Did Mahatma Gandhi encourage the caste system?

Mahatma Gandhi popularised the term ‘Harijan’ to put ‘untouchables’ in the spectrum of Hindus. This was done to ‘uplift’ Dalits. Decades later, In 2017, The Supreme Court of India ruled that the use of the word ‘Harijan’ should be stopped to address Dalits. Because unfortunately, these words have been molded as abuses since ages for a specific section of the society. 



The condition of Dalits in Hinduism is not unknown to anyone. Manusmriti, the ancient legal book about Hinduism classified the society into four Varnas - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Shudras are supposedly the laborers and service providers. Dalits and Shudras fall into the category of Shudras. Some Hindu priests even claim that these Varnas are like the body parts where Brahmins represent the Head, Kshatriyas represent the hands, Vaishyas the thighs and Shudras represent the feet, degrading Shudras even further. For centuries now, people have believed in this system and practiced it to the extent of killing or brutally punished for doing things that they aren’t allowed to do but the upper caste Hindus are.



Various books and sources claim that Gandhiji was a stern believer of Hindu society’s law of varna that divided the society into four Varnas. He considered varna as the ‘law of life universally governing the human family.’

Gandhiji once wrote that through the Varna of a person is determined at the time of his/her birth but one can lose his place from the higher varna and the person belonging to the lower varna can attain the status of higher varna by displaying the predominant characteristics.


Though Gandhi was strictly against Untouchability this argument in itself is proof that Gandhi was a believer of the Hindu Caste system.



Dr. Ambedkar who fought against the untouchability and caste system all his life had an ideological battle with Gandhiji when it came to the representation of Dalits. Ambedkar was against the use of the word ‘Harijan’ which he believed made reality appear differently. In an interview, Ambedkar gave to BBC in 1995, he said that Gandhiji only opposes the caste system in his English magazines but in his Gujarati magazines, one can see that he has been supporting the caste system.

Ambedkar was also in the favor of separate electorates for the ‘depressed classes’ in the legislature. This decision of British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was opposed by Gandhiji and he went on to go for fast unto death against it. Finally replacing the idea of separate electorates, Poorna Pact was made. According to Bhagwan Das, a historian of the Ambedkarite movement, Poorna pact gave untouchables more seats, fewer rights, and no power. 



While reading, Gandhiji’s autobiography, one thing that as a reader I could understand was how firm Gandhiji was about his ideologies. But aren’t these ideologies hypocritical in nature? He did so much to fight untouchability, then why didn’t he oppose the caste system which divides the society as sternly? 

Kalyan Rao in his novel, ‘Untouchable Spring’ (English Translation) presents an incident when there is a big event planned after Gandhiji along with his disciples opens the temples that were only for upper-class Hindus for Harijans. Later when Gandhi leaves, Dalits get beaten up by those disciples and the temple is cleaned again. 


Ambedkar once said that Untouchables were not a part of Hindus but ‘a part apart’ which seems true even now. The recent killings of two Dalit children in Madhya Pradesh prove that the demon of the caste system very much exists in our country. Gandhiji’s approach to the Hindu caste system seems hypocritical and has not done much to improve their conditions even after decades. Ambedkar and Phule were the activists who should’ve represented Dalits because they were the people who had been through sufferings and not Gandhiji. He was an upper-caste Hindu who was fighting untouchability but not taking a stand against the Hindu caste system. 



Sources - Yourarticlelibrary.com

Untouchable Spring

 Author - Anusha Bhat, 23, New Delhi

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