The leader of the Untouchables’ liberation movement, or what later became known as the movement of the ‘’Dalit’’ (literally, ‘’the crushed’’ in Sansrkit) Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar did more than stand up to Mohandas Gandhi. He was one of the leading figures of the Indian independence movement against British colonialism. British colonial liberals and progressives who favoured Gandhi at the time, and who feared the rage of the underclasses did their best to overshadow his legacy. This article touches upon the implications of the strife and rivalry that arose between Ambedkar and Gandhi, showing what Gandhi’s struggle with Ambedkar meant for Indian society and for the plight of the Untouchables, and the Dalit movement’s rejection of Hinduism, even the pacifist neo-Hinduism of Gandhi.
Gandhi’s enormous achievements were not the whole story of India’s independence struggle. The liberation-effort encompassed elements that were not aligned with Gandhi and that were striving to achieve a much more profound and thorough upheaval and lasting change in the power structure of India. Elites such as the Brahmans dominated this power structure. Their exploitation of immense under-classes persisted after the departure of the British and the successes of the national liberation movement. These inequalities remained, even though many activists and movements at one point seemed likely to be successful in their struggle to change their country more dramatically than stopping at the ousting of British colonialism.
This essay also examines the use of the ‘’Aryan invasion theory’’, a fable of Western colonial anthropology and eugenics, by Brahman elites in India.
The Aryan invasion theory is a hypothesis which Orientalist scholars championed in the 18th and 19th centuries about an Aryan race invading ancient India. Brahman upper class groups used this theory, which colonialism brought to them, to justify what Ambedkar called the ideology of “Brahmanic Supremacy,” by imagining they were of different ethnic and racial stock than the excluded lower classes and Dalits.
To the background of this exposé of the Aryan invasion theory, which Ambedkar was among the first to contest, Ambedkar also exposed about how class and racism are inextricably intertwined.
A story even more underexplored than the struggles of Ambedkar, was his belief that the origin of his caste had to do with the untouchables’ ancestors’ mass conversions to Buddhism. Ambedkar reembraced Buddhism after contemplating, then rejecting the dogmatic Maoist worldview then available to the world’s colonized agrarian masses. For Ambedkar, Buddhism functioned as a form of ‘’Liberation Theology’’ with social and political connotations of the Dalit’s (Untouchables’) endorsement of Buddhist teachings or Neo-Buddhism.
Gandhi, among others, compared the position and function Untouchables of India to that of the Jews in Christian Europe. It is perhaps quite possible, even necessary, to compare the historic plight, status and experience of Jews and other minorities in Christian Europe to Untouchability in India, summing up by showing how the modern era’s National Socialist movement finally invoked the same Aryan Invasion theory to justify their destruction of Europe’s Untouchables.
Untouchables or Crushed
“Untouchables” are the outcastes of the Hindu Chaturvarna or Caste system in India. They comprise a wide variety of groups from the lowest social strata of Hindu society. The Indian National Congress’ Constitution of 1950, which B.R. Ambedkar coauthored, outlawed the practice of Untouchability. At that time, of the 300 million Hindus then in India, roughly 60 million were untouchables.
Untouchability is a class phenomenon rather than an ethnic group. In his book The Untouchables, Who Were They and Why they became Untouchables? Ambedkar compares the plight of the untouchables to certain other neglected classes in India’s social fabric, namely the so-called Criminal Tribes, who numbered then 20 million, and “the aboriginal tribes,” who numbered 15 million. The “criminal tribes” were tribes that, like untouchables and “aboriginal tribes,” faced exclusion from mainstream Hindu society. The “criminal tribes” were apparently prohibited from practicing any trade that was not illegal or relating to the criminal underworld. This created a kind of clandestine market or shadow economy for these tribes to subside on. One could perhaps compare their situation to how Christian societies more or less forced European Jews to practice usury and interest rates, business which ecclesiastical authorities prohibited Christians from doing.
Untouchables faced exclusion from the system of Hindu worship. They were not allowed to recite or read sacred texts or attend Yajna rituals. Famously, Untouchables’ breath, the sound of their voice, their shadow were all allegedly polluting to Caste Hindus, like an imagined leprosy which Caste Hindus quarantined through systematic social isolation and discrimination. Dalits traditionally must perform lowly occupations, such as sanitation work, janitorial labor, butchering and fishing. They have typically lived in impoverished ghettos on the outskirts of Hindu villages. Even up to the present, Caste Hindus such as landlords, subject untouchables to violence. There are many cases of rapes, assaults, mass-murder and pogroms. There is also much structural violence in how untouchable communities are marginalized into socio-economic misery.
Recent decades have seen the emergence of a “Dalit” movement. “Dalit,” a word popularized in the seventies, is Sanskrit for “Crushed” or “Oppressed,”
an affirmation of the social and historical reality Untouchables have endured for centuries. India has seen the rise of such groups as the Dalit Black Panthers
, a militant organization which clearly differentiated, like most Ambedkarites, from the pacifist politics of Gandhi who sought to create an illusion of unity, harmony and cohesion among the whole of Hindu society. The “Dalit Black Panthers,” like other militant organizations around the world borrowed their name and drew inspiration from the efforts of black nationalists in the sixties-era United States. Thanks partly to educational efforts that originate largely in Ambedkar’s attempts to uplift untouchables, a canon of Dalit literature, including influential Indian poets, has developed.
The Aryan Invasion theory is the claim that an invasion of Indo-Aryan warriors from outside of India—according to B.G. Tilak, for example, they originated in the Arctic circle, whereas others suggest somewhere between Western Europe and Central Asia—swept into India, colonizing and conquering the more darker skinned races that inhabited such places as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. This hypothesis has come under fire in recent decades in scholarly debate. The Indian right wing also now condemns the Aryan Invasion Theory as conjecture, because that theory suggests a foreign, non-nationally-rooted source for Hinduism and Indian Culture, which believers of Hindutva and Hindu fundamentalist superiority find threatening. According to Klostermaier in his book A Survey of Hinduism, the scholarly debate “has largely degenerated into an ideological battle. The defenders of the Aryan invasion theory call everyone not on their side ‘fundamentalist Hindu,’ ‘revisionist,’ ‘fascist,’ and worse, whereas the defenders of the indigenous origin of the Veda accuse their opponents of entertaining ‘colonialist missionary’ and ‘racist hegemonial’ prejudices.”
Ambedkar was one of the first authors to contest the theory. His arguments against it, as early as the 1940s, went unnoticed in a time when most scholars took its veracity for granted. The political function of his opposition was to resist “the Brahmanical vision of the Hindu nation, represented for him not only by the Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) but the Gandhian Congress as well.”
Many present-day Indian scholars claim the purpose of theory was to legitimize the colonial and missionary project of Britain in India by imagining that Indian civilization’s cultural heritage had come from an invading force that conquered dark indigenous inhabitants.
Scholarship now points to a much older date for Vedic culture in India.
Ambedkar in his book Who Were the Shudras, according to scholar Arvind Sharma, cites nineteenth century Indologist Max Muller, who had been the main proponent and champion of the Aryan race theory but went on to recant and say that there was no such thing as an “Aryan race,” that by “Aryan” he understood a linguistic reality, “nothing other than language.” Muller later insisted “I have declared again and again that if I say Aryas I mean neither blood nor bones, hair nor skull. I mean simply those who speak an Aryan language.”
Muller went on to denounce advocates of such a category as “Aryan race” to be guilty of “downright theft.”
Muller’s attempts to reverse this wrong went largely ignored throughout much of his lifetime, according to such scholars as Romila Thapar who wrote half a century after Ambedkar. To further argue for his conviction that Arya denotes the speakers of the Sanskrit language and not a race, he point to 31 places in the Rig Veda wherein the word “Arya” is used, saying “in none of these is the word used in the sense of race.”
Ambedkar goes on to attempt disproving the Invasion theory in his The Untouchables, in Chapter VII, “Racial Difference as the Origin of Untouchability.” He cites an Orientalist, Stanley Rice, who in his book Hindu Customs and their Origins divides the origins of Untouchability into two factors: race and occupation. The “race” aspect entails a theory that the Untouchables descend from the pre-Dravidian aborigines, who inhabited parts of India and who an invasion of Dravidians conquered and enslaved. According to Rice the noble Aryan race around 1500 BC then invaded, in turn conquering the Dravidians who they made Shudras.
Ambedkar exposes such theories as speculation and contrived, going into a study of the real meaning of such names as Aryans, Dravidians, Dasas and Nagas.
The advocates of the “Aryan race” theory pointed to a Rig Veda verse mentioning a defeated people who were “anasas.” These scholars translated “anasa” as “without noses,” thereby inferring that these were a flat-nosed people. Ambedkar and more recent scholars interpreted “anasas” as meaning “speechless,” a more figurative, literary term that is not a racial category.
Ambedkar describes an ancient Aryan culture that, rather than being static, homogenous and monolithic like Aryan Race theorists imagined, was diverse, and complex, including a spectrum of cultures, customs, mythologies, etc. that differed across time. Ambedkar differentiates between Rig Vedic Aryans and Atharva Vedic Aryans. He also proves had many Aryans practiced “unclean” occupations, and that Aryans often had Aryan slaves, thereby discrediting beliefs in ethnic origins of an occupational slave-class, of Shudras and untouchables.
Brahman elites, according to Ambedkar, used the Aryan-invasion-theory of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which they encountered through contact with British colonialism to mythologize their origins and justify what Ambedkar called “Brahmanical supremacy.” They imagined themselves to be of another, superior race than the Atishudras, closer to the British colonists. Indian elites such as Brahman landlords used this belief to justify their maltreatment of their lower class subjects.
The untouchables, however, were not the only group to suffer at the hands of powers invoking the myth of an Aryan race: during the most intense period of India’s social upheaval, the Nazi movement in Germany also imagined themselves to be an Aryan race. These self-described Aryans would invade many countries, subduing Untermenschen or lesser humans such as the inhabitants of Slavic countries, the way the Aryan invaders supposedly subjugated Dravidians. They waged pogroms, massacres and atrocities against what could be considered Europe’s Untouchables, the European Jews and gypsies, who the Nazis imagined as the exact opposite of Aryans. The Aryan invasion theory was partly modeled on European Orientalists’ trying to re-imagine Europeans as a Chosen People replacing the Jews: whereas there is little proof of an ancient blue-eyed European invasion of India around 1500 BCE, the Old Testament speaks of the ancient Israelites entering Canaan and conquering it from the Canaanites to seize the Promised Land.
Proponents of the Aryan Invasion theory initially referred to Biblical belief and estimated that 4005 years before Christ the God of Genesis had created the world, which is why they claimed the Aryans invaded India at 1500 BC when in fact the Vedas’ presence in India is far older.
From Time Immemorial: Ambedkar’s demystifying of Untouchability
Ambedkar in his 1948 book The Untouchables aims to systematically deconstruct the claims and misconceptions that surround the issue of the Untouchables, their origins, the source of their inferior status. Some misconceptions tackled are based on the Aryan invasion theory, which we previously looked at. A general belief about Untouchability was that it was decreed by the Manu smriti, a book of Hindu religious law, which Hindus attribute to Manu, the first man, the Indian Adam. A general misconception is that untoucability begins with the Vedas. Ambedkar finds Untouchability to be, rather than an ancient phenomenon, a medieval one, which consolidated and took form around the year 400 AD, when the Hindu Gupta Emperors outlawed the eating of beef and killing of cows and oxen in their legal code.
This took place after a bloody seizure of power by Brahmans, headed by Pushya Mitra, who committed regicide, murdering Buddhist king Brihadratha Maurya who Brahmans conspired against and killed. The Manu Smriti was written at that time and justified this new order. The Manu Smriti legitimized regicide, Chaturvarna, animal sacrifice and Brahmans’ resorting to arms.
According to Ambedkar, the origins of Untouchability are twofold: they find root in India’s Buddhist past, which had until Ambedkar’s time been largely forgotten and resigned to oblivion; and in the dietary conventions and laws of Brahmins towards beef-eating and the killing of cows, but this second point originates in the preceding one: India’s buried Buddhist past.
There are numerous explanations as to why Buddhism at some point virtually disappeared from the Indian subcontinent while it flourished in other Asian countries. Scholars have attributed it to various factors, one being an economic crisis caused by the demise of the Roman empire. This financial crash affected the Indian subcontinent—then dependent on trade with Roman provinces—to such an extent that sanghas, Buddhist monasteries, could no longer subside or find economic support and had to close.
Another theory is that the similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism made Buddhism so indistinguishable from Hinduism that there was no longer any point in being Buddhist as it was not that different from or adding anything novel to the pre-existing religious tradition. Though this argument has some validity, Hinduism probably began to resemble Buddhism more and differences began to erode because the formers’ adherents, proponents and authorities were under immense pressure from Buddhists and Buddhism. According to Ambedkar, Buddhists—who, he claims, were at one point the majority in India as many Indians had converted to the religion of the “Rebel Saint,” Siddartha Gautama Buddha—among the laboring classes in India objected to the waste and cruelty of Brahman priestly elites’ Yajna sacrifices of cows. To poor peasant masses in an agricultural society who subscribed to Buddhist ethics, the sacrificial killing of cows which could otherwise provide sustenance and livelihood was an act of excess, outrageous. Buddhists had less qualms objecting to Brahman behavior as Buddhism does not recognize the Chaturvarna or Caste division of Hindu society. Ambedkar argues, by citing laws from Hindu sacred texts including the Vedas, the Brahmans originally practiced beef-eating and frequently made Yajna sacrifices of cattle.
Buddhist outrage against the Brahmans’ ritual slaughter of cows, and Buddhist animosity to Caste privilege, seemed to be a premonition of class upheaval threatening Brahman power in the Indian power structure, which impelled these elites to make a compromise. They outlawed the sacrifice of cows and eating of beef, reinterpreting Rig Veda verses about the cows being sacred animals as meaning that one could not kill a cow. This injunction is retrospectively imagined as the Vedas, like many ancient religions, do not see a contradiction between sacrificing an animal and that creature being sacred, worthy of veneration etc.
Moreover, Brahmin elites saw a need to compete with rising Buddhism. Therefore, in a reactionary gesture, they adopted vegetarianism—which was then not a widespread Buddhist or Hindu practice—to go one step further than the Buddhists who advocated abolition of animal sacrifices.
It is possible that Ambedkar’s book also reflects the political reality of his day. The Brahman elites trying to appease and pacify Buddhist lower classes, in order to not be overthrown, bears similarities to how Indian elites were attempting to pacify social and class upheaval in early twentieth century India, such as the various peasant revolts and the unrest created by the untouchables who later joined Ambedkar’s movement representing them.
Ambedkar saw Gandhi’s attempt at appeasing the Untouchables by naming them Harijan, People of God, or Folk of Krishna, and thereby trying to artificially include them in Hinduism, as ignoring centuries of Brahman oppression and Hindu exclusion and discrimination as well as denying the alleged Buddhist past of the Dalits. Gandhi, a champion of a new version of Hinduism—one influenced by the thought of Christian anarchist writer Tolstoy and the esoteric Theosophical Society, as well as Gandhi’s own ideas concerning the doctrine of Ahimsa—was seen by the Ambedkarites and Indian Communists as a friend of the Indian ruling elites and Brahmans. Ambedkar referred to Gandhi’s esteemed friend President Nehru as “just another Brahman” and said of the Indian National Congress, which became Gandhi’s party, “Congress is the kept whore of the Brahmans and the merchants.”
Ambedkar’s Buddhism as a Form of Dalit Resistance
Ambedkar’s mass conversion of 3 million Dalits to Buddhism was an attempt to recover the lost dignity of the outcastes, who, according to Ambedkar, were originally Buddhists. Ambedkar’s efforts single-handedly restored the once lost, dormant Buddhist tradition to Indian religious life.
Ambedkar claimed Buddhism’s decline originated in Brahman conspiracies, in the medieval power grab and destruction of Indian Buddhism that according to him the Brahmans had carried out in Indian Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
As mentioned earlier, Ambedkar thought that Buddhism was once a contender for dominance in Indian religious life, threatening to become India’s major religion. Ambedkar and his colleagues saw Buddhism as a revolution, a revolutionary movement opposed to caste and to Chaturvarna, and which had threatened to topple the Brahmins from power. It is likely that Ambedkar’s interest in reviving Buddhism was related to this history, to this view of Buddhism being a revolutionary force threatening and overthrowing a decadent, reactionary Hinduism and the power of the Brahmins whom Ambedkar despised.
Ambedkar saw religion as a “social force” and “source of power.”
Contrary to popular views on religion, Ambedkar stressed that religion should not aggrandize or ennoble poverty. He did not interpret the Buddhist and Christian messages of non-attachment to material possessions as an exhortation to tolerate social and economic inequalities, that pious people living in misery should accept the wealthy exploiting them. Instead, Ambedkar claimed that Buddha and Marx both agreed on the need to abolish private property. He stated these beliefs in his speeches on Buddha and Marx at the Buddhist conference in Kathmandu in 1956. He thought Buddha to be more radical and severe in his teachings on relinquishing property, pointing to the lack of possessions among monks in sangha orders. He also thought the Buddha’s methodology of fighting social injustice, through pedagogical efforts, teaching, and action rooted in love, was more effective that Marx’s alleged strategy of power and violent revolution.
Ambedkar was a new kind of Buddhist, and an Indian nationalist with ideas of a kind of radical social democracy influenced by John Dewey (who Noam Chomsky often refers to in his critiques of corporate power in the United States) and not a communist, despite that his later followers in the Dalit movement, who see Ambedkar as their father and liberator, are often of a socialist or leftist bent.
Ambedkar thought that Marxism emphasized industrial labor and industrial workers, rather than agricultural labor and peasants. Much of the untouchable community comprised peasants involved in agricultural work. Part of India’s population still lived under feudal conditions, in serfdom. Marxists during and after the Russian revolution have commented on how Leninism contradicted basic Marxist theory, by organizing a so-called communist revolution in Russia, a country still living under feudalism and aristocracy. According to Marxist dogma, a country must first pass from feudalism to the capitalist order and mode of production, in order to create the superfluity of goods that will make a communist society possible after the workers’ revolution.
The fact that Marx largely neglected the plight of peasants, favoring industrial laborers, might have been a factor in Ambedkar’s rejection of communism, along with Ambedkar’s loathing of violence and his espousal of and firm faith in democratic institutions. He founded the Independent Labour Party in 1936, and according to his biographer Keer he was the first legislator in Indian history “to introduce a bill abolishing serfdom of agricultural tenants.”
Ambedkar had formerly said that the identity of a minority disappears once that minority no longer faces exclusion, oppression and discrimination from the majority. But he turned 3 million of the Dalits, from a socioeconomic class of oppressed people, into a religious minority, thus further articulating and defining a Dalit identity different from the Hindu majority in ways other than class. He hoped his revival of anti-Casteist, democratic and socially conscious Buddhism among the Dalits would spread to the rest of India, thereby unifying India across class and sectarian lines despite that the Untouchables would initially differentiate themselves from the rest of their countrymen by adopting another religion that had become near-obsolete there. This political take on Buddhism as a rational, democratic movement of liberation prepared large segments of the Dalit community who did not choose Buddhism to later adopt ideas of Liberation Theology, a Christian movement typically associated with Latin America and South Africa. The intellectuals who developed the Liberation Theology movement tailored it to the needs of the politically oppressed and economically impoverished, making post-independence Indian Dalit communities fertile soil for their ideas.
I think that the Buddhist belief in liberation from Samsara, the chain of rebirths, was in this case a metaphor for liberation from a repressive hierarchical and class-based society. The Ambedkarite Buddhists certainly identify the dukkha or suffering they experience as being largely rooted in their socio-economic misery.
Many Christians, such as the rebel peasants in the Rhineland and Germany during the time of the Reformation in Europe, who rose up against feudal authorities and landed nobility in the 16th century, saw the message of Christian redemption and salvation as a metaphor for their building a classless, egalitarian society where they would not be hungry, humiliated serfs living under feudalism. They imagined salvation in the form of such a classless New Jerusalem.
Similarly the Nirodha (or cessation of suffering) and Nibbana of Buddhist salvation for Dalit Buddhist converts must have been a metaphor for not merely transcending and abolishing Samsara but of hoping to transcend harshly stratified class-society.
Untouchables West and East: Parallels between Indian Untouchability and Europe’s Minorities
Gandhi is an essay touching on Palestine and his criticism of Zionism in 1938 wrote “My sympathies are all with the Jews. I have known them intimately in South Africa. Some of them became lifelong companions. Through these friends I came to learn much of their age-long persecution. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them.”
Gandhi said of Indian Untouchability: “The nearest approach to it found in the West is the untouchability of the Jews who were confined to the ghettoes.”
This comparison is, I think, not at all far-fetched, even though there are significant differences between Jews in the Middle Ages and Indian Untouchables. Untouchability is more a class denomination whereas Jews are typically identified as an ethno-cultural and religious minority, even though class did play an extremely important role in the treatment of Jews.
Not only the European Jewish experience resembles Untouchability. There is also the position and status of the “gypsy” or “Romani” communities in Europe since the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. During the Holocaust, Nazis massacred gypsies.
The Romani word for the genocide they endured, Porrajmos, means “the great Devouring.”
Ironically, many contemporary scholars believe that the gypsy ghetto populations of Europe possibly originated in migrations from Northwest India.
The Romani language bears close similarities to Sanskrit. Some Hungarian gypsies have, like Indian Dalits, even converted to Buddhism with the help of an Ambedkar-inspired pedagogical institution that has a Hungarian division to educate Romanis.
European Jews for centuries inhabited ghettoes and faced exclusion and discrimination from most institutions that were open to Christians. Medieval society, what we typically understand under the word “feudalism”—which is a modern word–was arguably organized according to the class division of the Pre-Christian Indo-European society. This society was divided into what the medieval Anglo-Saxon monk Aelfric called the bellatores, oratores and laboratores, translatable as the fighting class (bellatores), the praying class (oratores) and the toiling, laboring classes (laboratores).
There are also studies indicating that the ancient Latin word for priest, Flahen, is directly etymologically related to the word Brahmin.
The medieval aristocracy and landed nobility descended from the warrior or fighting class. The priesthood and monks of the middle ages inherited the status of the praying class and the serfs underneath them were the laboring class. Jews, who were forbidden to carry weapons or farm land and for obvious reasons were not in the Christian priesthood, seemed excluded from this hierarchical threefold division of feudal society. In this sense we could perceive them as similar to outcastes, who, like the Indian untouchables, also gained the status of despised outsiders because of reasons related to faith. In the Untouchables’ case it was their past Buddhism; in the case of European Jews, their religion and related power struggles with ruling elites and religious orthodoxy who had adopted different versions of Christianity as the official state religion. The oppressive policies of Christian clerical officials towards Jews were also important in strengthening and defining a particular version of Christianity that was different from other “Christianities” that were prevalent and popular in Late Antiquity.
Both populations lived in ghettoes and originated as economic immigrants and migrant populations. According to Ambedkar, the ancestors of untouchables were originally “Broken Men” from defeated and economically bankrupted tribes who emigrated into quarters on the outskirts of prosperous agricultural villages to gain subsistence from the agricultural based economy. The Broken Men had been formerly from nomadic cattle-herding, pre-farming societies.
In the case of Jewish groups, Jews were often migrants and immigrants who lived in special, marginal quarters. This immigrant aspect of Jewish life has persisted into the twentieth and twenty first centuries: Jews have consistently been economic immigrants to places like the United States, Palestine—now Israel, a recently established immigrant country—Argentina etc. The Russian Tsar before the Russian revolution banished Jews from Eastern European urban centers condemning them to live in an elaborate system of migrant slums called the Pale of Settlement.
European elites reinterpreted Christian scripture and theology to justify a traditional, Pre-Christian, Indo-European structure of society, the feudal socio-economic order, and cast the Jews as an accursed race guilty of being a polluting force. (Medieval beliefs attributed the Jews with poisoning of wells and defiling the sacred Host) They used the inferior position and persecution of Jewish and other lower strata populations to consolidate power, and probably to direct the aggressive energies of the laboratores or toiling serf class away from the oratores and bellatores onto a seemingly external enemy, allegedly foreign to this social fabric. This history bears strong similarities to how Brahman elites reinterpreted and reworked the texts of the Mahabharata and the Manusmrti to justify their power; changed their religious practices of Yajna cattle sacrifice and re-imagined their history, while mobilizing popular aggression of lower castes like the Shudras away from them and onto the inhabitants of Untouchable ghettos. This agitating propaganda probably gave Shudras the satisfaction of having a caste ranked beneath them, inferior to them. The untouchables and their misery in the Indian case were probably useful for the rulers’ consolidation of power and of this class system, a system which Gandhi would, more than a millennium later, come to uphold and sentimentally defend, much to the horror of the Untouchables and Ambedkar.
Gandhi chose to defend the righteousness and sanctity of Chaturvarna despite that his pacifism and philosophy of Satyagraha largely developed through his discipleship and influence under Leo Tolstoy, a nobleman turned Christian anarchist who sympathized with the suffering of Russian and European serfs and oppressed peasantry, and who believed in striving towards a stateless and classless future society.
As earlier mentioned, the perpetrators of violence against Europe’s Jews and gypsies, like the assailants of India’s Untouchables, would justify their oppressive measures by referring to the Aryan Invasion theory as scientific fact.
Ambedkar supported the formation of Pakistan when Gandhi and many Indians opposed it, saying that if Indian Muslims had “the will to live as a nation,” then their claims of nationhood were legitimate and so was Pakistan. (To support his arguments he referred, ironically, to writings of the notoriously racist Orientalist, Renan, on the nature of nationhood.) This is similar to the case of the Zionist movement in Palestine, who formed the state of Israel around the same date as the creation of Pakistan, 1948, also in the aftermath of a partition resolution.
Gandhi, Ambedkar, Congress and the pacification of class upheaval
Ambedkar in his book What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables called Gandhi “a mad man” “with the genius of an elf” who “can never grow up and grow out of caste ideology.”
The reason for this harsh language towards Gandhi—who is the subject of many modern-day hagiographies and who much of Western popular culture holds to be a saint of the twentieth century—was that he, in the eyes of the untouchable movement upheld Chaturvarna and strongly opposed the untouchables’ battle for self-determination and dignity.
Ambedkar accused Gandhi of harboring hatred towards machinery, Western civilization and technology. Gandhi legitimized and defended this belief system by referring to Western thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Ruskin and Tolstoy.
Gandhi allegedly thought mankind should do away with machines and advanced technology, even though it would be impossible, according to Ambedkar, to have such things as leisure and culture without them. Gandhi did not, however, reject class society or condemn the hierarchies of Indian civilization. Gandhi went to great lengths to justify the Brahmans’ privilege. His coining the term Harijan for the Untouchables in order to emancipate them was, in Ambedkar’s view, more evidence that Gandhi believed the Untouchables had to remain an isolated, separate population that could never integrate and unite with the rest of Hindu society or hope to obtain equal rights and dignity.
Gandhi is famous for his habits of peaceful protesting and making suicide threats of fasting to death in order to achieve political ends without violently assaulting the persons and property of others. Many would find it hard to believe that even pacifism can be at times a violent, oppressive political force that can serve ends which are not necessarily for humanity’s betterment.
In the early 1930s, Ambedkar, against the background of the Untouchables’ campaign of satyagraha to gain access to public wells in the village of Nasik, at the Round Table Conference demanded that the Depressed Classes (the Untouchables) receive “constitutional safeguards through separate electorates, prior to devolving a measure of sovereignity to India, whether within or outside the British Commonwealth.” Temporary separate voting constituencies for the Depressed Classes would have awarded them a degree of self-determination they had never previously attained. Gandhi fiercely rejected this proposal. Though he had conceded to special electoral constituencies for Muslims—perhaps hoping this concession would satisfy the Muslims and thereby prevent the emergence of Pakistan—he maintained that untouchables were Hindus, insisting “I cannot possibly tolerate what is in store for the Hindus if these two divisions (caste and untouchables) set forth in the villages 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.” According to B.A.M Paradkar’s study The Religious Quest of Ambedkar, when British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald “announced the ‘Communal Award’ which conceded separate electorates to the Untouchables,” Gandhi immediately declared a fast unto death to protest it, threatening suicide, “the object of which was to deprive the Untouchables of the benefit of the Communal Award by this extreme form of coercion,” according to Ambedkar’s 1945 j’accuse-like text.
This quarrel and subsequent negotiations between Gandhi and Ambedkar resulted in a compromise, damaging to the Untouchables, called the Poona Pact. Paradkar suggests that the closure of a political outlet—the thwarted dream of separate electorates—for the Depressed Classes’ frustrations, might have led to their mass conversions to Buddhism, a religious answer to replace the political one.
Furthermore, Gandhi condemned the 1929 Satyagraha of Untouchables against Hindus for admission to wells and temples. Gandhi at one point became president of the Indian National Congress. Ambedkar accused the Congress of acting in the interests of Indian and Brahman elites and upholding Untouchability. Former congress member Annie Besant, founder of the Theosophical Society and instrumental in proclaiming a Brahmin child, J. Krishnamurti, as Theosophy’s messiah, in her argument for maintaining the institution of untouchability, claimed every society has naturally “as the basis of the social Pyramid, a large class of people, ignorant, degraded, unclean (…) who perform many tasks necessary for Society. It springs from the aboriginal inhabitants (…) conquered and enslaved by the Aryan invaders.” She went on to elaborately describe how untouchables in their filth are as disgusting as British slum-dwellers, and defended the religious righteousness of Caste society and Untouchability.
Untouchability did not originate in a social order that an Aryan invasion created. It is not ancient, but stems from medieval India. Its origins are not racial or ethnic. If Ambedkar’s thesis is correct, Untouchability arose due to an attempt of medieval Indian elites to consolidate their power after the threat of social upheaval and after Brahmans organized political coups d’état. More than a millennium later, Gandhi, to whom many attribute the liberation of India from colonialism, seemed to fear the social chaos that Untouchables, later to be known as Dalits, might create if they succeeded in their power struggle. Gandhi, though radical in his philosophy, championed adherence to Caste society, at least according to Ambedkar and authors whom the latter influenced.
Ambedkar’s Buddhism bore some similarities to the approach to Christianity that the Liberation Theology movement advocated and was a medium for expression of Dalit ambitions for liberation from class oppression.
During the time India was struggling for independence, minorities in Europe, namely the Jewish population, became victims of the same Aryan invasion theory that Brahmans, influenced by colonialism, invoked to justify maltreatment of Untouchables. It appears European Jews were not alone in the darkest hour of their suffering.
Ambedkar, B.R. The Untouchables, Who were they and why they became Untouchables New Delhi, October 1948
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