In a meeting with Amrita Dutta, a journalist last year, Kannada writer and activist Devnur Mahadeva had said, “People should not see Ambedkar and Gandhi as mutual opponents and opponents”. In the journey towards true equality, the two leaders should be seen as mutual and cooperative. Mahadeva said, Ambedkar had to wake up the sleeping dalits and then travel further. To take Gandhi a step further, he had to make great efforts to uplift, improve, transform those who were immersed in Hindu caste-religion (in the wells of caste). When you see all this, it seems that without Ambedkar’s presence, Gandhi might not have been able to walk that way. Similarly, I feel that without the liberal tolerant environment created by Gandhi in the wells of Hindu caste-religion, the ruthless Savarna society might not have been able to withstand Ambedkar as it was then. 

Mahadeva says, ‘If our understanding is that for the liberation of India from caste, the Savarnas need to be changed, then Gandhi is necessary. On the other hand, Ambedkar is undoubtedly necessary in the fight for Dalit civil rights. So I say, both should be brought together. ‘ 

Mahadeva explains, ‘untouchability is called Gandhi sin and Ambedkar crime’. Why are we seeing this as a contradiction? Today it is wise to consider both of them as necessary. I remembered the comments of Devnur Mahadeva when I saw the posters of Ambedkar and Gandhi together in protest of students in Delhi. It was rare, if not unexpected. It is very common to see that Gandhi and Ambedkar are considered different. Indeed, many times both are pitted against each other. Earlier generally, those who loved Gandhi used to see both Indian leaders as conflicting. Ambedkar frequently used controversial words to attack Gandhi and his ideas in the 1930s and 1940s. This would provoke such Congressmen, who could not tolerate even the slightest criticism of their beloved Bapu. He responded by calling Ambedkar a supporter of British rule. With all, Condemned him to remain on the Viceroy’s Executive Council during the Quit India Movement of 1942. In recent decades, Ambedkarites have also mostly criticized Gandhi. They describe Gandhi’s attempt to reform the caste-system as meaningless or half-hearted. He also accused Gandhi of defending his hero (during and after the Poona Pact) and also criticized Gandhi’s political successor Jawaharlal Nehru. Both were said to have been members of Azad India’s first cabinet, but Nehru did not fully utilize Ambedkar’s talent and potential in those years. 

The attacks on Gandhi by Dalit intellectuals in states like Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra were serious and unbelievable. However, underprivileged writers in Karnataka have a wider vision. In his brilliant book The Fleming Feet, the late DR Nagaraja urges us to see the work of Ambedkar and Gandhi as mutually complementary. When there was a need to pressurize both sides to weaken the caste-system and reduce untouchability, Ambedkar did the work of pressuring the Dalits and Gandhi was representing the upper-caste reformers. Nagraj and Mahadeva were friends, and of course both influenced each other. 

The students of Jamia and the women of Shaheen Bagh may not know the work of these two writers, but they are proving the point of Nagraj and Mahadeva. Like these two thinkers of Karnataka, the courageous protestors of Delhi are pleading with great affection not to put Ambedkar and Gandhi as conflicting, instead they are insisting that the two leaders should be seen as mutually supportive. The legacy of both leaders needs to be brought together in the fight for democracy and pluralism.

Delhi writer Omar Ahmed tweeted interestingly after visiting Shaheen Bagh that Ambedkar’s posters are more than Gandhi’s in the performance. He also wrote that people are moving from thanking a leader for independence to thanking a leader who has given him the tools to regain his rights as an independent citizen. After reading it, I retweet, ‘I agree, but with the caveat that when it comes to the promotion of Hindu-Muslim harmony, no Indian (not even Nehru) is equal to Gandhi.’ … Comprehensive It is amazing to see Ambedkar and Gandhi together, as they are kept in conflict, as we have become accustomed to seeing. Ahmed also agreed with me, he wrote that I also wanted to show that the two leaders were complementary to each other. … The leaders then had their own contradictions (and failures as well). It is good for people to choose what appeals to them personally. 

Of course, neither Ambedkar nor Gandhi were beyond mistakes. Both of them also made mistakes, also brought disharmony and prejudice. Nobody implements them mechanically, nor blindly follow them. We live today in a world very different from the one in which they lived. The political and technical challenges of the third decade of the 21st century are very different from the challenges of the mid-20th century. The moral and social challenges are broadly similar. The battle for caste and gender equality is also not over. Our struggle for harmony between faiths remains important and necessary, so today Ambedkar and Gandhi need to be kept in the same court to combat malicious forces. 


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