How Gandhi Couldn’t Separate Caste From Scavenging Even At Santiniketan

BOOK EXCERPT: Gandhi tried to infuse a spirit of self-help among students, but the experiment caused controversy.

5 min read

Gandhi came to Santiniketan for the first time on 17 February, 1915, when Rabindranath was away. Gandhi left on 20 February, without meeting the poet, when he received the news of Gokhale’s death. Gandhi came back to Santiniketan on 6 March and stayed till the 11th.

It was during this period that he and Rabindranath not only met for the first time but also had their first interactions. Gandhi recalled this visit thus in his autobiography: “As is my wont, I quickly mixed with the teachers and students and engaged them in a discussion on self-help. I put it to the teachers that if they and the boys dispensed with the services of paid cooks and cooked their food themselves, it would enable the teachers to control the kitchen from the point of view of the boys’ physical and moral health, and it would afford to the students an object-lesson in self-help. One or two of them were inclined to shake their heads. Some of them strongly approved of the proposal. The boys welcomed it, if only because of their instinctive taste for novelty. So we launched the experiment. When I invited the Poet to express his opinion, he said that he did not mind it provided the teachers were favourable. To the boys he said, ‘The experiment contains the key to swaraj.’”

BOOK EXCERPT: Gandhi tried to infuse a spirit of self-help among students, but the experiment caused controversy.

The cover of Rudrangshu Mukherjee's ‘Tagore And Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together’.

(Photo courtesy: Aleph Book Company)


No External Ethical Pressure, Said Tagore

This visit and the experiments that Gandhi initiated were not as uneventful and smooth as Gandhi’s account might suggest. There was some opposition from some of the teachers, but there were others who were very enthusiastic. From 10 March, when Rabindranath was actually not present in Santiniketan, the experiments in self-help were put in place. One of the students at that time, Pramathanath Bishi (later to become famous as a writer and teacher), remembered that because of these new arrangements in the ashrama, a satya yuga began for the students, who began doing all the work, and, as a result, studies became irrelevant and no one noticed that.

But actually, some parents did take notice that their sons were learning to cook and clean and chose to bring them back home. One mother wrote that if you have to learn to cook, you will learn it much better at home from me. In reality, the issue ran much deeper than just cooking and cleaning. An early and well-known biographer of Rabindranath noted that in the kitchen and dining areas of Santiniketan, the caste distinctions practised in Hindu society were followed. This matter came up in the conversations between Rabindranath and Gandhi, and the latter said that in the ashrama, everyone should be treated equally, and, in the habits and sitting arrangements of students, there should be no distinction/discrimination.

Those days, Brahmin students sat in a separate line when they ate, and the authorities of the institution did not give any advice or guidance to students on this matter. Each student followed what his guardian advised.

Gandhi said that this practice of Brahmins sitting and eating separately in a different line was against the spirit of an ashrama. In response, Rabindranath said that he had never put any pressure on students regarding their dharma and social attitudes. He added that if they were compelled, they would follow the orders, but the new attitudes would not be implanted in their minds/interiors. He went on to say what was not accepted from the inside voluntarily would have no permanent impact. For this reason, he was not in favour of any external ethical pressure.

Difference of Opinion

Rabindranath noted the controversy that the self-help experiment had caused in a letter (undated, but may have been written around this time) to his son Rathindranath. The letter said: “Here, there is great turmoil [golmal] over eating arrangements [bandobasta]. Following Gandhi’s advice, the boys have taken the responsibility of cooking and are carrying on the work ... The work is difficult but it has started. Through this, some of our problems—financial and others—have been solved. Most importantly, the boys will learn, and after so many years, the process of awakening the spirit of the ashrama to the full will have begun. The boys are all enthusiastic, but some of the teachers are not ... If we remain quiet for some time, things will settle down by themselves. The issue has many complicated elements but they will resolve themselves—if we are patient and quiet there will not be any difficulties.”

That there was a controversy is indisputable and there may even have been some difference of opinion between Rabindranath and Gandhi on these experiments and their implementation.

In this context, one point of detail needs to be noted. Prasanta Kumar Pal writes that Gandhi wrote in his diary on 8 March, “Gurudev left for Calcutta. Had a talk with Andrews [C.F. Andrews], about his conduct.” The meticulous scholar in Pal made him note that Gandhi got the date wrong as Rabindranath actually left for Calcutta on 7 March. But Pal went on to add that “it would appear from the last line in the diary entry that many of Gandhi’s words and actions did not perhaps gain the support of Rabindranath.”

There are many problems with the conclusion that Pal draws. In the sentence, “Had a talk with Andrews about his conduct”, the pronoun “his” almost certainly refers to Andrews and not to Rabindranath. There is an even bigger problem. Pal gives no bibliographical reference to what he calls Gandhi’s ‘diary’. There is no evidence that Gandhi kept a diary in 1914–15, and the quoted statement does not appear in Gandhi’s Collected Works.


But The Experiment Was Dropped

Gandhi acknowledged that the impact of his experiments in Santiniketan had been short-lived. In his autobiography, he wrote, “The experiment was, however, dropped after some time. I am of the opinion that the famous institution lost nothing by having conducted the experiment for a brief interval, and some of the experiences gained could not but be of help to the teachers.” Gandhi returned to Santiniketan on 1 and 2 April, 1915, and in his autobiography noted, “Our stay in Shantiniketan had taught us that the scavenger’s work would be our special function in India.” In August 1918, looking back on his visit to Santiniketan, Gandhi wrote to Andrews, “I think that both you and Gurudev are doing the finest work of your lives. You are now writing real poems. They are living poems. I wish I was in Santiniketan sitting side by side with the privileged boys listening to Gurudev’s discourses and also yours.”

(The above is an excerpt from ‘Tagore And Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together’ by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor and Professor of History at Ashoka University. The book explores the relationship between the two legends through their differences expressed in their writings and letters to each other, and also tries to understand the beliefs that acted as the bond between the two of them. The book is published by Aleph Book Company. Subheadings and paragraph breaks have been inserted by The Quint for the readers' ease.)

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