Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Mahatma Gandhi: A Champion of Human Rights

B. Shiva Rao

Gandhiji’s approach towards India’s freedom was, throughout his thirty years’ leadership, singularly free from bitterness. He told the British people on one occasion, on the eve of the second world war, that there was no need for them to leave India. On the other hand, he said, “India is a vast country. You and your people can stay comfortably, provided you accommodate yourselves to our conditions here.”

During the second world war, he met with stubborn resistance from the British Government. Mr. Churchill, Britain’s war-time Prime Minister said, shortly after he had assumed office. “I have not become the King’s first Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Gandhiji, with an unconquerable faith in the efficacy of his philosophy and undeterred by sets, did not slacken his efforts. And within less than a decade of Churchill’s assertion India was free.

A New Concept

It was first in South Africa, in the early decades of this century, that Gandhiji raised his voice against racial discrimination as practised by the then Government of that country on settlers of Indian origin. On a limited scale he fashioned the instrument of passive resistance against injustice, oppression and wrong. A new concept of heroic self-sacrifice came into vogue under his guidance, enabling thousands of common men and women in South Africa to suffer in dignified protest all the consequences of defiance of racially discriminatory legislation and practices.

South Africa gave Gandhiji the first opportunity to test the validity of his technique. Success in a restricted sphere opened up for him the possibilities of its application on a far wider scale in the termination of India’s subjection to British rule.

Gandhiji’s technique, whether it was for the achievement of India’s freedom or for the uplift of the untouchables in this country was unique. To him India’s freedom signified little without the rehabilitation of the less favoured sections of the Indian people who had endured for centuries a number of social disabilities and humiliations. They were not the less galling because they stemmed more from custom than from legal sanction or State policy. Gandhiji reviewed in the same perspective the degradation of the human personality, whether practised in the name of a superior race or for the preservation of the privileged position of an elite class. Thus his mission was fundamentally one of protest against discrimination in all its forms and manifestations.

Struggle Against Untouchability

The dead hand of custom in India had relegated an appreciable section of the community–not all of another race or faith–to a way of life which approximated to a denial of human rights and equal opportunities. Political leaders before Gandhiji had fixed their gaze on India’s progress towards freedom exclusively in terms of constitutional reforms. The disabilities of the untouchables–social, economic and cultural–numbering at that time over 60 million, had, indeed, attracted the notice of reformers from the second half of the nineteenth century. The poineers of the movement had dared much in a great cause, enduring social obloquy, even ostracism, humiliation and persecution from the orthodox sections of society. But until Gandhiji’s appearance on the scene–periodically at first and permanently in the middle of the First World War–the two streams of progress had remained distinct and separate.

A Vital Link

Fresh from South Africa and keenly alive to the inhumanity of racial arrogance and all its ugly implications through discriminatory policies and measures, Gandhiji saw in India, as in a flash, the vital link between the removal of untouchability and national freedom. In 1917, at the annual session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta presided over by another great servant of India, Mrs. Annie Besant, the first concrete step was taken to forge such a link. In a resolutionadopted on Gandhiji’s initiative, the Congress “urged upon the people of India the necessity, justice and righteousness of removing all disabilities being of a most vexatious and oppressive character, subjecting those classes to considerable hardship and inconvenience.”

Part of Constructive Programme

On assuming the leadership of the freedom movement two years later, Gandhiji formulated a constructive programme for all workers in the movement giving the complete eradication of untouchability and all the evils it had bred in India’s social and economic life the topmost priority. He declared on one occasion that he would not sacrifice the vital interests of the untouchables even for the sake of winning India’s freedom. He said, “I would far rather that Hinduism died than that untouchability lived.” In his weekly paper Young India he repeatedly justified this radical stand.

In 1921 he wrote in the course of an article: Untouchability cannot be given a secondary place on the programme. Without the removal of the taint, Swaraj (self-government) is a meaningless term. Workers should welcome social boycott and even public execreation in the prosecution of their work. I consider the removal of untouchability as a most powerful factor in the process of attainment of Swaraj.”

In the following year he got the Working Committee to commit itself “to organise the Depressed Classes for a better life, to improve their social, mental and moral condition, to induce themto send their children to national schools and to provide for them the ordinary facilities which the other citizens enjoy.”

Despite all the preoccupations of an active political career, involving periodical defiance of British authority, first described as non-cooperation and later as civil disobedience, Gandhiji never grudged time, energy or resources to the nation-wide fight against untouchability. For the untouchables he coined a new name, “Harijans” meaning the children of God. The denial to them of entry into Hindu temples, he saw, lay at the root of all their economic and social disabilities. Temple entry for Harijans then became with him a primary article of faith.

No Separate Electorates

Gandhiji was nevertheless firm in his conviction that the effective protection of these classes should not be carried to an extent that might in the long run defeat its own purpose and harm them and the country. India’s permanent Constitution, he asserted, should start with the fundamental assumption of making observance of untouchability in any shape or form an offence. He was prepared, to have seats reserved for them in the legislatures and in all elected bodies according to their population within the areas concerned, provided that a person so elected depended on his merits to secure responsible positions like Ministerships. But separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes he was convinced would result in the perpetuation of their segregation. 1

In 1942–a critical period for Britain in the second world war–for the first time in the course of India’s freedom struggle, Churchill’s War Cabinet conceded to India the right to frame a Constitution for herself at the end of the war. It is significant of the awakening that Gandhiji had produced in these socially ward people (sometimes describe as the “Depressed Classes” and later in free India’s Constitution as the “Scheduled Castes and Tribes”) that the All-India Depressed Classes Federation promptly declared that no Constitution would be acceptable to them unless l) it had their consent; 2) it recognised the fact that the Scheduled Castes were distinct and separate from the Hindus and constituted an important element in the national life of India; 3) the Constitution contained provisions to give them a real sense of security.

Constitutional Commitment

In 1946, when an elected Constituent Assembly was first set up to draft a Constitution for free India, the Congress party under ‘Gandhiji’s leadership readily accepted the commitment that “its primary duty and fundamental policy was to protect the religious, linguistic, cultural and other rights of the minorities in India so as to ensure for them in any scheme of government to which the Congress was a party the widest scope for their development and their participation in the fullest measure in Political, economic and cultural life of the nation.”

The Constituent Assembly adopted another decision so as to give the minorities themselves the right to propose the safeguards which they considered essential for their security and progress. An Advisory Committee of fundamental rights was set up at an early stage of the Constituent Assembly’s proceedings for the various minorities and for the tribal and excluded and partially excluded areas.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an outstanding leader of the Scheduled Castes and a brilliant Constitutional lawyer, was elected Chairman of the Committee which drafted the Constitution for ratification by the Constituent Assembly. On the establishment of the Advisory Committee mentioned above, he submitted a comprehensive note on the political and social safeguards he regarded as essential to guarantee that the new Constitution adequately provided for their uplift.

Among his suggestions were provision of adequate funds in the budgets of the Governments of the Union and of the State for the education of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes at all levels and for training facilities abroad. Finally, to maintain a watch over the progress of these measures, he made a proposal for the creation of a new office of Superintendent of Minority Affairs, whose duty it would be to prepare an annual report on the treatment of minorities by the public as well as by the Governments of the Union and the States; and to note any violations of safeguards or miscarriage of justice by the Governments or the public. These reports were to be discussed by the Union and the State Legislatures. The report of the Minorities Sub-Committee, which gave the most careful consideration to Dr. Ambedkar’s proposals, was discussed by the Advisory Committee in all its aspects before its consideration by the Constituent Assembly. 2 In framing the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly naturally attached the greatest weight to the views and the recommendations of the Advisory Committee which had endorsed most of Dr. Ambedkar’s proposals.

Solemn Pledge

Gandhiji’s assassination in January 1948, even before the Constituent Assembly was half-way through its task, was a terrible blow not only to India but to all humanitarian causes throughout the world. The most practical tribute to his campaign for the emancipation of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, it was decided by the Constituent Assembly, would be to embody in the Constitution a number of provisions for their advancement and Welfare which had the full support of their own representatives. In the preamble to the Constitution were inscribed the following noble objectives:

“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and Political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the Nation.”  

`The outline of the various provisions of the Constitution is a clear evidence of the earnestness and sincerity with which the Constituent Assembly gave legal form to the assurances Gandhiji had held out during his lifetime to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

In the Federal Parliament, out of 521 seats in the House of People (the Lok Sabha, as it is Popularly known), 114 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. In all the Legislative Assemblies of the States and Union Territories taken together, out of 3,448 seats 696 are reserved for them. There is hardly a Ministry in India whether at the Centre or in the State, without at least one Minister drawn from these classes.

Welfare of the ward

Sustained efforts are being made all the time to bring the Scheduled Castes and Tribes to the level of the rest of the people in the field of education.

The dimensions of the problem India has faced in the course of her long history are colossal. The population of the Scheduled Castes, according to the 1961 census, was 64.5 million, while the Scheduled Tribes numbered 29.9 million. These figures do not include the denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes who form in addition an appreciable portion of India’s population. The Government of India, both at the Centre and in all the States, have demonstrated their goodwill for these classes and striven hard to fulfil all the obligations cast on them by the Constitution for their welfare and progress.

India does not claim today that the elimination of discrimination, whether racial or of any other kind, from her multi-racial society is complete. Many disabilities and harsh practices continue to exist, especially on the rural areas and in pockets of entrenched orthodoxy. But the disapproval of such disabilities by progressive opinion is daily growing sharper and becoming increasingly effective. What India does claim, however, is that in whatever form the Constitution may undergo alteration in the future in the light of experience, in one respect there will be no going : the charter of human rights embodied in the Constitution, with special, reference to the ward sections of the people, is beyond the reach of reactionary forces.

Against Discrimination

Through all the charges in the thirty years during which Gandhiji was India’s leader, he kept his vision fixed on certain principles from which neither apparent failure nor the lure of speedy success tempted him into their violation. To many even in India, it seemed at first an absurdly uneven struggle between the leader of a movement strictly limited to non-violence and the greatest empire in the world’s history. Success when it came–dimmed no doubt by India’s partition, a grievous blow to Gandhi’s dream of a unified country–did not mean parting with the erstwhile ruler in a mood of strife or bitterness.

Gandhiji’s inspiring leadership produced profoundly promising results in two fields-freedom from foreign rule and the emancipation of the economically and socially ward sections of thepopulation. In the campaign against all forms of discrimination whether based on race or any other considerations, he was anxious to prevent the perpetuation of the special privileges granted to them. The most significant feature of the campaign was the establishment of a society that refused to countenance discrimination in any form based on race, religion, caste or custom.

For Human Freedom

On the eve of India’s freedom, an Asian Relations Conference met in April 1947, in New Delhi, on Jawaharlal Nehru’s initiative. In an address to a plenary session of the Conference at which delegations from 28 countries of Asia were present, Nehru declared with a lofty vision:

“We seek no narrow nationalism. Nationalism has a place in each country and should be fostered, but it must not be allowed to become aggressive and come in the way of international development. Asia stretches her hand out in friendship to Europe and America as well as to our suffering brethren in Africa. We in Asia have a special responsibility to the people of Africa. We must help them to take their rightful place in the human family. The freedom that we envisage is not to be confined to this nation or that or to a particular people, but must spread out over the whole human race. The universal human freedom cannot also be based on the supremacy of any particular class, It must be the freedom of the common man everywhere and full of opportunities for him to develop.”

It was this spirit which had inspired Gandhiji to carry for three decades the burden of leadership of a subject India, It was this spirit in which Nehru led free India in the post-war world.

1 Gandhiji commented in his weekly paper Young India: “Separate electorates for the “untouchables” will ensure them bondage in perpetuity. Do you want them to be “Untouchables” forever? Separate electorates would perpetuate the stigma. What is needed is destruction of untouchability; and when you have done it, the bar sinister which has been imposed by an isolent “superior” class upon an “inferior” class will be destroyed. When you have destroyed the bar sinister, to whom will you give separate electorates? With adult franchise, you give the “Untouchables” complete security. Even the orthodox would have to approach them for votes.”
2 About constitutional safeguards the Advisory Committee, whose members were drawn mostly from the minorities themselves observed in its report: “We wish to make it clear that our general approach to the whole problem of minorities is that the State should be so run that they should stop feeling oppressed by the mere fact that they are minorities; and that, on the contrary, they should feel that they have an honourable part to play in the national life as other sections of community. In particular, we think it is a fundamental duty of the State to take special steps to bring up these minorities which are ward to the level of the general community.

“Man’s ultimate aim is the realization of God and all his activities political, social and religious, have to be guided by the ultimate aim of the vision of God. The immediate service of all human beings becomes a necessary part of the endeavour simply because the only way to find God is to see Him in His creation and be one with it. This can only be done by service to all”

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