You would be mistaken if you thought politician’s paying lip service to a cause and furthermore allowing misappropriation and misuse of monies collected from the public for the cause is a recent phenomenon. This phenomenon has been in play for almost nine decades now and the person who presided over one of the earliest such cases is considered as this country’s foremost freedom fighter, respected father figure and a champion of the “depressed classes” who coined the term Harijan (or children of God) to refer to these Untouchables /Dalits/Oppressed classes/Depressed classes. Yes, the person in question is none other than M.K Gandhi. Dr. B.R Ambedkar, a morally upright, intelligent and a tireless worker for the cause of the upliftment of the oppressed classes has accused Gandhi of precisely these above mentioned charges as regards to cause of the Untouchables espoused by Gandhi.
Writing in his book, ‘What Congress & Gandhi have done to the Untouchables’, Dr. Ambedkar squarely indicts Gandhi, who had projected himself as a savior of the depressed classes and the Congress Party that he represented on counts of a) insincerity to the cause of Untouchables as well as b) misuse & misappropriation of public money collected towards working for the upliftment of depressed classes.
Ambedkar drives home the first point by bringing out the various public statements as well as writings of Gandhi in which he made clear the imperative of eradicating Untouchability to the extent of even linking it to the attainment and preservation of Swaraj or self-rule. Removal of Untouchability was one of the five pre-conditions insisted by Gandhi to attain Swaraj in addition to Hindu-Muslim unity, Universal adoption of hand-spun and hand-woven khadi, absolute non-violence & complete non-cooperation.
Ambedkar provides concrete evidence as to how Gandhi’s actions towards this cause came woefully short of the grand display of concerns for the amelioration of the condition of the depressed classes. He poses several uncomfortable questions for Gandhi which highlighted the gap between the lip service paid to the cause of eradicating Untouchability and concrete actions towards that goal:
“In 1921, Mr. Gandhi collected 1 crore and 35 lakhs of rupees for the Tilak Swaraj Fund. Mr. Gandhi insisted that there was no possibility of winning Swaraj unless Untouchability was removed. Why did he not protest when only a paltry sum of Rs. 43,000 was given to the cause of the Untouchables?
“In 1922 there was drawn up the Bardoli Programme of constructive work. Uplift of the Untouchables was an, important item in, it. A Committee was appointed to work out the details. The Committee never functioned and it was dissolved and the uplift of the Untouchables as an item in the constructive programme was dropped. Only Rs. 800 were allotted to the Committee for working expenses.”
“Why did not Mr. Gandhi support Swami Shradhanand who was fighting with the Congress Working Committee for large funds being assigned to the Committee? Why did not Mr. Gandhi protest against the dissolution of the Committee? Why did not Mr. Gandhi appoint another Committee? Why did he allow the work for the Untouchables to drop out as though it was of no importance?”
“Mr. Gandhi has gone on fast many a time to achieve a variety of objects which are dear to him. Why has Mr. Gandhi nut fasted even once for the sake of the Untouchables?”
“Mr. Gandhi declared that he would fast if the Guruvayur temple was not thrown open to the Untouchables by the Zamorin. The temple has not been thrown open. Why did not Mr. Gandhi go on fast?”
“If Mr. Gandhi is the real friend of the Untouchables, why did he not leave it to the Untouchables to decide whether political safeguards were the best means for their protection? Why did he go to the length of making a pact with the Muslims in order to isolate and defeat the Untouchables? Why did Mr. Gandhi declare a fast unto death the object of which was to deprive the Untouchables of the benefit of the Communal Award by this extreme form of coercion?”
“After having accepted the Poona Pact why did not Mr. Gandhi keep up the gentleman’s agreement and instruct the Congress High Command to include representatives of the Untouchables in, the Congress Cabinets?”
On the second point wrt misuse and misappropriation of public funds in the form of Rs. 1.3 crore collected for Tilak Swaraj fund, he lists down the itemized breakup of the grants totaling Rs. 49.5 lakhs that were voted by the Congress in 1921, 1922 and 1923 and says
“The reader may not get a precise idea of the management or mismanagement of public funds by the Congress from this itemized account of expenditure. Was this expenditure regulated by any principle? Was it distributed according to the needs of the Provinces?”
He further provides a breakup of the Rs. 49.5 lakhs by provinces to which these funds were distributed and highlights the following:
“There was not only no principle, there was shameful favouritism in the distribution of the fund. Out of the total of Rs. 49.5 lakhs which was distributed in the three years, Gujrath— Mr. Gandhi’s province—got Rs. 26.25 lakhs while the rest of India got Rs. 28 lakhs. This means that a population numbering 29.5 lakhs got Rs. 26.25 lakhs while the rest of India numbering about 23 crores got Rs. 23 lakhs!”
Dr. Ambedkar brings out the lack of control of the funds vis a vis its purpose of use as well as to whom it was granted by listing down cases of “Moneys allotted but kept at the disposal of individuals without appropriating them to any specified purpose” and “Moneys allotted without Appropriation to any purpose without naming the guarantee” totaling Rs. 1.68 lakhs and Rs. 24 lakhs (totaling one fifth of the money collected) and provides a telling commentary about the state of affairs regarding the use of the huge public monies collected
“It is not known whether these huge sums kept at the disposal of the named payees were accounted for or who received the formidable amounts made payable to the nameless payees. Even if there were satisfactory answers to these questions there can be no doubt that a worse case of frenzied finance of extravagance and waste, it would be very difficult to find. It is a sad episode marked by a reckless plunder committed by the predatory leaders of the Congress of public money for nursing their own constituencies without any qualms of conscience.”
“It is unnecessary to pursue the story of the organised and systematic loot by Congressmen of the balance of 1 crore and 30 lakhs which was spent in subsequent years. It is enough to say that never was there such an organised loot of public money.”
A third and final point that emerges after a reading of the above evidence furnished by Dr. Ambedkar and the public utterances of Gandhi as regards to the utilization of the Tilak Swaraj Memorial Fund potentially opens up queries whether at all the funds donated for specific causes were being used as such. For instance, by Gandhi’s own admission at a speech on 8 Feb 1927 in Pachora when responding to the queries he received about the utilisation of the Tilak Swaraj Fund, Gandhi while inviting the curious to study the audit accounts published by the All-India Congress Committee said:
“Every pie had been properly accounted for. Did they distrust the honesty of the treasurers like Seth Revashanker Jagjivan Zaveri and Seth Jamnalal Bajaj? The fact was that some people had given their contributions specially earmarked for certain purposes and they were being spent for them. For example, Seth Revashankerbhai had himself given Rs. 40,000 for educational purposes in Kathiawar. A gentleman in Bombay had given two to three lakhs for the removal of untouchability and they were being properly used.”
This means that of the Rs. 2-3 lakhs of the contribution to the Tilak Swaraj fund made by one person alone towards the upliftment of the depressed classes was still being used after 6 years! No doubt there would have been monies donated to the Untouchability cause by others as well; but what’s telling is the rate at which one person’s money was still being used (only 1/4th of his donation had been used till 1923; 3 years before Gandhi’s statement in 1927).
The aforementioned three points say a lot about the huge gap between Gandhi’s words and actions when it came to the crucial question of eradicating Untouchability without which Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj was inconceivable by his own insistence.