(an unfinished task of Mahatma Gandhi and a step towards national integration placed before, endorsed and accepted by THE NATIONAL CONSULTATIVE CONVENTION held at the National Institute of Education, Pune (Maharashtra) on 5th and 6th March 2011)
The evil of untouchability which is a standing shame and a blot on Hindu society and on India as a nation, has existed for ages and will certainly continue to exist during the coming ages unless determined, persistent, meaningful and effective efforts are made to eradicate it and absorb dalits into Hindu society on equal terms with all other Hindus at least in the foreseeable future. Mahatma Gandhi strived hard all his life in India and carried on a campaign for removing this evil system. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the unrelenting champion of the cause of dalits and other downtrodden people strived in his own way towards this end, and finally, because this could not be achieved during his life time, preferred not to die as a Hindu. He had hopes that the dalits would be fully integrated into Hindu society before long and hence, in the Constitution of India of which he was the chief architect, he set for this task a time limit of ten years and hence, while untouchability was legally abolished in the Constitution, he got the privileges of reservation of economic and other benefits, political and other opportunities for Scheduled Castes restricted to 10 years. But, since the evil persists, these reservations have become a continuing phenomenon with no end to untouchability and the woes of dalits in sight.
Meanwhile, a move is reported to be afoot in England to get the British Parliament declare India an apartheid country because of the prevalence of untouchability and the consequent social inequality and ghetto-like sub-human living conditions to which a considerable section of India's population are subject for ages. We brought this to the notice of the Prime Minister and of the UPA Chairperson with a request to do what needs to be done to mend the situation. However, the government has its limits and it is primarily and predominantly a task to be taken up at the people's level. Hence this effort by some Gandhian organizations and other like-minded ones to initiate efforts to consider this serious problem which has all the potential to divide the nation vertically, and to help start a determined, collective, nation-wide non-stop people's effort in the form of a movement till this evil is totally eradicated and dalits are wholly absorbed into Hindu society. A National Consultative Convention has been called for this purpose at Pune, Maharashtra on the 5th and 6th March, 2011. This necessitates a close look at the problem and the various issues that need to be resolved.
1. What could be the origin of untouchability?
Cleaning of roads and other public places as also scavenging are a sanitary necessity of collective human life in villages, towns and cities. This being a work that involves handling of materials considered filthy and untouchable, it is possible that some people, maybe people of low castes who were beggars or were extremely poor or those who were criminals or the like, might have been persuaded or forced to take up these jobs as a way out of poverty or as a punishment or to escape punishment and, because they did these jobs of handling filthy and untouchable materials they were treated as untouchable for purposes of religious and social contact by the other sections of people and, in course of time and as a sequel, Hindu society being caste-ridden and Hindus being caste-minded, these people doing these 'dirty' jobs and their descendents might have all been classified as an untouchable class, identified by different names in different parts of the country. People belonging to this class who took up other occupations must have nevertheless continued to be classed under this label and, as a sequel, visiting the homes of untouchables, allowing them to visit the homes of other classes, taking water or food from them or eating with them must have all become taboo. Finally, again as a logical and social sequence, this class of society, being treated as untouchables, might have been forced to live in separate habitats, away from the dwellings of others. This perhaps seems to be the plausible explanation regarding the origin and persistence of this evil system.
This socially unhealthy and retrograde practice of treating a large section of society as untouchable and segregating them into ghetto-like habitats has to-day become the characteristic order of social life in Hindu society everywhere in India, particularly in rural areas. It has indeed become part of the psyche of non-dalit as well as dalit Hindus and of Hindu society as a whole and has thus become a psychological, social and a national problem, a negation of healthy human relationships, human rights, human equality, human dignity and human values and is also undermining and weakening national solidarity and national integration.
2. Is there a religious sanction behind untouchability?
A close look at the basic religious scriptures of Hindu religion, the Vedas and the Prasthanatrayas, namely the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavadgeeta reveals that they all embody universal and eternal values that are meant for and capable of being followed by all people without any distinction based on caste, creed or untouchability. A former Shankaracharya of Sringeri Mutt, the late Sri Swamy Chandrasekhara Bharatiji, himself a great yogi and Vedic scholar, was reported to have observed that nowhere in the Agamas is there any support or sanction to untouchability. He said this during the hectic days of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign for removal of untouchability during the thirties of the last century. Likewise, another great seer and Vedic scholar, the late Shri Swami Chandrasekhara Saraswatiji, the Paramacharya of Kancheepuram Kamokoti Mutt whom Mahatma Gandhi himself had met and for whom he had high respect, supported the cause of removal of this blot on Hindu society. Would these great sages, who were also heads of two important Hindu mutts, have supported the cause of removal of untouchability if there was religious approval and acceptance to it? With these facts in view, it is inconceivable that there can be any religious sanction or support for untouchability in Hindu religion.
The one religious text to which the dalits take serious objection is Manu Smriti. They even burn it openly. It remains to be seen whether this controversial mythological text which is supposed to have been authored by one of 14 mythological Manus who are all supposed to have been successive mythological rulers of the world, unlike the ancient Rishis to whom the scriptures named above seem to have been revealed by the Lord himself, is so basic, essential and indispensable to Hindu religion like the scriptures named above. This document seems to contain laws or dicta applicable to and reflect the conditions of social life during this particular Mannu's time and cannot clearly become religious or social dicta for all time to come. Hindu religion can exist and flourish without this Manu Smriti. The question that arises now is whether this mythological text which does not seem to be so crucial and indispensable to Hindu Dharma and has led to a spiritual, religious and social contradiction in the form of untouchability in Hinduism, cannot be dispensed with and discarded in the interests of removal of untouchability which is a standing blot on Hindu religion and Hindu society and achieving social, religious and cultural equality and harmony between all classes, including the dalits, in Hindu society to-day, an act which would also be in keeping with the present-day universal human rights and human values, so as to pave the way for dalits being integrated into Hindu society on equal terms with all other classes, thus making Hindu religion an ever-alive, progressive, dynamic, modern as well as an all-time religion.
This vital question calls for serious consideration by our spiritual leaders, by our religious leaders and mutts, by our intellectuals, by our social organizations and social activists, indeed by all open-minded, progressive-minded persons in Hindu society in the larger interests of Hindu religion and Hindu society and of Bharat as a nation. Let this Convention make an appeal to them to heed and come forth openly in support of the cause soon.
3. Untouchability and the Caste System
Untouchability, the classification of untouchables under a caste-like label and their segregation from the rest of Hindus are indeed an offshoot of the age-old caste system and the caste-mindset in Hindu society. The dalits are even called as panchamas, the fifth caste. It follows that removal of untouchability and unreserved integration of dalits into Hindu society are bound to have their repercussion on the rigidity of the caste system which has already come under the stress of social and human concepts, values and working conditions in modern society and also under the impact of liberal education. This process has to go on until this medieval caste system that is still holding sway in Hindu society becomes slowly and surely a thing of the past.
It is the rigid and unrelenting orthodoxy in the so-called higher castes that is firmly in the way of breaking down the caste barriers and also against the removal of untouchability and all it has come to mean. This impediment has to be meaningfully and effectively addressed and removed. This deep-rooted caste system which is reinforced by an equally deep-rooted individual and social psyche cannot be wished away. It has to be totally removed. This two-fold task of breaking down the caste barriers and the integration of dalits into Hindu society calls for (i) persistent, concerted and meaningful efforts which involve common liberal education for all children and youths as well as liberal enlightenment among all adults by way of liberal adult education; (ii) constant publicity in the media and by other reading material and persistent and repeated contacts, personal as well as in groups and meetings, with the common people, particularly with the orthodoxy in all castes with a view to help liberalise their ideas, values and outlook; (iii) frequent intermingling and interaction between people belonging to different castes and with the dalits on important national and religious occasions; (iv) well-known religious and spiritual leaders addressing and interacting with the people, particularly the orthodoxy, through the media, through writings as also in meetings and conferences; and (v) other steps as are found expedient and effective.
4. Non-dalits should take the lead in removing untouchability
It follows that it is the moral, social and national duty of non-dalits who created this evil and all it has come to mean to-day to remove it. It was Mahatma Gandhi's stand that the removal of untouchability is the duty of non-untouchables in Hindu society rather than a right on the part of untouchables.
We have to take into consideration that dalits who form a considerable section of India's population and of Hindus as well, have suffered humiliation for ages, are now a much awakened people and there is a limit to their forbearance. We should also note that precious little has been done during the past six decades to remove untouchability and absorb dalits into Hindu society while conservative elements in Hindu society are almost as largely opposed to it as they were six decades ago. In such an unsteady situation, if no serious and sustained efforts are made to remove this evil without further loss of time, dalits are bound to chart their own course which will certainly not be to the interest of Hindu religion and Hindu society in which event removal of untouchability may well become a lost cause with all its adverse effect on social harmony and national integration.
We should also take note of the fact that, in spite of being downtrodden for ages, dalits in general are, in their own way, devout Hindus, worship Hindu Gods and follow Hindu customs. It is from among dalits that great saints like Nandanar have emerged. It would thus be easy to integrate them into Hindu society if only the right approach is adopted and the right attempts are made by non-dalit Hindus.
In a scenario like this, much cannot be expected from elderly non-dalits in general, particularly among the uneducated, because age-old customs and prejudices have made them hard-boiled conservatives, resisting basic social changes. It is hence the non-dalit Hindu youths, with their fresh and open mind, with their disinclination to be swayed and shackled by customs and prejudices of their elders, with their zeal for change, that should take the matter into their own lands, take a vow to remove untouchability and all that it has come to mean and absorb dalits into Hindu society within a decade's time, organise and lead an andolan-like campaign or movement everywhere in the country to establish perfect social harmony and social equality in Hindu society by breaking down all barriers based on caste and untouchability and thereby save Hinduism from its contradictions that go against its basic tents and, in the process, strive also for establishing inter-religious harmony between the several religious groups in India and thereby ensure genuine social harmony, communal unity and national integration.
5. The task ahead
Let us now see how this task the final aim of which is not only to remove untouchability but, at the same time, integrate dalits into Hindu society on terms of equality with all others as well as bring down the rigidity of the caste system and caste barriers so that, in course of time, Hindu society becomes a caste-less society, is to be gone about.
This task, in regard to dalits is two-fold. On the one hand, untouchability and all it means should be removed from the customs, practices and the living patterns of non-dalits in Hindu society and removed also from their individual and social psyche and, on the other, dalits should be made to come up economically, educationally and culturally and inherit all the religious and spiritual treasures of Hindu religion, imbibe the universal and eternal values of Hinduism and feel proud of belonging to it. The completion of this task is to be marked by taking up the other cognate tasks of working for breaking down caste barriers and the rigidity of the caste system so as to ensure social and cultural equality among all people following the Hindu religion and also of establishing inter-religious harmony and understanding between people belonging to various religions in India. These tasks are to be taken up together and complement each other. The steps in this behalf are as follows.
6. The role of the state and of political parties
The state operates through its executive organ which is the government of the day which is constituted politically which means that, in a democracy like India, it is a government formed by the party or an alliance of parties which form the majority in an elected parliament or assembly and this party or these parties have their own policies and programmes which may or may not be helpful to basic changes or vital tasks such as removal of untouchability, breaking down caste barriers and establishing inter-religions harmony and understanding. Hence it is crucial that all political parties in India should become fully aware of the importance of this vital national task and all its imperatives and implications to which their support should be fully ensured. It is only then that the government of the day will support these efforts in terms of concrete governmental action. Hence one of the first tasks in this movement is not only to convince the political parties, whether they are the parties in power or those in the opposition, about the imperatives of this movement but also bring home to them the need for the required governmental action to which their wholehearted support should be assured. The needed requirements in this behalf are as follows.
Untouchability stands abolished in the Constitution of India. Hence, legally speaking, it does not exist. But the painful fact is that it does exist, The cause of removal of untouchabilty and integration of dalits into Hindu society has indeed suffered much because nothing worthwhile has been done in this behalf either by the people or by the government during the past six decades. The government's task is confined only to its policy of reservation of benefits and opportunities to scheduled casts and scheduled tribes with the result, because untouchability is continuing, the need for such reservation is also continuing, making the two get into a vicious circle, leading to dalits developing a vested interest in reservation with no end to untouchability in sight. Benefits of reservation are also being increasingly demanded by other backward classes. In this scenario, the need has increased for immediate action for bringing about and ensuring removal of untouchability as also of poverty and inequality among all sections of people in the land, as well as their all round well-being in the larger interests of India as a nation.
This note would be worth its while if it can be helpful in the vital task of establishing national unity, solidarity and integration which includes not only removal of untouchability and integration of dalits into Hindu society but also establishment of inter-religious harmony, understanding and unity between all religious groups in the country.
The forthcoming Pune Convention seems to be the first of its kind in the past few decades if not after the advent of freedom. Pune is the most appropriate venue for it because it was in Pune that Mahatma Gandhi undertook his epic fast opposing the British government's proposal to provide separate electorate for Harijans, that is dalits, and it was in Pune that the historic Gandhi-Ambedkar pact was signed and came into being. Let us all look forward to the deliberations and decisions of at the Convention which, it is hoped, may pave the way for a new effort to complete this task of Mahatma Gandhi and of Dr. Ambedkar and also go further to ensure genuine social and communal harmony, equality and unity among all people of our dear motherland, Bharat.
S. V. Manjunath
Working President, Bharat Nirman Pratishtan Bharath Sevadal Building, Kumara Krupa Road, Bengaluru-560001
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