Similarities and Contrasts of Ambedkar and Gandhi’s Approaches to Caste and Untouchability

Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar was considered the most important ‘Founding Father’ of India who spoke and worked rigorously for the caste divide in India. He took upon a political stance to achieve caste equality and the views he held regarding caste inequality often clashed with Gandhi’s views. M. K. Gandhi was a prominent figure in Indian politics, termed as the ‘Father of the Nation’ and he, too, spoke and worked for caste issues in India. However, Ambedkar and Gandhi, both, had adopted different approaches to caste and its politics and this essay looks into the difference of opinion between the two thereby comparing and contrasting their approaches to questions of caste and its politics.

Ambedkar wrote his first essay on caste in 1916 with which he brought forward the argument that caste was a social construct rather than a racial one and since then continued to advocate for the rights of the untouchable class or the depressed people in India. In 1920, Ambedkar started publishing the Mooknayak which was a journal for discussion on the depressed people and then he eventually collaborated with Shahu Chhatrapati to form a forum for depressed classes which organized the All India conference of the depressed classes. Moreover, in 1924 he found the Bahiskrit Hitakarni Sabha which was a society to uplift the position of Outcastes in Indian society and in 1927 he gave leadership to Mahad Satyagraha which enforced the right of the untouchables to access wells and tanks. He further pushed on the idea of provision of equality for the untouchables by burning the Manusmriti which was to symbolically portray that the untouchables were no longer accepting their subordinate position subjected by other castes in society as they were not allowed to enter temples or gain access to education. Ambedkar stressed on the social discrimination the untouchables faced in their daily lives and hence to address this discrimination he set up the Depressed Classes Education Society in 1928 which set up schools hostels for untouchable students. These were the several attempts made by Ambedkar to fight for a non-subordinate position of the untouchables in society, he wanted to see a Indian society where the untouchables did not face discrimination but were instead treated as equals rather than being treated according to the negative connotations associated with the term ‘untouchables’ itself.

Simultaneously along with Ambedkar’s attempts to work towards an Indian society within which the untouchables were not subjected to oppression and discrimination, Gandhi too was speaking about what he believed regarding the caste issue in India. In the 1920’s, Gandhi included a clause about the removal of untouchability in the non-cooperation programme and Ambedkar wanted to put this clause into action in a more radical manner. However, he was highly disappointed with Gandhi’s view on the caste system as he was supportive of it and would never critically comment on it with the intention to abolish it. This was where Gandhi and Ambedkar most clashed on their views regarding the caste system in India as while Gandhi held a more orthodox belief in the system, Ambedkar wanted to overthrow it and eradicate the discriminations that stemmed from the system. Thus, emphasizing on the contrast between the two perspectives, Gandhi and Ambedkar, on the question of Caste and its politics.

Furthermore, in 1928, Ambedkar insisted for the untouchables to have separate political representations. He believed that the depressed classes needed separate constituencies where they elect people from their own caste for the legislatures due to the voting eligibility laws that existed where the poor and those without property or tax paying ability were not allowed to vote and getting separate electorates was the only way the depressed people could get a voice in the government. As Ambedkar spoke for a unitary state, the safeguard of Dalits’ (untouchables) rights and reserved seats at the Second Round table conference in 1931, he and Gandhi had a direct clash with their difference of opinion on this situation. Gandhi believed that the position of the untouchables had to be improved by a change of heart amongst the upper castes, he believed that the upper castes could improve the conditions of the lower by a change in their own discriminatory behavior, however Ambedkar knew that this would only maintain the status quo rather than allowing the depressed people to break free from it. Hence, there was a vast difference in the way the two saw the problems associated with the Indian caste system in that Ambedkar stressed on the need for political power for the Dalits whereas Gandhi insisted that reform and protection had to come from the upper castes as a form of a gift.

In addition to believing that the improvement in the untouchables position could come in the form of reform and protection from the upper classes, Gandhi also believed that the issue of the untouchables brought forward by Ambedkar was a political ploy aimed at dividing the Indian people which consequently made him very skeptical of Ambedkar. He claimed himself to be the only fit leader to represent the untouchables due to the simplistic living experience he had adopted similar to that of the untouchables which, according to him, reduced Ambedkar’s credibility as their representative. Ambedkar, naturally, was very dismissive of this view as he believed Gandhi’s methods could not be of any help to the untouchables as he did not want to establish their departure from the institution within which they were struggling. Thereby, this highlights the contrast between Ambedkar and Gandhi’s question of caste and its politics.

Moreover, Gandhi’s view towards the untouchables made them appear as passive agents in their struggle for equality. He believed they were to be educated and improve their standard of living but they themselves, were not to protest and go on strikes to break the taboos attached to their cast. He did not want the Dalits showing resistance as that could lead to several changes in the Indian society and this alarmed Gandhi due to his orthodox view point that wanted to maintain the status quo. Gandhi’s major aim was that the upper castes work to remove the ‘untouchability’ aspect associated with the Dalits and therefore he set up the All India Anti-untouchability league in 1932 and replaced the word untouchables with Harijan as a way of removing the taboos associated with the term and the oppression it brought with it. In addition, He started performing tasks traditionally assigned to the Dalits to symbolically establish dignity of labor done by the newly named Harijan. He also launched a massive campaign to remove untouchability known as the ‘Untouchability Abolition Week,’ where he toured around India highlighting and promoting the interests of the untouchables. Hence, this shows that Gandhi, too, was passionate about the caste issue in India. He, too, wanted to eradicate the oppression associated with the untouchables but he had a more orthodox outlook to it that maintained the status quo and did not want to disrupt the order in the Indian society compared to Ambedkar’s who had a more modern perspective that wanted to demolish the caste system as a whole. However, both of them were radical in what they wanted to achieve as they set up organizations and took upon tasks to do so.

In conclusion, Gandhi and Ambedkar both wanted to work to improve the position the Dalits held in the Indian society. However, how they intended to achieve this improvement in their position was vastly different despite that they both achieved it radically in their own way. Gandhi did not want to disrupt order while working to improve the positions of the Dalits whereas Ambedkar saw this in a very nuanced manner insisting on overthrowing the system and disrupting the existing order that was a source of oppression for the untouchables.


  • Banarjee, I. (2014). A History of Modern India (pp. 346-385). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Singh, Aakash. “Gandhi and Ambedkar: Irreconcilable Differences?” International Journal of Hindu Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 2014, pp. 413–449.,
07 July 2022
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now