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STUDENTS' PROJECTS > GANDHI - A BIOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN AND BEGINNERS > Chapter 14
In August 1932, while Gandhi was still in jail, the British Government announced its 'Communal Award'. The award decreed that henceforth the 'untouchables' or depressed classes of Hindus would have separate electorates. They would elect their representatives in the Legislatures from among themselves, and other Hindus (so-called caste Hindus) would have no say in -determining who would represent people belonging to the depressed classes. This would mean a permanent separation and isolation of the so-called untouchables. Gandhi had some inkling of the British plan even during the Round Table Conference in London. He had then declared that this was a sinister plan to create a permanent division among the Hindus, and he would resist it with his life. It would not only be another exercise to divide Indian society and to continue to rule in the name of irreconcilable differences in Indian Society. It would also cut the depressed classes out of Hindu society. This would only perpetuate untouchability. Untouchability is an unmitigated evil. It has no sanction in Hindu religion. It must go root and branch. But it will go only when the so-called caste Hindus recognize the sinfulness and indefensibility of this practice, repent and make amends. There will be no incentive for the so- called caste Hindus to do so if the 'untouchables' are removed from Hindu society. The British proposal would therefore result in the perpetuation of 'untouchability' as well as the division of Hindu and Indian society. This was a diabolical plan and should be resisted.
On the 13th of September, Gandhi announced that he would go on fast to arouse the conscience of the Caste Hindus as well as the British Government. He would commence his fast from the 20th of September, and would give it up only when there was agreement to give up what was contemplated in the Award. The country, particularly the Hindu community was shocked, and shaken into excruciating introspection. Was it not their sinful and inhuman practices that had forced Gandhi, the Mahatma, to stake his life to arouse their conscience, and given the British Government an excuse to create and perpetuate divisions? Many orthodox Hindus were moved to give up their orthodox attitude to the untouchables. Jawaharlal Nehru's aged mother who was an orthodox Brahmin took prasad from the hands of 'untouchables'. Temples, roads and wells were thrown open to the so-called untouchables. India's great poet, Rabindranath Tagore described it as the Mahatma's 'sublime penance'. He said the penance was "a message to all India and to the world. It should be accepted through a proper process of realization. The gift of sacrifice should be received in the spirit of sacrifice".
Gandhi himself explained the reason for his fast. He was "only against separate electorates, and not against statutory reservation of seats". He did not want to be misunderstood. He had identified himself with the "untouchables" from the time he was about 10 or 12 years of age. In South Africa he had turned his wife Kasturba out of 'his' house because she had shown reluctance to clean the commode of a guest who was from the so-called "untouchable" community. He had threatened to close down his Ashram if its inmates dragged their feet on welcoming 'untouchables' as equal members of the Ashram community. " I am a 'touchable' by birth but an 'untouchable' by choice; and I have qualified myself to represent, not the upper ten among the 'untouchables'; but my ambition is to represent and identify myself with the lowest strata of untouchables, namely the 'invisibles' and 'unapproachables' whom I have always before my mind's eye wherever I go; (I) am convinced that if they are ever to rise, it will not be by the reservation of seats, but will be by the strenuous work of Hindu reformers in their midst, and it is because I feel that this separation would have killed all prospect of reform that my whole soul has rebelled against it ... let me make it plain that the withdrawal of separate electorates will satisfy the letter of my vow but will never satisfy the spirit behind it. What I want, what I am living for, and what I should delight in dying for, is the eradication of untouchability root and branch. My life I count of no consequence... if it (the fast) wakes up caste Hindus from their slumber, and if they are roused to a sense of their duty, it will have served its purpose."
There was intense anxiety in the country. It turned into agony as days went by without a solution. Gandhi was already in poor health. He was exhausting the slender reserves in his body. The response and amends had to be quick.
On the eve of the fast, on the 19th of September, "caste Hindu leaders" and the leaders of the "depressed classes" met at Bombay. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya had taken the initiative for the Conference. Dr. Ambedkar was present at the Conference. So were leaders like Rajendra Prasad, Rajagopalachari, Dr. Moonje, Sapru and Jayakar, Kunzru, Hansa Mehta, Anasuyabai Kale, M. C. Rajah and many others. Everyone was keen that Gandhi's life should be saved. An acceptable solution must be found. There followed a series of discussions and drafting of formulae. The leaders assembled in Bombay shuttled between Bombay and Yervada (Poona) to find a formulae that would be acceptable to Gandhi. Dr. Ambedkar repeatedly insisted on "full compensation" to his community.
The debates centred around separate electorates; reservation of seats in the legislatures; the number of seats to be reserved; the number of years for which the system of reservations should last. These were most relevant for an agreement that could bring pressure on the British to withdraw the 'communal award'.
Gandhi had nothing against the reservation of seats. The number should be fair and just. The difficulty about separate electorates was overcome by the suggestion that in reserved constituencies the common electorate should elect its representative from a panel of four chosen by the voters belonging to the depressed classes. But there could be no agreement on the number of years for which reservations were to last. Dr. Ambedkar proposed that there should be a referendum to decide the question after ten years. Gandhi would not agree to ten years. He wanted it to be after one year or 5 years. Otherwise the long period might be used to canvass reservation in perpetuity, thus frustrating the very purpose of joint electorates and the effort to achieve total integration on the basis of equality.
While the debate was going on Gandhi's condition was deteriorating by the hour. He could hardly lift himself up in bed. His voice was nearly inaudible. He lay for long stretches with his eyes closed. The doctors who examined him declared that he had entered the danger zone. Even if he now gave up his fast, he ran the risk of paralysis. People everywhere were in unspeakable agony. Hundreds of thousands of people swore that they would never again entertain or countenance the thought of untouchability.
Finally there was an agreement that the question of when the referendum would be held would be decided later. Since the draft formulations were now acceptable to the 'caste Hindu' leaders as well as Dr. Ambedkar and his followers, Gandhi decided to end his fiery ordeal. At a meeting to ratify the Pact, Dr. Ambedkar said that the Pact had saved the life "of the greatest man in India". "It had safeguarded the interests of the Depressed Classes. I must confess I was surprised when I met him, to find that there was so much in common between the Mahatma and myself. In fact my disputes whenever they were carried to him, I was surprised to see that the man who held such divergent views from me at the Round Table Conference came immediately to my rescue and not to the rescue of the other side."
The agreement was communicated to the British Government. They announced their acceptance of the 'Yervada Agreement'. Among scenes of great jubilation, Gandhi broke his fast in the yard of the Yervada prison by sipping a glass of orange juice that Kasturba gave him. Many great leaders — Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahadev Desai, Kasturba, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and many others were present. Rabindranath sang a prayer song from the Gitanjali. The great poet had visited Gandhi frequently and shown his complete identification with the cause as well as the penance that Gandhi had undertaken. Gandhi declared that the depressed classes, whom he began to call the children of God or 'Harijans', might hold his life as a hostage for the fulfilment of the pact and the total abolition of untouchability.
This was the beginning of a massive and momentous movement that Gandhi launched for the abolition of untouchability, root and branch. He started a new weekly called Harijan, established an organization with the specific purpose of working for the abolition of untouchability and for the welfare of the 'Harijans'. Leaders of the so-called high castes took up the work of this organization in all States of India.
But Gandhi was still in prison. The Government was not keen to give him facilities for public contact even to carry on the compaign against untouchability that he had launched. So he went on another fast — a 21-day fast to quicken the conscience of the caste Hindus and to convince the Government of his earnestness to work for the cause of the Harijans. He let it be known that he had no intention of taking up programmes of Civil Disobedience in the immediate future.
Gandhi was released in August 1933. He went on a whirlwind tour of the country to persuade people to root out untouchability and to make amends for the evil practice. Thousands of temples were thrown open. Other restrictions were given up. Wells, roads and other public places were opened to the Harijans. But his task was not easy. He was challenged and obstructed by the orthodox in many places. They demonstrated with black flags and abuse. There was an attempt to blow up his motorcade. But they had not reckoned with the fighter in Gandhi. Gandhi confronted them as perhaps no other social reformer or religious leader had done in the past. He challenged them to prove that untouchability was a part of the Hindu religion. How could a religion that believed in Advaita, or oneness, treat anyone as untouchable? No scriptural text could take the place of reason, morality and conscience. Nor was there any scriptural text that justified untouchability. There may be interpolations. Anyway, who were these so- called Sanatanists to interpret religious texts? The texts themselves defined the qualifications of one who had the right to interpret. Only a person who kept the five basic vows of Truth, Ahimsa, Brahmacharya, Non-possession, and Non-stealing, in letter and spirit, had the right to interpret. It was almost like the saying "let one who is without sin cast the first stone". In his gentle but firm way he overcame the resistance of religious persons. Even a Shankaracharya had to stand aside. It was only the combination of the saint and the militant in Gandhi that could accomplish this. His fast and whirlwind tour accomplished more than what anyone had achieved in the past. He succeeded in breaking the hold of caste and untouchability on the minds of the caste-Hindu. He transferred the onus and the feeling of guilt to those who defended or practised untouchability. That was the death-knell of untouchability, and thereafter, the end was only a matter of time and persistence.
Gandhi's tour took him to towns and villages in every part of India. He was overcome by the sight of persistent poverty. He realized that the problems of the villages could never be solved without reforms in the ownership of land, agricultural practices, and the revival of village industries. He knew that village industries could hold their own only if the skills of the artisans were improved, and their technology was improved. He was not against science or technology or machinery. But to him, the test was not only what it did for the human being, but also what it did to the human being. He was not against machinery. He was only against the kind of machinery that allowed a man to ride on the back of other human beings and exploit them. Gandhi realized the need for finding an appropriate technology that would bring the craftsman or worker into his own, and meet the demands made on him. With all these thoughts in mind, he inspired the setting up of a Village Industries Association, similar to the All India Spinners' Association and the Khadi institutions that he had set up earlier.
Education was another subject that was uppermost in Gandhi's mind. He had experimented with the kind and methods of education that a new society needed, even in South Africa, — in the Phoenix Settlement and the Tolstoy Farm. He had continued the effort in his Ashrams in India. He had come to the conclusion that the problems and needs of primary education could be met only by making education craft and community centred. The craft should become the medium of education. He convened a conference of educationists in Sevagram, and placed his ideas before them. They welcomed the proposal and gave practical shape to the idea. An organization named Hindustani Talimi Sangh was set up to carry on the work of "Nayi Talim" or new education through the medium of crafts. Thus Gandhi spent the years intensifying the constructive programme and extending it to new fields.