Featured image courtesy The Delhi Walla

In the Preface to her “The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and ‘Annihilation of Caste’. The Debate between B. R. Ambedkar and M. K. Gandhi” Arundhati Roy states that it was originally written as an introduction to the annotated edition of Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s 1936 “Annihilation of Caste.”

An icon is an image or likeness, usually one that is respected, if not venerated; an iconoclast is one who attempts to damage or destroy an icon, and this is what Arundhati Roy does here with Gandhi, seen by many as a saintly figure.  Implicit in the question, “Who is the greatest Indian ever” is the codicil, “Of course, after Gandhi”. Transcending national and geographic borders, Gandhi is seen as a universal, eternal phenomenon). Ambedkar (1891-1956), born into a poor untouchable family, earned doctorates in Economics from the University of Columbia and from the London School of Economics. He regarded Gandhi not as a catalyst for change but as an agent for orthodoxy. Ambedkar is recognised as one of the founding fathers of the Republic of India; but the gaining of the franchise can mean not the dawn of true democracy but only the replacement of foreign imperialism by the tyranny of the native majority. As Ambedkar asked: For whose freedom are you fighting? Democracy cannot flourish in soil that is essentially undemocratic.

The work of the army and police is to keep the peace, which involves preserving the status quo which, in turn, means crushing minority aspirations.  Annihilation of Caste is not a text that is included in school or university syllabi in India nor is it available in bookshops. Roy acknowledges she has paid ‘an inordinate amount of attention to Gandhi in an introduction to what is essentially Ambedkar’s work’ but to write about Ambedkar without reference to Gandhi is to do the former a disservice while to remove ‘Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty’.

Roy observes that, unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar was not an astute politician. For example, given place and circumstance, Gandhi chose the right ‘weapon’: satyagraha. (Satyagraha performed on Galle Face Green by members of the Federal Party in was then known as Ceylon, was met with mob violence and was a total failure.) Gandhi urged the suppressed classes to opt for ‘sweet persuasion’ and not for satyagraha or ‘soul force’ because with them, he argued, it would become its opposite, Duragraha or ‘devilish force’. (During the Second World War, Gandhi advised the Jews to ‘summon to their aid the soul-power that comes only from non-violence’ and urged the British to ‘fight Nazism without arms’.

One of the difficulties Arundhati Roy encountered with Gandhi is that he wrote and spoke copiously: researching this book meant going through ninety-eight volumes of his collected works. Further, Gandhi was not consistent. Indeed, he himself said: “My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with the truth as it may present itself to me in a given moment”. The result is that one can cherry-pick in order to present a case, depending on one’s prejudice or partiality. Admittedly, this must also apply to our present author, Arundhati Roy. Gandhi admired the caste system – “I believe that if Hindu Society has been able to stand, it is because it is founded on the caste system” – but was against its hierarchy. “Mahatmaji does not want the caste system abolished. He does not want you to dine with untouchables but we must be prepared to go near or touch them, as you go near a cow or a horse”. Religions that teach us that what we experience and endure in this life is the product of our actions in a previous birth can create docility, a passive endurance, in the hope of better fortune in the next birth. Such beliefs perpetuate the status quo and are to the advantage of the ruling classes.

Ambedkar saw an affinity between Buddhist teaching and socialism, and thought the former could furnish the moral foundation for the latter’s material and social framework. He and thousands of his followers converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956.  However, since ‘race’, tribe, caste is a much stronger feeling than religion, conversion from one to another often doesn’t help as, for example, the Marrano Jews found in Spain. Being Christian did not help the Afro-Americans during slavery nor, later, under Jim Crow. In passing, it’s interesting to note that on 15 January 2014, at a public meeting in Washington D.C. African Americans signed a Declaration of Empathy which called for ‘an end to the oppression of Dalits in India. Though their scriptures do not sanction it, elite Indian Muslims, Sikhs and Christians all practice caste discrimination. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal all have their own communities of Untouchable sweepers. Even today in Pakistan…there does not seem to be much heartache over the very un-Islamic practice of untouchability (It must be noted that Ambedkar had no illusions about Buddhism:

“He was wary of classical Buddhism, of the ways in which Buddhist philosophy could, had and continues to be used to justify war and unimaginable cruelty. (The most recent example is the Sri Lankan government’s version of state Buddhism, which culminated in the genocidal killing of at least 40,000 ethnic Tamils and the internal displacement of 300,000 people in 2009”.)

There’s a great difference between a voluntarily chosen life of simplicity and optionless poverty whose python-coils one struggles in vain to escape. Above all, poverty is powerlessness and in that sense, Gandhi was anything but poor. Behind his poverty stood wealthy industrialists and landowners; later, Western admirers and devotees. Not surprisingly, Gandhi challenged neither the accumulation of wealth nor gross economic inequality. To say that Gandhi was Christ-like is not valid. The father of Jesus was a carpenter; Gandhi’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, was the prime minister of the princely state of Porbander. Nor was Jesus ‘sponsored by big business’. “What do we do with this structure of moral righteousness that rests so comfortably on a foundation of utterly brutal, institutionalised injustice?”

In trying to understand Gandhi, Arundhati Roy goes back to the time when he arrived in South Africa (May 1893) because his ‘views on race presaged his views on caste’. The incident of Gandhi being thrown off a train for sitting in a whites-only compartment is well known, but this is only half the story. Gandhi was a ‘passenger Indian’, that is, one of those Indians (Muslims, and upper caste Hindus) who had come to South Africa to do business. Gandhi himself was hired as legal adviser to a wealthy Muslim merchant. See: The message of tolerance and inclusiveness between Hindus and Muslims continues to be Gandhi’s real, lasting and most important contribution to the idea of India’. Gandhi’s demand was not that he be allowed to sit with whites but that he did not want to sit with Black Africans. The Durban post office had only two entrances, one for whites and the other for ‘kaffirs’ – a derogatory term in South Africa, like ‘the n word’ in the USA. Gandhi succeeded in getting a third entrance for Indians, claiming that both the English and the Indians are Aryans. Of course, whites saw all Indians as ‘coolies’. (Similarly, white right-wing groups today will not embrace Sri Lankans who approach them claiming a shared Aryan stock.) The commune he set up, the Phoenix Settlement, had a few Europeans but no black Africans. Gandhi volunteered his services to the British in their war against the Dutch and, later, during the Zulu rebellion, he urged support for the whites. With time, Gandhi ‘reimagined’ his attitudes and actions. In order for Gandhi to be a South African hero, it became necessary to rescue him from his past and rewrite it. That the Asian community in South Africa is not now persecuted is because of the many Asians, young and old, male and female, who joined the struggle of the ANC: when I taught in Zambia, the headquarters of the ANC was in Lusaka, and I personally knew some of them. (See Mrs Bamjee in Nadine Gordimer’s finely realized short story, ‘A Chip of Glass Ruby’.)

Gandhi also distanced passenger Indians from indentured coolies. The latter ‘lived and worked in conditions of virtual slavery, incarcerated on sugarcane farms. They were flogged, starved, imprisoned, often sexually abused, and died in great numbers’ (Roy, page 51). Of these ‘wretched of the earth’ (to use the title of Fanon’s classic work), Gandhi said they are without morality and religion, and apt to tell lies. ‘After some time, lying with them becomes a habit and a disease. They would lie without any reason… their moral faculties have completely collapsed’. Yet, Roy argues, different values and perceptions were present and available at that time; ‘Pandita Rambai (1858-1922), Gandhi’s contemporary from India, did not have his unfortunate instincts.’  Though born a Brahmin, she rejected Hinduism for its patriarchy and its practice of caste. Travelling to the United States, she was warmly welcomed by Afro-Americans such as Harriet Tubman, born into slavery. Du Bois published his The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, and there was that most remarkable of individuals, Emma Goldman (1869-1940).

Though Gandhi spoke of inequality and poverty, though he sometimes even sounded like a socialist, at no point in his political career did he ever seriously criticise or confront an Indian industrialist or the landed aristocracy. If the poor realized that the rich cannot accumulate wealth without their cooperation, the poor would ‘become strong and would learn how to free themselves’. Gandhi was elected a member of the advisory committee for life of the Textile Labour Union: ‘no worker was ever elected to the union leadership. No worker was permitted to be present at closed-door arbitration between the management and the union.’ Untouchables were not allowed into the common canteen. They had separate drinking-water tanks and segregated housing: see page 95. His main sponsors were mill-owners, industrialists and landowners but his ‘main constituency was supposed to be the labouring class’ (96).

The Communist party of India were People of the Book, a book written by a German Jew who had heard of, but had not actually encountered, Brahminism. This left Indian communists without theoretical tools to deal with caste. Since the lower castes were illiterate, by default the leaders of the Communist Party of India and its subsequent offshoots belonged to (and by and large continue to belong to) the privileged castes, mostly Brahmin. Ambedkar believed the enemies of the Indian working-class were ‘capitalism (in the liberal sense of the word) and Brahminism’. As in Sri Lanka, ‘racial’ identity – the vertical line – counts more than the horizontal, that is, class affiliation.

At the famous (or notorious) Round Table Conference, Ambedkar and Gandhi clashed, both claiming to represent the Untouchables. (On his voyage back from England to India, Gandhi visited Mussolini in Rome and was very impressed with the fascist leader: page 108.) In 1932, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, granted separate electorates in India for, amongst others, the Forward and Scheduled Castes, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and  the Untouchables. The Award was seen as favouring the minorities over the Hindus and Gandhi, then in prison, declared a fast until death. The threat of committing public suicide was blackmail (page 108). The privileged–caste Hindus who ‘segregated themselves from Untouchables in every possible way, who deemed them unworthy of human association, who shunned their very touch, who wanted separate food, water, schools, roads, temples and wells’ now protested their separation: the majority needs its minority. The British government said it would revoke the provision only if the Untouchables agreed, and Ambedkar and the Untouchables, from being victims, became villains who wanted to divide the sacred country. “After four days of fast, on 24 September 1932, Ambedkar visited Gandhi in prison and signed the Poona Pact” (page 110). Dr Ambedkar knew that if Gandhi died, the Untouchables, utterly defenceless, would be massacred in their thousands. (In the circumstance, it’s fortunate that Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu – even as Sri Lanka’s first avowedly ‘racist’ Prime Minister, S W R D Bandaranaike was murdered – 26 September 1959 – by a Sinhalese Buddhist monk.) Later, Ambedkar wrote:

“There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act… the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up their constitutional safeguards…and agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus. It was a vile and wicked act” (page 110).

After the Poona Pact, Gandhi directed all his energy and passion towards the eradication of ‘untouchability’ but it was his way of anchoring Untouchables to the Hindu faith. Gandhi was a complex figure, and complexity can mean the co-existence of contradictions. “In November 1936, in a now-famous conversation with John Mott” about converting Untouchables to Christianity, Gandhi asked, ‘Would you, Dr Mott, preach the Gospel to a cow? Well, some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding’”.

Superficially, the Untouchables have made progress. ‘India has had a Dalit President and even a Dalit Chief Justice’ but only 2.24 percent of the Dalit population are graduates and the overwhelming number are still landless. The electoral system, so-called democracy, has entrenched rather eradicated injustice. Brahmins, though only a small percentage, hold the highest positions. 47 per cent of all Supreme Court Chief Justices are Brahmin. Brahminism, as Ambedkar observed, is ‘the very negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. Statistics are cold; they hide reality, the human experience.

Malala Yousafzai is internationally known and admired, and quite rightly so. Surekha Bhotmange, in the state of Maharashtra was an untouchable who had dared to educate her children and refused to meekly accept the injustice and cruelty visited on her family. In September 2006, an upper-class mob dragged her out, her daughter and two sons. The sons were ordered to rape their mother and sister. When they refused, their genitals were mutilated and eventually they were lynched. Mother and daughter were gang-raped and beaten to death. Yet unlike with Malala, there were no ‘I am Surekha’ petitions from the UN to the Indian government, nor any fiats or messages of outrage from heads of state.

In December 2012, Jyoti Singh, aged 23, was gang-raped when she and her male companion entered a private bus after an evening out seeing a film. Ms Singh subsequently died of her injuries, though flown to Singapore for specialist medical attention. It was undoubtedly a horrific crime and aroused both national and international condemnation but according to the National Crime Records Bureau, ‘every day, more than four Untouchable women are raped by Touchables (page 5 in the book). In the same year (2012) alone, 1,574 Dalit women were raped”. Roy adds that only 10 per cent of rapes and other crimes against Dalits are ever reported. I gather that over 90% of an iceberg’s volume is underwater, unseen: so too with the crimes against the Untouchables. Apart from “rape and butchery”, there is the stripping and parading naked, the seizing of land, the restriction of access to water. In 2005, Bant Singh of Punjab, an untouchable, ‘had both his arms and a leg cleaved off for daring to file a case against the men who gang-raped his daughter’. I read that the word dalit in classical Sanskrit meant broken or scattered; it has also been applied to ‘the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically and economically and in the name of religion’. Some castes, like the Mahars, the caste to which Ambedkar belonged, had to tie brooms to their waists to sweep away their polluted footprints, others had to hang spittoons around their necks to collect their polluted saliva. Men of the privileged castes had undisputed rights over the bodies of Untouchable women. Love is polluting. Rape is pure.

“The Doctor and the Saint” is a thoroughly researched work, written with passionate moral indignation. Arundhati Roy states that she relies largely on the words of Ambedkar and Gandhi but, as Heidegger observed, even objectivity is judged by the subjective self. Besides selection, ipso facto, implies omission. As Arundhati Roy acknowledges in the epigraph to her brilliant novel, The God of Small Things, a work that has rightly earned several awards including the Booker Prize, a single story is not the only story.