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Updated: May 12, 2014 23:24 IST

Reigniting the anti-caste debate

T. N. Gopalan
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ANNIHILATION OF CASTE — The Annotated Critical Edition: B.R. Ambedkar;
Annotated and edited by S. Anand, with ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ an introduction by Arundhati Roy; Navayana Publishing Pvt. Ltd. Rs. 525.
ANNIHILATION OF CASTE — The Annotated Critical Edition: B.R. Ambedkar; Annotated and edited by S. Anand, with ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ an introduction by Arundhati Roy; Navayana Publishing Pvt. Ltd. Rs. 525.

This annotated edition is a welcome reminder of the hypocrisies embedded in the system

Annihilation of Caste is a nearly 80-year-old document. Though it made for some unnerving reading when it was published and is still looked upon with reverence by Dalit acitivists, it had fallen out of mainstream discourse till Navayana chose to resurrect it through the person of Arundhati Roy. Yet again the king has been called naked and peace breached.

It is not as if any affronted outfit would start burning the new edition, but the all-pervading complacency has been punctured, and the blight of caste will be discussed animatedly for some time to come.

When the moderate Hindu reformers cancelled their invitation to Dr. Ambedkar in 1936, they might not have imagined in their wildest of nightmares that the criticism they had sought to shut out would gain such wide currency that Gandhi himself had to come out mumbling some apology as to why Hinduism was still needed. “…the learned doctor has over-proved his case. Can a religion that was professed by Chaitanya, Jnyandeo ... be so utterly devoid of merit as is made out in Dr. Ambedkar’s address? A religion has to be judged not by its worst specimens, but by the best it might have produced. For that and that alone can be used as the standard to aspire to, if not to improve upon.”

Gandhi’s may have been an unconvincing apology, but he is hailed as the Father of the Nation and venerated across the world for both real and imaginary reasons. He might not have won the debate, but has comprehensively outscored his rival in terms of the impact on the psyche of the nation – not in the sense of having changed the mindset of the people, but simply that his equivocations and pious platitudes are still a comfortable fallback for the defenders of the Hindu faith.

In the circumstances one would have expected Dalit activists to greet Arundhati Roy’s stinging introduction warmly and thank her for reigniting the debate. But no, there has been harsh criticism all over and protest demonstrations, so much so Navayana says it is finding it difficult to distribute the book in some cities.

Quite a few have questioned the rationale behind having a full length essay, longer even than the book it is introducing, focusing essentially on Gandhi and not discussing Ambedkar’s disquisition much. To a casual observer it might sound a bit odd indeed to do a hatchet job on Gandhi instead of hitting out at the caste system further a la Ambedkar.

But there is a method in Arundhati Roy’s/Navayana’s madness, if one can call it that. Dr Ambedkar’s clarion call went unheeded, and today violation of not just caste injunctions but even of gothra norms can invite murder and worse. Taking off from Ambedkar, who insists that scriptures sanctifying the caste hierarchy be repudiated first in order to fight caste-related iniquities, Arundhati Roy tries to shame the society to its senses by systematically demolishing the mystique of the Mahatma under whom apologists seek to take refuge when faced with criticism on the essential injustice of the caste system.

If ‘Periyar’ EVR was willing to ignore the atrocities and humiliations meted out to the Scheduled Castes since he wouldn’t like anything to come in the way of his struggle for anti-Brahmin hegemony, so too Gandhi sought to sweep under the carpet serious Dalit issues and sit on it himself, as it were, so that everyone could pretend that the problem had been solved.

Referring to Mahatma Gandhi’s various statements and letters on the 1932 Communal Award, an admirer gushes: “A reading of these documents puts the reader in touch with the Mind of Mahatma Gandhi and thus can be likened to a pilgrimage through those magical times when untouchability was abolished and Hinduism was purged of this great curse which had defied the reformers for decades.”

After the Poona pact Gandhi solemnly proclaimed, “It would be only out of the ashes of untouchability that Hinduism can revive, and thus be purified and become a vital and vitalising force in the world.” But even the temple entry programme, he gave up midway, as more ‘serious’ issues engaged his attention; with the result that, we are now saddled with a situation wherein the Dalits are still groaning under innumerable disabilities almost everywhere in the country.

To think that W.C. Bannerjee, the founder president of the Indian National Congress, had thundered at an AICC session, “I for one have no patience with those who saw we shall not be fit for political reform until we reform our social system. I fail to see any connection between the two ... Are we not fit (for political reform) because our widows remain unmarried and our girls are given in marriage earlier than in other countries? Because our wives and daughters do not drive about with us visiting our friends? Because we do not send our daughters to Oxford and Cambridge?”

Ambedkar strongly disputed the sense behind according primacy to political reforms, and perhaps he has been borne out by history too, but few are willing to concede as much for a variety of reasons. In any case Ambedkar himself failed in his mission possibly because he was not an astute politician like Gandhi himself, as Ms. Roy rightly points out. Though he could feel in his bones the miseries of the Dalits, he unfortunately failed to understand a minority had to patch up alliances with the more sympathetic among the majority, and that was his undoing.

For instance, the Lahore conference presidential address he refused to deliver because some among the organisers wanted some changes, say sotto voce certain things. He would have none of it. One can only speculate he might have gained some leverage if he had agreed.

Well, the Poona pact was a humiliation for him but also an acknowledgement of the unquestioned sway of the Mahatma, but still it didn’t deliver much, it may be argued perhaps. Heads they win, tails he loses. And his reneging on Hinduism too failed to have much of an impact.

So where does it leave us? “The intellectual classes to whom the masses look for guidance are either too dishonest or too indifferent to educate them in the right direction. We are indeed witnesses to a great tragedy. In the face of this tragedy all one can do is to lament and say — such be thy Leaders, O! Hindus,” bewailed the doctor, almost menacingly. But the wily saint seems to have had the last laugh, the Hindu society plodding on with incremental changes, at an agonisingly tortuous pace at that.

With Ms Arundhati Roy’s fiery denunciation of the Father of the Nation forming a spectacular backdrop, Navayana’s extensively annotated edition is indeed a welcome reminder of the hypocrisies embedded in the system — more so at a time when Hindu supremacism threatens to overrun the country.

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