Tridip Suhrud's Mahatma

By Rajiv Shah
It was a lovely evening in Ahmedabad, and I decided to go to Gandhi Ashram with a friend to have a chat with a senior Gandhi scholar who sits quietly in a modest, less than 10x10 room – Tridip Suhrud. Suhrud is currently involved in digitizing anything and everything related to Mahatma Gandhi. “We have already digitized nearly five lakh pages and put them online, including Gandhiji’s complete works. Once we have finished digitizing around 25 lakh pages, which would include works by all those who have worked and interacted with Gandhi, you wouldn’t need to go anywhere to do research on Gandhi. All you would need to do is to go online”, he tells me modestly as I begin talking to him.
A reputed social activist, Achyut Yagnik, known as an expert on Gujarat and Ahmedabad (Penguin has published his books on the cultural history of both), introduced me to Suhrud in mid-1990s. At that time, Suhrud was a faculty at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Thereafter, I would meet Suhrud at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT), in Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital, where he taught political science and cultural history, his areas, to those ICT students who wanted go to go beyond ICT.
What a contrast it was! I thought. The mundane Gandhi hut where he sits now stands in sharp contrast to the upscale DAIICT campus. Always amenable to interact as a “master”, as he called himself informally and with a smile, I decided to ask Suhrud a controversial subject: A section of the Dalit intellectuals accuse the Mahtma of being casteist. What does he say? “Granted”, he said, repeating, “Granted… Gandhi had his own limitations, he couldn’t come out of a certain framework. But answer me one simple question: Who made untouchability a national issue, when it wasn’t on agenda, and fought against it despite huge opposition from the upper caste Hindus?”
Suhrud said, “And, who directly interacted with Babasaheb Ambedkar? None but Gandhi. There are umpteen letters between the two. Others like Rabindranath Tagore or Sardar Patel merely followed Gandhi’s views on untouchability, not beyond. None but Gandhi fought manual scavenging, called it national shame. During the trips he made to Gujarat villages, for instance, during the Dandi march, there were cases when the huts where he stayed put were ‘purified’ by setting them on fire. Often, he would be made to stay outside the village. He was considered ‘impure’ because of his views on untouchability and his unusual ways of supporting the untouchables.”
Pointing out that there are a large number of examples of this kind, the professor – who wore a trendy blue khadi kurta and a black bandi, but looking through his mundane classes – added, “In villages, high caste people would listen to him on British Empire, but when it came to untouchability, they would just back out. Show me if there is another example of this kind. Tagore wrote poetry against untouchability, following Gandhi, but never actively interacted with Ambedkar. Sardar Patel, who, following Gandhi, disapproved of untouchability in all his speeches, but didn’t take it up as campaign.”
Suhrud referred to the controversial Pune pact of 1932, where Ambedkar and Gandhi agreed to have reservation for “depressed classes” – now referred as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. “Ambedkar wanted separate electorate for the depressed classes, which Gandhi opposed. Separate electorate would have meant Dalits could vote only to Dalit candidates, none else. The British supported such an arrangement. Few see the reason why Gandhi opposed it. It would have deprived large sections of Dalits to vote in areas where upper caste persons are candidates, especially where they are in extreme minority. Besides, other sections of society couldn’t vote for the depressed class candidates. It would have meant an end of interaction in society. Gandhi rightly opposed it”, Suhrud said.
Ask him about the objection Dalit intellectuals raise on the use of term Harijan, and Suhrud clarifies: “There was no word like Dalit during the national movement. The term Dalit came into force in 1950s, it was coined by Ambedkar. The so-called untouchables were referred to by upper classes derogatorily like ‘dhed’ in Gujarat. So, Gandhiji identified them as Harijan, or God’s children. What’s wrong in that? The fight against untouchability was the fight for Harijans as a community. They were called depressed classes by the British, and were identified as Dalits by Ambedkar in 1950s.”
Suhrud concluded by insisting that there is a need to end the move to pit Gandhi against Ambedkar . “The legacy of both is a force to be reckoned with in case Indian society has to reform”, he said. I instantly remembered how my friend Martin Macwan, a Dalit rights activist, had to face the ire of sections of Dalits during shobha yatra a year ago, when he projected Gandhi and Ambedkar together in an effort to highlight untouchability, prevailing in Gujarat cities and villages. Some Dalits threatened him he wouldn’t be allowed to enter into Ahmedabad; but the yatra didn’t stop.
Suhrud’s reference to Sardar Patel made me curious, as the Iron Man is in focus over the debatable plan to build the world’s highest statue in his memory in the midst of Narmada river for Rs 2,500 crore. It’s a mystery what Sardar thinks of untouchability. I decided to investigate. Urvish Kothari, a Gujarati publicist, who has written a book, “Sardar: Sacho Manas, Sachi Vat” and has studied Sardar as few have, told me, “To Sardar, Gandhi’s word was the gospel truth. He just followed Gandhi.” A Dalit intellectual, whom I know well, Chandu Maheria, forwarded me an article he had written on the subject several years ago in the Gujarati periodical “Dalit Shakti”.
Maheria refers to how, in 1924, thanks to the Sardar’s effort, a Dalit, Kachrabhai Bhagat, got a ticket to fight polls to Ahmedabad municipality despite stiff opposition, and ensured his victory; how he called himself “municipality’s bhangi” during that period in order to fight against insanitary conditions, which resulted in plague; and how he decided to sat with the “untouchables” in November 1922 during a Congress meet in Kathiawad where there was separate sitting arrangement for the Dalits.
But, as Suhrud told me, the Sardar didn’t have an “independent view on untouchability, like Gandhi. He was an organizer, and followed Gandhi.” Well-known sociologist Prof Ghansyam Shah, in his article, “Traditional Society and Political Mobilization: The Experience of Bardoli Satyagraha (1920-28)”, published in “Contributions to India Sociology” (1974) refers to some of Sardar’s speeches to suggest that the Sardar had no concrete views on caste. Prof Shah points to how the Sardar told upper caste people to “strengthen” caste organizations in order to fight the British Empire.
As for the “untouchables, dublas, and artisans”, while addressing them in the rural areas around Bardoli, the Sardar told them that it was their “dharma” to be loyal to their masters who belonged to the upper castes. “The government wants to divide you and the shahukar, but for you, your shahukar is everything. You should laugh at and consider him a fool if somebody says that you should change your shahukar. It is just like saying that to a pativrata (chaste and dutiful wife) that she should change her husband. How can you leave the shahukar who had helped you in your difficulties?”, the Sardar had wondered!

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