Skip to main content

'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

Comments

TRENDING

Nirma varsity demand for higher fees 'illegal', violates Article 14: Letter to Gujarat HC

Counterview Desk
Students of Gujarat’s top private institute, Nirma University, situated in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, in a letter to the Chief Justice the state High Court, have complained that the authorities are demanding “full fees” from students, without taking into account the “disproportionate impact” the lockdown has on the livelihood of students and families.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

By Our Representative
Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book, "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Vulnerable to Covid-19, sharp rise in murder of Indian journalists during pandemic

By Nava Thakuria*
Vulnerability of working journalists in India is no way an alien issue as the populous country loses a number of working journalists to assailants as also medical emergencies. Even though there was only one casualty in the Indian media fraternity during the first half of 2020, who was targeted for journalistic work, India has begun witnessing an alarming number of media casualties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Undoing 'past wrong' at Ayodhya: Will Modi govt hand over Puri temple to Buddhists?

By Shamsul Islam*
While laying the foundation of Ram Janmabhoomi Temple at Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, with the get-up of a prosperous Hindu sage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that wait of Hindus of the world for centuries was over, as Lord Ram’s birthplace has been finally liberated from numerous attempts to destroy it.

Govt 'assures' Gujarat HC no action against MBBS students defying corona sahayak order

By Our Representative
The Gujarat government has assured the High Court that no action would be taken against Part-I and Part-II MBBS students of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC)-controlled NHL Medical College and LG Hospital and Medical College. The assurance follows the direction by Justice SH Vora to the State government not to prosecute or initiate action against the students who were defying the college authorities’ order to work as corona sahayaks (helpers).

Ex-official: Murmu, appointed as CAG, will 'surely' perform shradh of the institution

Counterview Desk
A former senior official of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), Shantanu Basu, in a Facebook comment in the wake of the appointment of GC Murmu, a Gujarat IAS cadre official of the 1985, has raised doubts about the independence of CAG following the Government of India move.

Renounced US citizenship to serve workers, tribals, Sudha Bharadwaj 'odiously' in jail

By Atul, Sandeep Pandey*
Professor Sudha Bharadwaj has been in jail since August 2018. She was taken into police custody on August 26, 2018 on suspicion of being involved in Maoist terror activities after Republic TV claimed that she had allegedly written a letter to Maoists and was conspiring to create public disorder and unrest in India.

Plant organic, eat fresh: Emlen Bage's journey from migrant labour to agri-entrepreneur

By Chandrashekar and Kriti*
Who is a farmer? Type this question in the google search and check out the images? You can see men thronging the screen. This is the popular perception around the globe. Well one can understand how difficult it would be for a woman to defy this perception.

High youth unemployment: India 'fails' to take advantage of demographic dividend

By Varun Kumar
As coronavirus pandemic continues amplifying challenges among youth with regard to employment opportunities, government policies have further resulted in economic slowdown, leading to mass unemployment and loss jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation report “Covid-19 and the World of Work” (May 27, 2020), around 94 percent of the world’s workers are living in countries with some sort of workplace closure measures in place.