The confrontation between Ambedkar and Gandhi was a historic one. It had its beginnings in the Round Table Conference of 1930-32, Ambedkar had gone earliest, as the prime representative of Dalits, or Untouchables. But when Gandhi finally decided to attend the second conference, he argued fervently that he represented the Untouchables, because they were an integral part of the Hindu fold – which he represented. To Ambedkar, Untouchables were not a part of Hindus but “a part apart” (a phrase he had once applied to himself), a uniquely oppressed people.
They could accept, even welcome, the coming of independence and its inevitable domination by Congress (ie by caste Hindus), but they needed “safeguards.”Ambedkar himself had originally felt that with universal suffrage, reserved seats would be sufficient. But universal suffrage was not given, and the issues at the conference revolved around separate electorates. Gandhi was reconciled to giving these to Muslims; he had already accepted their identity as a separate community. Not so for Dalits.
Ambedkar wrote, many years later, in What Congress and Gandhi have Done to the Untouchables, “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The Fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards. He felt that the whole system of reserved seats, then, was useless.
For years afterwards, the problem of political representation remained chronic. Ambedkar continued to ask for separate electorates, but futilely. By the end of his life, at the time of writing his “Thoughts on the Linguistic States” in 1953, he gave these up also and looked to something like proportional representation. But the Poona Pact remained a symbol of bitter defeat, and Gandhi from that time on was looked on as one of the strongest enemies of the Untouchables by Ambedkar and his followers.
The debate about the Harijan Sevak Sangh had as its background a fundamental difference in the very goals of Ambedkar and Gandhi. Ambedkar stood for the annihilation of caste. He saw untouchability as a fundamental result of caste and believed that there could be no alleviation, no uplift, no relief from untouchability without the abolition of caste. Gandhi here was not simply a devoted Hindu, but also a fervent believer in his idealized version of “varnashrama dharma.” He felt that what he considered to be the benign aspects of caste – its encouragement of a certain kind of solidarity — could be maintained while removing hierarchy and the extreme evil of untouchability. This was, in fact, the essence of his reformism.
Thus, an increasingly bitter conflict grew between Ambedkar and Gandhi with the fast, the Poona Pact and the formation of the Harijan Sevak Sangh.
Behind this were different views of humanity. Gandhi did not see untouchables as individuals born into a particular community; rather as somewhat unthinking members of an existing Hindu community; Hinduism he saw as their “natural” religion; their task was to reform it; they should not leave it. Ambedkar, in contrast, put the individual and his/her development at the centre of his vision and believed this development was impossible without a new, true religion. The confrontation was inevitable.
The confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar did not stop with these issues and events. The final difference between the two was over India’s path of development itself. Gandhi believed, and argued for, a village-centred model of development, one which would forsake any hard path of industrialism but seek to achieve what he called “Ram Raj”, an idealized harmonized traditional village community. Ambedkar, in contrast, wanted economic development and with it industrialization as the basic prerequisite for the abolition of poverty.
He insisted always that it should be worker-friendly, not capitalistic, at times arguing for “state socialism”, (though he later would accept some forms of private ownership of industry) and he remained to the end of his life basically a democratic socialist. To him, villages were far from being an ideal; rather they were “cesspools,” a cauldron of backwardness, tradition and bondage. Untouchables had to escape from villages, and India also had to reject her village past.
In sum, there were important and irreconcilable differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Two great personages of Indian history were posed against one another, giving alternative models of humanity and society. The debate goes on!