By Namit Arora
A few weeks ago, the Indian publishing house Navayana released an annotated, “critical edition” of Dr. BR Ambedkar’s classic, Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Written in 1936, AoC was meant to be the keynote address at a conference but was never delivered. Unsettled by the scathing text of the speech and faced by Ambedkar’s refusal to water it down, the caste Hindu organizers of the conference had withdrawn their invitation to speak. Ambedkar, an “untouchable”, later self-published AoC and two expanded editions, which included MK Gandhi’s response to it and his own rejoinder.
AoC, as S. Anand points out in his editor’s note, happens to be “one of the most obscure as well as one of the most widely read books in India.” The Navayana edition of AoC carries a 164-page introduction by Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint (read an excerpt). The publisher’s apparent strategy was to harness Roy to raise AoC’s readership among savarna (or caste Hindu) elites to whom it was in fact addressed, but who have largely ignored it for over seven decades, even as countless editions of it in many languages have deeply inspired and empowered generations of Dalits.
However, this new edition has drawn a mixed response. Expressions of praise coexist alongside howls of disapproval and allegations of an ugly politics of power and privilege, co-option and misrepresentation. To many Dalit and a few savarna writers and activists, this Roy-Navayana project—Navayana is a small independent publishing house run by Anand, a Brahmin by birth—is a bitter reminder that no Dalit-led edition of AoC can get such attention in the national media, that gimmicks are still needed in this benighted land to “introduce” AoC and Ambedkar to the savarnas, that once again, caste elites like Roy, with little history of scholarly or other serious engagement with caste (as Anand himself suggested about Roy three years ago), are appropriating AoC and admitting the beloved leader of Dalits into their pantheon on their own terms—all while promoting themselves en route: socially, professionally, and financially (see this open letter to Roy and her reply).
Such responses may seem provincial, hypersensitive, or even paranoid to some, but they should not be brushed aside as such. They point to a universally toxic dynamic of power and knowledge to which savarna elites are so alert and sensitive in colonial, orientalist contexts, yet so blind to its parallels within India, propagated by their own class. Is this because it is easier to see prejudice directed from above at one’s own class, versus the prejudice it doles out below? Especially on a fraught topic like caste, one’s social location shapes how one frames and conducts a debate on annihilating caste, its current state, and the heroes and villains in this fight. The folks at Navayana—a leading English language publisher of anti-caste books, including many by Dalit authors—would surely nod in agreement.
What’s notable in this case is the intensity of disapproval—and how it blindsided Navayana—even before many of the protesting Dalits, men as well as women, had read Roy’s full introduction. It was clear that in their estimation, Roy simply had not earned the stripes to be the sole introducer of a “critical edition” of AoC. Or perhaps, having read the excerpt and her interview, many Ambedkarites did not like what they saw as Roy’s facile and unjustified account of Ambedkar’s weaknesses, as in his views on modernity, urbanization, and Adivasis. A legitimate fear is that this edition of AoC, given Roy’s brand, might become the dominant interpretation of the text and its author. Would it not have been more prudent and honorable for Navayana to have also included in this book other “introductions” by Dalits who have engaged the longest with AoC and relate to it differently? Or to publish Roy’s essay as a standalone book? Only time will tell how this project impacts anti-caste struggles and academia’s output in India and abroad. Meanwhile to Anand, a self-described “Ambedkar zealot” who sees himself as a radical champion of the Dalit cause and who I believe published this edition in that spirit, this turn of events—with many Dalit friends and activists questioning his agenda and lumping him with caste Hindus he has ridiculed before—must feel like a sad and painful desertion.
However, it is worth remembering that Roy’s introduction is also a subjective response of a writer to a text that clearly moved her. How good is her introduction, separate from the dubious politics and prudence of its pairing with AoC? Like all living classics, AoC too requires new readings in every age, including of celebrity writers relatively new to Ambedkar, as Roy evidently is. Just as W.E.B. DuBois can teach white folks what it means to be white better than any white person, Ambedkar serves a parallel role for upper-caste folks. That the upper castes will relate to him differently than Dalits do is a truism that should not surprise anyone. And if this “King of the Ghetto”—a status that Roy alleges history has forced on him—is to be appreciated more widely and accorded a richly deserved global stature, he will have to be read and analyzed by non-Dalits. In time, perhaps a big director like Richard Attenborough will even make a big film about him. Non-Indian and savarna writers may be late but they too are entitled to make him their own as they see fit. Others, in turn, are entitled to critique such efforts, as many Dalits and non-Dalits have done with Roy, especially on the website Round Table India, on the YouTube channel Dalit Camera, and in offline forums on university campuses. They have pointed out flaws of logic and empathy, and tried to show how a writer’s analysis and assessments are shaped by her identity, ideology, and privilege. They have argued that this project is an attempt by caste elites to ‘appropriate’ Ambedkar, rather than the laudable sort of cross-fertilization in which the ideas of radical thinkers traverse social boundaries to find homes in new hearts and minds (fortunately, the Internet can now enable more democratic resistance to hegemonic narratives and appropriation). In what follows, I offer my own response to Roy’s introduction and reflect on the portrait of Ambedkar I see in it—an exercise shaped no doubt by my own identity, ideology, and privilege.
Roy’s strategy in her introduction is to first lower Gandhi from the high perch of reverence he still commands among caste Hindus (at least outside Hindutva organizations like the RSS where he is reviled for being an ‘appeaser’ of Muslims), a reverence evident in things as diverse as the iconography of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, popular Bollywood fare on ‘Gandhigiri’, and names of flagship government schemes like MGNREGA. This strategy, Roy reckons, is necessary to make room for Ambedkar. Here Roy differs from most mainstream historians who, even when they elevate Ambedkar, do not do so at the expense of Gandhi. “They should both be heroes,” said Ramchandra Guha in 2012. “Why must we diminish one figure to praise another? India today needs Gandhi and Ambedkar both.” In a recent essay, Caste Iron, I argued that Guha’s is “a specious position given how much the two sides differed on matters of great significance to a liberal democracy, such as advancing equal opportunity, safeguarding minorities, and fighting systemic discrimination.” Add to this their approach to caste, religion, politics, and economics. As the scholar Gail Omvedt noted, the two men represented “not simply a confrontation of two idiosyncratic leaders but of two deeply divergent conceptions of the Indian nation itself.” Comparing them is to compare more than just two individuals. Roy too finds their major differences irreconcilable, where praising Ambedkar can imply diminishing Gandhi—and vice versa.
Roy revisits Gandhi’s South African past to furnish a persuasive account of his life and mind that is nothing like the staple of history textbooks. Admitting that her account is purposefully selective, since “Gandhi actually said everything and its opposite”, Roy points out that in South Africa, Gandhi harbored a host of racial prejudices, identifying more with the whites and upper-class Indians and looking down disdainfully on black Africans and indentured Indians. Roy's portrait of Gandhi—with his views on race, caste, women, labor, religion, and more—helps establish continuity with his later attitudes in India, especially his faith in the varna system, his doctrine of “trusteeship“, and his empathy deficit for “untouchables”. This deficit was evident in his patronizing stance towards them, opposition to legislative reservations and a separate electorate for them, and his attempts to tackle untouchability after the Poona Pact through the organization Harijan Sevak Sangh, which didn’t admit any “untouchables” in leadership roles (imagine setting up an organization to tackle gender discrimination but not admitting any women in leadership roles). Roy’s focus on Gandhi seems excessive at times—the main body of AoC mentions Gandhi only once—even as it also helps illuminate many attitudes that Ambedkar was up against and the context of their exchange that Ambedkar later appended to the AoC. At least in part, Roy’s essay seems like her way of making sense of, and coming to terms with, her own recent discovery of Gandhi’s inconvenient truths, most of which have long been articulated by Dalit scholars, starting with Ambedkar himself.
Roy’s essay, studded with soaring prose and rhetorical flourishes, also covers a lot more ground: how caste manifests itself in the modern economy and persists in so many professions and institutions of democracy, how the savarnas wield “merit” as their “weapon of choice” to protect their privileges, and the discrimination and violence Dalits still face today. She describes Ambedkar’s family background, his early “encounters with humiliation and injustice”, his satyagrahas and other civil rights campaigns for “untouchables” and women, his call for a separate electorate and the events that led to the Poona Pact, the causes of the historic rift between Ambedkar and the Left, and more.
Why has caste survived for so long? Roy cites Ambedkar who blamed it on a system of “graded inequality” in which, he wrote, “there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid. The privileges of the rest are graded … each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system.” Thus, she concludes, “there is a quotient of Brahminism in everybody, regardless of which caste they belong to [and this] makes it impossible to draw a clear line between victims and oppressors.” While true, Roy might have added that those near the top of this pyramid of privilege and resources nevertheless deserve the greatest censure, for they have the fewest excuses for not reforming the system and the institutions they control. Eventually, she writes, such Brahminism “precludes the possibility of social or political solidarity across caste lines” and that is why caste still survives.
More controversially, Roy faults Ambedkar for his views on the Adivasis, claiming that he did not understand them. He saw them as backward, in a “savage state”, and in need of civilizing. “Ambedkar speaks about Adivasis in the same patronising way that Gandhi speaks about untouchables”, Roy said in an interview. He displayed against them “his own touch of Brahmanism”, she writes in the introduction. Quoting Ambedkar from AoC, she asks: “How different are Ambedkar’s words on Adivasis from Gandhi’s words on Untouchables”? Many of these judgments feel gratuitous; I think more sympathetic readings are possible and warranted, but the case she makes, given Ambedkar’s high standards, is at least a head-scratcher. “Ambedkar’s views [on Adivasis] were paternalistic and not too helpful,” Omvedt wrote in her review of Roy’s introduction. “[But Roy] suggests that his views about Adivasis were similar to Gandhi’s views towards Untouchables, which is a gross exaggeration.” Roy however grinds the axe further and claims that Ambedkar’s “views on Adivasis had serious consequences. In 1950, the Indian Constitution made the state the custodian of Adivasi homelands”, making them “squatters on their own land.” Whether Ambedkar or anyone else—given the dominant mood of territorial consolidation in the new nation state—ever had any room to maneuver on this front, she does not say.
Also disconcerting is Roy’s assessment that Ambedkar, in a “troubling manner … resorts to using the language of eugenics, a subject that was popular with European fascists.” This is not only a gross misreading of the text but also a deplorable juxtaposition. As early as 1916, Ambedkar had rejected any biological dimension to the hierarchy of caste and saw it as a social construct. He reiterates this position in AoC: “[The] Caste system does not demarcate racial division. [The] Caste system is a social division of people of the same race.” Eugenics was then a major obsession in the U.S. and Europe, and Ambedkar, in section 5 of AoC, used the then current language of eugenics in an argument—where he was playing devil’s advocate—to debunk any biological superiority of the Brahmins.
Roy has, with great vigor and courage, championed a host of social justice issues in India and abroad, and her moral compass is rare and laudable. Not surprisingly, she extols Ambedkar’s radical egalitarianism across caste, class, and gender, and his language of dignity and rights. She enters more contentious terrain when she evaluates Ambedkar’s approach to modernity. This is the Roy who, in her non-fiction, has argued from positions that could be called anti-modern, anti-industrialization, anti-urbanization, anti-globalization, and even anti-statist. We could see these as pillars of her own utopia, reminiscent more of Gandhi than Ambedkar. Gandhi, she says, “believed (quite rightly) that the state represented violence in a concentrated and organized form”. He was “prescient enough to recognize the seed of cataclysm that was implanted in the project of Western modernity.” Ambedkar on the other hand, writes Roy, recoiling from the iniquities of the past, “failed to recognize the catastrophic dangers of Western modernity.” The very existence of Adivasis, fighting “the pitiless march of modern capitalism”, she claims, “poses the most radical questions about modernity and ‘progress’—the ideas that Ambedkar embraced”. She adds,
“The impetus towards justice turned Ambedkar’s gaze away from the village towards the city, towards urbanism, modernism, and industrialization—big cities, big dams, big irrigation projects. Ironically, this is the very model of ‘development’ that hundreds of thousands of people today associate with injustice, a model that lays the environment to waste and involves the forcible displacement of millions of people from their villages and homes by mines, dams and other major infrastructural projects.”
Many will recognize this recurrent feature in Roy’s writing: daring but simplistic, earnest but overstated, a purveyor of partial truths. She might as well rail against modern medicine because of its side-effects, grossly unequal access, and rampant malpractices. Roy concludes that “The rival utopias of Gandhi and Ambedkar represented the classic battle between tradition and modernity … both were right and both were also grievously wrong”. But Gandhi’s fond fantasy of an idyllic village was very much a byproduct of modernity, so a sharper framing of their differences might be Romanticism vs. Enlightenment Rationalism. Gandhi raged against machines, railways, hospitals, modern education, law courts, and explained floods and earthquakes as divine punishment. “Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation.” Yet he himself traveled the country by rail and relied on modern medicine when he needed it, such as an appendicitis operation in 1924. Unlike other nationalists, he also distrusted the enterprise of writing history, “I believe in the saying that a nation is happy that has no history.” By contrast, Ambedkar eulogized “reason, the purpose of which is to enable man to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life.” He valued “sufficient leisure” that allowed humans to cultivate their minds, adding that “Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute”. Gandhism “is merely repeating the views of Rousseau, Ruskin, Tolstoy and their school.” Gandhism harks “back to squalor, back to poverty and back to ignorance for the vast mass of the people.” Ambedkar continued,
“The economics of Gandhism are hopelessly fallacious. The fact that machinery and modern civilisation have produced many evils may be admitted. But these evils are no argument against them. For the evils are not due to machinery and modern civilisation. They are due to wrong social organisation which has made private property and pursuit of personal gain matters of absolute sanctity. If machinery and civilisation have not benefited everybody the remedy is not to condemn machinery and civilisation but to alter the organisation of society so that the benefits will not be usurped by the few but will accrue to all.”
Whether emerging nations like India ever had the option of rejecting modernity is not a question that Roy seems to have considered. Did other viable models exist in a world in which power and prosperity accrued to those who embraced modernism, industrialization, urbanism, a constitutional state, science, public health, social security, and liberal education? Couldn’t an alternative model have turned out to be far worse? It is true that modernity has also spawned huge new problems but, as always, the picture of gains and losses is decidedly mixed and very intertwined. What do we make of the fact that there is also a genuine mass appetite for modernity, which has spread not by diktat but by diffusion? If this has set us on a collision course with nature, we might as well blame it on the tragic human “weakness” that has come to seek greater dignity, pleasure, and freedom in the short run of human lives. How voluptuously romantic and ultimately counter-productive for highly modern citizens of a liberal state, such as Roy, to stand opposed to something as manifold and irrepressible as “modernity” itself, rather than focusing on the only path that has been open to us: influence its unfolding, use its tools to reduce its harms, make it more equitable. Isn’t that precisely what Ambedkar, a democratic socialist, would have done?
Roy’s critique of Ambedkar’s fondness for “Western modernity” is of a piece with attitudes evident elsewhere in her writing. It is one thing to cherish and want to preserve certain “traditional ways of life”, “cultural diversity”, and “ecological harmony” for a people, and to shield the innocent and the unprepared from the ravages of “Western modernity” and globalization. But it is another thing to want that and to also want human rights, a better democracy, free speech, feminism, gay rights, modern medicine, a caste-free society, and 24×7 electricity (or other similar combinations). Our tragedy is that these two desires are not entirely compatible. Consider this: Can gay rights take root in a tradition-bound patriarchal culture without causing or requiring other transformations of the self, social attitudes, and secular law? Will there be no cultural fallout if women start taking charge of their reproductive cycles and life paths? Can the benefits of modern medicine be widely distributed without science education and research, industry, precision manufacturing, markets, competition, profit incentives, lawyers, tax surpluses via economic growth, and so on? Clearly, there are better and worse ways of doing all this (and India has a very poor record to show here), which is often the domain of social justice movements.
It’s one thing to critique the worst aspects of the mixed track record of “Western modernity”, say, related to corporate capitalism, income inequality, or ecology—and Roy has frequently done that—but to do so while holding “Western modernity” as the original sin seems not only a lost cause but also cognitively dissonant, for it relies on the same modernity to make its case. “Democracy,” Roy has written, “can perhaps no longer be relied upon to deliver the justice and stability we once dreamed it would.” What better alternative to democracy we could pursue, she has not said. Her disquiet with the trajectory of Indian democracy, which she claims “has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning”, coexists with a formless nostalgia for the pre-modern. “We plunder the earth hoping that accumulating material surplus will make up for the profound, unfathomable thing that we have lost.” Roy longs for a “new modernity” but has not said what in it is not to be found in the capacious tent of “Western modernity” (which, besides predatory strains of capitalism and economic globalization, also houses communism, socialism, environmentalism, zero-growth economics, and so on). All this may help explain why her political commentary—even as she takes on pressing issues with her heart in the right place—has often seemed closer to a loose wail of pain, filled more with the carping of the disillusioned and slogans of a globalized left than lucid analysis or viable solutions.
To question Roy’s approach to modernity does not mean that Ambedkar’s approach to modernity is beyond criticism. Dalit intellectual and social scientist DR Nagaraj offered some in The Flaming Feet and Other Essays. Nagaraj, like Roy, saw partial truths in both Gandhian and Ambedkarite responses to modernity. He held that the advocates of these “contending visions are yet to comprehend each other fully.” Persuasive or not, Nagaraj’s critique is a lot more nuanced than Roy’s animus for modernity itself.
“The modern city and its development ethos”, wrote Nagaraj, “are bound to annihilate the memories of Dalits and leave them in almost a state of culturelessness. [But] this argument is not usually viewed with sympathy by the majority of Ambedkarites, for they believe there is nothing positive or precious in the memories of Dalits, there is only humiliation and pain.” Nagaraj argued that “the disappearance of indigenous technology represents a big civilizational blow to the subaltern castes” but Ambedkarites, lured by the emancipatory potential of modernization and urbanization, failed to see “the treacherous deal that was struck between the forces of modernity and the upper strata of the caste system.” This deal may not have been avoidable, and “There is little wisdom in putting the blame at the door of the agents of modernity in India,” wrote Nagaraj. But Ambedkarities didn’t fully realize, nor prepare to deal with the problematic fact that concentrated “capital and high-tech-based models of development would in the Indian context inevitably lead to the hegemony of the upper castes over the lower.” Keen to escape “certain professions and humiliation in traditional society”, Ambedkar did not take a critical attitude towards “the practices of erasure within modern development” and didn’t factor into his analysis “the nature of new technology and the social basis of its ownership.”
The same outlook, wrote Nagaraj, led Ambedkarites to also develop “misgivings about traditional cultures”, misgivings that tend to be “shared by movements for radical social change.” This meant that even the worth of a community’s cultural and “social experience [were] judged from the viewpoint of radical politics.” According to Nagaraj,
A sure way of enhancing the self-respect of humiliated communities like the Dalits is to revitalize their cultural forms. But modernists and radicals, particularly Ambedkarites, resent such efforts. For them, any attempt to see creativity in traditional Hindu folk culture is tantamount to supporting the unjust society it has sustained. … [To them] the art of playing drums is linked with the humiliating task of carrying dead animals. The joy of singing oral epics is traditionally associated with the insult of an artist standing outside the houses of upper-caste landlords with a begging bowl. Old culture means humiliation and therefore self-respect essentially means repudiating one’s cultural past. [Such] are the attitudes of the modernists and radicals who are products of historical change and the will to change.
And while it is true, wrote Nagaraj, that the lower castes, aided by reservations, are slowly entering “the exclusive reserves of the upper castes within social administration and political management … many a time such presence seems only of symbolic value”, even as the material gaps continue to increase (a point that has assumed greater salience in the last two decades). While Nagaraj pointed out what he saw as blind spots in Ambedkar’s vision, he did not say what alternative paths or policies Ambedkar might have pursued. Ambedkar had however realized “the tragedy of a memoryless community”. Through his founding of, and mass conversions to, Navayana Buddhism—which Nagaraj called “one of the most moving chapters of Indian history”—Ambedkar tried “to build a new memory” for Dalits, marking “a decisive break with a certain kind of modernization”.
“I did not have to read Ambedkar to understand caste,” Roy said at a launch event for this book. “I just had to grow up in an Indian village.” This struck me as unusual. How many Dalit thinkers would say the same? I wish she had written about her own journey of awakening to caste iniquities. When did she start thinking about it deeply and seeing things afresh? Personal encounters and discoveries are an effective device in good storytelling. Nonetheless, Roy’s essay, despite its many problems, has already proven useful for the debates it has provoked. It shows that there are indeed irreconcilable differences between Ambedkar and Gandhi. The same can also be said about Ambedkar and Roy.
NB: The article above has been edited since its first appearance.
More writing by Namit Arora?