AT the root of the malady of “untouchability” lies the belief among the common mass of people that it is part of dharma, and transgressing it would be a grave sin. This religious perversion is the chief reason why this pernicious practice has continued to stick to the popular mind till now in spite of dedicated efforts put in by a host of religious stalwarts and social reformers over centuries. Guru Nanak, Acharya Ramanuja, Basaveshwara, Shankar Dev, Swami Dayananda, Narayana Guru, Gandhiji and Veer Savarkar, to name only a few, have striven their utmost to eradicate this standing blot on Hindu society.
But the blot remained. Even now the so-called higher castes refuse to treat the so-called untouchables as their equals. Papers have reported that in a village in Rajasthan a Harijan youth was beaten to death because he grew moustaches, which was supposed to be the prerogative of only the Kshatriya! Not did our dharmagurus condemn such practices because even they mistook the custom for Dharma.
A Momentous Session
That this social evil draws its sustenance from a religious misconception suggests that the traditional mathadhipatis, who are looked upon by the people at large as the authentic spokesmen of Dharma, should come forward to set right this anti-religious practice. A right beginning was made, in this direction, at the Vishwa Hindu Sammelan at Udupi in 1969.
All the various sampradayas in the Hindu fold – the Shaiva, Veerashaiva, Madhwa, Vaishnava, Jaina, Buddha, Sikh – were represented in the conference. A resolution calling upon the Hindu world to banish “untouchability” in all their religious and social affairs in accordance with the directive of the revered dharmagurus and acharyas, was passed unanimously.
The Command of Jagadgurus
The historic directive reads as follows:
“In pursuance of the objective that the entire Hindu society should be consolidated with the spirit of indivisible oneness and that there should be no disintegration in it because of tendencies and sentiments like ‘touchability’ and ‘untouchability’. The Hindus all over the world should maintain the spirit of unity and equality in their mutual intercourse.”
The passing of the resolution can indeed be called a step of revolutionary significance in the history of Hindu society. It was a moment of victory of the true spirit of Dharma over a garbled custom.
However, a violent approach to enforce this type of resolution would be entirely counter-productive. Only positive and persuasive methods would yield results.
Some years ago news had appeared in papers that a prominent social leader along with a group of ‘untouchables’ and non-Hindus wanted to make forcible entry into the temple of Vishwanath at Kashi. The papers had also reported that the priests of the temple had resisted and foiled the attempt. Some days after the incident, I happened to visit Kashi. I met the priests and asked them why they had resisted. They replied, “Well, thousands of devotees daily throng to worship the Lord. All of them enter the sanctum sanctorum, touch the sacred Linga and offer their worship. Nobody has ever enquired to what caste or sect they belonged. However, when that leader came with all the fanfare of propaganda and showing off to the whole world that he is a messiah with an universal outlook born to uplift the downtrodden and that we are the culprits, we naturally felt insulted. And we felt like paying him in his own coin.”
This is exactly where many of our overzealous reformers have erred. Force, vilification of one section of the people, publicity and propaganda and all such methods are bound to recoil and prove to be ‘cures worse than the disease.’
Apprehension Comes True
In fact, emphasising and harping on the word ‘Harijan’ itself is not conducive to the eradication of the sense of segregation that those sections of our people have been suffering. Once, when I had an occasion to meet Gandhiji, I had expressed my apprehension that the coining of the new name ‘Harijan’ – however holy its literal meaning – may lend itself to separatist consciousness resulting in the formation of a group with vested political interest and endangering social unity. However, Gandhiji felt that it would not happen. Unfortunately, since then, the gulf has not diminished but is increasing year after year. And the dissension is now taken to the political forum as well.
False and Motivated
It appears that one more sinister dimension is being given to the problem. There has been a spurt, all of a sudden, during the last few years, of reports of attacks on ‘Harijans’ by ‘caste Hindus’ appearing in newspapers. I strongly suspect that this type of reporting is all inspired. Many a time, the news itself is not correct.
There was a case of sacrifice of a Harijan youth in one of the villages in Maharashtra. Enquiries have shown that the superstitious villagers thought that the particular young man was practising sorcery, and that it had resulted in many epidemics taking the toll of many children. It is also reported that the young man accepted the charge of sorcery as true. Amongst those who arranged his sacrifice, one of the leading persons was his own uncle. So the question of ‘Harijan-non-Harijan’ confrontation does not arise at all. But the papers painted the incident in lurid colors as a case of inhuman treatment of ‘Harijans’ by the ‘Caste Hindus’.
There is anther instance of Uttar Pradesh, which is more revealing. The papers had flashed that the Harijan community had been attacked, and their houses brunt, by the ‘Caste Hindus’ of the village. But on enquiry it was found that the village was inhabited only by Hrijans and Muslims. Not a single family of ‘Caste Hindus’ was residing there. Obviously, the attack of Muslims on the Hrijans was given the perverted color of ‘atrocity on Hrijans by Caste Hindus.”
Why this Discrimination?
I have a suspicion that some foreign hand is behind this systematic and subtle propaganda. Otherwise there is no reason why such news items should be played up so prominently. In the case of riots by Muslims which go on all over the country, utmost care and restraint is exercised not to disclose the names of communities involved. The ostensible reason given out is that the naming of the rioting communities would further embitter their mutual relations and the riots might spread to other parts. One fails to understand why the same reasoning is not being applied in the case of ‘Harijans’ and ‘Caste Hindus’ also. It only lends weight to the suspicion that forces outside and inside our country which are bent upon dividing and weakening the Hindu people, are manoeuvring the news services, and unfortunately our press too seems to have fallen a prey.
Playing the Old Game
To our bitter experience, we know how the British used to set up one caste or sect against the other, as for example the ‘non-Brahmin’ against the ‘Brahmin’, and play the game of ‘divide and rule’, and how our own people – even the so-called leaders – fell a willing prey to it. We should take a lesson from that, and beware of similar designs even now of foreign powers and their agents inside our borders. Be it remembered, there are quite a few inside our country who are only too willing to play the game with an eye on the block votes of separatist groups. We are already a broken people shattered into so many pieces and we should not in any way help the forces of disintegration.
Set New Criteria
It goes without saying that if any one is suffering from any disability, social or political, on account of what is called caste, that must be removed completely. Dr. Ambedkar had envisaged the special privileges for “Scheduled Castes” for only 10 years from the day we became a Republic in 1950. But it is going on, being extended. Continued special privileges on the basis of caste only, is bound to create vested interests in them in remaining as a separate entity. That would harm their integration with the rest of the society.
There are persons who are in real bad circumstances in all sections of society. There is no caste, which is without its own poor, the needy and the destitute. It would, therefore be proper that privileges should be based on the economic conditions of the people. That will ease out matters and the heart-burning among others that the so-called Harijans alone are enjoying privileges will also be removed.
Excelling on Many Fronts
To say that these so-called untouchable castes are inherently wanting in qualities of head and heart and that they would not be able to come up to level of the rest of society for a long time to come is not only an insult to them but a travesty of facts.
History records that the so-called ‘untouchables’ have been in the forefront of the war of national liberation all these one thousand years. They have been among the staunchest and bravest fighters in the armies of Rana Pratap, Guru Govind Singh and Shivaji. Some of the crucial battles which, Shivaji fought with the hostile forces of Delhi and Bijapur were led and manned by these same valorous brethren of ours.
Not only the battlefield but in the field of spirituality as will, these brethren of ours have excelled. Countless have been the sadhus and sanyasins born in these castes, who have commanded the unreserved reverence of all sections of society.
The unflinching faith of these brethren in our dharma is indeed inspiring. In spite of the insults and humiliations they have been suffering at the hands of the rest of society in the name of dharma for so long, they have stubbornly resisted the temptation to renounce their mother faith and opt for an alien one. In the wake of Partition, millions of Namashudras – the ‘ untouchables’ of Bengal – preferred to bear untold hardships and migrated to our borders to remain in the Hindu fold here rather than save skin by getting converted to Islam.
Work – Springing from the Heart
Now how shall we set about to meet the challenge? Resolutions and Directives such as the one issued at the Udupi conference cannot be translated into actual life by mere pious expressions. Centuries-old prejudices do not disappear by words or wishful thinking. Hard work, right propaganda has to be undertaken from town to town, village to village, house to house, and people have to be educated to accept and practise what has been resolved, not merely as a concession to the pressure of modern times, but as an abiding principle and way of life, in an humble spirit of atonement for past mistakes. A change of heart, a moral and emotional change in attitudes and behaviour, has to he brought about.
Working for the economic and political betterment of those who had been relegated to the background and bringing them up to stand shoulder to shoulder with all the rest of our people is a Herculean task. But this in itself is not enough; for, such ‘equality’ may be brought about without shedding the feelings of separateness. What we should desire and strive for, is not merely economic and political ‘equality’ – we want a real change, a complete integration. This change is beyond the power of politics, of governmental plans. It is impossible to achieve it by the clever manipulations of political parties dealing in patch-work in the name of integration.
Strenuous work springing from the heart and manifesting itself in day-to-day behaviour, work on a spiritual, moral and social plane, is called for.
Emphasize Unity, Ignore Differences
Towards this end, programmes like bhajans, keertans, festivals, recital of stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata could be arranged, where all Hindus would assemble in a spirit of common brotherhood submerging all such differences as ‘touchable’ and ‘untouchable’ in a current of pure dharmic devotion. Service projects to promote literacy, health, sports, etc., should also be undertaken. Modern techniques like the audio-visual appliances may also be usefully adopted. However, the central point of all these activities should be the appeal to the heart, the emphasis on the unifying and ennobling factors, and ignoring of differences.
Secret of Success
It is because this golden rule has been scrupulously paractised that in Sangh there is no trace of any dissension on account of caste or sect or language or on any other score. Hundreds and thousands of Swayamsevaks drawn from all strata of society sit and eat together, play and sing together without so much as caring to know to what castes or sects the others belong.
Gandhiji himself was pleasantly surprised to witness this rare phenomenon at a Sangh camp in Wardha in 1934. The camp was attended by over, 1,500 Swayamsevaks, all put up in barracks and tents. Just nearby was Gandhiji’s ashram. Seeing the camp humming with the activities of several hundreds of young men, he desired to visit it. Accordingly, our Wardha District Sanghchalak, who was formerly Secretary of the Provincial Congress Committee, welcomed Gandhiji to the camp. Gandhiji came and saw all the arrangements for residence, mess, etc., in the camp. Then he enquired, “How many Harijans are here?” Our Sanghchalak replied, “I do not know, for I have never enquired.” “You can enquire at least now and tell me.” “That I cannot do. As far as we are concerned they are all Hindus and that is sufficient for us.” “Then shall I ask?” “That is left to you”, replied our Sanghachalak. After making persistent enquiries directly with the Swayamsevaks Gandhiji came to know that there were persons from all castes, including Harijans, carrying on all the camp programmes together, right from eating to playing, in a spirit of joy and harmony, without even being conscious of their castes. He was simply amazed. After that Doctorji met Mahatmaji and explained to him how the Sangh was meeting with success in achieving unity by its technique of stressing the inherent oneness and ignoring superficial differences. This experience had left such a deep impression on Gandhiji’s mind that he recounted it years later in his address to the Swayamsevaks at Bhangi colony, Delhi, in September 1947. He had then said that he was “very much impressed with the discipline, the complete absence of untouchability and the rigorous simplicity among the Swayamsevaks.”
This singular achievements of Sangh has been made possible because of the attitude ingrained in its workers, who declare: “If you are a Hindu, it is sufficient for us. We don’t care for anything else. Hindu is the only consideration that counts for us; no caste, no sect, nothing counts for us.”