On This Day: Gandhi begins 21-day fast to highlight plight of untouchables

Julian Gavaghan
Yahoo News.

MAY 8, 1933: Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi began a 21-day fast on this day in 1933 in a bid to highlight the plight of his country’s ‘untouchable’ community.

The former lawyer described the action – his third hunger strike in eight months over the issue – as a religious act of ‘self purification’ rather than a political protest.

He managed to go without food for the full 21 days despite succumbing to a sickness bug and being warned by doctors that he would not survive.

However, few members of the Dalit untouchables caste – so named because other Hindus are supposed to isolate them from the rest of society – were pleased.

Their leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who defied discrimination to become a top lawyer, accused Gandhi of actually serving members of the upper Brahmin caste.

Gandhi, who defiantly wore the humble single-sheet khadi to show his support for India’s poorest, had opposed the idea of Dalits forming their own electorate.

The idea of untouchables voting in their own national constituencies was proposed at the second Round Table Conference in London in September 1931.

Gandhi, who was filmed at his East End digs in a British Pathé newsreel, believed the measure would split Hinduism in two.

The following September, while in prison, he persuaded the British to repeal the Community Award laws after hunger striking for six days in a ‘fast unto death’.

Gandhi, who went on a total of 17 fasts ranging between one and 21 days, used them among a host of acts of civil disobedience to bring about change.


[On This Day: MP Terrence MacSwiney dies in first major Irish republican hunger strike]


He encouraged Indians to boycott British goods and in 1930 famously completed a 240-mile march to the sea to illegally make salt.

Gandhi, who began his political activism in South Africa while working there as a lawyer before World War I, believed ‘Indianness’ transcended religion and caste.

He encouraged his supporters to defy discriminatory laws and suffer punishments without responding violently.

Yet his call for unity often dissatisfied many Brahmins, Hindu nationalists and Muslims as well as untouchables.

He vigorously protested against calls for partition.

In the end, the subcontinent was divided with tragic effect after Pakistan and India became independent on the 14th and 15th August 1947 respectively.


[On This Day: Gandhi assassinated in Delhi]


Violence ensued as 7.2million Muslims went to Pakistan from India while another 7.2million Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan in the aftermath.

Between 500,000 and a million people died in the chaos, which has caused strained relations and conflicts between India and Pakistan ever since.

Yet, despite opposing partition, many Hindu nationalists still saw Gandhi as being pro-Muslim.

Five months after independence, when aged 78, he was assassinated by a fellow Hindu Nathuram Godse after calling for India to share its cash deposits with Pakistan.

He had declared his resolve to live in Pakistan in order to forge good relations between the two countries.

Yet he had no shortage of Hindu devotees and supporters in India and his birthday – October 2 – is now a national holiday and his descendants still dominate its politics.


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At his funeral, two million people joined the five-mile procession that took five hours to get from Birla House to Raj Ghat, the country’s most famous cremation spot.

Following his death, Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful resistance inspired a host of other protest leaders, including Martin Luther’s King’s U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

Untouchability in India was made illegal in 1950, but, despite later affirmative action measures, caste discrimination continues.