Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ambedkar Against Gandhi

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog, where it was first published in two parts (Part-I is here and Part-II is here). The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

A guilty liberal finally snaps, swears off plastic, goes organic, becomes a bicycle nut, turns off his power, composts his poop, ... generally turns into a tree hugging lunatic who tries to save polar bears and the rest of the planet from environmental catastrophe. - "No Impact Man" Colin Beavan

The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need but not every man's greed. - Mahatma Gandhi

The two quotes above are far separated in time and place, and may differ ever so slightly in phraseology, but they articulate a remarkably similar world-view: mankind has sinned against Nature by promoting industrial development, mass production, and mass consumption; the only way out is to abandon our vain attempts to achieve progress and growth, and instead, embrace a society based on limited ambition, limited needs and subsistence production.

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, venerated today as the "father of the nation," can be viewed from many different angles - there is Gandhi the nationalist; there is Gandhi the politician; there is Gandhi the prophet of non-violence; and then, there is the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj, the repudiator of modernity and technology and "Western-style" industrial development. It is this last anti-modern Gandhi that is ideologically very close to the eco-austerity paradigm advocated many environmentalists today.

Gandhi's rejection of modern civilization and development comes out most forcefully in Hind Swaraj, a short book he published in 1909. Here are some quotes.

Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word "civilization". ... Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labor. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth. This is called a sign of civilization. Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people's minds. ... This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion. ... This civilization is irreligion ... This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. According to the teaching of Mahommed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age.

To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. So doing, we know ourselves... We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors therefore set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich or unhappy because he is poor. .... Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures. We have managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago. We have retained the same kind of cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before. We have had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage.
Postmodernist scholar, Ashis Nandy, approvingly describes how this anti-modern Gandhi serves to inspire various fringe anti-development, anti-progressive movements today.
This Gandhi is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whiskey and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones. This is because ... he considers it more dangerous if ... long-lasting, deep-rooted Indian structures are created to produce superfluous items of mass consumption. ... This Gandhi - vintage Hind Swaraj - is also bit of a nag and a spoil-sport... It is this Gandhi who has guided the notorious agitation of Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam, Claude Alvares against Operation Flood, and Vandana Shiva against the Green Revolution.
In spite of Gandhi's iconic status in India, his Hind Swaraj world view was never widely accepted by the mainstream. In 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru (who was to become independent India's first Prime Minister in 1947) wrote to Gandhi, "it is many years since I read Hind Swaraj ... but even when I read it twenty years ago it seemed to me completely unreal." He further reminded Gandhi, "the Congress has never considered that picture (portrayed in Hind Swaraj) much less adopted it." It was the nationalist, non-violent, humanist Gandhi who Indians admired and respected - not the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj.

In my view, the most important critique of Gandhi's Hind Swaraj world view came from Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of modern India's most important thinkers and leaders.

Bhimrao Ramji 'Babasaheb' Ambedkar was born in 1891 to a family of "untouchables," who were (and are) at the very bottom of India's strictly hierarchical and hereditary caste system. With his father serving in the Army, young Bhim got a rare opportunity to acquire a modern education. He eventually earned doctorate degrees from Columbia University in the U.S. and from the London Schools of Economics in England, and qualified as a barrister in London. Ambedkar went on to become an important political figure in India and an inspiring leader of the untouchables, the poorest and most underprivileged section of Indian society. Ambedkar is known as the "chief architect of the Indian Constitution" and can be considered as one of the founding fathers of modern India. Today, Ambedkar and his ideas are held in great esteem by the Dalit movement (former untouchables now call themselves "Dalits," which means "oppressed"). Gandhi and Ambedkar are probably the two most revered and idolized figures in India today.

Ambedkar spent three years at Columbia University in New York City - three years that played a crucial role in his intellectual development. Especially influential was his professor John Dewey, of whom Ambedkar reportedly remarked, "I owe my whole intellectual life to Prof. John Dewey." Ambedkar eventually developed a political philosophy that was almost diametrically opposed to Gandhi's Hind Swaraj world view. In Ambedkar's view, the traditional Indian village economy and society - so favored by Gandhi - was fundamentally exploitative of the lower castes. Rather, Ambedkar saw modernity and economic and industrial development as fundamentally emancipatory for the oppressed. Here is a quote from Ambedkar.

In Gandhism, the common man has no hope. It treats man as an animal and no more. It is true that man shares the constitution and functions of animals, nutritive, reproductive, etc. But these are not distinctively human functions. The distinctively human function is reason, the purpose of which is to enable man to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life. ... The conclusion that follows is that ... the ultimate goal of man's existence is not reached unless and until he has fully cultivated his mind. ... How then can a life of culture be made possible? It is not possible unless there is sufficient leisure. ... The problem of all problems which human society has to face is how to provide leisure to every individual. ... Leisure means the lessening of the toil and effort necessary for satisfying the physical wants of life. ... Leisure is quite impossible unless some means are found whereby the toil required for producing goods necessary to satisfy human needs is lessened. What can lessen such toil? Only when machines take the place of man. ... Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute. ... The slogan of a democratic society must be machinery, and more machinery, civilization and more civilization. Under Gandhism the common man must keep on toiling ceaselessly for a pittance and remain a brute. In short, Gandhism with its call of back to nature, means back to nakedness, back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people.
Gail Omvedt, an American-born Indian scholar and activist, and a leading authority on Ambedkar, has this to say.
The great values of the Enlightenment and the French revolution are today under attack ... not only in India from advocates of pseudo-swadeshi who would see them as merely "Western" but also world-wide, from postmodernists and eco-romanticists who think "progress" is impossible... Eco-romanticism, taking its justification from Mahatma Gandhi, tends to see history as heading into a downspin. ... [They argue] that the French Revolution is finished; its ideals cannot be extended to Dalits, women or other sections of the marginalized in the world, and we must turn away from this vain effort to achieve "growth" to acceptance of a society based on limited needs, subsistence production, and stasis.

Many environmentalists today take the view that we must abandon the entire concept of development and progress, and should instead embrace the Gandhian ideal of a traditional village-based society with limited needs, limited ambitions, and small-scale subsistence production. They argue that there is no other way out since the earth is threatened by global warming and world is fast running out of its natural resources. I agree that global warming is a serious problem, and indeed, there are certain non-renewable natural resources, like oil, that are in short supply. However, I do not think that things like oil are our most important natural resources. Rather, our most valuable natural resources are human resources - human ingenuity, human creativity and human intelligence. And guess what? Human resources - with some nurturing - are infinitely renewable and have infinite potential. To me, the fundamental idea of development and progress means unlocking human potential - it means making more opportunities available to more people. This process may indeed involve some use of natural resources like oil, and possibly some greenhouse gas emissions, but over-use of natural resources and excessive greenhouse gas emissions are neither necessary nor sufficient for development and progress.

Traditionalism, as advocated by Gandhi, is not all bad. Our traditions and culture give us our sense of community and family. They give us pride and confidence, and a sense of security and belonging, and values that we hold dear. We live in a rapidly changing, globalized world and are faced with a bewildering array of choices. As we negotiate this perplexing but fascinating world, our traditions serve as our foundations, and make us conscious of who we are and where we come from. At the same time, it is extremely important that we embrace development and progress, which empowers us to discover new horizons and open up new vistas. As a well known saying goes, "there are but two lasting bequests we can give our children; one is roots, the other, wings." Tradition serves as our roots, while progress gives us wings.

Note: a slightly longer discussion of Gandhi's and Ambedkar's thoughts is available at my blog here.


Blogger rohit said...

i love ambedkarizm

August 04, 2009 12:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buddy....whats wrong with least Ur blog doesn't what u really wanted to convey...Anything conveyed by Gandhi, where he has stupid romanticism about the village and village life and forgot that labour sector of society is vast and huge.

Cities and industries provide food, shelter better life and help mass as a whole to progress.

If you want to look at the traditionalism which somehow you wanted to give to ur kid, just look at the state of Kolkatta or Calcutta where they messed up whole thing in the name of anti industry and everything which lead to progress.

Values and virtues comes from within and environment. If you always look down and say that "oh he has one and i m lucky to have 2" as per Gaaandhiiiii on earth you can take a path of progress which call for you to look ahead and get wings......from where will u get wings....if you deep root belief in traditionalism.....

Anyways its ur view so stick by it and see future by looking back in time...surely it will help!!!

May 05, 2010 12:05 AM  
Blogger xxx said...

gandhi was greater than ambedkar and that is for sure i just want to ask one question to you "the person changed his religion due to frustration how he can be better,AND what he did han just he made a rule of reservation for some communities and whats happening now the INDIA is burning in the fire of reservation"

July 20, 2010 7:24 AM  
Blogger dr avinash said...

people talk so much about reservation,but they dont know the meaning of reservation. IT IS WELLKNOWN THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE KEPT APART FROM BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS JUST BECAUSE THEY BELONG TO A PERTICULAR CASTE. This is happening in our country since 1000 s of years. Dr Ambedkar tried successfully to stop this heanous practice but now some crucked people don't want downtrodden people to come up and thats why they have rage against Dr ambedkar. Dr Avinash Ingle

September 18, 2010 1:01 PM  
Blogger RUPESH said...

@xxx see if anybody say Dr.Ambedkar one of the five best brains in the world had taken the decision in frustraion, I think one who says this has to dwell on his level of maturity to comment on great patriot .First D.Ambedkar well 21 years before conversion had announced that he will not die as a hindu and after comparative analysis he comes to conclusion take the decision to take breadth in a dhamma where the principle ofliberty , equality , fraternity are the only spects where hindu dharma is a religion of graded inequlaity and a stigma to humankin

January 08, 2011 8:14 AM  
Anonymous rupesh said...


January 08, 2011 8:15 AM  
Anonymous sohini said...

this is a good article.I liked it.but there is no discussion about gandhi's view point about cast system and all that.

March 23, 2011 5:12 AM  
Anonymous Dr. Satish Rama Rao gaikwad said...

@XXX-Mr.XXX I have the following submissions on your views:
1. I am feeling to laugh on your cowardness by hiding your name. When you don’t have guts to write with authority, then why you want to enforce the things which were arisen only from your thoughts and nothing to do with facts.
2. I don’t understand what you think of Religion. Religion is for human beings but human beings are not for religion. When a religion is enforcing ill rules and oppressing some one from the fundamental rights, treating some one least than a poor creature, then why should one stick to such a sick system. When some one is getting better Options in life, then why he would settle with the least one.
3. In case of Reservation: what type of humiliation and atrocities the lower caste people have suffered and how they have been deprived from the basic needs of life for several decades-the whole world knows it. In some parts of the country even today the ill practices against lower caste people is prevalent. The people who are enjoying all these benefits since several decades suddenly why feelings jealous if the deprived one is exposed to it since a short time. The system which avoided the lower caste people from education and other needs was worst which has given one way opportunity to ruling caste people only. Then if today the people from lower strata have been provided some opportunity to come up, then what is the wrong in that. They have been deprived from Good food, good water to drink, nutrition, education, medical facilities, quality life etc since many hundred years. Therefore, to reform them and to bring them to mainstream of countries progress it needs some hundred more years.

April 25, 2011 2:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mohandas Karamchand is the worlds most celebrated Indian colonial parasite, pedo and gay.

He made his fortunes in in Africa and refused to travelk with locals in the train. He wanted to be with whites. He wnated British to bring Indians to kill local Africans.

He refused to sit at the same table with Dr Ambedkar.

January 29, 2012 4:16 AM  
Blogger Devang Patel said...

It is only because implementation of this ambedkarism, naheruism & in latest manmohanism ,only 5% of people have 70% wealth of this country,situation "DALIT's" & Adiwasi's is as same as 60 years ago (if any one think this is wrong , come to my village in "GUJRAT"), most of politicians and bureaucrats & their favorite Corporate s are corrupt & this country is control (ruled) by them............................

so Now i think SWARAJ is only hope for our country .........

September 07, 2012 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Dr. S Nanir said...

Both this personalities cannot be compared at first but we can compare there views on some points.
Mr gandhi views were very contradictory on the upliftment of the lowercast. In his writing in Engilsh news papers he showed himself as a savior of nation and stricly against caste system, however in his hindi or gujrati newspapers he openly supported the varna system in india.

But Dr Ambedkar was a person who had undergone through the disgust behaviour of the fellow Indians and he was the only person in India who was of the views of liberty, equality and freedom. What he did of changing his religion was the only and the best thing he could do for saving our country. Buddhism is a religion originated in our country so thats not at all a big deal. Whereas this is the only religion whos basic principles are like all men are equal, liberty , equality and all. but on the contrary Hinduism is all based on inequality. There is no scope of a person to study grow and develop.

SO I feel some person who called themselves as the savior of the country and himself called mahatam, was not at all deserve to be called as mahatama. Its a world kown truth that the title mahatma was given to him by R Tagore.
Whereas Dr Ambedkar who only tried to make this country a better place to live.

I would like to add some of my views on reservation.
If you look in the population of our country,,,,,,
7% of the population belongs to so called upper caste, whereas the remaining 93% belongs to lower caste. Now if we look at the reservations given you will see 50% of the seats are for open whereas the remaining 13% for SC,7% ST,27% OBC 3% for PH. So it is clear that theres very few representation given to these communities.
So those people claim reservation as bad, they must know that they have a greater apportunities.
Its a false claim you irresponsible people keep making about reservation.

If you want to grow up, study and get it.

September 14, 2012 7:36 AM  
Blogger Devang Patel said...

@ Dr.Nanir ..I am not against reservation at all...........but the question in 62 years what we get from this policy...still Dalits in villages & cities are remain untouchable (ignored by other peoples) ,they are not getting even their basic rights, they & their children's doing same thing they used to do 1000 years ago. I am only telling , now this is time to review this policy so it will reach to the people whose really need this policy

I am not against Dr. Ambedker, but against people who used his view for their selfish political motive. and try to defame other great people .....

Gandhi gave political & social solution to this this problem 100 year ago. but some people( English speaking elite of congress , or i am particularly talking about Naheru and his confuse socialism ) with their selfish motive ignored this solution of "Swaraj for all" stil today ..............

Yes, there are some differences between Gandhi & Ambedker on solution of this problem (but both are against untouchability, and for the social rights , political rights ,of this people, but their Ideologues have carried these old rivalries into the present, with the demonization of Gandhi now common among politicians (& some people who do not know history) who presume to speak in Ambedkar’s name." but their work complemented each other, and Gandhi often praised Ambedkar.

lastly this is a social problem .....and we have tried to solve it only politically ... i have not seen any social movement in last 30 years by so called Dalit or OBC leaders) to rise the status of this people.............................

Most of the people of this country wants these people gets their rights ..PLZ Do not divide him in fight between upper or lower casts, , we should came to gather to fight for rights of this people ......

September 15, 2012 6:41 AM  
Anonymous Mathur said...

Why are you people worried about reservation? And 50% of India belongs to backward classes who have been opressed for decades. If we have to bring all Indians to one level of thinking, culture and education, something had to be done. In our case, it is reservation. In the US, they had reservations for the Blacks and can you even imagine where Will Smith, Samuel Jackson or Oprah would have been if it were not for the so called "reservations"? Let me explain. I belong to Scheduled Caste and I finished my B Tech through General Category, went to the UAE, earned a lot of money and finally settled in the USA. Here, in the US, they just don't give a damn about some blacks are doing so well in the music industry and go about saying they do not need reservations in the education system. They just don't care. And they even say, education or getting jobs is not the only way to be successful. If you are not able to get a job or a seat in a college, it doesn't mean anything. May be, you should try something else.... like sports, music, films, books, small business etc instead of saying reservation has killed my chances. Oh my God, those SCs and those BCs or OBCs... come on. You got one life. Dont waste your time.

October 06, 2012 6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

February 11, 2014 6:52 PM  

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