Tuesday, Aug 09, 2022

The Abstract Academic And The Merry Memorialist

Joining issue with Arundhati Roy's essay, 'The Doctor and the Saint', where she seeks to demonstrate why Ambedkar, not Gandhi, was the more significant historical figure.

The Abstract Academic And The Merry Memorialist
The Abstract Academic And The Merry Memorialist

The title kept going on and on in my head, until the lines of the verse came back. It couldn't have been more fitting if old Sigmund himself had stepped on a banana peel: 

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint and heard great argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by that same door as in I went. 

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The lines could as well be about Arundhati Roy's long essay, 'The Doctor and the Saint', where she seeks to demonstrate why Ambedkar, not Gandhi, was the more significant historical figure. Ms. Roy’s difficulty, as that of many Jinnah aficionados, is that there exist two rather stubborn realities of public perception: 1. The appeal of any sectarian cause is bound to be smaller than that of the general, and 2. No amount of showing how clever, intelligent, urbane, or 'modern' a sectarian leader was, will change the first reality.

That Roy does not care very much for Mahatma Gandhi is no secret, as anyone reading her earlier pieces might gather. I wonder why. After all, in her articles about the state of India (and the Indian State - envigoured, ironically, by draconian provisions left at its disposal by none other than Ms. Roy's current idol), she writes eloquently on problems Gandhi had long ago pinpointed—usually without mentioning Gandhi's name other than for faint praise if not worse. 

In this piece she appears to have pulled out all stops. Instead of a snide remark here or there, a sizeable portion is devoted to a healthy denunciation of Gandhi. A book length introduction to Annihilation of Caste, one of Ambedkar's booklets, it is breathless in its prose, fervid in its fulminations and at times, transparent in its desperation. 

But here's the kicker. Among these tens of thousands of words applauding Ambedkar's insight and intelligence when they aren’t busy running down Gandhi’s duplicity and hypocrisy, Ms. Roy has been unable to find space to squeeze in a serious discussion of Gandhi’s own response to this very booklet. In a preface replete with quotations from Gandhi, there is not one line from what Gandhi wrote specifically on Annihilation Of Caste (other than a couple of passing put downs, one of a suggestion that the booklet be priced lower for wider readership)! Perhaps this might help explain the roots of Ms. Roy's rage: in three short articles published in Harijan, Gandhi succinctly answers Ambedkar, and with a civility neither Ambedkar nor his New Best Friend seems able to summon. Indeed, Ambedkar includes Gandhi's comments as an appendix in his later editions, but with the marvelously neutral title, "The Vindication of Caste by Mahatma Gandhi". He then takes the opportunity to essay a rebuttal via a leisurely second appendix.

As Ms. Roy informs us, Ambedkar's Annihilation Of Caste, was originally designed as a speech to a group of anti-caste activists, the Jat-Pat-Torak Mandal, in Lahore. Shown an advance copy, the Mandal wanted him to omit some references they deemed offensive. Ambedkar therefore declined to give the speech but, not being one to allow himself to be forgotten, as Gandhi wrote, he published a thousand copies at his own cost for sale and circulation. Dr. Ambedkar was no doubt a man of innumerable talents, but brevity does not appear to be notable among them. In Chief Justice Chandrachud’s wry observation, the Indian Constitution is not a document of few words. Neither is this handiwork of the doctor’s, what Arundhati Roy terms his greatest. It is a 50-page long speech turned into a booklet. 

Gandhi welcomed it.

"Dr. Ambedkar was not going to be beaten by the Reception Committee. He has answered their rejection of him by publishing the address at his own expense. He has priced it at 8 annas. I would suggest a reduction to 2 annas or at least 4 annas.”

“No reformer can ignore the address. The orthodox will gain by reading it. This is not to say that the address is not open to objection. It has to be read if only because it is open to serious objection." (italics mine) 

( “Dr. Ambedkar’s Indictment – I”, Harijan, 11-July-1936, CWMG, Volume 69, p. 206) 

One wonders if it was Ms. Roy's purpose to spite Gandhi - writing such a long preface that the reader might quit well before getting to the actual speech. That would be a pity. Annihilation of Caste is fascinating. A few nuggets: 

"From where does the Sikh or the Mohammedan derive his strength which makes him brave and fearless ?… It is due to the strength arising out of the feeling that all Sikhs will come to the rescue of a Sikh when he is in danger and that all Mohammedans will rush to save a Muslim if he is attacked. The Hindu can derive no such strength. He cannot feel assured that his fellows will come to his help. Being one and fated to be alone he remains powerless, develops timidity and cowardice and in a fight surrenders or runs away. The Sikh as well as the Muslim stands fearless and gives battle because he knows that though one he will not be alone… If you pursue this matter further and ask what is it that enables the Sikh and the Mohammedan to feel so assured and why is the Hindu filled with such despair in the matter of help and assistance you will find that the reasons for this difference lie in the difference in their associated mode of living."

That the Sikh or the Pathan had a reputation for courage even in regions where few of his co-religionists were to be found, or that the Hindu ‘gurkha’ was synonymous with the lone watchman patrolling the entire neighbourhood, does not appear in any way to disturb this stream of wisdom. Dr. Ambedkar goes on,

"This explains why one Mohammedan is equal to a crowd of Hindus…" 

The very belief asserted loud across Pakistan in the drumbeat to every war with India! It gets even better. 

"The capacity to appreciate merits in a man apart from his caste does not exist in a Hindu. There is appreciation of virtue but only when the man is a fellow caste-man."

One presumes that Dr. Ambedkar knew something of Vivekananda's story. Who financed the swami's trip to the West? Shivaji employed all manner of people in various positions. Were they all the same caste as the ruler? Not to put too fine a point on it, but didn’t Hindus from a whole range of castes, including the hosts to whom this speech was addressed, see virtue in Dr. Ambedkar? Moving on,

"…the weak in Europe has had in his freedom of military service his physical weapon, in suffering his political weapon and in education his moral weapon. These three weapons for emancipation were never withheld by the strong from the weak in Europe. All these weapons were, however, denied to the masses in India by Chaturvarnya."

What about Europe’s New World and slavery? Ambedkar had lived in the United States at a time when lynching was commonplace in many parts of that land. He makes no mention of these horrors. Just as interesting, Ms. Roy, who excoriates Gandhi for his reluctance to advocate on behalf of Africans as he did for the Indians in South Africa, is so loath to contrast it with Dr. Ambedkar's own tireless activism on behalf of the American Negro… 

As to those weapons being withheld from the weak in India? Here’s Dr. Ambedkar himself, elsewhere, 

"Many Britishers think that India was conquered by the Clives, Hastings, Coots and so on. Nothing can be a greater mistake. India was conquered by an army of Indians and the Indians who formed the army were all untouchables. British rule in India would have been impossible if the untouchables had not helped the British to conquer India. Take the Battle of Plassey which laid the beginning of British rule or the battle of Kirkee which completed the conquest of India. In both these fateful battles the soldiers who fought for the British were all untouchables..."

(Letter from Dr. BR Ambedkar to AV Alexander, member, Cabinet Mission, 1946) 

And Ms. Roy writes, archly, 

"The trouble is that Gandhi actually said everything and its opposite. To cherry pickers, he offers such a bewildering variety of cherries that you have to wonder if there was something the matter with the tree." 

Not to worry, Arundhati, cherries aren’t apples; the doctor will not be kept away, 

"The Hindus hold to the sacredness of the social order. Caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which Caste has become invested. In the last analysis, this means you must destroy the authority of the Shastras and the Vedas." 

Here was Ambedkar, cheerfully asking an ancient religion with hundreds of millions of adherents – one without any synod, besides – to abolish itself. Called in to tackle white ants, the exterminator recommends burning down the house! 

Gandhi summed it up:

"In my opinion the profound mistake that Dr. Ambedkar has made in his address is to pick out the texts of doubtful authenticity and value and the state of degraded Hindus who are no fit specimens of the faith they, so woefully misrepresent. Judged by the standard applied by Dr. Ambedkar, every known living faith will probably fail....In his able address, the learned Doctor has over-proved his case."

(“Dr. Ambedkar’s Indictment – II”, Harijan, 18-July-1936, CWMG, Volume 69, p. 227) 

Seeing Gandhi's Harijan articles on Ambedkar's booklet, Sant Ram of the Jat-Pat-Torak Mandal wrote back stating that his organization rejected the Shastras. Gandhi answered with what amounted to an interesting challenge to Ambedkar,

"But it is pertinent to ask what the Mandal believes if it rejects the Shastras. How can a Muslim remain one if he rejects the Quran, or a Christian remain Christian if he rejects the Bible? … I have certainly meant it when I have said that if the Shastras support the existing untouchability I should cease to call myself a Hindu. Similarly, if the Shastras support caste as we know it today in all its hideousness, I may not call myself or remain a Hindu since I have no scruples about inter-dining or intermarriage."

(“Varna v. Caste”, Harijan, 15-August-1936, CWMG, Volume 69, p. 306)

What if Ambedkar had taken up the challenge and entered into a positive public debate with Gandhi? I suspect the problem really lay deeper, in understanding. Gandhi was not in the least enamoured of certificates - progressive, modern, socialist, etc. He was always after, as he put it, the "real article". As a practical social reformer he knew that attitudes take time to change; for abiding resolutions there were no short cuts. Dr. Ambedkar's “Rx for Hinduism: Off with your Vedas” was not a feasible prescription even if one agreed with it - Gandhi didn’t. But one of his key strengths was his patience with the other viewpoint. To quote my father, Gandhi accepted little and rejected less. Just as he would listen to Lohia or JP though he did not embrace their socialism, he could read and recommend Ambedkar's writing without endorsing its conclusions. He was able to work with people who didn’t always agree with him. Going by this booklet, at least, it would appear Ambedkar had still some distance to travel in this regard. Ms. Roy concurs, if obliquely, “Though Ambedkar had a formidable intellect, he didn’t have [various negative] qualities that a good politician needs.” 

Annihilation of caste had no meaning if Hinduism was to be rejected. Gandhi had the sense to know that this would be no annihilation at all. The wisdom of his understanding is evident from the fact that today Christians and Muslims are asking for caste reservations! Ambedkar's experience of the caste system was personal. He knew of its searing reality in a way no caste Hindu could. The difficulty arises only when personal angst is sought to be elevated into a liberating philosophy, for the latter would need also to factor in contemporaneous social and political forces. Gandhi was able to locate his opposition to untouchability within a larger understanding of oppression, whereas Ambedkar did not see the irony of statist and centrist positions coinciding with an opposition to caste Hindu oppression.

Arundhati Roy laments that in his ubiquitous statue, the book Dr. Ambedkar is seen holding is the Indian Constitution, and not the doctor's finest creation, Annihilation Of Caste. It seems to me that Ms. Roy should let the statue (and the statute!) stand. History does have a quaint sense of humour. For all the abuse Ambedkar had heaped at Gandhi’s door for a quarter century and up, it was Gandhi's India that would give Ambedkar the opportunity to come into his own, to leave behind something tangible, practical, momentous.


1. All the quotes in this article are from Dr. Ambedkar's 'Annihilation Of Caste' unless otherwise indicated.

2. CWMG – Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi

Niranjan Ramakrishnan’s Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century was published last year by Palgrave.


Outlook Newsletters


Read More from Outlook

Lament Of Separation: Songs Of Habba Khatun, Last Queen Of Kashmir, Still Echo In Valley

Lament Of Separation: Songs Of Habba Khatun, Last Queen Of Kashmir, Still Echo In Valley

In happy times and sad, Habba Khatun’s sensuous songs make both young and old emotional. With the never-ending conflict bringing tragedies to every doorstep, Habba’s lyrics of separation amplify their mourning.

How Indian Laws Govern People’s Right To Love And Live

How Indian Laws Govern People’s Right To Love And Live

In India, only those relationships between a man and a woman are considered to be legitimate when there is a marriage between the two.

Kohli Quits Test Captaincy, Leaves Leadership Vacuum

Kohli Quits Test Captaincy, Leaves Leadership Vacuum

Virat Kohli, 33, had recently stepped down as India's T20I captain and was subsequently removed as the ODI captain.

UP Elections 2022: How Congress Is Harnessing Power Of 'Persecuted' Women To Counter BJP

UP Elections 2022: How Congress Is Harnessing Power Of 'Persecuted' Women To Counter BJP

A Mahila Congress leader, who is the face of the ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’ campaign, however, has accused the party of anti-women bias after she was denied a ticket.