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An Incendiary Introduction

The binary that the Ambedkar vs. Gandhi debate has posited for decades comes alive yet again in Arundhati Roy’s 180-page long introduction to a new critical edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste; but this is a dichotomy that can be extended to Ambedkar and Roy herself, writes Namit Arora.

Namit Arora  5th Apr 2014

Dr. B.R Ambedkar

few weeks ago, the Indian publisher Navayana released an annotated, "critical edition" of Dr B.R. Ambedkar's classic, Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Written in 1936, AoC was meant to be the keynote address at a conference but was never delivered. Unsettled by the text of the speech, the caste Hindu organisers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an "untouchable", self-published AoC and two expanded editions, including M.K. Gandhi's response to it and his own rejoinder.

AoC, as S. Anand points out in his editor's note, happens to be "one of the most obscure as well as one of the most widely read books in India." The Navayana edition of AoC carries The Doctor and the Saint, a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy. The publisher's apparent strategy was to harness Roy to raise AoC's readership among savarna (or caste Hindu) elites to whom it was in fact addressed, but who have largely ignored it for over seven decades, even as countless editions of it in many languages have deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.

What's notable in this case is the intensity of disapproval levelled at this Roy-Navayana project — and how it blindsided Navayana — even before many of the protesting Dalits, men as well as women, had read Roy's full introduction. It was clear that in their estimation, Roy simply hadn't earned the stripes to be the sole introducer of a "critical edition" of AoC. Politics and prudence of this project aside, it's worth remembering that Roy's introduction is also a subjective response of a writer to a text that clearly moved her. In what follows, I offer my own response to Roy's introduction and reflect on the portrait of Ambedkar that I see in it — an exercise shaped no doubt by my own identity, ideology, and privilege.

Roy's strategy in her introduction is to first lower Gandhi from the high perch of reverence he still commands among caste Hindus (e.g., the Anna Hazare movement, Bollywood "Gandhigiri" and so on.) This, she reckons, is necessary to make room for Ambedkar. Here Roy differs from most mainstream historians who, even when they elevate Ambedkar, don't do so at the expense of Gandhi. "They should both be heroes," said Ramchandra Guha in 2012. "Why must we diminish one figure to praise another? India today needs Gandhi and Ambedkar both." In a recent essay, I argued that Guha's is "a specious position given how much the two sides differed on matters of great significance to a liberal democracy, such as advancing equal opportunity, safeguarding minorities and fighting systemic discrimination." Add to this their approach to caste, religion, politics and economics. As the scholar Gail Omvedt noted, the two men represented "not simply a confrontation of two idiosyncratic leaders but of two deeply divergent conceptions of the Indian nation itself." Comparing them is to compare more than just two individuals. Roy too finds their major differences irreconcilable, where praising Ambedkar can imply diminishing Gandhi — and vice versa.

Roy revisits Gandhi's South African past to furnish a persuasive account of his life and mind that's nothing like the staple of history textbooks. She admits that her account is purposefully selective, since "Gandhi actually said everything and its opposite." Roy points out that in South Africa, Gandhi harboured a host of racial prejudices, identifying more with the whites and upper-class Indians and looking down disdainfully on black Africans and indentured Indians. Roy's portrait of Gandhi — with his views on race, caste, women, labour, religion and more — helps establish continuity with his later attitudes in India, especially his faith in the varna system, his doctrine of "trusteeship", and his empathy deficit for "untouchables", evident in his patronising stance and opposition to legislative reservations for them. Roy's focus on Gandhi seems excessive at times — the main body of AoC mentions Gandhi only once — but it helps illuminate many attitudes that Ambedkar was up against and the context of their exchange that Ambedkar later appended to the AoC.

Roy’s strategy in her introduction is to first lower Gandhi from the high perch of reverence he still commands among caste Hindus (e.g., the Anna Hazare movement, Bollywood “Gandhigiri” and so on). This, she reckons, is necessary to make room for Ambedkar. Here Roy differs from most mainstream historians who, even when they elevate Ambedkar, don’t do so at the expense of Gandhi.

Roy's essay, studded with soaring prose and rhetorical flourishes, also covers a lot more ground: how caste manifests itself in the modern economy and persists in so many professions and institutions of democracy, how the savarnas wield "merit" as their "weapon of choice" to protect their privileges, and the discrimination and violence Dalits still face today. She describes Ambedkar's family background, his early "encounters with humiliation and injustice", his satyagrahas and other civil rights campaigns for "untouchables" and women, his call for a separate electorate and the events that led to the Poona Pact, the causes of the historic rift between Ambedkar and the Left, and more.

Why has caste survived for so long? Roy cites Ambedkar who blamed it on a system of "graded inequality".

"(...) there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid. The privileges of the rest are graded (...) each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system." Thus, she concludes, "(...) there is a quotient of Brahminism in everybody, regardless of which caste they belong to (and this) makes it impossible to draw a clear line between victims and oppressors." While true, Roy might have added that those near the top of this pyramid of privilege and resources nevertheless deserve the greatest censure, for they have the fewest excuses for not reforming the system and the institutions they control. Eventually, she writes, such Brahminism "precludes the possibility of social or political solidarity across caste lines" and that's why caste has survived for so long.

“I did not have to read Ambedkar to understand caste,” Roy said at a launch event for Annihilation of Caste.

Roy faults Ambedkar for his views on the adivasis, claiming that he didn't understand them. He saw them as backward, in a "savage state", and in need of civilising. "Ambedkar speaks about adivasis in the same patronising way that Gandhi speaks about untouchables," Roy said in an interview. He displayed against them "his own touch of Brahminism", she writes in the introduction. Quoting Ambedkar from AoC, she asks: "How different are Ambedkar's words on adivasis from Gandhi's words on untouchables"? Some of these judgments feel gratuitous; I think more sympathetic readings are possible, but the case she makes, given Ambedkar's high standards, is at least a head-scratcher. She however goes further and claims that Ambedkar's "views on adivasis had serious consequences. In 1950, the Indian Constitution made the state the custodian of adivasi homelands," making them "squatters on their own land." Whether Ambedkar or anyone else — given the dominant mood of territorial consolidation in the new nation state — ever had any room to manoeuvre on this front, she does not say.

"The impetus towards justice turned Ambedkar's gaze away from the village towards the city, towards urbanism, modernism, and industrialisation — big cities, big dams, big irrigation projects. Ironically, this is the very model of 'development' that hundreds of thousands of people today associate with injustice, a model that lays the environment to waste and involves the forcible displacement of millions of people from their villages and homes by mines, dams and other major infrastructural projects."

Many will recognise this recurrent feature in Roy's writing: daring but simplistic, earnest but overstated, a purveyor of partial truths. She might as well rail against modern medicine because of its side-effects, grossly unequal access, and rampant malpractices. Roy concludes that "The rival utopias of Gandhi and Ambedkar represented the classic battle between tradition and modernity." But Gandhi's fond fantasy of an idyllic village was very much a byproduct of modernity, so a sharper framing of their differences might be Romanticism vs. Enlightenment Rationalism.

"I did not have to read Ambedkar to understand caste," Roy said at a launch event for this book. "I just had to grow up in an Indian village." This struck me as unusual. I wish she had written about her own journey of awakening to caste iniquities. When did she start thinking about it deeply and seeing things afresh? Personal encounters and discoveries are an effective device in good storytelling. Nonetheless, Roy's essay has already proven useful for the debates it has provoked. It shows that there are indeed irreconcilable differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi. The same can also be said about Ambedkar and Roy.

Namit Arora is an essayist, travel photographer, and former Internet technologist who now lives in Delhi-NCR and writes at www.shunya.net. A longer version of this review appeared on Monday 31 March at 3quarksdaily.com.

 
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