[Author’s note: This narrative is set in the 1930s, when the term ‘Harijan’, coined by Gandhi, was in currency. My usage below is determined by historical context alone.]

Some Congressmen were impatient to launch a fresh campaign against the Raj. Their leader had other ideas. In the face of Ambedkar’s challenge, social reform had to take precedence over politics. Gandhi now decided to conduct an all-India campaign against untouchability. He would begin at Wardha, and then move northwards to Punjab, Sind, Rajputana and the United Provinces. However, he was persuaded by Rajagopalachari to start in South India instead, and cover Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Mysore and Kerala in the cold weather, before returning north to complete the tour.

Gandhi’s campaign formally began on the 7th of November 1933, when, at a village near Wardha named Selu, he opened a temple to “untouchables”. It was, he remarked, “good fortune for me that my tour begins at Wardha, which is the geographical centre of India. I want it also to be the centre of the movement.” Jamnalal Bajaj was based in Wardha; he had already opened his family temple to the lowest-ranked castes. Another longstanding disciple of Gandhi’s, Vinoba Bhave, had made Wardha the base for his own social work. Gandhi hoped that the commitment of Bajaj and Bhave to ending untouchability would “prove infectious and spread through the whole of the country”.

...Gandhi used his tour both to spread the message and to collect money for the cause.

After each talk, he would ask for voluntary donations to the Harijan Sewak Sangh. Men would offer cash; women, jewellery. Next, Gandhi would pull out signed photographs of himself, and have them auctioned. “Do rupiya ek bar”, he would say, the floor price is two rupees. One member would bid higher, another still higher. Ultimately each photo would go for ten rupees or more.

Next, photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru would be sold, in case the young men present admired him more than the Mahatma. In some places photos of the Muslim nationalist MA Ansari were sold.

Apart from photographs, gifts received by Gandhi were also auctioned. At many places he was offered a written address on embossed paper, handsomely framed. This would be put under the hammer, the selling price often exceeding a hundred rupees. In one place, an oil painting of Gandhi was offered to him; this was then auctioned for six hundred rupees. Occasionally, the shaving stick used by Gandhi that morning would also be bid for. By these varied means Gandhi gathered an ever increasing sum for his work.

Gandhi’s meetings were attracting critics as well as supporters.

A group of orthodox Hindus from Banaras, led by one Swami Lalnath, had come south to try and stop his tour. They followed Gandhi from village to village, lying down in front of the car that conveyed him. Lifted up and taken out of the way by Congress volunteers, they then turned up at the meetings, heckling the speaker and showing black flags. Sometimes they went so far as to burn Gandhi’s effigy.

As was his wont, Gandhi sought out the critics. He sent for Swami Lalnath, and tried to talk him out of his opposition. The Swami told Gandhi that he was paying him back in his own coin, offering satyagraha to the originator of satyagraha. As he frankly admitted, “we want to be hurt by the police or by your volunteers. When this happens I know you would give up the tour.”

...In the town of Akola, some of Ambedkar’s followers came to meet Gandhi. The questions and criticisms they put to him, and the answers and explanations he gave, were noted down by a journalist on the spot:

Ambedkarites: You posed at the Round Table Conference as a Harijan leader and denied the leadership of Dr Ambedkar.
Gandhi: No, I said there that I was the representative of millions of people of India. I said I shared along with Dr Ambedkar the responsibility of looking after the Harijans’ interests.
Ambedkarites: Dr Ambedkar opposed you at the Round Table Conference. By doing so did he do justice or injustice to the country?
Gandhi: He thought he did justice, but I was of opinion that he did injustice.
Ambedkarites: People have pictures of Lokmanya Tilak with four hands. They worship it. Do you have any objection if we had a picture of Ambedkar with four hands and worshipped it. We believe he has done us good.
Gandhi: You have a right to do that. Whenever the conversation between me and Vallabhbhai in the Yerwada Jail turned upon the Poona Pact, I used to picture in my mind’s eye Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, whom I wanted to please. I regularly read the Janata, the weekly of his party. I admire him. I may differ from his views, but admit he is a brave man. Brave men also err. I consider myself a brave man and I confess I have committed many mistakes.

The disputants parted amicably, with the Akola Ambedkarites offering Gandhi a garland, which he gratefully accepted.

...In his struggle to abolish untouchability, Gandhi was caught between radicals and reactionaries. For some, like Ambedkar, he was going too slow. For others, like the priestly orthodoxy, he was going too fast.

There was a third group unhappy with Gandhi’s social reform work. This comprised many of his own partymen. As the Chief Secretary of UP reported, “the younger members of the Congress party are definitely opposed to Mr Gandhi on the Harijan question and regard the movement as reactionary and a waste of time and money”. One young Congressman complained to Stanley Reid, the editor of the Times of India, that “Gandhi is wrapped up in the Harijan movement. He does not care a jot whether we live or die; whether we are bound or free.”

...In the third week of January 1934, a massive earthquake hit Bihar. When the news reached Gandhi he was in the town of Tirunelvelli. Speaking at a public meeting, he saw “a vital connection between the Bihar calamity and the untouchability campaign. The Bihar calamity is a sudden and accidental reminder of what we are and what God is; but untouchability is a calamity handed down to us from century to century. It is a curse brought upon ourselves by our own neglect of a portion of Hindu humanity.”

Here, Gandhi merely coupled the natural calamity of the earthquake and the social calamity of untouchability. In his next speech, in Tuticorin, he made the latter responsible for the former, asking his audience “to be ‘superstitious’ enough with me to believe that the earthquake is a divine chastisement for the great sin we have committed and are still committing against those we describe as untouchables…”

Gandhi’s remarks reached his friend and critic, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore at once issued a public statement deploring the linkage of “ethical principles with cosmic phenomena”.

Indians were, he said, “immensely grateful” to Gandhi for having made them free “from fear and feebleness” through his social and political campaigns. Yet Tagore was “profoundly hurt when any words from his [Gandhi’s] mouth may emphasise the elements of unreason”, especially when “this kind of unscientific view of things is too readily accepted by a large section of our countrymen”.

Tagore’s chastisement of Gandhi is reasonably well known. Indeed, it was invoked again during the Nepal (and Bihar) earthquake of April 2015. It it impossible to justify Gandhi’s statement, but the biographer must set it in context. It stemmed from his frustration at the deep-rooted prejudices of his fellow Hindus, that he had been trying so long and heroically to combat.

In 1915, Gandhi had travelled across India in an attempt to get to know his country better. Now, this second all-India tour, conducted almost two decades after the first, sought to rouse the conscience of his compatriots against the pernicious practice of untouchability. In Gandhi’s own eyes, his anti-untouchability tour was every bit as important as the Salt March of 1930. For he had long believed that India would be fit for freedom only when it had stopped treating a section of its own population as unfree, less than human. Yet whereas the Salt March received widespread acclaim from his countrymen, this tour evoked indifference and even hostility from many Indians.

For all his preaching, Gandhi’s compatriots warmed to the idea of political independence far more than to the ideal of social equality. This left him hurt, bitter, angry, confused – thus his superficially silly remarks about the earthquake in Bihar.

His irrational explanation of the Bihar earthquake did not stop Gandhi from working hard to bring succour to its victims. In every subsequent speech during his tour, he raised money for the reconstruction of homes and families in Bihar. He collected more than a million rupees, then a colossal sum, which was duly passed on to his old associate Rajendra Prasad, who was co-ordinating the relief efforts in his home state.

Bihar was Gandhi’s karma bhumi, the first place in India where he had worked for any length of time. The towns and villages he had travelled through in 1917 had been devastated by the earthquake. The homes of friends and colleagues in Muzaffarpur, Champaran, Motihari and Bettiah were reduced to rubble. In the last week of January, he wrote Rajendra Prasad an anguished letter. “What do you advise me about my tour in Bihar?”, he asked: “Would it be proper for me to come there in connection with untouchability? Should I come there in connection with the alleviation of suffering? Will my not coming there be preferable?”

In the end, Gandhi decided to complete his tour in South India before going to Bihar. In the third week of January, he was in the Tamil town of Devakottai, where there had recently been clashes between “untouchables” and Nattar landowners. Gandhi met the Nattars, his conversation with them, snatches of which are reproduced below, making for an interesting comparison with his exchange with the Ambedkarites of Akola:

Gandhi: I hear some Nattars, or many of you, object to Harijans’ wearing the clothes they wish to. You object to their making uses of the very temple to the building of which they have contributed. You insist on Harijans doing certain things for you. If any Harijan transgresses the limits, he comes in for bodily injury. Now I suggest to you it is wrong to injure any person bodily or otherwise when he does not do as you would have him to.… But I want to go a step further. Just now I am touring from one end of India to the other to tell the Hindus that it is a sin to consider a single human being as an untouchable, that it is sinful to consider any single human being as lower than ourselves, that Harijans have the same rights as you and I and other Hindus have.
Nattar Representative: With regard to the dress, they [the Harijans] must not wear new modes of dress, when they come to our homes, and on festive and public occasions...We have fixed the mode of dress to many castes according to their vocations or customs. Customs must not be transgressed...I say that for Harijans not to observe customs is bad.
Gandhi: Things were done in many parts of India according to custom. But when people found they were wrong, they gave it up. No man – this is the law of the land – shall determine what is good for another man or what another should or should not do.

...Gandhi now visited the great temple towns of southern Tamil Nadu. At Srirangam, he was dismayed that the town’s hallowed Vaishnavite shrine was “not open to Harijans precisely in the same manner that it is open to caste Hindus”. A few days later, Gandhi was in Tanjore, home to the even older Brihadeeswara temple, a Saivite shrine this time, and one of the glories of Hindu architecture. On his morning walk he had passed by the temple, which, as was customary in these parts of South India, rigorously excluded all except upper-caste Hindus. But then, “within probably a few seconds or a few minutes of passing by the temple”, Gandhi saw the sun rising above the horizon. I asked myself whether he rose only for caste Hindus or whether he rose for Harijans as well. I discovered at once that he was absolutely impartial and had probably to rise more for the Harijans than for the caste Hindus, who had plenty of wealth and who had shut themselves up in their palaces, shutting out light even beyond the rise of the sun...If that temple designed by God opens out to the whole world, shall a man-built temple open less for Harijans?

Gandhi was speaking at five or more meetings a day, each time ending with an appeal for funds. One colonial official, while obviously at odds with Gandhi’s politics, was nonetheless impressed by his “amazing toughness. Although obviously tired and exhausted…, he did succeed in carrying through a programme which would have killed any weakling.”

In the next issue of Harijan, Gandhi printed a memorandum which had been submitted at Coonoor on behalf of the Depressed Classes of the Tamil districts. This listed eighteen different kinds of disabilities they suffered at the hands of caste Hindus.

These included lack of access to restaurants, hotels, shaving saloons, wells, tanks, post offices and of course temples; prohibitions on burying or cremating their dead in villages where they lived; prohibitions on the kinds of clothes they could buy or wear; being shut out of public latrines and schools built by the State out of public funds; harassment or even violence if their men rode bicyles; prohibitions on their commissioning musicians to perform at their weddings.

Having printed this “formidable catalogue” of grievances, Gandhi commented that “the shame of caste Hindus will continue so long as these disabilities are practised in the name of religion, no matter to how little or great an extent”. He called upon Sanatanists to join hands with reformers such as himself “in protecting Harijans from humiliations heaped upon them in the name of religious custom.” He added: “There will be no rest for me nor society, so long as untouchability persists.”

...Gandhi now moved westwards, across the sub-continent to Bombay. Here he had a meeting with Ambedkar, who told him that instead of providing education or health facilities – properly the domain of the Government – Gandhian social workers should “concentrate on the primary object of securing full civic rights for Harijans, such as the right to draw water from public wells and to send children to public schools, without any discrimination being exercised against them”.

Gandhi asked Ambedkar to send him cases of continuing discrimination that came to his notice. He then said that on his tours he had noticed a “change for the better”, but “progress in that direction would be accelerated if he had the Doctor’s valued co-operation”.

In the third week of June, Gandhi arrived in Poona, a great, historic, city, once home to the Peshwa kings, still home to some of the most learned scholars in the Hindu tradition. Prior to Gandhi’s arrival, a procession of several hundred Sanatanists, led by a man dressed in black and riding a black horse, marched through the streets, bearing placards saying “Oppose the Temple Entry Bill”, “Victory Follows Tradition”, and “Do Not Give Reception to Gandhi the Destroyer of the Hindu Religion”.

The anger against Gandhi in Poona soon took a more extreme form.

On the evening of the 25th, he was being driven to a public meeting at Poona’s Municipal Hall. Kasturba, who had recently completed her prison term, was with him. At 7.25 a car drove up to the Hall, and the boy scouts band, thinking it was Gandhi’s, began playing a tune of welcome. As the music began, a bomb was thrown from the upper story of a house. It missed the car and exploded on the street, injuring five people, including a policeman. The bomb was aimed at Gandhi, but as it happened, the car the assailants had targeted was not his. He arrived a little later than expected; his vehicle had been held up at a railway crossing, and reached the venue three minutes after the explosion.

In its editorial published the next day, the Bombay Chronicle offered thanks that Gandhi’s life was saved. While the Mahatma was unharmed, said the newspaper, “every Indian will hang his head down in shame today because evidently it was the hand of an Indian which threw the bomb and the kind of an Indian that conceived the Satanic idea of taking away a life that has been dedicated to the service of fellow-beings in a purer and more devoted manner that that of any living human being…”

In his own statement to the press, Gandhi said “the sorrowful incident has undoubtedly advanced the Harijan cause”. He continued: “I am not acting for martyrdom, but if it comes in my way...I shall have well earned it, and it will be possible for the historian of the future to say that the vow I had taken before Harijans that I would, if need be, die in the attempt to remove untouchability was literally fulfilled.”

...Gandhi’s tour had now gone on for a full eight months. With him on his journeys across India were members of his staff, and a few intrepid reporters. An Andhra journalist who covered the tour wrote of how it had consolidated Gandhi’s place in the affections of the ordinary Indian, who “ran after him in crowds on foot out of the cities and sought just to touch the hem of his garments. Whether it was in the forest regions of Betul in biting winter, or on the parched dreary waste of Bellary in the hottest part of the day, whether it was in the populous cities on the plains, or in the quiet hamlets hanging on the heights of the Western Ghats – unbounded was the enthusiasm of men, women and children to catch a glimpse of him who had sworn to fast unto death to uplift the seventy million people who are depressed and made lowly and humble by age-old oppression.”

In the last week of July, Gandhi arrived in Banaras, chosen as the last stop on the tour for its religious significance. On 29th July, speaking to the Central Board of the Harijan Sewak Sangh, he complained about the quality of the social workers who had joined his anti-untouchability campaign. “They have not given their whole time to their work”, he said, adding, “they do it in a leisurely fashion”. What he wanted, and the country needed, were individuals “whose sole ambition is to devote themselves body, mind and soul to the Harijan cause. If we had ten thousand such workers – I make bold to say even if we had a thousand, we should have startling results.”

The next day, he addressed a public meeting, in which the conservative element was significant, if not preponderant. A locally respected priest, one Pandit Devanayakcharya, speaking before Gandhi, had insisted that untouchability was sanctioned by the Shastras and thus part and parcel of Hindu dharma. According to a police informer in attendance, the Pandit “spoke clearly and forcibly and held the attention of the audience until he spoilt any effect he might have had by undue verbosity and was eventually shouted down.”

Gandhi spoke after the Pandit. Describing the practice of untouchability as “a blot on Hinduism”, he noted that in Banaras and elsewhere in India “a dog can drink from a reservoir, but a thirsty Harijan boy may not. If he goes, he cannot escape being beaten. Untouchability as practised today considers man worse than a dog”.

Gandhi dealt with the problem of untouchability on several other occasions during this visit to Banaras. In one speech, he chastised the Municipality for making ‘untouchables’ live in the dirtiest and most disease-prone parts of the city, “in a place unfit even for cattle”. In another, he deplored the restrictions on inter-dining and inter-mingling so prevalent in Hindu society. He categorically stated that “birth and observance of form cannot determine one’s superiority or inferiority. Character is the only determining factor.” He went on: “God did not create men with the badge of superiority or inferiority, and no scripture which labels a human being as inferior or untouchable because of his birth can command our allegiance...”

Let’s consider these sentences again. Birth cannot determine one’s superiority or inferiority. Character is the only determining factor. Gandhi had clearly considerably moved on from his previously timid, hesitant, attempts to question untouchability while keeping the structure of varna intact.

Back in 1916, Gandhi had chosen Banaras to make his first major political speech since his return to India. Now, almost two decades later, this ancient city of the Hindus was the place where Gandhi concluded his year-long campaign against the scripturally sanctified practice of untouchability.

Excerpted with the author’s permission from Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, Ramachandra Guha, to be published next week by Penguin/Allen Lane.