An Overview of "Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables"

Shramana Halder

Hinduism has plagued Indian society with the caste system that marks dignity and contempt to be hereditary. As the prospect of living with a ready reputation is fascinating to some, more so pungent is the denial of basic rights to a community for generation after generation. Untouchability mocks modernity day in, day out as the bullet train is promised to be running in India or a Dalit is forced to eat faeces. "Emancipation of the Untouchables," a paper that Ambedkar had read at the 1942 Pacific Relations Conference, brought the caste issue out in the world and demanded that it should be viewed with urgency and shame as being analogous to other forms of degradation of humanity like slavery, racism, fascism, and should not be belittled as an insignificant "internal matter" as propounded by Gandhi and the Congress. Once the formalities were completed, this paper was published in 1943 as a book by Thacker & Co. Ltd. for the general masses. It "was out of stock (with us) for nearly two decades" reports the publisher. The book was reprinted in 1972. Later on, the Government of Maharashtra published the text with the title "Mr. Gandhi and the Emancipation of the Untouchables" in 1990 in Volume 9 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. I am using the 1972 edition of the book published by Thacker & Co. Ltd.


Ambedkar's political pamphlet is 58 pages long and is divided into ten short chapters. Thematically, it deals with the political safeguards asked for the Untouchables and the Hindu opposition after giving a brief idea of their population and condition. Then he goes on to elaborate on the requisite demands in chapters 5-8. The next concern is whether caste should be taken into account while framing the constitution which he concludes it should be in a country like India. And he ends this robust text with some questions posed to the friends of the Hindus from the outer world, chiefly America.

(In Pic: Gandhi visiting Madras [now Chennai] in 1933 on an India-wide tour for "Harijan" causes. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Ambedkar by writing this paper is putting forward the aspirations of many other Dalits as he states the demands as addressing "[resolutions] which were passed at the All-India Scheduled Castes conference held in the city of Nagpur on the 18th and 19th July 1942" (Ambedkar 15). The first of these demands is that of the right to education. According to Capitalism, education is for everyone, sold, and bought. According to Hindu divine law, education is forbidden for Shudras. When Ambedkar has taken the space, he determines to get a proper endorsement of education – primary and higher; and, financial assistance. The basic education is going to create an environment of studying and further education when subsidised can change lives. It is not very unusual to see most of the Dalit children in primary schools not continuing in secondary schools, because growing up means different things to different people. The other object that reverberates throughout is that of representation. With other areas, opportunities are to be shared with the Dalits in education too. As their social situation puts them behind their classmates they are to be given some special encouragement like scholarships and reserved seats. At present, this text here does not discuss academic support, focusing instead on the political aspects.

Ambedkar insists on the representation of the Dalits distinctly from the Hindus in all legislatures, executive governments and, public services. Being grouped as the outcastes, the Dalits are denied basic rights and public exposure. To redress this and include them in social and political life, firstly Ambedkar pronounces them to get elected exclusively by the Dalit voters to the legislature concerning their needs and number. In the meantime, some seats are agreed to be set aside for solely the Dalit nominees if the election is commenced by joint/mixed electorates. The joint electorate cannot possibly work since the Hindus would inevitably choose a mock candidate to cater to their whims and no true representative would be elected as they are massively outnumbered in all the constituencies. If there is a purely territorial constituency, there is an utmost Hindu victory. The Hindu voters outnumber the Dalit voters sometimes even by 50 times in a random constituency. Even if some seats according to their ratio are reserved to be held by the Dalits only, in a mixed electorate the populace electing them would be predominantly Hindu. To grab their due, the Dalits have to impress a Hindu. "How could the Untouchables be legitimately asked to leave their interests into the hands of a people who are opposed to them in their motives and interests, who do not sympathise with the living forces operating among the Untouchables, who are themselves not charged with their wants, cravings, and desires, who are inimical to their aspirations, who in all certainty will deny justice to them and to discriminate against them and who because of the sanction of their religion have not been and will not be ashamed to practise against the Untouchables any kind of inhumanity." ( Ambedkar 46-47 )


The government executives should also consist of both the Hindus and the Dalits so that the Dalits have confidence in them. The idea that the executive should represent the majority of the legislature is absurd because "[the] will of the majority is the will of the majority and nothing more" ( Ambedkar 23 ). If you ask a writer to score brilliant in maths, he might or might not. If you ask to trust that the will of the majority and that of the minority would in important cases coincide it is more uncertain than the previous case. Also, it is highly unlikely there are no deserving candidates among the Dalits.


The next political demand Ambedkar makes is enough footing in public services by granting jobs to the Dalits who have crossed the minimum education bar simply because the education system is not democratic and higher studies require social security that most Dalits lack. Gandhi and Arya Samaj both held the view that 'varna'( from Varnashrama which Ambedkar considers the parent of the caste system ) should be based on worth, not birth. Whatsoever, they do not clarify when is the time to measure this worth. Be it 5 or 55 – it does not matter because what matters is how one spent those years. Hence it should be the minimum qualification that is to be asked from a Dalit and the age bar should be extended further. Ironically, it is self-government (swaraj) over the good government that Ambedkar intends.


One new and the most radical demand Ambedkar brings forth in this paper is the case of separate settlements. That means Dalits are to move into autonomous Dalit villages quitting the outskirts of existing Hindu villages. The misfortunes that meet the Dalits are largely due to this geographical situation. Various prohibitions stop them to take part in trade or farming so they are economically at the Hindu's mercy to earn meagre money toiling their bodies. The water and roads are also restricted. To grow to their "fullest manhood" thus the Dalits need to be away and independent. The government is to fund their rehabilitation and Hindus being the majority, the lion share of it is going to befall on them. Also, "[there] is no reason why they should not be asked to pay the cost of this scheme when they practically own the country." (Ambedkar 42). The government is to a) allot cultivable, unoccupied land to the settlement commission for arranging new residences for Dalits, b) Purchase private property to ensure nobody is turned down, and, c) provide the settlement commission annually a sum of 5 crores to carry on the process.


The Congress scheme of the election was akin to Ambedkar's as both of them advocate a representative government. Whether the basis of deriving a constituency is only geographical or social behaviours colour them is the main topic of the debate. Efficiency to be the sole criterion is the other part of it. And executives to be drawn from the majority in the legislature or a more precise method of representation should prevail in the final part. For a territorial constituency and joint electorate"[it] is equally certain that the Untouchables will lose all seats"( Ambedkar 26 ). Ambedkar takes the example of the Madras presidency and shows the disparity in the numbers of the said communities in all of the constituencies and explains how they work in the outcome. Ambedkar began this essay pointing on how numbers have weighed down on the Dalits. The Hindu, "[he] wants that if he is made to concede power he must not lose control over it. This is secured by joint electorates and frustrated by separate electorates. That is why the Hindu objects to separate electorates and insists on joint electorates" ( Ambedkar 30 ).


The primary grievance of the Hindus is that communal constituency instead of territorial would divide the country and fragment the nation. Ambedkar curtly declares the nation is yet to be created. As a result of living in the worst possible conditions, the Dalit, led by Ambedkar, has dared to dream of justice, living a better world. Even though it is not prevalent in society, the Dalits deserve their due respect. Because that is how it should be. Like many things equality is maintained when practised. Just as Hindus have long fought the war of independence to get their ways, their ways induce them to exploit the Dalits as they have done for a thousand years without any remorse. Ambedkar fears that and takes pain that the safeguards the Dalits are demanding are made to laws.


Power comes with the office which in this case was what Ambedkar wanted to achieve; not because he was an opportunist or he wanted fame for himself, but because that was the only way open to him to be heard. To make demands was not enough for Dalits, it needed to be backed by law. Thus the caste system must find its way to the constitution as it entered the city life and the modern age. Ambedkar praises Nehru's capability of moving the youth through writing and then mocks him as nowhere in his writings untouchability finds its place - ignorance typical of a leisured upper-class Hindu.


In the context of the Quit India Movement, Ambedkar asks Congress whether they had any concrete social, political, and economic plans for the Indians in the aftermath of Independence with other questions presented to the Hindus and their friends in the last chapter of this pamphlet. Later in 1945, M.K Gandhi wrote a booklet, Constructive Programme where he sketched out the process that would be simultaneously working towards independence through non-violence and self-help of each unit. Near the end of his booklet, Gandhi asks students to stay away from politics but to "be ready to quell riots by non-violent conduct at the risk of their lives" (Gandhi 34). By definition then non-violence is not politics, but dharma or religion. What would a happy man choose between his life and religion? Afraid masses choose religion because it offers a better life after this life. How repulsive one's life must be to have it gambled with the prospect of a pleasant after-life? The dharma-karma matrix asserts that the Dalits are living a prison sentence for their conduct in some other life. But what good carrying out a prison sentence is if the fault in the first place was not even one’s own? It is not a secret how often innocents confess to crimes they have not committed under pressure - the whole life of a Dalit is inside such a torture-chamber. When people treat you like insects for a long time, you never fully grow to be a composite human being. You remain with insects for the rest of your life. For the Dalit is neither happy nor a 'man' (in the actual sense of the word ) to consider a balance between life and religion or choose one over the other.


Arundhati Roy in her introductory essay to Annihilation of Caste notes the irony that the Ambedkar statue which itself is a revolutionary relic often carries The Constitution and not the Annihilation of Caste. A country with a colonial past holds on to 'their' constitution like some sacred scripture to guide them through as they step out in the world on their own. It maintains law and order and shapes the minds of the people – in other words, regulates the Hindu majority in India. No doubt, a Dalit's access to the legislature (office) scares Hindus. What is even more scary is reducing Ambedkar to just one of the major makers of the constitution from the extraordinary rebel he was, defying Hinduism and its caste system throughout. The emphasis on this peculiarity that is the caste system of India is what Ambedkar advocated to a general and wider audience. The country is approaching its 73rd year of independence and as India has recently passed communal laws, India is in the streets with copies of the Constitution and photos of Ambedkar (and also Gandhi side by side). It is time one tries and knows what the man fought for, what the discriminations he faced were, and what ideas he propagated.


Works Cited

Ambedkar, B. R. Emancipation of the Untouchables. Thacker & Co. Ltd.,1972.

______________. Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition. Edited by S. Anand, Navayana, 2014.

Gandhi, M. K. Constructive Programme. (Link: website)


Author Information

Shramana Halder studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Feminism, indigenous Marxism, popular art and people's art are some of the areas she is keen to explore. Since 2017 she has been working in a Dumdum-based theatre group called Candid Theatre.


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