Friday, September 27, 2019

The Poona Pact: Myths About Gandhi and The Calumnies. A few Random Thoughts.

No discussion of Gandhi raises as much passion as the Gandhi-Ambedkar confrontation that culminated on September 25th 1932 in the Poona Pact. This blog started as a response to a comment I saw on Facebook and is not a ccomprehensive or even coherent narration of the events related to that pact. I've merely, as the title states, shared a few thoughts. Random thoughts. 

The comment that triggered me to write said that Gandhi did not sign the Poona Pact and that showed he refused to take responsibility for a pact he engineered. 

For the millionth time I'll say this, feel free to reject Gandhi and the pact with your own rationale but don't interpret Gandhi through your lens of Ambedkarite hatred. That's like interpreting Ambedkar using Arun Shourie. Do unto others what you'd like others to do unto you.

Gandhi's life is all about taking responsibility and being accountable. There's not a single bone or cell in Gandhi's body that'd support evading responsibility. Whether it is asking a British judge to impose the maximum sentence or going on a fast to atone for the violence of some during a national agitation evading responsibility is simply not Gandhi. 

Gandhi and Ambedkar, at the time of the Poona pact, were leaders of different stature and different influences. Too much is made of Gandhi's stature and the conflict is presented as some David versus Goliath struggle with Ambedkar as David. 

Gandhi's Salt March (12th March - 6th April 1930)  had mobilized the nation, shaken the pillars of an Empire and attained worldwide attention culminating in, what Churchill memorably described, the "the one time inner-temple lawyer and now seditious half-naked fakir, a type well known in the East, striding up the steps of the viceregal palace and negotiation on equal terms with the King Emperor's representative". Gandhi negotiated with Irwin as the representative of a nation. Such moments thrill us into forgetting that barely within a few months of that pact Gandhi attended the Second Roundtable Conference (Sep-Dec 1931) where his representation of India was challenged by Ambedkar and others. While Churchill identified that Gandhi was becoming the voice of the nation let us not forget that too often his voice was challenged by other Indians, often to the glee of the Colonial regime. This is not to mean that those who dissented or stood against Gandhi were stooges of imperialism though such stooges did exist too. Certainly Ambedkar's motivations were different. 

Gandhi's halo of being a voice of the nation was very short lived. Gandhi, upon his return from Second Roundtable Conference, was diminished in stature and the regime conveniently arrested him on 4th January 1932. A month ago he was visiting the King and now he was a guest at His Majesty's jail. 

During the fast at Yervada on Sep 20th-25th 1932 India did reconnect with Gandhi emotionally. And that was the leverage Gandhi had over Ambedkar. However, that reconnection too frayed after the pact was signed when upper caste Hindu India was aghast at Gandhi and unleashed its fury on the Mahatma during his tour to eradicate untouchability. Gandhi's stature and his connection to India was as complex as the man himself. This is often missed. 

Ambedkar, certainly, was not, at that time, as nationally revered as Gandhi was and he was seen as the chief antagonist in the drama by many on the opposing side. However, he had his leverage too. Gandhi did NOT question the legitimacy of Ambedkar's representation of his people. If anything Gandhi only contested that he too was the representative of Dalits. Dalits can reject that but that was Gandhi's stance. During the negotiations the Ambedkar led faction remained dominant and disciplined. It is forgotten today that M.C. Rajah too had his own negotiations and Ambedkar refused to be aligned with him. 

The Poona negotiations, necessitated by Gandhi's fast and opposition to the separate electorate, were between upper caste Hindus that included Malaviya and Untouchables led by Ambedkar. It is unimaginable for Gandhi to have signed the pact on behalf of either party. The fast, despite what Dalits claim, was, at least in Gandhi's view, not against Dalits but for them in the larger sense and it was only against what he perceived as a scheme to perpetually segregate them from the mainstream of Hinduism. And as one who called himself a Dalit by choice it is inconceivable that he'd sign a pact as if he belonged to the other side. Whether he signed it or not he did not shy from the burden of what the pact meant and took the cause of Dalit emancipation to be above national liberation.

Dalits often bristle, with justification, at the idea of a Bania savior. But this is reality in India. Given the iron framework of casteism in India only a Gandhi could've even made a dent on behalf Dalits on the issue of caste. In 2019 a car driver of a backward caste refuses to step into the memorial at Keezhvenmani. This is the reality. Without Gandhi as ally Dalit cause would not have even made the progress that it did. In an analogous way it took a Kennedy and LBJ to turn MLK's dream into legislation. Hillary took heat for pointing that out. 

My good friend mentioned how Gandhi used fasting as a tool and almost was indignant that Ambedkar is being cast as one who took Gandhi to the  brink of his life. Whether one is a Gandhian or just an admirer of Gandhi if one understood Gandhi one would not fault, in the least bit, Ambedkar for what Gandhi inflicted upon himself. Both the upper caste Hindu panel and Ambedkar led untouchables negotiated almost with no thought of Gandhi dying though that possibility hung over their heads. And not a single leader in Gandhi's camp blamed Ambedkar for the possibility that Gandhi would die because the decision to fast was Gandhi's not Ambedkar's. 

Once the number of seats, 148, that'd be reserved was agreed upon the sticking point was the conduct of a referendum about whether the scheme was working or not. Ambedkar wanted 10 years to be the period after which the referendum was conducted. Gandhi felt that that was undue delay and became adamant on conducting a referendum within a year or at least 5 years. When Ambedkar dug in his heels Gandhi flung down the gauntlet "there you have it, 5 years or my life". 

Was Gandhi blackmailing Ambedkar? In the crude sense of the term absolutely yes. Gandhi knew full well what his death would mean and it was precisely that leverage he used. But then that is EXACTLY the leverage he used time and again whether his fasts were against the colonizer or his fellow Indians who wanted to kill each other. It was that leverage that prevented West Bengal from sliding into a civil war amidst a genocidal bloodshed. 

British viceroys were always irritated at Gandhi's pose of piety and felt it was a cloak for the shrewd Bania who negotiated with the tenacity of a haggler at a Persian bazaar. Dalits, today, are essentially hewing to that view and it is a patently uncharitable one. As uncharitable as Arun Shourie casting Ambedkar as merely a stooge of the Colonial government who wanted to thwart the nationalist struggle with his focus on narrow aims.

Whether it was his Calcutta fast or Poona fast Gandhi's attitude was always that, if he died fruitlessly because the outcome eluded him, it is what God ordained. Gandhi wrote farewell notes on the eve of the Poona fast. To his old friend Herman Kallenbach he wrote, "if god has more work to take from this body it will survive the fiery ordeal". During the Delhi fast, his last, to stamp down communal riots as his health declined when his physician Sushila Nayyar told him that  his kidneys were failing he replied, "then my faith in Rama is incomplete". As I type that I am only reminded of Christ at the Garden of Gethsemane, aware of the bloody ordeal about to befall him, pleading with his Father "take away this clip of sorrow. Nevertheless thy will not mine". 

The dynamic of Gandhi's fast should be understood before terms like 'blackmail' are used. Gandhi's fasts always were predicated on the faith that the other side, he did not think of them as enemies, will have a modicum of humanity and would relate to him in some corner of their heart. When Rajagopalachari, called Gandhi's 'conscience keeper', asked him, during the Calcutta fast, if he is embarking on a futile act against murderous thugs Gandhi replied that his fast was aimed at not the thugs but the hearts of those who manage the thugs. Gandhi would be the first to object to blaming Ambedkar if he had died in the fast. 

I also believe firmly that Gandhi, if he had had even a few breaths left in him, he'd have pardoned Nathuram Godse and possibly even thanked him for according the kind of death that he desired. Gandhi is not made of common clay.

Gandhi's tour of India campaigning against untouchability was epic in scope and reactions. Hindu India even in Gandhi's day had a more tenuous relationship with Gandhi than what is commonly understood today. To the upper caste Hindus Gandhi was a Mahatma as long as he was spouting pieties, chanting the name of Rama, singing Vaishnava Janato, calling on their better angels and above all directing his energies to toppling the colonial regime but whenever Gandhi deviated from the script by talking about reforms or eradicating untouchability or cleaning toilets used by untouchables they'd ether ignore him or reject him. This continues till today. This is the lot of any prophet in any age. This is true, ironically, even of E.V. Ramaswamy. Of all the things that E.V.R preached only his neo-nazi anti-brahmanism took root in Tamil Nadu and all his other causes, chiefly atheism, were thrown into the dustbin by those who call him their god today. Sanatana Hindus hurled abuses and even made attempts on Gandhi's life. Amongst the untouchables, the Mahars, members of Ambedkar's caste carried out black flag rallies against Gandhi. All that said that tour and the awakening it caused were the embers that inspired a free India to confront the problem of caste.

Did Gandhi need Ambedkar to teach him about the ills of untouchability? Not at all. But what Gandhi needed, and Ambedkar provided, at a historical juncture, was a catalytic alchemy that made Gandhi put the nationalist struggle on the back burner and turn to confronting a millennia old leviathan that was choking the body politic of India. At a crucial juncture Gandhi's efforts turned from merely liberating a nation to emancipating a people, all people, and making the goal of egalitarianism the goal of a nation that'd one day be free. 

People like Ambedkar have earned their place in history for giving history a nudge. While Gandhi had always talked against untouchability and the unfairness heaped on Dalits the Gandhi after Poona pact was a more radicalized Gandhi who put eradication of untouchability front and center of his liberation struggle. Without Ambedkar's nudge that'd not have happened. 

A Periyarist, a habitual hater of Gandhi, would often argue that if only Gandhi and Nehru had acceded to Jinnah's request of loose federalism partition could've been avoided. A nonsensical argument but guess who was against loose federalism. Ambedkar. Ambedkar was a key proponent of a very strong center in his role as architect of the Constitution of free India. Ambedkar distrusted federalism because he feared States would dilute the protections against untouchability. 

A full and impartial history of the Poona pact is yet to be written. Jaffrelot, for example, is blunt that Poona pact deprived Dalits of political power that, he is certain, Separate electorate would have given. This is now an article of faith amongst the naysayers or even those who could be academically objective. I find this to be a stretch. 

Political power eludes the Dalits but we're assuming that Separate electorates would've worked like a charm. That, in my opinion, is a leap of faith. I need more research but I'll say this for now, based on my American experience of Democracy, Separate electorates would've led to segregated constituencies enshrining a "separate but equal" phenomenon that was equal only on paper. Gerrymandering of constituencies would have literally ghettoized the Dalits. Even with separate electorates Muslims, thanks to Jinnah, clamored for Pakistan. It did not do much good in their own opinion. Democracy rests on the principle of representation of a peoples will through votes. How would free India have conducted elections that could be called representative democracy for separate electorates? Elections and representative democracy are a really wide subject and this aspect is often forgotten in the debates around Poona pact. 
Gandhi, to be fair, was not thinking of the above, because those objections I outlined were problems of later day American democracy. Gandhi's chief objection was that separate electorate would effectively sever Dalits from Hinduism. That fear was not without merit. This argument is used as a cudgel against Gandhi and casting him as an agent of upper caste Hinduism. This is bollocks. Ambedkar tossed and turned on the question of which religion to choose for Dalits for their en-masse conversion and eventually decided to not choose the obvious choices, Islam or Christianity, precisely because that'd be a more complete separation from Hinduism and he was not sure how many Dalits would follow. He then chose Buddhism which was often seen as birthed in the womb of Hinduism. Now, how many Dalits actually choose Buddhism? Not many. So is it fair to cast Ambedkar as wannabe protector of Hinduism who did not care what his  people really wanted? Of course not. 

The story of a nation coming into being is a complex one by itself and when the nation happens to one as complex as India, a nation like no other at that time, and even today, very complex choices were made by equally complicated people. More than unidimensional villains we come across a dizzying array of characters who came in many shades of villainy and heroism. Of those, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Jinnah, to name a few, take the prize for complexity in that order. 

Some day, hopefully in a few months, I hope to write a fuller account of the events leading unto and after the Poona pact taking into account wider questions of whether separate electorates would've really worked and Gandhi's actions. Oh, one final word, a Gandhi did sign the pact. It was Devadas Gandhi.


1. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India -- Joseph Lelyveld.
2. Gandhi: The years that changed the world - Ramachandra Guha
3. Dr. Ambedkar & Untouchables - Christophe Jaffrelot

4. Freedom at midnight - Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

1 comment:

naresh said...

Sir, surely you'd be aware of Anudhati Roy's detailed criticism of Gandhi in her forward to the book 'Annhilation of Caste', calling him a saint of the status quo. Here is a small reference, an article in the Guardian - in regard to her speech at Kerala University, touching the matter, alongwith scepticism of some historians.

From your write above write up, would it be correct to infer, that you share the historians scepticism in the matter.