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Gandhi's Little-Known Critique of Varna Author(s): Anil Nauriya Reviewed work(s): Source: Economic and Political

Gandhi's Little-Known Critique of Varna Author(s): Anil Nauriya Reviewed work(s):

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 41, No. 19 (May 13-19, 2006), pp. 1835-1838 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly

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forms representedby

Nagaraj of the



Vedike(Kannada protectionforum) which have more often than not come to be

associatedwith narrow, chauvinistic agen-




Kannada Chaluvaligars








opposed untouchability

bodies like the KannadaRakshana

Unsurprisingly,they haven't made


Gandhi'scritics had argued at the timethathe was

out his campaignsagainst untouchability, that it would go

only whencaste was destroyed. It is not

Gandhimovedto this position in the mid-1940s.It is also

generally understoodthatwhile Gandhi

and criticised caste, he defended 'varnavyavastha', the fourfold varnaorder. Thisis not entirely correctover the entire Gandhian

trajectory. Gandhi'sown critiqueof the varna order, which unfurledover time, is usually overlooked by scholars.

headway. Rajkumar's fans'association (Rajkumar

AbhimanigalaSangha) toowasleftrudder-

less in the absenceof a

broader agenda.

Thefanswere relegated to merely assem-

bling and showing their prowess on the

streetsandat meetings inwhichtheirleader

participated or wherehe was the subject,

like the opening of films in which

was the hero.No doubttherewere innu-

merableadmirersand acolytes from all

classes, but the fans in the


a specificcongregation of thosefromthe

economicallyless-privileged sectionswith



up anger at being



Absence of a Movement

If Kannadanationalistic aspirations had


ment, the fans would have transformed intoits cadre.Butin the absenceof such

a movement, Rajkumar himselfas well as

the narrowcauses he

theirwar cry. The fans' activerole in the

early 1990s agitation over the Cauvery

interim award and later the street

protestsagainst his kidnapby the brigand

Veerappan were two clear thismindset.

major move-





If one


through the severalinter-


Later, in 1927, Gandhi declared that "if varnashrama goes to the dogs in the re- moval of untouchability, I shall not shed

a tear."7

He knew the struggle against old in- grained practices would be long Let us fight untouchability, he says open- endedly, and we'll cross the other bridge later. In February 1933, he gave what he then saw as practical reasons: "At the present moment, it is the 'untouchable', the outcaste, with whom all Hindu refor- mers, whether they believe in varnashrama

or not, have agreed to deal. The opposition

to untouchability

Therefore, the present joint fight is re- strictedto the removal of untouchability

It is highly likely that at the end of it we

shall all find that there is nothing to fight

against in varnashrama. If, however, varnashramaeven thenlooks an ugly thing, the whole of Hindu society will fight it At the end of the chapter, I hope that we shall all find ourselves in the same camp. Should it prove otherwise, it will be time enough to consider how and by whom varnashramais to be fought."8 Gandhi's


synchronise with Ambedkar's. But it is clearthatGandhidid not,even atthis stage, rule out a later struggle against the four- fold varna order.

andhihad saidto Sri Lankansin

1927 that if India could take pride

"in having sent you Mahinda and the message of the Buddha to this land, it has also to accept the humiliation of having sent you the curse of caste distinctions."' By the early 1930s, Gandhi had declared that caste, that is, the endo-

gamous sociological category, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands, was "a handicap on progress"2 and "a social evil"3 and, by the 1940s, thatit was "an anachronism"4which "must go".5 Since Gandhi distinguished the caste system from 'chaturvarna', the scriptural


hereditary occupational divisions, his still unfolding critique of the fourfold order has often been overlooked. This critique is ignored especially bycontemporaryscholars,partly

is common

to both.




views of Rajkumar in recent years, it is

clearheneversawhimselfasa leaderwho

couldtakeforwardtheidealsoftheKannada perhaps because

nationalists.He merelyexpressed hislove

forthe language anditsculturebutrefused

to recognise

leaderwho could influenceKarnataka's

politics in a big way. His followers,how-

ever, stillretainedsome

wouldone day step into the dust and

publicspace. Their hopes

were in vain.


the traditionalist




nature of

deals. Such oversight is unfairto Gandhi's dalit critics as well as to his dalit sup-

porters; for his interaction with both - exemplified by B R Ambedkar and Jagjivan Ram - had no doubt contri- buted to the evolution of Gandhi's positions. Gandhi incrementally unfurled a cri- tique of the fourfold varna order, taking the concept of such an order in the end, by the mid-1940s, to vanishing point. Even in the early years, while defending the fourfold order, Gandhi said that it was not observed in his own circle: "In the ashram, however, from the beginning, it has been our rule not to observe the varnavyavastha because the position of the ashram is different from that of the society outside."6

the concepts

his own transcendenceas a

optimism thathe

outof his homestead

grime of the politco-

did not,




Rajkumar's deathseems to have dealt

a final blow to any hopes of the local

nationalists emerging as an

political force.Withtheirmascot gone, the

violence and mayhem witnessedon the


interpreted as a final show of protest, defianceand expression of frustrationat the loss of a dream.[E


of his death and burial could be


First Salvo


In April 1933, Gandhi declared on the basis of some authoritativetexts thatvarna could not be perpetuated or determined merely by birth. He argues: "These and numerous other verses from the shastras unmistakeably show thatmerebirthcounts for nothing."9 This formulation was Gandhi's first salvo attackon the concept

Economicand Political Weekly

May 13, 2006


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of vama. It did not repudiate birth as a criterion for vara; yet it took away the conclusive element attached to birth From now onwards it is inaccurate and erroneous to say merely that Gandhi defended the fourfold varna order or varavyavastha. During Gandhi's all-Indiaanti-untouch- ability tour of 1933-34, he was opposed virulently by Hindu orthodoxy. His car was stoned in Bihar. In Benaras he was met with black flags. There was an attempt on his life in Pune. A lethal bomb was hurled and several persons were injured. Pune was the heartland of Hindutva op- position to Gandhi. It was one of the cities which nurtured his future assassin. In October 1933, before launching out on the tour, Gandhi said that the Jains must vehemently stress the fact that their religion knows no varnashramadharma. "They must emphatically tell the people that untouchability and the present- day varnadharma have no place in Jainism, afterfirst convincing themselves about it."0l These are clearly not the words of one who is smug about the varna system.

He could not accept, he said in 1934, that in his religion "there should be a single human being considered lower than my- self."1 In 1935, Gandhi described the


dining imposed in relation to the varna system as "cruel."'12 He hadstood especially forthe 'bhangis', consideredtheweakest sectionof thedalits. He was thereforeconscious of hierarchies among dalits themselves. The scheduled castes, he said in 1937, "cannot be ex-

pected to appreciate and accept ex-cathe-

dra usages

restrictions on inter-marriage and

that discriminate


savamas and avarnas and between the different groups among the avamas them- selves, as these smackofinvidiousness and offend against reason."13

In 1945, Gandhi's positions against the


emphatic. He discards some previous for- mulations, including those on hereditary occupations. In a new forewordto an older

Gujaratilanguage compilation of articles on the subject, he invites the reader "to discard anything in this book which may appear to him incompatible"14 with his







He looks


this aspect of the Gita, saying now that:

But there


or untouchables.I

have no doubt about the truthof what I

say. If I can bring roundtheHindu society

all our internal quarrels will

to my view,

varna today,

prevails only


thatis of shudras, or you

'shudras', or


may call


come to an end.15 The thought recurs, being sometimes formulated not descriptively but norma- tively, expressing the view thatthis single category situation should be made to

prevail. Interestingly, it is in 1945 that Gandhi says, in reversal of his earlier understand- ing that untouchability could be fought from caste and the fourfold

separately order, that "castes must go if we


want to root out untouchability".16 Thus he had now veered round to Ambedkar's

line on this question.

One Varna Idea

Meanwhile, persistent withtheone varna idea, Gandhi observed in April 1946: "I have of late been saying that the Hindus


to become ati-shudras not merely in



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name but in thought, word and deed.17 Returning to the theme the following month in Mussoorie, he burns the con- ceptual candle at both ends. For now the notion of repudiating one's varna enters Gandhi's mind:

I myself havebecomea harijanby choice

A harijanby birth mayrepudiate his varna

but how can I who have become a harijan

by choice? I have not hesitatedto suggest

to caste Hindus that today they have all

to become ati-shudras,

if the canker of

caste feeling is to be eradicated from

not to perish

from the face of the earth.18 And again in New Delhi: "If the caste Hindus would become bhangis of their own free will, the distinction between harijans andcaste Hindus would automati- cally disappear. There are various divi-

sions amongst the harijans too. They should all go. All should be of one caste, that is,

the bhangi."19

Hinduismand Hinduismis

Speaking in July 1946, he encouraged

marriages between

"Finally therewill be only one caste, known by the beautifulname bhangi, thatis to say, the reformeror remover of all dirt. Let us all pray that such a happy day will dawn soon."2? Thus by 1945-46 Gandhi had denuded the conceptual category of varna

implied in the Gita, both of its sociological implication andof its original connotation of fixed classes of humanity determined by birthand distinguished by four catego- ries of occupations. Gandhi's penultimate blows to the varna concept were delivered in February 1947.

turnedthe category of varna upon

itself by removing the foundation of the edifice of varna distinctions. Saying that caste must go if Hinduism is to survive, he went on: "There was room for varna, as a duty." According to him: "This was trueof all religions whether the name used was other than varna.What was a Muslim 'maulvi' or a Christian priest but a brahminif he taught his flock its true duty,

He now


and others:

not for money but because he possessed


trueofthe otherdivisions."21 Significantly,

the position of a maulvi in Islamic society does not indicate any inherent

superiority and does not necessarily pass hereditarily.

the idea of

hereditary occupations essence of the fourfold varna order was

which was the

gift of interpretation? And this was

On the same occasion,

laidto rest by Gandhi.Asked if he favoured inter-caste marriages and whether the



reiterated his long-standing position in









favour of inter-caste marriages and pro- ceeded to say:

The question didnotarisewhenallbecame casteless.Whenthis happy eventtook place, monopoly of occupations would go.22 In a letter written around May 15, 1947

Gandhi observes in appreciation of Gautama Buddha that he "knew no caste and stood for perfect toleration".23

On Terminology

In 1927 and 1931 Gandhi had referred

to the word "dalit"and even used it, while

saying that the state to which it referred

was so obnoxious that any word to de- scribe it would be rejected after a while. He wrote that "dalit" was used "quite rightly" because the people to whom it referred were not "depressed" but "sup- pressed"; and "they became, and remain, what they arebecause they were suppressed by the so-called upper classes".24 Evi- dently, he would not have been surprised

at his preferred term 'harijan' now fading

out of use. Gandhi knew the struggle was also political. Many dalits went to prison in Gandhi's campaigns against British rule. To them, Gandhi was the liberator and alien rule the established ally of theirlocal oppressors. Social and economic oppres- sion wereconnectedandthecolonial regime was upholding a highly inequitable land system which had contributed to the assetlessness of the dalits. As indepen- dence dawned, Gandhi spoke aloud about the "rule of the bhangis"25 and of a dalit girl becoming president of India, indeed the first president.26 In June 1947 Gandhi told the All India Congress Committee which was meeting in Delhi to discuss the partition of India:

you do away with the distinctionof

savarna and avarna, if you treat the

shudras,theuntouchablesandtheadivasis as equals then somethinggood will have


come out of a bad

oppress themand oppress those following other faiths then it will mean that we do not want Indiato survive, thatwe areout to destroy it.27

Understandably, a leading socialist had observed in 1950 that Gandhi's assassination was an episode not merely in the Hindu-Muslim context; it was equally

a result of the "bitterness" accumulating

from his blows

"against caste and for

woman". Gandhi's trajectory has been the subject of this essay. He was conscious of the vital need to take society with him, for merely


if we

Economic and Political Weekly

May 13, 2006

taking an advanced position without hav- ing an impact on society held no attraction for him. He had told a questioner: "It is one thing for me to hold certain views and quite anotherto make my views acceptable in their entirety to society at large. My mind, I hope, is ever growing, ever moving forward. All may not keep pace with it. I have therefore to exercise utmost pa- tience and be satisfied with hastening


His approach and method were well understood by many of his contemporar- ies. The famous atheist, G Ramachandra Rao, "Gora", for example, summed up in 1950:

This attitudeand methodof Gandhiji can

be seen in his answersto questions at the

meeting of

on August 14, 1945. Whenhe firstunder-

took to remove untouchability, the prob- lem of varna-dharma (caste system) was

also there.Itwas easy to see intellectually,

even then, thatcaste ought to go branchif untouchability was to eradicated.Butasa



lem then. The problem was only the re- moval of untouchability. So he allowed caste to continue, though personally he observed no caste even then. Thus the work of the removal of untouchability progressedthrough the earlystage,leaving the contradictions of the caste system untouched, and, therefore, without the

complication of opposition fromthosewho would resist the abolitionof caste. When


stage wasaserioushindranceforfurther progress,

Gandhiji said thatcaste ought to go root

and branchand proposed not only inter-

dining but inter-marriages as the

A mere intellectual might read inconsis-

in Gandhiji's toleranceof casteearlier


and his denunciationof it later.But to a

practical man of non-violent creed these

are stages of

of contradiction.29

progress and not principles

the Harijan Sevak Sangh held

root and

be com-


caste was not the immediate prob-

had come where he found caste


Gandhi's positions against untoucha- bility and caste were direct assaults and may be compared with Luther's attacks on the church. On the fourfold order he moved more cautiously, somewhat like Erasmus. Yet it is difficult to understand why Gandhi's critique of the fourfold order is now so little known. This omission from

scholarship at large is significant, as his earlier statements on the fourfold order

have become, in writings on the subject especially since the 1980s,a primaryground for criticism of Gandhi's position. lS3



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[The referencestotheCollectedWorks ofMahatma

Gandhi (CW) published by the division, ministry of informationand



government of India, New Delhi (1958-1994) are

to the original or standard edition.]

1 Speech atColombo,November 25, 1927;CW, Vol 35, p 318.


3 Letterto SureshChandra Banerji, October10,

2 YoungIndia, June 4, 1931;CW, Vol 46, p

1932; CW, Vol 51, p 219.


The BombayChronicle, April 17, 1945; CW,

Vol 79, p 384.


5 Letterto Shyamlal,July 23, 1945; CW, Vol p 25.

6 Letterto Khushalchand Gandhi, August


1918; CW, Supplementary Vol VII, p 27.

7 YoungIndia,November 24, 1927;CW,Vol 35, pp 522-23.

8 Harijan,February11, 1933;CW,Vol53,p 261.

9 Harijan, Apri115,1933;CW,Vol54,pp410-11.


correspondents, beforeOctober 8,

1933,CW,Vol 56, p69; andLetterto Haribhau

Upadhyaya, October 8, 1933, CW, Supple- mentary Vol V, p 86.

Speech at Palluruthy,January18, 1934; CW,

Vol 57, p 12.

12 'Caste Has To Go', Harijan, November 16,

1935; CW, Vol 62, p 122.

13 Harijan,February20,1937;CW,Vol64, p 317.

Forewordto (new edition of)

May 31, 1945; CW, Vol 80, p 224.


15 Ibid, CW, Vol 80, p 223.

16 Letterto Shyamlal,July23,1945; CW,Vol 81,

p 25.

17 Harijan,April 14, 1946; CW, Vol 83, p

18 Speech at PrayerMeeting,May31,1946; Vol 84, p 247.




Harijan, June 23, 1946; CW, Vol 84, p 334.

20 Harijan,July 7,1946; CW, Vol 84, pp 388-89.

21 Harijan, March 16, 1947;CW, Vol 86, p 484.

23 Letter,After May15,1947;CW, Supplementary Vol V, p 137.

24 Navajivan,March27,1927,CW, Vol 33,p




and Navajivan, June 7, 1931, CW, Vol 46,


25 Speech at PrayerMeeting, June 1, 1947;CW,

Vol 88, p 55.

26 Speech at PrayerMeeting, June 2, 1947, CW,

Vol 88, p 63.

27 Speech at AICC Meeting, June 14, 1947;CW,

Vol 88, p 156.

Gora (G

28 Talk with Membersof Harijan Sevak Sangh,

July 20, 1946, CW, Vol 85,

Ramachandra Rao), An Atheist with




Ahmedabad,1951, p 57.










The agrarian crisis is pushing farmers into distress and ultimately to suicides. It is argued that the cumulative effect of a number offactors is responsible for the present agrarian crisis. These factors, categorised as technological, ecological,

socio-cultural and policy-related,

are discussed here.


armers' suicides have become a regularphenomenon andcannotbe brushedasideasaneventassociated

with drought or other naturaldisasters.

monsoonthis year, farmers'

Despite a good

suicidescontinueto occurin one stateor theother.InsomestateslikeAndhra Pradesh,

they are occurringregularly forthe past

yearsirrespective of

though drought has aggravated the

numbers.Numberof studieshavetriedto examineandunderstandthe problem. Most

of these studies have,

householdindebtednessasthemainreason forthesuicides.Whileindebtednessis the


therainfall situation,



factor driving farmerstowards suicide, the

factors that are responsible for indebted-


approaches towards mitigating the end

(indebtedness) are proving

tive. Unless the means (factors leading to indebtedness) are understood and cor- rected, the distress is likely to continue. Suicides are the result of the

deep-rooted agrarian and rural distress rather than a temporary phenomenon associated with institutionalcredit orrainfall.The increas- ingly regular incidence of suicides across

the states points towarda brewing agrarian crisis in the country over the past decade.

Agriculture is becoming increasingly an unviable proposition irrespective of

are less

understood. As

a result,

to be ineffec-

rainfall pattern. This is very well reflected inthedatafromtheNational Sample Survey Organisation's 59th round, which reveals

that a third of the farmers indicated that

farming is not profitable and another 40

per cent of the farmersare ready to give

farming in favour of a job. On the whole,

70 per cent of the farmers are frustrated

with their profession

Prabhu 2005]. The contributionof agriculture is declin-

ing at a faster pace than the population

depending on it. While agriculture's share in GDP is 25 per cent, 58 per cent of the

population still depends on agriculture.

Agriculture recorded the lowest growth rateof 1.86 per cent per annum during the

last decade (1995-96 to 2003-04) as

against 3.33 per cent during the earlier

period. The valueadditionfrom agriculture

has also recordedthe lowest during the last

decade. The decline is much sharper in per

capita terms.Growthin per workerincome in agriculture has declined from 1.16 per cent (1988-89 to 1993-94) to 0.28 per cent (1998-99 to 2003-04) during the last de- cade. On the contrary,per workerincome from non-agriculture sector has gone up

cent during

from 3.31 per cent to 4.30 per

the same period [Chand2006]. Here an attempt is made to identify main drivers of the agrarian crisis that

pushing the farmers into distress and ul- timately leading to suicides. It is argued

that aggregate and cumulative effect of a number of factors is responsible for the present agrarian crisis. For the sake of simplicity these factors are categorised underfour groups, namely, technological,


related. However, these categories are not watertight compartments, as some of the factors are inter-connected. In what fol-

lows, we discuss these factors in detail, without attachingany orderof importance.


[Deshpande and




and policy-



critical for improving


technology in the late 1960s has helped

improving land productivity in the

irrigatedregions. Land productivities in




mainly due to the limits of the

problems associated with high input-intensive agri- culture. This has also resulted in the shift

towards marginal lands in these regions. Thoughtheneed for improving the produc- tivity in dry land regions was recognised

itself and the environmental



land productivity. The


regions have saturated during the







1990s after


than two


Economic and Political Weekly

May 13, 2006

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