‘The elevation of the depressed classes‘ is an invigorating speech delivered by Gopal Krishna Gokhale at the Dharwar Social Conference on 27th April, 1903. The speech is passed over as a resolution on the elevation of the depressed classes (untouchability) – concerns with the lowly position of the Harijans of India and the injustice meter out against them. Unfortunately, after almost twelve decades, this topic is relevant even today.
THE ELEVATION OF THE DEPRESSED CLASSES DETAILED SUMMARY
Gokhale begins by greeting the gentleman. It is unsatisfactory and painful to be treated as oppressed classes and every citizen should consider it his duty to raise the moral and social conditions of such classes by rousing their self-esteem, education and employment. It is unjust and shameful for upper castes to treat people as lowly classes. Gokhale feels that the lowly classes also have same physical and mental attributes, but they still lead a low life of utter wretchedness, servitude and mental and moral degradation. It is painful to call them low castes and deplorable that it constitutes a grave blot on our social arrangements.
The condition of the lowly classes is to continue more or less for generations with no positive sign of improvement. It is very pathetic that we touch a cat, a dog and other animals, but we feel it a pollution to touch a human being. Their mental degradation is complete that they show no resentment on such treatment and feel it a duty to acquiesce to it.
Next Gokhale goes on to recall the speech of Mr Govind Ranade in Bombay, some seven or eight years ago under the auspices of the Hindu Union Club. That was when Mr Gandhi had come on a brief visit to India and people came to know about ill treatments meted out against Indians in South Africa – they were not allowed to walk on the streets, were denied permission to use first class in railway, were not permitted to enter into hotels and so on by British white people there. Indians were considered as black in Natal, Cape Colony and Transvaal, and the white people practiced the policy of apartheid against them.
People in India were enraged at this shameful state of affairs in the British regime. Ranade boldly asked the fellow Indians whether we were not doing the same injustice to the fellow Indians in India in the practice of untouchability. He asked further why we were sympathetic only with the Indians who have gone abroad and callous towards the so called low castes residing in India. Because, it is easy to reprimand foreigners. But in fairness, we should “Turn search-light inwards” – turn to our own faults. The people who had tolerated injustice within their own country and encourage such activities, had no moral right to pinpoint at the injustice by other people.
Gokhale, after done recalling Ranade’s speech, goes on to differentiate the caste system in India with that class system of Britishers. A shoemaker’s son in Britain may dine with Royal people. His shoemaker’s business has nothing to do with and he can become a higher class with no restriction. But in India, such a thing is impossible. Our society remains stagnant only because of such caste system and progress is possible only after the sufferings of untouchables have gone. This is a question of humanity.
We hesitate to have contact with them as long as they remain Hindus. But when they go out and become Christians, we are ready to shake hands with them and look upon them respectable. It is strangeous and no sensible man will say that this is a satisfactory state of things.
The Harijans should be uplifted to a respectable state in society. It is possible only through proper education and honourable employment. To achieve this most urgent task, the young educated mass should come forward voluntarily. It is question of justice, humanity and national interest.