Why do India's Dalits hate Gandhi?
By Thomas C. Mountain
Online Journal Contributing Writer
In India, supposedly the world's largest democracy, the leadership of the rapidly growing Dalit movement have nothing good to say about Mohandas K. Gandhi. To be honest, Gandhi is actually one of the most hated Indian leaders in the hierarchy of those considered enemies of India's Dalits or "untouchables" by the leadership of India's Dalits.
Many have questioned how could I dare say such a thing? In reply I urge people outside of India to try and keep in mind my role as the messenger in this matter. I am the publisher of the Ambedkar Journal, founded in 1996, which was the first publication on the Internet to address the Dalit question from the Dalits' viewpoint. My co-editor is M. Gopinath, who includes in his c.v. being managing editor of the Dalit Voice newspaper and then going on to found Times of Bahujan, national newspaper of the Bahujan Samaj Party, India's Dalit party and India's youngest and third largest national. The founding president of the Ambedkar Journal was Dr. Velu Annamalai, the first Dalit in history to achieve a Ph.d in Engineering. My work with the Dalit movement in India started in 1991 and I have been serving as one of the messengers to those outside of India from the Dalit leaders who are in the very rapid process of organizing India's Dalits into a national movement. The Dalit leadership I work with received many tens of millions of votes in the last national election in India.
With that out of the way, lets get back to the 850 million-person question, why do Dalits hate M.K. Gandhi?
To start, Gandhi was a so-called "high caste". High castes represent at small minority in India, some 10-15 percent of the population, yet dominate Indian society in much the same way whites ruled South Africa during the official period of Apartheid. Dalits often use the phrase Apartheid in India when speaking about their problems.
The Indian Constitution was authored by Gandhi's main critic and political opponent, Dr. Ambedkar, for whom our journal is named and the first Dalit in history to receive an education (if you have never heard of Dr. Ambedkar I would urge you to try and keep an open mind about what I am saying for it is a bit like me talking to you about the founding of the USA when you have never heard of Thomas Jefferson).
Most readers are familiar with Gandhi's great hunger strike against the so called Poona Pact in 1933. The matter which Gandhi was protesting, nearly unto death at that, was the inclusion in the draft Indian Constitution, proposed by the British, that reserved the right of Dalits to elect their own leaders. Dr. Ambedkar, with his degree in law from Cambridge, had been chosen by the British to write the new constitution for India. Having spent his life overcoming caste-based discrimination, Dr. Ambedkar had come to the conclusion that the only way Dalits could improve their lives is if they had the exclusive right to vote for their leaders, that a portion or reserved section of all elected positions were only for Dalits and only Dalits could vote for these reserved positions.
Gandhi was determined to prevent this and went on hunger strike to change this article in the draft constitution. After many communal riots, where tens of thousands of Dalits were slaughtered, and with a leap in such violence predicted if Gandhi died, Dr. Ambedkar agreed, with Gandhi on his death bed, to give up the Dalits right to exclusively elect their own leaders and Gandhi ended his hunger strike.
Later, on his own death bed, Dr. Ambedkar would say this was the biggest mistake in his life, that if he had to do it all over again, he would refuse to give up Dalit only representation, even if it meant Gandhi's death.
As history has shown, life for the overwhelming majority of Dalits in India has changed little since the arrival of Indian independence over 50 years ago. The laws written into the Indian Constitution by Dr. Ambedkar, many patterned after the laws introduced into the former Confederate or slave states in the USA during reconstruction after the Civil War to protect the freed black Americans, have never been enforced by the high caste dominated Indian court system and legislatures. A tiny fraction of the "quotas" or reservations for Dalits in education and government jobs have been filled. Dalits are still discriminated against in all aspect of life in India's 650,000 villages, despite laws specifically outlawing such acts. Dalits are the victims of economic embargos, denial of basic human rights such as access to drinking water, use of public facilities and education and even entry to Hindu temples.
To this day, most Indians still believe, and this includes a majority of Dalits, that Dalits are being punished by God for sins in a previous life. Under the religious codes of Hinduism, a Dalit's only hope is to be a good servant of the high castes and upon death and rebirth they will be reincarnated in a high caste. This is called varna in Sanskrit, the language of the original Aryans who imposed Hinduism on India beginning some 3,500 years ago. Interestingly, the word "varna" translates literally into the word "color" from Sanskrit.
This is one of the golden rules of Dalit liberation, that varna means color, and that Hinduism is a form of racially based oppression and as such is the equivalent of Apartheid in India. Dalits feel that if they had the right to elect their own leaders they would have been able to start challenging the domination of the high castes in Indian society and would have begun the long walk to freedom so to speak. They blame Gandhi and his hunger strike for preventing this.
So there it is, in as few words as possible, why in today's India the leaders of India's Dalits hate M.K. Gandhi.
This is, of course, an oversimplification. India's social problems remain the most pressing in the world and a few paragraphs are not going to really explain matters to anyone's satisfaction. The word Dalit and the movement of a crushed and broken people, the "untouchables" of India, are just beginning to become known to most of the people concerned about human rights in the world. As Dalits organize themselves and begin to challenge caste-based rule in India, it behooves all people of good conscience to start to find out what the Dalits and their leadership are fighting for. A good place to start is with M.K. Gandhi and why he is so hated by Dalits in India.
Thomas C. Mountain is the publisher of the Ambedkar Journal on India's Dalits, founded in 1996. His writing has been featured in Dalit publications across India, including the Dalit Voice and the Times of Bahujan as well as on the front pages of the mainstream, high caste owned, Indian press. He would recommend viewing of the film "Bandit Queen" as the best example of life for women and Dalits in India's villages, which is the story of the life of the late, brutally murdered, Phoolan Devi, of whose international defense committee Thomas C. Mountain was a founding member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.