Ambedkar and Gandhi

Print edition : July 25, 2014
This book has been a long time in the coming, and even if it falters at places, it still serves an important function.

THE seminal text Annihilation of Caste, which Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar self-published almost 78 years ago, was republished by Navayana Publishing Pvt. Ltd earlier this year as an annotated version, with a hotly debated introduction by the Booker awardee Arundhati Roy. Titled “The Doctor and the Saint”, the introduction dwells extensively on the Ambedkar-Mahatma Gandhi debate and provides a note on the Poona Pact. Ambedkar’s text was an undelivered speech prepared for the annual conference of the Hindu reformist group Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal in Lahore, which was cancelled by the reception committee “on the grounds that the views expressed in the speech would be unbearable for the conference”.

The text subsequently put out by Ambedkar, sold for Rs.8 in 1936, was translated into six languages and has since been widely circulated for a trifle or for free and read voraciously by those interested in probing the issue of caste. The new hardbound by contrast costs more than Rs.500 and is clearly meant for a different target group. It may not supply new information to somebody familiar with the problems of caste, but for the uninitiated it is an excellent treatise on the historical background of caste and its terrible ramifications in modern India.

The way Ambedkar’s speech was aimed at an upper-caste audience to jolt it into seeing the “veritable chamber of horrors” that Hinduism is for Dalits, women and other suppressed groups in society, this new edition, it would seem, is meant for a readership that chooses to remain unaffected by the problems of caste in India.

To that effect, it helps that Arundhati Roy was chosen to write the introduction. It ensures that the original text will now be read by a cross section of people who were hitherto ignoring, or were ignorant of, Ambedkar. Any engagement with Ambedkar’s ideas by an upper-caste person demands self-criticism and a renunciation of Brahmanical beliefs and practices. Given the reluctance of even the scholarly to engage with issues of caste or their tendency to do so in a patronising, condescending or derisive fashion, Arundhati Roy’s attempt at a politics of solidarity with the Dalit movement should be welcomed. Besides, hers is a strong voice, received grudgingly in India but with a global resonance few in the subcontinent can command.

Recognising this contribution, the 10th chapter of the Samata Parva Pratishthan in Yavatmal, organised by women, bestowed the Mahatma Jyotirao Phule-Dr Ambedkar Samata Ratna Award on Arundhati Roy. Speeches by Harshadeep Kamble; Madhav Sarkunde, spokesperson for the occasion; Kancha Ilaiah; and Arundhati Roy were recorded and can be heard on the Awaaz India channel. This gesture by the organisation is an important lesson in building the politics of solidarity across caste lines.

Severe criticism

The book came under severe criticism from some Dalits on social media, unusual for a community that considers people from minority religions part of a common fraternity. They questioned Arundhati Roy’s right to “introduce” Annihilation of Caste. Some people even proclaimed that “Ambedkar needs no introduction”.

While the final word on such accusations comes from Ambedkar himself, who said, “We are against Brahminism but not against Brahmins,” it will be unfair to brush the criticism under the carpet by calling it the rant of a few. For while “The Doctor and the Saint” is a valuable expose on Gandhi’s shifting politics in search of personal growth, it cannot serve as an introduction to Annihilation of Caste as it does not tackle the issues raised in the text at any length, as Gail Omvedt, co-founder of Ambedkar Studies, pointed out in her review.

Eye-opener

It would have been better if Arundhati Roy’s article had been carried along with the book as a separate text rather than being categorised as an introduction. But it does an excellent job as an eye-opener, to use a euphemism for the rude awakening it will be for millions of people, in India and abroad, brought up to believe in the uncompromising greatness of Gandhi, the Saint.

The first part of her article (which is longer than Annihilation of Caste) talks about the caste discrimination and atrocities lower castes are subjected to even today, while the second part is devoted to discussing Gandhi and bringing him down several notches. But she treads lightly and clarifies that the criticism is not aimed towards Gandhians but towards gaining a more accurate understanding of Gandhi himself, who was a complex man. Her writing reflects what must have been her own personal journey of untangling the real Gandhi and seeing him topple from his pedestal while unravelling the intelligence and compassion of Ambedkar.

Who should read this text? Anybody who is interested in human rights, not just in India but also abroad and especially in South Africa where Gandhi embarked upon his political career and to date enjoys unbounded stardom amidst the Indian community and the Africans. While there is some debate on whether Gandhi did more harm than good to Indian settlers in Africa, to the likes of Reverend Desmond Tutu, Gandhi was a fellow traveller in the fight against apartheid.

For people like him who may not have even heard of Ambedkar, it will be a rude shock to know that instead of being considerate to the indigenous people of Africa, Gandhi despised the “kaffirs” and dreamt of an imperial partnership with the British in the colonisation of Africa. While fighting for the rights of passenger Indians, Gandhi distanced himself from the natives and argued for separate entrances at post offices and separate prisons for the Indians settled there because he could not bear to share the same space with those who “are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals”. But many years later, Gandhi refined his experiences, retold the story from another perspective and claimed to be the messiah of the poor and the downtrodden.

Arundhati Roy explains in some detail how “ordinary politicians oscillate from political expediency to political expediency. A Mahatma can grow from truth to truth.” His views on women were equally problematic. Arundhati Roy says: “For Gandhi to extrapolate from the ‘results’ of sleeping with two (or three, or four) women that he had, or had not, conquered heterosexual desire suggests that he viewed women not as individuals, but as a category. That, for him, a very small sample of a few physical specimens, including his own grand-niece, could stand in for the whole species.”

She describes the ritualistic performance of poverty by Gandhi as cringeworthy and points to his nexus with big businesses in India such as the Tatas and the Birlas which sponsored him and allowed him to maintain his ashram while he raged against industrialisation.

Because of his close association with Muslim merchants in Africa, Gandhi held a soft corner for them to the end and differed with the Hindu Right, but as far as caste, religion and cow protection were concerned, his views were not very different from those of the Hindu Right. He upheld the Chaturvarna system as the bedrock of Indian civilisation and, despite his public posturing about untouchability, refused to eat with the Balmiki community that he used to visit for political dividends.

Focus on Gandhi

The focus on Gandhi seems in excess in the introduction, but Arundhati Roy justifies this by saying: “To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty. Equally, to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways.” Arundhati Roy seems to insist, like Ramachandra Guha, that Ambedkar cannot be mentioned without reference to Gandhi. They perhaps mean that if Ambedkar has to receive his rightful place in history as the leader of the oppressed, Dalits and women in India, Gandhi has to first vacate that spot. But replicating Gandhi’s presence in Ambedkar’s horizon suggests a historical conservatism and does disservice to the present-day Dalit community, which is trying to preserve an independent memory of Ambedkar. History writing need not always replicate, it can also act as a filter.

At one point, while reflecting on Gandhi’s critique of Western modernity and nostalgia for the Indian village and Ambedkar’s embrace of the city along with pragmatic Western liberalism, she axes both their positions. But then, one is left asking, what is the solution? It is very easy to criticise but far more difficult to provide answers.

Arundhati Roy points out that Ambedkar stumbled and did not take up the Adivasi question adequately. His views on Adivasis may well be dated, but when she puts Ambedkar’s words on Adivasis on a par with Gandhi’s words on Untouchables and finds Ambedkar adding “his own touch of Brahminism”, her idea seems to be farfetched. If the long annotations in the book often feel like distractions, they are necessary because of the widespread ignorance among the intelligentsia about Ambedkar’s position in India’s political history.

This book has been a long time in the coming, and even if it falters at places, it still serves an important function.

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