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When Coorg got a glimpse of Gandhi’s moral vision

The Living Stream
Last Updated : 16 March 2022, 08:06 IST

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During his first visit to Coorg, in February 1934, Gandhi visited Kaikeri, a bright and attractive Dalit settlement. A public meeting was held amidst its grand natural surroundings. On this occasion, several upper-caste women gave away their gold jewellery for the freedom movement.

Gandhi later addressed a public gathering in Madikeri: “It is a matter of very great joy to me that God has enabled me to come to this beautiful land of Coorg. Ever since I have come here, I have been simply drinking in the natural beauty of the place; and I presume your hearts are as beautiful as your scenery. And yet, there is lurking in my mind a doubt as to the beauty of your hearts; for I see that though there is not that poisonous untouchability here that is found in the plains, there is still some of it in your midst. For, in your address, you have said that temples are not open to Harijans. It is just like a father saying to some of his children, ‘I give you food, clothing, housing but I won’t let you come into the sanctuary of my heart.’ Imagine what those children would feel. So long as you do not allow Harijans to enter temples on the same terms as you do, I cannot say your hearts are beautiful. I wish, therefore, that you will take a lesson from Nature and wash out that black spot on your hearts.”

Gandhi’s reasoning reveals a distinct style of moral engagement.

It was ironic, he pointed out, that nature’s beauty hadn’t found a complement in the hearts of people living in its midst. The practice of untouchability was not as toxic here as it was elsewhere, but moderate untouchability wasn’t any more acceptable. The prejudice had to be overcome completely. And, if a father took care of only the physical needs of some of his children without allowing them space in his heart, how would they feel? To make his listeners empathize with the pain and suffering of being denied entry into temples, Gandhi reached for a moral analogy from family life, and not for historical or sociological discussions. And, the non-Dalits could still make their hearts pure. Gandhi’s faith in the human potential for self-reform and reconciliation is firmly in place.

On the day after his visit to Madikeri, Gandhi addressed a public gathering in Virajpet following the welcome address by a local Urdu scholar: “It was an agreeable surprise to me to receive an address in very choice, correct Hindustani. I am a lover of Urdu and Urdu literature. But I have noticed that down South, it is rare to find an Urdu scholar; and I was not prepared to find good Urdu writing and speaking in Coorg.”

The local scholar had urged Gandhi to do whatever was possible to unite the Hindus and Muslims across India and felt that his campaign to end untouchability upheld the ideal of a common humanity.

In response, Gandhi said: “Of certain things which I hold as dear as life itself, Hindu-Muslim unity, i.e., unity among all the races in India, is one; and as I did some years ago in Delhi, I should be prepared, given the occasion and the inspiration, to stake my life again for the same cause. My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another; and they all have their rise in my insatiable love of mankind. Seeking to realize the oneness of life in practice, I cannot be happy if I see communities quarrelling with one another or men suppressing fellowmen. I am, therefore, glad that this (welcome) address admits that this Harijan movement is one for realizing the substantial oneness of man.”

The stakes behind seeking the unity of Hindus and Muslims (what he termed, “heart-unity” on another occasion) were for Gandhi very high. Ending untouchability was truly an effort to realize the oneness of humans. Achieving togetherness among communities was not a single-point struggle: it was connected with everything else he cared for.

These struggles of Gandhi extend a moral obligation in the present to evolve a response to the rising violence against Muslims and Dalits in the country.

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Published 28 September 2019, 18:23 IST

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