What was Gandhi's Caste and What Did Congress Represent?
Volumes have been written on Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. There are diverse views about both. The views on them depend on the ideology of the person giving these views.
To add to the prevailing plethora, recently (June 2017), BJP President Amit Shah called Gandhi a Chatur (Shrewd) baniya (trader caste). With this characterization of Gandhi Amit Shah joins the company of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan who also called Gandhi a baniya, the caste of his birth.
Gandhi had overcome the limitations of caste through his thinking and actions. When asked by a magistrate in Court in 1922 as to what is his caste was,Gandhi said he is a farmer and a weaver. While theoretically he stuck to Varnashram Dharma, the ideological foundation of the caste system, in practice he overcame it by countering all the caste taboos, by relating to people of all castes, by insisting on a Dalit family staying in his Sabarmati Ashram, by himself staying in colonies of the scheduled castes in Delhi and taking up manual scavenging.
The other point Amit Shah made was about the nature of the Congress party. “Congress party... was constituted as a club by a British man. It was later converted into an organization engaged in freedom struggle...”he said. Shah also presented the Congress as a loose body bereft of any ideological commitment except that of anti -colonialism. Both these formulations of his are superficial and distorted presentations of the complexity of the origin and struggles of this party which lead the national movement.
With the British introducing modern transport, modern education and industrialization society started transforming quickly and newer social classes, industrialists, industrial workers and modern educated classes started coming up. These groups gradually realised that British policies were aimed at enriching England at the cost of India; they also saw that adequate facilities to enhance the potential of India were not being promoted.
This led to the formation of many organizations, like Dadabhoy Naworji’s East India Association,(1866), Anand Mohan and Surendra Mohan Bose’s Indian Association (1876), Justice Ranade’s Pune Sarvajanik Sabha 1870, and Viraraghavachari’s Madras Mahajan Sabha (1884).These organizations felt the need for an all India organization.
At the same time Lord O.A. Hume, a British officer also thought of an all India organization for Indians. Many feel that he was keen to provide a ‘safety valve’ for releasing the anger pent up in sections of Indians. These organisations cooperated with Hume in the formation of the Congress with a clear calculation of avoiding the hostility of the British, and at the same time to generate a platform that could intensify Indian national consciousness for political and economic enhancement. As per modern India historian, Bipan Chandra, Indian nationalists in a way used Hume as a lightening conductor by using this as a platform for emerging India.
The national movement was based on the aspirations of the rising classes while the roots of communal organizations lay in the declining sections of landlords and Raja-Nawabs. So rather than just being the fantasy of the British officer as Shah will have us believe, Hume’s initiative was the best option for Indian nationalists to express their political ambitions.
The national movement, in practice, was founded on the grounds of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In the process people of all religions, castes and regions overwhelmingly associated with the Congress movement. Rather than an organization bereft of principles, as Amit Shah states, the national movement and the Congress were firmly rooted in Indian nationalism, secularism and democracy. It is true that Hindu communalists (the predecessors of Shah) and Muslim Communalists (Jinnah and Company) were allowed in the party till 1934. After this year the Congress did take a decision to keep out the likes of Shahs and Jinnah’s. It is also true that some mild communal elements continued to be in the Congress but their prominent ideology was Indian nationalism.
The national movement focused on national sentiments. This was in contrast to the sectarian feeling worked on by the then Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. The national movement was critical of economic policies based on the British effort to keep the country poor. The proactive part of this movement led by the INC was to unite the nation, cutting across the boundaries of religion, region and caste. It is interesting that while the INC united most of the Hindus and Muslims bringing them into the national movement, Muslim League associated only with Muslims and Hindu Mahasabha and RSS united sections of Hindus. It is another matter that the majority of Hindus and Muslims became part of the national movement, bypassing the communal organizations.
The national movement also addressed the major issues of social reforms. Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability shook the very foundations of caste based practices in a sense. While the struggles for these issues were within the framework of the colonial system to begin with, later this assumed the form of an anti colonial movement. The national movement led by Gandhi-Congress was in contrast to the Muslim League’s assertion that ‘we are a Muslim Nation since the time of Mohammad bin Kasim’, and the assertion of the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS that ‘we are a Hindu nation since times immemorial’.
As such what Amit Shah is saying is continuation of the Hindu nationalist’s hatred for Gandhi and the Indian nationalist movement. They hold Gandhi as responsible for emboldening Muslims and weakening the Hindu nation and the partition of the country. It was this formulation generating hatred for Gandhi, that led one of them, Nathuram Godse, to murder him. This hatred was expressed in RSS distributing sweets after Gandhi murder. (Letter of Sardar Patel, September 11, 1948).Today for electoral reasons those who believe in polarisation on the basis of majoritarianism cannot speak the language of Godse so openly, still to oppose Indian nationalism, they have been using pinpricks like this one, to undermine Indian nationalism and the process of caste transformation which accompanied the freedom movement.