Posted: Fri, Aug 20 2010. 6:18 PM IST

Book Review | Encounter of the titans

What happens when BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi look down from
heaven? Two brilliantly imagined soliloquies

Chandrahas Choudhury

Two voices suddenly pipe up midway through The Flaming Feet, D.R.
Nagaraj’s book of essays on the Dalit movement, and they turn out to
be those of the principal protagonists of the book: B.R. Ambedkar and
Mahatma Gandhi. For once, we see them not spoken about, but speaking
in their own voices, as if restored to life.

It is 1997, the 50th anniversary of India’s independence—an
independence about which both men were, from the very beginning and
for different reasons, sceptical. Ambedkar and Gandhi occupy adjoining
rooms in heaven, and look down somewhat disconsolately on an India
that has moved on. Ambedkar speaks of his immense antipathy to
religious superstition and myth-making, and acknowledges that “my
intimate enemy, that Gujarati Bania Mr. Gandhi, also does not like
these things”, even if Gandhi is always seen as a man of religion.
Gandhi, meanwhile, is found contemplating “how Hind Swaraj would be if
my nextdoor neighbour, the learned Babasaheb, had written it”, and
thinks that Ambedkar, a trained economist and the quintessential
rationalist, would have found an enormous array of statistics to
improve the argument.

Father figure: Gandhi differed from Ambedkar in his ideas for the
development of Dalits. Hindustan Times

Nagaraj, a great lover of fiction and its ability to tell the truth
about the world even more powerfully than reasoned argument or
autobiographical testimony— unusually for an analyst of politics and
society, his work is full of references to Indian novels—is found here
taking the fiction writer’s licence to compose “two imaginary
soliloquies”. Perhaps no one in the pantheon of Indian intellectuals
has earned this right more than he. Although clearly written from a
Dalit perspective, Nagaraj’s essays repeatedly dramatized the epic
clash between the two titans over the nature of a 20th century India
that would finally grant Dalits a life of dignity and self-respect.

For Gandhi, this could happen only if high-caste Hindus examined their
consciences, took account of the historic wrongs committed against
Dalits, and experienced “a conversion of the heart” that made them
redress these injustices. Gandhi’s method seemed idealistic yet
practical, trying somehow to identify “simultaneously both with caste
Hindu society and the untouchable” so as not to lose one or the other.

Nagaraj grants that this was an enormous step forward, but remains
sharply critical of it. He holds that the Gandhian project had no real
role for untouchables themselves, once again making them spectators to
history in a drama in which high castes were the chief protagonists,
experiencing the guilt of a tragic hero and acting upon it. The
Gandhian appellation for Dalits—“Harijan”, or the child of God—is not
so much a generous as a patronizing one.

The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: Permanent Black, 254 pages, Rs595.

In contrast to Gandhi’s language of conscience (what Nagaraj calls the
mode of self-purification), Ambedkar spoke the language of rights and
of political agitation (or the mode of self-respect). While Gandhi
wished to bind Hindu society into a refashioned whole, Ambedkar’s
vision was of a complete break with Hindu society and all its
encrusted modes of viewing the masses on its margins. Ambedkar wanted
the Dalit to stop being a subject in history and start becoming an
agent, thereby “eliminating dependence on mercy and benevolence”. The
modern systems of democracy, rights, political suffrage and the nation
state allowed Dalits all this, while the traditional village panchayat
never had.

This bifurcation in views set up one of the pivotal clashes of modern
Indian history: the disagreement in 1933 between Gandhi and Ambedkar
over the issue of separate electorates for untouchables, which
Ambedkar desired deeply. By launching a fast unto death in Yerawada
jail over this issue, Gandhi forced Ambedkar’s hand, and had his own
way. But even if Gandhi won the immediate battle, the larger war over
the next eight decades for the Dalit view of self and the world has
been won by Ambedkar, whose vision of aggressive self-mobilization and
minoritization has found a variety of expressions in Indian politics
and public life, especially since the 1970s.

But, Nagaraj acknowledges, even if Dalits have won themselves new
rights and greater security, especially from upper-caste violence, the
result is not so much a rapprochement but rather a kind of detente.
The structure of caste society remains basically unchanged from the
top, and the peace achieved is a fragile one—it needs a dose of Gandhi
to convert it into something more meaningful. In this way, as the
scholar Ashis Nandy remarks in a short foreword, Nagaraj attempts
heroically to reconcile Ambedkar and Gandhi. This posthumously
published book, the only one written by Nagaraj, is a memorable
examination of the Dalit encounter with history and modernity, rage
and healing.


Gandhi, Ambedkar in their own words

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.

Write to


Get all ZESTCaste mails sent out in a span of 24 hours in a single mail. 
Subscribe to the daily digest version by sending a blank mail to, OR, if you have a Yahoo! Id, change your 
settings at

On this list you can share caste news, discuss caste issues and network with 
like-minded anti-caste people from across India and the world. Just write to 

If you got this mail as a forward, subscribe to ZESTCaste by sending a blank 
mail to OR, if you have a Yahoo! ID, by 

Also have a look at our sister list, ZESTMedia:! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
    Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
    (Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

Reply via email to