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Not So ‘Mahatma’: The Regressive Views of Gandhi on Caste and Gender

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The discourse on his pacifism often shed a veil over the regressive opinions of Gandhi on caste and gender. Thus, while, on one glance, Gandhi seems to acquire a non-conflicted figure, upholding compassion and peace, several of his social and political views are shrugged under the rugs of history. Following several of his own writings, which dispute his benevolence, Aeshita and Sonali ask what was so ‘priestly’ about Gandhi? Why do we need to remember even his flawed ideologies before calling him a nationalistic symbol every year on his birth anniversary?

gandhi on caste

By Aeshita Singh and Sonali Chugh. Aeshita is a fourth-year law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune and a member of Lawctopus Writers Club. Aeshita is currently interning at Academike. 

Introduction

Over the years, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has become a conflicted figure. His denomination as the ‘Mahatma’ has been challenged from his writings and ambiguities regarding his own conception of caste, gender and religion. Moreover, historians have also questioned Gandhi’s role during the National Movement.

Most of the narrative around Gandhi revolves around priestly ideas of ‘freedom’, ‘non-violence’ and ‘untouchability’. However, the very fundamental grouse against Gandhian ideology has been his views on caste and gender.

While Gandhi worked for the upliftment of the lower caste and denounced ‘untouchability’, he did not condemn the varna system for most of his life. So even though he commanded dignity for the untouchables, he also supported the caste system, deeming it necessary until the 1940s.

Similarly, some of his ideas advanced the gendered space that women occupied in Hindu society. And most of them were regressive and patriarchal but somehow outlived their significance.

While Gandhi became an emblem of Indian freedom and non-violence, it shouldn’t offer a respite from critiquing and critically analysing his politics. At the same time, it’s essential to bear in mind that these contestations don’t render him irrelevant. In fact, they necessitate reading Gandhi to understand precisely why the narrative around Gandhi’s ‘sainthood’ was fed to us.

Therefore, this article will address why we need to revise our understanding of Gandhi, which has been coloured by the nationalistic symbolism so far.

The Thick Line Between Aboloshing Caste System and Untouchability: Gandhi on Caste

From 1933-34, Gandhi toured all of India to campaign against untouchability. Even though it was a significant move, several argued how it wasn’t a complete denunciation of the caste system. Thus, it got confined to become a part of his politics as an outsized event.

In his article ‘Gandhi was not a caste abolitionist’, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd wrote:

“Gandhi was not a caste abolitionist. He was an abolitionist of untouchability. Gandhi was against abolition of caste and varna order because he knew that the caste/varna institution is the soul of Hinduism.” [1]

Ilaiah’s statement gains significance when read in the context of Gandhi’s own writings, which purport his traditionalist and casteist understanding.

Till 1922, Gandhi purported the caste system as unalienable. Then, citing its importance for the development of our country, he wrote that caste was:

“…responsible for durability of Hindu society, seed of swaraj (freedom), unique power of organisation, means of providing primary education and raising a defence force, means of self-restraint, natural order of society, and most important of all, eternal principle of hereditary occupation for maintaining societal order.[2]

These views become even more problematic in his work ‘The Ideal Bhangi’. In ‘The Ideal Bhangi’, Gandhi appropriates a ‘bhangi’ by the nature of their work. According to Gandhi, a ‘bhangi’ is necessary for society because they sanitise the latrines and maintain community health. Calling for equal recognition for the ‘bhangi’, Gandhi mapped out the responsibilities of an ‘ideal bhangi’:

“In my opinion an ideal bhangi should have a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation. He should know how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it. He should know how to overcome and destroy the odour of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous.”

Here the problem is that his glorification of a barbaric practice gets repeated and cited several times to justify manual scavenging.

The most extensive critique of Gandhi’s position on the varna system and his pseudo position on abolishing untouchability comes from Dr BR Ambedkar. On several occasions and in several of his texts, Ambedkar has exposed the innate casteism that presented the dilemma of the ‘Mahatma’.

This started with Gandhi’s justification for the need for a ‘varna system’ from ‘ancestral calling’ in ‘A Vindication Of Caste’. Gandhi wrote:

“The callings of a Brahmin—spiritual teacher—and a scavenger are equal, and their due performance carries equal merit before God, and at one time seems to have carried identical reward before man. Both were entitled to their livelihood and no more. Indeed one traces even now in the villages the faint lines of this healthy operation of the law.”

Ambedkar challenged the invocation of ‘ancestral calling’ as a reason to follow the hierarchy that results from one’s hereditary lineage. Ambedkar wrote:

“If the Mahatma believes, as he does, in everyone following his or her ancestral calling, then most certainly he is advocating the Caste System, and in calling it the Varna System, he is not only guilty of terminological inexactitude, but he is causing confusion worse confounded.”

Gandhi said that he believed in varna and not the caste system. He suggested that small castes should merge to create four varnas.[3] And these varnas should then work according to their birth. Ambedkar, in reply to Gandhi, reasoned against the latter’s understanding of varna and caste system and responded:

“Even within the framework of a Gandhian utopia, the Shudras were to continue as a servile class. And ati-shudras (present-day Dalits) were to be integrated into the Shudra varna.” [4]

Several instances depict the casteist nature of Gandhi. For instance, in 1935, Kavitha, a village in Ahmedabad, was going through a tussle between the Untouchable and the Hindus.[5] The ‘untouchables’ demanded that their children should study in the same school as the Hindus. The Hindus did not want this and started a boycott of the ‘untouchables’. The ‘untouchables’ got so harassed that they considered migrating. When this news reached Gandhi, he said:

“There is no help like self-help. God helps those who help themselves. If the Harijans concerned will carry out their reported resolve to wipe the dust of Kavitha off their feet, they will not only be happy themselves but they will pave the way for others who may be similarly treated. If people migrate in search of employment how much more should they do so in search of self-respect ? I hope that well-wishers of Harijans will help these poor families to vacate inhospitable Kavitha.” [6]

 It should be noted here that Gandhi advised the ‘untouchables’/’Harijans’ to vacate the village. But he did not ask the Hindus to prosecute the people who boycotted the ‘Harijans’.

However, his views on caste started to change gradually. This was major because of the strong opposition from BR Ambedkar. By the end of 1935, Gandhi wrote an article titled, ‘Caste has to go’.[7] In this article, he stated:

“The sooner public opinion abolishes caste, the better. it was harmful both to the spiritual and to the national growth.” [8]

Even the latter part of Gandhi’s ideology on caste is perplexing. Many have claimed that towards the 1940s, Gandhi had denounced caste differences completely, and this gradually changed as he took on a more progressive stance.

Yet, in 1947, he gave his son Rajmohan Gandhi advice to stop communal violence.[9] This radical advice was to the upper caste women to invite ‘Harijan’ every day to dine with them. He also advised that ‘Harijans’ should be asked to touch the food or the water before other people consume it.

But at the same time, Gandhi changed his position on inter-caste marriage. In 1947, he also said he would give his blessings only to weddings between Dalit and non-Dalit and proposed appointing a Dalit man or woman as the first president of Independent India.[10]

Many scholars and historians argue that Gandhi changed his way of thinking when he realised that his contemporaries were more radical than himself, contending that he did not realise the complexity of caste.

During the 2018 Jaipur Literature Festival, Dalit writer Sujatha Gidla also iterated Gandhi’s casteism. And to many accounts, her position comes from systemic discrimination that outlived Gandhi, and most of it still gets justification in his name. Thus, it’s important to voice her here, as she reiterated what was wrong with giving Gandhi the pedestal that further reimposed his orthodox views. Gidla said:

“Mahatma Gandhi was a casteist and racist who wanted to preserve the caste system and paid lip service to Dalit upliftment for political gains. He really wanted to preserve the caste system, and why he paid lip service to the upliftment of untouchables is because Hindus needed a majority against Muslims for political representation in the British government.” [11]

Reanalysing Mahatma Gandhi’s Writings on Women

There are a lot of incidents that show the deeply rooted sexism in Gandhi. For instance, in South Africa, after being harassed, two girls wrote to Gandhi as his followers, asking how Ahimsa would help them in the scenario. Gandhi cut their hair off so that the sinner’s eyes could be sterilised.[12] In simpler words, he cast the burden of the harassment upon the victims.

Rita Banerjee, in her book, ‘Sex and Power’ has stated:

“He believed menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman’s soul by her sexuality. His view of the female body was warped.” [13]

His book, ‘Hind Swaraj’, contains many derogatory statements for women, which clearly reflect his conflated ideas and meaning of ‘freedom’.

Women, who should be the queens of households, wander in the streets or they slave away in factories. For the sake of a pittance, half a million women in England alone are labouring under trying circumstances in factories or similar institutions. This awful fact is one of the causes of the daily growing suffragette movement.” [14]

In another statement, he reimposed the concept of ‘purity’ by differentiating between the ‘sterile’ woman and the ‘prostitute’. Though this invocation was against the colonisers and their governance, it was unnecessarily gendered. In the context of the England Parliament, he said:

“The condition of England at present is pitiable. I pray to God that India may never be in that plight. That which you consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute. Both these are harsh terms, but exactly fit the case. That Parliament has not yet, of its own accord, done a single good thing. Hence I have compared it to a sterile woman.” [15]

Gandhi has gone as far as saying that Indian women who got raped lose their value as human beings, advising  ‘that the fathers could be justified for killing daughters who have been sexually assaulted for the sake of family and community honour’.

Gandhi’s virtues were inconsistent as any other political figure, and they changed over time. But the issue is that Gandhi became a pious figure for Independent India. And his thoughts as the ‘Father of the Nation’ gained prominence in the public sphere and reasserted themselves as violence over the woman’s and Dalits’ bodies.

Why so Priestly?

While Gandhi was idealised and enjoyed a mass appeal, one cannot dismiss his regressive and patriarchal position. Even though Gandhi vocalised untouchability, it became a lost movement because he reappropriated casteism. Thus, by defining and limiting the extent of the lower caste to their work, he restored hierarchy and segregation.

To this date, the celebration of the Swachh Bharat Campaign and the jingoistic appeal for it flows from the idea of ‘sanitation’ that the ‘Mahatma’ advocated.

His understanding confined caste in binaries of occupation, creating monoliths instead of people who could not step beyond what caste they were born into. Polite connotations of terms like ‘Harijans’ have made a comeback in recent times,  like ‘cleanliness martyrs’, which replaced manual scavenging. However, its implication remains as derogatory as before for those living these realities. As Ambedkar said:

“Mahatma is not an immortal person, nor the congress. Mahatmas have come and Mahatmas have gone. But the untouchables have remained as untouchables.”

While Gandhi was crucial to the Indian Freedom Struggle, he was probably as extraordinary as others who were part of the same struggle for India’s independence.

While we can’t rebuke Gandhi’s contribution to India’s freedom, we must remain aware of his misogynistic views. Hence, when remembering Gandhi, it becomes essential to remember his politics.

The discourse over his sainthood falls flat ahead of several problematic stances he donned. Yet, unfortunately, his statements often reappear in public discourse as a means and justification to vandalise gender and caste. Thus, they delegitimise minorities’ struggle, purporting subjugation against them.

Endnotes

[1] Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Gandhi was not a caste abolitionist: Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, THE WEEK, https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2019/06/21/gandhi-was-not-a-caste-abolitionist-kancha-ilaiah-shepherd.html

[2] Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, ‘Never a Mahatma’: A Look at Ambedkar’s Gandhi, THE WIRE, https://thewire.in/history/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-ambedkar-caste.

[3] Id.

[4] BABASAHEB DR. B.R. AMBEDKAR, WRITINGS AND SPEECHES, 1 ed, 239-274 , (2014)

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Supra, note 2.

[8] Sujay Biswas, Gandhi denounced caste and untouchability, NATIONAL HERALD, https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/opinion/gandhi-denounced-caste-and-untouchability.

[9] Supra, note 2.

[10] Supra, note 2.

[11] Mahatma Gandhi was casteist and racist: US-based writer Sujatha Gidla at JLF, THE HINDUSTAN TIMES, https://www.hindustantimes.com/books/mahatma-gandhi-was-casteist-and-racist-us-based-writer-sujatha-gidla-at-jlf/story-CDbJQbKY5UTxF5KeJMpgJP.html,

[12] Michael Connellan, Women, suffer from Gandhi’s legacy, THE GUARDIAN, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jan/27/mohandas-gandhi-women-india.

[13] Id.

[14] MAHATMA GANDHI, HIND SWARAJ, 1 ed. 30-31, (2009).

[15] MAHATMA GANDHI, HIND SWARAJ, 1 ed. 25, (2009).

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