Gandhiji and the Caste System in his Village Republic
Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
Gandhiji’s ideal village republic which he called the Rama Rajya (the Kingdom of Rama) there would be no distinctions of caste and it would also be a classless society. This much is well known as also his fight against Untouchability (as it was then called).
What most people do not know is that he made a distinction between varna and jatti and he also endorsed jatti as a form of social organization which would be occupation based.He felt that pride in one’s occupation would help in consolidating the individual’s professionalism and expertise. This does not mean that caste (jatti) should be hereditary by compulsion. An individual is free to break free of the caste in which he is born and adopt a different occupation.
Varna as he rightly saw it, was a broad based division of labour into intellectual/spiritual ,political/military, commercial/economic and agricultural. He supported this division of labour as long as it did not end up with discrimination towards any particular division. In other words, it should not be hierarchical.
Needless to say, he did not endorse the colonial attempt to divide Hindu society by granting separate electorates to the Untouchables(the Dalits). And today he would endorse a limited affirmative action on behalf of the scheduled castes and other backward castes. It could not be a program in perpetuity since the idea is to integrate them into the rest of Hindu society, rather than maintain divisions.
Today, this is basically also the philosophy of the Sangh Parivar and it differs from the foreign/Western inspired attempts to distort Hinduism as in the recent attempt to introduce the question of the caste system as a form of racism. Both the Parivar and Gandhiji would argue that this is an unacceptable interference in the domestic and internal workings of the Indian social fabric.
It is for Indians to sort this out for themselves and not be patronized by the West. There are reports that when the Archbishop of Canterbury was in India recently he had the ear of Ms.Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Congress Party and sought her support for the initiative to bring up the question of casteism being a form of racism at the UN. Since the Government of India has not protested at this blatant interference (however well intentioned it may be) in Indian affairs one can only conclude that the Italian Catholic president of the Congress is continuing in the footsteps of British colonials. (Editor's Note: These words were written by the author long before the HAF report. Has HAF fallen into the hands of such alien elements who have been itching to intrude into internal matters of India?)
There is a legitimate fear on the part of far sighted Hindus that this might be a ploy to further the Christian/Western drive to subjugate peoples whom they once ruled over and are now independent nations. The present writer believes that the zeal of these Western inspired moves will only muddy the waters rather than allow for the natural processes of urbanization and modernization to break down unacceptable barriers.
The word ‘unacceptable’ is used deliberately since the movement of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch regards the organization of Indian society in swadeshi terms, that is, in maintaining some form of jatti (caste) economic organization. This is very similar to the Gandhian village republic, where agriculture is the dominant occupation, but also has handicrafts and small scale industries. Small is beautiful is quite a challenge in contemporary India where the idea of India as propounded by people like Nandan Nilekani speaks in the context of large is beautiful (Imagining India,2009). The predicted rising economic growth of 8% plus is an urban vision which may be sustainable in the short term but will leave large swathes of the population behind.
Economists of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch have written intelligently about the prosperity engendered by the ongoing jatti system (S.Gurumurthy). To generalize this onto the larger Indian economy will be the challenge.
In such a context it is ill advised for well intentioned Westerners to muddy the waters. The Dalits and the OBCs (Other Backward Castes) will not benefit from this interference. It will also generate the suspicion that this is not about humanitarian principles of equality and fraternity but another way of attacking an ancient civilization that has endured for millennia.
Old wine in new bottles.
(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university)