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Gandhi’s Harijans and Dr. Ambedkar’s Dalits

The term ‘Dalit’ finds no mention in the constitution. In 2008, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes directed all states not to use the term ‘Dalit’ in official documents.


Niraj Krishna

Dalit… It is a word that neither holds a constitutional status nor has permission for its usage. Especially in the media world, there is a discouragement towards using the word ‘Dalit.’ The first recorded use of the term ‘Dalit’ is attributed to J.J. Molesworth, an army officer of the East India Company, in a Marathi-English dictionary in the year 1831. Dr. Ambedkar also later used this term in his speeches. Swami Shraddhanand also used the term ‘Dalit’ between 1921 and 1926.

The term ‘Dalit’ finds no mention in the constitution. In 2008, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes directed all states not to use the term ‘Dalit’ in official documents. Instead, the Indian Constitution uses the term ‘Scheduled Caste’ or ‘Scheduled Tribe.’ The Supreme Court has also declared the term ‘Dalit’ unconstitutional.

It is believed that Mahatma Gandhi first used the term ‘Harijan’ to show respect to the Dalits. However, even before Gandhi, in Pakistan, those who built permanent houses were traditionally referred to as ‘Hari.’ Similarly, in the 1872 Indian census, the term ‘Hari’ was used for the community responsible for cleaning in Bihar-Bengal-Odisha. The total population of this community was approximately 560,000.

In history, the term ‘Hari’ was also used for the illegitimate children of devadasis in the temples of South India. Although the term ‘Harijan’ was used for Hanuman in Tulsidas’s Ramayana. However, the powerful word ‘Harijan’ used for such a revered figure is now considered powerless.

It is true that Gandhi first used the term ‘Harijan’ in 1931 to give proper respect to the Dalits in society. He also published a newspaper named ‘Harijan’ and established the Harijan Sevak Sangh in 1932. In February 1933, while imprisoned in Yerwada Jail, Gandhi published a weekly magazine named ‘Harijan’ where he expressed his views on social and economic issues. Gradually, the term ‘Harijan’ began to be used for those communities in Hindu society that were socially ostracized. From November 7, 1933, to August 2, 1934, during his journey from Wardha to Varanasi, Gandhi opened around six hundred temples for Dalits.

Ambedkar repeatedly expressed objections to the use of the term ‘Harijan’ for Dalits. On January 22, 1938, Ambedkar even staged a walkout from the Bombay Legislative Assembly in protest against the use of the term ‘Harijan’ for Dalits. The word ‘Harijan’ has been completely eliminated for all practical, political, and legal purposes.

Regarding self-rule, which the Congress is advocating, it will only mean replacing the dominance of the British with the dominance of the Hindus over the country. Scheduled Castes should not allow this to happen. They should ensure that they have been granted all rights so that they too can be free in independent India. – Dr. Ambedkar (February 1946 in Bombay)

On January 26, 1950, the birth of the world’s largest democracy took place when its birth certificate came into effect. Many framers of the constitution had witnessed the effects of British atrocities during the struggle for independence. Therefore, they understood the importance of creating a stable and lasting democracy that is self-reliant. They exercised great caution in creating a constitution that is centered around independence, accountability, fundamental rights, secularism, and democratic ideals.

When we adopted the constitutional republic in 1950, socially, economically, politically, educationally, and religiously marginalized people were granted fundamental and specific rights. Under Article 335, they were given representation in government and public sector jobs. They were granted concessions for admission to educational institutions.

The harsh reality of India’s 76 years of independence is that there is such deep-seated discrimination against Dalits in Indian society that even a child is not spared from its grasp. Since independence, the dominance of the majority Hindus has persisted in Indian society. Hindu religious texts provide a religious basis for untouchability. Perhaps this is why, despite the abolition of untouchability by the Indian Constitution 76 years ago, it is still very much alive today.

In the sixth century BC, starting with Buddha and continuing thereafter, many individuals in history have always been working to break and destroy the caste system. Among them, prominent figures were leaders like Mahatma Jyotiba Phule during the medieval period and leaders like Periyar E.V. Ramaswami and others during the 19th century as part of the Bhakti movement. The modern Dalit movement draws its intellectual inspiration from one of India’s greatest public intellectuals, Dr. Ambedkar, who aimed to annihilate caste for a civilized India.

Dalits, formerly known as “Harijans” or the untouchables, occupy the lowest rung of the Indian caste system. They have faced social discrimination, economic exploitation, and violence for centuries. Despite constitutional safeguards and affirmative action policies, the plight of Dalits remains similar in contemporary India. The term “Dalit” came into current usage in the 19th century when a Marathi social reformer and revolutionary, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, used it to describe the oppressed and broken people as victims of our caste.

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were discontented with the contemporary social conditions and environment. While both aimed to reconstruct society, their perspectives and methods differed due to the complexities and solutions they envisioned.

Gandhi was a strong supporter of the caste system. He believed that the caste system was beneficial for society, promoting division of labor and specialization. However, Ambedkar vehemently criticized the caste system, considering it unscientific, inhumane, undemocratic, immoral, and unjust. According to Ambedkar, the caste system was a discriminatory and exploitative social scheme.

Gandhi believed that untouchability was not an inherent part of the caste system. He argued that untouchability was an external distortion of the caste system and advocated for constructive changes within the system. On the other hand, Ambedkar argued that untouchability was an inevitable outcome of the caste system. He believed that eradicating untouchability was not possible without the complete annihilation of the caste system.

Gandhi proposed idealistic and long-term measures to eliminate untouchability, emphasizing moral and ethical transformation. In contrast, Ambedkar advocated for practical, immediate, and concrete measures to address the issue of untouchability. According to Ambedkar, untouchability could only be eradicated through the radical reconstruction of the social order and the conversion of Dalits to other religions.

In summary, Gandhi and Ambedkar, despite sharing a desire to create a new society, had different perspectives and approaches regarding the caste system and untouchability. Gandhi leaned towards preserving the caste system with reforms, while Ambedkar advocated for its complete destruction through immediate and concrete measures.

The deep conflict between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of caste is evident. This conflict was not trivial; it was rather intense. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were advocates of a social system in which there were greater opportunities for individuals to develop their inherent abilities. In this regard, both were against the caste system. However, their perspectives differed.

Gandhi believed that the caste system led to the creation of notions of superiority and inferiority. According to him, not only Dalits but also the privileged castes suffered under this system. On the other hand, Ambedkar vehemently disagreed with Gandhi’s views. He did not accept that the privileged Hindus were also victims of the caste system. Ambedkar argued that the caste system was deeply ingrained in Indian society, affecting every aspect of life.

Ambedkar asserted that unless the state actively took steps to eliminate caste-based discrimination, the caste system would persist. Therefore, he sought to engage in political efforts with both the British government and the post-independence Indian state to address caste-related issues. He applied pressure on the government to take necessary measures to eradicate caste-based discrimination.

From 1850 to 1936, the British government referred to them derogatorily as “Depressed Classes.” From 1930 to 1947, Ambedkar’s political stance was based on the idea that the Scheduled Castes were a distinct, independent class separate from Hindus and constituted a political minority within themselves. He argued that Scheduled Castes were not integral parts of Hindu society, despite worshipping the same gods.

Ambedkar, as the representative of the Scheduled Castes, laid down conditions before the British government to become a part of an independent India. These conditions formed the basis for the Scheduled Castes becoming an integral part of independent India, the third-largest community in an undivided India.

Initially referred to as “Untouchables,” Gandhi later called them “Harijans,” and now, in official records, they are recognized as Scheduled Castes/Tribes. Including around two crore Dalit Christians and ten crore Dalit Muslims, the Dalit population in the country amounts to 32 crores, constituting one-fourth of the total population. The Bombay High Court has even suggested considering a directive to the central government to restrain the media from using the term “Dalit.”

In villages, Dalits still predominantly comprise landless laborers and marginal farmers. They often lack substantial agricultural land, and even the small plots they own are subjected to encroachment. According to a study conducted in the 1990s, when liberal economic policies were implemented, they disproportionately affected Dalits, worsening their economic conditions.

Over the past seven decades, the second and third generations of Dalits have been achieving new heights of progress. In many cases, reservations are no longer deemed necessary for them. In countries like the United States, a significant population of Dalit immigrants thrives. While a section of Dalits has made considerable progress, the majority still grapples with socio-economic conditions reminiscent of a century ago. The reservation policy seems to primarily benefit those who have already advanced through its provisions. Ambedkar envisioned that Dalits who progressed due to reservations would assist others from their community in escaping the socio-economic oppression. However, the reality is that the prosperous segment among Dalits is increasingly identifying itself as socially elevated within the Dalit community.

Modern capitalism and authoritarian governance have dealt severe blows to India’s caste system. Nevertheless, Dalits have been kept as the fundamental building blocks of this system to ensure its survival. Despite the attacks on the caste system by capitalism and authoritarian rule, Dalits have been preserved like the foundational bricks, safeguarded to maintain the caste system’s vitality. The Indian Constitution, by utilizing Dalits, has also sustained the caste system, ensuring its continued existence.



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