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Gandhi’s Response to the Caste Imbroglio

Samir Banerjee ( has been involved with Gandhian studies and his book Tracing Gandhi: Satyarthi to Satyagrahi (Routledge India) is forthcoming.

Gandhi against Caste by Nishikant Kolge, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xviii + 316, ₹ 695.

Gandhi against Caste by Nishikant Kolge is a timely exercise seeking to explain the nature of Gandhi’s intervention in the enormously complex caste imbroglio. Caste, as a vile conundrum, has continued to influentially mediate the Indian social transition and transformation processes. Lately, however, it is becoming a major plank for all sections of the Indian milieu to arbitrate the processes of apportioning and/or depriving, while carving out the country’s social benefits pie. Many are even wondering whether there can be an India without the prop of the caste structure sustaining it. Simply put, caste continues to cast its baneful hold over the country and if India is to become an unprejudiced humane community, it has to eliminate this; but how?

It is this necessity of responding to the egregious caste system that is the concern of Gandhi against Caste, more specifically, how Gandhi responded in his efforts to eliminate this vexing systemic social problem. The study orbits around two fundamentals: First, systemic issues need systemic intervention strategies which might not be amenable to hasty solutions; second, systemic changes can occur through either gradual transformation or revolutionary transformation. The book seeks to deconstruct Gandhi’s response to the dilemma of the systemic nature and constraint of caste and how to respond to this issue. The author also considers whether Gandhi was possibly reluctant to forthwith “throw out” the caste system and perhaps would have preferred to salvage some of its redeeming qualities; more specifically: was Gandhi against initiating systemic revolutionary social transformation without clarity regarding alternatives and the modalities of bringing about such transformation? After all no society can exist without clearly defined structures of relationships, and history has still to elucidate egalitarian, non-hierarchic, non-antagonistic social formations. However, history is also replete with the fact that agents and agencies of transformation have tried to retain a conspicuous desire to eradicate systemic exploitative practices from society. In a broad way, this book tries to inform us about the contribution of Gandhi to such efforts.

With a foreword by Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi against Caste is divided into five chapters devoted to understanding Gandhi’s stand regarding caste. The last section is a critical analysis of a more recent introduction to B R Ambedkar’s inspirational Annihilation of Caste. Being a revised version of the author’s PhD thesis, it retains an engagement with copious research and a problem-solving orientation.

Concept of Strategy

While interventions to dismantle the hold of caste can be varied, they come with an agenda of intensions and expectations. In this study all these are clustered around the concept of strategy, more specifically, Gandhi’s interventions, intensions and expectations vis-à-vis caste.1 Obviously, interventions are accompanied by intensions and expectations. But the prospect is not simple when we attempt to theorise on the subject of intervening in social transition, particularly to impact well-entrenched structures and processes such as caste; more so,
because we soon realise that such processes and structures influence each one of us in dissimilar, even contradictory ways as persons and social beings. Interventions, intensions and expectations keep evolving as if with a cadence of their own. Consequently, while the modes of intervention keep varying and evolving, the “whether to” and “how to” regarding intervention acquire a stiff relationship with intensions and expectations. Given the prevailing asymmetry in society, strategy tends to serve, or rather, oblige power and the contemporary ideology of hegemony. Whether the exploited can borrow such tools in their skirmishes with the authorities remains an open question. It becomes even more problematic when, as in the case of Gandhi, satyagraha becomes integral to the transformation-seeking agenda.

In view of the above, to analyse Gandhi’s involvement as strategy might pose peculiar problems, particularly when analysing his post-South Africa involvements. Why is this so? Strategy is a complex political term usually deployed with the notions of “power” and “ideology.” As a part of the political discourse of the oppressed, albeit led by the elite within the oppressed, intervention and in this sense, strategy, acquires twin identities: against the larger oppression; and those within the oppressed. Intensions and expectations acquire contradictory contours and significations within the exploited themselves, which very often become problematic for the intervention itself. This is apparent when the author says that Gandhi, at times, was clearly against caste, and at other times, ambivalent. Perhaps this is because strategy has been used as a conceptual and descriptive term; as a conceptual term to understand intensions and expectations, and as a descriptive term when referring to power and ideology. But such a treatment is not easy with Gandhi-led/inspired interventions and events. For Gandhi, an intervention as an event is the simultaneity of gain and loss, confrontation and compromise, manoeuvring and positioning; perhaps strategy is too deterministic a notion to apprehend such open-ended thinking which encourages the formulation of an answer, rather than selection from a set of possible answers.

Theorised Problem

Within a movement or intervention, strategy helps explicate at three levels: progress, disappointment, and a mixture of improvement and failure. In the case of Gandhi, because of his worldview regarding the “other” and ahimsa, interventions as actions are both a gain and loss, not some mixture of gain and loss. Further, since the outcome of an intervention contributes discretely and distinctly to the personal and the social of the individual, for Gandhi, an intervention becomes a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. And as for expectations and intensions, since they are always relative they are never resolved; they are, at best, appeased.

Gandhi’s thinking regarding caste evolved over time. As a young boy, he was not happy that he had to take a bath if he happened to touch the boy who cleaned the toilets. When he wanted to go to England to study, he refused to accept the dictate of his Modh Bania caste, which prohibited crossing the seas. But on return, for the sake of his family, he was ready to accept a token reprimand so as to be accepted by his caste grouping. In South Africa, he was ready to throw his wife into the streets because she was not ready to wash the chamber pot which had been used by a person of low caste, albeit a convert.

The above ambivalence changes with his conceptualisation of satyagraha. This is when he starts recognising the problematic of the contradiction of “conflict and other,” which hitherto had been a necessity and inevitability for intervention. On coming back to India, he also recognises that for a social formation, or country, or nation, there is no tabula rasa. Tradition identity and the future, all have to be recognised as existent and given. The moot problem was twofold: Does one drop the baggage of tradition and history lock, stock, and barrel, or salvage some of it? Of course, the question is who should be responsible for this decision. Whether it was the question of Brahmin cooks at Santiniketan, or the issue of cleanliness and sanitation at the Kumbh mela, or induction of untouchable castes at Sabarmati, he found that there were no easy solutions. Later, during the Vaikom satyagraha against untouchability in Hindu society, he elaborated on the first verse of the Isha Upanishad which explicates the problematic of owning and owing. He perhaps felt that a scrutiny of possession and its relationship with power could indicate a way to resolve the caste imbroglio.

However, Gandhi took two clear positions vis-à-vis caste. First, on a personal level, he reduced, rather eliminated it from his practices and thinking. It does not help to search for elements of benevolence and class in some specific individual incidents. It only panders to our desire to find fault with the “other.” Second, there was the social side of Gandhi that was not under his total control, because it had to, by necessity, be a part of the larger social aspirations which he incidentally wanted to transform. This social could never have the liberty and the space of the personal. While he had to contend with assassination attempts by Hindu communalists, he also had to take positions against more revolutionary processes as preferred and initiated by Ambedkar and others. An analysis of the Poona Pact (we cannot go into details of that here) shows the compulsions of the tension between the personal and the social aspects within both, Gandhi and Ambedkar, and its impact on themselves; and of course this tension increases with an upsurge in the individual’s social role. When confronted with this, for Gandhi, the spirit of satyagraha had to prevail. This spirit is best described by the famous couplet of Kabir: “Kabira khada bazaar mein, mange sab ki khair; na kisi se dosti, na kisi se bair” (Kabir stands in the marketplace with good wishes for all; he has no friends and has strife with none).

In effect, we can say that given the prevailing social conditions and the evolving ideology or world view of Gandhi himself, strategy as a conceptual tool for theorisation has a limited utility in helping analyse the essential and critical need for a middle path between confrontation and compromise, which Gandhi preferred to tread.

Politics and Political Compulsions

Gandhi was conscious but careful regarding caste. He recognised the prevailing social structuring done along caste lines. And he was careful about never forgetting its conspicuous, pernicious hold. He also accepted the need to restructure social relations. The question is: What should be the nature of this desired alternative relationship, particularly in terms of power which arbitrates all social relationships? In the Indian context, this means a conscious political engagement with caste. Since caste is a given, this engagement can either be politics of engagement with caste compulsions, or politics as compulsion, that is, recognising the need for devising meaningful sustainable alternatives. For Gandhi, this is not a simple process of replacing sectarianism with secularism, communalism with liberalism, or casteism with egalitarianism, and so on. For him, it was a fundamental question of replacing social and individual antagonism with genuine amity in the full glare of public participation. Perhaps this was a tall order. But given the hold of caste—which in India goes beyond religious affiliations—over every Indian’s transactional and transcendental aspirations, perhaps he preferred to have a hard look at the problematic of compulsions itself; in his case it seems he focused on the compulsion of gaining political freedom from imperial rule.

Be that as it may, conceivably his insistence on recognising the core nature of labour, the role of the community, the impact of consumerism and the market, the seminal discrete responsibilities of the individual as an individual and a social being, and so on, are parameters around which alternatives can be conceived to replace caste. Above all, Gandhi recognised the futility of criticism without creativity. And this creativity to flourish has to accept that in society it can neither ignore the notion of owing, nor give it coercive authority, in the way the caste system has done.

The book has a restricted objective. However, it raises some fundamental questions. Strategy means involvement in intervention events with some expectations, ideology and intensions. In the case of Gandhi while the intensions of removing caste was never an issue, the expectations remained fuzzy perhaps because of his ambiguity pertaining to the Varna system. Clarity about this uncertainty about Varna can be traced to his quest for a world view which, while rejecting social inequality and its consequences, was not ready to fall for some ideology of equal treatment. Gandhi remained cautious regarding the efficacy of liberal democracy and the role and power of the state. While he had an abiding faith in the individual, he remained wary about egalitarianism and individualism. For him the community had to come first, which means diversity, freedom from oppression, self-government and a collective willingness to nurture liberty through an understanding of wants and needs, ends and means, and rights and duties.

Social alternatives are not in the giving of anybody; these have to be crafted. Gandhi explains,

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave. (Gandhi, Young India, Vol 1, 1921, p 170)

Every community makes and accomplishes its own unique destiny. Gandhi in effect was inviting all of us to personally engage in constructing the society we want to live in.


1 Strategy indicates three intentions: intervention indicates aim, intension indicates the conceptual content, and expectation indicates the consequences.

Updated On : 5th Apr, 2019


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