A Year of Grand Slam Data: Men’s Tennis and Women’s Tennis »« BDSM and Burqas: an argument against the veil

On Why Gandhi Is Casteist

http://cp91279.biography.com/1000509261001/1000509261001_2033463483001_Mahatma-Gandhi-A-Legacy-of-Peace.jpg

Today in the morning I was greeted by an article in the Open Magazine on my news feed. The article titled Arundhati Roy’s Ahistorical Fiction, was a retort to Roy’s speech for her Mahatma Ayyankali address at the University of Kerala, where she was quoted for criticising Gandhi’s “casteist tendencies“. Before I continue I must say this beforehand that I am not without problems with Roy’s work, especially with her recently published introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, but for different reasons. This post is not in defence of Roy. My problem here is with writer’s assertion of Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials.

From the time of Gautam Buddha in the 6th Century BCE, several great reformers have attempted to reduce or eliminate the injustice and inequity created by the caste system in India. They did not succeed. It was only in the 20th century that, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the people of India made the struggle against the caste system an integral part of their quest for freedom from British rule and succeeded in declaring untouchability a crime under the Constitution of the Republic of India.

The entire article is sickeningly dedicated to maintaining Gandhi’s messianic status as some kind of anti-caste revolutionary. The author makes several incorrect assertions in the article, but I will list down only some of them (or at least ones I found to be extremely disturbing).

1. Let’s begin with the paragraph quoted above. The author sweepingly declares all anti-caste movements, except that of Gandhi’s as a failure. He even went to the extent of appropriating the hard work of Ambedkar, the Constitution of India and the stringent anti-discrimination laws put in place by the Constituent Assembly, to Gandhi. The fact that Ambedkar was the chairman of the Drafting Committee and that Gandhi wasn’t even present in the Constituent Assembly, escaped the attention of the author. Furthermore, he forgets that it was because of Ambedkar’s prolonged efforts that led to the Untouchability Offences Act and the Protection of Civil Rights Act to be legislated in the year 1955, not Gandhi’s. The only thing that can be attributed to Gandhi would be that it was under his leadership that the Indian National Congress included ‘abolition of untouchability’ in its manifesto, nothing more.

The greatness of Gandhi lies in the fact that in the course of his public life, he came to realise this, and once he did, he struggled hard to break out of it. He tried to exorcise the devil. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’, helped them gain a measure of self-respect by calling them Harijans, the ‘children of God’.

2. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’… What exactly did he do? It would be pertinent here to point out that Gandhi for most of his life did not engage or endorse any anti-caste movement, including the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha, despite the fact that he was in a position to do so (he acquired the titles of Mahatma and Bapuji shortly after his return to India in 1915). It was only in the mid-20s that he began engaging publicly and politically with caste, and even when he did, he (deliberately or otherwise) confined himself with the practice of ‘untouchability’. His opinions regarding caste and intercaste marriage evolved at a very glacial pace, and I suspect it was because there was no other person other than Ambedkar who continuously challenged him and his authority. Still, we find the extremely regressive writings coming from him till the late 30s, for instance the infamous 1936 article in the Harijan The Ideal Bhangi, where he stated the work of a bhangi, which is to clean other people’s shit, as an honourable occupation,

I call scavenging as one of the most honourable occupations to which mankind is called. I don’t consider it an unclean occupation by any means. That you have to handle dirt is true. But that every mother is doing and has to do. But nobody says a mother’s occupation is unclean.

He in fact even blamed the Dalits for their own plight and dehumanising social stature, and demands that they give up their “filthy” habits.

I know many scavengers eat carrion and beef. Those who are doing this must abstain. Many of them are given to the evil habit of drink. Drink is a bad, filthy, unclean, degrading habit. A man who drinks intoxicating liquor forgets the distinction between wife, mother and sister. I would beseech you to give up all evil habits…

Some will obviously argue that his sanctification of sanitation work as “honourable” was not superficial as he himself practised it in his ashram in Sabarmati and demanded his other inmates and even his wife, much to their chagrin, to do the same. True, he did clean toilets and even made his followers and comrades do the same, and he did so as an act to demolish the basis of untouchability. But that doesn’t change the fact that he wasn’t casteist. Why?

3. Opposing untouchability does not mean opposing caste, just the way opposing slavery doesn’t necessarily mean opposition to the idea and construct of race (case in point, the racist anti-slavery crusader Abraham Lincoln). This is the biggest and the most glaring fallacy in the author’s argument, and similar arguments are made by several historians and intellectuals (you will find some of them at end of the TOI news article that I have linked above). Gandhi till the fag end of his life believed in caste (which he called varna) and advocated against intercaste marriages. He was also trenchantly and adamantly against any kind of affirmative action or separate electorate for the non-Savarnas, to the dismay of both Jinnah and Ambedkar.

But still you will find all kinds of Savarna historians, from the marxist Romila Thapar to the liberal Ramachandra Guha, defending Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials one way or the other. The reason for this is obvious. After Periyar, Gandhi (apart from Shahaji II of Kolhapur and maybe Vinayak Savarkar) is the only Savarna historical figure that came the closest to actually doing something for the Dalits. Yes, he’s the second best Savarna anti-caste “revolutionary”, but turned out to also be the most blatant casteist of the lot and the best advocate of status-quo of his time. And it is but a natural reaction for the Savarnas to hold on to his Mahatma-ness in the face of damning evidence. Any attempt at questioning Gandhi at the caste front, makes you either an attention-whore or a someone incapable of seeing the greatness of the Mahatma. Here, the Hindutvavadis have nothing worry about, and righfully so, because they still have Savarkar who with regards to his engagement with caste is far better than Gandhi.

But the progressive Savarnas need to buckle-up, because even their Goddess has now started questioning the progressive credentials in ways they did not expect.

Comments

  1. yazikus says

    I only recently learned about this aspect of Gandhi, and I was pretty shocked. I am curious though, what you think of Roy. I’ve only read one of her books, and thought it was a compelling story. I lived in India for a few years growing up, so the language describing the climate was very nostalgic for me.

  2. says

    To be honest, I used to be one those who was in thrall of her writing. I always have and still do find her prose attractive.

    BUT, academically and even politically I have great problems with her work. The continuous exoticisation of the underclass (Velutha in The God Of Small Things or the adivasis in all of them) and bleeding romantic for an idea (Walking With The Comrades), does get on my nerves.

    I will talk about it in great lenght, but later.

  3. kazanas says

    Christophe Jaffrelot’s “India’s Silent Revolution” is a good source for Gandhi’s conservatism– it has an entire chapter dedicated to it. And Gandhians were imbued by it. Quoting for the same book (p. 95), the is what Vallabhbhai Patel has to say to Dalits:

    “To the Scheduled Castes friends, I also appeal: ‘Let us forget what Dr Ambedkar or his group have done’. Let us forget what you did… you have seen… that when the greatest benefactor of your community [Gandhi] came to Bombay to stay in Bhangi quarters it was your people who tried to stone his quarters. What was it? It was again the result of this poison… the ast majority of the Hindu population wish you well. Without them where would you be?”

    So essentially, Dalits must change and be grateful to caste Hindus! Moving on.

    You write:
    “Some will obviously argue that his sanctification of sanitation work as “honourable” was not superficial as he himself practised it in his ashram in Sabarmati…”

    I don’t consider this to be valid– the sanctification itself is a form of privilege! Why? Gandhi may have opted to do these things, but the Dalits who did so had no choice!! It’s one thing to adopt such a lifestyle as a form of protest, saying “Until they don’t have to do it, so will I,” but to do it yourself and say “See, it ain’t so bad!” is nothing but privilege.

    Also, if you’re counting savarnas who are against caste, Periyar (I prefer Naicker) and Gandhi aren’t the only ones. There are MANY members of the backward classes who actively led anti-caste movement– Phule probably being the most famous of them. But I don’t think backward classes should be included. We should ask which, UPPER caste members led such movements.

    But as far as his condemnation of drinking and meat among Dalits goes– it’s a little complicated there. The meat is a clear attempt to Sanskritize the Dalits– we don’t want that anymore. And the accusations of alcoholism could be mere caste stereotyping and prejudice, which certainly existed and still exists. And Ambedkar hated such reform ideas. “It is always the Untouchable who must be reformed, not the Touchable,” he had said, to quote S. Anand.

    But in cases in which superstition IS rampant among Dalits, or when advocating for women’s rights among Dalits (who are not discriminated against in a Brahminical manner, but are still discriminated against within their community), is it really wrong for an activist like Narendra Nayak to try and change things? Must we wait for a Dalit reformer? The fact is, most people with the power to try and effect change ARE upper caste people. Is it patronizing to use that power?

    Consider what Baby Kamble, a Mahar, has to say about her community before Ambedkar (Gyanendra Pandey, A History of Prejudice):

    “The entire community had sunk deep in the mire of… dreadful superstitions. The upper castes had never allowed this lowly caste of ours to acquire knowledge… People would be covered in thick layers of dust and dirt… the thick tangles of hair would be infested with lice and coated with lice eggs.”

    In this case, Kamble notes that what changed everything was the appearance of Ambedkar– a Westernized Mahar– which inspired conversion. But must we, as a nation, wait for such a savior and not take action ourselves? I suppose this plays into Roy’s own controversy with the Introduction.

  4. says

    You write:
    “Some will obviously argue that his sanctification of sanitation work as “honourable” was not superficial as he himself practised it in his ashram in Sabarmati…”
    I don’t consider this to be valid– the sanctification itself is a form of privilege!

    To be clear, I am not approving of Gandhi’s actions as being positive in the caste struggle.

    Also, if you’re counting savarnas who are against caste, Periyar (I prefer Naicker) and Gandhi aren’t the only ones. There are MANY members of the backward classes who actively led anti-caste movement– Phule probably being the most famous of them. But I don’t think backward classes should be included. We should ask which, UPPER caste members led such movements.

    I stand by my assertion. I did not say “upper caste”, I said Savarnas. There are plenty Savarnas who have been critical of jati, but not varna. To be honest, apart from Periyar, I can not think of any Savarna leader, historian, or philosopher who did not adhere to some or the other kind of caste-apologia (the most common one being extolling the virtues of ‘varna’, while deriding ‘jati’ as a corruption). Phule was a person of the backward caste, neither a Savarna nor a Dalit. His critique of the Brahmanical order was because he himself was a victim of caste and casteism. And the same goes for Sree Narayana Guru and many other such backward caste Shudras, who led anti-caste struggles.

    is it really wrong for an activist like Narendra Nayak to try and change things? Must we wait for a Dalit reformer? The fact is, most people with the power to try and effect change ARE upper caste people. Is it patronizing to use that power?

    This question is highly misplaced. When people like Nayak or Dabholkar try to bring an end to superstition or misogyny, I do not think they do so by having separate anti-superstition workshops for Dalits and Savarnas. Even if the audience many a time end up being from one single caste-group, we can safely assume that those are accidental. Because they do not go around with an aim of specifically reforming Dalits or backward castes, and as long as that is the case I don’t think there is a problem. But when a Savarna in the name of women’s liberation or scientific education specifically targets the non-Savarnas, the dynamics change. Reform becomes paternalisation and patronisation. And I do want you to explain why you feel that only Savarnas weild the power to bring in change for the entire society, especially when they very clearly haven’t been able to convince their own castes to refrain from supporting conservative and regressive political factions. Also are you unaware of the scores of Dalit reformers (also before, but mostly) after Ambedkar, in India? What exactly makes you think that there aren’t many rationalist reformers or feminists among the underprivileged castes who can reform their own community more effectively than those with privilege?

  5. Ramana says

    Thanks Anish, for the link!

    The article does not say Lincoln was a racist. It raises the question if he was a racist.
    It does not answer with an yes or no, but with a more realistic and interesting answer.
    He might have started with and shared the attitudes about race that were prevailing in his time and then undertook an admirable journey.

    “So, was Lincoln a racist? He certainly embraced anti-black attitudes and phobias in his early years and throughout his debates with Douglas in the 1858 Senate race (the seat that would become Barack Obama’s), which he lost. By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln was on an upward arc, perhaps heading toward becoming the man he has since been mythologized as being: the Great Emancipator, the man who freed—and loved—the slaves. But his journey was certainly not complete on the day that he died. Abraham Lincoln wrestled with race until the end. And, as Du Bois pointed out, his struggle ultimately made him a more interesting and noble man than the mythical hero we have come to revere.”

  6. Aravindh says

    Ah, its sad that Gandhi is universally respected as a caste reformer and Ambedkar is not among most upper castes. Another thing that irks me is people almost feel like someone has offended their religion when someone attempts to point out his casteist side.

  7. the eddy says

    He was still not the only second Swarna to have fought casteism .You forgot Gopalaraju Gora , a Brahmin by caste

  8. says

    Thank you Eddy. But to be honest I am not acquainted with any of Gora’s writings or ideas on caste. So I’m not aware of the manner in which he dealt with the caste system. I’m still trying to get a copy of An Athiest With Gandhi. But I’d love for you to link us to some of his work, if possible :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>