Campaign Against Untouchability
|A new twist to the civil disobedience movement came in September
1932 when Gandhi, who was in Yeravada Jail, went on a fast as a protest against the
segregation of the so-called "untouchables" in the electoral arrangement planned
for the new Indian constitution. Uncharitable critics described the fast as a form of
coercion, a political blackmail . Gandhi was aware that his fast did exercise a moral
pressure, but the pressure was directed not against those who disagreed with him, but
against those who loved him and believed in him. He did not expect his critics to react in
the same way as his friends and co-workers, but if his self-crucifixion could demonstrate
his sincerity to them, the battle would be more than half-won. He sought to prick the
conscience of the people and to convey to them something of his own inner anguish at a
monstrous social tyranny. The fast dramatized the issues at stake; ostensibly it
suppressed reason, but in fact it was designed to free reason from that mixture of inertia
and prejudice which had permitted the evil of untouchability, which condemned millions of
Hindus to humiliation, discrimination and hardship.
The news that Gandhi was about to fast shook India from one end to the other. September 20, 1932, when the fast began, was observed as a day of fasting and prayer. At Santiniketan, poet Tagore, dressed in black, spoke to a large gathering on the significance of the fast and the urgency of fighting an age-old evil. There was a spontaneous upsurge of feeling; temples, wells and public places were thrown open to the "untouchables". A number of Hindu leaders met the representatives of the untouchables; an alternative electoral arrangement was agreed upon, and received the approval of the British Government before Gandhi broke his fast.
More important than the new electoral arrangement was the emotional catharsis through which the Hindu community had passed. The fast was intended by Gandhi "to sting the conscience of the Hindu community into right religious action". The scrapping of separate electorates was only the beginning of the end of untouchability. Under Gandhis inspiration, while he was still in prison, a new organization, Harijan Sevak Sangh was founded to combat untouchability and a new weekly paper, the Harijan, was started. Harijan means "children of God"; it was Gandhis name for the "untouchables"
After his release Gandhi devoted himself almost wholly to the campaign against untouchability. On November 7, 1933, he embarked on a country-wide tour which covered 12,500 miles and lasted for nine months. The tour evoked great enthusiasm for the breaking down of the barriers which divided the untouchables from the rest of the Hindu community, but it also provoked the militancy of the orthodox Hindus. On June 25, while Gandhi was on his way to the municipal hall in Poona, a bomb was thrown at his party. Seven persons were injured, but Gandhi was unhurt. He expressed his "deep pity" for the unknown thrower of the bomb. "I am not aching for martyrdom," he said, "but if kit comes in my way in the prosecution of what I consider to be the supreme duty in defence of the faith i hold in common with millions of Hindus, I shall have well earned it."
Gandhis fast had aroused public enthusiasm, but diverted it from political to social issues. In May 1933, he suspended civil disobedience for six weeks. He revived it later, but confined it to himself. A year later he discontinued it: this was a recognition of the fact that the country was fatigued and in no mood to continue a campaign of defiance. These decisions disconcerted many of his adherents, who did not relish his moral and religious approach to political issues, and chafed at his self-imposed restraints. Gandhi sensed the critical mood in the Congress party and in October 1934, announced his retirement from it. For the next three years, not politics but village economics was his dominant interest.