Ambedkar’s protest against the term “Harijans”

Over Dr. Ambedkar’s vigorous protests, in January Congress adopted Gandhi’s own term “Harijans” (“Children of God”) as the official name for the “scheduled castes.” In protest against a term that he considered condescending and meaningless, Dr. Ambedkar and his party staged a walkout from the Bombay Legislative Assembly. (TIMELINE)

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (Bombay City): I am very sorry, but I think I cannot help saying that this is a matter on which the wishes of this group ought to have prevailed with Government. Nobody would have been hurt, the interests of the country would not have been injured if the amendment moved by my honourable friend Mr. Gaikwad had been accepted. In view of the fact that Government wishes to use its majority in a tyrannical manner, I am afraid we must show our dissatisfaction by walking out in a body and not participating further in the day’s proceedings.

The Honourable Mr. B. G. Kher: I hope the honourable member (Dr. Ambedkar) will give me an opportunity of saying a few words.

It is a very sad commentary that feeling in this country, where even the slightest question of caste or creed is concerned, is so very touchy. As the honourable the Leader of the Independent Labour Party knows, since a long time an attempt has been made to take away from currency in our language the wards “Asprishya”, because the very idea is a reminder of the most painful associations, of what has been universally now admitted to be a stain on Hinduism. I quite agree with the honourable member Mr. Gaikwad that by merely changing the name we will not achieve this object The present section is an attempt in that direction. To remove the question of untouchability. We tried an alternative expression; we wanted to say “Parishishta Varga “. But ” Parishishta Varga ” is the translation of the English expression ” Scheduled class “, and we thought that ” Parishista Varga ” would be a very inappropriate expression to introduce into the Marathi language. If instead of using the English expression ” Scheduled Classes “, we wanted to have a synonym for that expression, we had to accept this expression ” Parishishta Varga ” as the only alternative to denote what class was meant. I can quite understand, feeling as they do, that they do not like any attempt to differentiate them from the rest of the Hindus, but even for the purpose of legislation, to achieve this result even for bettering the condition of this class, we have to designate them as apart from the other Hindus—we may call them Asprishya or by any other name, and the fewer the expressions we use to differentiate and classify as different such a large body of Hindus the better;but I know that since the last 4 or 5 years the word ” Harijan ” has now gained a currency in the whole if not in the whole of the country, at least in many parts of the country. This is an attempt to substitute a word for the expression ” scheduled class ” which ought to have met with the approval of the honourable member, the Leader of the Independent Labour Party. It is extremely unfortunate that he does not look at this question in that light, but if he suggests as alternative which is suitable for the expression ” scheduled class “, I do expect it will be possible to spare his feelings. In the alternative, I do appeal to him, at any rate, to read into this section no desire to hurt the feelings of a large class of people, who are unfortunately known as ” untouchables “, but merely a desire to recognise an expression which has, for such a long time, gained currency would appeal to him not to see in the word ” Harijan ” and in the definition, an attempt to cast any reflection on his community.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar : Sir, as you have ruled that this is not an occasion for making speeches, I will not make any speech. All that I will say is this that I am not in a position to suggest any better name, but I must say that the name ” Harijan ” has now become practically equivalent to the term “ Asprishya “; beyond that there is nothing remaining in that name, and I would think that if the Honourable the Prime Minister had felt in the same way in which we feel that the word ” Harijan ” has now become identical with the expression ” scheduled class ” then it was his duty, for the moment, to have withdrawn that word, and later on he could have discussed the matter with us with a view to find out some alternative term. His arguments, however, have not carried any conviction to us. I will, therefore, leave the Hall.

(Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and other members of the Independent Labour Party then walked out of the House.)

B.L.A. Debates, Vol. 2, pp. 510-12, dated 22nd January 1938

Image source : Caravan magazine


One last word. The reader will find that I have used quite promiscuously in the course of this book a variety of nomenclature such as Depressed Classes, Scheduled Castes, Harijans and Servile Classes to designate the Untouchables. I am aware that this is likely to cause confusion especially for those who are not familiar with conditions in India. Nothing could have pleased me better than to have used one uniform nomenclature. The fault is not altogether mine. All these names have been used officially and unofficially at one time or other for the Untouchables. The term under the Government of India Act is ‘Scheduled Castes.’ But that came into use after 1935. Before that they were called ‘Harijans” by Mr. Gandhi and ‘Depressed Classes’ by Government. In a flowing situation like that it is not possible to fix upon one name, which may be correct designation at one stage and incorrect at another. The reader will overcome all difficulties if he will remember that these terms are synonyms and represent the same class.


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