Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Problem of Untouchability

The figures of Ambedkar and Gandhi continue to represent two different mainstream paths to solve the thorny social issue of ‘untouchability’ in the Indian polity. While Gandhi saw it as an excess of the Varna system in India, Ambedkar saw it is an indissoluble part of the religion that Hinduism is. Gandhi sought to embrace the ‘Harijans’ (the ‘children of God’); Ambedkar advocated a conversion of ‘Dalits’ into Buddhism as the only possible answer. In one sense, both were united in their moral indignation at treating a part of the Indian population as ‘untouchables’; however, they differed totally in their assessment of the situation that engendered it. If Gandhi agonized over Ambedkar’s stance because he felt that it would oppose one social group to the other, Ambedkar saw Gandhi’s solution as a total capitulation to the dictates of the ‘caste system’. Over a hundred years after their furious debate, neither of these two solutions has worked. The issue of ‘untouchability’ persists, even though what Ambedkar and Gandhi feared have both come to pass. The electoral politics is massively caste-based; social groups are pitted against each other in the Indian society. In this paper, I want to look at another source of unity between Gandhi and Ambedkar. I would like to show that both embraced colonial discourse and represent the two extremes of the Indian Orientalist discourse. If one has to tackle the problem of untouchability, one has to look beyond the Orientalist definition of the problem and the proposed solutions.


Balagangadhara S.N.


Chicago, USA



meeting name

Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies



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