The Doctor and the Saint: Arundhati Roy’s introduction to B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste

Arundathi RoyArundhati Roy’s introduction to this new edition of BR Ambedkar’s classic work has not been without controversy. For one thing it has meant that this new edition has been rendered unaffordable to most Dalits (previously called “Untouchables”) across India. Gandhi had already called it overpriced at 8 rupees when it was first published. But then Roy doesn’t have too much good to say about Gandhi either, and her analysis of his life and politics is likely to upset many particularly those who have bought into his deification. Of course Gandhi was human and as flawed as the rest of us, and Roy’s focus with this essay is on an area where Gandhi’s record is least defensible: his attitude to caste.

Roy’s stature as one of India’s finest contemporary writers has meant that her introduction to the Annihilation of Caste has brought, Ambedkar, his disputes with Gandhi, and the still bleeding wound of caste-based apartheid in India to much wider attention across the world: I have even seen the great American actor John Cusack enthusing about this introduction on twitter!

Roy is a stunningly gifted writer and a justly furious citizen. Both these traits come together brilliantly in this essay, which combines an excoriating critique of caste-based apartheid in India with biographical sketches of Ambedkar and Gandhi and a careful discussion of the contention between the two men in the struggle for Indian independence and social justice.Ambedkar

Gandhi may have had much to recommend him as a giant of the 20th Century but he does not come out of this comparison well. Roy makes a compelling case that Gandhi maintained deeply racist attitudes towards Dalits and Africans all his life: once, for example, he compared the teaching of the Christian Gospel to Dalits as like preaching to a cow. Hence Gandhi consistently sided with vested Bramhinist interests in entrenching caste prejudice in the Indian independence movement and hence in the emergent state. One contemptible tactic that Congress used that demonstrated the prevailing racist attitudes towards “low” castes was to nominate “Untouchable” candidates to the 1930 provincial elections. They did this not to promote Dalit rights but to destroy the British-sponsored elections. They knew that the nomination of “Untouchable” candidates would make sure that no “respectable” Hindus would run as independent candidates for bodies polluted by the presence of “Untouchables”. When the constitutional arrangements for the new Indian state were under discussion Congress ensured that Dalits were substantially excluded from representation by refusing to allow a separate electorate for them as had been established for the less numerous Sikhs. Gandhi had even threatened to starve himself to death at one point to ensure that no separate “Untouchable” electorate was ever established.

The attitude to caste of India’s founding generation is not an issue of mere historical curiosity. Dalits and other low caste and minority groups in India are still routinely subject to enslavement, rape, torture and murder with de facto impunity. And the impunity for these contemporary injustices was written into the modern Indian state by the errors and prejudices of those who founded the state.

Roy does not let her evident admiration of Ambedkar prevent her from giving a clear sighted portrait of him: she notes that as Gandhi was startlingly unempathetic towards Dalit liberation and empowerment so too Ambedkar had a dreadful blindspot towards the treatment of the Adivasi community of India. Roy recognises that the rationalist spirit that Ambedkar espoused demands that he is not deified but treated as the brilliant but flawed human that he was.

The Doctor and the Saint is remarkable work of advocacy, a passionate effort by a person of conscience to force the issue of caste onto India’s, and the world’s, political agenda. Given the violence and misogyny in large parts of Indian society and the looming election to the premiership of Narendra Modi, a member of the ultra-right RSS of whom she is scathing, at the time of writing, it also marks Roy out as a startlingly brave woman and an exemplary citizen.

Annihilation of Caste is a book of historical importance. Roy’s introduction does it, the cause Ambedkar espoused, and by extension all humanity, proud.

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4 thoughts on “The Doctor and the Saint: Arundhati Roy’s introduction to B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste

  1. Pingback: Don’t mention the apartheid: Caste-discrimination and poverty in South Asia | aidanjmcquade

  2. Pingback: Don’t mention the apartheid: Caste-discrimination and poverty in South Asia | aidanjmcquade

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