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.

Other Related Articles

Babasaheb’s Statue Vandalized: Bengal’s Realm of Caste maliciousness
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
   Pinak Banik On the midnight of 29th May, a marble bust of Babasaheb Ambedkar was found disfigured. This statue was installed 17 years ago inside the Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Sishu Uddyan... Read More...
Oppose the scrapping of financial aid to SC, ST students in TISS
Wednesday, 14 June 2017
    Statement Against the arbitrary note by Registrar (TISS) deciding to discontinue DH and Hostel to eligible GoI-PMS SC/ST students "Lack of education leads to lack of wisdom, which leads... Read More...
Global Bahujan Movement - Dr. Manisha Bangar's North America Tour April - May 2017
Friday, 09 June 2017
  Round Table India Dr. Manisha Bangar has just returned from a trip to the US and Canada, where she gave a series of talks about Ambedkarism, and the state of the caste struggle in India. Dr.... Read More...
Understanding the Intersections of Gender and Caste Discrimination in India
Wednesday, 07 June 2017
  Kamna Sagar The caste framework in India has stood out as the biggest element of social stratifications. Caste, class and gender are indistinguishably associated, they speak with and overlap... Read More...
Now on Smashwords – What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means To Me
Thursday, 01 June 2017
  The Shared Mirror Publishing House Our new book What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means To Me is now available on Smashwords – Ebooks from independent authors and publishers The ebook... Read More...

Recent Popular Articles

From Breast Tax to Brahminical Stripping in Comics: Orijit Sen and Brahmin Sadomasochism
Thursday, 02 March 2017
  Pinak Banik "Only dead dalits make excellent dalits.Only dead dalits become excellent sites where revolutionary fantasies blossom!" ~ Anoop Kumar The context for this article centers around... Read More...
On the Anxieties surrounding Dalit Muslim Unity
Friday, 17 February 2017
  Ambedkar Reading Group Delhi University  Recently we saw the coming together of Dalits and Muslims at the ground level, against a common enemy - the Hindu, Brahminical State and Culture -... Read More...
Interview with Prof Vivek Kumar on the Bahujan Movement
Monday, 13 March 2017
  Round Table India In this episode of the Ambedkar Age series, Round Table India talks to Prof Vivek Kumar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences,... Read More...
Brahmin Feminism sans Brahmin Patriarch
Monday, 06 February 2017
  Kanika S It has almost become common sense that feminism has been shaped exclusively by a class of women that came from Brahmin-Savarna castes in India, to the extent that even trashy... Read More...
The Manufacturing of Artificial Guilt and the Need to Reject It
Monday, 02 January 2017
  Suresh RV [This article is written to clear the confusion in the minds of the young dalit-bahujan students and job aspirants, whether we should avail reservations or not? Or whether we truly... Read More...

Recent Articles in Hindi

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

पेरियार से हम क्या सीखें?

  संजय जोठे  इस देश में भेदभाव और शोषण से भरी परम्पराओं का विरोध करने वाले अनेक विचारक और क्रांतिकारी हुए हैं जिनके बारे में हमें बार-बार पढ़ना और समझना चाहिए. दुर्भाग्य से इस देश के शोषक वर्गों के षड्यंत्र के कारण इन क्रांतिकारियों का जीवन परिचय और समग्र कर्तृत्व छुपाकर रखा जाता है. हमारी अनेकों पीढियां इसी षड्यंत्र में जीती आयीं हैं. किसी देश के उद्भट विचारकों और क्रान्तिकारियों को इस...

Read more

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

कृष्ण: भारतीय मर्द का एक आम चेहरा...!

(कृष्ण की लोक लुभावन छवि का पुनर्पाठ!)मानुषी आखिर ये मिथकीय कहानियां किस तरह की परवरिश और शिक्षा देती हैं, जहां पुरुषों को सारे अधिकार हैं, चाहे वह स्त्री को अपमानित करे या दंडित, उसे स्त्री पलट कर कुछ नहीं कहती। फिर आज हम रोना रोते हैं कि हमारे बच्चे इतने हिंसक और कुंठित क्यों हो रहे हैं। सारा दोष हम इंटरनेट और टेलीविजन को देकर मुक्त होना चाहते हैं। जबकि स्त्री...

Read more

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

राष्ट्रवाद और देशभक्ति

संजय जोठे धर्म जो काम शास्त्र लिखकर करता है वही काम राष्ट्र अब फ़िल्में और विडिओ गेम्स बनाकर बनाकर करते हैं. इसी के साथ सुविधाभोगी पीढ़ी को मौत से बचाने के लिए टेक्नालाजी पर भयानक खर्च भी करना पड़ता है ताकि दूर बैठकर ही देशों का सफाया किया जा सके, और यही असल में उस तथाकथित “स्पेस रिसर्च” और “अक्षय ऊर्जा की खोज” की मूल प्रेरणा है, यूं तो सबको...

Read more