In his 1984 book, The Untouchable as Himself, the anthropologist, R.S. Khare, speaks of the derision with which Dalits viewed the term, 'Harijan', popularized by Mahatma Gandhi. Khare quotes a Chamar reformer in Lucknow as telling him: "Harijan means what we can never be allowed to become by the caste Hindu, and what we may not want to be anyway. It was a superficial way for Gandhi to resolve his guilt..."
It is well known that Gandhi himself never used the term 'Dalit'. It is less well known that (at least in his English writings and speeches) B.R. Ambedkar did not use that term either. He preferred to call his people either 'Untouchables' or the 'Depressed Classes', the latter a legal category in British India. Although 'Dalit', meaning 'the oppressed', was used in parts of Northern India from the late 19th century, it only gained wider currency in the 1970s, following its adoption by a group of radical activists in Maharashtra who called themselves the Dalit Panthers. Now it is ubiquitously used across India, by Dalits and non-Dalits alike, whereas the Gandhian term Harijan has (perhaps deservedly) fallen out of favour.
When Gandhi first began to campaign intensively against untouchability, circa 1920, he did not refer to the lowest strata of Hindu society as 'Harijans'. Rather, when he spoke or wrote of them in Gujarati, he used the term 'Antyaja' (last-born); and when he spoke or wrote of them in English, he chose to call them the 'suppressed classes'.
In September 1932, Gandhi went on fast in Pune's Yerwada Jail in opposition to separate electorates for the Depressed Classes (which Ambedkar supported). When Gandhi's health began to fail, Ambedkar was made to yield, signing a compromise agreement increasing the number of seats in legislatures reserved for the Depressed Classes, but as part of a joint electorate of all Hindus. After the signing of this 'Poona Pact', Gandhi increasingly referred to the untouchables as 'Harijans', a term meaning 'Children of God'. He thought it less pejorative than 'Untouchable', less patronizing than the colonial coinage, 'Depressed Classes', and more indigenous-sounding than his own earlier alternative, 'suppressed classes'.
The term 'Harijan' had first been used by the medieval poet-saint Narsinh Mehta, whom Gandhi had long admired (Mehta's " Vaishnava jana to" was one of his favourite hymns). In adopting this term for the Depressed Classes, Gandhi remarked: "Not that the change of name brings about any change of status, but one may at least be spared the use of a term which is itself one of reproach."
Gandhi edited a weekly newspaper named Young India. In 1933 he renamed this weekly Harijan, because he believed that the campaign to abolish untouchability was as vital as winning political freedom. India, young (or Young) and old, present and future, had to commit itself to this sacred cause. The name quickly gained currency; among the Hindu middle classes, and the nationalist press, the Untouchables were now regularly referred to as Harijans. However, the euphemism was rejected by B.R. Ambedkar, who never used the appellation to describe his people.
Shortly before he went on fast in September 1932, Gandhi had formed an 'Anti-Untouchability League', vesting the responsibility for running it in the hands of two of his close associates, the industrialist, G.D. Birla, and the social worker, A.V. Thakkar. After the fast had ended and the Poona Pact was signed, this organization was renamed the Harijan Sewak Sangh, which we may translate into English as the 'Servants of Untouchables Society'. Gandhi's colleague, C. Rajagopalachari (popularly known as 'Rajaji'), who had long been committed to the abolition of untouchability himself, objected to the new name. He pointed out that the existence of a Harijan Sewak Sangh "means a continued recognition of untouchables as such". He would rather this body be named the 'Untouchability Abolition League', since, as he put it, what they were striving for was "really abolition of a slave status and the phrase 'Abolition' would be suggestive and emphatic... Service to a group of men is not really the object and aim, if we think about it. It is really the doing away with the evil."
Rajaji wrote likewise to Birla and Thakkar, president and secretary of the Harijan Sewak Sangh respectively. Thakkar was a long-time member of the Servants of India Society, and had earlier founded a Bhil Seva Sangh. Rajaji thought both those names logical, since India was a nation and Bhils a tribe, and both would remain whether one served them or not. But here the purpose was to abolish the practice of untouchability. Hence he wished the new body to be called 'Untouchability Abolition League' or Society, the word abolition being the most prominent part of the name.
Gandhi was agnostic about Rajaji's idea. "The Sangh will not succeed or fail," he wrote, "because of the name. It will be judged by its work." However, since it came from a colleague he enormously respected, he asked Birla and Thakkar to consider Rajaji's suggestion. They rejected it, on the grounds that the name of the society had only very recently been changed from 'Anti-Untouchability League' to 'Harijan Sewak Sangh'. This was done because the respected Pune social worker, V.R. Shinde, was already running an Anti-Untouchability League.
This change of name, wrote Thakkar to Rajagopalachari, was approved by the organization's board, and announced in the press. Fresh stationery had also been printed incorporating the new name. Now, just as "all have got used to the changed name", wrote Thakkar, "comes your suggestion, endorsed by Bapu, that it should be changed a second time". Thakkar admitted that there was 'much logic' in the argument that the aim was not to keep untouchables as untouchables forever. However, he continued, "if we now suggest this second change to the Board, every one will ridicule us, and may not agree to this second change. Not only the members of the Board, but the public at large and the Press will justifiably ridicule the proposal, if it is put into effect". Therefore the board is "averse to the change, though it is reasonable, merely because it is not expedient to do so".
It was a typically Indian scenario. Bureaucratic inertia had triumphed over logic and reason. Worry about adverse commentary in the press, and irritation at the thought of printing stationary afresh, meant that the status quo prevailed. So the name 'Harijan Sewak Sangh' remained, although the alternative would have been less patronizing, more direct.
For some decades now, Dalit thinkers and activists have rejected the term 'Harijan' to describe themselves. The reformer whom R.S. Khare quoted in the 1980s was entirely representative. In fact, even during Gandhi's lifetime, some people found the term 'Harijan' condescending. In April 1944, one correspondent told Gandhi that it instilled "into the minds of the people to whom it is applied a feeling of inferiority, however sacred the name may be". Could not Gandhi replace it with "a name which could also bring into its fold people from other sects"?
Gandhi answered that the name had been originally suggested to him by a member of the 'Harijan' community itself. He agreed that "the feeling of inferiority must go", adding that "the process can be accelerated, if every Hindu would deliberately shed his superiority and in practice become a Harijan... Then we will all become true children of God as the name 'Harijan' means".
The defence was weak, and unconvincing. In truth, Gandhi's own earlier coinage, 'suppressed classes', explicitly targeted social discrimination, whereas 'Harijan' euphemized it. And 'Anti-Untouchability League' was likewise more direct than 'Harijan Sewak Sangh', the term which came to replace it. To quote Rajaji once more, if the aim was "abolition of a slave status" then "the phrase 'Abolition' would be suggestive and emphatic... Service to a group of men is not really the object and aim, if we think about it. It is really the doing away with the evil".
In retrospect, Gandhi may have made a mistake in not endorsing Rajaji's suggestion to rename the Harijan Sewak Sangh the Untouchability Abolition League. Normally so astute in understanding the importance of the right word, the most evocative symbol, he did not here perceive that 'abolition' conveyed a more emphatic meaning than mere 'service'. Surely adequate Indian-language translations could have been found both for 'suppressed classes' and for 'Anti-Untouchability League'. As it turned out, the terms actually chosen by Gandhi turned out to be less than adequate to the task. Moreover, the social workers who ran the Harijan Sewak Sangh placed more emphasis on fostering personal virtue than in removing the civic and social disabilities that the Untouchables suffered from.
Coined admittedly out of good intentions, the term 'Harijan' had problems from the start. And it has long outlived any use or resonance it might have once had.