Sunday, 4 June 2017

Gandhi, Untouchanility, Orissa

The long deferred Orissa visit has come to fill the bitter cup of sorrow and humiliation. It was at Bolgarh, thirty-one miles from the nearest railway station, that whilst I was sitting and talking with Dinabandhu Andrews on the 11th instant, a man with a half-bent back wearing only a dirty loin-cloth came crouching in front of us. He picked up a straw and put it in his mouth and then lay flat on his face with arms outstretched and then raised himself, folded his hands, bowed, took out the straw, arranged it in his hair and was about to leave. I was writhing in agony whilst I witnessed the scene. Immediately the performance was finished, I shouted for an interpreter, asked the friend to come near and began to talk to him. He was an untouchable living in a village six miles away, and being in Bolgarh for the sale of his load of faggots and having heard of me had come to see me. Asked why he should have taken the straw in his mouth, he said that was to honour me. I hung my head in shame. The price of honour seemed to me to be too great to bear. My Hindu spirit was deeply wounded. I asked him for a gift. He searched for a copper about his waist.
“I do not want your copper, but I want you to give me something better,” I said. “I will give it,” he replied. I had  ascertained from him that he drank and ate carrion because it was custom.
“The gift I want you to give me is a promise never again to take the straw in your mouth for any person on earth, it is beneath man’s dignity to do so; never again to drink because it reduces man to the condition of a beast, and never again to eat carrion, for it is against Hinduism and no civilized person would ever eat carrion.”  
“But my people will excommunicate me, if I do not drink and eat carrion,” the poor man said.
“Then suffer excommunication and if need be leave the village.”
This downtrodden humble man made the promise. If he keeps, it, his threefold gift is more precious than the rupees that generous countrymen entrust to my care. This untouchability is our greatest shame. The humiliation of it is sinking deeper. 
gandhi-on-untouchabilityBut this never-to-be-forgotten incident was only part of the shame and sorrow. Never since the days of Champaran (in 1917) have I witnessed such death-like quiet as I did on entering political Orissa through Banpur. And I fear that the quiet of Orissa is worse than that of Champaran. There was spirit in the ryots of Champaran after a few days” stay in their midst. I doubt if the Orissa ryot would respond so quickly. I was told that the zamindars, the rajas and the local police had conspired to frighten the ryots out of coming near me. I had begun to flatter myself with the belief that the rajas, the zamindars and the pettiest police officials had ceased to distrust or fear me. The experiences of Orissa have chastened me. Being too weak to go about much, I sent my friends among the people and ascertained the cause. They brought the news that people were told, on pain of punishment, not to come near me or to take part in any demonstration in my honour. Such warnings have been issued before and in other provinces, but they have had little or no effect in normal times such as these. The ryots in Orissa, however, seemed to me to be living in a perpetual state of fear and liable to be acted upon by the slightest attempt.
This is a shame both we and the foreign rulers have to share. It is true that the rajas and zamindars and the petty officials are our own kith and kin. But the primary source of fright is in the rulers. Their system is based on ‘frightfulness’. In the name of prestige they have compelled somehow or other the tallest among us to bend low. They have intensified, where they have not created, demoralization. They have known the existence of abject fear among the ryots. But they have done nothing to remove it and the causes, where they have not hugged the condition of things in the alleged interest of their rule. Whilst therefore they may not be directly responsible for the pathetic scenes I witnessed, they cannot be acquitted of a considerable share of responsibility for them. But our shame is greater. If we were strong, self-respecting and not susceptible to frightulness, the foreign rulers would have been powerless for mischief. Those only who are susceptible to fear are frightened by others. And it has to be confessed that long before the British advent we were habituated to fear by our own zamindars and rajas. The present rulers have but reduced to a science what was in existence before in a more or less crude share. The workers in Orissa have therefore to teach the ryot to shed the oppressive nervous timidity bordering on cowardice. And this they will not do by swearing at the zamindar. the raja or the police officials. These latter become docile and even friendly when they find that the ryot has unlearned the unmanly habit.
Young India, 22-12-1927

Gandhi and Andrews were in Bolgarh in Orissa, thirty-one miles from the nearest railway station, when, as Gandhi would report in Young India,
a pariah with a half-bent back, wearing only a dirty loincloth, came crouching in front of us. He picked up a straw and put it in his mouth and then lay flat on his face with his arms outstretched. He then raised himself, folded his hands, bowed, took up the straw, arranged it in his hair…
The man was about to leave when Gandhi asked him to wait. Answering Gandhi’s questions, he said he was an ‘an “untouchable” living in a village six miles away, and being in Bolgarh for the sale of his load of faggots and having heard of me, he had come to see me. Asked why he had taken the straw in his mouth, he said that this was to honour me.’
Placing a straw in the mouth and chewing it was a gesture that ‘superiors’ had long required from ‘inferiors’ in different places, including, across the subcontinent, in the North-West Frontier. At times the ‘inferior’ was also expected to utter, ‘I am your ox.’(Geoffrey Moorhouse, To the Frontier,p. 222-3)

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