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India: Saba Naqvi Interviews Arundhati Roy on B.R. Ambedkar

3 March 2014

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Outlook Magazine, 10 March 2014

"We Need Ambedkar—Now, Urgently..."
Saba Naqvi Interviews Arundhati Roy
The Booker prize-winning author on her essay The Doctor and the Saint and more

In 1936, Dr B.R. Ambedkar was asked to deliver the annual lecture by the Hindu reformist group, the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Forum for Break-up of Caste) in Lahore. When the hosts received the text of the speech, they found the contents “unbearable” and withdrew the invitation. Ambedkar then printed 1,500 copies of his speech at his own expense and it was soon translated into several languages. Annihilation of Caste would go on to have a cult readership among the Dalit community, but remains largely unread by the privileged castes for whom it was written.

Ambedkar’s landmark speech has now been carefully annotated and reprinted. What will certainly draw contemporary public attention to it is the essay written as an introduction by the Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, titled The Doctor and the Saint.

Almost half of the 400-page book is Roy’s essay, the other half Annihilation of Caste. Roy writes about caste in contemporary India before getting into the Gandhi-Ambedkar stand-off. Taking off from what Ambedkar described as “the infection of imitation”, the domino effect of each caste dominating the ones lower down in the hierarchy, Roy says, “The ‘infection of imitation’, like the half-life of a radioactive atom, decays exponentially as it moves down the caste ladder, but never quite disappears. It has created what Ambedkar describes as the system of ‘graded inequality’ in which even the ‘low is privileged as compared with lower. Each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system’”.

However, the thrust of Roy’s powerful but disturbing essay deals with her exploration of the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate, and the man deified as the father of the nation does not come off well in this book. She writes: “Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. 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.”

The Doctor and the Saint, your introduction to this new, annotated edition of Dr Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, is also a deeply disturbing critique of Gandhi, especially to those of us for whom Gandhi is a loved and revered figure.

Yes, I know. It wasn’t easy to write it either. But in these times, when all of us are groping in the dark, despairing, and unable to understand why things are the way they are, I think revisiting this debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar, however disturbing it may be for some people, however much it disrupts old and settled patterns of thought, will actually, in the end, help illuminate our path. I think Annihilation of Caste is absolutely essential reading. Caste is at the heart of the rot in our society. Quite apart from what it has done to the subordinated castes, it has corroded the moral core of the privileged castes. We need Ambedkar—now, urgently.

Why should Gandhi figure so prominently in a book about Ambedkar? How did that come about?

Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most trenchant critic, not just politically and intellectually, but also morally. And that has just been written out of the mainstream narrative. It’s a travesty. I could not write an introduction to the book without addressing his debate with Gandhi, something which continues to have an immense bearing on us even today.

Caste is at the heart of the rot in our society. Quite apart from what it has done to the subordinated castes, it has corroded the moral core of the privileged castes. We need to take Ambedkar seriously.

Annihilation of Caste is the text of a speech that Ambedkar never delivered. When the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, an offshoot of the Arya Samaj, saw the text and realised Ambedkar was going to launch a direct attack on Hinduism and its sacred texts, it withdrew its invitation. Ambedkar publi­shed the text as a pamphlet. Gandhi published a response to it in his magazine Harijan. But this exchange was only one part of a long and bitter conflict between the two of them...when I say that Ambedkar has been written out of the narrative, I’m not suggesting that he has been igno­red; on the contrary, he is given a lot of attention—he’s either valorised as the ‘Father of the Constitution’ or ghettoised and then praised as a “leader of the untouchables”. But the anger and the passion that drove him is more or less airbrushed out of the story. I think that if we are to find a way out of the morass that we find ourselves in at present, we must take Ambedkar seriously. Dalits have known that for years. It’s time the rest of the country caught up with them.

Have you always held these views about Gandhi, or did you discover new aspects to him as you explored him vis-a-vis Ambedkar?

I am not naturally drawn to piety, particularly when it becomes a political manifesto. I mean, for heaven’s sake, Gandhi called eating a “filthy act” and sex a “poison worse than snake-bite”. Of course, he was prescient in his understanding of the toll that the Western idea of modernity and “development” was going to take on the earth and its inhabitants. On the other hand, his Doctrine of Trusteeship, in which he says that the rich should be left in possession of their wealth and be trusted to use it for the welfare of the poor—what we call Corporate Social Responsibility today—cannot possibly be taken seriously. His attitude to women has always made me uncomfortable. But on the subject of caste and Gandhi’s attitude towards it, I was woolly and unclear. Reading Annihilation of Caste prompted me to read Ambedkar’s What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. I was very disturbed by that. I then began to read Gandhi—his letters, his articles in the papers—tracing his views on caste right from 1909 when he wrote his most famous tract, Hind Swaraj. In the months it took me to research and write The Doctor and the Saint I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading. Look—Gandhi was a complex figure. We should have the courage to see him for what he really was, a brilliant politician, a fascinating, flawed human being—and those flaws were not to do with just his personal life or his role as a husband and father. If we want to celebrate him, we must have the courage to celebrate him for what he was. Not some ima­gined, constructed idea we have of him.
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Those reading the above might also be interested in the following:

B R Ambedkar’s ’transfer of population as solution’ to minority issues - extract from his book on Pakistan