Gandhiji’s views on caste, casteism and untouchability

The caste system in India has been thousand years old but for millions of people in India it still defines the fate. In the thread of social reformers in India the latest addition during 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi took the front seat when social system of India was full of evils. Gandhiji was against any type of discrimination be it on basis of caste or religion or occupation.

In March 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition. When he was produced in court, the magistrate, after the law then prevalent, asked the prisoner to identify himself by caste or profession. Gandhi answered that he was “a farmer and weaver”. The magistrate was startled; so, he asked the question again, to get the same answer.

That statement to an Ahmedabad court was a striking example of Gandhi’s lifelong commitment to making his caste origins irrelevant to his personal and public life.

This commitment was manifested early. In September 1888, Mohandas Gandhi, then just short of his 20th birthday, decided to sail to England to study law. This horrified his orthodox Modh Bania community, whose head warned Mohandas that he would be excommunicated if he travelled overseas. But the boy defied him and went anyway. In the days before his departure, recalled Gandhi in his autobiography, he was “hemmed in by all sides. I could not go out without being pointed and stared at by someone or other. At one time, while I was walking near the Town Hall, I was surrounded and hooted by them, and my poor brother had to look at the scene in silence”.

Banias were, and often still are, obsessed with social taboos. Yet, while in London, Gandhi made so bold as to share a home and break bread with a Christian named Josiah Oldfield. Later, in South Africa, he and his wife Kasturba shared a home and kitchen with Henry and Millie Polak, he a Jew, she a Christian, both white. Johannesburg was then the most racist city in the most racist country in the world. By their remarkable act, the Gandhis and the Polaks defied both the casteism of Indians and the racism of Europeans.

In the satyagrahas he led in South Africa, Gandhi’s closest associates were a Parsi named Rustomji, a Muslim named Kacchalia, and a Tamil named Naidoo. Watching him at work, transcending all social boundaries, was his Jewish friend and housemate Henry Polak.

Having spoken of Gandhi’s ability to be of all castes and of no caste at all, Polak then stressed his ecumenism of faith: “Religion implies, for him, a mighty and all-embracing tolerance. Hindu by birth, he regards all men — Mahomedans, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Buddhists, Confucians — as spiritual brothers.

He makes no differences amongst them, recognising that all faiths lead to salvation, that all are ways of viewing God, and that, in their relation to each other, men are fellow-human beings first, and followers of creeds afterwards.

On returning to India in 1915, he established a “Satyagraha Ashram” in Ahmedabad. Early on, the Ashram took in a family from the Dhed caste of “untouchables”, consisting of Dudhabhai, his wife Danibehn, and their baby daughter Lakshmi.

Through the three decades of his work in India, Gandhi steadily and persistently attacked the practice of untouchability. To be sure, he moved in stages. While, in his own ashram, all members ate and mingled together regardless of caste, he did not at first advocate inter-dining or inter-mingling to society at large. However, as he grew more popular, and more sure of his public influence, he urged every Hindu not just to abolish untouchability from their minds and hearts, but to disregard matters of caste in where they lived, whom they ate with or befriended, and whom they married. Gandhi had four biological sons, all, like him, technically banias by birth. But of his two adopted daughters, one was born in an untouchable home (the aforementioned Lakshmi), while the other was an Englishwoman (Madeleine Slade, known as Mirabehn). In India, as in South Africa, Gandhi comprehensively disregarded caste and religious distinctions in his personal and political life. His closest friend was a Christian priest, C.F. Andrews; and he lived, and died, for harmony between India’s two largest religious communities, Hindus and Muslims.

Gandhiji has been criticized for not recognizing Caste System prevailing as the root cause o Untouchability, but certainly his fight for any kind of discrimination helped in restoring feeling of unity among people which resulted in India’s independence. His efforts during struggle mobilized the mass against British oppression.

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