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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 41, October 4, 2014

Gandhi, Ayyankali and Arundhati Roy

Monday 6 October 2014

by Sukumaran C.V.

Delivering the Mahatma Ayyankali address at an international seminar on “Re-imagining Struggles at the Margins: A History of the Unconquered and the Oppressed” organised by the Mahatma Ayyankali Chair, Department of History, University of Kerala, Arundhati Roy told that ‘it is time to unveil a few truths about a person whose doctrine of non-violence was based on the acceptance of a most brutal social hierarchy ever known, the caste system’. The ‘person’ she referred to is the Father of the Nation and she asked: “Do we really need to name our universities after him?”

In her opinion Gandhi is a ‘false’ Mahatma while Ayyankali and Ambedkar are the real Mahatmas. In the backdrop of her ‘denigration’ of Gandhi, the so-called Gandhi worshipers have taken cudgels against Roy and have been clamouring for her arrest and even imprisonment. They really pose great danger not only to the freedom of expression but to the very idea of Gandhism itself. The need of the hour is, therefore, to defend Gandhi from the attacks like the recent one from Arundhati Roy and to protect Arundhati Roy from the attack of Gandhi worshipers whose stand against free thought really poses grave danger to democracy.

I believe that Arundhati Roy is a writer par excellence. I believe so not because she has written The God of Small Things, but because she has written critical essays like ‘The End of Imagination’ and ‘The Greater Common Good’ (included in The Algebra of Infinite Justice) and analytic books like Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Broken Republic and The Doctor and the Saint: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the battle against caste. I think that she is the only writer in India who refuses to live in the favourite abode writers usually love to live—ivory tower. She is the only writer who went to the submergence zones of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and revealed to us that our development is built upon the graves of rivers and vast tracts of forests and millions of Adivasis to whom the forests have been home and the rivers have been providing livelihood for centuries since time immemorial. She is the writer who has rightly told us that the only thing worth globalising is dissent. She is the only writer who is having the guts to tell us that what we need to search and find is a new kind of politics—the politics of opposition, the politics of accountability, the politics of joining hands across the world and preventing certain destruction.

I think Arundhati Roy is the only writer in India worth to be emulated. And yet I would like to dissent and answer her question (Do we need to name our universities after Gandhi?) in the affirmative.

In the lecture, she compares the Mahatma to Ayyankali who fought against caste hierarchy, and tries to show that the real Mahatma was Ayyankali who was fighting caste system while Gandhi was in South Africa with his entrenched caste prejudice. She compares Gandhi’s Dandi March with Ambedkar’s Mahad Satyagraha and says that the satyagraha led by Ambedkar for the right of Dalits to use the water in a public tank in Mahad, Maharashtra was greater than the Dandi March. And she rues that we don’t even remember it!

I have always wondered why people compare Gandhi and Ambedkar! You can compare Gandhi and Nehru, Gandhi and Subhash Chandra bose or Bagat Singh. All of them were opposing the British politically. Ambedkar or Ayyankali or Sree Narayana Guru was not opposing the British, their terrain was not nationalist politics. They were social reformers who fought the caste system for the upward mobility of the underprivileged. Gandhi was not a social reformer and it is meaningless to compare a politician and a social reformer. He might have been a casteist, but his casteism didn’t prevent him from leading the nation to independence. His ‘casteism’ didn’t force independent India to frame laws infringing on the rights of Dalits to social and economic inequality.

Gandhi has expressed his weird notions on the caste system in his article The Ideal Bhangi. In his autobiography he speaks in detail about his absurd notions on sex and celibacy. Nobody has taken them seriously and these notions have neither hindered him from being an exemplary secular democrat nor has he imposed them on others.

We do have the freedom to criticise Gandhi and to ask whether we need to name our Universities after him or not. But we should not forget that we owe to Gandhi more than to anybody else for this very freedom. See India under British rule (in the words of Sir Thomas Munro): “There is perhaps no example of any conquest in which the natives have been so completely excluded from all share of the government of their own as in British India. Foreign conquerors have treated the natives with violence, and often with great cruelty, but none has treated them with so much scorn as we; none has stigmatized the whole people as unworthy of trust, as incapable of honesty, and as fit to be employed only where we cannot do without them. It seems to be not only ungenerous, but impolitic, to debase the character of a people fallen under our domination.”

“[T]he dominant impulse in India under British rule was,” says Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India, “that of fear—pervasive, oppressing,strangling fear; fear of the army, the police, the widespread secret service; fear of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress and of prison; fear of the landlord’s agent; fear of the moneylender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold. It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhi’s quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid.”

It was that ‘quiet and determined voice’ which helped us to shake off the yoke of the oppressive alien rule. It was because of that determined voice we have become the largest democracy in the world instead of a Hindu Rashtra. Compare India with Pakistan, then you will hesitate not to see Gandhi as Mahatma.

And we have to see the India before 1947 to see why Gandhi is a Mahatma. Under British rule, India was a country in which millions of people died of hunger. In the Bengal famine of 1943 four million people perished, and famine was a recurring incident in India ever since Robert Clive treacherously won the Battle of Plassey in 1757. People used to fall down dead on the streets and during the famine of 1943, dead bodies were eaten by dogs and vultures. In her book Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Madhusree Mukerjee writes: “Parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass. People were too weak even to cremate their loved ones...No one had the strength to perform rites... Dogs and jackals feasted on piles of dead bodies in Bengal’s villages...”

Even if our democracy is not a flawless one, we can freely criticise Gandhi, we can criticize the state, and we can criticise the flaws of our democracy and mend it. We can make it more inclusive by recognising the greatness of people like Ayyankali and Ambedkar. We need not denigrate Gandhi to see the greatness of others. We really do need to name our Universities after Gandhi. Of course, we have to and we will name our Universities after Ayyankali, Ambedkar and Phule too.

PS: What surprises me is that Arundhati Roy, who brilliantly contextualised both Gandhi and Ambedkar in The Doctor and the Saint: Ambedkar, Gandhi and the battle against caste, which is her introduction to Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition published by Navayana, has completely gone out of context in her Ayyankali memorial lecture. The views she has expressed in The Doctor and the Saint are politically correct and the need of our times. There she has not indulged in the meaningless practice of comparing the two great sons of India. Contextualising Gandhi and Ambedkar Roy says in The Doctor and the Saint:

“The rival utopias of Gandhi and Ambedkar represented the classic battle between tradition and modernity. If utopias can be said to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, then both were right, and both were also grievously wrong. Gandhi was prescient enough to recognise the seed of cataclysm that was implanted in the project of Western modernity:

“‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation it would strip the world bare like locusts.’

“As the earth warms up, as glaciers melt and forests disappear, Gandhi’s words have turned out to be prophetic. But his horror of modern civilisation led him to eulogise a mythical Indian past that was, in his telling, just and beautiful. Ambedkar, on his part, was painfully aware of the iniquity of that past, but in his urgency to move away from it, he failed to recognise the catastrophic dangers of Western modernity.”

The Doctor and the Saint helps us to break the idols of both the doctor and the saint. Only if and when we the Indians are able to break the stereotypical antagonistic images of the both and merge the prophetic Gandhi and caste-annihilating Ambedkar together, Indian democracy will be democratic in spirit. Till then we will be a democracy only in form. Annihilation of caste as well as shunning industrial civilisation or Western modernity is a prerequisite to the survival of Indian democracy as a true democracy and in a sustainable way.

A former student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, the author now works in the Kerala State Government as a senior employee.

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