Arundathi Roy on Bhimrao Ambedkar, Mohandas Gandhi and Caste
March 2, 2014 10:53 PM   Subscribe

"Each represented very separate interest groups, and their battle unfolded in the heart of India’s national movement. What they said and did continues to have an immense bearing on contemporary politics. Their differences were (and remain) irreconcilable. Both are deeply loved and often deified by their followers. It pleases neither constituency to have the other’s story told, though the two are inextricably linked. Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary. He challenged him not just politically or intellectually, but also morally. To have excised Ambedkar from Gandhi’s story, which is the story we all grew up on, is a travesty. Equally, to ignore Gandhi while writing about Ambedkar is to do Ambedkar a disservice, because Gandhi loomed over Ambedkar’s world in myriad and un-wonderful ways."

The Annihilation of Caste is the nearly eighty-year-old text of a speech that Ambedkar was supposed to deliver in Lahore, in 1936, to an audience of privileged-caste Hindus, but it was never delivered.

"When the text of 'Annihilation of Caste' was published, the man who is often called the “greatest of Hindus”—Mahatma Gandhi—responded to Ambedkar’s provocation. Their debate was not a new one. Both men were their generation’s emissaries of a profound social, political and philosophical conflict that had begun long ago and has still by no means ended."

Bhimrao Ambedkar previously.

Arundhati Roy previously.
posted by all the versus (13 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Great read. Thanks!
posted by Baldons at 11:48 PM on March 2, 2014

Fantastic post, all the versus, thank you for this. Ambedkar was a great man, unfortunately in the West overshadowed in fame by Gandhi. I wish more people would reference him when discussing social issues in India.
posted by VikingSword at 12:21 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Great piece.

Though it seems odd to claim that history has been unkind to Ambedkar. As she points out, he's regarded as the (second) greatest Indian of all time. On a recent trip to South India, it seemed like every town and village I passed through had a statue or sign or institute referencing his name.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:07 AM on March 3, 2014

She writes with such a gently wicked wit. I read her contention as being that Ambedkar is memorialized as the author of the Indian Constitution, rather than as the radical intellectual that he also was, perhaps more fundamentally was.
posted by bardophile at 3:41 AM on March 3, 2014

This is a really fascinating article, thanks for posting it. My ignorance of Ambedkar is of course my own fault, but at the same time reading this I was reminded of an analogy I heard in a podcast last night on the history of Rome -- the podcaster was pointing out how the mythic figure of Romulus became the catch-all explanation for how all the founding characteristics of Roman society came to be: who formed the legions? Who created the senate? Who founded the city? He compared Romulus to George Washington, pointing out that it was the victories of other generals that proved the convincer which secured French support for the revolution, and that French support in turn which helped win it. But the story we tell ourselves 250 years on is simply "Washington defeated the redcoats" and suggested perhaps in another 250 years even Jefferson and Franklin's roles would be overshadowed and subsumed by Washington just as all the other founders of Rome's were...

So it was funny to read this article about Ambedkar and realize for me as a decently-well-educated (or so I'd like to think) Westerner, Gandhi already looms that large with respect to the history of modern India. Clearly that's not the case within India...but this subsumption seems to me to have consequences as well...the other paths that history could have taken --- and which to contemporaries seemed just as likely, just as vital --- are obliterated, and what did happen becomes what must have happened because of the national character, for good or ill.
posted by Diablevert at 5:39 AM on March 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am and will always be a great fan of both these men- their eccentricities and imperfections included. I completely agree that knowing one while disregarding the other is a disservice to both. Roy can be kooky from time to time but this piece was was right up her alley. Thanks for an excellent post.
posted by savitarka at 10:14 AM on March 3, 2014

Roy raises some very good points about the rules of purity and how those create the caste system. It's one of the reasons that I find the whole yoga trend to be a little grating. It's not surprising that similar notions of purity (is this organic? is it vegan? did it TOUCH MEAT) have caused much consternation among a certain set of Whole Foods shopping customers.
posted by wuwei at 1:12 PM on March 3, 2014

I was thinking about this yesterday when reading about the Oscars and how I did not remember Ambedkar from the Gandhi movie at all.

Our history books didn't do any better either, the way I remember it, Ambedkar was presented as some kind of legal scholar with no representation of how revolutionary it was for someone of his background to have come up that far. He was just the father of the constitution.

As for Ambedkar embracing cities, I think it was a direct result of his experiences and his vision that it would be easier to break the rigid bonds of the caste hierarchy in a city. It is easier when everyone does not know what caste you are and your mobility and security is not compromised because of that.

Many thanks for posting this.
posted by viramamunivar at 3:41 PM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another excerpt from the book.

" In southern India, caste manifests itself somewhat differen­tly. For example, the Eenadu Group—which owns newspap­ers, the largest film city in the world and a dozen TV channels, among other things—is headed by Ramoji Rao of the Kamma peasant caste of Andhra Pra­desh, which bucks the trend of Brahmin-Bania ownership of Big Media. Another major media house, the Sun TV group, is owned by the Marans, who are designated as a ‘backward’ caste, but are politically powerful today."

South India had the strongest anti caste movement in the country led by Periyar so it is not coincidence that the media has a different caste composition there.
posted by viramamunivar at 3:57 PM on March 3, 2014

Towards the end of his life, Ambedkar promoted the Dalit Buddhist movement, a call to oppressed people to convert to Buddhism, which has a less problematic history of inequality compared to Hinduism. (But still some history of using castes.) I wonder what impact this would've had if he had lived long enough to promote more converts. I also wonder why it wasn't part of the original article.
posted by tinymegalo at 5:06 PM on March 3, 2014

« Older We have the technology   |   "It's not something you see every day" Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments