Gandhi’s Harijan Campaign

Determined to undo the divisive intentions of the Government's divide and rule policy, Gandhiji gave up all his other pre-occupations and launched a whirlwind campaign against untouchability- first from jail and after his release in August 1933 from the outside.

In Yeravada jail, Gandhiji undertook fast unto death, against the implementation of the Communal Award on 20th September, 1932. To quote him: "My politics are derived from my religion, If God has ordained death by starvation, I know that it will set the last seal on my political leadership. Nationalism will be the stronger for sacrificial death. The vast majority of the Indian community has instinctively recognised the correctness and implications of this fast."

While in Yeravada jail, he had also set up the All India Anti-Untouchability League in 1932 (this body was later renamed as the Harijan Sevak Sangh) and had started the weekly Harijan in January next year. After Gandhiji was released from jail, he shifted to the Satyagraha Ashram in Wardha as he had vowed in 1930 not to return to Sabarmati Ashram unless Swaraj was won.

Photo showing Yeravada Jail, where Gandhiji undertook 'untouchability' fast in September 1932

Starting from Wardha, Gandhiji conducted a Harijan tour of the country in the period from November 1933 to July 1934, covering 20,000 km, collecting money for his newly set up Harijan Sevak Sangh, and propagating removal of untouchability in all its forms. He urged political workers to go to villages and work for social, economic, political and cultural upliftment of the Harijans. He undertook two fasts- on May 8th and August 16th in the year 1934- to convince his followers of the seriousness of his effort and the importance of the issue. These fasts created consternation in nationalist ranks throwing many into an emotional crisis.

Throughout his campaign, Gandhiji was attacked by orthodox and reactionary elements. These elements disrupted his meetings, held back flag demonstrations against him and accused him of attacking Hinduism. They also offered support to the Government against the Congress and the Civil Disobedience Movement. The Government obliged them by defeating the Temple Entry Bill in August 1934. Orthodox Hindu opinion in Bengal was against the acceptance of permanent caste Hindu minority status by the Poona Pact.

Gandhiji during Harijan campaign in Madras


An important opportunity for alleviating the distress of the depressed classes arose when the Congress ministries were formed in eight of the total eleven provinces in 1937. The party members were prevailed upon by the executive committee of the Harijan Sevak Sangh to vigorously undertake measures and programmes for the social and economic uplift of Harijans in their respective provinces.

In 1938, the Removal of Civil Disabilities Act was passed by the Madras legislature, which provided that no Harijan would be disabled from any social or public amenity. In the same year, the Madras legislature also passed the Malabar Temple Entry Act, which threw open the temples in Malabar to the untouchables. Gandhi expressed his hope that even the non-Congress provincial governments would undertake this work.

Gandhiji's thoughts on caste

According to Gandhiji, the practice of untouch ability is a leper wound in the whole-body of Hindu politics. He even regarded it as the hate fullest expression of caste. He made it his life's mission to wipe out untouchability and to uplift the depressed and the downtrodden people. As a servant of mankind, he preached that all human beings are equal and hence the Harijans too have a right for social life along with other caste groups.

Throughout his tour, social work and fasts, Gandhi stressed upon certain themes:

  • He put forward a damning indictment of Hindu society for the kind of oppression practised on Harijans.
  • He called for the root and branch eradication of untouchability symbolised by his plea to throw open temples to the untouchables.
  • He stressed the need for caste Hindus to do "penace" for untold miseries inflicted on Harijans. For this reason he was not hostile to his critics such as Ambedkar. He said, "Hinduism dies if untouchability lives, untouchability has to die if Hinduism is to live."
  • His entire campaign was based on principles of humanism and reason. He said that the shastras do not sanction untouchability, and if they did, they should be ignored as it was against human dignity.

Gandhiji was not in favour of mixing up the issue of removal of untouchability with that of inter-caste marriages and inter-dining because he felt that such restrictions existed among caste Hindus and among Harijans themselves, and because the all-India campaign at the time was directed against disabilities specific to Harijans.

Similarly, he distinguished between abolition if untouchability and abolition of caste system as such. On this point he differed from Ambedkar who advocated annihilation of the caste system to remove untouchability. Gandhiji felt that whatever the limitations and defects of the varnashram system, there was nothing sinful about it, as there was about untouchability. Untouchability, Gandhiji felt, was a product of distinctions of high and low and not of the caste system itself. If it could be purged of this distinction, the varnashram could function in a manner whereby each caste would be complementary to the other rather than being higher or lower. Anyway, that believers and critics of the caste system should come together in the fight against untouchability, the opposition to which is common to both, was his message.

He believed that the removal of untouchability would have a positive impact on communal and other question since opposition to untouchability meant opposing the notion of highness and lowness. He was opposed to using compulsion against the orthodox Hindus whom he called sanatanis. They were to be won over by persuasion, by appealing to "their reason and their hearts". His facts were aimed at inspiring friends and followers to redouble their anti-untouchability work.

Gandhiji's Harijan campaign included a programme of internal reform by Harijans covering education, cleanliness, hygiene, giving up beef eating and carrion and consumption of liquor, and removing untouchability among themselves.

Impact of Gandhi's Harijan Campaign

Gandhiji repeatedly described the campaign as not a political movement but as being primarily meant to purify Hinduism and Hindu society. Gradually, the campaign carried the message of nationalism to Harijans who also happened to be the agricultural labourers in most parts of the country, leading to their increasing participation in the national and peasant movements.

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