Gandhian Thought—Untouchability

 

Gandhiji was a great supporter of social equality.

He wanted to cut the chains and barriers of untouchability. He thought that, the evils of untouchability are against the dictates of reason.. “Untouchability, as practised at present, is the greatest blot on I Iinduism. It is (with apologies to Sanatanists) against the Shasiras. It is against the fundamental principles of humanity, it is against the dictates of reason that a man should, by mere reason of birth, be for ever regarded as an untouchable, even unapproachable and unseeable wrote Gandhiji.

The idea of hereditary superiority and inferiority is repugnant to the spirit of 1 Iinduism, which teaches oneness of all life in unequivocal terms. He regretfully noted, “Untouchability is a curse that is eating into the vitals of Hinduism. And 1 often feel that unless we take due precautions and remove this curse from our midst, Hinduism itself is in danger of destruction.”

Gita’s Doctrine of Equality : “I do not believe that all class distinctions can be obliterated. I believe in the doctrine of equality as taught by Lord Krishna in the Gita. ‘Hie Gita teaches us that members of the four castes should be treated on an equal basis. It does not prescribe the same dharma for the’Brahmin as for the Bhangi. But it insists that the latter shall be entitled to the same measure of consideration and esteem as the former with all his superior learning. It is wrong to treat certain human beings as untouchables from birth. “None can be born untouchable”, he asserted, “as all are
sparks of one and the same fire”. If is also wrong to entertain false scruples about touching: a dead body, which should be an object of pity and ; respect. It is only out of considerations of health, that we bathe after handling a dead body, or after an application of oil, or a shave. A man who does not bathe in such cases may be looked down upon as dirty but surely note as a sinner. A mother may be ‘untouchable’ so long as she had not bathed, or washed her hands and feet, after cleaning up her child’s mess; but if a child happened to touch her, it would not be polluted by the touch.

“But Bhangis, Chamars and the like are contemptuously looked down upon as untouchables from birth. They may- bathe for years with any amount of soap, dress well and wear the marks of Vaishnavas, read the Gita every day and follow learned profession, and yet they remain untouchables. This is rank irreligion, fit to be destroyed. Every Hindu, therefore, who considers it a sin, should atone for it by fraternising with untouchables, associating with them in a spirit of love and service, deeming himself purified by j such acts as redressing their grievances, helping them patiendy to overcome ignorance and other evils due to the slavery of ages, and inspiring other Hindus to do likewise.” He further stated, “This observance, therefore, is not fulfilled, merely by making friends with untouchables, but loving all life as our own selves. Removal of untouchability means love for and service of the whole world and thus | merges with Ahimsd”.     do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” The inner struggle in his mind went on for days and days. The answer he got finally was the finest fruit of his creative genius. It was so simple, yet so dramatic and so enchanting to everyone. It was to be salt, which he had given up as a part of his daily diet many years ago. Yet, it was so important to everyone—an essential ingredient of food. There could be no life without salt. Its manufacture was, however, the Government’s monopoly, which raised its price slightly by imposing a small tax upon it. Economically, the price rise or the tax was too insignificant, but it hit the poor people. That was the reason why Gandhiji decided to embark upon his struggle against it. As Jawaharlal wrote, “Salt suddenly became a mysterious word—a word of power.” The salt satjagraha drew worldwide attention and invigorated the country’s struggle for freedom.

Before embarking upon the salt satyagraha, Gandhiji published his eleven points depicting the evils of the British raj and wrote to the Viceroy on March 2, 1930 that if the Government accepted them, he would not resort to the Civil Disobedience Movement. He also asked for an interview gate cse books with the Viceroy. These points touched olT reduction of land revenue, prohibition, abolition of the secret police, imposition of a protective
tariff on foreign cloth, reservation of coastal traffic to Indian shipping, an amnesty for political prisoners and finally abolition of salt tax for the peasants and poor people. It was obvious that the Government would not accept them, but Gandhiji had full faith in his capacity to convert the British people through non­violence and make them see the wrong they had done to India. Lord Irwin neither granted him an interview nor accepted his demands. His Secretary sent a crisp reply that the Viceroy regretted that Gandhiji contemplated a course of action which was bound to involve violation of law and endanger public peace. Gandhiji retorted, “On bended knees I ask for bread and I have received a stone instead.” The die was cast.

In accordance with his plans, Gandhiji explained to his co-workers at the evening prayer on March 11, 1930 the concept and strategy of his march. He stressed that it was to be a symbolic gesture of total protest by the people for bringing to an end the domination of the British over India. It might or might not have an impact upon the authorities, but was bound to arouse the people against the alien rule. He was confident that the Indians serving the Government would abandon their posts, the lawyers their practice, the teachers their classes and tax-payers their payment of taxes. He declared, “Our cause is just,
our means are strong and God is with us.” He felt that there could not be : defeat for satyagrahis unless they forsake truth and non-violence. Let them, therefore, do their duty and leave the result to the Almighty. On March 12 1930, he started his march on foot at 6.30 a.m. with seventy-eight co-worker; of his ashram for Dandi, 241 miles awa? on the seacoast near Jalalpur, to defy the salt Taw. Clad in a simple loincloth anc with a bamboo stick in hand, he walked slowly for he was in no hurry to reacr his destination. It was a unique march it the annals of mankind. People, whe gathered on the way, strewed leave- across his path. They climbed roofs, wall; and trees to have a glimpse of the march They bowed in reverence when Gandhi, passed by them and raised slogans tc greet him. Wherever he stopped en route. he exhorted the people—live in harmonv treat the untouchables as your brother?, keep your environment clean and tidy give up alcohol and intoxicants, spin the wheel and join the satyagraha against the salt law. The Government watched hi; march with anxiety, but were unable t: understand what he was doing. Newsmer came from all Over the world to flasr the progress of his march, but for the authorities, he was moving too slow, .and that was causing tension.

At Aslali, where he stopped en ron: for rest at first night, he told the peop.;

 

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that he would either die on the way or else refrain from returning to the ashram until Swaraj was won. In the event of his arrest or death, his place would be taken by Abbas Tyabji, his old friend. He walked ten to fifteen miles everyday, and seldom felt fifed or exhausted. He spun every evening, wrote his diary and gave suitable instructions to his comrades for the next day. He was opposed to comfort or luxuries and expected his co-marchers also to bear with him all the hazards of the journey. Obviously, they could not complain that they were not getting good food, recreation or rest during their journey. The reports about the march reached the Viceroy every day, but he hesitated to act. He wished the event to pass peacefully, but was often nonplussed. “The fire of a great resolve Is in him,” said Jawaharlal who exhorted the youth of the country. “The field of battle lies before you, the flag of India beckons you and freedom herself awaits your coming. Do you hesitate now ? Will you be mere onlookers in this glorious struggle ? Who lives if India dies ? Who dies if India lives ?” The marchers reached their destination on the evening of April 5, 1930 after a long and arduous journey of 24 dayk Gandhiji looked thin and strained, but he was extremely happy and felt elated. Asked next day as to what he wanted to achieve by defying the salt law, he answered, “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.” Undoubtedly, he achieved his objective fully in winning the support and sympathy of millions all over the globe for the freedom of his motherland.

Throughout the night of April 5,1930, the marchers devoted themselves to prayers. Next morning, Gandhiji went to the seashore along with them. He walked into the sea and took his bath. At 8.30 a.m., he picked a small lump of natural salt and defied the law. Sarojini Naidu shouted excitedly: “Hail, Deliverer.” This lump of salt was carefully preserved and later auctioned for sixteen hundred rupees. The entire nation was aroused. It was a universal signal for the defiance of law. People violated the salt law on the seashores and where there was no seashore, they defied the other laws. They cut down the timber in Central Provinces and Bombay in defiance of forest laws. In the United Provinces and Gujarat, they started a campaign for non-payment of land revenue. The mayor of Calcutta defied the law of sedition by openly reading the banned literature in a public meeting. In North-West Frontier Province, the Kbudai Kfjidmatgars (Servants of God), known popularly as the Red Shirts, organised anti-Government movements in various ways, including non-payment of Government dues. They were led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The Government arrested him, which led to big demonstrations by his followers. The armoured cars sent by the authorities to control the situation were themselves attacked by the demonstrators and set on fire. The demonstrators broke open the jail and released their leader. In utter disgust, the administration was compelled to call for’outside help to retrieve the situation, but the two platoons of the 18th Royal Garhwali Rifles sent to establish order in the disturbed town, refused to open fire on the unarmed crowds. The defiant soldiers were court-martialled, but their brave and patriotic act placed the city of Peshawar in the hands of the Frontier Gandhi and his Red Shirts for ten days from April 25 to May 4, 1930.

In response to the appeal of Gandhiji in the Young India on April 30, 1930, thousands of women offered satyagraha. They picketed the foreign cloth and liquor shops. At Delhi, 1,600 women’ courted arrest. The position was equally encouraging in other metropolitan towns like Bombay and Madras, which greatly impressed the foreign visitors like H.N. Brailsford and G. Slocombe. At the tender age of twelve, Indira Priyadarshini, the daughter of Jawaharlal, built up an army of 6,000 children at Allahabad to offer their services to the elders in the struggle for freedom of the country. In Nagaland, the young Rani Gaidinliu, at the age of thirteen, raised the banner of revolt in response to the call of Gandfuji. She was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment. .

 

But for Gandhiji, the violation of the salt law was both an act of faith and his principal objective. He announced his intention to raid the Government-owned salt works at Dharsena in Surat district and take them over in the name of the people, until the Government withdrew the salt tax. The Government promptly arrested Gandhiji. His place was to be taken by Abbas Tyabji, who was also arrested. The mantle of leadership now fell on the young Sarojini Naidu, who rushed to Dharsena to lead the raid on May 22, 1930. The raiders comprised 2,500 volunteers wearing white dhotis and Gandhi caps. There were 400 policemen armed with steel-tipped lathis within the salt works’ compounds. An account of the heroic non-violent struggle by the Congressmen and the police atrocities upon them at Dharsena was flashed to the world media by Web Miller, the correspondent of the United Press of USA. He wrote :

“Slowly and in silence, the throng commenced the half-mile march to the salt deposits…. As the throng drew near the salt pans, they commenced chanting the revolutionary slogans, Inquilab Zindabad, intoning the two words over and over…. Police officials ordered the marchers to disperse under a recently- imposed regulation, which prohibited gathering of more than five persons in any one place. The column silently ignored the warning and slowly walked forward.”

“Suddenly, at a word of command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like tenpins…. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls and broken shoulders. In two or three minutes, the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors, without breaking ranks, silently and doggedly marched on until struck down….”

The incident left two dead and 320 seriously wounded. Before the satyagraha concluded for the day, the police arrested Sarojini Naidu and Manilal Gandhi. Sardar Patel, who arrived on the scene, lamented, “How any government that calls itself civilised can deal as savagely and brutally with non-violent, unresisting men as the British have this morning?” The satyagrahis played their part well. The faith of Gandhiji was fully vindicated. Truth and non-violence had triumphed. Louis Fischer wrote, “The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed nor retreated. That made England powerless and India invincible.1*”

In the evening; Madeleine Slade visited the wounded in the hospital at Bulsar.

solution to the Indian problem withoc* the consent of the Congress. As : 1 goodwill gesture, the Government India released all the Congress leader in January 1931. Most unfortunately, tk great Motilal Nehru, worn out by hsl long imprisonment of over six months, I breathed his last. With the persuasu: and good offices of the liberal leader | like Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, M.R. Jayaki and Srinivasa Sastri, a meeting wa arranged between Gandhiji and Lon Irwin, the Viceroy.

Gandhiji met the Viceroy for’the fire ; time on February 17, 1931. Their talk continued till March 5, 1931 when tk: Gandhi-Irwin Pact was signed. Church’, thundered in London against Gandhi;; Irwin parleys. He condemned the Vicercr i for granting an interview to Gandhi. whom he called a seditious lawyer and half-naked fakir. The Gandh: Irwin Pact provided for the withdrawal c 1 the Civil Disobedience Movemen by the Congress and its willingness t: participate in the Second Round Tab? Conference at London. In return. I the Government released all the politico :j prisoners and accepted the right o: I the people to collect or make salt for I their own use.

. Gandhiji went to London to attenc ’ the Second Round Table Conference or September 7, 1931 as the sole I representative of the Congress, bu: returned to Bombay totally disappointec on December 28, 1931. He reported the failure of his mission to London to hi; i countrymen, “I have come back empty- handed, but I have not compromised the | honour of my country.” The ■ Government re-arrested him before the expiry of a week and put him in jail or | January 4, 1932.   □

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