Discussion with Harijan Sevaks [March 27, 1936]
Q : When untouchability is no more, Mahatmaji, what varna will you assign to us?
A : Who am I to assign a varna to you? But if I had the power, I should declare that we are Hindus, all of the same varna. As I have made it clear over and over again there is no real varna today. When we have come to our own, when we have cleansed ourselves, we may have the four varnas according to the way in which we can express the best in us. But varna then will invest no one with a superior status or right, it will invest one with higher responsibility and duties. Those who will impart knowledge in a spirit of service will be called Brahmins. They will assume no superior airs but will be true servants of society. When inequality of status or rights is ended, every one of us will be equal. I do not know, however, when we shall be able to revive true varnadharma. Its real revival would mean true democracy.
Q :What we want today is not that the caste Hindus eat with us or have marital ties with us. We want rights of true citizenship, equal opportunities.I want my son to have the liberty to be a vakil or a barrister or a doctor according to his own wish
A: You know there is no legal bar against your son being anything he likes. There is custom, hard prejudice and blind superstition. That the Sangh is trying its best to fight. Dr. Ambedkar is a barrister and now a professor. But blind orthodoxy will not treat him as equal with the savarnas. You cannot force them by legal enactment. You can do it by education, by converting the orthodox. There was, for instance, a Harijan who used to sell bidis in Nasik. So long as no one knew that he was a Harijan, he had very good custom. The moment they came to know that he was Harijan, they stopped purchasing bidis at his shop, How are we to compel people to purchase bidis at his shop, otherwise than by showing them that it is inhuman and irreligious of them to boycott anybody by reason of his birth?
Q : But why should we be called Harijans and not Hindus?
A : I know that a small section of you resents the name. But you may know the genesis of the name. You used to be called ‘depressed classes’ or ‘asprishyas’ or ‘achhoots’(untouchables). All these names the vast mass of you naturally resented. Some of you sent their protests to me and asked me to find out a better name. In English I had adopted a better word than ‘depressed’, viz., ‘suppressed’, but whilst I was casting about for a good Indian word a friend suggested the word ‘Harijan’ taken from the song of one of the best of our saints . It appealed to me because it best described your condition and still had no bad odour about it. It means a devotee of God, and as God is the help of the helpless, and as it is the helpless who naturally turn to God, I thought you deserved the name better than I for instance. For whilst I have to aspire to become a Harijan you are Harijans in the very nature of things. But you will say, ‘When your objective is to make Harijans Hindus why don’t you start by calling them Hindus straightaway?’ What am I to do so long as I have not succeeded in abolishing untouchability?
Q : But today, sir, it is an opprobrious term. There is a Brahmin who threatens to hammer us if we call him a Harijan.