.I do not want to be reborn. But if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts levelled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from that miserable condition. — Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, May 4, 1921.
Of all the nationalist leaders, Mahatma Gandhi was the foremost embodiment of dreams and aspirations of the groups that have been considered ‘Outcastes’ or ‘Untouchables’ for centuries. In 1919, these derogatory terms were changed by the British to ‘depressed classes’. Gandhi called them ‘Harijan’ (Man of God). Today they are called ‘Dalits’ — a Sanskrit term meaning ‘ground’, ‘suppressed’, ‘crushed’ or ‘broken to pieces’.
It is believed that Dr BR Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, had popularised the term. Gandhi was against the word ‘Untouchables’. In his reckoning, untouchability was the most abhorrent expression that denoted caste-based inequality and man’s inhumanity to man. Rather, the use of the term ‘Harijan’ is significant because he sought to redefine their status as men of God… and not as victims, but as people who require special attention. In his own words: “The ‘untouchable’, to me, is, compared to us, really a Harijan — a man of God, and we are Durjan (men of evil).” He believed that ‘Untouchability will not be removed by the force even of law. It can only be removed when the majority of Hindus realise that it is a crime against God and man and are ashamed of it.’
The Mahatma’s concern and compassion for the Harijans was so deeply rooted that he once said: ‘The untouchable is the bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. I would love to die so that they may live, and live with perfect dignity and self-respect. My attitude is that I myself belong to the Depressed Classes.’
His sympathy for the outcastes dates back to his boyhood. A scavenger boy, Uka, used to come to his house to clean up the yard. The children, including young Gandhi, were told by the elders not to defile themselves by touching the family sweeper or by playing with ‘Untouchable’ classmates. Gandhi visibly chafed at such restraints and had asked his mother why would touching Uka be a sin. Gandhi wrote: ‘I told my mother that she was entirely wrong in considering physical contact with Uka sinful. If the Lord pervades water and land and everywhere, how could he not be in Uka also?’
There are many episodes which illustrate Gandhi’s concern for the so-called Harijans. In 1915, he picked up a dirty Harijan boy at Tranquebar in the South and took him to his ashram at Kochrab. He shaved his head, cleaned his eyes, ears, nose, and cut his nails. His feet were scrubbed. A Harijan Dudhabhai, his wife Daniben and their daughter Lakshmi, a baby, were given shelter in Ahmedabad Ashram. Gandhi was in trouble. Those who financed the ashram stopped the funding. Gandhi was unmoved. He adopted Lakshmi and brought her up as his own daughter.
Gandhi wanted the suppressed classes to be treated like other Hindus. When certain roads were out of bounds to them at Vykom, in Kerala, he called for a satyagraha till the ban was withdrawn. For many years he refused to visit temples to which their entry was prohibited. In 1934, he was abused near the Jagannath temple in Puri for protesting against caste discrimination. Many big temples were thrown open to Harijans as a result of his vehement protests.
The Mahatma undertook a fast unto death from 20 September 1932 in Yervada jail to change theBritish Government’s Communal Award which recognised the depressed classes as a minority community and provided for separate electorates in conformity with the demand of Dr BR Ambedkar.Opposing the demand , Gandhi said: “Separate electorates to the ‘untouchables’ will ensure bondage in perpetuity. The Musalmans will never cease to be Musalmans by having separate electorates. Do you want the ‘untouchables’ to remain untouchables forever?”
Gandhi’s argument stirred the conscience of the country. He had several rounds of discussions with Dr Ambedkar. At last, a compromise formula was reached. Dr Ambedkar dropped his demand for separate electorates; in return, the depressed classes would get more seats — 148 seats in the provincial legislatures, against the 71 allotted to them by the British. But they would vote together with caste Hindus. The pact was approved by Gandhi and also by the British. He broke his fast on 26 September. The agreement is generally known as Yervada Pact or Poona Pact. Although the fast lasted only for a few days, it came to be known as ‘The Epic Fast’. Gandhi clarified, however, ‘My fast is not meant to coerce the British, but to sting the Hindu conscience.’
However, it was truly epic in its consequences. The proposed format was later adopted by the Constitution of India and still forms part of our election process. Indeed, separate electorates for the depressed classes as originally demanded by Dr Ambedkar would have further isolated them. But the crucial terms of the pact — general electorates with reserved seats — have given Dalits profound influence in all constituencies. Without the Poona Pact, the Bahujan Samaj Party would not have come to power in UP.
India is marching from feudalism to post-modernism, and yet the outdated attitude persists. It is a democratic republic, but justice, equality, liberty and fraternity — the four basic tenets promised in the Preamble of the Constitution — are still absent. Economically and socially, we remain a deeply unequal society. Dalits continue to be oppressed and discriminated against in villages, in educational institutions, in the job market, and on the political battlefield.
According to a 2010 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes.Everyday, on an average, three Dalit women are raped, two murdered, and two Dalit houses burnt. As regards their social and economic condition, 37 per cent of the Dalits live below the poverty line; half of their children are undernourished, 21 per cent are severely underweight and 12 per cent die before their 5th birthday. Dalits are prevented from entering the police station in 28 per cent of the villages. Their children are seated separately while eating in 38 per cent of government schools. Dalits are denied access to water sources in 84.4 per cent of villages because of segregation and untouchability.
The Harijan dilemma is the dilemma of India. The nation as a whole needs to apologise to the Dalits for the gross injustice meted out to them for centuries. ‘Beware the fury of the patient man,’ John Dryden had warned 300 years ago. The present-day variant would read: “Beware of the fury of the patient and long-suffering people.” We can ignore the piece of ancient wisdom at our peril.