During the course of agitation ‘Black lives matter’ some protestors defaced the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in US. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of Indian Nation, has the unique distinction of leading the biggest ever mass movement in the World and leading the strong anti colonial movement. In this direction he contributed two major tools as the basis of the mass movements, the one of non violence and other of Satyagrah. 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 the inspiration of 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.

All this comes to one’s mind as a section of people, writers and intellectuals are labelling him as racist and casteist, one who harmed the cause of dalits in India. Nothing can be farther from truth. These elements are not seeing the whole journey of the man but do the cherry picking from his early writings, when he was in the early phases of his work against prevalent injustices in the name of race and caste.

Earlier also his statue was uprooted in Ghana, where calling him racist, ‘Gandhi Must fall’, movement on the lines of ‘Rhodes must fall’ came up. 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 Gandhi comes from focussing only on Gandhi’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 one’s 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.

There was another process which ran parallel to this one of taking up the cause of people of Indian origin in SA. Once he 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). 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.”

The best response to accusations of Gandhi 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 Gandhi’s views changed as he matured. He wrote, “We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma.” And from Martin Luther King (Jr.) who was totally inspired by Gandhi in his anti racial struggles.

Caste is another of the phenomenon, which is tricky. Gandhi in early periods of his life talked of Varna Dharma based on work; he glorified the work of scavenging and also called dalits as Harijans. Many a dalit intellectuals and leaders hold Gandhi responsible for opposing the ‘separate electorate’ granted to SCs by McDonald Award. Gandhi 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 Ambedkar agreed for the reserved constituency.

While many leaders-intellectuals see this as a betrayal by Gandhi, 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 Gandhi, the humanitarian par excellence, begins with terminologies and notions about caste and race which were prevalent at those times. With his deeper engagement with the issues of society, he gives a totally different meaning to the same. In matters of caste, he was deeply influenced and empathetic to Ambedkar, to the extent that he recommended that 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 untouchablity had far reaching back up effect to Ambedkar’s initiatives. It was Gandhi’s disciple Nehru, who brought Ambedkar to the forefront of policy making by including him in the Cabinet. Nehru also entrusted him with drafting Uniform Civil Code and it was Gandhi himself who suggested that Ambedkar be made the Chief of drafting committee of Indian Constitution.

Only those who focus on Early Gandhi, Gandhi in the formative phase of his values and ideas, accuse him of being a castist or racist. He did overcome these narrow, parochial social norms and policies to dream of a fraternity, Indian and Global where caste and race are relegated to the backyard of human history.


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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Dalit Shukra says:

    I have always admired Ram Puniyani for a number of reasons, especially for his stance on fascism and communal harmony. But now his apologist’s analysis of Gandhi has diluted my admiration for him. Whilst it is true that Gandhi may have later changed his viewpoint on varnadharma and caste, only a naïve person would believe that what Gandhi did at critical junctures (eg Poona Pact) resulted in no harm to the long term interest of Dalits. Gandhi, the lawyer in langoti was neither naïve nor an individual person acting on his own behalf. According to Sarojani Naidu, it took a great deal of money to keep Gandhi in the poverty he was accustomed to. He was representing a class/upper caste Brahmin Bania combine whose fruits we are now tasting in all of its bitterness with raging Hindutva riding on global capitalism. The only fast Gandhi undertook in relation to Dalits was to blackmail Dalits and he gave a poisonous chalice with honey to Ambedkar. To take out the upper caste/class analysis out of dissecting Gandhi is to deny Ambedkar’s criticism of Gandhi. Ambedkar called Gandhi a humbug. He also said “Mahatmas have come and gone without making any difference to the masses of the people”. His other acidic comments are noteworthy. One of the more critical comment relates to how Gandhi had Ram Ram on his lips and but a knife in his armpit. His pamphlet on What Gandhi and Congress had done to the Untouchables still makes chilling reading.

    Gandhi was more than a willing tool in the hands of Congress Party. Ambedkar asked what had Nehru done for the Untouchables? As a collective all other Congress luminaries were completely hostile to Ambedkar. Once his role in opposing Dalits was over, no one paid him any attention, for there was a country which was awaiting to be ruled.

    A ‘cherry picked’ selective and diplomatic reading of Ambedkar does not help in the cause of Dalits.

    Both Gandhi and Nelson Mandela by asking the oppresses to compromise have left a slowly poisoning legacy behind whose effects are still with us after multiple decades and will stay with us for multiple decades.

    It may be convenient for Mexican Government to glorify Gandhi but that is because they have their own version of the caste system. Next door in the USA (whose historical racism is a reminder of slavery/racism/caste oppression similarities) black leaders for a soft spot for Gandhi are encouraged whilst radical Black Panthers were condemned and murdered.

    It is because intellectuals in India do not like to address this blind stop that there is no integrated theory of caste system and fight against it. It is the duty of every public intellectual to strive for truth and not selectively experiment with it.

  2. Avatar Sumanta Banerjee says:

    Gandhi was a complex personality – changing from one position to another during his lifetime. He matured from his earlier naive prejudicial attitude (shaped by the British colonial rulers) towards the native inhabitants of South Africa into a more empathetic position later. On the caste question in India, he was torn between a guilt complex born of watching the sufferings of the dalits on the one hand, and yet his steadfast loyalty to the Hindu hierarchical `varnasram’ system on the other. As a compromise, he adopted the patronizing policy of appeasing the `dalits’ by endowing them with the term `Harijan’ – an attempt to nominally elevate them as respectable members of Hindu society, without making any efforts to change their actual demeaning and oppressive economic conditions within the `varnasram’ system which Gandhi refused to reject. Ambedkar was perceptive enough to understand this psyche of Gandhi’s – as evident from his sharp critique of Gandhi, and warnings to the dalits not to be taken in by his mealy-mouthed appeals.
    Even in Africa, where Gandhi started his political experiment of non-violent movement, his followers in the African National Congress later had to discard his message of non-violence and resort to armed resistance against the apartheid regime – which helped them to attain independence.

    So, with due respect to Ram Puniyani, let me remind him of the need for a dispassionate analysis of Gandhi’s career, which might lead to the revelation of some politically uncomfortable facts about Gandhi’s role at several stages in the history of Indian politics. . .

  3. Avatar Dalit Shukra says:

    Each and every initiative that Congress and Gandhi took was a reaction to arising Dalit assertion of their times. They took no independent initiative on their own. Gandhi’s complex personality was full of contradictions which always worked for the interests of upper castes. Besides tokenistic measures, it is difficult to see what contribution Gandhi made to Dalit liberation. See Why it isTime to Dump Gandhi? https://medium.com/@dalitdiva/why-it-is-time-to-dump-gandhi-b59c7399fe66