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'Warped understanding' of Gandhi's views on caste, race comes from his early writings

Gandhiji's statue in Washington DC
By Ram Puniyani*
The #BlackLivesMatter protest saw a strange incident in the United States: Unknown miscreants vandalised the statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside the Indian embassy in Washington DC with graffiti and spray paint. The incident took place on June 2 night amidst nationwide protests that erupted the country against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
This happened even as a section of people, writers and intellectuals continue to label him as racist and casteist, one who harmed the cause of Dalits in India. Nothing can be farther from truth. These elements fail to see the whole journey of the man, but cherry pick from his early writings, when he had just initiated his struggle against the prevailing injustices.
What is not taken into account is, Gandhiji, father of the Indian nation, has the unique distinction of leading the biggest ever mass movement in the world, and leading the strong anti-colonial movement. He contributed two major tools as the basis of the mass movements, non-violence and satyagraha. He also stated that while making the policies what one should keep in mind is the last, weakest person in the society.
His life, which he called as his message, became an inspiration to many anti-colonial, anti-racial struggles in different parts of the world. He strongly supported the concept of equality in India, where eradication of caste also became one of the aims of his life.
Earlier, Gandhiji’s statue was uprooted in Ghana, where protesters, calling him racist, said, ‘Gandhi Must Fall’ – on the lines of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement. Gandhi in no way can be put in the category of the likes of Rhodes and others whose central work revolved around enslaving the blacks.
The warped understanding of Gandhiji comes from focussing only on Gandhiji’s early writings. Gandhi who began his campaign for the rights of Indians in South Africa, at times used derogatory terms against blacks. These terms were the ones which were prevalent, introduced by colonial masters, words like ‘African savages’. Gandhi while raising the voice for Indian working people in South Africa said that the colonialists are treating Indians like African savages.
But once Gandhiji realized the plight of the blacks there, he started travelling in the third class to experience the hardships being faced by them and much later he stated that they deserve to be treated in a just manner. His overcoming of racial beliefs were best expressed in his sentence, “If we look into the future, is it not a heritage we have to leave to posterity, that all the different races commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen?”(1908). 
Nelson Mandela wrote: All in all, Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and the circumstances
His beliefs kept evolving, and in 1942, in a letter to Roosevelt, he wrote, “I venture to think that the Allied declaration that the Allies are fighting to make the world safe for freedom of the individual and for democracy sounds hollow so long as India and, for that matter, Africa are exploited by Great Britain and America has the Negro problem in her own home.”
Gandhiji's statue being pulled down in Ghana
The best response to accusations of Gandhiji being a racist came from Nelson Mandela, who wrote, “All in all, Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and the circumstances.” Mandela recognized the crucial point that Gandhiji’s views changed as he matured. He wrote, “We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma.” One has to only add how Martin Luther King (Jr) was inspired by Gandhiji for his anti-racial struggles.
As for caste, during his early periods of life, Gandhiji talked of varnashramdharma. He glorified the work of scavenging and also called Dalits as Harijans. Many a Dalit intellectual and leader hold Gandhi responsible for opposing ‘separate electorate’, offered to the scheduled castes (SCs) by the McDonald Award. Gandhiji saw this as a move to fragment the electorate on narrow lines as being against Indian nationalism and went on hunger strike. Due to this hunger strike, Dr BR Ambedkar agreed for the concept of reserved constituencies for SCs.
While many leaders-intellectuals see this as a betrayal by Gandhiji, Ambedkar himself actually thanked Gandhi for giving a satisfactory solution by giving higher reservation to SCs in reserved constituency. And stated, “I am grateful to Mahatma: He came to my rescue.” Bhagwan Das, a close follower of Ambedkar, independently quotes Ambedkar’s speech: 
“I think in all these negotiations, a large part of the credit must be attributed to Mahatma Gandhi himself. I must confess that I was surprised, immensely surprised, when I met Mahatma, that there was so much in common between him and me.” As such, race and caste are akin and United Nations debated it in 2009 on these lines. In both the cases Gandhiji, a humanitarian par excellence, begins with terminologies and notions about caste and race which were prevalent during those times. 
With his deeper engagement with the issues of society, he gave a totally different meaning to the same. In matters of caste, he was deeply influenced by and empathetic to Dr Ambedkar, to the extent that he recommended that Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ be read by all.
While he dealt with race issue from the margins, in case of caste he went miles. His campaign for eradication of untouchability had farreaching back up effect to Dr Ambedkar’s initiatives. It was Gandhiji’s disciple Jawaharlal Nehru, who brought Dr Ambedkar to the forefront of policy making by including him in the Cabinet. 
Nehru also entrusted Dr Ambedkar with the task of drafting the Uniform Civil Code and it was Gandhihi who suggested that Dr Ambedkar be made the chief of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution.
Only those who focus on early Gandhi, Gandhi in the formative phase of his values and ideas, accuse him of being a casteist or racist. He overcame these narrow, parochial social norms and policies as time passed, and dreamed of Indian and global fraternity where caste and race are relegated to the backyard of human history.
---
*Political commentator

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