Gandhi is just an episode in Indian history and not an epoch maker.....it is the efforts taken on the part of the Congress party to keep celebrating Gandhi through various days, the artificial respirations given to keep Gandhi's memory alive for the nation, otherwise Gandhi if left to the people would be long forgotten from Indian memory. ~ Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in a BBC interview in 1955.1
When one hears these words uttered by Babasaheb about Mr. Gandhi it is difficult to understand Ms. Arundhati Roy's pronouncement, "Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar's world in myriad and un-wonderful ways" in her introduction, "The Doctor and the Saint", to the new edition of Annihilation of Caste (AoC) brought out by S. Anand of Navayana. The edition, we are told, is an "Annotated Critical Edition".
NYT called it Roy's 'Gandhi book'. A visual representation, courtesy: Frothing Hyenas
The original text was addressed to the Jat Pat Todak Mandal but was eventually not delivered. It was clearly not addressed to Mr. Gandhi and makes only a passing reference to him, that too just once in the main text of the speech. Apart from that, the only other references are in his reply to Mr. Gandhi's dismissal of the original text which Dr. Ambedkar also included (in the book) and explained the reasons for doing that. So it is clear, the distortion of the text and the historical setting is already put in place with an awful comparison in which this seminal text is reduced to strangely re-create the Babasaheb-Gandhi debate. Ms. Roy's poor understanding is reflected in how she chooses to see this seminal text from Gandhi's perspective rather than looking at the stand-alone arguments put forth in the text.
It is a fact that Babasaheb and his politics involved altercations with Gandhi, however it was never limited to only denouncing Gandhi, instead it evolved with deep reflections on the Indian caste system. His aim was not just to denounce Gandhi but to bring forth the agonizing and tyrannical nature of the caste system, to bring about a revolution of sorts for the oppressed classes who were its victims for thousands of years.
The current propaganda of the mainstream media these days is about how Dalits have become 'intolerant' and are reducing Babasaheb to a 'Dalit Messiah' or 'Messiah of Ghettos' and have reached an extremist position in not allowing a non-Dalit to write about Babasaheb. These arguments are misleading at best if not diabolical to begin with, because Dalits have never attempted to limit Babasaheb and his work to 'ghettos'. In fact, they have always been on the lookout for allies who wish to honestly further the cause of Babasaheb.
If one looks around in any corner of the country, for any social cause - right from social reform movements to tribal movements - irrespective of which class of citizenry the movement is galvanized for, one would find one of the most committed and selfless cadre coming from the Ambedkarite movement. A movement which has always looked for allies but never lost its fervour in the absence of any ally either because it has never been dependent on any nor waited for any. So this charge is absolutely baseless and malicious.
But we Ambedkarites are able to call the bluff behind S. Anand and team Navayana's attempt at trying to act as saviours by, in their own words, taking Babasaheb to a class of people who hitherto have been averse to his ideas. And that too through a celebrity like Roy who is supposed to don this mantle of the messenger to make Babasaheb's message palatable to this class. This class, needless to point out, is a set of people who are rich savarnas, whites, NRIs i.e. anyone and everyone but Dalits.
Now to this author's mind this attempt is, at best, comparable to Savarkar's attempt at building temples exclusively meant for untouchables.2 So in effect, Savarkar didn't allow untouchables to get mainstreamed but under the garb of opening separate temples for untouchables ensured that principles of purity and pollution were strictly adhered to. This idea of separate temples is now re-introduced by the 21st century avatars of Savarkar- Ms. Arundhati Roy and team Navayana, where they create a new edition of an existing text. Moreover, as seen with how they handle the criticism against them, one sees how the Savarnas have even inverted the meaning of the word untouchable where it assumes an actual literal meaning in English- that is powerful and beyond punishment. On these grounds it is presumed and stated unabashedly too, that Dalits need not read this since it is meant for 'Savarna untouchables' exclusively. This is also how the expensive price tag stands vindicated according to them. So if one were to draw parallels with Savarkar's attempt, this Roy-Navayana project is not just discriminatory but also elite in its appeal and purpose with the repackaging and the price tag.
Now when we look at the book itself it retains the title Annihilation of Caste, but is it the same Annihilation of Caste as we know it? The answer is: it is not. The content of the book, the first half of which is the introduction by Ms. Roy, is just a juxtaposition of Babasaheb's work- in bits and pieces- with Gandhi's politics. The second half of the book is a distorted version of the original text of Babasaheb's Annihilation of Caste as pointed out in an earlier article in Round Table India. The original text of AoC just seems to be an extra attachment in the entire exercise since most of the ideas from AoC are not discussed at all and are relegated to a secondary position despite appropriating the title. So this introduction by Ms Arundhati Roy is nothing but the rehashed age-old Babasaheb-Gandhi comparison bringing about Gandhi's duplicity and hypocrisy. Hence this introduction is simply reduced to being Gandhi's take on caste issues and is essentially another Gandhi book although 'exposing' Gandhi.
So is it indeed an independent analysis of Babsaheb's politics? If not, why does Ms. Arundhati Roy dare to be judgemental about Babasaheb? Or was this a premeditated attempt to bring down Gandhi to appropriate Babasaheb and his work? The questions around appropriation are quite relevant since there is a valid concern that this scholarly denunciation of Hindu religion and its caste system by Babasaheb may well be seen only as a Babasaheb-Gandhi duel by future readers. Since an act of appropriation does not have to only come from the right wing like RSS, appropriation by writers like Roy can create confusion about the original work and this needs to be prevented, and corrective action needs to be taken.
Also with its title, The Doctor and the Saint, Ms. Arundhati Roy calling Gandhi a Saint has kept Gandhi's sainthood intact and at the same time managed to denigrate the very term Saint. In this narrative, by comparing the Doctor with a quack when looked in the context of his work, ideology and the effective role in changing the course of the history for millions of Dalits in India.3
The extravaganza created around the book makes it seem as if this text of AoC was languishing unnoticed and if Roy had not come to its rescue it would be on some extinction list just like the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) issues, the red list of about to be extinct species or endangered species.4 Now this rescuing angel finds her own name printed in bold letters on the cover page, whereas the original author Babasaheb is not even served this privilege while the title of the book still remains AoC. She also gets to list herself as a co-author on online retail sites such as Amazon etc. What does this signify? If not appropriation, then what else?
Instead of targeting the machinations at work which have kept Babasaheb out of savarna and white discourse she seems to be enjoying the exalted status of having introduced Babasaheb to the ignorant classes. This definitely was the impression this author got when he attended the book release function at St. Xaviers College in Mumbai (video available on YouTube), when Ms. Roy, basking in the glory, thundered that "renowned authors are not renowned for nothing, but due to some special skills". So are we supposed to look at this Goddess as a savior with some special skills and hence welcome this appropriation and its price tag for her special skills? So for Babasaheb and his work to sustain and flourish, to bring about the well-being of the oppressed, does one have to subscribe to Roy's style over Babasaheb's substance as she seems to be suggesting?
Isn't this just an ad hoc job done by the Navayana team by roping in a celebrity just to capture the market and using this celebrity to attract the audience? When she writes nonsense like "constitution comes in the way of revolution", she seems to be suggesting that Dalits should not be abiding by the constitution and perhaps should take to streets and not get educated and leave the entire intellectual space to pseudo-intellectuals and appropriators like her. If Dalits have been able to assert themselves more emphatically it was because of reservations guaranteed by the constitution. And this formed the very basis of political organisations like BSP in its formative years when mainly the government employees could be united and brought under one roof to contribute towards strengthening BSP. Was that not a revolution in itself? Did it not come through constitutional means? This essentially reveals that Roy is an anarchist under the garb of an intellectual.
What this attempt does to those who have been fighting all along
Suddenly their efforts are ghettoised just like their residences. Suddenly these are people without any credentials and Babasaheb is 'rescued' (read stolen) from them to be put on an imagined pedestal, as if without Roy-Navayana why would anybody even bother to care if Babasaheb ever existed?
While all along it was the Dalits who kept fighting to keep Babasaheb's work alive, all of a sudden they find a stranger, who does a half-baked job of reading ('taking the trouble') the AoC and writing something, now attending conferences all over the world as if she is the last person standing for the cause. And doing all this without ever having an iota of lived experience of Dalits and prevailing over any other counter narrative offered by them.
Ms. Roy is not only ignorant but also reluctant to admit the crucial role of social capital in driving her journey. Perhaps the most significant capital leveraged, hegemonised and monopolized is the "Social Capital" – the very basis of societal evolution - which Dalits have been kept deprived of by socio-religious machinations for thousands of years. Ms. Roy doesn't acknowledge this; rather she attributes her qualification for writing such introduction to her special skills. Her inane attempt not only damages Babasaheb and his work but also steals from the Dalits their basic social capital - Babasaheb and his thoughts, actions and his principles which are a guiding light for them. These people are robbed off the only hope and only motivation, they are robbed and are still expected to dance to Roy-Navayana tunes and shower accolades on them. This is nothing but brahminical paternalism manifesting in the most sophisticated and dangerous form. Dangerous because it gets approval from most progressives and gets reified under the header as coming from the most progressive and supposedly radical lot.
It steals from even those educated people who gave up on their promising professional careers - whether in the fields of medicine, engineering or management etc - only to struggle to emancipate their fellow oppressed. And who rules the consciousness of all these brave ones? Only Babasaheb, of course! Now, who has borne the cost for their sacrifices? Is it only their immediate families, their community or the Dalits? The costs of having lost their contribution in building the world? I am sure the cost is borne by the entire society, entire nation; perhaps a few of them could well have been somewhere close to being big entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, technocrats and much more. Denying their contribution is denying their existence and encroaching upon their space. It is the resistance offered by them, often single-handedly, which has been the forte of the Ambedkarite movement. How they have fought bravely to compel authorities and powers that be to sit and take note. The legacy and work of Babasaheb is carried forward only by these individuals.
So this is an appropriation with scant regard for authorship, authenticity, work, care, aesthetics or belonging. This is just an appropriation done with a mindset of crossing over into something hitherto not paid attention to by a select class. All the while living off the exalted status without any remorse for the act of hegemonising, undermining the naturally vibrant, lively Dalit movement. And then still continue to assert oneself authoritatively as the saviour for the cause. For Roy, AoC may well become the key towards super stardom but for Dalits, Babasaheb's thoughts are the only capital to educate themselves and keep themselves aligned to a common goal being devoid of any organized institution and facing the constant apathy of the powers that be.
But Babasaheb could not be defeated by his contemporaries nor by the present lot, he could not be co-opted by his contemporaries, nor by even the thieves or cowards from the present lot, so the likes of Roy-Navayanas will be taken to task.
Please find links to all other articles on the issue here.
. Full video and a portion of its transcript can be accessed here: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3797:dr-ambedkar-remembers-the-poona-pact-in-an-interview-on-the-bbc&catid=116&Itemid=128
. 'Patit Pawan Mandir' or (one who purifies the degraded), as were built and named by Vinayak Savarkar. His idea of eradicating untouchability can be read in detail here: http://www.savarkar.org/en/social-reforms/eradication-untouchability
. In the words of Bojja Tharakam, "I feel, except to compare Gandhi and Ambedkar and put Gandhi on a high pedestal (there seems no other purpose). That is indicated in the title itself (The Doctor and the Saint). Though she now claims that it is a sarcastic expression but by giving that title to the essay, that cannot be (seen as) sarcastic. In the text she can put sarcastic words but the title is "The Doctor and the Saint". Is she denigrating both Gandhi and Ambedkar? Or denigrating only Gandhi or only Ambedkar? Sarcastic expressions are used against both or against one? If at all it is sarcasm, then why should she use sarcastic comments on Ambedkar which he doesn't deserve? Therefore I feel the very title is mischievous, misleading, denigrating and in bad taste" - an excerpt from
accessed on 26th Nov, 2014.
. To counter this claim of Roy-Navayana project that the Annihilation of Caste and other important texts by Dalit-bahujans are lost and in need of rescuing, refer to this article offering a short glimpse into the world of Dalit publishing:
Dhruwa R., is an entrepreneur based in Mumbai.
Cartoons by Unnamati Syama Sundar.