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Mainstream, VOL LV No 28 New Delhi July 1, 2017

What was Gandhi’s Caste and what did Congress Represent?

Saturday 1 July 2017

by Ram Puniyani

Volumes have been written on Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. There are diverse views about both. The views on them depend on the ideology of the person giving these views. To add to the prevailing views, recently (June 2017) the BJP President, Amit Shah, described Gandhi as a chatur (shrewd) baniya (trader caste). With this characterisation of Gandhi, Amit Shah joins the illustrious company of Jinnah who also called Gandhi a baniya, the caste of his birth. As such Gandhi had overcome the caste of his birth through his thinking and actions. When asked by a Magistrate in court in 1922 as to what was his caste, Gandhi said he was a farmer and a weaver. While theoretically he stuck to the Varnashram Dharma, the ideological foundation of the caste system, in practice he overcame it by violating all the caste taboos, by relating to people of all castes, by insisting on an untouchable family staying in his Sabarmati Ashram, by himself staying in the Bhangi (untouchable) Colony in Delhi and by himself taking up manual scavenging.

 The other point Amit Shah made was about the nature of the Congress. According to him, “The Congress party... was constituted as a club by a British man. It was later converted into an organisation engaged in the freedom struggle...” He also presented the Congress as a loose body bereft of any ideological commitment except that of anti-colonialism. Both these formulations are superficial and a distorted presentation of the complexity of the origin and struggles of this party which led the national movement.

 With the British introducing modern trans-port, modern education and industrialisation the society started transforming quickly and newer social classes, industrialists, industrial workers and modern educated classes started coming up. These groups gradually could see that British policies were aimed at enriching England at the cost of this land; they also could see that adequate facilities, capable of enhancing the potential of this land, were not being promoted. This led to the formation of many organisations, like Dadabhoy Naoroji’s East India Association (1866), Anand Mohan and Surendra Mohan Bose’s Indian Association (1876), Justice Ranade’s Pune Sarvajanik Sabha (1870), and Viraraghavachari’s Madras Mahajan Sabha (1884). It is these organisations which felt the need for an all-India organisation. At the same time Lord O.A. Hume, who was a British officer, also thought of an all-India organisation for Indians. Many feel that he was keen to provide a ‘safety-valve’ for letting off the anger of Indians. These emerging organisations, repre-senting the interests of emerging India, cooperated with Hume in the formation of the Congress with a clear calculation of avoiding the hostility of the British and at the same time to generate a platform which could intensify Indian national consciousness for political and economic enhancement. As per the historian of modern India, Bipan Chandra, Indian nationa-lists in a way used Hume as a lightning conductor by employing this as a platform for emerging India.

The national movement was based on the aspirations of the rising classes while the roots of communal organisations lay in the declining sections of landlords and Raja-Nawabs. So rather than just being the fantasy of the British officer as Shah will make us believe; Hume’s initiative was the best option for Indian nationalists to express their political ambitions. The national movement, in practice, was being founded on the grounds of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In the process we see people of all religions, castes and regions overwhelmingly associating with this organisation. Rather than an organisation bereft of principles, as Amit Shah states, the national movement and Congress were firmly rooted in Indian nationalism, secularism and democracy. It is true that Hindu communalists (the predecessors of Shah) and Muslim communalists (Jinnah and company) were allowed in the party till 1934, but after that the Congress did take a decision to keep out the likes of Shahs and Jinnahs. It is also true that some mild communal elements continued to be in the Congress but their predominant ideology was Indian nationalism.

 The national movement focused on the arousal of national feeling. This was in contrast to the sectarian feeling aroused by the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. The national movement was strongly critical of the British economic policies, which were keeping the country poor. The proactive part of this movement, led by the INC, was to unite the nation, cutting across the boundaries of religion, region and caste. It is interesting that while the INC united most of the Hindus and Muslims bringing them into the national movement, the Muslim League associated only with Muslims and the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS united a section of Hindus. It is another matter that a majority of Hindus and Muslims became part of the national movement, bypassing the communal organisations.

 The national movement also addressed the major issues of social reforms. Gandhi’s cam-paign against untouchability shook the very foundations of caste-based practices in a sense. While the struggles for these issues were within the framework of the colonial system to begin with, later these assumed the form of an anti-colonial movement. The national movement was led by Gandhi and the Congress; so the orocess was called ‘India is a nation in the making’. This was in contrast to the Muslim League’s assertion that ‘we are a Muslim nation since the time of Mohammad bin Kasim’ and assertion of Hindu Mahasabha-RSS that ‘we are a Hindu nation since times immemorial’.

 As such what Amit Shah is saying is a continuation of the Hindu nationalist’s hatred for Gandhi and the Indian nationalist movement. They hold Gandhi responsible for emboldening the Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation and partition of the country. It was their formulation and hatred for the Mahatma, which led one of them, Nathuram Godse, to murder him. This hatred was expressed in the RSS distributing sweets after Gandhi’s murder. (Letter of Sardar Patel, September 11, 1948) Today for electoral reasons they cannot speak the language of Godse so openly; still to oppose Indian nationalism, they have been giving pinpricks like this one to undermine Indian nationalism and the process of caste transformation which accompanied the freedom movement.

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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