On the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, many aspects of his worldview are being explored and their enduring relevance for the contemporary world is being highlighted. It is fascinating to know that Shri K.R.Narayanan, who went on to become the President of India in 1997, once interviewed Gandhiji on April 10, 1945 in Mumbai, while serving as a young reporter for the Times of India.

On that day Gandhiji was observing silence, and so Narayanan was told that he would be given written answers to his queries. The questions Narayanan asked on that day 74 years ago assume enormous significance in the context of the rising Dalit consciousness in 21st century India. The full interview is available in the 86th volume of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

The first question Narayanan posed was: “Do you still hold that the Harijan problem is only religious and social, and that it has no great political significance?”

It was a sensitive question and brought out his sharp assessment that the Harijan issue, now called the Dalit issue, was a big political issue. Gandhi’s answer —that the Harijan issue “has political significance but indirectly”— was self explanatory. In 1945, two years before independence, Gandhiji saw the Harijan issue’s indirect political significance, but understood it as something to be tackled more on the religious and social plane.

Now the Dalit issue has become the foremost political concern, fundamentally impacting every aspect of social transformation, governance, politics, public life, and above all our collective consciousness that celebrates plurality, diversity and constitutional values, at the heart of which remain the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Narayanan’s second question again related to the Harijan issue. Observing that “the Congress as an organization has not taken up the Harijan work” he asked, “Will it not be better if that work is taken up by the Congress and not by the Harijan Sevak Sangh?”

It was an interrogation, which flagged the Congress’s perceived deficiency. Gandhiji’s answer was defensive. “It is wrong to say that the Congress has not taken it up,” he replied.

The exchange brings to mind Dr Ambedkar’s statement and the title of his book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables.

Narayanan’s third question —“But it seems that leaders like Jawaharlal and the Rashtrapati are not keenly aware of the Harijan question?”— was in a way raising an important theme often taken up by leaders like Ambedkar, who felt that the Congress was led by high-caste Hindu leaders. (The term rashtrapati used by Narayanan referred to the Congress president, who in pre-independent India was called by that nomenclature.)

Mahatma Gandhi answered that both Nehru and Congress President Abul Kalam Azad were immersed in Harijan work. Indeed what Gandhiji said in his answer constituted a great defence of Nehru and the Congress president.

Narayanan’s next question, that “the Harijan Sevak Sangh after years of work has not yet produced even a dozen leaders from among the Harijans themselves” was indeed a serious interrogation for the cause of producing leaders from among Dalits back in 1945. It was a profound question.

Gandhi answered by saying, “That charge is only partly true.”

Narayanan then posed a deep question on nonviolence. Observing that “all great men have a passion for simplification”, and that Gandhiji “simplified the nature of human conflict as between violence and non-violence, truth and untruth, right and wrong,” Narayanan asked, “But in life is not the conflict between one right and another right, or between one truth and another truth? How can non-violence deal with such a situation?”

Gandhi’s short answer to this complicated question was, “That is a matter of application.”

Now we are seeing shades of truth and non-violence in every aspect of life, which cannot be seen in binary terms. In this sense Narayanan’s question was an exhortation to explore life and society beyond binaries.

Next Narayanan asked, “In the Hindu-Muslim question, where the conflict is between the rights of the Hindus and the rights of the Muslims, what technique of non-violence can be employed to solve the problem, especially when these rights seem to be irreconcilable?”

Gandhiji replied simply by saying, “That awful situation can only be dealt with properly through satyagraha.”

Then he observed “your questions show that you have not studied it. If I am right, Pyarelal will give you a list of the books. My advice to you is that you should seriously study the literature on the subject.”

Narayanan’s last question was, “How can a Harijan who goes abroad best serve his country and community from abroad?” (He was soon to go pursue his higher studies at the London School of Economics upon getting a Tata scholarship.)

Gandhiji answered, “He cannot serve the one without serving the other. Abroad you will say it is a domestic question which you are determined to solve for yourselves.”

In fact, Gandhiji’s answer on this count, that the Harijan issue is a domestic issue to be dealt with by Indian themselves, was invoked by K.R.Narayanan as President of India when the 2001 World Conference Against Racism was being organised in Johannesburg and there was a demand that the problems Dalits face should be seen as some form of racism.

Now with rising Dalit consciousness, and Dalits’ constant striving for empowerment and dignity, we witness increasing atrocities being perpetrated upon them. It is in this context that the dialogue between K.R.Narayanan and Mahatma Gandhi in 1945 is of great relevance in assessing and contextualising the problems of Dalits. Further it may help us employ non-violence in life situations which are beyond binaries.

S.N.Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India the late K.R.Narayanan.