There are a number of things that distinguish Gandhi from most of his fellow freedom fighters and the leaders of that time. One of them is that he gave equal importance to one more thing along with the struggle for independence, and that is, the emancipation of people supposedly of the lower caste. Gandhi's work against untouchability began in South Africa around five decades before our
independence. One of the incidents that occurred in his Kochrab Ashram when he returned to India shows us how much importance he gave to the concept of equality. The year was 1915. Thakkar Bappa, a close associate of Gandhi, sent a dalit by the name of Dudha Bhai to live in the ashram. Everyone in the ashram, including Kasturba, was opposed to this, and this was specifically due to Dudha Bhai's supposed lower caste. Gandhi made it clear that Dudha Bhai would not leave the Ashram. Anyone who was not comfortable with this was free to leave. He was informed that no one would agree and that even the funding for the ashram might stop. This did not deter Gandhi, and he said that he was ready to shift his ashram to the Dalit basti, even if it meant that his ashram would have only two members, namely Dudha Bhai and himself. Finally everyone turned around, except Gandhi's sister Gokiben, who left the ashram as a result of Gandhi's firm stance on this issue, never to return.
Why did Gandhi give so much importance to removing untouchability, or discrimination based on caste? Let's reflect on that for a moment. I think it is because the freedom that he was fighting for was not just political. He didn't merely want a different set of people in the corridors of power. Freedom for him meant freedom for each and every citizen of India. A freedom, which could only be born from genuine equality, and the protection of the dignity of every Indian. Untouchability was clearly incompatible with his vision of freedom.
Today many of us have a vision of what our country should be, what it can be, what India's rightful place in the world is. Many of us dream of India becoming a super power. But can this ever happen in a country where society is so fractured; where walls divide us? Can we ever achieve our vision if we don't believe in a shared social good? A common vision?
What do I mean when I say shared social good?
A public property is a shared social good, a street or a road is a shared social good, our public health system is a shared social good. Unfortunately we are so fractured that we don't see all this as ours. No wonder we throw garbage on our roads because we don't really see the road as ours. We are not interested in our public health system because we don't really see it as ours, which is why it is in shambles. We can have a shared common goal, or a shared vision, only if we as a people are one.
Our forefathers who wrote the constitution of our country, led ably by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, have clarified and laid down their vision for us. A vision of a country where all are equal. Where brotherhood and fraternity are pillars of our constitution. Our leaders have shown us the way. They have laid down laws which instruct us that discrimination based on caste and religion is illegal. Now, we have to find place in our hearts to follow them. We have also to find place in our hearts to accept that discrimination between people is against the very concept of humanity.
To be a cohesive team, and to have a common, shared vision, we have to start by first accepting that we have differences, that we have walls, barriers. Then, we have to start working towards removing these differences. For example, there are umpteen housing societies all across the country which don't sell houses to either Dalits or Muslims or Hindus or Christians or Sikhs, etc… or to people from a different caste. This kind of petty thinking has to be done away with. And perhaps a great way to start making amends and moving in the right direction is to start with our children. Let us not sow the seeds of separation in our children. Let us not teach them the lessons of differences that we have been taught. And maybe if we stop practicing these differences, in the innumerable ways that we do, then these divisions will not percolate to our children.
When I speak of a shared vision, of a shared common good, I am reminded of my own shortcomings in this regard. One of the most heart breaking encounters for me on the show was listening to Mr. Bezwada Wilson speak about manual scavenging. Words fail me. I am ashamed to admit that it was as late as last year when I was going through the research material, at the age of 46 that I came to recognize and actually see the existence of manual scavenging. At this late age for the first time I felt the horror and inhumanity of it. How could I have for 46 years accepted, without batting an eyelid, the fact that some of our countrymen are made to clean the excreta of others with their hands as a means of survival? That they have no means of escape from it because of the caste that they are born into? Why didn't I notice or react to this earlier? Not because it wasn't happening around me. No. I did not notice it because I guess I had grown so used to seeing it around me right from my childhood that it didn't seem unusual to me! And since I was not the victim, the horror and injustice of it probably did not occur to me! I am afraid I am guilty of this insensitivity on my part. How can I even think of a shared common good as long as manual scavenging exists?
Well, having reacted to it now, I think it's high time I do something about it. Because, I do believe that we should work towards a shared common good, a shared vision, a dream which can belong to all Indians.
Jai Hind. Satyamev Jayate.