Gandhi was well-aware that caste was (and remains) a deeply-entrenched component of Indian society (observed not only by Hindus, but by Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians). He himself had been outcasted by members of his bania sub-caste for going abroad to study and he showed no interest in rejoining it. He chose to focus on the most odious component of the caste system (untouchability) and call for its elimination. Roy chooses to harshly critique Gandhi for this stance and dismiss him as a hypocrite. Gandhi was a product of his time, place and culture. His position calling for the eradication of untouchability was considered radical by most caste Hindus of his time.
In September 1915, Gandhi accepted in his ashram in Ahmedabad an untouchable couple and their child. Even this limited challenge to the social order posed by the ashram caused such a crisis that the community nearly disintegrated. Various members threatened to leave or actually left including those closest to Gandhi – Kasturba and Maganlal. There was talk of social boycott by the residents of the city. Outside funds dried up. Gandhi held his ground and refused to remove the untouchable family from the ashram. He was ready to close down the ashram and move to an untouchable settlement. The community was only saved by an ‘anonymous’ donation of 13,000 rupees by a local businessman.
While the Congress wanted him to concentrate on gaining political independence and deemed Gandhi's tackling of other issues a distraction, Ambedkar said he was prepared to call the former his leader if he dropped all issues and concentrated only on the caste issue. It is easy to to take maximalist positions if you are focusing only on one issue but you have to be more cautious and diplomatic when pursuing multiple objectives. At one point, C.F. Andrews, his closest friend in adult life, advised him to concentrate only on the issue of untouchability even if it meant ignoring other issues. He replied:
I can't devote myself entirely to untouchability and say, "Neglect Hindu-Muslim unity or swaraj." All these things run into one another and are interdependent. You will find at one time in my life an emphasis on one thing, at another time on another. But that is just like a pianist, now emphasizing one note and now (an)other.
It is important to concentrate on what Gandhi did rather than what he said. Most politicians are radical in what they say but conservative in what they do. But Gandhi was the opposite: he was conservative in what he said but radical in what he did. What he said was due to strategic reasons tailored not to antagonize the audience that he was addressing. So when he addressed an audience of orthodox Hindus, he would make noises in favor of the caste system. But in his actions on the ground, he had no hesitation in breaking rigid caste rules.
He said that the 'most effective, the quickest, and the most unobtrusive way to destroy caste' was for reformers to practice what they preached in their lives. 'Reviling the orthodox' was not the best way to go about getting rid of caste. The change had to be 'gradual and imperceptible'. He did not ask the colonial state to intervene because it was an alien institution. He instead wanted public opinion to create an anti-caste outlook. He would attack the caste system indirectly rather than confront it directly. He was of the opinion that people ‘cannot be made good by law’. He said in Young India on July 9, 1925, ‘The evolution of public opinion is at times a tardy process but it is the only effective one.’ One of his strategies was to start by attacking untouchability rather than take on the whole caste system.
Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example. Gandhi tried to make Sabarmati Ashram a model of a caste-free society. The members of the Ashram did not believe in varnashrama dharma and carried out their responsibilities out of a sense of duty without adhering to their prior caste affiliations. He wanted his ashrams to reflect the kind of society that he wanted the whole of caste-ridden India to have. They were laboratories of the future. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”
On April 24, 1947, Gandhi publicly said in Patna that for some time he had made it a rule to be present or give his blessings’ only for a wedding between a Dalit and a non-Dalit. Gandhi utilized the Dandi Salt march to breach some things other than the salt laws as well. One of these was the caste divide in the villages en route. On his arrival in some villages he headed straight for the so-called ‘untouchable' quarters and drew water from the well there for his wash, making his village hosts, often from ‘higher' castes, to cross those ancient and hurtful divides. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task he faced. He said that it would be like 'Dame Partington with her mop, trying to push back the Atlantic Ocean'.
Gandhi led a campaign for dalit rights in the 1930s, undertaking a nine-month tour of some 12,500 miles in 1933, campaigning for the opening up of wells, temples and roads to dalits. For a short time this appeared to have a remarkable impact. But Gandhi also encountered much resistance from orthodox caste Hindus. They disrupted his meetings and in June 1933 a bomb was thrown at him in Pune. Gandhi's colleagues in the Indian National Congress questioned his action. Gandhi, they argued, was spending far too much of his energies on a 'religious issue to the detriment' of political activity.
Gandhi's soft approach towards the orthodox was due to his wanting to reform Hinduism from within rather than attack it from the outside. His aim was to bring about a gradual delegitimization of various pernicious social practices by upper caste Hindus. About his soft approach to the Brahman priests during the Vaikkom satyagraha, David Hardiman writes in Gandhi: In His Time and Ours, "In Vaikkom, the latter [the priests] had showed themselves up when their representative had pleaded before him pathetically, 'Mahatmaji, we beseech you to prevent Avarnas [untouchables] from depriving us of our old privileges'' The heart of the matter thus stood revealed - theology provided no more than a cover for social privilege."
All along, Gandhi grounded his struggle against injustice in love, tolerance, and forgiveness. Ambedkar, on the other hand, chose to take Hindu orthodoxy head on. In purely rational terms, it made sense, but given the pervasiveness of the caste system which cut across all strata of Indian society, not just caste Hindus, Gandhi's approach merits attention. While Ambedkar relied more heavily on formal politics and religious separation as a mechanism for change, Gandhi, without ignoring the political dimension, emphasized personal example and the change of heart of a broad mass of caste Hindus. He said, 'I believe that it is impossible to end hatred with hatred.'
Yet caste-based oppression remains after all this time. Although Dalits now have political voice, caste Hindus dominate the institutions. Horrific acts of violence continue to be perpetrated against Dalits even though there are laws to deal with the same. This has made the sociologist Andre Beteille to suggest that both leaders failed. Gandhi failed because the change of heart did not go far enough or deep enough. Ambedkar failed because conversion to Buddhism or any other religion has rarely led to escape from the stigma of pollution. Both failures testify to the weight and pervasiveness of hierarchical values in Indian society.
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