Greatest Indian Debate: Gandhi versus Ambedkar

Harish S. Wankhede

Greatness is a loaded and complex term, especially in a country like ours, it has sheer subjective meaning. Recently a heated debate has gripped the social networking sites over the CNN-IBN and History Channel initiated hunt for 'the Greatest Indian after Gandhi'. Some of the Dalit groups are agitated over the fact that the survey has already ranked Gandhi as the greatest and this hunt is mainly to select the second best after him. Very passionate arguments are flamed in the debate not only to argue that Babasaheb Ambedkar was the greatest among the given lot but also that he is better and bigger than Gandhi. It seems that on the parameters of greatness the two icons will again ignite the political debate.

Dalits' emotional and sensitive attachment to Ambedkar as a prophetic figure is sufficiently visible in the country and more particularly in Maharashtra. Any curious visitor will get this impression that he is almost omnipresent at the public spaces. His statues have outnumbered the busts of any modern political leader, masses get mobilized in thousands to celebrate his birth anniversary, there is continuous explosion of written material in Marathi, Hindi and English and most importantly no political party can make the mistake of not providing him a respectable space in its election manifesto, posters-banners and hoardings. It appears that Ambedkar is an inseparable part of socio-political life in Maharashtra. However, this public display of love for Ambedkar is mostly associated exclusively to the Dalits and even in the intellectual discourses this phenomenon is noted with paternalistic tone as the 'democratic assertions' of the erstwhile 'suppressed' groups. Ambedkar is castigated as a Dalit icon, worshipped and followed mainly by the Dalits.

Gandhi, Nehru and Indira on the other hand are the hot favorites of the middle class consciousness. They are seen as universally associated leaders and highly patriotic in character. The state Institutions, almost work as 'Public Relation Officers' to keep them alive in the public memories, especially by sponsoring a full page remembrance in all major newspapers on their birth and death anniversaries. We hardly name them as upper caste (Bania-Brahmin) personalities but celebrate their social and political commitments as applicable to all Indians. It is routinely argued that unlike Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru have sacrificed their lives for 'all the Indians' without any consideration to their private or exclusive interests. However, here we fail to understand that such superficial application has also made them exclusive to a particular class of people, who normally distance themselves from the realistic issues of democratic politics in India. The Dalits, especially, questioned such heightened valorization of these leaders.

Gandhi was a subject of contestation since the beginning of his active political life. The revolutionary terrorists belittled his mode of struggles as cowardice, the modernist secular leadership questioned his orthodox display of religiosity, the Marxists called him an agent of the big bourgeoisie, feminists looked at him as a champion of patriarchal-conservative values, the Hindutva brigade called him traitor and eventually murdered him and of course the Dalits distrust his paternalistic hegemonic brahmanical sensitivities. However the liberal nationalist intellectual class failed to register such visible drawbacks in Gandhi's character and without any critical debate about his persona, garlanded him as the father of nation and the 'greatest Indian'.

The last two decades of politics in India has categorically disturbed the classic nationalist rhetoric. The influence of regional, caste and community issues in shaping the central policies now has a vocal and visible presence. The growing consciousness among ascriptive groups is supplemented by new demands about their subjective interests. On many issues it stood in direct opposition to the objectives of the central policies and hence the overarching importance and influence of the Central agencies are curtailed to pacify the demanding groups. It also demonstrates the limitations of the Congress party as a unifying force and its political necessity to respect and carry away the agenda set by the regional partners. The growing federalization and democratization thus disturb the strong central authority, challenge its political and economic objectives and most importantly endorse an alternative nationalist vision.

The passionate pitching of Ambedkar as the greatest Indian is part and parcel of the growing social and political consciousness of the socially deprived sections. The gallery for nationalist leaders in the past was decorated by the names having upper caste appendages. The leaders of the deprived groups (Dalits, Tribals, Religious Minorities and even women) are placed in second rung noted with their exclusive activities in relationship with the particular group. Even in the introduction prepared for the above mentioned hunt, stalwarts like Ram Manohar Lohia is mentioned mainly as a socialist leader and Kanshi Ram is noted exclusively as the mobilizer of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. The possibility that the leaders from the marginalized communities can acquire a nationalist characteristic and can become the representative of all Indians like their upper caste counterparts is still a distant dream.

There is nothing to hide that Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram have shown dedicated responsibility towards the Dalit community and thus remained at the periphery of the nationalist discourse. However, it has now been contemplated that the nationalist leadership was mostly concerned about the interests and well-being of the social elites and in reaction to their passive response towards the empowerment of the marginalized groups that the subjective leadership has germinated. The rise and rise of caste politics in the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar against Congress domination is thus justified with such widespread political argument.

Such historic debates have been recreated in the present to understand our mystified past. The media sponsored hunt for the 'greatest Indian' therefore throws a complex question and ignites subjective responses from the politically conscious audiences. It is difficult to judge one individual from the constellation of stars based on superficial individual attributes. However, Gandhi's imposed exclusion from the hunt demonstrates the unfair bias of organizers towards a liberal nationalist rhetoric which secures Gandhi from the critical scrutiny of the current populace. Hence, judgment based on the values of fairness, ethics and sacrifice could have provided actual meaning to the attribute of 'Greatness'. But it appears futile in the face of such contaminated political considerations. At the end, we will judge the greatness of Gandhi, Nehru or Ambedkar not on logic of ethics but specifically based on our personal accounts.

Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University.

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