Gandhi's March Past

FROM that day last March when Mahatma Gandhi set forth from home on his cross-country progress to the sea, up to the hour of his arrest, two months later, so much reportorial attention was focused upon his words and deeds that no major aspect of either, it would seem, could escape our daily news.

One facet of the news, more lasting in import than the news itself, does however appear to have passed unnoticed. This is the measure of Gandhi as a social reformer afforded by successive incidents in that brief trip.

In order to catch the thread, it will he necessary to recall in turn certain main headings of Gandhi’s social reform programme as proclaimed by him during the last decade. And the end may best be served by turning briefly to his own pronouncements.


Gandhi has written continuously, and with a frankness that spares no detail, of the ‘total disregard of the elementary laws of health ’ ‘ so ingrained as to defy all human effort’ that has undermined the physical status of the Hindu peoples. He has deplored, in disgust and dismay, the personal habits ‘selfishly persisted in’ ‘without regard to the well-being of society,’ ‘painfully witnessed’ by himself in his Indian journeyings, alike in cities and in what he styles ‘the seven hundred thousand dung heaps which pass muster as villages.’ (Young India, December 5, 1929)

And of any attempt either to minimize the importance or to defer the finish of such conditions the Mahatma has written thus sternly: —

There is, I know, the custom of saying that these reforms must not be permitted to take the nation’s attention away from the work of Swaraj. I venture to submit that conservation of national sanitation is Swaraj work and may not be postponed for a single day on any consideration whatsoever. . . . For the removal of a foreign government, it is necessary to remove all the internal causes of disease. Corporate insanitation is not the least of such diseases. (Young India, April 25, 1929)

One of the four great endemic diseases of India is smallpox. Always invited by the extreme ‘corporate insanitation ’ of the Hindus, it only awaits host vehicles to rise from any infected centre and sweep across the land, rolling up great harvests of death.

Of smallpox, the Encyclopædia Britannica says that it is ‘probably the most contagious of all diseases. Its outbreak in epidemic form in a locality may frequently be traced to the introduction of a single case from a distance. . . . Dark-skinned races are said to suffer more readily and severely than whites. . . . All insanitary surroundings favor the spread of smallpox where it has broken out.’ This authority further gives the period of incubation as from ten to fourteen days; or as a period considerably shorter, according to the circumstances of exposure.

Now Gandhi, although admitting that vaccination produces ‘a seeming immunity’ to the disease, publicly denounces vaccination as a ‘dangerous and filthy habit.’ Yet, in view of the fact that the British public health service has persuaded an increasing number of Indians to the contrary, Gandhi concedes a point. ‘Convinced anti-vaccinationists’ such as himself should, he has said, impose isolation on themselves in time of epidemic. (Young India, July 18 and August 8, 1929)

Only seven months later, however, the obligation is disowned. Gandhi’s Ashram, on March 12 last, was a smallpox pest centre, several deaths having already occurred therein. (London Times, March 12, 1930) But, far from ‘imposing isolation’ on himself in consequence, we find Gandhi, that day, starting forth from his Ashram with seventy-nine disciples to march one hundred and sixty-five miles or more across a populous countryside. And it is certain that a considerable percentage of the seventynine, who had been exposed to the Ashram’s contagion, had followed their master’s anti-vaccinationist teaching.

For, in their leisurely progress toward the sea, we find men day by day dropping from the ranks, to be lodged upon the mud villages along the route of march — stricken down by smallpox and sown like deadly seeds in ground superlatively favorable to increase. (New York Evening Post, April 5, and New York Times, April 6, 1930)

The result, as mirrored in public health records, is scarcely a surprise: After the first ten days of Gandhi’s march, while the Bombay Presidency as a whole reports a decrease in cases of smallpox, the figures rush upward in that particular section through which Gandhi is moving.


A second main heading in Gandhi’s social reform programme has been what he calls ‘the Running Sore,’ or ‘the Curse of Child Marriage,’of which he prints, in one of his paper’s many attacks upon that intrenched custom, ‘It is a very important cause of the gradual and steady decline of Hindu society in point of (1) numbers, (2) physical strength and courage, and (3) morality.’ (Young India, August 26, 1926) Neither has he failed to bewail, time and again, the unhappy condition of child-wives, or to denounce the greed, the superstition, the heartlessness, or the lust of those party to the occurrence and consummation of such unions.

The so-called Sarda Act, passed by the last Legislative Assembly and forbidding the marriage of girls under fourteen years of age, went into effect on April 1 of this year. As April drew nigh, the Hindu rush to anticipate the day turned into a veritable cyclone of marrying. Babies a few weeks old were put through the ceremony. The necessary functionaries, though working incessantly, could scarcely meet the call. In one district alone, in the week ending March 31, one thousand marriages were hustled through, the average age of the victims being between five and six years.

This fever, in greater or lesser degree, burned all over India. Ahmedabad, the city at whose very door lies Gandhi’s Ashram, was already aflame when the Mahatma, seemingly without an effort of protest, turned his back on the place and its tragedy, to begin his march to the sea. All along his route, in the villages where he rested between his brief daily stages, the people’s most pressing interest was that of wedding their girl babies. Hindu fathers who might under other circumstances have balked at a match too unequal as to age were now hurrying infants of six or seven years into the arms of husbands of fifty or sixty. And yet, in spite of the facts daily and nightly dinned into his ears by the marriage drums, Gandhi seems to have acknowledged no duty to use his own great influence toward staying that grim sacrifice.

It is not that he keeps aloof from the people. On the contrary, as he moves down toward the sea he exhorts them often and with fast-increasing heat. But his call is never for mercy to the children — only for destruction of Government. Sedition has now become his religion, he declares. And he appeals to the marriage-mad villagers to that end — that they make sedition their duty.

But not until March 25 — thirteen days after he marched away from his own city to the rhythm of its wedding music — do we find him lifting his voice against the ‘crime’ so

often denounced by him in earlier times and now being heaped mountain-high in his path, as if either to force his intervention or to prove his insincerity. It is in the little town of Tresela that the exception occurs. And its cause, as appears, is merely the Mahatma’s displeasure because, when he signifies his desire to address the people, those are few who care to hear him.

‘Commenting on his scanty audience,’ runs the Associated Press dispatch of the day, ‘Gandhi said, “without knowing what is proposed in the Sarda Act, you are afraid of it, and are busy marrying off little children. All this ignorance is the cause of your slavery!’”

If Gandhi made any effort earlier or other or stouter than this to stay the tragedy raging all over British India, but nowhere more monstrously than in the region through which he passed, the watchful American and European pressmen gathered about him to give us news of all that he did or said have strangely failed to report him.

Comment may be left to an Indian writer in the Times of India,writing while yet the marriage rush was on: —

Thousands of innocent kiddies are being forced into indissoluble wedlock, in view of the ‘impending danger,’ and not a little finger is raised to dissuade the people against this cruel business. . . . May I know where is the soul-force which some years back weaned schoolboys and college students from their Alma Maters? [An allusion to Gandhi and his campaign to boycott educational institutions, in 1921.] Where is the mighty influence that prevailed upon the Bardoli peasants to refuse to pay the tax? [An allusion to Gandhi in his campaign of 1928-29.] This is the time for our leaders to prove true to their responsibility. But instead there is silence. Are they afraid to face unpopularity in carrying out a huge agitation against the slaughter of the innocents? When the Act comes into force, the unpleasant tasks will be assigned to Government, but for the present discreet silence is the better part of patriotism in the eyes of our great men.

The ‘slaughter of the innocents’ was over—the girl-babies in their thousands had been irrevocably sacrificed, the Sarda Act had been eight days in effect, before Gandhi, in his increasingly vehement exhortations of the people, saw fit to strike the chord of chivalry toward women. He is addressing the villagers of Aat, inciting them to ’non-violence’: —

Resist the confiscation of salt from your grips with all your might till blood is spilt. All women and children should also resist. Let us see whether the police dare to touch our women. If they do, and if the sons and daughters of India are not so emasculated as to take such an insult lying down, the whole country will be ablaze. (New York Times, April 9, 1930)

But the baby-wives were already sealed away beyond all human rescue; and no Great Soul, no Mahatma, no spiritual politician, had lit the smallest fuse in their behalf to fire an indignant country.


A third main heading in Gandhi’s social reform programme has been ‘ Untouchability.’ The term ‘ Untouchability ’ betokens a state of existence lived out in abject and hopeless serfdom, imposed by Hindu religious custom, and by that only, on sixty million human beings attached as slaves to the Hindu mass.

Gandhi has described the system as ‘the Shame of Hinduism,’ ‘the Hydra-Headed Monster,’ and over the past ten years or more has arraigned it in words such as these — declaring, too, that Untouchability must go before Swaraj can come: —

We Hindus may not expect freedom so long as we hold a fifth of ourselves as bondmen unfit even to be touched and sometimes even to approach us within a certain distance or to be seen by us. (Young India, December 12,1929)

He has admitted Untouchables to his little Ashram. He has forced his Hindu audiences elsewhere to permit Untouchables to share with them the benefit of his presence. He has induced the passage of Anti-Untouchable resolutions in Hindu congresses. And yet, where the waters of the ancient ocean of Hinduism have for a moment parted at his command, they have closed at his passing, to lie stagnant as before.1

As to Gandhi’s counsel to the Untouchable himself, it has run mainly thus: That he cleanse the thoughts of his mind and stop drinking fermented date-palm sap and eating carrion, snakes, and frogs; that he maintain a submissive spirit, refraining from any form of self-assertion unwelcome to the Hindu; that he continue patient and diligent in his present lot, leaving any improvement to come, if or when it comes, as a spontaneous gift of grace born of a change of heart in the Hindu; and that he venerate the Hindu religion despite the fact that he has been forbidden to approach its shrines or to receive its teachings, the religion in whose name all his sufferings are imposed.

This doctrine the Untouchable seems to have heard with the meekness born of his history, while to Gandhi himself, so far as he knows of Gandhi’s existence, he has rendered a sort of melancholy gratitude as toward a kind if ineffective friend.

Meantime, however, certain other influences, quieter, older, less negative than Gandhi’s, have been slowly permeating the Untouchable mind. Of these the most far-reaching has been the even hand of British justice.2 Wherever his fate has depended upon the free action of a British civil servant, whether magistrate or administrator, unfettered by Hindu law, the Untouchable has learned to expect judgment based solely on the merits of his case, dealt out by a practical man who sees in him, not a lump of pollution, whom to abuse is to further the will of the gods, but a fellow citizen entitled to citizen’s rights. And the ultimate effect of this tradition and experience has been to breed in the Untouchable a lively conviction that his only earthly hope lies under the British flag.

Each succeeding development of the Indianization-of-Government scheme he has therefore opposed.

Thus in 1917, when the Secretary of State for India visited the country heralding the present ‘Reforms,’ many Untouchable deputations waited upon him, entreating him, in the name of honor and of mercy, to stay his hand. Characteristically of all of these, one delegation declared, for the body behind it, that it ‘deprecates political change and desires only to be saved from the Brahmin, whose motive in seeking a greater share in the Government is . . . that of the cobra seeking the charge of a young frog.’

Eleven years later, in 1928, when the Simon Commission came to India to study the position with a view to future action, emissaries bearing petitions from the Untouchables both early and often appeared before it. And these, in antipodal opposition to Gandhi and his party, desperately implored that there be no further diminution of the British element in Government—no further ‘abandonment’ of their people to the blasting tyranny of Hindu control.

When, therefore, in 1929, Gandhi proclaimed his threat of war to the finish against the British power in India, the thinking element among the Untouchables could not hesitate. Grateful they had been for the Mahatma’s words of sympathy. But for whatever concrete benefits they had received in the past, for whatever solid hope they could perceive for the future, they could see but a single source. Self-preservation must determine their choice. By the beginning of 1930, here and there over British India an Untouchables’ self-defense movement was already developing.


Modes of action differed. Having little or no access to the Hindu press, some Untouchable groups printed handbills, denouncing the Hindu politician, ‘reformer’ or otherwise, and calling on their fellow outcastes to count up their wrongs for a reckoning. Others held meetings, where their orators reminded them that, however submissive they had been in the past, the future belongs to men of heart. Others, again, beleaguered Hindu temples in protest against that acme of degradation implied in being held unfit so much as to look upon the images of the Hindu gods.

Of this latter type was a great procession of Untouchables who, on March 2, appeared before the famous Kalarama temple, in Nasik, Bombay Presidency, demanding admission to the shrine. The priests barring the doors against them, they sit down before the temple, in silent immobility. Two weeks later neither side has weakened, but a new batch of outcastes has relieved the first. Yet again two weeks and a great Hindu religious feast is on; the Untouchable besiegers are blockading the temple approaches with their bodies, lying on the earth so close together that any Hindu endeavoring to pass within and worship must touch their flesh and be defiled. Upon this, riots begin. The Untouchables are assaulted; many are badly hurt; their camp is wrecked; the Nasik police with difficulty hold at bay an angry mob of Hindus bent on violence. But the Hindus of the outlying villages destroy the huts and cut off the food supply of their own Untouchable serfs.

Again ten days and we find the police of Nasik collecting 4000 of the massed Untouchables, and, lest they be killed outright, escorting them from town, amid the jeers of great Hindu crowds who mercilessly maul such stragglers as they can catch. But still the siege persists. By the first of May the Hindus of Nasik are stoning the humble petitioners still sitting before the temple gate, and the Hindus of the neighboring villages are flogging old men, women, and children, and fouling the Untouchables’ water holes. (Calcutta Statesman, May 8, 1930)

During all but the earlier and quieter period of this drama, Gandhi, Champion of the Untouchable, has been wandering about the countryside but little over a hundred miles away, speech-making. Embarked on what he calls the supreme effort of his life, with ever-waxing violence he exhorts his fellow Hindus to prepare themselves, by rigid spiritual purification, for final war upon Government.

Do the silent besiegers at Nasik hope that this purification involves help for them? Their wrongs, so Gandhi has declared during years past, are the Hindu’s foulest sin, only to be canceled ‘when the Hindu conscience is roused to action and of its own accord removes the shame.’ (Young India, June 30, 1927)

Surely, then, in his present assumption of Hindu spiritual leadership, his first duty is to arouse the Hindu conscience— to purge that foulest sin away.


And now, all over India, groups of awakened Untouchables are sternly watching. In meetings in widely separate regions, they pass resolutions, warning Gandhi that since he has seen fit to abandon their cause to attack a Government that is their friend, they will oppose his activities to the extent of their power.

But Gandhi, turning away the messengers of these bodies, withholds a public reply until his civil disobedience campaign is five weeks old. Then, ignoring his long-declared doctrine of Hindu guilt, to be faced and removed by Hindus alone; ignoring his own present responsibility as self-elected warder-in-chief of the Hindu conscience, he speaks, tossing both burdens aside with utter ease. Untouchability, so he declares in effect (Young India, April 17, 1930), is fostered by the British Government, which rejoices to see divisions in India. Any trouble that may have arisen in Nasik is therefore Government’s fault. Government could have reasoned with the Hindus, dissuading them from assaulting the suppliants; could also have reasoned with the suppliants, dissuading them from provoking the Hindus. But Government. is not disinterested. And in any case the English, as rulers, ‘can do, have done, no good to any of us.’ As for the Untouchables, as he told them before, so he tells them again: They had no need to try to enter the temples of the Hindus, where their presence was undesired. Hindu reformers will attend to ‘temple entry’ and to whatever else needs attention, all in good lime.

Meantime, ‘sedition’ is the Mahatma’s mission — that and that only. So he returns to it. The oracle door shuts.

And, as it shuts, the clang of its shutting almost inevitably recalls the words of an eminent Muhammadan,

member of the Indian Central Committee (Report, Supplementary Note, London, 1930): —

I invite the special attention of British statesmen and politicians to the sorrows and sufferings of these unfortunate downtrodden Hindu victims of Hindu tyranny and oppression. ... I appeal to them for those castaways. ... I earnestly trust that the countrymen of Buxton, Wilberforce, and Clarke will not allow themselves to be hypnotized by the charms and siren songs of any ambassadress or the subtle sophistries of any pundits and priests from India to forget the claims of these people to special protection and safeguards.3

Thus ends the field review of Gandhi as a Hindu social reformer. Insanitation, Child Marriage, Untouchability — each his furious battle-cry in his years-long wars of words; each paraded before him, for action, in intense concrete form, during the first five weeks of his ‘final’ campaign; each allowed to pass without one opposing effort recognizable as such by our many eager chroniclers who watch him day by day.

  1. As at Mahad the Hindu population soon after a visit from the saint broke loose in riot to pummel their Untouchable neighbors, shouting ‘Hail to Mahatma Gandhi!’ as stones flew and the long sticks rose and fell (cf. Young India, June 30, 1927), so Gandhi’s Hindu audiences of succeeding years have paid him the tribute of courteous hearing, of a passing gesture or two, and then, commonly, have continued in the ancient way. — AUTHOR
  2. The Simon Report (Vol. I, p. 40) gives as its impression concerning the present condition of the Untouchables ‘. . . that there is a slow but real improvement beginning in some areas. It is beyond doubt that there are those among the higher-caste Hindus who have labored zealously in the cause of the depressed classes, and not without effect; the missions have done splendid work in giving them a new dignity and a new hope; and we must mention with admiration the efforts which we saw being made by the Salvation Army for some of the most degraded.’ The Simon Report also mentions, in high terms, the spirit animating the work for Untouchables carried on by the Seva Sadan, the Deccan Education Society, the Brahmo Samaj, and the Ram Krishna Mission. Upon all such Hindu movements, however, whether of organizations or of individuals, the class-conscious Untouchable looks more and more askance. Not unnaturally, he sees in this new concern for his wellbeing an anxiety, bred of the present political situation, to build up the Hindu majority rather than to improve his lot. -AUTHOR
  3. Islam does singularly little proselyting in modern India. But the doors of its democracy are open to all, and an increasing number of Untouchables are taking asylum within. — AUTHOR