhi. Political heavyweights of the garam dal (militants) as well as the naram dal (moderates), including Tagore, Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari, weighed in on Gandhi’s side. To placate Gandhi, privileged-caste Hindus made a show of sharing food on the streets with Untouchables, and many Hindu temples were thrown open to them, albeit temporarily. Behind those gestures of accommodation, a wall of tension built up too. Several Untouchable leaders feared that Ambedkar would be held responsible if Gandhi succumbed to his fast, and this in turn, could put the lives of ordinary Untouchables in danger. One of them was M.C. Rajah, the Untouchable leader from Madras, who, according to an eyewitness account of the events, said:

“For thousands of years we had been treated as Untouchables, downtrodden, insulted, despised. The Mahatma is staking his life for our sake, and if he dies, for the next thousands of years we shall be where we have been, if not worse. There will be such a strong feeling against us that we brought about his death, that the mind of the whole Hindu community and the whole civilised community will kick us downstairs further still. I am not going to stand by you any longer. I will join the conference and find a solution and I will part company from you.”


Also read: 17th Lok Sabha looks set to confirm Ambedkar’s fears: no vocal Dalits in Parliament


What could Ambedkar do? He tried to hold out with his usual arsenal of logic and reason, but the situation was way beyond all that. He didn’t stand a chance. After four days of the fast, on 24 September 1932, Ambedkar visited Gandhi in Yerawada prison and signed the Poona Pact. The next day in Bombay he made a public speech in which he was uncharacteristically gracious about Gandhi: ‘I was astounded to see that the man who held such divergent views from mine at the Round Table Conference came immediately to my rescue and not to the rescue of the other side.’ Later, though, having recovered from the trauma, Ambedkar wrote:

There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act . . . [I]t was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed under the Prime Minister’s Award and agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus. It was a vile and wicked act. How can the Untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere?

According to the Pact, instead of separate electorates, the Untouchables would have reserved seats in general constituencies. The number of seats they were allotted in the provincial legislatures increased (from seventy-eight to 148), but the candidates, because they would now have to be acceptable to their privileged caste–dominated constituencies, lost their teeth. Uncle Tom won the day. Gandhi saw to it that leadership remained in the hands of the privileged castes.

This excerpt from The Doctor And The Saint by Arundhati Roy has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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17 Comments Share Your Views

17 COMMENTS

  1. Gandhi was a poster boy in short a dalaal who has used people as pre independence people were not educated, no unity among themselves especially Hindus which was the main reason of partition on the line of religion.

    Whatever big decision whether on untouchable, forcefully remove Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose from Congress, Gannddiie assured that maximum harm to be done to Hindus & to be get patted himself that He is very great leader, a visionary who has done some obligations for doing his service on India & Indian 🇮🇳👳

    Is gannddiie was so concerned for untouchable He never marry his any son with untouchable for information Gannddie had 4 sons

  2. Ambedkhar is the real leader of the downtrodden. Where as gandhi pretend to be the representative. Ambedkhar does not want the power to be given to the untouchable but if power is to be given it must be given to all. In this regard he wanted a separate electorate. Where the true representative of schedule caste get elected by themselves and their problems to kept in loksabha. This is what his vision of separate electorate but in present the dummy are in loksabha. If u could observe since 2014 not even a single problem of sc did not come in loksabha for discussion. Because no hindu leaders will talk on the problems of sc which ambedkhar knew very well so he demanded for separate electorate. Gandhi did hunger fast for not giving a separate electorate for untouchable but y did not do that hunger fast to stop India Pakistan separation. I leave this to you to know his greatness …
    One single hug is not going to change these many years suffering.. And this separate electorate is demanded by ambedkhar not by British government…

  3. The battle of Ambedkar was not for power and wealth but it was for equality and freedom.Dr. B.R.Ambedkar is a supreme leader of Independent India where Mr. Gandhi stands nowhere.
    What were the steps taken by Gandhi to eradicate untouchability , to improve livelihood of downtroddens in independent India?
    Mr. Gandhi’s message to hug dalits to proove brotherhood was a real drama.By simply Hugging dalits could not going to solve the problem of dalit which were the part of hinduism since thousand years.Gandhi knew that one can’t defeat Dr. Ambedkar ideologically so what he did in true sense called blackmailing .Through this article author put reality in front of people which will never be accepted by so called hindus.Ambedkar saved life of Gandhi.Ambedkar realised that this society and leaders will not give equal right to downtrodden-untouchables in Independent India.Finally, he rejected Hinduism and accepted Buddhism by giving famous 22 vows.

  4. The print has put up a very nice post today. Many would say Gandhi was greater but fact remains that Gandhi was no Mahatma for dalits. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar did the most for dalits in India.

  5. If Gandhi was seeing a bigger picture then why was he killed by a patriot? Pls someone explain this to me….educate me…THankyou…

  6. In many comments it can be seen that Gandhi was a visionary and baba saheb was not. If that was actually the case why Dalit are still struggling for social equality. Though with reservation certain sects have levelled themselves but still are fearful to openly talk about their caste as the rest of community does. Why is it that educated dalit are looking to adopt Buddhism . One who is suppressing people would never want them to stand eqaul to them and that was the case 5000 years ago, 100 years and even today. So stop saying that you people are concerned and help the poor. You only tell stories of sharing food with poor so that they feel obliged. The caste system obviously gives enjoyment to the upper caste but is never an intrinsic growth model

  7. Dr.Baba Saheb Ambedkar was a great intellectual and a statesman.Messiah of downtrodden.Whereas the so called mahatma was a hypocrite and has no vision at all to uplift the downtrodden .He only preaches and never practised.

  8. Ambedkar might have been the architect of indian Constitution but in comparison with gandhi he is no where near. How can the dalits be separate electorate?This is ofcourse the plan of the British to divide india permanently but gandhi came to the rescue. The author conveniently trying to push her point with unnecessary and non reliable facts. There is a thing going on india to defame gandhi and the author is trying to play her role. Who ever tried to project gandhi in bad color have all gone to dust. Let us respect our father of the nation gandhi and try not to indulge in these silly and useless acts.

  9. If anyone critisises Ambedkar, if feel soooo painful. The reason is simple
    (He lost his wife, children, health, a potentially happy life, good and lucrative jobs, recognition in his life…..the list goes on…
    However he gave back India a lot, even the GIVING list goes on.

  10. Its a undisputable mathematical fact that 49 is less than 51.

    In a parliamentary democracy, all votes are taken by at least simple majority. If you only have 51% numbers, its as good as 100%. 49% or less is as good is 0%.

    If Dalits had 15% separate seats, as proposed by Ambedkar, then thats as good as zero if they could not get along with anyone else.

    So whats the point of have separate electorate when you absolutely have to cooperate with others?

    This is a nonsense debate, and the print should apply some mind before posting such logically stupid articles.

    • Separate electorate of untouchable at that time meant that -representative candidates will be from untouchables and only untouchables will vote 4 them.
      The simple motive was that untouchables were 2 be ruled by the untouchables until they attain social, economic freedom to put them in mainstream aftermath.
      1st try 2 become atleast jack of something (if not master of) before advising anyone else.
      Ambedkar and his ideas are incomprehensible 4 whatsapp university students, so leave it in that case and if u r not, try to know it.

    • from untouchables and only untouchables will vote 4 them.
      The simple motive was that untouchables were 2 be ruled by the untouchables until they attain social, economic freedom to put them in mainstream aftermath.
      1st try 2 become atleast jack of something (if not master of) before advising anyone else.
      Ambedkar and his ideas are incomprehensible 4 whatsapp university students, so leave it in that case and if u r not, try to know it.

    • Separate electorate at that time meant that representative candidates will b from untouchables and only untouchables will vote 4 them.
      The simple motive was that untouchables were 2 be ruled by the untouchables until they attain social, economic freedom to put them in mainstream aftermath.
      1st try 2 become atleast jack of something (if not master of) before advising anyone else.
      Ambedkar and his ideas are incomprehensible 4 whatsapp university students, so leave it in that case and if u r not, try to know it.

  11. I do not understand how “ separate electorates “work. Almost like an internal partition of the country. However, giving Dalits 15% reservation in the seats for Parliament and the state Assemblies guarantees them a proportionate share of power. The policy of reservations in government jobs and education has also conferred tangible, lasting benefits, although these are being cornered by a self perpetuating elite. Would it be fair to say that Mahatma Gandhi was seeing the large picture, while Dr Ambedkar was – rightly – more focused on the concerns of the Dalit community.

  12. Mahatma Gandhi used to sing:

    “Lo achchuton ko chchati laga dostoan, warnaa yeh laal auroan-ke ho jaayen-ge”.

    A rough translation would be:
    “Hug our untouchables tight, oh my friends,
    Or these sons will slip away into unknown folds”.
    One can guess from the above that Gandhi ji wanted an acceptance of untouchables to evolve from within Hinduism, rather than push them into the folds of an alien identity. The former would take some time he knew, but the latter would create a permanent gulf between them and the Hindus. The British always believed in “divide and rule”, so it’s not surprising that they offered a separate electorate for the untouchables as is mentioned in this article. Twenty years was long enough a duration, and the British knew that this arrangement once initiated would very likely come to stay for all times.

    Only those who are better versed in modern Indian history than I can comment on how far the words and stand attributed to Ambedkar in this article are correct. But if they are, then clearly Shri B.R. Ambedkar wasn’t as great and farsighted a leader as Mahatma Gandhi was.

  13. To me both Ambedkar and Gandhi were great men. This is an article written when the Narrative is set first and then convinient facts are used to set the narrative. The writer is a gold defination of who a Liberal is. Elitist, cut from reality, stuborn and thinks that only what he/she knows is the truth and other people are idiots. No wonder why all such people have become irrelvant in today’s times. No on is more bitter towards others than these elite liberals.

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