August 4, 2020
“There is an ineffaceable blot that Hinduism today carries with it. I have declined to believe that it has been handed to us from immemorial times. I think that this miserable, wretched, enslaving spirit of untouchability must have come to us when we were in the cycle of our lives at our lowest ebb… That any person should be considered untouchable in this sacred land passes one’s comprehension.”
– MK Gandhi, Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi
“Untouchability is a sin against God and man. There is no warrant in the Shastras for untouchability as we practice it today.”
– MK Gandhi, Harijan, March 2, 1934
“Untouchability is a blot upon Hinduism and must be removed at any cost. Untouchability is a poison which, if we do not get rid of it in time, will destroy Hinduism.”
– MK Gandhi, Harijan, June 20, 1936
All his life, Bapu spoke out against the practice of untouchability prevalent in Hindu society. He criticised it in strong terms and strove, as diligently as he pursued freedom, to eradicate the evil of untouchability and rigid cast hierarchies. Even when he had in his early life endorsed the system of varna vyavastha, classification according to vocation, he was critical of it being rigid by birth and not being pervious where people according to their abilities migrated from one classification to the other. Even then, he condemned that it had been made hereditary and called it a corruption and an evil, a sin.
All his life he fought to do away with its traditions and practice, from his home and family to its prevalence in society. In South Africa, he went to the extent of showing Kastur, his wife, the door when she refused to clean the chamber pot used by a guest in their home. He told her she would have to leave Phoenix Ashram if she refused to clean the communal toilets. Back in India, when he welcomed a family of untouchables into his first Ashram in Kochrab, Ahmedabad, he faced a revolt by some of the residents, including his sister and some other family members. He told them to either accept the untouchable family as their equals or leave. When his sister and other family members left, he did not ever re-admit them to his ashrams.
All his life, he fought to abolish the practice of untouchability – I believe that is one of the reasons that a fanatic band of castiest Brahmins hated him and finally murdered him after many unsuccessful attempts.
It goes back a long way
Gandhi attempted to find unique methods to abolish the prejudices inherent in Hindu societies for those who they believed not even to be human. In his childhood, young Mohan realised that the family he was born into, for all its kindness and liberalism towards other religions, was unflinching in its practice of untouchability. There was a bucket of water, a pail and towels kept just inside the main door of the Gandhi home so that residents coming in from the streets would wash their feet up to the knees, arms and face as well as hair before going any further. Even after this, it was incumbent to bathe before entering the kitchen or consuming food; they had to be purified.
Like all others of that time, the Gandhi home too had basket latrines. Every morning, untouchables would carry away the excreta-filled baskets, empty and clean them, and bring them back. They would also clean the pit latrines so that the family did not have to deal with the stench. The persons who did these chores were untouchable. There could be no social contact with them, let alone touch them. Even their shadow was considered to be polluting. They wore bells so that people would be warned of their approach and they tied scrub to their waist so that their footprints would be obliterated lest they pollute a high-born Hindu who stepped into them.
Young Mohan got a taste of this inhuman practice when as a young child he was caught playing with the child of the untouchable ‘Bhangi’ who cleaned their toilet. He was scolded, reprimanded and had to undergo the ritual of purification. Even as a child, Mohan felt the practice was inhuman and unjustified. He was determined to work to abolish the practice.
Gandhi’s greatest failure was his inability to do so. The evil of untouchability and hierarchies of caste, their cruel and evil practices and consequences were too deeply entrenched to be eradicated by even someone elevated to the level of Mahatma.
It’s all around us
Hinduism has defeated the good intentions of all its reformers. They have all failed to lessen, let alone abolish the evil of untouchability and the hierarchical system of caste and the prejudices in its practice. Those who gave up formed sub-religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. But from Mahatma Jyotiba Phule to Babasaheb Ambedkar, including Bapu and Shahu, all failed in their attempt to abolish the evil practice.
Bapu went to the extent of calling Dalits ‘Harijans’, children of God, and all those who practised untouchability and caste hierarchies as ‘Durijan’, evil people. But the Durijan eventually defeated him.
I am sure Bapu would blame himself and accept that his defeat at the hands of evil orthodoxy was because of his own weakness, his own fault, as he always did. We must admit that as a society we have failed not only Bapu but all the great reformers that Hinduism has seen since time immemorial. The fault is ours because most of us, somewhere deep down, are evil.
My condemnation may sound generalised, severe and unjustified. It isn’t. Ponder this: in the last month itself, untouchable men in Rajasthan were beaten and forced to drink the urine of their upper-caste tormentors. In Uttar Pradesh, a lower-caste woman’s body was forced to be taken off the funeral pyre by upper-caste Thakurs and out of their cremation ground to one for lower castes. Defiled even after death.
I could list case after case of how hate-filled this practice of untouchability is and how dehumanising caste hierarchies are. The list of what’s not allowed is never ending – from twirling a moustache, to a groom riding a mare in his marriage procession, justification enough for brutality, even lynching. Even the tradition of untouchables bathing in human urine and excreta is justified. A chief minister condones the practice of untouchables rolling their bodies over banana leaves on which upper-caste people have eaten.
These are not examples from 200 years ago, nor 50, nor 10. These are incidents that happen on a daily basis today. The evil is that all of us respond with a deathly silence.
It’s crossed borders
One would have thought that exposure to other societies and living amongst cultures where caste or untouchability does not exist would have a reformative effect on Indians, but the prejudices and practices are more prevalent amongst the diaspora. I am not making baseless allegations; I have experienced it first-hand in the most unexpected manner and places.
On a visit to England, I witnessed two incidents. Once, I was invited to the celebration of the completion of an Indian community centre. After the function, the young project team had organised a party in a pub. While they partied, I sat in a corner chatting with some of them. Among the revellers was the young Indian girlfriend of a team member. She was thoroughly westernised in look, clothing and speech, most likely born and raised in England. When she came to my table, she asked me my surname. I was taken aback. Why did she want to know? How did it matter? Her reply shocked me: “So that I know whether to shake your hand or greet you with a namaste.” The truth was my surname would help her identify my caste and then she would know whether it was fine to touch me or make do with a namaste and not get polluted.
The other incident was when the Bar Association of the Alumni of Inner Temple, Barrister MK Gandhi’s alma mater, invited me to speak. It was a mixed audience of all races, Indians too – most of them children and grandchildren of immigrants, born and raised in England. After my talk, the college had organised high tea so that students and faculty could interact informally with me.
A young Gujarati girl, probably in her late 20s, asked if I would listen to her. She looked troubled, so we found a quiet corner and she narrated her plight. She was born and brought up in England, the daughter of immigrants from East Africa. She belonged to a lower caste, just a step above untouchables. All her life she had experienced prejudice from the Indian community. She was rarely invited to birthday parties. To the few she was invited to, as soon as she reached the friend’s house, an elder of the host family would instruct her to stay away from the kitchen and not help herself to the food like the other children. While her friends ate at the table, she was served in disposable plates, glasses and cutlery and told to dump everything in the trash directly.
When she invited friends over for her birthday, they would stay away making puerile excuses. This happened every year till she realised why and stopped socialising. She put all her efforts into education, believing that it would be a great leveller. She had a master’s in law and was on her way to earning her doctorate. Now she had hit another dead end – she was too qualified to find a suitable match in her community and was too lower-caste for a match amongst the upper-caste Hindus of England!
Both these incidents happened after 2000. As I said, there are innumerable instances of our inhumanity. A few days ago we read on this very website the shocking truth about the exclusion of Dalits from Indian newsrooms.
The outrage against the evil of caste is muted at best. It’s not as if our silence is due to the embarrassment we feel by it. Our silence is due to the fact that we believe in it.
We may live in denial but the reality is we are so deeply bigoted that we have become evil. Our caste prejudices are so much our nature that we are blasé to the sins of our practices. Our practice of caste hierarchies, our belief in it and the evil that we do due to it has even prevented us from realising what a deeply racist society we are. We have successfully defeated the good intentions of all those great people who tirelessly worked to eradicate caste. We defeated Phule, Shahu, Gandhi and Ambedkar too.
The time has come to admit that Hinduism is deeply flawed and Hindutva is even more viciously flawed. I see no redemption. As Bapu said, it is the evil of the caste systems and untouchability that will bring about the annihilation of the Hindu way of life. The slogan ‘Hindu khatre mein hai’ is real. Our bigotry, the evil of our practices are endangering Hinduism. If we had even a shard of honesty, we would admit that to us Dalit lives don’t matter. They never have, they never will.
“The ‘untouchable’ to me is, compared to us, really a Harijan, a person of God, and we are Durijan (children of evil). For whilst (traditionally) the ‘untouchable’ has toiled and moiled and dirtied his hands so that we may live in comfort and cleanliness, we have delighted in suppressing him.”
– MK Gandhi, The Epic Fast
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr