In my childhood, way back in the early Sixties, there was a Gandhi statue in my village.
His clean shaved head and semi-naked body with a tucked-in dhoti, in a walking posture, resembled my illiterate shepherd father in every respect except for the classic stick in the right hand, a book in the left hand and round spectacle frames.
The village norm was that everyone could touch the Gandhi statue, except the Madigas (dalits). We used to call him Gandhi 'thaathaa' (grandpa).
One hundred and forty two years after his birth and 63 years after his death, has the relationship between Mahatma Gandhi the historical figure, the India that he represented, and the poor masses who earn just Rs 32 per day in urban India and Rs 26 in rural India, in other words, the dalits, changed?
The majority of educated dalits do not accept the epithet 'the father of the nation' for Gandhi. Instead, they address Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as the “father of the nation”. Is that because we live in two different nations: India and Bharat?
Quite interestingly, Anna Hazare describes himself as a Gandhian and hung Gandhi’s portrait behind his anti-corruption fasting 'public bed'. At the other extreme was Narendra Modi who too hung Gandhi’s portrait behind his 'sadbhavna seat' of power.
Vande Mataram was the rousing chant at the gatherings of both Mr Hazare and Mr Modi. Obviously, both of them seem to be promising 'Young India' (incidentally, also the name of Gandhi’s journal in which he formulated his core philosophy) that they would bring about Gandhi’s Ram Rajya.
For many nationalists, the Gandhian Ram Rajya is yet to come (like the Kingdom of God of Jews). This is a society where there is no corruption and where the classical Varnadharma, without reservations, would operate, of course with the right to compete with one another, just as Gandhi had visualised after 'Hind Swaraj' was realised. Thus, for the upper castes and the rich, swaraj has come, but the Ram Rajya of Gandhi is yet to come.
Ambedkar located the roots of untouchability, oppression and horrendous poverty in that same Ram Rajya and according to many dalit writers the poor and oppressed are still living in Ram Rajya, which has been in existence for centuries. They are waiting for Buddha Rajya, as Ambedkar had visualised it.
For the majority at the bottom there is no raj, leave alone swaraj. They still live in a Hobbesian 'state of nature' where restrictions are imposed upon individuals that curtail their natural rights, or, to use Kautilya’s phrase, in Matsyanyaya, where, in periods of chaos the strong devour the weak, just as in periods of drought big fish eat small fish.
For the liberal, globalised intellectual of India, Gandhi is the solution to all problems. However, in village India he is a faint memory, with dilapidated statues here and there, and a customary lesson in some school textbooks.
Like Nehru, Gandhi was a Congress man, but he transcended party lines and became a globally respectable moral force. For world leaders, from Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama, Gandhi is the moral force of non-violence.
Among the elite group of global moral forces he has outgrown his own heroes — Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau among others. In informed circles around the world, he is the most known and revered Indian after Buddha. They do not see him as a politician, nor do they see him as a spiritual guru. To some he is a self-suffering sexual experimentalist, to others he is a complicated character of David Attenborough’s cinema.
At home, anyone, from Mr Hazare to Mr Modi, can use his portrait to empower the middle class or to embolden the Hindutva brigade. Nehru cannot escape his party’s boundaries, though the historical Ambedkar competes with the historical Gandhi of the Hindu ethos when it comes to being a force of moral philosophy and social justice.
In fact, within India in many realms Ambedkar is outshining Gandhi. Don’t be surprised if Mr Modi’s prime ministerial rath carries portraits of both Gandhi and Ambedkar, or just of Ambedkar. The RSS, remember, doesn’t recognise Gandhi as a nationalist, but it calls Ambedkar a nationalist.
Ambedkar saw Gandhi as an enemy of the dalits. When Gandhi represented India in the Second Round Table Conference, Ambedkar said, “Unfortunately, the Congress chose Mr Gandhi as its representative. A worse person could not have been chosen to guide India’s destiny.”
Gandhi did not prove him wrong when he said, “The Congress has from its very commencement taken up the cause of the so-called ‘untouchables’”. He saw untouchability in 1931 as “so-called”, not real, and the untouchables as people who deserve to be referred to in quotes. Ambedkar understood the diabolism of Gandhian linguistic engagement with dalits.
Gandhi called them Harijans but did not ask for their right to engage with Hari as priests. He was willing to grant them the right to touch others and the right to be touched, but he was not willing to go beyond that. He claimed that he represented entire India, with the occasional exception of Muslims and Sikhs. He treated Indians as Hindus and saw himself as the incontestable representative of all Hindus — including dalits.
Ambedkar, on the other hand, saw Hindus as collective suppressors of dalits, hence wanted protection for them from 'the tyranny and oppression of the Hindus', even from the oppression of present-day OBCs.
In this land of Buddha, Gandhi and Ambedkar, the 21st century has created a moral and ethical crisis with huge economic and social disparities, though most of them are inherited from the past. The Ambanis, the Gujarati baniyas at that, do not have an iota of respect for Gandhi’s austerity — frugal food and ashram housing.
The costliest family house in the world is built by a baniya from Gandhi’s state and caste. The global poorest of the poor, mostly dalits, live in this land of Gandhi on less than Rs 26 per day.
Gandhi undertook the longest hunger strike against the principle of separate electorate for dalits, resulting in the Poona Pact. Ambedkar, on the other hand, characterises all such hunger strikes as instruments of blackmail to derail democratic negotiations and institutionalisation of pro-poor laws.
As the Hindu God promises in the Gita, 'Sambhavami yuge yuge' (I will come back millennium after millennium), Gandhian hunger protests are coming to the fore again and again in the nation. Gandhi’s method of protest as used by today’s protesters is proving difficult for present-day rulers. But rural India doesn’t know how to make sense of Gandhi. For many illiterate villagers he is the thaathaa of tamashas.