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.