(Reproduced below is an interview with Arundhati Roy which appeared in the Manorama and can be accessed on http://english.manoramaonline.com/news/features/gandhi-is-more-than-just-a-family-heirloom-arundhati-roy.html)
In July, Arundhati Roy provoked outrage from many quarters by stating that the generally accepted image of Mahatma Gandhi was a lie. Speaking at the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, she also called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed. The Booker prize winning author’s comments rekindled a long-running historical argument over Gandhi’s views on caste and catapulted hot debate in Kerala media. In this exclusive interview Arundhati Roy tells Leena Chandran why she will not be changing her views on Gandhi.
The Gandhi controversy is a belated one, I feel. It should have taken place earlier this year had people closely read ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ soon after its publication. In fact, what you said in the Ayyankali memorial lecture at Department of History, Kerala University, Thiruvananthapuram is not as inflammable as the ideas you share in ‘The Doctor and the Saint’…
I wouldn’t go so far as to call ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ inflammable, though of course it has generated a fair amount of controversy from many quarters, even some unexpected ones. That’s to be expected, because it’s vexed territory. Yes it does question conventional ways of thinking, mostly by quoting from the lesser known writings of Gandhi. It was written as an introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. Ambedkar’s views challenge the established order in profound and radical ways. The controversy around Gandhi’s views on race and caste started long before I wrote ‘The Doctor and the Saint’. You could say that it started with the Ambedkar–Gandhi debate. It has been debated for years in the world of Dalit politics—but that has been carefully and successfully kept out of the establishment discourse. The mayhem in the Kerala media post my Ayyankali Memorial Lecture is just noisy posturing by some people who couldn’t be bothered to read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, or ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, or anything much else. Not even the works of Gandhi who they are so keen to defend. There are many vested interests involved in this debate. It may be too much to expect them to change. But the young will change their views. For sure.
Most of your critics shout the question—“What does Arundhati know about our Gandhiji? What right has she got?” Well, you cite him profoundly; but how vast, how deep, have you probed the entire oeuvre of the man? What was the type of research you took upon? Can you elaborate how you went about learning Ambedkar and unlearning Gandhi?
“Our Gandhiji?” And who is this Arundhati? Some sort of extra-terrestrial with a separate set of rights from those who “own” Gandhi? Would they say “our Ambedkar”—those same people? Unlikely. Let me say this: ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ is not about the entire oeuvre of either Gandhi or Ambedkar. It’s about the Ambedkar–Gandhi debate. I spent months researching and reading the writings of Ambedkar and Gandhi before I wrote it. I started with Gandhi’s rebuttal to Annihilation of Caste in 1936, and followed the thread of his pronouncements on caste and race all the way back to his time in South Africa. (I have spent some time in South Africa.) I was shocked at what I was reading, and even more shocked at how successfully these very disturbing aspects of Gandhi had passed under the radar of public and “establishment” intellectual scrutiny. I realized very quickly that the only way to do what I wanted to do was to use Gandhi’s own words as much as possible—to keep my comments and analysis to a minimum. Of course this has meant that it’s a long, almost book-length introduction. All of it in pretty sensitive territory. So there’s been every kind of reaction, from a great embrace and a great deal of love, to anger, not always along predictable lines. Some have criticized the fact that I have written more about Gandhi than Ambedkar. That’s a valid point, but my own reasoning is that unless we defuse the dense smokescreen Gandhi put up to in order to obscure Ambedkar’s clarity, we’ll still be groping around in the dark. That was Ambedkar’s logic too, when, of all the criticism he received for Annihilation of Caste, he chose to reply to Gandhi’s. Inevitably, some of the controversy that has been generated around the book is about me, personally, my intentions, my motivations and political sympathies, my caste, my home address—and not what I’ve written, which is a pity, though it’s entirely predictable and I have grown used to that sort of thing. I’m a pretty easy target—being well-known cuts both ways, it gives me as well as my critics traction. The royalties from my books make me reasonably well off and economically independent—so how dare I write about inequality? I am not a “good woman”, I am not seen to have suffered in the right ways, I have not voluntarily embraced a life of sacrifice in any of the prescribed formats—so what gives me the right to write the things I do? Fortunately, I’m not looking for a moral character certificate from anybody. Readers can choose to read and intellectually engage with what I’ve written, or not. The rest is noise.
S. Anand, the editor of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, requested you for an introduction ten years back. You agreed and began the research and reading. Was it then that you started to reconsider the contributions of the Great Soul?
Ambedkar has deepened my understanding and informed my thinking in profound and critical ways. He gives us tools with which to understand and analyze the society in which we live—he was a radical thinker, and a fearless one. For him to have taken on Gandhi in the way he did at the height of Gandhi’s fame and influence is phenomenal. He wrote a great deal about Gandhi and the Congress because they sought to thwart him in such devious and complicated ways. Reading Ambedkar certainly made me unlearn the clichés about Gandhi that many of us grew up with. Right now though, Ambedkar’s legacy is in grave danger. Annihilation of Caste was a scholarly denunciation of Hinduism. Ambedkar wanted his people to renounce Hinduism. But today, Dalits are being “Hinduized” and “Sanskritized” at a pace. This new government would be Ambedkar’s nightmare. A new Shuddhi movement—the purification of the impure—to return the ‘impure’ to the Hindu fold has been announced. The RSS Chief has declared that all Indians are Hindus. It’s all very disturbing.
Did Mary Roy, your iconoclastic mother, influence you in anyway in “reconsidering Gandhi”? I ask this in particular because it is always pretty hard to change what we were schooled in.
My iconoclastic mother has always been a great admirer of Gandhi. So she played no role in the writing of ‘The Doctor and the Saint’. Speaking for myself, before I did the reading I have now done, I thought Gandhi was a cunning, but consummate and imaginative politician. Two things about him always bothered me deeply—his attitude to women and sex—which deserves a separate book in itself— and his calling Dalits “harijans”, which I found ugly and patronizing.
But does that mean Gandhi disappointed you totally? Isn’t there even a single quality you appreciate in Gandhi?
Gandhi was a fascinating character who captured the public imagination in his own lifetime and still seems to mesmerize people. I don’t think readers of ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ will come away thinking it is an uncritical, worshipful hagiography of Ambedkar and a relentless condemnation of Gandhi. Incredibly, in some quarters I’ve actually been attacked for praising Gandhi—though they too don’t seem to have read the book. They say I’ve called Gandhi a “Saint”, missing the irony I intended, also missing the fact that Ambedkar often sarcastically referred to Gandhi as a Saint. Then there are some folks—not just Dalits mind you, a few Brahmins too—who believe that a non-Dalit simply does not have the right to write an introduction to an Ambedkar text at all. They see it as a privileged-caste person’s “appropriation” of Ambedkar. But on the whole, to take a long view, this debate, all these accusations and insinuations, even the outburst that happened in Kerala, the threats of arrest, the processions—though sometimes its pretty hurtful, is a ultimately a good thing. All of us have been marinated in so many thousands of years of institutionalized prejudice. It has to be exorcized, and that process will not be pretty. None of us is pure, none of us is perfect, no text can be wholly right or above criticism. The choice before us is to reach out to each other in imperfect political solidarity or to isolate ourselves from each other in our separate bomb-shelters, curled up in self-constructed notions of unsurpassable righteousness.
Interesting to note that you have not spared Swami Vivekananda as well. In ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, you cite his words discouraging the religious conversion of the untouchables. But, isn’t it an out of the context citation?
It is not. What Swami Vivekananda said was very much part of the politics of privileged caste anxiety over demography that began around then. It was the genesis of what we know today as Hindutva.
But how feasible is it to compare Gandhi and Ayyankali, the leader of the untouchables in Kerala, depending on their contributions? The latter’s work and influence was a regional phenomenon.
Why not compare them? Why is that so sacrilegious? Ayyankali fought for the rights of Pulaya children to attend school, as far back as 1904, he led the first agricultural workers strike—and a successful one at that—before the Russian Revolution. During those years Gandhi in South Africa was making the most offensive statements about Black Africans and subordinated caste Indian workers. In Trivandrum I spoke about how Gandhi believed in the caste system. I quoted an extraordinary essay he wrote in 1936 called “The Ideal Bhangi” in which he elucidated his views on the merits of ancestral and hereditary occupations. Personally, I think that is a grave form of violence. I said we should think about which of the two kinds of people we should be naming our universities after. Is that wrong?
“Saint of the Status Quo”, “the most famous Indian”, “the most consummate politician the modern world has ever known” … you have put the Mahatmahood in question. But isn’t there a process of refinement when we closely watch how Gandhi evolved over the decades? Do you want to say all that was a grand deception? Citing his words from the early life, the less great soul, is a grave injustice, your critics point out.
These questions that my critics put to me are questions that I put to myself before I wrote what I wrote. Did Gandhi change? Did he evolve? Did he renounce his views (and deeds) on caste? To address this issue I have quoted his writings and speeches over the span of his entire adult life—from his arrival in South Africa in the early 1890s right up until he was an old man in 1946. Even in my talk at the Trivandrum University I quoted him in 1894 and then 40 years later in 1936 when wrote “The Ideal Bhangi” —he was nearly 70 years old at the time.
The next accusation is that the quotes are taken out of context. I’d like to know—in what context does it become acceptable to call Black Africans bestial “savages” and subordinate caste Indian workers congenital liars whose “moral faculties have collapsed?” In what context is it acceptable to say that scavengers should remain scavengers for generations to come?
Is Gandhi a grand deception you ask? All Gandhi’s writings are compiled and available to the public. They have not been edited or doctored. So there’s no deception on that front. But yes, there has been a great deal of dishonesty in how the legacy of Gandhi has been packaged and passed down for public consumptions—in what has been highlighted and what has been hidden lies disturbing, and deliberately dishonest politics.
The third defense is that Gandhi was a “man of his times” and that we cannot graft our contemporary understanding of political and social justice on to someone who lived more than a century ago. I have addressed this too in The Doctor and the Saint, and have directed readers to the work of people like Pandita Ramabai, Jotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule who were Gandhi’s predecessors, not to mention Periyar, Ayyankali, Shri Narayana Guru as well as his contemporaries in other countries.
On January 14, 1937 Gandhi visited Venganur, Thiruvananthapuram, to meet Ayyankali, the leader of the untouchable Pulayas, famously known as the Pulaya King. He also had a brief exchange with a group of untouchable youths. One of them was K.R.Velayudhan, the elder brother of K.R. Narayanan, the first Dalit President of India. Velayudhan asked Gandhi what designation he would give the Pulayas in the Swaraj. Gandhi replied that he would appoint a Harijan as the first President of India.
Gandhi was always comfortable patronizing “harijans” and giving them free advice. In 1936 in a famous conversation with a Reverend John Mott, in which he was objecting to the Reverend’s missionary work among “harijans” Gandhi said “Would you Dr Mott, preach the gospel to a cow? Well, some of these untouchables are worse than cows in understanding. I mean they can no more distinguish between relative merits of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity than a cow…”
Even today people seem quite comfortable about Gandhi calling Ayyankali a “Pulaya King”. Similarly, Dr Ambedkar is often called the “Leader of the Untouchables”, but what if Ayyankali or Ambedkar, or anybody else, even today, called Gandhi a Bania Mahatma? There would be processions and police cases.
As for the story of Gandhi’s views and deeds on the real, and not merely symbolic political representation of Dalits, of Dalits choosing their own representatives—please read Annihilation of Caste as well as the account of the first face to face confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar at the Second Round Table Conference.
When he was 25 and a reporter with The Times of India, K.R. Narayanan met Gandhi in Bombay. He had a question for Gandhi: “When in England I am asked about the Untouchability issue in India, should I reply as a Harijan or should I reply as an Indian?” And Gandhi was quick to answer: “When abroad, you will say that it is an internal matter for us to solve once the British leave India”…
That was why Gandhi was so against Ambedkar—because he refused to keep quiet about the caste question until after Independence. That was what their great confrontation at the Round Table Conference was about. Also the moment people in power say “it’s an internal matter”—we must take it as an ominous sign. The next move is to blame “outsiders” for all political unrest. Then they tell us who are “outsiders” and who are “insiders”, who is a “real” Indian and who is not, who is a “real” Hindu who is not, who is a “real” Muslim, who is not, and before you know it religious and cultural nationalism and every other kind of bigotry is sitting on your doorstep like a snarling apparition, asking to be let in.
Ashish Nandy’s “Intimate enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism” is listed in the bibliography to “The Doctor and the Saint”. In a recent interview with a Malayalam weekly, he has disagreed with your opinion on Gandhi. Here’s what he said: “Arundhati is my friend. She’s a good writer. But I don’t take her comments seriously. She once described the Naxalites as Gandhians with Guns. Let’s see if she’ll change her opinion on Gandhi or not. Gandhi tried to make the caste system something based on work and duty. He had a realistic attitude towards practices like untouchability. Gandhi has attracted a lot of criticism. But it is absurd to say that his actions were part of a conspiracy”
I hope you are quoting him correctly, I find it hard to believe he said all this, even though some of the things he said about Dalits at the Jaipur Festival were hard to believe too. Ashish Nandy is a senior professor and a public intellectual of some standing, so let me not quibble about his patronizing tone, or the fact that he does not seem to have read what I’ve written, but feels free to comment on it anyway. (He bestowed a similar favor on Nayantara Sehgal at the recent launch of her new book.) Assuming he did say all this, let’s just look at some facts.
First: I have never called Naxalites “Gandhians with Guns”. I’m not that stupid. That was an Outlook copy editor’s photo caption. I would expect the erudite professor to do me the favor of checking my text carefully, in this case my essay “Walking with the Comrades” before making such a loose comment.
Second: Gandhi did not “try to make the caste system based on work and duty”—the caste system, which preceded Gandhi by a few thousand years was a system based on work and duty. It assigned people hereditary occupations and fitted them into a hierarchical system of duties and entitlements. This is what the whole struggle against caste is all about!
Third: I’m not sure what a “realistic attitude towards practices like Untouchability” means. Seriously—what does it mean?
Fourth: I have never said Gandhi’s actions were part of a conspiracy.
Fifth: No I will not be changing my opinion about Gandhi.
By the way, why do people say “She’s a great writer” and then go on to attribute the most stupid comments that I have never made to me? Is it a man thing, I wonder? First of all, in this case it doesn’t really matter whether I’m a great writer or a great fool. Why not deal with the content of what I have written? Or if that is too much of an effort, why not just deal with the things Gandhi said? Refute them, deny them, argue with them. Say I invented them. Say The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi is a forgery. How about that as a line of defense?
M.G.S. Narayanan, the famous historian wrote an article criticizing your views: ‘Arundhati’s stature as a good novelist doesn’t make her fit for commenting on history or politics… She might have thought the best way to please Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Ayyankali and the Marxists is to insult the Father of our Nation’…
I love the idea that he thinks I’m trying to please people—it’s a whole new me! But from his understanding of history M.G.S. Narayanan should know that it’s virtually impossible to please Ambedkarites and Marxists at the same time. Anyway, here we go again—“Arundhati’s status as a good novelist does not give her the right to..”! Back to the subject of Arundhati Roy’s Rights and Duties. Man thing? Or is it an insidious manifestation of caste? What are the subjects that good (female) novelists can comment upon? No history, no politics, then what? Baby fashion? Skin care? Is there a list? Are good (female) novelists at least allowed to quote the Father of the Nation? Or do we need to apply in triplicate for that? Must we use selected quotes certified by well-known historians?
As for quoting Gandhi, Shashi Tharoor while speaking at a Youth Congress Seminar in Thiruvananthapuram pointed out that the words Gandhi used belonged to that particular time in history and one cannot criticize him on their basis. He added that Gandhi’s views stand suitable for the 21st century and his messages are exactly of the sort for tweeting. He also stated that the controversial anti-Gandhi comments are the result of your misunderstanding of the great man.
Ah, poor me—confused, unable to comprehend things, getting it all wrong—maybe I need coaching classes? Look I have not made controversial anti-Gandhi comments. I have quoted Gandhi saying some extremely controversial things. If Shashi Tharoor, a Member of Parliament and a well known writer, believes that Gandhi’s deeds and statements—calling African blacks “kaffirs” and “savages”, partnering with the British in their colonial wars in South Africa, and saying that “untouchables” have less intelligence than cows—were acceptable during Gandhi’s time, and also stand suitable for the 21st century, then it says a lot about Tharoor himself. About his views on caste and race, and about his knowledge of history—about what other people in India were doing, saying and writing way before Gandhi was even born.
Veteran Malayalam poet and activist Sugathakumari too lashed out at you for commenting that the generally accepted public image of Gandhi was all a lie. She accused you of being scornful of Gandhi and the word Mahatma.
As for Sugatha Kumari’s anguish— let me say that a lie is not just what you choose to tell, but also what you choose to leave out in the telling. The reason I said that the Gandhi we are served up in our textbooks is a lie, is because very disturbing things about his life and times and writings are left out of the narrative. There is a pattern and a politics to the selections—to what is left out and what is kept in—that falsifies things in serious ways.
The inability to face up to, let alone deal with these aspects of Gandhi are showing his defenders up in a very sad light. It seems to me that it is they who are guilty of what they accuse me of—of not reading Gandhi. And if they have indeed read him, then things are even more dire than I thought. ‘The Ideal Bhangi’—even if you want to interpret it in some convoluted way that absolves Gandhi of prejudices that he himself was happy to publicly embrace—was just one piece of writing in a political trajectory that spanned more than half a century. Gandhi’s views and deeds on the subject of caste remained consistent. I am not scornful of these views, no. Scornful is a lightweight and inaccurate adjective to describe what I feel about them.
M. N. Karassery, literary critic and former Professor at University of Calicut shared some interesting observations in an article supporting you: ‘Amidst these crazy controversies, there lies the repeated affirmation that Gandhi is sacred. But political leaders should note the fact that there is nothing called sacred in this land. There shouldn’t be. Here, everything is secular. The constitution states that our country is secular. If there is something “sacred” that hinders freedom of expression, it’s against our constitution.’
One feels such profound gratitude for sanity. And clarity. But that’s the wonderful thing about this country. Despite the crazy bigotry and prejudice, there will always be some people who stand up to it. In Kerala many have, including the History Department of Kerala University who invited me in the first place.
When E.M.S. Nampoothirippad, the Marxist theorist and former Chief Minister of Kerala criticised Gandhi for his religious fundamentalism, O.V. Vijayan, the famous writer and political cartoonist, wrote in response that Gandhi was a liberation theologist.
Gandhi was by no means a liberation theologist. By no means.
Gandhi, however, holds a stunning stature amidst the African Blacks. Have your anti- Gandhi comments created any international responses?
It’s a mystery that he should be admired so much by people he often described in very unfortunate ways. The Doctor and the Saint has not been yet been published outside of India.
In ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ you mention that Gandhi dissuaded George Joseph from intervening in the ‘internal matter’ of the Hindus during the Vaikom Satyagraha. He was not allowed to go on a hunger strike. Interesting to note the comments of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson and son of Devadas Gandhi and Lakshmi Gandhi, who has written prolifically on his grandfather: “But in Vaikom he disfavored Joseph or anyone starving as a method of protest. Why? The clue to his seeming contradiction over the foregoing of food as a weapon lies, I think, in the difference between a hunger strike and a fast and over the likely denouement to such proceedings. A hunger strike is a pressure tactic, plain and simple, a moral junior to a fast. And such even if it has strength, it lacks stature. Whereas a fast with all its ingredients of atonement, self purification, and complete non violence in thought, word and deed, is a different order of persuasion to be resorted to only by an adept, and then, directed not at Authority alone, but equally at Society. Gandhi was to dissuade Kelappan, likewise, later.” (Kerala and Gandhi. Indian Literature July/August 2012.)
Gandhi did not hesitate to use his Hunger Strike/Fast to the Death—whatever you want to call it—in the Yerawada prison as a pressure tactic in the most coercive and unfair way possible. Public pressure and the fear that the Untouchable community would face great violence if he did not relent and was held responsible for Gandhi’s death forced Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact. Ramsay McDonald’s communal award that gave Dalits the right to form their own electorate—something that Ambedkar had fought for years for—was rescinded. Ambedkar later called the fast “A foul and filthy act”. This is not the place to go into it in detail about it—but Dalits are still suffering the effect of the Poona Pact. Ask Mayawati about that.
The Prime Minister will inaugurate the Ayyankali birth anniversary celebrations in New Delhi on Sep 8. Will he comment on your controversial speech in Thiruvananthapuram, I wonder.
I can’t say that I’m staying up nights worrying about it.
Why is it that people go mad when you talk about the Dalits? I remember there was the same kind of uproar following your comments on the Delhi gang rape. You were inviting attention to heinous, unknown crimes that Dalit women are subjected to.
You’ll have to ask them! I don’t know. But here’s a fact: in 2012, the year of the Delhi gang-rape—for some reason most people forget to mention that the girl was murdered too, as though that is just a minor detail—according to the NCRB, more than 1500 Dalit women were raped by “touchable men”. This is not to say that the protests were not important, they did give us a more stringent law against rape. But we need some perspective don’t we? Hundreds of Muslim women were raped in Gujarat in 2002, but we’re supposed to “move on” from there, right? You get shouted down if you talk about that, or the mass rape of Kashmiri women by the army in Kunan Poshpora.
Your concern for the so-called Untouchables is a sublime back-score of The God of Small Things as well.
I would not call it “concern for the so-called Untouchables.” We’ll leave that sort of missionary emotion to Gandhians. The God of Small Things is, among other things, about the sickness of our society. When it comes to caste, it is the so-called “upper castes”, the Mammachis, Baby Kochammas and Comrade Pillais who we should be concerned about. They are the sick ones, not Velutha. He bore the brunt, in a terrible, tragic way, of their sickness.
Being a writer, being somebody who doesn’t go with the tide, raising issues that very few dare to raise, being at the tempestuous centre of hot political, environmental issues/controversies…How much riskiness do you attribute to your life? Aren’t your dear ones, including your mother, worried about your safety?
People in this country are fighting tougher battles and taking greater risks than I am. A crime is committed against a Dalit every 16 minutes. In 2012, 650 Dalits were murdered in caste atrocities. There are thousands of Muslims living in refugee camps as we speak, while killers in their tens of thousands hold mahasabhas brandishing axes and swords and promising more violence. I’m talking of Muzzaffarnagar in UP. People are being murdered in Kashmir, in Manipur. All over the country thousands are in jail, including close friends of mine. As for my mother worrying—she’s not that sort of mother. She is a boss lady.
In the cold hours of blind idolatry, you have boldly lit a wayside fire for those who are disappointed with certain aspects of Gandhi. What’s the greater outcome you expect out of it? How do you want this debate to produce positive outcome?
The outcome can only be positive. Uncovering a cover up—or at least pointing to things that have been hidden in plain sight can only be a good thing, even if it’s a little painful at first. But let me make this absolutely clear: I did not light the fire. The credit for that goes to many many people. I’m just one of them.
Anand Gokani, great grandson of Gandhi commented that you would ‘repent and regret in future for making such a wrong statement on Gandhiji, who believed in equality’. Here is what he said: ‘Roy made such a sweeping statement to appease somebody. It is her opinion on Gandhi and she has the right to do it. But everyone who has read books on Gandhi knows the truth about him. She may be a writer and activist, but beyond that, making sweeping statements on Gandhi – who is an international figure – is not good. That’s why criticism was raised against her statement from various corners’….
“She may be a writer and activist but…” But, but but but. I’ve peered into the crystal bowl and do not see repentance and regret about this on my horizon…Look Gandhi is more than just a family heirloom. He is the one of the main building blocks of the foundation of the idea of India itself. Gandhism has become an industry—it involves major stakes, including money, real estate and political and academic institutions. Critiquing it cannot be done carelessly. But the cat has been clawing its way out of the bag for some time — it’s on the loose now, running through the alley ways. There will be kittens soon, and kittens’ kittens (grandkittens). They will not go back in the bag. The story’s out. The police can’t help. Nor the prisons. Nor politicians’ threats. It will be a little hard for a while, but eventually, it will be good for us all. A little honesty never harmed anybody in the long run.
(This interview along with a translation in Malayalam is published in the September 2014 issue of Bhashaposhini)