On 22 August 1936, Mohandas Gandhi labeled the proposed conversion of 60 million ‘untouchables’ to Sikhi as “A Dangerous Proposal.”
This is an attempt to find an answer by connecting dots in history via letters, newspapers, opinions, and context of the Common Era year 1936!
On 8 August 1930, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar presided over the Depressed Classes Congress at Nagpur where he argued that the “safety of the Depressed Classes” hinged on their “being independent of the Government and the Congress” both: “We must shape our course ourselves and by ourselves.” His conclusion emphasized self-help: “Political power cannot be a panacea for the ills of the Depressed Classes. Their salvation lies in their social elevation. They must cleanse their evil habits. They must improve their bad ways of living … They must be educated … There is a great necessity to disturb their pathetic contentment and to instill into them that divine discontent which is the spring of all elevation.” (Dhananjay Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, pp. 141-143)
Depressed Classes terms is used interchangeably with Dalits in pre-1947 era.
On 6 May 1932, the All-Indian Depressed Classes Conference held at Kamptee near Nagpur, backed Dr. Ambedkar's demand for separate electorates, rejecting compromises proposed by others. Gandhi, in Yeravda jail, started a fast to the death against the separate electorates granted to the Depressed Classes by Ramsay MacDonald's Communal Award.
On 24 September 1932, a very reluctant Dr. Ambedkar was obliged by the pressure of this moral blackmail to accept representation through joint electorates instead. The result was the Poona Pact also known as Yervada Pact. Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar in an “agreement between depressed class leaders and caste Hindu leaders.”
In 1933, Gandhi replaced his journal Young India with a new one called Harijan, and undertook a 21-day “self-purification fast” against untouchability.
On 13 October 1935, Dr. Ambedkar at the Yeola Conference of Depressed Classes stated that unfortunately he was born a Hindu untouchable, but “I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu … You have nothing to lose except your chains and everything to gain by changing your religion.”
In December 1935, Dr. Ambedkar was invited by the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, a caste-reform organization, to preside over its annual conference in the spring of 1936.
On 13-14 April 1936, Dr. Ambedkar addressed the Sikh Mission Conference in Amritsar where he reiterated his intention of renouncing Hinduism.
The Sikh Mission funded a plot of 27,642 square yards which was purchased by Dr. Ambedkar from the Bombay Municipal Corporation to establish the Khalsa College. To erect the building, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) transferred the funds from Gurduara Nankana Sahib, birthplace of founder-Guru of Sikhi, now in Pakistan.
The Sikhs gave Dr. Amebdkar a platform in Panjab when Hindu reformers backtracked and provided funding to publicly demonstrate commitment towards enlarging the Sikh tent. All this while an internal Sikh vote bank was at play among some Akalis (Sikh politicians), a version of this in a brutally frank manner is covered in Sachi Sakhi by Sirdar Kapur Singh.
In late April 1936, the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal realized the radical nature of its guest's planned speech, and withdraws its earlier invitation.
On 15 May 1936, Dr. Ambedkar published the speech he would have given, with an introductory account of the whole controversy, in The Annihilation of Caste. In it, he remarked:
Again it must be borne in mind that although there are castes among Non-Hindus, as there are among Hindus, caste has not the same social significance for Non-Hindus as it has for Hindus … When he tells you he is a Sikh, you do not ask him whether he is Jat or Roda, Mazbi or Ramdasi. But you are not satisfied if a person tells you that he is a Hindu. You feel bound to inquire into his caste. Why? Because so essential is caste in the case of a Hindu, that without knowing it you do not feel sure what sort of a being he is.
In May 1936, Dr. Ambedkar sent his son, Yashwant Rao, and nephew to the Harimandar Sahib complex where they stayed for a month and a half to observe the situation and meet with Sikh leaders.
On 11 July 1936, Gandhi in Harijan opined under ‘Dr. Ambedkar’s Indictment’:
Dr. Ambedkar is a challenge to Hinduism. Brought up as a Hindu, educated by a Hindu potentate, he has become so disgusted with the so-called savarna Hindus for the treatment that he and his followers have received at their hands that he proposes to leave not only them but the very religion that is his and their common heritage. He has transferred to that religion his disgust against a part of its professors … But this is not to be wondered at. After all one can only judge a system or an institution by the conduct of its representatives. What is more, Dr. Ambedkar found that the vast majority of savarna Hindus had not only conducted themselves inhumanly against those of their fellow religionists whom they classed as untouchables, but they had based their conduct on the authority of their scriptures, and when he began to search them he had found ample warrant for their belief in untouchability and all its implications. The author of the address has quoted chapter and verse in proof of his threefold indictment— inhuman conduct itself, the unabashed justification for it on the part of the perpetrators, and the subsequent discovery that the justification was warranted by their scriptures.
Savarna Hindus in this context included all “forward” and not the “backward” or “depressed” castes. The Mulnivasis (original inhabitants – an umbrella term used today), i.e., the Dalits, the Scheduled Tribes, and the Other Backward Castes, were excluded.
On 22 July 1936, Gandhi in Harijan paper opined under ‘A Dangerous Proposal’:
That neither Dr. Moonje nor Dr. Ambedkar regard this proposal as dangerous does not make it less so in the estimation of those who disapprove of it … If Dr. Ambedkar’s proposal were accepted, the reform movement would receive a setback which might mean death to it in the end. For it contemplates [not just] a paper but legal transfer of Harijans from the Hindu fold to some other, no matter by what name the latter is called. It must mean fratricide … It is futile to argue that although there will be nominal change of religion, there won’t be a real one, and if there is any, it would not be so bad as if Harijans were called Christians or Muslims. If it is a change of religion, it matters little under what label they are classified.
Dr. B. S. Moonje was a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. He opposed Gandhi and strongly advised Dr. Ambedkar to convert to any religion of Indian origin.
After consulting his colleagues from different provinces in the matter of choosing the proper religion for conversion, Dr. Ambedkar decided to embrace Sikhi along with his followers.
On 24 July 1936, The Times of India reported why Dr. Ambedkar decided on Sikhi:
If the depressed classes join Islam or Christianity they go out of Hindu culture. On the other hand if 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.
On 26 July 1936, Dr. B.S. Moonje's in a confidential letter to M. C. Rajah wrote about a proposal accepted by Dr. Ambedkar:
If Dr. Ambedkar were to announce his decision that he and his followers are prepared to embrace Sikhism in preference to Islam and Christianity, and that he shall honestly and sincerely cooperate with the Hindus and the Sikhs in propagating their culture and in counteracting the Moslem movement for drawing the Depressed Classes into the Moslem fold, the Hindu Mahasabha will be prepared, in view of their having agreed to remain within the Hindu culture, to make an announcement that it will not object:
(I) To the conversion of the Depressed classes to Sikhism
(ii) To the inclusion of the neo-Sikhs in the list of the Scheduled Castes; and
(iii) To the enjoyment by the Depressed Classes of the political rights of the Poona Pact by free competition between the non-Sikh and the neo-Sikh Depressed Classes as provided for under the Poona Pact.
M. C. Rajah was a leader of the anti-Brahmin movement who secured the Poona pact, but parted ways with Dr. Ambedkar.
On 31 July 1936, Gandhi wrote to Dr. Moonje: “R.B.M.C. Rajah has sent Seth Birla and me copies of your correspondence with him on the Yeravda Pact for such use as we may wish to make. But the correspondence on your side is marked confidential. My own opinion is that the subject-matter admits no confidence.”
The situation in India rocked political parties and social institutions. This was not merely a question of Dr. Ambedkar’s personal choice because of spiritual or religious reasons; he exhorted his followers to change their religion en masse. This made it a political concern. “Ambedkar, the historian, gave a rude shock to the Hindu society, because he knew the conversion of Hindus to other faiths had convulsed Hindustan. It was the converted Hindus who had fought in the past for establishing Muslim suzerainty over the land … It can be seen, therefore, why Ambedkar’s declaration was a thunderbolt to the sensible Hindu leaders who realised that the Hindus were losing national strength though their suicidal apathy and inhuman attitude to the untouchable Hindus.” (Keer, pp. 282-83)
On 7 September 1936, Gandhi wrote to Jugal Kishore Birla:
“Today I will only say that to me Sikhism is a part of Hinduism. But the situation is different from the legal point of view. Dr. Ambedkar wants a change of religion. If becoming a Sikh amounts to conversion, then this kind of conversion on the part of Harijans is dangerous. And that too with a stroke of the pen and without the Harijans being consulted. Conversion as well as change of community can only be a personal matter. It is not so in this case. If you can persuade the Sikhs to accept that Sikhism is a part of Hinduism and if you can make them give up the separate electorate, then I will have no objection to Harijans calling themselves Ramanujis or Sikhs.
Jugal Kishore Birla was a Hindu activist who donated to Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Gandhi, and Indian National Congress.
On 11 September 1936, The Spectator (UK) under “The Conversion of Thirty Millions” recorded:
The latest issue of Mr. Gandhi's weekly paper Harijan to reach this country contains an important article by Mr. Gandhi himself on the strange proposal that the thirty million members of the Depressed Classes in India should be converted from Hinduism to some other religion. At first Christianity and Islam were the two favoured alternatives, but the last idea, sponsored by the Harijan leader, Dr. Ambedkar, and Dr. Moonje, representing caste Hindus, is that the thirty million should, on grounds of pure expediency, embrace the Sikh religion, and thus remain technically within the Hindu fold. Mr. Gandhi, whose championship of the Depressed Classes is now his dominating, if not his sole, public activity, is emphatic in his denunciation of what he calls "a dangerous proposal"; and on the highest grounds. "Who," he asks, "are we, the self-constituted leaders, to barter away the religious freedom of Harijans? Has not every Harijan, however dull or stupid he may be, the right to make his own choice?" and he adds that it is spiritual force “which will finally govern the welfare of Harijans and everyone else, and confound the calculations of men, however gifted they may be intellectually." Such words may be commended not only to the Hindu leaders, but equally to some Christian leaders who have been too readily attracted by the idea of a-miss conversion to Christianity.
On 18 September 1936, Dr. Ambedkar deputed thirteen men to the Sikh Mission at Amritsar to study the Sikh religion. Immediately after their arrival, in a letter Dr. Ambedkar “encouraged them, congratulated them on their being the vanguard of the conversion movement, and wished them all success … In an excess of zeal those student-vanguard went over to Sikhism … they were coldly received back in Bombay, and afterwards they sank into oblivion.” (Keer, p. 284)
On 19 September 1936, Gandhi in Harijan opined under ‘Much Ado About Nothing?’:
Some time after 1915 when I returned home from my self-imposed exile of fourteen years, I happened to go to the Punjab. Addressing a meeting of Sikhs, I had said they were in my opinion Hindus belonging to a sect of reformers … Sikhs have a separate electorate. Dr. Ambedkar does not regard Sikhs as Hindus. He definitely wants a change of faith. If Sikhs were a Hindu sect, no change in the Pact would be necessary. It is open to any Hindu to change his sect and still remain a Hindu. Moreover, neither Dr. Ambedkar nor R. B. Rajah nor anyone else can change even the sect of a whole mass of Harijans by a stroke of the pen. Religion is essentially an individual matter which each one has to decide for himself. No one who believes in religion as a sacrament can therefore be party to the proposal put forth by Drs. Ambedkar and Moonje.
Gurmit Singh, an advocate and a historian, in Gandhi and the Sikhs under ‘Ambedkar Plan Foiled’ observed:
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 ... had to abandon his plan in view of changed circumstances resulting from Gandhi's downright opposition.
Gurtej Singh, who presents accounts of then involved Sikh parties and analyzes numerous factors on why the conversion to Sikhi didn’t succeed, in Abstract of Sikh Studies under ‘Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism’ concluded:
Eventually Gandhi alone was instrumental in perpetuating the miserable condition of Dalits and the Sikhs. Together they constitute the duo of birds that this 'prophet of non-violence' killed with one stone. In the enlightened opinion of the most spiritually awake of souls of all ages, all people are entitled to political and spiritual freedom. This stands denied to a vast section of the Indian population. It is certainly wrong. There should be no objection to protesting on that score. It is clear as the sun at noon, that Gandhi's communal approach is also responsible for the vivisection of this great and ancient land of five rivers. Can history forgive that?
If Dr. Ambedkar would have embraced Sikhi with his followers, the Sikh population would have increased by 500%!
In 1938, when Dr. Ambedkar dropped the idea of embracing Sikhi, he transferred the Khalsa College (Bombay) property to the Sikh Mission. In 1939, the Sikh Mission transferred the property to Gurduara Nankana Sahib. In 1975, SGPC requested the government of Maharashtra to grant Khalsa College’s ownership to SGPC.
Today, as the Panjab, India, and the world is caught-up in the caste or class struggle, recall the timeless message of Sabad equally availed to all. Guru Nanak Sahib stands with the oppressed:
I am the lowliest of the low caste, lower than the lowliest.
Nanak’s companionship is with them, not emulating the established.
You bestow Your grace where the lowly are looked after.
– Guru Granth Sahib, 15
Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force