Taking issue with “hardline” Ambedkarites who have been strongly critical of Gandhiji, top expert and documentary film-maker for 40 long years, Anand Patwardhan has revealed that India’s undisputed Dalit icon Baba Ambedkar in 1932 not only highly praised Gandhiji but called him “Mahatma”.
Pointing out that this is contrary to the popular belief, Patwardhan, who made a highly acclaimed film on various aspects of the lives and politics of Dalit people in Mumbai, “Jai Bhim Comrade” (2011), says in an interview, Ambedkar referred to Gandhi as “Mahatma” for offering “a much better deal for Dalits in terms of reserved seats than Ambedkar himself had asked or hoped for”.
Other notable films by Anand Patwardhan, a secular rationalist and is a vocal critic of Hindutva ideology. include “Bombay: Our City” (Hamara Shahar) (1985), “In Memory of Friends” (1990), “In the Name of God” (Ram ke Nam) (1992), “Father, Son, and Holy War” (1995), “A Narmada Diary (1995), and “War and Peace” (2002), which have won national and international awards.
Patwarthan rejects the “popular theory”, according to which “Ambedkar was blackmailed by Gandhi’s fast-unto-death into accepting a bitter compromise”, insisting, “Ambedkar’s statement in 1932 after signing the pact was totally different in tone.”
A leftist who is known to have maintained a distance from the Communist parties, Patwardhan says, this is what “pleasantly shocked” him after he “read what Dr Ambedkar had to say in 1932 immediately after concluding the now infamous Poona Pact, where the idea of separate electorates for Dalits was abandoned in favour of reserved seats for Dalits.”
According to Patwardhan, “I have always felt that the affinities between Gandhi and Ambedkar are greater than their differences. They were both egalitarian humanists at heart. It may not win me any popularity contest today but I think those who are ready to set prejudice aside and undertake a proper historical study will come around to this point of view.”
He adds, “Take the act of ‘Satyagraha’, a term coined by Gandhi. Ambedkar used this very term and form of struggle to launch his Mahad Satyagraha to claim drinking water rights. There are many other examples of common ideas and action.”
“There is no denying”, admits Patwardhan, who has studied Ambedkar through and through, that “that Ambedkar did get disgusted with the Congress in later years”, but adds, “How much of the blame for the failures of Congress are attributable to Gandhi is a matter of discussion and debate.”
Underscores Patwardhan, “We know that Gandhi’s writ did not work in preventing Partition or the bloodshed that preceded and followed it and that Gandhi did not attend the Independence Day flag hoisting at the Red Fort in Delhi. He was busy fighting the communal inferno in the countryside.”
Even while agreeing that “Gandhi had a lot of obscurantist ideas”, Patwardhan insists, “but as time went on he was honest enough to keep evolving. In the end I see him as a great humanist who died for his belief in non-violence and religious universality.”
Calling Gandhiji “inventive anti-Imperialist”, Patwardhan says, he was also “an organic naturalist that today’s madly consumerist, globally warmed world desperately needs”, and which, he adds, today’s Gandhians “not”.
Coining the term “progressive Gandhians” for “dedicated non-violent fighters like Medha Patkar, Narendra Dabholkar, the whole Baba Amte family, Sandeep Pande, S.P Udaykumar, Teesta Setalvad, Aruna Roy, Admiral Ramdas, and so many others”, Patwardhan adds, “It certainly does not include government-fed Gandhians and those Gandhians who jump onto the Hindutva bandwagon as soon as it gathers steam.”