A Note on "Gandhi and His Fast"

Ahana Mondal

The article, 'Gandhi and His Fast' comprises four parts - 1.Poona Pact 2. Harijan Sevak Sangh 3. Temples and Untouchables 4. The Gandhian Way.


The first part of the article deals with the episode of the Poona Pact, and how the dispute over the communal question lead to the Poona Pact. The problem was raised as the majority and minority communities failed to come to an agreement. The minorities in India clamoured for special representation in legislatures for securing their rights. But Mr. Gandhi was not ready to agree to such a proposal, except in the case of the Muslims and the Sikhs. Mr. Gandhi accused the Indian delegates of being unrepresentative, irresponsible, and creating disunity in the meeting as the puppet of the British Government's hand. It was declared that Mr. Gandhi was the person whose intervention was enough to settle the dispute. But according to Ambedkar, the failure of the Round Table Conference was entirely caused by Mr. Gandhi. According to Ambedkar, as a representative, Gandhi was 'ignorant' and 'tactless' enough for being in a conference which was convened to forge a constitution. He was ignorant of constitutional law or Finance and did not believe in intellectual equipment. He even annoyed the delegates by repeatedly bragging about himself and insulting them for being of no use.

The Prime Minister's decision on the communal question was announced on 17th August 1932. It was made clear that if the communities failed to agree, along with all parties' consent, the work of the formation of a new constitution would not be completed. On 19th March, it was declared that if at least some problems regarding the position of the minorities under the new constitution, the progress can't be made with the framing of the Constitution. It was stated that the members of the Depressed class would get special representation in the Legislature, but the voters of the special constituencies would also be able to vote in a general constituency. These special constituencies would be formed in selected areas where the depressed classes were most numerous. It was also stated that as in Bengal Province, in general constituencies, a majority of the voters will belong to the Depressed Classes. So, the Depressed Classes should obtain not less than 10 seats in West Bengal Legislature. It was also stated that the Depressed Classes would get special representation for a limited time. It would come to an end after 20 years.

(In pic: Dr. Ambedkar with Bar. Jayakar, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru and others at Yerwada, Pune, prison after signing the 'Poona Pact' that saved Mohandas K. Gandhi's life. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


But Mr. Gandhi was unable to agree with the special representation of the untouchables in the Legislature and decided to resist it with his own life. On 11th March 1932, Mr. Gandhi addressed a letter to the then Secretary of State for India, Dr. Samuel Hoare. In the letter, he strongly opposed special representation of the untouchables in the legislature stating that their case was different from other minority communities. A separate electorate for the untouchables would be harmful for Hinduism as it would vivisect and disrupt the religion. According to Gandhi, the caste Hindus suppressed the Untouchables for centuries, but, Separate Electorate was not the remedy, and made it clear that he would fast unto death to resist the decision. On 13th April 1932, Gandhi was replied to by Samuel Hoare. He was told that they had not decided yet, as they were waiting for Lord Lithium's committee's report. Before arriving at a final decision they would take into account the views that have been expressed on both sides of the controversy. In reply Gandhi let them know that he would resist the decision with his life, and as a man of religion, he had no other option left open to him.

On 8th September 1932, the Prime Minister explained the Government's decision in a letter to Gandhi. In the letter, he explained that under the Government Scheme the Depressed Classes would remain part of the Hindu Community and would vote with the Hindu Electorate along with Separate Electorate. But they would get Special Constituencies to safeguard their rights and interests. It was also stated that the Depressed Classes' constituencies would get a small number of seats, compared to the other minorities. And hence, the decision of the Government remained unchanged. As a result, Mr. Gandhi's decision of fasting unto death too remained unchanged.

It was now on Mr. Ambedkar to save Gandhi's life. He had two alternatives - 1. Saving the political right of the Untouchables' which the Prime Minister had given to them. 2. Saving Mr. Gandhi's life by agreeing to alter the communal award in a manner satisfactory to Mr. Gandhi. This agreement is known as the Poona Pact.

The elections took place in February of 1937. The analysis of the results of the election reveals certain facts that make one ask whether the Untouchables got anything of any value by entering the Poona Pact saving the life of Mr. Gandhi. According to Ambedkar, a large majority of the Untouchables were elected as Congressmen and thus they became bondsmen of them. The Untouchables had to carry out movements. A movement of the untouchables meant an open war upon the caste Hindus. And it was impossible to carry out such movements while being in Congress as Congress would not allow it for their own safety. The Untouchables who joined the Congress were forbidden to carry out any independent movement.

The Untouchables had to have freedom of speech and freedom of action on the floor of the legislature to obtain their right. But, they lost their freedom of speech and action. They could not ask a question, make a resolution, or bring forward a bill. In some instances, they had to vote against a bill that was brought for their rights. They could not secure any real benefit to the Untouchables as Congress was not a radical party, rather a revolutionary party. A party's being radical depends upon the social and emotional realities which bring on or include the revolutionary activity. Congress had a large mass following them, but by appealing to their anti-British feelings. And they themselves were frustrated with power. They were from socially advanced and propertied classes. According to Ambedkar, "Their achievement since they have taken over are just a miscellaneous collection of trifling trinkets. They have shot down the workers more readily than the British and have released criminals sentenced by the High Curtain on no other ground than they have the authority to do it." As they were not radical, they didn't carry out radical programmes of social and economic reconstruction which were required for the Untouchables to improve their situation.

Secondly, The Congress would so something for the Untouchables, but only when they were dependent upon them. But when Congress had such majority everywhere that they themselves were the masters everywhere and did not have to depend upon them.

One question that arose was if these were the consequences of joining the Congress, why did these Untouchables join it? Many said that it was because they were opportunist. But according to Ambedkar it was due to the mischief which was introduced by Poona Pact. According to him, "A joint electorate for a small minority and a vast majority is bound to result in a disaster. If a seat is reserved for a minority , a majority can always pick up a person belonging to the minority and put him up as a candidate for the reserved seat as against a candidate put up by the minorities and get him elected by helping its nominee with the superfluous voting strength they had. Thus the minorities became the slave of the majority.

The Poona Pact was concluded in a hurry. As a result many things remained undefined - 1. If the Panel of Four to be elected at the primary election imply four as a maximum or a minimum. 2. What was to be the method of voting? In case of the seat number, the Caste Hindus contended that the number four was minimum. If four members were not forthcoming there could be no primary election and there could be election for the reserved seat, which they said must remain vacant and the untouchables should go without representation. The untouchables contended that four was maximum. On the question of voting process the caste Hindus wanted Compulsory Distributive Vote, when on the other hand, The Untouchables wanted Cumulative System of voting. The Hammond Committee accepted the view proposed by the Untouchables and rejected those of the Caste Hindus. According to Ambedkar, the Hindus wanted four in the Panel and not less for obvious reasons. They aimed at getting such a representative elected in the final election, who would be most ready to compromise.

A most compromising member could come into the Panel when the Panel was large. If there was only one candidate in the Panel, he would be the staunchest representative of the untouchables and worst from the standpoint of the Hindus. So, they insisted that the Panel should be of four.

Dr. Ambedkar contended that the Compulsory Distributive Vote was a supplementary to the Panel of not less than four. In Cumulative Vote, the elector had as many votes as there are seats, but might give all the votes to one person and in Compulsory Distributive Vote, one could give one vote to one person. The main aim of the Caste Hindus was to get the nominee of their choice to be elected by using the surplus votes of the Caste Hindus, and preventing the Untouchables to get their own nominee elected. This could only happen when the surplus vote of the Caste Hindus would be drawn from the Hindu Candidate towards the Untouchable candidate.

Mr. Ambedkar stated that Poona Pact brought a political disaster for the Untouchables. The Communal Award gave the Untouchables two benefits - a fixed quota of seats to be elected by separate electorates for untouchables and to be filled by persons belonging to the Untouchables. 2. Double Vote, one to be used through separate electorates and another through general electorates. The Poona Pact increased the fixed quota of seats, but it also took away the right to the double vote, which was a priceless privilege of the Communal Award. For the sake of argument, Poona Pact gave the Untouchables a few more seats. But the right to vote was not merely enough. The Poona Pact gave but they were filled by bondsmen of Congress. Another argument in favor of the Poona Pact was it saved the Untouchables from eternally being marked as untouchables.

But the argument is faulty. Putting a man in a separate category from others is not necessarily an evil. If the labelling is good or bad depends upon the underlying purpose. If the aim is to deprive him of rights, then such a labelling would be no doubt. But, if it is to give them privilege, then it is a beneficial measure.

According to Ambedkar, the Congress and the Hindus used their power and the resources as a majority community. Not only did they prevent the Untouchables from electing persons of their choice, not only did they get their nominees elected but also selected from the Untouchables to fill the seats reserved for the Untouchables. Thus, there had been a tragic end to this fight of the Untouchables for political rights. According to Ambedkar, Mr. Gandhi was responsible for that.

From some instances, including temple entry Bill in Madras, all over India the Untouchables have realized that the Poona Pact has been a trap and the change of Communal Award by Gandhi's Poona Pact was a change from freedom to bondage.

The Poona Pact was signed on the 24th September, 1932. On the 25th September a public meeting of the Hindus was held to accord their support.

Mr. Gandhi felt it necessary for an organization to be there, that would devote themselves exclusively to the Untouchables. On 28th September, 1932, All India Anti-Untouchability League was established. Afterwards he changed it and renamed it as Harijan Sevak Sangh. Untouchables were now called Harijans. The Untouchables simply rejected the name. It did nothing to rescue them from the curse of the untouchability. Secondly, the name 'Harijan' or 'the children of the god' was indicative of pity and their helplessness.

The Sangh was an All India Organization. It had a central Board. Then there were Provincial Board and under Provincial Boards, there were District and local committees. The financial resources of the Sangh were mainly drawn from the collections made on an All-India tour undertaken for the purpose by Mr. Gandhi between November 1933 and July 1934. The total amount collected on his tour came to about 8 lacs of Rupees and wass known as the Gandhi Purse Fund and formed the principal reserve for the Sangh to draw upon. The rest of the resources were made up of annual donations.

Harijan Sevak Sangh was a small affair and if not for the running advertisement it got from the Press it would not even have been heard. The Untouchables were spread throughout 696831 villages. But 372 committees could not reach out to all the Untouchables. Its resources were too meagre for adequate relief to be granted. Though the Premature Dapat of the Sangh ade Ambedkar feels it unnecessary to consider the work they did[I1] . But it was held out as a great movement to Mr. Gandhi. The work of the Sangh followed some well-defined lines. In the field of education, the Sangh encouraged higher education by instituting scholarships for the Arts, technical and professional courses. It also gave scholarships to high school students. The Sangh also maintained hostels for Untouchable students who attended college and high schools. It also maintained separate schools for Primary stage children where there were no common schools in the vicinity of where common schools were closed to them. Rendering medical aid to the Untouchables, which was carried out by workers visiting Harijan quarters, along with maintaining dispensaries.

The more important part of the welfare activity of the Sangh is related to water supply. The Sangh did it by 1. Sinking new wells or installing tube Wells and pumps for the use of the untouchables.2. repairing old ones 3.Persuading local government and bodies to sink and repair wells for the Untouchables.

The third line of activity undertaken by the Sangh was economic. The Sangh seemed to run a few industrial schools and it is claimed that it produced a number of trained artisans who took to independent living.

The Sangh was largely directed by the Caste Hindus. Very few Untouchables were included. Mr. Ambedkar was desirous to cooperate with the Hindus to remove untouchability. So he proposed some of his views in a letter to the General Secretary of the Sangh, Mr. Thakkar, on 14th November 1932.

According to him, “if an individual is suffering from want and misery it is because his environment is not propitious.” He proposed that the Sangh should undertake a campaign all over India to secure the Depressed Class's civic rights. Due to such a programme, the social revolution would take place in the Hindu Society which was necessary for the Depressed Classes to get their rights. Firstly, there would be riots between the Depressed Classes and the caste Hindus. Secondly, the village would proclaim a complete boycott of the Depressed Classes the moment they see that the Untouchables are trying to rise to equal status as them. An army of workers would be needed to encourage the Depressed Classes to fight for their rights. According to Ambedkar, the salvation of the Untouchables would only come when the Caste Hindus would be forced to feel that they must alter their way. A crisis must be created by direct action against their customary code of conduct. They should bring about equality of opportunity for the Untouchables as much of their misery and poverty is due to the absence of equality and opportunity. Lastly, the Sangh should try to dissolve the nausea which the touchable feel towards the untouchables, by establishing close contact between the two. The league would have to employ a large army of workers to carry out the programme. The only thing that can hold the two classes together is love, not the joint electorate.

Not a single proposal of Ambedkar was accepted. Not even the proposal of drawing the workers of the Sangh from the Untouchables. Mr. Gandhi defended it on the ground that the welfare work of The Untouchables is a penance which the Hindus have to do for the sin of Untouchability. The money that has been collected has been contributed by the Hindus. From both points of view, the Hindus alone must run the Sangh. Neither ethics nor right would justify Untouchables in claiming a seat on the Board of the Sangh.

At the meeting held in Cowasjee Jehangir Hall in Bombay on the 30th September 1932, the aims of the organization were stated to be: "Carrying propaganda against Untouchability and taking immediate steps 'to secure as early as practicable that all public wells, Dharamshalas, roads, schools, crematoriums, burning ghats and all public temples are declared open to the Depressed Classes, provided that no compulsion or force shall be used and that only peaceful persuasion shall be adopted towards this end'. But in the statement issued by Mr. G. D. Birla and Mr. A. V. Thakkar on the 3rd November, two months after its inauguration it was stated: "The League believes that reasonable persons among the Sanatanists are not much against the removal of Untouchability as such, as they are against inter-caste dinners and marriages. Since it is not the ambition of the League to undertake reforms beyond its own scope, it is desirable to make it clear that while the League will work by persuasion among the caste Hindus to remove every vestige of Untouchability, the mainline of work will be constructive, such as the uplift of Depressed Classes educationally, economically and socially, which itself will go a great way to remove untouchability."

Their work raised two questions-1. Was their work anything to be proud of? 2. Is its work consistent with the aim of the Sangh? The answer to the first question is, their record was very poor. But the second question needed serious consideration. The Sangh openly supported separate schools, separate hospitals, separate hostels. But it was the surest way of perpetuating untouchability. The Untouchables did not need water or medical aid, their claim was equal right to the same well or hospital. They wanted their stigma to be gone. Once their stigma was gone, they would automatically get their equal status.

According to Ambedkar the reason for the failure of the Sangh was their wrong politics. It had often been said that the Harijan Sevak Sangh was a political organization. Both Mr. Gandhi and the General Secretary of the Sangh protested against it. But according to Ambedkar, there was nothing about resentment. Because, if the Sangh helped the Untouchables to organize independent political parties to fight the elections and make their political power effective[I2] .

In this case, Ambedkar raised a question against Gandhi. If he asked the people of India to offer Satyagraha against British Imperialism, then why did he not want to use the same means against the caste Hindus in the interests of Untouchables? According to Ambedkar, Gandhi had always wanted to be the head of the nation. And it was impossible without being the head of the Congress, which was the leading party of India. And Congress comprised of Caste Hindus. So, he did not want to annoy Congress.

In the temple entry bill of Mr. Ranga Iyer, it was stated that if a majority of Municipal and local board voters in the vicinity of any particular voters agree, then the Untouchables could be allowed to enter the temple. It is an ordinary principle of majority rule and there was nothing radical about it. But the Depressed Classes were not at all interested in the Temple Entry, as their aim was social and economic upliftment. In some temples, it was said that there would be separate time allotted from the untouchables and the others. But the claim of the Untouchables is being equal and worship in common. But this decision did not at all fulfill that aim. Before the Poona Pact Gandhi wanted separate temples for the untouchables. But, as he says, it was a spiritual motive. But as Ambedkar points out his motive was not at all spiritual. He just wanted to resist separate electorates and take the Untouchables into the Hindu fold. And so he started advocating for temple entry. There was another proof that his motive was not at all spiritual, as he supported the purification of the temple after the use by the Untouchables.

Thus, we see that Mr. Gandhi had played a very crucial role in the movement of the Untouchables. And it can be seen that every step he took was against the interest of the Untouchables. So, in the end, Mr. Ambedkar comments “ If the plan of temple entry is ultimately to deprive the Untouchables of their statutory rights then the movement is not only not spiritual but it is positively mischievous[I3] ”.

Works Cited


Author Information

Ahana Mondal studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her area of interest is Dalit Studies.

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