Gandhi had wanted to settle in a “typical” Indian village. Sevagram, however, turned out to be an uncommonly backward village, and almost impervious to progressive impulses from outside. Some of the psychological resistance he encountered in Sevagram may have been due to adverse political influences from his political opponents in nearby Nagpur. But the real bane of this village was the strangle-hold of untouchability on its inhabitants… Gandhi used every weapon in his non-violent armoury to make a dent on this tyrannical system. He engaged Govind, a Harijan boy, to cook for him. He refused to have his hair cut by the village barber so long as he denied his services to Harijans. Despite high-caste opposition, he caused a private well in Sevagram, owned by Jamnalal, to be opened to Harijans. He argued patiently with the leaders of orthodoxy, who professed to revere him, but were reluctant to shake off their prejudices. “Everything is permissible,” said a village headman to Gandhi, “to a Mahatma like you, but not to fellows like us.”
To Gandhi, untouchability was not merely a religious issue, a question of the interpretation of scriptures; it had a direct bearing on the village economy. The occupation of the bhangi, the scavenger, as the most despised; he was kept at arms’ length even my many Harijans who had their own social hierarchy of ritual purity, This irrational prejudice made it difficult to improve sanitation, and fight disease in the village; it also operated against the use of human and animal excreta as manure.
Gandhi’s preoccupation with these problems jarred on some of his colleagues. They wondered why he should fritter way his energies on such seeming trivialities, when momentous political issues were crying for his attention.
“But is there no better way?” Nehru asked (Gandhi). “Must you do all these things yourself?” “Who else is there to do it?” Gandhi replied.
The village that was his kingdom – Times of India
” What about the Negroes ? ” Gandhi asked.
I talked about the Negro situation in the North and South. I said I did not, of course, wish to defend the treatment meted out to Negroes, but it seemed to me that it was not so cruel as un-touchability in India. ”
As you know,” he answered, ” I have fought untouchability for many years.We have many untouchables here in the ashram. Most of the work in the ashram is done by the untouchables, and any Hindu who comes to Sevagram must accept food from untouchables and remain in their proximit/’
I asked whether the discrimination against un-touchables had been somewhat alleviated. ” Oh, yes, ” he replied, ” but it is still very bad.”
A TALK [August 1, 1936]
(The headman of Segaon had made clear to Gandhiji that he would not co-operate with him on the question of untouchability and for that reason the local barber was prevented from rendering his services to Gandhiji. For Gandhiji’s talk with the headman, vide the following item.)
GANDHIJI :Now, you must see that I am being compelled to grow a beard!
“But my husband is ready to come whenever you summon him!”, says the woman.
GANDHIJI : That I know, but will he shave the Harijans?
I do not know that, Maharaj; but he is quite prepared to shave you.
GANDHIJI : But how can I have his services when my Harijan brothers cannot have them?
A TALK [August 1, 1936]
Extracted from Mahadev Desai’s “Weekly Letter”
GANDHIJI :So, Patil, I must remain without the services of the barber?
PATIL : No, Mahatmaji, he is ready. Shall I send him?
GANDHIJI : I know you can send him. But what about my Harijan son? You must know that I have a family here and Govind is my son. How can I have the barber’s services if he will not allow Govind to go near him? What would you do if you were in my position? Tell me. Supposing you were invited to a place from where your son was deliberately excluded. Would you go there?
“ Now, there, Bapuji, don’t you touch him on the raw”, says Jamnalalji, who has known the old Patil for years. “If someone could assure him that he would go straight to swarga (Heaven) if he were to cast off untouchability, he would do so. But he wants a reliable assurance, and he would not accept ours.” And the room resounds with laughter in which the old Patil joins. “ Everything is permissible to a Mahatma like you, but not to folks like us,” he says and returns.
TALK WITH A BARBER ,SEGAON,
[BeforeAugust 15, 1936]
One morning when I went to Segaon, I found Gandhiji busy pulling to pieces a hair-cropping machine, in order to clean and oil it. That done, he began having a crop with his own hands with a mirror in front of him. At the same moment one of the devotees of the sadhu came in, and he happened to be a barber. “Bapuji,” shouted the sadhu from the opposite corner, “Let Bhima crop your hair. He knows the art.”
[GANDHIJI:] But how does he know it?
He is a barber by profession.
Ah, that is very good. Come along then.
But as soon as Bhima began the operation, Gandhiji asked him:
But I hope you have no prejudice against shaving our Harijan
brethren. Have you? He slightly hesitated, and said: “I have in my heart no prejudice against Harijans.”
That I can believe. But will you shave a Harijan on the same
terms as you would shave me?
Again he hesitated. Thereupon Gandhiji said to the sadhu:
I thought you had ascertained from him this thing before you
asked me to have his services.
“I am sorry,” said the sadhu, “that aspect had for the moment escaped me.”
Then I shall have to consider whether I should stop in the
middle of the crop and dispense with Bhima.
But Bhima said: “No, though I do not usually do it, I promise from now to serve Harijans on the same terms.”
TALK WITH A PATIL
(Extracted from Mahadev Desai’s “Weekly Letter”, 15-8-1936)
[August 15, 1936]
The old Patil… went one evening to Gandhiji saying, “I am ready to have the barber’s services…immediately after he has served Govind.” (The barber for fear of being boycotted by the village Patil and others had refused to shave Govind, a Harijan boy)
GANDHIJI: What then is the difficulty?
PATIL : But now he is asking of me a thing I cannot give.
GANDHIJI: What is that?
PATIL It is that I should once go and feed at his place. With God as witness, Maharaj, I say I have never in my life of about four score years had tea or any kind of refreshment in a hotel. How does he expect me to go and feed at his place?
GANDHIJI I quite appreciate what you say, but why does he insist on your feeding at his place?
PATIL : Because he thinks his castemen might boycott him, and he wants to make assurance doubly sure by having me in his place to eat. Now, Maharaj, is that part of your anti-untouchability programme?
GANDHIJI : Certainly not. I am satisfied if you have conquered the prejudice of touch. Inter-dining is no part of the anti-untouchability progra-mme, though as you know I am having Govind to cook for me. But that is what I would expect every Harijan sevak to do, not you.
Octogenarian Afza Begum, the first Muslim girl to enter Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram at Vardha, is not happy with questions often raised over the Father of the Nation’s commitment towards his family or to the issue of untouchability.
Afza, 87, who suffers from hearing impairment, lights up when asked about her days spent at the Ashram and mentions several instances which made Gandhi the man he was.
“Bapu put his foot down when some detractors tried to keep me out of the community kitchen at the Ashram because of my religion. He protested that I was not allowed in the kitchen, saying he too would not eat if I was not allowed in the kitchen.” Eventually she was given the task of chopping vegetables.
Oct 3, 2009 The Hindu – Sevagram’s first Muslim girl student recalls Bapu