How Gandhi fought the caste system

Gandhi Against Caste 
Nishikant Kolge 
336 pages; Rs 695

Leaders who organised mass struggles against colonial oppressors — Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh to name a few — have always been subjected to clinical analysis by professional academics to evaluate their real contribution to nation-making in their newly-liberated countries. Nishikant Kolge’s study focuses on a critical aspect of Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggle — his bid to eradicate the caste system. The Mahatma considered social reform of the Hindu society an integral part of his political opposition to colonial rule. As Gandhi saw it, a comprehensive libertarian agenda could be achieved by eradicating caste-based tyranny in the Indian society. Mr Kolge has done yeoman’s service in highlighting not just the philosophy but also the praxis embedded in Gandhi’s agenda.  

The author presents his narrative in a chronological order, dividing Gandhi’s ideas about caste and his social agenda into five periods starting with his return from South Africa, to better trace the evolution of his thinking. 

The first two chapters — titled “Was there a strategy in Gandhi’s approach to fight against the caste system?” and “What did Gandhi stand for and what did he intend to achieve?” — focus on clearing many controversies surrounding Gandhi’s views on the caste issue in Hindu society. This is important because many of Gandhi’s statements can be misunderstood or misinterpreted when taken out of context to suggest he supported the social status quo. In his foreword to this study, Rajmohan Gandhi sought to rescue Gandhi from misinterpretation by quoting him as saying, “What you do not get from my conduct, you will never get from my words.” This is Gandhi’s answer to his critics, especially the new Dalit leadership. As the author points out, in Sevagram Ashram “Gandhi encouraged local untouchable participants in every activity”. He also arranged tanning classes where skinners were taught improved methods and a variety of ways to use the flesh and bones of animals. “This was in the teeth of reactionary opposition from orthodox Hindus,” Mr Kolge writes. 

This brings us to the most critical question Gandhi faced — how to eradicate untouchability and other evils of caste system in the face of stiff opposition from orthodox, high-caste Hindus. He understood the challenges here, saying, “if I live up to 125 years, I do expect to convert the entire Hindu society to my view”. Gandhi’s basic philosophy was formulated on the basis of his struggles in South Africa where he wrote Hind Swaraj, (1909) which can be described as his “strategic document”. Gandhi described Hind Swaraj “as a critique of modern civilization” for propagating “the exploitation of the weaker race of the earth”. Many critics of Western modernity have appropriated Gandhi’s views, forgetting a basic fact that they sprang from his struggles against British colonial rule and the sacrifices he made to liberate the untouchable castes.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on Gandhi’s evolving strategy to abolish the caste system. These two chapters cover his efforts to secure equal access to Dalits in educational institutions and share in political power and economic development. Gandhi insisted on “manual labour or bread labour for everyone” because he wanted to restore the dignity of manual labour “as a means of removing caste hierarchies and differences”. Obedience to the law of bread labour, Gandhi wrote, would “bring about a silent revolution in the structure of society”. His entire package of reform — inter-caste marriage, dignity of labour, entry of Dalits to schools and temple, and so on — was designed to erode the caste hegemony of orthodox, high-caste Hindus. He established, for instance, the Gujarat Vidyapith for educational equality because “untouchables must be permitted in every public school”. 

A point to be noted is that Gandhi’s comrade-in-arms differed with him on many occasions, especially during his fast-unto-death in protest against the Communal Award of 1932. That fast ended with the Poona Pact under which 148 seats were reserved in joint electorates instead of 78 seats in separate electorates reserved for Dalits. Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed on this issue because the latter felt that the Communal Award represented the real empowerment of Dalits. 

On the one hand, Hindu orthodoxy was a stumbling block to Gandhi’s social reform agenda, on the other were Ambedkar and the Dalit critique of Gandhi’s movement. These contestations are discussed in Chapter 5: “Critical Analysis: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the Arya Samaj”. Comparing the Arya Samaj’s Shudhi movement and Ambedkar’s anti-caste movement, the author points to the limitations of the Gandhian approach, though he highlights the important fact that “it did not bring upper caste Hindus and the untouchables into direct confrontation ….”. Gandhi’s critics do not agree with his approach of caste negotiations because they think he applied the brakes on the radicalisation of the Dalit movement. His own rationale for doing so he explained thus: “I have removed untouchability completely from my mind…. I shall not thrust my opinions on you. I shall try to remove untouchability as well as the difference between high and low by argument, persuasion and, best of all, by my own experience”. This is the essence of Gandhi’s philosophy, take it or leave it.

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