“The threat to Gandhi posed by the prospect of Untouchables gaining the right to their own electorates thus went much deeper than fear of another British device to divide the national movement, like the separate rolls granted to Muslims, real though this was. More fundamental questions were at issue. If Untouchables were to be treated as external to the Hindu community, it would be confirmation that caste was indeed, as its critics had always maintained, a vile system of discrimination, relegating the lowest orders of society to a subhuman existence with which the smallest brush was pollution, and since Hinduism was founded on caste, it would stand condemned with caste. To reclaim the Untouchables for Hinduism was an ideological imperative for the reputation of the religion itself. But it was also politically vital, since if they were subtracted from the Hindu bloc in India, its predominance over the Muslim community would be weakened. There were ‘mathematical’ considerations to bear in mind, as Gandhi’s secretary delicately reported his leader’s thinking on the matter. Most menacing of all, Gandhi confided to a colleague, might not Untouchables, accorded separate identity, then gang up with ‘Muslim hooligans and kill caste Hindus’?
“To cut off these dangers, Gandhi – still in prison – announced that as ‘a man of religion’ and leader of ‘numberless men and women who have childlike faith in my wisdom’, he would fast to death until the award was rescinded and Untouchables were bundled back into the Hindu electorate. The sensation was enormous. Ambedkar was summoned post-haste to Gandhi’s jail in Poona to avert the passing of the Great Soul. His own view of the religion he was being told to embrace was unflinching: ‘No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity’ – words few Indian intellectuals would dare utter today. Gandhi, though he had long condemned Untouchability as odious, had never taken any drastic political action against it: sin it might be, but not sufficiently mortal to warrant a fast unto death. Granting Untouchables their own rolls was another matter. Against that he would put his life on the line. Under colossal public pressure, and physical threats to him and his community if he stood firm, Ambedkar yielded to Gandhi’s blackmail.”
Gandhi Centre Stage by Perry Anderson
(London Review of Books, July 5, 2012)