Practice Question –  Write short note with a sociological perspective : How far Gandhi was trusted by the untouchables?  [UPSC 2015]

Approach – Introduction, Give Gandhian philosophy with respect to Caste system, Outline his struggle against untouchability, Briefly mention the changes amongst untouchables due to his efforts, Give criticism, Conclusion. 



In his voluminous writings, Gandhi touched or dwelt upon myriad issues of interpersonal, intergroup and individual-group relations that affected society and called for reform and even revolutionary change in the structure, institutions, processes and value orientations of society. Although his perspective was Universalist in nature, his point of departure was the contem­porary Indian situation. Social change in India constituted his immediate goal and priority. In the pursuit of this objective, he fashioned a programme of social reconstruction that evolved from his experiences and experiments in various areas of social life in a kind of trial and error process. He was deeply conscious of the inertial drag of tradition as well as the natural propensities of man to pursue narrow and immediate interests and dominate his fellow beings.



Gandhi gave an altogether different perspective to the understanding of the social problems. His views on social problems are contained in his ideas of sarvodaya and swaraj. Gandhi’s views are based on the values of truth and non-violence. Gandhi regarded society to be a unified organisation. Thus he was not in agreement with the Marxists. According to Gandhi, though the interests of different classes may clash, the fact of conflict of interest does not assume primacy over the unity of the community. Thus, the unity of purpose of the whole community is predominant in Gandhian explanation. Cooperation rather than conflict is the chief characteristic of the society. Different classes forming a community work
together or cooperate to achieve the well being of the community as a whole.

Gandhi rejected the view that by reorganising society economically, the social, political and cultural problems would end. Simply economic restructuring of the society cannot ensure solution to social problems. The changes to be brought should be all pervasive. Radical changes have to be brought about in economic, social, political and cultural spheres of the community. The Gandhian approach opposes the theory of violent revolution and coercive change. The revolution has to be a gradual process and should be brought about by awakening of masses. Thus, a programme of social, economic, cultural and political awakening of the masses has to be undertaken to overcome the social problems. Gandhi was opposed to the introduction of vast economic, social and cultural changes through legislation. The society must change itself gradually by its own initiative and efforts. Legislation may facilitate the changes when society itself is moving in the same direction. Changes should not be imposed on the society.

Gandhian approach offers a critique of the existing order, propounds certain basic elements of a new society and provides a methodology for solving social problems. Critics have argued that Gandhian approach lacks originality and is a combination of the traditional Indian thinking, welfare thinking and liberalism. It is idealistic and divorced from the hard social realities. However, it must be remembered that it was applied successfully by blacks in the USA and in South Africa and even by the people in the Eastern Europe to fight against



The central feature of Gandhi’s thought is that it is man centred, not system centred. Its premise is the moral autonomy of man and the possibility of his lasting liberation from his own lower self and the impersonal and compelling dictates of the structure of society. The ideal social order is that which gives man the opportunity to realize his moral autonomy and encourages him always to exercise this autonomy in an enlightened manner that is conducive to individual and collective well-being. The movement from the existing imperfect state of man and society towards perfection requires the inculcation of certain fundamental values by man along with the establishment of social instrumentalities, which will promote and ensure the perennial primacy of these values. However, Gandhi postulates the inseparability of ‘ends’ (values) and ‘means’ (instrumentalities) that is the dialectical unity of cause and effect. Therefore, a logical discrimination between values and instrumentalities is not possible – nor even desirable – in his thought.

We may identify the basic issues of social change prescribed by Gandhi as the institution of human dignity and equality; the elevation of labour to a high dignity; the quest for self-reliance; the propagation of the principle of trusteeship; the pursuit of truth and ahimsa; the establishment of a socially purposive system of education; the recognition of tolerance as a primary value; the realization of the inseparability of ends and means; and the urge towards a rational and scientific view of life.

Gandhi distilled most of his ideas from a-secular premises. This is clearly seen, for instance, in his justification of equality and his prognosis for sustaining the egalitarian imperative. Modern egalitarianism has been derived from a positivist theory of natural rights, or from the logic that it is not possible to determine relative primacy between the infinite hierarchies of classification, or from the irrationality of discrimination between incomparable individualities. Gandhi, on the other hand, eschews such abstract considerations and bases his concept of equality on the monistic premise of advaita philosophy that all sentient beings possess divinity as ultimately inalienable parts of the Supreme Being. His belief in the Supreme Being, who manifested himself inter alia in an immanent moral law of the universe and was the ultimate reality, identical with the absolute truth, was the core of his thought. But his theism was rationally constructed and argued and it was devoid of mystical elements.

 His view that the oppressed and the underpriv­ileged must struggle for their own liberation is evident in his social crusades against untouchability and for gender equality, for all through, he insisted that it was as much a duty for the untouchables and women to strive for their emancipation from social degradation and inequality as it was for the rest of society. Although he was categorical in upholding the principle of merit, he did not reject the principle of positive discrimination outright and, in fact, recognized the urgent need for providing the condi­tions and wherewithal for the backward and the underprivileged to bring them on par with the privileged sections of society. He also maintained that if an equitable social order reflecting the ideal of respect for human dignity and equality was founded on the inner realization that this ideal was an inalienable element of the moral law of the universe, instead of on formal laws and social sanctions, it would not have the tendency to regress towards older or new patterns of indignity and inequality. However, Gandhi’s conception of equality went beyond the right to equal dignity and opportunity, for it envisioned the right to equitable sustenance by society for individuals contributing to the social process to the best of their ability and potential.



Education for its own sake or for acquiring specialized infor­mation in isolation from the process of development of society was, he believed, a contradiction in terms. His Basic Education scheme sought to universalize education by making the school complementary to the home and integrating value orientation with vocationalization, while ensuring the economic self-sufficiency of the school. His urgent stress on the estab­lishment of a socially purposive system of education reflected the importance he attached to education as an efficacious agent for social change.



In Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi had argued that Independence, if it was not accompanied by a deep change in social priorities, would be pointless. From the time of his return to India in 1915, Gandhi combined political activity with social reform. He pushed the removal of untouchability to the forefront as early as 1920 at the Nagpur session of the Congress that adopted the non-co-operation resolution. Gandhi declared that the removal of untouchability was an essential condition for his concept of Swaraj. For Gandhi, Swaraj was not only expulsion of the British from India but also the liberation of society from slavery. 



Untouchability was one of Gandhi’s central concerns. In both words and actions, Gandhi attacked untouchability in ways that were radical for a ‘caste Hindu’. The critics of Gandhi by focusing on a ‘selective’ reading of some of Gandhi’s ‘early’ writings reach a conclusion that Gandhi never decisively renounced his belief in ‘chaturvarna’ or the system of four varnas. They rest their understanding of Gandhi’s concern with caste based on these writings and ignore his ‘practice’, which were a clear denunciation of untouchability and caste prejudices. Gandhi, in his personal life rejected untouchability from the very beginning and relentlessly made efforts to eradicate it. As early as 1905, Gandhi had held that the Brahmins and the ‘Untouchables’ were equal in his eyes. He would insist on his own family circle that no one should consider work done by a scavenger as “polluting.” In 1909, he was publicly rejecting the notion that there were “high” and “low” castes.

By 1935, when Ambedkar was strongly criticising Gandhi’s views on untouchability, Gandhi’s final position was that caste had to go. In fact, Gandhi had given up defending caste even before Ambedkar had got Annihilation of Caste published in 1936. Gandhi gave the title Caste Has To Go to his November 16, 1935 article published in Harijan, way before Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste came out. Gandhi was also emphasising that “the sooner public opinion abolishes [caste], the better.” Gandhi became more “sensitive” to the “structural roots” of caste discrimination when he was at the height of his prominence. In his 1936 debate with Ambedkar, Gandhi reiterated his rejection of caste, and said that it was “harmful both to the spiritual and to the national growth.” Gandhi even openly affirmed his acceptance of, and advocated for, inter-caste dining and marriages. Gandhi’s views, once expressed freely, culminated in the announcement by 1946 that in his Sevagram Ashram, couples could marry only on the condition that one party was a ‘Harijan’. Gandhi, until 1920, tried to destroy the notion that physical contact with the ‘Untouchables’ ‘polluted’ a Hindu from a higher caste. From 1921-27, he began to demand the entry of the ‘Untouchable’ children into public schools. Gandhi’s strong public reputation at the peak of the Civil Disobedience Movement enabled him to demand that the ‘caste Hindus’ must do ‘penance’ and ‘make reparations’ to the ‘Untouchables’. From 1927 to 1932, he took up evidently the most contentious issue demanding from the ‘caste Hindus’ that the ‘Untouchables’ must have the same rights of entry in all the temples as the other Hindus. In 1925, Gandhi supported it by backing the use of Satyagraha against a denial of the use of public roads adjacent to a temple and Brahmin residences in Vaikom. He personally went to Vaikom, Kerala, to debate with the orthodox Brahmins against their interpretation of the scriptures, and, managed to get the road next to the temple opened to all. In 1932, he went to the extent of undertaking a “fast unto death” over the question of opening the Guruvayur Temple, Malabar, for the ‘Untouchables’. With this, Gandhi moved from being a cautious reformer to attaining a bolder, albeit revolutionary, position on untouchability.



Gandhi did not construct a theory of social change in the sense that most social analysts do. But scattered through the vast magnitude of his writings are many pointers and indications through which one can delineate his design for social reordering. This design is radically different from that of other social thinkers. It is pertinent to remember that his ideas were partly the result of his interaction with and disapprobatory assessment of modern civilization as typified by the rich industrial countries and partly the outcome of his political and social struggles in South Africa and India. His upbringing and readings also played a major part in his orientation towards man and society. His proposals for social change are different because they are not concerned with the progress of civilization or the historical process; his main concern is the destiny of man, which according to him is self-development, and he judges a civilization according to its capacity to fulfill this purpose. Material well-being is the prime consideration of modern civilization; opposed to this is Gandhi’s view of progress as the movement towards self-discovery or self-realization of man.


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