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Ambedkar's Plan Foiled

Gurmit Singh Advocate

Not many years ago, the U.S. Government honoured the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, by issuing a special postage stamp on his birthday and the inscription hailed him as a “Hindu National Leader”. Some Indian journalists protested against the use of word “Hindu” the purport of which was the denigration of the great Mahatma who, in their opinion, was an Indian National leader. Transgressing this controversy, it is common knowledge that Gandhi ji was a staunch Hindu in his beliefs and the ideals of Ahinsa and non-violence which formed the basis of his social and political philosophy were derived from and coloured with ancient Hindu thought. He looked at passing events from the Hindu point of view rather than as an Indian. An important example in this regard, for the Sikhs, is Gandhi’s attitude towards Dr. Ambedkar’s decision to renounce Hindu faith and to embrace Sikhism along with about five crore untouchables.

Originally, when the civilisation of Indo-Aryans was in the process of evolution in a land full of variety and a mass of sprawling humanity, the Hindu society was divided into four varnashrams, namely, Brahmins, the priest, teachers, intellectuals; Kshatriyas or the rulers and warriors; Vaishyas or merchants, traders, bankers etc; and Shudras, the agricultural workers and labourers. The story of the growth of the Varnas is too obvious to need any repetition.

In the beginning, the basis of varna was worth not birth but as time moved it changed its base und heredity began to play a more dominant role than the ability of an individual. By and large, an element of inflexibility gripped the Varna and in the process, the growth of civilisation was halted. As a result of the new rigidity, society got itself split into four major castes or the streams which were fed by numerous tributaries of unlimited sub-castes. The varna in its revised shape prohibited the Shudras from pursuing knowledge, from bearing arms and from engaging in economic enterprises, resulting in their reconciliation to eternal servitude as an inescapable fate. They (Shudras) had no privilege to move in the society of high caste Hindus. Se acute was the injustice done to them that even their entry into the temples, the places of worship, were disallowed.

Gandhi ji too subscribed to the theory of caste by birth. He supported the ancient Hindu social order of Varna Dharma. He claimed that Varna of each individual is to be determined by birth rather than by his occupation.

“The meaning of Varna is incredibly simple. It simply means the following on the part of us all the hereditary and traditional calling of our fore-fathers, in so far as the traditional calling is not inconsistent with fundamental ethics, and this only for the purpose of earning one’s livelihood. ...............Varna means predetermination of the Choice of man’s profession of his ancestors for earning his livelihood..............Varna, therefore, is a way, the law of heredity……it does attach to birth. A man cannot change his Varna by choice. Not to abide by one’s Varna is to disregard the law of heredity. I believe that some people are born to teach and some to defend and some to engage in trade and agriculture and some to manual labour, so much so that these occupations become hereditary.”1

Gandhi ji never dared to question the authority of the Hindu Shastras regarding untouchability. He rather upheld the authority of the Hindu Shastras in this regard. He writes:

“I believe in Varnashram Dharma. But I eat with Bhangis. Let me tell you that in my own clan all the members do not interdine. In certain cases among our Vaishnav families they do not use each other’s utensils or even cook food on fire fetched from other’s kitchen. You may call this practice superstitious but I do not regard it as such. It certainly does no harm to Hinduism. In my Ashram, Dadabhai, one of the untouchable inmates dines with the rest without any distinction.


But I do not recommend any body outside the Ashram to follow this example. Again you know the esteem in which I hold Malviya ji. I would wash his feet but he would not take food touched by me.”2

Dr. Ambedkar declared that Gandhi had not the courage to take up the cudgels against the caste Hindus on behalf of the depressed classes. He observed that there was no difference between the law of Varna and Gandhi’s ideal prescribing pursuit of ancestral calling irrespective of natural aptitude. Ho felt that caste was the bane of Hindu society and it was not possible to eradicate this social evil because this notion of caste had been inculcated through the teachings of Hindu Shastras. He said:—

“Caste is a notion, a state of mind. Its destruction means a notional change. The Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman and wrongheaded. They observe caste because they are deeply religious. They are not wrong in observing castes. What is wrong is their religion which inculcates this notion of caste. The real enemy is the Shastras which teach them this religion of castes. Destroy this belief in the sanctity of the Shastras (scriptures). Destroy the authority, the sacredness and divinity of the Shastras and the Vedas. Make every man and woman free from the thralldom to the shastras and he or she will intermarry without your calling him or her to do so.”3

He therefore exhorted the untouchables to renounce Hinduism where they would perennially be reckoned an inferior religious or social sect. He planned the organization of conversions of the untouchables en masse. He told the untouchables; “You have nothing to lose, except your chains and everything to gain by changing your religion.”

After consulting his colleagues from different provinces in the matter of choosing the proper religion for conversion he decided to embrace Sikhism along with his followers. Giving his reasons for deciding in favour of Sikhism, Dr. Ambedkar observed:

“If the depressed classes join Islam or Christianity they go out of Hindu culture. On the other hand lf they become Sikhs they remain within the Hindu culture. What the consequences of conversion will be to the country as a whole is well-worth bearing in mind. Conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalise the Depressed Classes. If they go over to Islam the number of Muslims would be doubled; and the danger of Muslim domination also becomes real. If they go over to Christianity, the numerical strength of Christians becomes five to six crores. It will help to strengthen the hold of Britain on the country. On the other hand, if they embrace Sikhism, they will not only not harm the destiny of the country but they will help the destiny of the country. They will not be denationalised. On the contrary, they will be a help in the political advancement of the country. Thus it is the interest of the country that the Depressed Classes, if they are to change their faith, should go over to Sikhism.4

But Gandhi ji instead of approving and applauding these patriotic sentiments of Dr. Ambedkar condemned them as suicidal to the Hindus and held out a threat to the depressed classes through his trusted lieutenant Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant who declared that the Harijans could not have it both ways. Either they were Hindus and enjoyed the privileges under the Poona Pact or they ceased to be Hindus and forfeited them. Gandhi used Rajah, a political rival of Dr. Ambedkar, as a tool to frustrate Dr. Ambedkar’s plan and induced him to start a counter move.

Gandhi also tried to persuade Dr. Ambedkar through his millionaire supporters Seth Wal Chand, Hira Chand and Jamna Lal Bajaj to join Gandhi’s camp by offering the allurement that he would have boundless resources at his disposal for the uplift of the depressed classes. Ambedkar told them frankly that he differed with Gandhi on many vital points. Upon this they referred to Nehru who in spite of his more sophisticated approach than that of Gandhi, had continued to follow Gandhi ji and they expected that Ambedkar could also toe the line. But Ambedkar silenced them by saying that he was not a man to be guided by the evil lights of Nehru and added that he could not sacrifice his conscience for success.

The plans about en masse conversion of untouchables to Sikhism had been privately disclosed to Mahatma Gandhi on strict understanding that all that would not be made public without consent. Mahatma Gandhi, however, committed breach of trust by going to press on his own. He angrily proclaimed:

“It would be far better than crores of untouchables of India could be converted to Islam than that they should become Sikhs.”

Ambedkar who had sent a group of thirteen of his followers in September 1936 to Amritsar to form the vanguard to conversion movement had to abandon his plan in view of changed circumstances resulting from Gandhi’s downright opposition.


  1. Caravan Delhi, June 1969, Page II.
  2. Indian National Daily Patna of 1-4-69, Page 4.
  3. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission by Dhananjay Keer Page 270.
  4. The Times of India, 24 July, 1936.
  5. Impact of Sikhism on Modern India, by S. Kapur Singh published in The Sikh Courier Great Britain in January, 1965 at page 4.

Source – Gandhi and the Sikhs