Poona Pact: Myths about Gandhi and the calumnies. A few random thoughts

Gandhi and Ambedkar, at the time of the Poona pact, were leaders of different stature and different influences | Commons

No discussion of Gandhi raises as much passion as the Gandhi-Dr B R Ambedkar confrontation that culminated on September 25th 1932 in the Poona Pact. This is not a comprehensive or even coherent narration of the events related to that pact. This column is, as the title states, a few random thoughts.

On September 25th social media was agog with comments, mostly by Dalits, against Gandhi that ranged from rejection of Poona Pact to casting him as a villain.

A comment on Facebook said that, Gandhi, by not personally signing the Poona Pact, evaded responsibility for a pact he engineered. Nothing can be further from truth than to allege that Gandhi wanted to evade responsibility. Gandhi’s life was all about taking responsibility and being held accountable. Whether it was 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 was simply not Gandhi. That comment instigated some musings about aspects of the Poona Pact.

Also read: How Gandhi’s views on caste, race and God evolved through the years


Diminished Gandhi and rebellious Ambedkar

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 Winston 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 Lord 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 where his representation of India was challenged by Ambedkar and others.

The Second Roundtable Conference (Sep-Dec 1931) was a disaster for Gandhi where the Colonial regime pitted Gandhi against handpicked delegates to represent Muslims, The depressed Classes (as Dalits were then known) and other sections of India.

Biographer Ramachandra Guha points out that Gandhi made the mistake of going alone and would’ve benefited if he had taken along with him a representative like Sarojini Naidu, signaling empowerment of women, or a leader from the depressed classes, who could’ve been, at least symbolically, a counterweight to Ambedkar.

Gandhi’s halo of being a voice of the nation was very short lived. Upon his return from Second Roundtable Conference he 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.

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 Ambedkar denied the legitimacy of M C Rajah, Dalit leader from the south, to represent Dalits and refused to be aligned with him. He told Gandhi and the upper caste leaders that if they wished to negotiate with Rajah they should do so separately.

Also read: The myth of a saint, legacy of a politician and appeal of a global inspiration

Opposing separate electorates

Opposition to separate electorate was not a knee jerk reaction to Ramsay MacDonald’s announcement. Ambedkar had been demanding separate electorates for a while before that. He met Gandhi for the first time on 14th August 1931 and in an interview a day later he expressed his disappointment that Gandhi was not supportive of that claim and had openly said he’d oppose it in the round table conference if it was raised.

“Separate electorates”, Gandhi believed, “would make the problem worse than better; it would further the divisions in each village and lead to endemic conflict”. Gandhi, in a speech on 13th November at the conference, clearly said, “with all the emphasis that I can command that, if I was the only person to resist this think, I would resist it with my life”.

The quote makes it clear that the fast unto death announcement at Poona was not an impulsive one but that Gandhi considered this issue to be one for which he was ready, even a year before, to lay down his life for. Also, the quote underscores that Gandhi’s chief concern was the vivisection of society and possibility of eternal strife than the concern
about protecting Hinduism though that was a factor too.

While Gandhi did not question the legitimacy of Ambedkar to represent Dalit he contested whether Ambedkar could speak for all Dalits of India. Speaking to an interviewer, on the sidelines of the round table conference, Gandhi said, “he (Ambedkar) has a right even to spit on me, as every untouchable has…..but I may inform you that Dr. Ambedkar speaks for that particular part of the country where he comes from. He cannot speak for the rest of India”. Though Gandhi was correct in the main, Guha faults him, justifiably, for his confidence in speaking on behalf of Dalits.

The Poona negotiations, necessitated by Gandhi’s fast and opposition to the separate electorate, were between upper caste Hindus that included Madan Mohan 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 of 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 an ally, Dalit cause would not have even made the progress that it did. In an analogous way, it took a John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to turn Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream into legislation. Hillary Clinton took heat for pointing that out.

Gandhi fasts and India attempts change. Blackmail?

During the fast at Yervada on September 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.

Did Gandhi use fasting as a tool and should Ambedkar be blamed for Gandhi coming 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. 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”.

Also read: Freedom and integration: A swaraj of the Mahatma’s dream

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. And that is as uncharitable as Arun Shourie was in 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 C 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

Separate electorates and assumptions

A full and impartial history of the Poona Pact is yet to be written. Christophe 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. Political power eludes the Dalits but we’re assuming that separate electorates would’ve worked like a charm. That is a leap of faith. American experience of Democracy shows that 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 people’s 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, as shown earlier, 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.

Ambedkar nudges history

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 radicalised Gandhi who put eradication of untouchability front and center of his liberation struggle. Without Ambedkar’s nudge that’d not have happened. The circumstances created by the colonial regime, after the Poona pact, and other factors forced Gandhi to forswear politics for a while but left him free to pursue social reform. The historic nudge by Ambedkar now flowered into a full blown national campaign against untouchability by Gandhi. He marched across the nation in an attempt to uproot a millennia old custom, untouchability.

Gandhi’s tour against untouchability

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.

Touring Tamil Nadu, in 1934, Gandhi, at Srirangam, “was dismayed that the town’s hallowed Vaishnavite shrine was not ‘open to Harijans’”. At Thanjavur he learned that the Brihadisvara temple also did not allow “Harijans’. Walking by the temple and watching a splendorous sunrise Gandhi thought of the sun’s rays bathing all without discrimination and wondered “i that temple designed by God opens out to the whole world, shall a man built temple open less for Harijans”. A plaque at that temple now says that the Maratha prince who ruled Thanjavur, inspired by Gandhi, opened the temple for all.

Joseph Leyveld wonders why Gandhi’s tour against untouchability, a cross nation barnstorming from November 1933 through August 1934, receives little notice today despite the fact that Gandhi covered 12,500 miles by vehicle and foot and collected Rs 800,000 for the Harijan fund. The Harijan Sevak Sangh, started by Gandhi, did yeoman services in villages.

Guha picks an interesting anecdote at Akola. Few Ambedkar followers met Gandhi and asked a few questions. They asked if they could worship Ambedkar as god just as Tilak is worshipped by some. Gandhi replied that they have every right to worship “Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar” and that he admired him. “I may differ from his views”, added Gandhi, “but admit he is a brave man. Brave men also err. I consider myself a brave man and I confess I have committed many mistakes”.

Criticizing Gandhi

Can Gandhi be criticised? Of course he can be criticised. Calling the upper castes to do penance Gandhi made only upper castes the leaders of Harijan Sevak Sangh much to the chagrin of Ambedkar. While the motivation was honorable it could also be seen as patronizing at best and insulting at worst. The tour while it generated considerable interest it only sowed the seeds for reform. At Devakottai Gandhi faced the enduring and really grotesque face of casteism. Nattar landowners had attacked Dalits for venturing to dress as they wished to do and for wanting to enter a temple. A Dalit dressing up was reason enough to get thrashed.

Often Gandhi was his own harshest critic. Biographer and one time communist Louis Fischer contrasts Gandhi and Stalin thus, “Gandhi always saw himself in a mirror the frame of which was the job still done, and it made him seem smaller in his own eyes. But the dictator’s only mirror is a magnifying glass”. 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.

Why Gandhi matters?

George Orwell in a perceptive essay on Gandhi emphasises that Gandhi was “quite free from maniacal suspiciousness which, as E M Forster right says in ‘A Passage to India’ is the besetting Indian vice, as hypocrisy is the British vice”. Gandhi, Orwell further added, “believed that other people were acting in good faith and had a better nature through which they can be approached”. Louis Fischer marveled that “Gandhi has no hate, no envy, no venom, no resentment..he remained a friend of the very viceroys who jailed him. He
opposed a system, not individuals”

Dalits can prosecute and make the case that Gandhi erred at Poona but it’d behoove them to do so with the honor that Gandhi always treated Ambedkar with. Just as there is much that one need not learn from Gandhi there is, at least some of Ambedkar, notably his distrust of all and his vitriolic judgment of Gandhi, that his followers could eschew.

In this day and age of vulgar political divisiveness let us take a leaf out of Gandhi’s book and maybe it’d help us solve the problems that even he might’ve failed to solve. Learning from Gandhi and succeeding where Gandhi possibly failed or fell short is the best tribute we can pay to the greatest human being of modern era.

Oh, one final word, a Gandhi did sign the pact. It was Devadas Gandhi.

(Aravindan Kannaiyan is a New Jersey based freelance writer. He writes regularly in Tamil and English on contemporary issues.)