In May 1947, Mahatma Gandhi suffered a grievous personal loss. Chakrayya, a young Dalit disciple who had served at Sevagram Ashram since its inception in 1935, died of brain tumour. He was like family; the Mahatma’s grief was palpable and public.
On 2 June Gandhi startled his prayer meeting with a radical suggestion. He first explained his decision to name Jawaharlal Nehru as the “uncrowned king of India”: having studied at Harrow and Cambridge before becoming barrister, Nehru was needed to negotiate with Englishmen. It was not the most persuasive of arguments, but Gandhi wanted to convey that Nehru’s role as free India’s first Prime Minister was not in question. But there was a second post, technically higher in than a Prime Minister’s in the new Indian polity, that was vacant.
I quote: “But the time is fast approaching when India will have to elect the first President of the Republic. I would have proposed the name of Chakrayya, had he been alive. I would wish with all my heart to have a brave, selfless and pure-hearted Dalit [the term Gandhi used, now obsolete, has been changed here and elsewhere] girl to be our first President. It is no vain dream...Our future President will have no need to know English. Of course he will be assisted by men who are proficient in political matters and who also know foreign languages. These dreams, however, can be realised only if we devote all our attention to our villages instead of killing each other” [Collected Works, Volume 95].
On 6 June, Gandhi pursued this idea in a conversation with Rajendra Prasad, who would of course become India’s first President. Gandhi framed his proposal thus: “If all the leaders join the Cabinet, it will be very difficult to maintain contact with the people at large...That is why I suggested even in my prayer speech that a Dalit like Chakrayya or a Dalit girl should be made the nation’s first President and Jawaharlal should become the Prime Minister...” Since Chakrayya had died a young Dalit woman could be given the honour.
Congress leaders were unimpressed. It is interesting that Chakrayya is never mentioned by any of them in their memoirs or records of their conversations, at least to my knowledge. Perhaps they dismissed the thought as the radicalism of a saint, increasingly removed from practical requirements of office. But Gandhi continued to campaign for such empowerment, saying things like “We want the rule of the Dalits. The Dalits are the highest of all because their service is the greatest.” Interestingly, neither Gandhi nor those Congress leaders preparing to enter office thought that Babasaheb Ambedkar might be worth consideration as the first Rashtrapati.
Ambedkar laid down his famous dictum: there are no rights without remedies, which became the operating principle of the Constitution. Gandhi did not live long enough to see the Constitution, but he understood the power of political symbolism. Nothing would erode the psychological foundations of caste hierarchies faster than a Dalit in the palace of Viceroys.
Ambedkar certainly had the qualifications and repute. It is likely that Babasaheb’s decision to play an independent role during the independence movement rankled deeply with contemporary Congress leaders. Babasaheb was not one of them. They refused to trust him beyond a point.
The challenge of Dalit empowerment was of highest concern to both Gandhi and Ambedkar, with this difference that Gandhi gave first priority to freedom and Ambedkar to Dalit emancipation. By the mid-1940s, the difference became irrelevant, as freedom became visible. The thrust of Ambedkar’s intellectual contribution shifted to careful proposals that could fashion a polity acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims. He also pondered deeply on the meaning of partition. As early as in December 1940 he published what is surely the first book with a title that includes “Pakistan”. His Thoughts on Pakistan was startling and prescient. No one else had foreseen what is today’s biggest threat, an Islamic Jihad with a geo-political agenda rising from the North-West Frontier and Afghanistan. Ambedkar’s thesis, that “a safe army is better than a safe border”, is remarkable.
Once Pakistan became a fact, the focus shifted to internal challenges. The curse of an abominable caste system could be abolished in law, but its elimination in real life was a different story. Ambedkar laid down his famous dictum: there are no rights without remedies, which became the operating principle of the Constitution. Gandhi did not live long enough to see the Constitution, but he understood the power of political symbolism. Nothing would erode the psychological foundations of caste hierarchies faster than a Dalit in the palace of Viceroys.
It took us decades to fulfil Gandhi’s dream.To be fair, we have come a very long way since 1947, but there are, as famously noted by a poet, miles to go. Leaders are human; they all must go to the big sleep one day. But a nation lives on. India will rise only when Dalit emancipation and economic empowerment has been fully achieved.