Book Extract: The appropriation of Gandhi

Why awarding the Gandhi Peace Prize to Gita Press is either forgetful of Gandhi’s fraught relationship with its minders or, more likely, politically motivated. Extracts from Akshaya Mukul’s book

Book cover
Book cover

Akshaya Mukul

The year 1932 […] proved to be a watershed in the Gandhi–Poddar relationship. On 2 August 1932, Gandhi wrote from Yerwada jail to Poddar amidst growing fear that the British government would accept the demand for separate electorates for untouchables, passionately advocated by Bhim Rao Ambedkar at the Round Table Conference.

Gandhi was still in Yerwada when British prime minister Ramsay McDonald announced acceptance of a separate electorate for untouchables. Determined to ‘resist the decision with my life’, Gandhi decided to go on a ‘fast without food save water with or without salt and soda’. The decision to fast had an immediate impact.

On the one hand, orthodox elements within the Congress like Malaviya, Rajagopalachari and Hindu Mahasabha’s B.S. Moonje sat at the negotiating table with leaders of the untouchable class such as B.R. Ambedkar, M.C. Rajah and P.N. Rajbhoj, resulting in the Poona Pact of 1932. On the other, news of Gandhi’s fast caused a huge moral upsurge throughout the country. From conservative Allahabad to cosmopolitan Bombay, temple after temple opened its doors to untouchables.

In an unprecedented move, six temples of Bombay took a poll on the issue by placing a box at the entrance, and those in favour of entry by untouchables won by a thumping majority—to be precise 24,979 people were in favour against a hopeless 445 who opposed the move. While Padmaja Naidu called it a ‘catharsis’ that would cleanse Hinduism of the ‘accumulated corruption of centuries’, Rabindranath Tagore, who had rushed to see Gandhi after the news of his fast unto death, called it a ‘wonder’.

G.D. Birla conveyed news of Gandhi’s fast and the subsequent Poona Pact to Poddar who was in his native Ratangarh. For a shocked Poddar, at the helm of a flourishing publishing house propagating a ritualistic form of Hinduism with strong emphasis on the fourfold varna system, the change was far too sweeping, and a huge threat to the existing social order.

He immediately wrote to Gandhi. […] Niceties over, Poddar now raised the issue that had been troubling him. He was careful to tell Gandhi that after much deliberation he had decided to speak out, like a child, and requested Gandhi to read the letter and advise him.

Poddar then came to his point: ‘These days a big agitation by Dalits is going on in the country that has intensified due to your fast. At various places, people are dining with Dalits and they are being allowed inside temples. Outcome only god knows. Just like those believing in god and shastras are accused of blind faith, I find that this movement has not only become a victim of blind faith but also there is lack of discernment. Even those in favour of dining with Dalits agree (though I do not equate dining with them as a mark of equality) that they cannot be considered pure until they have a pure bath, wear fresh clothes, give up alcohol and meat or at least stop feasting on dead cattle. Only then co-dining makes sense.

'But your common dining and temple-entry movement is not even checking if they have fulfilled these norms. What is taking place is mere eating together, letting them inside temples, and allowing them to participate in rituals. No one is talking of upliftment of Dalits but only reiterating their untouchable status. Is this lack of restraint or reform? Is this enrichment of purity or its destruction?

'Have you thought of the repercussions of this unbridled disrespect to our body and soul? ‘With due respect I would like to reiterate that dining together and equal rights in everything would not lead to love for Dalits. That would happen only with pure heart and good behaviour. Even Pandavas and Kauravas used to dine together but it led to a big battle.’

Not sure if his arguments would convince Gandhi, Poddar resorted to the ultimate ploy of holding up a mirror to Gandhi, reminding him that his reformist zeal was out of sync with his past. He extracted a series of Gandhi’s writings on caste and untouchability in Navjivan in the early 1920s, and made it part of his letter.

In these articles Gandhi had said that to remove untouchability it was not important to dine with antyaj (untouchables) or give daughters in marriage: ‘I do not ask that you drink from their lota (pots) without cleaning them up’; ‘If eating together results in friendship, then Europe would not have witnessed the great war’; ‘How can untouchables be allowed in all temples?’ Not only does Gandhi’s ambiguous position on caste come to the fore in these extracts, they also explain his less-than-enthusiastic follow-up of the Poona Pact.

Poddar was unrelenting in his letter, upbraiding Gandhi, the liberals within Congress and the intelligentsia. ‘Today if someone who respects you wants to criticize you or your views and would like to show [the] infirmities of your opinion, then he is attacked and abused. He is called obscurantist, sanatan dharmi, traitor and what not. Recently, in Kashi (Banaras) there was an incident of stone pelting in a meeting. In such a situation many people have suspicion about the state of future swarajya (self-rule).’

Poddar then asked Gandhi a set of questions. ‘I know you do not believe in changing someone’s view or belief system through force. You have said so many times that an individual should have the freedom of religion. But what is happening? Letting all kinds of people enter places of worship against the wishes of those who run these institutions is against the spirit of freedom of religion or not? It would destroy our temple system. Have we asked if those being let inside the temples even want to go there or not? If they want, why not build separate temples for them.'


Gandhi was quick to respond. He stood by every word [he’d written] in Navjivan […] Refuting Poddar’s allegations, Gandhi said, ‘I do not see any inconsistency between my profession and my conduct.’ Distancing himself from ‘those who taint and slander sanatanists’, Gandhi said that himsa or violence would ‘undoubtedly injure the cause of the removal of untouchability’, and that ‘cleanliness and some code of conduct are always desirable’.

He continued, ‘It is a sin to use coercion in this matter or despise those who refuse to inter-dine. Similarly to force one’s way into temples against the wishes of the trustees is an act of sin.’ […] However, in the same letter, Gandhi blamed the followers of sanatan dharma for social ailments like untouchability and barring Dalits from entering temples: ‘The caste Hindus, having created a class of outcastes, have up to the present day been treating them in a most irreligious and brutal manner. This has caused uncleanliness and other vices to creep in among them. Sooner or later, the Hindus have to atone for it.’

Gandhi’s best efforts to change Poddar’s views on untouchability failed. Poddar’s diatribe against Gandhi continued in the pages of Kalyan till 1948. Thus a relationship that had begun as hero worship on Poddar’s part took a stormy turn during the intense phase of the national movement from the 1930s when Gandhi was reformulating his position on various social issues and when the competing interests of Muslims, Dalits and the strong Hindu right were challenging the position of Congress as the sole voice against the British government.

As late as 1956, Poddar maintained that ‘practising untouchability does not mean hatred for anyone’ and ‘untouchability is scientific and has the sanction of the shastras’. […] The man whose simplicity, self-service, spirituality and love for swadeshi had drawn Poddar so intensely was no longer his hero but the biggest stumbling block and challenge to the traditional Hindu order.

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