By Anmol Kaur Bawa, Symbiosis Law College, Pune.


The term “harijan” is not Gandhi’s coinage. The name was suggested by several untouchable correspondents who contended the usage of the word “asprishya” meaning literally “untouchable” in the pages of “Navjivan”.  Harijan means “man of god”. All the religions of the world describe God pre-eminently as the friend of the friendless, help of the helpless and protector of the weak; hence the word aptly demystifies the condition of the untouchables in India as the most helpless, weak and friendless men in the society and according to Gandhi, they belong to the community of untouchables.

Gandhi emphasized on the root of the cause; he believed that the biggest social disability attached to Harijans was the religious realm in which the discrimination against them was encouraged. This is of grave concern, as religion now is being used as a weapon by the orthodox to eradicate humanity in the name of the maker of mankind. More or less, it is a question of purification of Hindus and Hinduism, of a vital change of heart of the so called caste or high-class Hindus.


The only way social change could be brought about is by inner-cleansing, as propagated by Gandhi. His mission covered a much wider theme than the economic welfare of Harijans. We are no doubt bound to jealously guard their economic and educational welfare, but this is not enough, if we are to work on reparation for Harijans, for their untold hardships; they are entitled to precisely the same rights and privileges as any other citizen. Gandhi envisioned the first step of his mission as inviting Savarna Hindus to wash themselves clean of the guilt of untouchability and if they failed of such a duty, Gandhi contemplated about a dark era of Hinduism.

A change can only be brought when we break the shackles of “maryada Dharma”, as such principles, merely being socially created norms which have no divine ascent, in the opinion of Gandhi, were not an essential part of Hinduism. Unfortunately, “maryada Dharma” is used as a weapon to restrict people from stepping beyond the societal boundaries and empathizing with the Harijans.


The name “Harijan” has sacred associations; it was suggested by a Harijan as a substitute for Asprushya (untouchable), Dalit (depressed), or for the different categories of ‘untouchables’ such as Bhangis, Chamars, Mehtars, Pariahs, etc. The government officers put them in a schedule and started calling them the scheduled classes, thus making the confusion worse. We have now arrived at a stage, thanks to the government policy, wherein, to be included in the scheduled classes, is coveted. The Government has created a separate electorate agitating for the seats in all elective institutions. Gandhi did not mind such ambition, if it carried honest merit, but it becomes positively mischievous, when seats are covered irrespective of merit.

The wish to be educated as to be qualified for the highest post should be appreciated and encouraged, however the wish to be appointed to such post on the basis of belonging to a caste or class is essentially to be deprecated and discouraged.

Gandhi’s approach to eradicate untouchability was not by the use of such risky political weapons like reservations, but by a mass drive towards self-realisation and self-instruction. As only when we, as individuals, experience the hardships faced by the Harijans, can we learn to empathize and not sympathize, as reservations for scheduled classes is an expression of “social sympathy” and not concrete change. Gandhi admitted that the journey to self-purification is long and requires spontaneity.  


In a nation where reservations for the scheduled classes has not only become a burning question but also a slapstick answer to the concern for “social welfare”, we seem to have forgotten the Gandhian teachings of inner-cleansing. The politicisation of  reservation in the name of “welfare of scheduled classes” has unfortunately deviated the society and government’s actions from the very purpose with which “positive discrimination” was introduced in the first place.

The expression “reservations” alternatively referred to as “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination” or “compensatory discrimination” refers to justice granted to persons belonging to historically disadvantaged groups. In India, reservations mandated by the Constitution are implemented in the form of percentage-based quotas favouring citizens from traditionally lower rungs of the society.


Indra Sawhney, a journalist, had filed a writ petition challenging the constitutionality of the policy of Mr V.P. Singh’s government, in light of Article 16 of the Constitution, wherein the nine judge bench of the Supreme Court was vastly divided in opinion. The consensus ratio being 4:5 for and against the policy, the Court emphasised that caste had become the “cancer cell of Hindu” society and announced that the position in the Hindu hierarchy should be used as a criterion to determine if a class could be considered backward. In the case of non-Hindus, the extent of backwardness of a community would be assessed on the basis of non-caste factors, such as income level and education.

Further, the Court held that those who formed the “Creamy Layer” of OBCs should be excluded from the reservations regime. The Court specifically mentioned that it did not aim to perpetuate caste consciousness in India, but it did intend to acknowledge existing social realities rather than sweep them under the carpet.


The Mandal Commision and the subsequent Indra Sawhney Case were a classic manifestation of the modern approach to the issue(s) of the socially ostracized. In contrast to Gandhi’s idea of self-cleansing, the policy of reservation appears to be poles apart, thereby taking a demonic form under the garb of “welfare” preached by the political stalwarts. The most unnoticed aspect in the entire scenario was how violent outbursts took place in an attempt to “uplift” the socially deprived; this in its entirety goes against the Gandhian principles of AHIMSA as a tool fix matters.

In my opinion, the Courts and Government policies have been adopting a rather technical and quantitative approach towards curbing casteism, whereas the Gandhian approach is sheerly spiritual and talks about day to day practicality. While the Gandhian approach emphasizes on action and self-experience, the modern reservation approach presses on documentation and limits itself to only designated administrative work, failing to curb the issue from its root. Somewhere, the political ambitions of individuals in power, end up corrupting the system by putting forth unreasonable policies. This however did not exist in the Gandhian propaganda, where collective mobilization for individual internalisation was encouraged.

Moreover, it is ironic to see how the lessons provided by the Father of our Nation have been violated and ignored in the lust to gain power and political support. Reservation in its entirety defeats the purpose behind the entire concept of “harijan”; rather than social inclusion of the ostracized, their exclusion has been encouraged by way of category-wise identification, glorified through reservation policies.



  1. None High, None Low by Gandhi- Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan Publication
  2. 10 Judgements That Changed India by Zia Mody