Freedom's Battle/Treatment of the Depressed Classes

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Freedom's Battle by Mohandas K. Gandhi
Treatment of the Depressed Classes

Depressed Classes[edit]

Vivekanand used to call the Panchamas 'suppressed classes.' There is no doubt that Vivekanand's is a more accurate adjective. We have suppressed them and have consequently become ourselves depressed. That we have become the 'Pariahs of the Empire' is, in Gokhale's language, the retributive justice meted out to us by a just God. A correspondent indignantly asks me in a pathetic letter reproduced elsewhere, what I am doing for them. I have given the letter with the correspondent's own heading. Should not we the Hindus wash our bloodstained hands before we ask the English to wash theirs? This is a proper question reasonably put. And if a member of a slave nation could deliver the suppressed classes from their slavery without freeing myself from my own, I would do so to day. But it is an impossible task. A slave has not the freedom even to do the right thing. It is a right for me to prohibit the importation of foreign goods, but I have no power to bring it about. It was right for Maulana Mahomed Ali to go to Turkey and to tell the Turks personally that India was with them in their righteous struggle. He was not free to do so. If I had a truly national legislative I would answer Hindu insolence by creating special and better wells for the exclusive use of suppressed classes and by erecting better and more numerous schools for them, so that there would be not a single member of the suppressed classes left without a school to teach their children. But I must wait for that better day.

Meanwhile are the depressed classes to be loft to their own resources? Nothing of the sort. In my own humble manner I have done and am doing all I can for my Panchama brother.

There are three courses open to those downtrodden members of the nation. For their impatience they may call in the assistance of the slave owning Government. They will get it but they will fall from the frying pan into the fire. To-day they are slaves of slaves. By seeking Government aid, they will be used for suppressing their kith and kin. Instead of being sinned against, they will themselves be the sinners. The Mussalmans tried it and failed. They found that they were worse off than before. The Sikhs did it unwittingly and failed. To-day there is no more discontented community in India than the Sikhs. Government aid is therefore no solution.

The second is rejection of Hinduism and wholesale conversion to Islam or Christianity. And if a change of religion could be justified for worldly betterment, I would advise it without hesitation. But religion is a matter of the heart. No physical inconvenience can warrant abandonment of one's own religion. If the inhuman treatment of the Panchamas were a part of Hinduism, its rejection would be a paramount duty both for them and for those like me who would not make a fetish even of religion and condone every evil in its sacred name. But, I believe that untouchability is no part of Hinduism. It is rather its excrescence to be removed by every effort. And there is quite an army of Hindu reformers who have set their heart upon ridding Hinduism of this blot. Conversion, therefore, I hold, is no remedy whatsoever.

Then there remains, finally, self-help and self-dependence, with such aid as the non-Panchama Hindus will render of their own motion, not as a matter of patronage but as a matter of duty. And herein comes the use of non-co-operation. My correspondent was correctly informed by Mr. Rajagopaluchari and Mr. Hanumantarao that I would favour well-regulated non-co-operation for this acknowledged evil. But non-co-operation means independence of outside help, it means effort from within. It would not be non-co-operation to insist on visiting prohibited areas. That may be civil disobedience if it is peacefully carried out. But I have found to my cost that civil disobedience requires far greater preliminary training and self-control. All can non-co-operate, but few only can offer civil disobedience. Therefore, by way of protest against Hinduism, the Panchamas can certainly stop all contact and connection with the other Hindus so long as special grievances are maintained. But this means organised intelligent effort. And so far as I can see, there is no leader among the Panchamas who can lead them to victory through non-co-operation.

The better way, therefore, perhaps, is for the Panchamas heartily to join the great national movement that is now going on for throwing off the slavery of the present Government. It is easy enough for the Panchama friends to see that non-co-operation against this evil government presupposes co-operation between the different sections forming the Indian nation. The Hindus must realise that if they wish to offer successful non-co-operation against the Government, they must make common cause with the Panchamas, even as they have made common cause with the Mussalmans. Non-co-operation with it is free from violence, is essentially a movement of intensive self-purification. That process has commenced and whether the Panchamas deliberately take part in it or not, the rest of the Hindus dare not neglect them without hampering their own progress. Hence though the Panchama problem is as dear to me as life itself, I rest satisfied with the exclusive attention to national non-co-operation. I feel sure that the greater includes the less.

Closely allied to this question is the non-Brahmin question. I wish I had studied it more closely than I have been able to. A quotation from my speech delivered at a private meeting in Madras has been torn from its context and misused to further the antagonism between the so-called Brahmins and the so-called non-Brahmins. I do not wish to retract a word of what I said at that meeting, I was appealing to those who are accepted as Brahmins. I told them that in my opinion the treatment of non-Brahmins by the Brahmins was as satanic as the treatment of us by the British. I added that the non-Brahmins should be placated without any ado or bargaining. But my remarks were never intended to encourage the powerful non-Brahmins of Maharashira or Madras, or the mischievous element among them, to overawe the so-called Brahmins. I use the word 'so-called' advisedly. For the Brahmins who have freed themselves from the thraldom of superstitious orthodoxy have not only no quarrel with non-Brahmins as such, but are in every way eager to advance non-Brahmins wherever they are weak. No lover of his country can possibly achieve its general advance if he dared to neglect the least of his countrymen. Those non-Brahmins therefore who are coqueting with the Government are selling themselves and the nation to which they belong. By all means let those who have faith in the Government help to sustain it, but let no Indian worthy of his birth cut off his nose to spite the face.

Amelioration of the Depressed Classes[edit]

The resolution of the Senate of the Gujarat National University in regard to Mr. Andrews' question about the admission of children of the 'depressed' classes to the schools affiliated to that University is reported to have raised a flutter in Ahmedabad. Not only has the flutter given satisfaction to a 'Times of India' correspondent, but the occasion has led to the discovery by him of another defect in the constitution of the Senate in that it does not contain a single Muslim member. The discovery, however, I may inform the reader, is no proof of the want of national character of the University. The Hindu-Muslim unity is no mere lip expression. It requires no artificial proofs. The simple reason why there is no Mussalman representative on the Senate is that no higher educated Mussalman, able to give his time, has been found to take sufficient interest in the national education movement. I merely refer to this matter to show that we must reckon with attempts to discredit the movement even misinterpretation of motives. That is a difficulty from without and easier to deal with.

The 'depressed' classes difficulty is internal and therefore far more serious because it may give rise to a split and weaken the cause--no cause can survive internal difficulties if they are indefinitely multiplied. Yet there can be no surrender in the matter of principles for the avoidance of splits. You cannot promote a cause when you are undermining it by surrendering its vital parts. The depressed classes problem is a vital part of the cause. Swaraj is as inconceivable without full reparation to the 'depressed' classes as it is impossible without real Hindu-Muslim unity. In my opinion we have become 'pariahs of the Empire' because we have created 'pariahs' in our midst. The slave owner is always more hurt than the slave. We shall be unfit to gain Swaraj so long as we would keep in bondage a fifth of the population of Hindustan. Have we not made the 'pariah' crawl on his belly? Have we not segregated him? And if it is religion so to treat the 'pariah.' It is the religion of the white race to segregate us. And if it is no argument for the white races to say that we are satisfied with the badge of our inferiority, it is less for us to say that the 'pariah' is satisfied with his. Our slavery is complete when we begin to hug it.

The Gujarat Senate therefore counted the cost when it refused to bend before the storm. This non-co-operation is a process of self-purification. We may not cling to putrid customs and claim the pure boon of Swaraj. Untouchability I hold is a custom, not an integral part of Hinduism. The world advanced in thought, though it is still barbarous in action. And no religion can stand that which is not based on fundamental truths. Any glorification of error will destroy a religion as surely as disregard of a disease is bound to destroy a body.

This government of ours is an unscrupulous corporation. It has ruled by dividing Mussalmans from Hindus. It is quite capable of taking advantage of the internal weaknesses of Hinduism. It will set the 'depressed' classes against the rest of the Hindus, non-Brahmins against Brahmins. The Gujarat Senate resolution does not end the trouble. It merely points out the difficulty. The trouble will end only when the masses and classes of Hindus have rid themselves of the sin of untouchability. A Hindu lover of Swaraj will as assiduously work for the amelioration of the lot of the 'depressed' classes as he works for Hindu-Muslim unity. We must treat them as our brothers and give them the same rights that we claim for ourselves.

The Sin of Untouchability[edit]

It is worthy of note that the subjects Committee accepted without any opposition the clause regarding the sin of untouchability. It is well that the National assembly passed the resolution stating that the removal of this blot on Hinduism was necessary for the attainment of Swaraj. The Devil succeeds only by receiving help from his fellows. He always takes advantage of the weakest spots in our natures in order to gain mastery over us. Even so does the Government retain its control over us through our weaknesses or vices. And if we would render ourselves proof against its machination, we must remove our weaknesses. It is for that reason that I have called non-co-operation a process of purification. As soon as that process is completed, this government must fall to pieces for want of the necessary environment, just as mosquitos cease to haunt a place whose cess-pools are filled up and dried.

Has not a just Nemesis overtaken us for the crime of untouchability? Have we not reaped as we have sown? Have we not practised Dwyerism and O'Dwyerism on our own kith and kin? We have segregated the 'pariah' and we are in turn segregated in the British Colonies. We deny him the use of public wells; we throw the leavings of our plates at him. His very shadow pollutes us. Indeed there is no charge that the 'pariah' cannot fling in our faces and which we do not fling in the faces of Englishmen.

How is this blot on Hinduism to be removed? 'Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you.' I have often told English officials that, if they are friends and servants of India, they should come down from their pedestal, cease to be patrons, demonstrate by their loving deeds that they are in every respect our friends, and believe us to be equals in the same sense they believe fellow Englishmen to be their equals. After the experiences of the Punjab and the Khilafat, I have gone a step further and asked them to repent and to change their hearts. Even so is it necessary for us Hindus to repent of the wrong we have done, to alter our behaviour towards those whom we have 'suppressed' by a system as devilish as we believe the English system of the Government of India to be. We must not throw a few miserable schools at them; we must not adopt the air of superiority towards them. We must treat them as our blood brothers as they are in fact. We must return to them the inheritance of which we have robbed them. And this must not be the act of a few English-knowing reformers merely, but it must be a conscious voluntary effort on the part of the masses. We may not wait till eternity for this much belated reformation. We must aim at bringing it about within this year of grace, probation, preparation and tapasya. It is a reform not to follow Swaraj but to precede it.

Untouchability is not a sanction of religion, it is a devise of Satan. The devil has always quoted scriptures. But scriptures cannot transcend reason and truth. They are intended to purify reason and illuminate truth. I am not going to burn a spotless horse because the Vedas are reported to have advised, tolerated, or sanctioned the sacrifice. For me the Vedas are divine and unwritten. 'The letter killeth.' It is the spirit that giveth the light. And the spirit of the Vedas is purity, truth, innocence, chastity, humility, simplicity, forgiveness, godliness, and all that makes a man or woman noble and brave. There is neither nobility nor bravery in treating the great and uncomplaining scavengers of the nation as worse than dogs to be despised and spat upon. Would that God gave us the strength and the wisdom to become voluntary scavengers of the nation as the 'suppressed' classes are forced to be. There are Augean stables enough and to spare for us to clean.