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

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.

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