Caste has been a cauldron of conflict in Indian society since time immemorial. Dating back to the Vedic period, it has assumed a concrete manifestation, taken a well-laid hierarchical structure and established its firm roots in every sphere of life. A lot many social scientists have dwelt on the different contours of caste in India and attempted to understand the relevance of caste in the bygone and contemporary periods. Understanding the origin point of the caste system and its complex yet amazing structuring, the sociologists reflect over the ancient classification of Hindu society into four different varnas (Brahmin, Kayastha, Vaishya, Shudra). Whenever it comes to understanding and analysing this fundamentally four-dimensional caste fold (which has umpteen number of sub-castes as its byproduct), the name of MK Gandhi spontaneously begins to reverberate in our inner collective consciousness.
In addition to spearheading many freedom struggle movements against the barbaric British Rule, Gandhi was well aware of the scourge of untouchability associated with caste. On the basis of his colour, he was subjected to a great deal of humiliation in South Aftrica, when the colour-snobs threw him out of the compartment of a train. That turned out to be a catalytic moment in the life of Gandhi and thereafter he stood steadfast against the inhumane treatment meted out to the untouchables till his last breath. Although there are innumerable people who eulogize Gandhi due to his all-out efforts for eradicating the malaise of untouchability, a plenty of people hold him in derision and dub him a mere hypocrite. They are of the opinion that Gandhi wanted to perpetuate the evil of caste system and his actions have proved to be big impediments in the way of the iconic Dalit leaders like BR Ambedkar. Gandhi’s great detractor Ambedkar has been openly hostile to the Gandhian way of dealing with the contentious issue of caste. These ideological differences emerge due to their contrary understandings of the warp and woof of the Indian society and Hinduism.
Unlike his chief antagonist Ambedkar, Gandhi’s approach to the issue of caste is reformative in nature. He has been of the view that the very foundation of Hindu society principally lies on the bedrock of the division of people based upon the four Varnas they are born into. Gandhi gives credence to the old ossified Varna system which according to him epitomises Dharma (moral obligation). It is pre-requisite for the smooth functioning of a strong and moral society. Varna system prescribes the duties of an individual caste. It does not offer any special privileges and social superiority to any caste and individual. In agreement with this visionary man (who had fully assimilated the mechanics of Hindu society), it would be pertinent to articulate that the idea of fully destroying the caste fold in Indian society seems merely Utopian. Ostensibly, caste may appear to be only a social stratification which must be done away with, but in sooth, it is an integral part of our collective psychological evolution.
Since ages and ages the concept has been growing in our minds and therefore, it has got deeply embedded into our social psyche. The implementation of any law to annihilate caste will bring a mere superficial, cosmetic change in our social attitude due to the fear of punishment. It will not uproot the belief system deeply ingrained in our mindsets. On the flip side, BR Ambedkar in his book “The Annihilation of Caste” advocates that the Varna system is one of biggest ever prevailing evils in the Hindu religion which is regressive in nature and hinders the scope and hope for an egalitarian society. Undoubtedly, Gandhi opposed the practice of any form of social discrimination in the name of the caste,colour and creed, Ambedkar did not see eye to eye with him. Recently Gandhi vs Ambedkar debate has resurfaced with Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and The Saint’.
With the lopsided view of Gandhi’s approach to resolving the issue, Roy dubs Gandhi as the saint of status quo. Radical thinkers like Arundhati Roy who fully endorse the standpoints of Ambedkar seem to be influenced by the philosophy of Marx to an extent. Gandhi does not condemn the Varna system which is primarily the division of labour. Now this is the cusp point from where caste distinctions gets converted into class distinctions. Generally speaking, all the upper castes are those which possess land, capital and money; those which have hegemony and engage in social organization and administration. Again, generally speaking, all the lower castes are those that do not have properties even as means of livelihood. They live as labourers and servants. They are subjected to the hegemony and ruling of the upper castes and live in dire poverty and social inferiority. Thus caste struggle has created class struggle.
To understand Gandhi and his attitude towards a discrete society (Gandhi viewed a caste-based society as something like a mosaic; not boringly homogeneous), one must know in which context the apostle of peace didn't condemn demarcations in the Hindu society, but condemned the condescending attitude of the so-called socially higher classes and their perceptions of the people, thought and deemed to be sarvahara (have-nots). Colin Crichton of Capetown University called it Gandhi's all encompassing ambit. Mahatama Gandhi was indeed a traditionalist, but he was also modern in his views. The age-old caste system had a significance but its deterioration and degeneration into something evil and socially uneven was not acceptable to him. Gandhi's caste-based views must be understood and studied holistically, not out of context. In other words, 'Gandhi humanised caste concept' (to quote J B Kriplani). Let the system remain but in a manner that's acceptable to the sanity of human civilization. Somewhere, Ambedkar failed to read Gandhi's saintly mind and he (Ambedkar) conceived a notion about the Father of the Nation from his angle and perspective. Thus, the relevance and role of Gandhi can never be ignored in connection with caste debate in India. Either you love Gandhi, or you hate Gandhi but you can not negate Gandhi.
The writer is Head of the Department of English Language and Linguistics, Dev Samaj College for women, Ferozepur