A few weeks ago, the Indian publisher Navayana released an annotated, “critical edition” of Dr. BR 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 Unsettled by the text of the speech, the caste Hindu organizers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an “untouchable”, self-published AoC and two expanded editions, including MK 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 a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint (read an excerpt). 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 it has deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.
Meanwhile, this new edition has drawn a mixed response. Expressions of praise coexist alongside howls of disapproval and allegations of an ugly politics of power and privilege, co-option and misrepresentation. To many Dalit and a few savarna writers and activists, this Roy-Navayana project—Navayana is a small indie publisher run by Anand, a Brahmin—is a bitter reminder that no Dalit-led edition of AoC can get such attention in the national media, that gimmicks are still needed in this benighted land to “introduce” AoC and Ambedkar to the savarnas, that once again, caste elites like Roy, with little history of scholarly or other serious engagement with caste (as Anand himself suggested about Roy three years ago), are appropriating AoC and admitting the beloved leader of Dalits into their pantheon on their own terms—all while promoting themselves en route: socially, professionally, and financially (see this open letter to Roy and her reply).
Such responses may seem provincial, hypersensitive, or even paranoid to some, but they shouldn’t be brushed aside as such. They point to a universally toxic dynamic of power and knowledge to which savarna elites are so alert and sensitive in colonial, orientalist contexts, yet so blind to its parallels within India, propagated by their own class. Is this because it’s easier to see prejudice directed from above at one’s own class, versus the prejudice it doles out below? Especially on a fraught topic like caste, one’s social location shapes how one frames and conducts a debate on annihilating caste, its current state, and the heroes and villains in this fight. The folks at Navayana—a leading English language publisher of anti-caste books, including many by Dalit authors—would surely nod in agreement.
What’s notable in this case is the intensity of disapproval—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. Or perhaps, having read the excerpt and her interview, many Ambedkarites didn’t like what they saw as Roy’s facile and unjustified account of Ambedkar’s weaknesses, as in his views on modernity, urbanization, and Adivasis. Wouldn’t it have been more prudent and honorable for Navayana to have also included in this book other “introductions” by Dalits who have engaged the longest with AoC and relate to it differently? Or to publish Roy’s essay as a standalone book? Only time will tell how this project impacts anti-caste struggles and academia’s output in India and abroad. Meanwhile to Anand, a self-described “Ambedkar zealot” who sees himself as a radical champion of the Dalit cause and who I believe published this edition in that spirit, this turn of events—with many Dalit friends and activists questioning his agenda and lumping him with caste Hindus he has ridiculed before—must feel like a sad and painful desertion.
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. Like all living classics, AoC too requires new readings in every age, including of celebrity writers relatively new to Ambedkar, as Roy evidently is. Savarna writers may be late but they too are entitled to make him their own as they see fit. Others, in turn, are entitled to critique such efforts, as many Dalits and non-Dalits have done. They can try to show how a writer’s analysis and assessments are shaped by her identity, ideology, and privilege. 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”, etc.). 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, Caste Iron, 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 harbored 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, labor, 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 patronizing 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 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” in which, he wrote, “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 is 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.
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 civilizing. “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.
AmbedkarRoy has, with great vigor and courage, championed a host of social justice issues in India and abroad. Not surprisingly, she extols Ambedkar’s radical egalitarianism across caste, class, and gender, and his language of dignity and rights. She enters more contentious terrain when she evaluates Ambedkar’s approach to modernity. This is the Roy who, in her non-fiction, has argued from positions that could be called anti-modern, anti-industrialization, anti-urbanization, anti-globalization, and even anti-statist. We could see these as pillars of her own utopia, reminiscent more of Gandhi than Ambedkar. Gandhi, she says, “believed (quite rightly) that the state represented violence in a concentrated and organized form”. He was “prescient enough to recognize the seed of cataclysm that was implanted in the project of Western modernity.” Ambedkar on the other hand, writes Roy, recoiling from the iniquities of the past, “failed to recognize the catastrophic dangers of Western modernity.” The very existence of Adivasis, fighting “the pitiless march of modern capitalism”, she claims, “poses the most radical questions about modernity and ‘progress’—the ideas that Ambedkar embraced”. She adds,
“The impetus towards justice turned Ambedkar’s gaze away from the village towards the city, towards urbanism, modernism, and industrialization—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 recognize 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. While Gandhi raged against machines, railways, hospitals, modern education, and explained floods and earthquakes as divine punishment, Ambedkar eulogized “reason, the purpose of which is to enable man to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life.” He valued “sufficient leisure” that allowed humans to cultivate their minds, adding that “Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute”. Gandhism “is merely repeating the views of Rousseau, Ruskin, Tolstoy and their school.” Gandhism harks “back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people.” Ambedkar continued,
“The economics of Gandhism are hopelessly fallacious. The fact that machinery and modern civilisation have produced many evils may be admitted. But these evils are no argument against them. For the evils are not due to machinery and modern civilisation. They are due to wrong social organisation which has made private property and pursuit of personal gain matters of absolute sanctity. If machinery and civilisation have not benefited everybody the remedy is not to condemn machinery and civilisation but to alter the organisation of society so that the benefits will not be usurped by the few but will accrue to all.”
Whether emerging nations like India ever had the option of rejecting modernity is not a question that Roy seems to have considered. Did other viable models exist in a world where power and prosperity accrued to those who embraced modernism, industrialization, urbanism, a constitutional state, science, public health, social security, and liberal education? Couldn’t an alternative model have turned out to be far worse? It’s true that modernity has also spawned huge new problems but, as always, the picture of gains and losses is decidedly mixed and very intertwined. What do we make of the fact that there is also a genuine mass appetite for modernity, which has spread not by diktat but by diffusion? If this has set us on a collision course with nature, we might as well blame it on the tragic human “weakness” that has come to seek greater dignity, pleasure, and freedom in the short run of human lives. How voluptuously romantic and ultimately counter-productive for highly modern citizens of a liberal state, such as Roy, to stand opposed to something as manifold and irrepressible as “modernity” itself, rather than focusing on the only path that’s been open to us: to influence its unfolding, use its tools to reduce its harms, make it more equitable. Isn’t that precisely what Ambedkar would have done?
This is not to say that Ambedkar’s approach to modernity is beyond criticism. Dalit intellectual DR Nagaraj has offered some in The Flaming Feet and Other Essays. Whether one is persuaded by it or not, it is at least a lot more nuanced than Roy’s animus for modernity itself. “The modern city and its development ethos”, wrote Nagaraj, “are bound to annihilate the memories of Dalits and leave them in almost a state of culturelessness. [But] this argument is not usually viewed with sympathy by the majority of Ambedkarites, for they believe there is nothing positive or precious in the memories of Dalits, there is only humiliation and pain.” Nagaraj argued that “the disappearance of indigenous technology represents a big civilizational blow to the subaltern castes” but Ambedkarites, lured by modernization and urbanization, didn’t fully realize that concentrated “capital and high-tech-based models of development would in the Indian context inevitably lead to the hegemony of the upper castes over the lower.” Keen to escape “certain professions and humiliation in traditional society”, Ambedkar didn’t take a critical attitude towards “the practices of erasure within modern development” and didn’t factor into his analysis “the nature of new technology and the social basis of its ownership.” He had however realized “the tragedy of a memoryless community”. Through his founding of, and mass conversions to, Navayana Buddhism—which Nagaraj calls “one of the most moving chapters of Indian history”—Ambedkar tried “to build a new memory” for Dalits, marking “a decisive break with a certain kind of modernization”.
“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.
– See more at: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/03/the-rationalist-and-the-romantic.html#more