• Kumar Harsh

The Caste Conundrum: Ambedkar and Gandhi

S.M Michael an English correspondent wrote to Gandhi on 17th November 1920 stating that “even if you (Gandhi) succeed in establishing Indian Independence tomorrow it would be wrecked and broken to pieces on the rock of caste as it has been more than once in your long and cherished history. Should not the Hindus wash their blood-stained hands first before they (Hindus) ask English to wash theirs?”
The featured image is borrowed from EPW.


Gandhi’s understanding of caste has been hammered by experience upon his anvil of life. The seeming contradictions in Gandhi’s writing spanning over almost half a century makes him a mystery that is worth unfolding. In 1920 Gandhi said that he considers the four divisions in Hindu society to be fundamental, natural, and essential. He believed that not abiding by the caste is “defying” the law of hereditary. He publicly advocated that caste is necessary to maintain socio-economic complementarity and social harmony. It won’t be historically and politically incorrect to label this phase of Gandhi’s understanding as orthodox.

On the contrary, Ambedkar’s understanding of caste is much more simplistic and consistent. He aimed to establish a casteless society and believed that there will always be “outcasts” as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the caste system other than the destruction of the caste system. Caste has incorporated “division of labour as well as the division of labourers” into hierarchical positions in Hindu society. He publicly advocated that the foundation of Hinduism is based upon caste and to eradicate caste, the pre-existing norms, and values of Hinduism needs to be changed.

In his speech in 1936, Babasaheb stated that a caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to another caste except when there is a “Hindu-Muslim” riot. Babasaheb believed that a Hindu might not stand for a fellow Hindu because in Hinduism one’s caste identity dominates one’s religious identity. He believes that the sense of fraternity that is evident in Mohammedans, Sikhs, and Christians is absent within Hindus because of caste. The caste system prevents common activity and by preventing common activity it has prevented the Hindus from becoming a society with a unified life and a conscience of its being. The mere presence of the Caste system is weakening the core of Hinduism.

This aspect of understanding of caste presented by Ambedkar can’t be refuted just by stating that our society has evolved and moved past the Caste-based biases and discriminatory attitudes. The mere presence of vote bank politics proves Babasaheb’s point that a Brahmin will follow a leader only when he is a Brahmin, a Kshatriya if he is a Kshatriya, and so on. As long as people will feel the need to boast about their ascribed status (status received through birth) by putting the names of their caste and sub-caste on their vehicles and social media handles, we cannot say that Babasaheb’s understanding of caste and its impacts are not applicable to the present Hindu society. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the fundamentals of the Caste system are undemocratic. One of the pillars that caste stands on is the hierarchical division and gradation of occupation which forces lower caste people to accept the “Brahminical hegemony” and continue being denied “Equality of opportunity”. In the light of the recent events such as the Hathras rape incident and the way the police harassed the Dalit couples in Madhya Pradesh shows that the State and its machinery have treated the “lower caste” in an undemocratic and inhumane way. The derogatory statements made by contemporary leaders reveal that caste is not just a barrier or a fence that needs to be crossed. It is more of a way of life and thinking which needs to be incorporated within ourselves.


Gandhi never outrightly abandoned the Caste system but he never incorporated the virtue of caste within himself. He always identified himself as ‘untouchable’ and his idea of justice and swaraj did not leave any room for caste-based discrimination.

MK Gandhi
A sanitation worker garlands a statue of Babasaheb

He advocated for replacing the caste system with 'Varnashrama dharma' where one's profession would be based on 'worth' rather than 'birth.' Arguably, it can be said that it borders on the Utopian way of thinking. Some of the pertinent questions raised by Babasaheb in this regard include, “How are you going to compel people who have acquired higher status based on birth to vacate their status? How are you going to compel people to recognize their status on the basis of worth rather than birth?” For this, you must break up the caste system to establish the “Varna system”. Establishing the Varna system is going to be a tedious task as you would have to reduce more than 4000 Castes based on birth to 4 Varnas based on worth.

These questions forced Gandhi to think beyond this ideal state and thus he publicly stated in the late 1940s that even if the ideal of Varnashrama loses its place in Hinduism in order to eradicate the caste system, he will not shed a tear. Rajmohan Gandhi states that Gandhi’s remark about Varnashrama is a “sugar-coated” pill for caste Hindus. He wanted them to swallow his reforms. By the 1930s Gandhi declared that Caste was a handicap on progress and in 1935 he wrote ‘CASTE HAS TO GO’ (an article in Harijan). He said in 1934, “as a savarna Hindu when I see that there are some Hindus called avarnas, it offends my sense of justice and truth,” and “if I discover that Hindu shastras really countenance untouchability as it is seen today, I will renounce and denounce Hinduism.”


Harijan boys under 14 demonstrating outside the Boat Club in New Delhi.

In the ‘Annihilation of Caste’ by Babasaheb, he says that the only way by which we can abolish caste is through inter-caste marriages. The fusion of blood is the only thing that can create a feeling of kinship among different castes and thus the feeling of being aliens– created by caste will vanish. In this respect, Gandhiji had a clear stance post-1930s. He believed that inter-caste marriage and dining are pivotal in order to abolish the negative connotation associated with caste. He emphasized that public opinion should abolish caste as soon as possible. By 1946, in Sevagram Ashram of Gandhi, couples could marry on the condition that one party was a Harijan.

Gandhi’s attitude towards caste has been inconsistent but it would be a grave injustice to his legacy if we characterize him as a casteist based on a selective reading of his work. We must go beyond the ‘binary of Gandhi and Ambedkar’. Both of them are more coherent than the present political debates tell us.

They believed in the same ideal but their approaches towards the realization of the goal were different. Babasaheb was an outright revolutionary who believed that the only way caste can be eradicated is by changing the basic tenets of Hinduism. This is exactly where both of them diverged, as Gandhi believed that the core values of Hinduism do not propagate the social evils present in Hindu society. Gandhi’s perception was heavily political as he gave utmost importance to the Unity of India and revamping Hinduism at that juncture could have resulted in a civil war.

This does not mean that we should not revamp the pre-existing structure when it is necessary. Religion is intrinsic in Hindu society any such attempts should be made with the utmost care and respect for the religion. I propose that attempts to abolish caste should start from within because as long as we keep identifying ourselves as superior or inferior on the basis of caste we won’t be able to achieve the dreams of Babasaheb and Gandhi.

By Kumar Harsh