Ambedkar Needs No Introduction

Arundhati Roy’s essay could have been a conversation-starter, but Gandhi got in the way.

Updated: May 17, 2014 5:23 am
Of the issues raised in Annihilation..., perhaps the most important is that of the authority of the Hindu scriptures. Of the issues raised in Annihilation…, perhaps the most important is that of the authority of the Hindu scriptures.

Gail Omvedt

Book: The Annihilation of Caste

Author: BR Ambedkar

Publisher: Navayana

Pages: 415 pages

Price: Rs 525
The annotated edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is prefaced by an article by Arundhati Roy entitled ‘The Doctor and the Saint,’ which takes up one aspect of Ambedkar’s theoretical and philosophical work. Roy’s essay is listed as an introduction but is actually an independent essay. It is a long, critical account, mainly of Gandhi, though it deals with Ambedkar too. The focus on Gandhi prevents her from dealing with the issues raised in Annihilation of Caste. For this reason, many Dalits have been angry with Roy and with Navayana for the inclusion of Roy’s essay as such a prominent part of the book.

Of the issues raised in Annihilation…, perhaps the most important is that of the authority of the Hindu scriptures. Ambedkar argues that inter-dining and intermarriage are of no use, that the power of caste rests on the belief in the authority of the shastras, and that this has to be destroyed. Religious revolution must precede social reform.

“Even Indian history supports the same conclusion. The political revolution led by Chandragupta was preceded by the religious and social revolution of Buddha. The political revolution led by Shivaji was preceded by the religious and social reform brought about by the saints of Maharashtra. The political revolution of the Sikhs was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak.” Thus the necessity is religious revolution, according to Ambedkar.

We should appreciate Roy’s critique of Gandhi. She shows him to be a staunch defender of the caste system and an upholder of oppressive gender relations. Here she refers to the practice he began, when older, of sleeping with several women, including his own grand-niece, to show his conquest over sexual desire. “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.”

In turn, his views on caste were extremely retrogressive. In his Gujarati journal, he wrote in 1921: “I believe that if Hindu society has been able to stand, it is because it is founded on the caste system. To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of the caste system. Hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder. I have no use for a Brahman if I cannot call him a Brahman for my life. It will be chaos if every day a Brahman is changed into a Shudra and a Shudra is to be changed into a Brahman.” This is a blatant and open defense of injustice. But to Gandhi “hereditary occupation” was crucial. At the heart of his vision was a timeless, unalterable society with everyone living in presumed harmony, carrying out their prescribed duties.

Roy also reveals Gandhi’s racist ideas about Africans. “Kafirs as a rule are uncivilised — the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals,” he wrote when he had to share a prison cell with them. “However much one may sympathise with the Bantus, Indians cannot make common cause with them,” he declared, as against Nehru’s wish that Indians and Africans should stand together against the white regime in South Africa.

With regard to Adivasis, Ambedkar’s views were paternalistic and not too helpful. Roy goes too far, however, when she finds a “touch of Brahmanism” in this. She suggests that his views about Adivasis were similar to Gandhi’s views towards Untouchables, which is a gross exaggeration. In spite of Roy’s critique of Gandhi, she does not touch on the issues raised in Annihilation of Caste in any detail. She could have used her introduction to set the problem and grapple with the question of erasing caste under the rather different conditions of the caste system today. The form of the system has changed greatly, and whether the content remains the same is an important issue. But Roy does not deal with this at all. Ambedkar had given some useful hints regarding this analysis, for example in his notions of “graded inequality” and “division of labourers,” but Roy does not take these up. Rather, she ignores the problem and focusses instead on Gandhi. Her account of the confrontation of Gandhi and Ambedkar over the issue of separate electorates is useful but does not add much to our information. The larger failure is a lack of vision, of not seeing the importance of the central theme which she is supposed to be introducing — the annihilation of caste.

Gail Omvedt is a scholar, sociologist and human rights activist

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