All the World’s a Half Built Dam

By Arundhati Roy


This response to Rajmohan Gandhi’s “Independence and Social Justice: The Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate” (EPW, 11 April 2015) was first published by EPW (20 June 2015).



It has taken me a while to respond to Rajmohan Gandhi’s long critique[1] of “The Doctor and the Saint.”[2] I thought at first that a close reading of my essay would contain the answers to the questions he raised. I was not exactly ecstatic about writing what would need to be a long response in which for the most part I would, most embarrassingly, have to cite myself.


Truth be told, I was pleased that Rajmohan Gandhi wrote what he did, because it confirms my view that in order to present an apposite account of the complicated intellectual and political battle that B R Ambedkar waged in his time, as well as to understand caste politics in India today, we need to take a careful look at the part M K Gandhi played in it. Given Gandhi’s iconic status this is not something that can be done lightly.


The choice before me was to either leave Gandhi out completely, or to address the issue with the rigour it deserves. As a result, even though “The Doctor and the Saint” is an introduction to Ambedkar’s classic text Annihilation of Caste, Gandhi occupies an inordinate amount of space. For this I have been trenchantly—and in some ways understandably— criticised. Had I left Gandhi out of it, my guess is that I would have been mercilessly vilified by some of those same critics, and justifiably so.


Rajmohan Gandhi, however, turns all this on its head when he claims that my “aim” in writing “The Doctor and the Saint” was to use Ambedkar to denigrate Gandhi. (Others have censured me for calling Gandhi’s views on the inevitable and catastrophic consequences of Western Modernity “prophetic.”) Perhaps because Rajmohan Gandhi has inherited the mantle of that family name, a number of people, many of whom do good and important work, have rallied around his flag. None of them seems to have noticed that several of his observations and assertions—and I am not referring to the things he says about me—are truly disquieting. This is why I thought it necessary to respond. It will be a pity however, if, in this age of speed and shallow reading, this very pointed rebuttal comes to be taken as a substitute for “The Doctor and the Saint.”


The title of Rajmohan Gandhi’s critique, “Independence and Social Justice,” neatly slots the whole thing into that old trope: Gandhi was fighting for freedom while Ambedkar was fighting for social justice. (That Gandhi’s was the grander, more important struggle is not stated, but is implicit.) Usually, even a preliminary reading of Annihilation of Caste puts that case to rest. As for “The Doctor and the Saint,” Rajmohan Gandhi has either not read it with any degree of attention, or he has deliberately made himself opaque to its arguments. He has chosen to ignore everything in the essay except the parts that concern his grandfather (which, I suppose is a kind of politics too). He approaches it as though it is a flawed, inadequate biography of Gandhi and on this premise, rolls out his critique. His indictment of me is damning. He accuses me of creating a “false, easy-to-ridicule straw-man Gandhi,” he implies that I have been dishonest, “creative,” and have “concealed what I know to be the truth,” and also of ignorance, unreasonableness, shoddy scholarship and “not being a Gandhi scholar for any length of time.” He derides me for “loving the life of the verbal barricade.” (I am still trying to work out why that’s a bad thing. I thought the verbal barricade is a place where we go to think aloud— and not always politely— about ourselves and the world we live in.) He says that he has no intention of confronting either Ambedkar or Gandhi (although he makes artful allusions to Ambedkar holding public office in the colonial government while Gandhi was in and out of jail). But then he confesses to a wish—“call it temerity”—to “confront” me. That’s a little faint-hearted. After all, these are huge debates, new to some and not to others, but they are certainly not about me. (That ship sailed long ago.) There’s no looking away from them any more. The lid is off. History, as always, is on the frontlines. New books are on their way into the world: Anand Teltumde’s book on the Mahad Satyagraha, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed’s book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, and an extensively revised version of De-Brahmanising History by Braj Ranjan Mani. Anyhow, for my part, let me try and answer as best I can the charges that he has leveled against me. (There are some charges, however, like “Roy has mentioned the freedom struggle not at all…” (, p 19) that leave me speechless.)


‘The Principles of Historical Debate’

“The omissions in ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ constitute the text’s most serious weaknesses,” says Rajmohan Gandhi. “I would also like to show that Roy’s attacks violate the principles of historical debate. These principles require, first that attacks on a statement that X, or Y, or even a Mahatma may have made 50 or 100 years ago should provide the context in which that statement was made. Second, the norms require that pertinent information is not scissored out.”


So my crime is one that scholars frequently accuse each other of: decontextualised, selective quoting. Somehow I do not recall Rajmohan Gandhi having a similar problem with any of the veritable mountain of Gandhian hagiographies that exist in the world—for example Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film Gandhi (a work of fiction more than fact) in which Ambedkar, Gandhi’s most articulate and important critic does not make so much as a guest appearance, or Ramachandra Guha’s biography, Gandhi Before India that entirely elides troubling issues that might dull the Mahatma’s sheen. Were they lectured by Rajmohan Gandhi about the “Principles of Historical Debate”? Unlikely.


Before I get into his specific accusations, let me briefly discuss the business of selective quoting. Everybody—teacher, hagiographer, denigrator, protector of the family silver—has to make selections when they quote from a body of work. What they select and what they omit reveals a lot about their own politics. I admit to quoting Gandhi selectively. My selections were based on trying to trace his pronouncements on caste. That, in turn, led me to his pronouncements on race. My selections were not made in order to denigrate Gandhi or, as some have suggested, to “compare” Gandhi and Ambedkar. They were a means of telling the story of the significant and perturbing part that Gandhi played in Ambedkar’s struggle. To do this it became necessary to highlight things that the dominant historical narrative has gone out of its way to obscure. I admit to selectively quoting some of the most disturbing things Gandhi said and wrote about black Africans, workers, about “Untouchables,” and women. Knowing full well that this would create consternation in some quarters (let me admit that it dismayed me too), I have been careful to quote him at length. In order to address the “Oh, he changed” argument, I have quoted him through the course of his political life (1893–1946). To address the “He was a man of his times” argument I have quoted his contemporaries as well as his predecessors. I have cited my sources carefully. I have put every quote in its historical context. “The Doctor and the Saint” has been formally peer reviewed by several well-regarded historians who I do believe understand the Principles of Historical Debate. Rajmohan Gandhi has nothing of substance to say about any of this very worrying material. His chief complaint is that I did not simultaneously quote some nicer things Gandhi might have said on different occasions to mitigate or “balance” things out. (In fact, though not for those reasons, I have done that too.) Also, it does matter, does it not, that we have all been indoctrinated in the good and great things Gandhi said and did—it is in our history books, our politicians’ speeches, in the very air we breathe. Writing against the grain of this indoctrination requires the ballast to be moved around a bit.

 Let us look at this conceptually.


Suppose, for the sake of argument, a celebrated public figure x, over the several decades of his political life, said profound and beautiful things that are the subject of public record. Things such as:

All men are born equal

The poor must inherit the earth

Poverty is the worst form of violence

And suppose the same public figure x on a parallel (but more or less hidden from public record) track also said things like:

Caste is the genius of Hindu civilisation

Kaffirs as a rule are uncivilised

Most workers’ moral faculties have collapsed

Some Untouchables are worse than cows in their understanding

Sweepers do not have the right to go on strike

According to Rajmohan Gandhi, retaining track one and erasing track two is in keeping with the Principles of Historical Debate. The reverse is not. That subtle point aside, does the goodness contained in track one mitigate the bias and narrow-mindedness of track two? Or does it make the whole thing even more disturbing? I would say the latter. Let me now attend to some of Rajmohan Gandhi’s specific and weighty charges:


‘The Ideal Bhangi’

He says,

Here is another omission (out of a number of possible ones). She gathers much amusement (pp 132–33) from a piece by Gandhi called ‘The Ideal Bhangi’ and pokes fun at Gandhi’s concern with sanitation and reproduces many sentences from it. But she carefully omits the sentence that conveys Gandhi’s anger at the way the Bhangi was/is treated, published in Harijan on 28 November 1936: ‘But I know this much that by looking down upon the Bhangi, we—Hindus, Mussalmans, Christians and all—have deserved the contempt of the whole world.’ (CW 64:86) Yes, Gandhi was troubled by caste injustices and by India’s insanitation and by much else (


Here below, I reproduce the sections of “The Ideal Bhangi” that I have quoted in “The Doctor and the Saint” along with my commentary (Roy 2014: 132–33). Readers can judge for themselves whether the absence of the sentence that I so “mischievously” excised transforms the meaning or the spirit of the essay:

In 1936, he [Ambedkar] published the incendiary (and overpriced, as Gandhi patronisingly commented) text of Annihilation of Caste […] That same year, Gandhiji too made a memorable contribution to literature. He was by now sixty-eight years old. He wrote a classic essay called ‘The Ideal Bhangi’:

The Brahmin’s duty is to look after the sanitation of the soul, the Bhangi’s that of the body of society… and yet our woebegone Indian society has branded the Bhangi as a social pariah, set him down at the bottom of the scale, held him fit only to receive kicks and abuse, a creature who must subsist on leavings of the caste people and dwell on the dung heap.

If only we had given due recognition to the status of the Bhangi as equal to that of the Brahmin, our villages, no less their inhabitants would have looked a picture of cleanliness and order. I therefore make bold to state without any manner of hesitation or doubt that not till the invidious distinction between Brahmin and Bhangi is removed will our society enjoy health, prosperity and peace and be happy.

[Gandhi] then outlined the educational requirements, practical skills and etiquette an ideal Bhangi should possess:

‘What qualities therefore should such an honoured servant of society exemplify in his person? In my opinion an ideal Bhangi should have a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation. He should know how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it. He should know how to overcome and destroy the odour of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous. He should likewise know the process of converting urine and night soil into manure. But that is not all. My ideal Bhangi would know the quality of night soil and urine. He would keep a close watch on these and give timely warning to the individual concerned…’

The Manusmriti says a Shudra should not amass wealth even if he has the ability, for a Shudra who amasses wealth annoys the Brahmin. Gandhi, a Bania, for whom the Manusmriti prescribes usury as a divine calling, says:

‘Such an ideal Bhangi, while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty. In other words, he would not dream of amassing wealth out of it.’


Keep in mind here that Gandhi did not want “bhangis” (scavengers as he was fond of calling them) to amass wealth even from their supposedly divinely designated professional occupation of cleaning other people’s shit, on the other hand he developed his famous doctrine of trusteeship: “The rich man must be left in possession of his wealth…” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi or CWMG 79: 133–34 cited in Roy 2014: 90) The rich man, then as well as now, was and continues to be the Bania. Gandhi was certainly troubled by caste injustices, but not by caste itself. He never once denounced the caste system in clear uncertain terms. On the few occasions in the later years of his life when he did gently criticise it, he suggested it should be replaced by Varna—which Ambedkar described as the “parent” of the caste system. Gandhi constantly reiterated his belief in the tradition of hereditary occupation. And since Rajmohan Gandhi offers us “The Ideal Bhangi” with such approbation should we assume that he agrees with his grandfather’s views?



Incidentally there is someone else who agrees with those views too: In his book Karmayogi (which he withdrew after the Balmiki community protested), Narendra Modi wrote:

I do not believe they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this kind of job generation after generation… At some point of time somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Balmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and this job should continue as internal spiritual activity for centuries (from Shah 2012 cited in Roy 2014: 133).


The Mahad Satyagraha

Rajmohan Gandhi charges me with having deliberately and dishonestly suppressed Gandhi’s comments on the March 1927 Mahad Satyagraha by merely saying that Gandhi wrote “approvingly about the Untouchables’ composure in the face of the attacks.” What I should have added, he says, is that a month after the Satyagraha, on 28 April 1927, in Young India Gandhi wrote “Dr Ambedkar [was] fully justified in putting to the test the resolution of the Bombay Legislative Council and the Mahad Municipality by advising the so-called Untouchables to go to the tank to quench their thirst.” Also that the Mahatma urged, “every Hindu opposed to untouchability” to publicly defend the Untouchables of Mahad “even at the risk of getting his head broken” (CW 33: 268). It is true that I did not include those quotes. (Although to call that dishonest suppression is, to my mind, a little excessive.)


Here are the facts as presented in “The Doctor and the Saint.” Gandhi was not present at the first Mahad Satyagraha. Ambedkar and his colleagues placed a portrait of him up on the stage because, at the time, he was a source of inspiration. What Rajmohan Gandhi omits to mention is that there was a second Mahad Satyagraha later that year (December 1927) at which people gathered in even greater numbers. That same month Gandhi spoke at the All-India Suppressed Classes Conference in Lahore, where he urged Untouchables to fight for their rights by “sweet persuasion and not by Satyagraha which becomes Duragraha when it is intended to give rude shock to the deep-rooted prejudices of the people.” Duragraha, he defined as “devilish force,” which was the polar opposite of Satyagraha, “soul force” (cited in Prashad 1996: 2015, see also CWMG 16: 126–28—cited in Roy 2014: 106–07).


Writing about Gandhi’s response to the Mahad Satyagraha in What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables (first published in 1945) Ambedkar said:

The Untouchables were not without hope of getting the moral support of Mr Gandhi. Indeed they had very good ground for getting it. For the weapon of satyagraha—the essence of which is to melt the heart of the opponent by suffering—was the weapon which was forged by Mr Gandhi, and who had led the Congress to practise it against the British Government for winning swaraj. Naturally the Untouchables expected full support from Mr Gandhi to their satyagraha against the Hindus the object of which was to establish their right to take water from public wells and to enter public Hindu temples. Mr Gandhi however did not give his support to the satyagraha. Not only did he not give his support, he condemned it in strong terms (Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches or BAWS 9: 247 cited in Roy 2014: 109–10).


Could it be Rajmohan Gandhi’s case that Ambedkar is “suppressing” the truth?


Caste and the Campaign against Untouchability

High up in Rajmohan Gandhi’s list of my failings is the charge that I do not possess an “even limited knowledge of where Gandhi stood on caste, race and religion.” In a long section titled “The Sin of Untouchability”[3] he cites several examples to illustrate Gandhi’s compassion and love for the people he called “Harijans” (Children of God). Rajmohan Gandhi seems to be either unaware of, or unconcerned about the debates around the use of this despised and patronising word. He says: “Since (said Gandhi) God was, above all, the protector of the helpless, and since none were more helpless than the ‘Untouchables,’ the word ‘Harijan’ seemed appropriate to him.” It seems appropriate to Rajmohan Gandhi too.


In this section, he explains to us how Gandhi campaigned against untouchability even when he was threatened by angry representatives of the Hindu orthodoxy. “Roy does not allow her readers to know anything contained in the previous paragraphs,” he says. See for instance this from “The Doctor and the Saint”:

After the Poona Pact, Gandhi directed all his energy and passion towards the eradication of untouchability. For a start, he re-baptised Untouchables and gave them a patronising name that anchored them firmly to the Hindu faith: Harijans (People of God). He founded a new newspaper called Harijan. He started the Harijan Sevak Sangh (Harijan Service Society) which he insisted would be manned only by privileged-caste Hindus who had to do penance for their past sins against Untouchables. Ambedkar saw all this as the Congress’ plan to ‘kill Untouchables by kindness.’ Gandhi toured the country preaching against untouchability. He was heckled and attacked by Hindus even more conservative than himself, but he did not swerve from his purpose. Everything that happened was harnessed to the cause of eradicating untouchability. In January 1934, there was a major earthquake in Bihar. Almost twenty thousand people lost their lives. Writing in the Harijan on 24 February, Gandhi shocked even his colleagues in the Congress, when he said it was God’s punishment to the people for the sin of practising untouchability… (Roy 2014: 129).


The disturbing thing about all of this is that Rajmohan Gandhi (like Gandhi as well as the Hindu Mahasabha and a number of Hindu reformist organisations before him) conflates the fight against untouchability with the fight against caste. “The Doctor and the Saint” deals with the politics of this at some length (Roy 2014 edition: pp 53–58, 98–102). Let me briefly summarise what I said:


Vigorous proselytising against the practice of untouchability by privileged caste reformist outfits began towards the end of the 19th century. Before that, tens of millions of people born into subordinated castes had converted to Islam, Christianity and Sikhism to escape the scourge of caste. Nobody seemed to mind. However, at the turn of the century, when the old ideas of Empire began to metamorphose into new ideas of the nation state and the concept of representative government gained currency, a new, volatile question arose: Who had the right to represent whom? Suddenly, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus began to disaggregate into what we today know as “vote-banks.” Suddenly demography became important. Suddenly it became imperative for privileged-caste Hindus to shore up their numbers by keeping the 44.5 million strong Untouchable community in the “Hindu fold.” (A concept that did not exist before this period.) To stem the flow of religious conversion, to win the Untouchables’ hearts and minds, a raft of privileged-caste Hindu reformist outfits appeared. (One of them, the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, an offshoot of the Arya Samaj, is the one that invited Ambedkar to speak and then famously disinvited him when they saw the text of his speech, “Annihilation of Caste,” in which he denounced the Hindu scriptures.) These reformers, most of whom believed in caste, had to find a way of retaining Untouchables in the Big House, but keeping them in the servants’ quarters. To this end, the Arya Samaj, founded in 1875, embarked on the Shuddhi programme of “purifying the impure” and bringing Untouchables “home” to Hinduism. In 1899 Swami Vivekananda said, “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more.” Today under the watch of Narendra Modi, Shuddhi has been re-launched as “Ghar Wapsi” (Homecoming).


Of course the British government played into all these anxieties by mischievously and dangerously pitting communities against each other. They stoked the disaffection that eventually led to the bloodbath of partition.


Around the time Gandhi returned to India from South Africa (1915), and Ambedkar returned from his studies in Columbia (1917), the reformers’ campaign against untouchability was at its peak. The Congress had passed a resolution against untouchability. Both Gandhi and Tilak called untouchability a “disease” that was antithetical to Hinduism. The first All-India Depressed Classes Conference (organised by privileged castes) was held in Bombay. The All-India Anti- Untouchability Manifesto was signed by all of them, except Tilak.


Ambedkar did not attend these meetings. He was suspicious of these out-of-character displays of solicitude for Untouchables. He saw that these were ways in which, in the changing times, the privileged castes were manoeuvring to consolidate their control over the Untouchable community. He believed that it was not just the stigma, the purity–pollution issue around untouchability, but caste itself that had to be dismantled. The practice of untouchability, cruel as it was—the broom tied to the waist to sweep away polluting footprints, the pot hung around the neck to collect polluting saliva—was the performative, ritualistic end of the practice of caste. The real violence of caste, he knew, stemmed from the denial of entitlement: to land, to wealth, to knowledge, to equal opportunity.


It was precisely in order to detach caste from the political economy and from the conditions of enslavement in which most Untouchables were forced to live and work, precisely in order to elide the questions of entitlement, land reforms and the redistribution of wealth, that Hindu reformers cleverly narrowed the question of caste to the issue of untouchability. They framed it as an erroneous religious and cultural practice that needed to be reformed. Gandhi narrowed it even further to the issue of “Bhangis”—a mostly urban and therefore somewhat politicised community.


When Rajmohan Gandhi ignores all this and cites example after example of Gandhi’s missionary compassion and his zealous campaign against untouchability, I cannot tell whether his opacity is genuine or disingenuous. Either way, it makes for disturbing politics.


Ambedkar and Separate Electorates

Ambedkar believed that caste would only be further entrenched unless Untouchables were able to develop into a political constituency with their own representatives. He believed that reserved seats for Untouchables within the “Hindu fold,” or within the Congress, would just produce pliable candidates—servants who knew how to please their masters. Years before the 1930 Round Table Conference that took place in London, he began to develop the idea for a separate electorate. In 1919, he submitted a written testimony to the Southborough Committee on electoral reforms:

The right of representation and the right to hold office under the State are the two most important rights that make up citizenship. But the untouchability of the Untouchables puts these rights far beyond their reach. In a few places they do not even possess such insignificant rights as personal liberty and personal security, and equality before law is not always assured to them. These are the interests of the Untouchables. And as can be easily seen they can be represented by the Untouchables alone. They are distinctively their own interests and none else can truly voice them…(BAWS 1: 256, cited in Roy 2014: 103.)


Gandhi, on the other hand believed the opposite. He viewed Untouchables and the working classes as people in need of missionary ministration not political representation. Whether in the mill workers’ associations that he headed (at the behest of the mill owners), or the 1924 Vaikom Satyagraha, or at the Round Table Conference, or in the Harijan Sevak Sangh, he saw to it that workers and Untouchables were represented and negotiations conducted by those from privileged castes, preferably himself.


At the Second Round Table Conference in 1931, Gandhi insisted that it was he and not Ambedkar who should rightfully represent India’s Untouchables. He accused Ambedkar (who had grown up in India as an Untouchable and did not need to travel all the way to South Africa to learn about humiliation and social segregation) of “not knowing their [his] India.” Gandhi agreed that Muslims and Sikhs could have separate electorates, but, though he denounced the practice of untouchability (“I would far rather that Hinduism died than untouchability lived”), he would not countenance Ambedkar’s proposal for a separate electorate (see Roy 2014: 124). Rajmohan Gandhi chastises me for leaving out Gandhi’s stated reason for why he was so dead against the idea:

Sikhs may remain as such in perpetuity, so may Mohammedans, so may Europeans. Will untouchables remain untouchables in perpetuity? (CWMG 48: 298).


But Ambedkar did not ask for the separate electorate to last in perpetuity. This was his logic: Since the Untouchable population was (and still is) scattered across the country in little settlements on the outskirts of Hindu villages, he realised that within the geographical demarcation of a political constituency, they would always be a minority and would never be in a position to elect a candidate of their own choice. For this reason he believed that universal adult franchise alone (the first-past-the-post system) could not secure equal rights for Untouchables. He suggested that Untouchables, who had been despised and devalued for so many centuries, be given a separate electorate so that they could, without interference from the Hindu orthodoxy, develop into a political constituency with a leadership of its own. In addition to this, and in order that they retain their connection with mainstream politics, he suggested that they be given the right to vote for general candidates too. Both the separate electorate and the double vote were to last only for a period of ten years (see Roy 2014: 122).


A year later when British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald accepted this proposal and announced the Communal Award, granting Untouchables a separate electorate for a period of 20 years, Gandhi went on his historic fast to death in the Yerawada prison, demanding the provision be revoked. Ambedkar was coerced into backing down and eventually, on 24 September 1932 he signed the notorious Poona Pact.


The Poona Pact

This is, perhaps, the most unsound section of Rajmohan Gandhi’s critique. He himself of course approves of the Pact:

In a joint electorate, good people of all jatis, including the Dalits, would at times be defeated by votes from outside their jati, and at other times be elected, thanks to ‘outsider’ votes.


This observation betrays no knowledge of Ambedkar’s proposal at the Round Table Conference and no understanding of how caste plays out in elections. To make matters worse, Rajmohan Gandhi suggests that Ambedkar was happy with the Pact too. He says:

Ambedkar, not only refrained, in his tempestuous 1945 text from criticising the pact’s terms, he also did not—then or later—try, as far as I can figure out try to have that pact annulled or replaced. Far from seeing the pact as a ‘debacle,’ he seemed to view it as a compromise that benefitted everybody including Dalits.


Here’s what Ambedkar said in his “tempestuous” (now that is a good quality, moderate slur in case you are shopping for one) 1945 text:

There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act… [I]t was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people to give up the constitutional safeguards of which they had become possessed under the Prime Minister’s Award and agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus. It was a vile and wicked act. How can the Untouchables regard such a man as honest and sincere?


Rajmohan Gandhi goes on to seriously impugn Ambedkar’s famous 1945 text What the Congress and Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables:

What was the context for the fierce language of Ambedkar’s 1945 text, which he wrote in New Delhi in his official residence on Prithviraj Road? At this time, he was a Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council…. The brilliant thinker and Member (minister in effect) writing the 1945 tract was also someone who wished to influence any new British scheme. In addition, he was a political leader unable to forget the results of the 1937 elections …. He hoped to do better in 1945–46. Through this 1945 tract, an Ambedkar who was vexed by the 1937 results presented his case to Britain’s leaders and simultaneously to India’s voters.


So, according to Rajmohan Gandhi, Ambedkar’s text need not be taken at face value because he was a politician about to face elections and because he was trying to influence British government policy. Was Gandhi not a politician? Was he not trying to influence government policy? Or is this the standard low blow that is being delivered here? The insinuation is that while Gandhi was fighting for freedom Ambedkar was a British stooge. Perhaps, if only to put an end to this line of argument we should be reminded of Ambedkar’s words:

It is foolish to take solace in the fact that because the Congress is fighting for the freedom of India, it is, therefore, fighting for the freedom of the people of India and of the lowest of the low. The question whether the Congress is fighting for freedom has very little importance as compared to the question for whose freedom is the Congress fighting? (BAWS 9: 202 cited in Roy 2014: 43)


Rajmohan Gandhi is absolutely right, Ambedkar did not try and have the Poona Pact annulled. He did something far more radical. His disgust with the events that led to the Poona Pact convinced him that as long as Untouchables remained in the “Hindu fold” they would never be allowed to throw off the shackles of their subjugation. So he called upon his people to renounce Hinduism. On 13 October 1935, at the Depressed Classes Conference in Yeola in the Bombay Presidency (now in Maharashtra), Ambedkar addressing more than 10,000 people said:

Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus, we are treated thus. If we were members of another faith none would treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. We shall repair our mistake now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.


The following year, 1936, he wrote Annihilation of Caste.


After 79 years, it is a pity that we have not been able to raise the bar of this debate just a little. In fact, the first-past-the-post electoral system is making a farce out of democracy for everybody, and for the Dalit community, in particular.


Rajmohan Gandhi ventures deeper into the historical quicksand and emerges in post-independence India:

Founded on Ambedkar’s legacy by Kanshi Ram, the Bahujan Samaj Party has more than once led a government in our largest state, Uttar Pradesh, thanks in part, some might say, to the Poona Pact and the joint electorate.


Who are these “some” who “might say” this? Certainly not Kanshi Ram who always referred to the post-Poona Pact era as the “Chamcha Age.” Before he founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984, he founded the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti. On 24 September 1982, the 50th anniversary of the Poona Pact, he organised 60 simultaneous meetings, in towns and villages from Poona to Jalandhar, to denounce the Pact. In different states other Dalit parties and activists conducted similar meetings. Indira Gandhi who had planned a great celebration to commemorate the Pact was forced to cancel it. Many Dalit organisations called—and still call— for the restitution of the 1932 Communal Award. Rajmohan Gandhi ought to consider discussing his discovery of Ambedkar’s appreciation of the Poona Pact with the BSP, or for that matter with almost any Dalit politician, intellectual or activist. (See S Anand, “A Note on the Poona Pact” in B R Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, pp 359–72, Navayana 2014.)


Ambedkar, the Congress and the Constituent Assembly

Rajmohan Gandhi criticises me for being churlish about the statesmanship that Gandhi, Nehru and Patel displayed by inviting Ambedkar to head the Constitution Drafting Committee and, after independence, to be India’s first Law Minister. He says,

The Poona Pact of 1932 and 15 years later the Gandhi–Ambedkar partnership at independence, represented victories for India’s society and polity, and also for the two individuals concerned.



…she effectively suppresses a remarkable coming together of two bitter adversaries, resulting in Gandhi’s partnership with Ambedkar in the final phase of his life. Everyone knows of the amazing results of Ambedkar’s induction into constitution-making.


Is there any evidence to back his assertion about this friendship? Have either Gandhi or Ambedkar, both such prolific writers, written about this “remarkable coming together”? They have not. In 1955, a year before he died, Ambedkar, in an interview with the BBC was unrelentingly scathing about Gandhi. It is available on YouTube.[4] Thrusting a non-existent friendship that he clearly never desired onto Ambedkar is also a form of disrespect. The story of how Ambedkar came to be on the Constitution Drafting Committee is a little less straightforward than Rajmohan Gandhi might want to admit. This is a passage from “The Doctor and the Saint”:


Despite the debacle of the Poona Pact, Ambedkar didn’t entirely give up the idea of separate electorates. Unfortunately, his second party, the Scheduled Castes Federation, was defeated in the 1946 elections to the Provincial Legislature. The defeat meant that Ambedkar lost his place on the Executive Council in the Interim Ministry that was formed in August 1946. It was a serious blow, because Ambedkar desperately wanted to use his position on the Executive Council to become part of the committee that would draft the Indian Constitution. Worried that this was not going to be possible, and in order to put external pressure on the Drafting Committee, Ambedkar, in March 1947, published a document called States and Minorities— his proposed constitution for a ‘United States of India’ (an idea whose time has perhaps come). Fortunately for him, the Muslim League chose Jogendranath Mandal, a colleague of Ambedkar’s and a Scheduled Castes Federation leader from Bengal, as one of its candidates on the Executive Council. Mandal made sure that Ambedkar was elected to the Constituent Assembly from the Bengal province. But disaster struck again. After partition, East Bengal went to Pakistan and Ambedkar lost his position once more. In a gesture of goodwill, and perhaps because there was no one as equal to the task as he was, the Congress appointed Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly. In August 1947, Ambedkar was appointed India’s first Law Minister and Chairman of the Drafting Committee for the Constitution. Across the new border, Jogendranath Mandal became Pakistan’s first Law Minister. It was extraordinary that through all the chaos and prejudice, the first law ministers of both India and Pakistan were Dalits. Mandal was eventually disillusioned with Pakistan and returned to India. Ambedkar was disillusioned too, but he really had nowhere to go.


The Indian Constitution was drafted by a committee, and reflected the views of its privileged-caste members more than Ambedkar’s. Still, several of the safeguards for Untouchables that he had outlined in States and Minorities did find their way in. Some of Ambedkar’s more radical suggestions, such as nationalising agriculture and key industries, were summarily dropped. The drafting process left Ambedkar more than a little unhappy. In March 1955, he said in the Rajya Sabha (India’s Upper House of Parliament): ‘The Constitution was a wonderful temple we built for the gods, but before they could be installed, the devils have taken possession.’ In 1954 Ambedkar contested his last election as a Scheduled Castes Federation candidate and lost (Roy 2014: 137–39).


Having applauded the Poona Pact, Rajmohan Gandhi says,

However, the elections of 1945–46 confirmed that the INC [Indian National Congress] attracted the bulk of the Indian electorate, including a good deal of Dalit support…Many Dalit candidates have understandably resented the fact that non-Dalit voters can cause their defeat. Unfortunately this happened to Ambedkar himself in the 1952 general elections, after he had resigned from the cabinet in disappointment at the Congress’s slowness in passing the Hindu Code Bill, and again in 1954, when he contested a by-election.


This is indirect and ignoble gloating. It’s like forcing a handicap on an athlete and then celebrating (or pretending not to celebrate) your victory at the finish line. Ambedkar’s tenure as Law Minister was as fraught and difficult as everything else he had tried to do. As Law Minister in post-independence India, he worked for months on a draft of the Hindu Code Bill. He believed that the caste system advanced itself by controlling women, and one of his major concerns was to make Hindu personal law more equitable for women. The bill he proposed sanctioned divorce and expanded the property rights of widows and daughters. The Constituent Assembly dragged its feet over it for four years (from 1947 to 1951) and then blocked it. The President, Rajendra Prasad, threatened to stall the bill’s passage into law. Hindu sadhus laid siege to Parliament. Industrialists and zamindars warned they would withdraw their support in the coming elections. Eventually Ambedkar resigned. In his resignation speech he said: “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap” (from Rege 2013 cited in Roy 2014: 46–47).


Gandhi in South Africa

Increasingly troubled in my reading by Gandhi’s attitude towards caste, I began to wonder when and how he came to be called a Mahatma. He was publicly called Mahatma at a public meeting in Gondal, Gujarat, in 1915, the year he returned from South Africa (Tidrick 2006 cited in Roy 2014: 65). I grew curious about what he had done in South Africa to earn this appellation, and in what way his attitude to race was different from his attitude to caste. Rajmohan Gandhi is extremely unhappy at the conclusions I drew:

Gandhi’s prejudices at that time (which almost all his contemporaries shared) should be frankly faced, but why does Roy cover up the more favourable side of the ledger which was rare for its time?


In fact I do mention “the favourable side of the ledger.” But that only makes it all the more disturbing. In any case what sort of ledger are we talking about here? Are these words and deeds meant to be added and subtracted from each other like household expense accounts? Also, if Gandhi “shared” his prejudices with his contemporaries, can we ask questions about what kind of people he chose to see as his contemporaries?


This of course is the “Man of his times” argument. But surely it cannot be anybody’s case that in those times (and earlier ones) nobody had ever spoken of equality and justice? Or colonialism? Also, is it possible to be a Man of the (extremely prejudiced) Times and a Mahatma for all the time simultaneously?


Let me try and put down a schematic overview—a hugely inadequate one—of what I wrote about Gandhi’s years in South Africa in “The Doctor and the Saint” (Roy 2014: 66–88). Gandhi arrived in South Africa in 1893 when he was 24 years old. He was a lawyer. His first political awakening occurred a few months after he arrived when he was thrown out of a “Whites-only” railway coach in Pietermaritzburg. He was sitting in the White’s coach because he was offended that Indians were expected to share railway coaches with native black Africans. In 1894 he started the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). It was an exclusive club with a membership fee of three pounds that only the well-off could afford. One of its earliest victories was the “solution” to the problem of the Durban post office. The NIC successfully campaigned to have a third door opened in the post office so that Indians would not have to share the same entrance with black Africans. Gandhi soon became a spokesperson for the Indian community in Durban. He took care to distinguish the “Passenger Indian”— wealthy Muslims and privileged-caste Hindu traders—from the desperately poor “Coolie”—indentured (bonded) labourers who belonged to the subordinated castes:

Whether they are Hindus or Mahommedans, they are absolutely without any moral or religious instruction worthy of the name. They have not learned enough to educate themselves without any outside help. Placed thus, they are apt to yield to the slightest temptation to tell a lie. After some time, lying with them becomes a habit and a disease. They would lie without any reason, without any prospect of bettering themselves materially, indeed, without knowing what they are doing. They reach a stage in life when their moral faculties have completely collapsed owing to neglect.


In 1899, native Africans as well as Indian workers were dragooned by both the British and the Boers to fight in the Boer War (known today in South Africa as the White Man’s War). Gandhi volunteered to serve with the British Army. He was enlisted in the Ambulance Corps. It was a brutal war in which thousands were killed, and several thousands died of starvation in concentration camps. (It was the war in which the British invented the concept of concentration camps.) In 1906, Gandhi once again volunteered for active service with the British Army to fight the Zulu who had risen in rebellion against a new poll tax imposed by the British government. He published a series of letters in his paper, Indian Opinion. This one is dated 14 April 1906:

What is our duty during these calamitous times in the Colony? It is not for us to say whether the revolt of the Kaffirs [the Zulu] is justified or not. We are in Natal by virtue of British Power. Our very existence depends on it. It is therefore our duty to render whatever help we can.


In this war Gandhi worked as a stretcher-bearer. The rebellion was eventually contained. The Zulu chief Bhambatha was captured and beheaded. Four thousand Zulus were killed, thousands more flogged and imprisoned.


In September 1906 the British passed the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Act that disallowed Indian traders of Natal (regarded as competition to white merchants) from entering the Transvaal. Gandhi led the protest of Passenger Indians against the act. He was beaten, arrested and imprisoned. He had to share a prison cell with Native Africans. He wrote of this in Indian Opinion in 1908:

We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience. We could understand not being classed with the Whites, but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed to be too much to put up with. I then felt that Indians had not launched our passive resistance too soon. Here was further proof that the obnoxious law was meant to emasculate the Indians… Apart from whether or not this implies degradation, I must say it is rather dangerous. Kaffirs as a rule are uncivilised—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.


And in 1909, the 16th of the 20 years he would spend in South Africa, he wrote “My Second Experience in Gaol”:

I was given a bed in a cell where there were mostly Kaffir prisoners who had been lying ill. I spent the night in this cell in great misery and fear… I read the Bhagvad Gita which I had carried with me. I read the verses which had a bearing on my situation and meditating on them, managed to compose myself. The reason why I felt so uneasy was that the Kaffir and Chinese prisoners appeared to be wild, murderous and given to immoral ways… He [the Chinese] appeared to be worse. He came near the bed and looked closely at me. I kept still. Then he went to a Kaffir lying in bed. The two exchanged obscene jokes, uncovering each other’s genitals… I have resolved in my mind on an agitation to ensure that Indian prisoners are not lodged with Kaffirs or others. We cannot ignore the fact that there is no common ground between them and us. Moreover those who wish to sleep in the same room as them have ulterior motives for doing so.


From inside prison Gandhi led agitations demanding the segregation of Indian prisoners from “Kaffirs.” In all his years in Africa his political struggles were almost exclusively restricted to the demands and aspirations of Passenger Indians. He always maintained that Indians deserved better treatment than native Africans.


It was during these struggles that Gandhi developed his ideas of satyagraha. He lived in a commune of Indians and Europeans on a 1,100-acre fruit farm gifted to him by his German architect friend Herman Kallenbach. The members of the commune did not include any black Africans. The irony is that the aim of Gandhi’s satyagraha in South Africa was not to question the accumulation of capital or the unequal distribution of wealth or to hold out for improved working conditions for the indentured, or for the return of land to those it had been stolen from. He was fighting for Indian merchants’ right to expand their businesses to the Transvaal and to compete with British merchants. It was only in 1913, his last year in South Africa—South Africa’s “year of blood”—that he joined the indentured workers’ uprising in which he played a major part. But then very quickly he signed an agreement with Jan Smuts and returned to India.


On his way home to India he stopped at London where he was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal for Public Service, presented to him by Lord Hardinge of Penshurst. Despite this, when he arrived in India he was hailed as the Mahatma who had stood up for justice and led his people against the British Empire.


Rajmohan Gandhi dismisses my account as prejudiced and biased. He faults me for failing to mention Gandhi’s “well documented” friendship with John Dube, one of the founders of the African National Congress (ANC). “Like Gandhi,” says Rajmohan Gandhi “John Dube too hesitated to support the Zulu Rebellion.” (Gandhi hesitated to support the Zulu rebellion? On the contrary, he wrote public petition after petition asking the British to allow Indians to bear arms against the Zulu.) I have also been faulted for failing to mention Gandhi’s praise for the “efforts of the African journalist and educator Tengo Jabavu, in establishing a college for Africans.” There’s also this: “Roy speaks of Gandhi’s ‘disdain’ for blacks but fails to mention that his remarks were provoked by the shocking conduct witnessed by him of men convicted for serious crimes, with whom he shared his prison cell.” Am I being pulled up for failing to mention that Gandhi’s article titled “My Second Experience in Gaol” was about his second experience in gaol (jail)? And that this article was written after Gandhi had already lived in South Africa for 16 years? Also—is it appropriate to generalise and be offensive about any community—Muslims, Adivasis, Banias, Brahmins, Blacks, Whites, Pinks, Polka Dots—based on the “shocking conduct” of their convicts? Gandhi did it. And now Rajmohan Gandhi too?


He ends this section of his critique by reproducing (to balance the Ledger) a long speech in which Gandhi condemns slavery in America and praises Abraham Lincoln. Rajmohan Gandhi then recounts an incident that Indulal Yagnik, a prison mate of Gandhi’s in Poona between 1922 and 1924, describes in his book Gandhi as I Knew Him. It is an account of how Gandhi saved Adan, a Somali prison warden by sucking out the poison from his scorpion bite and spitting it out.


Was this the reaction of a man who disdained blacks? Rajmohan Gandhi asks.


Is this all you have to say about Gandhi’s years in South Africa? I ask.


Birla and Tata

I will end by dealing with Rajmohan Gandhi’s early quibbles that have to do with Gandhi’s relationship with the Birlas and the Tatas. That Gandhi was supported by G D Birla is admitted. But Rajmohan Gandhi’s point is that when Gandhi returned from South Africa it was young G D Birla who offered that support and not Gandhi who asked for it. He quotes G D Birla:

I informed him that I would…send him a monthly donation… ‘Fine,’ he replied. Look what I did—it was very silly of me! I said, ‘Very good then. I’ll expect a monthly letter from you,’ He retorted saying ‘Does this mean I have to come to you with a begging bowl every month?’ I felt so ashamed.


“Each of us can decide which account— Roy’s or Birla’s—carries a truer ring,” says Rajmohan Gandhi. I have no idea what he means by this. It is of no consequence to me who asked who for money, nor have I said anything about it. What is of consequence is that Gandhi was supported all along by the Birlas, and surely nobody believes that that relationship was not mutually beneficial to both parties in complex and interesting ways. (To begin with, they were caste brethren. G D Birla was one of the signatories to the Poona Pact.) However, now that the subject has been raised, here is a letter from Gandhi to G D Birla, dated January 1927:


My thirst for money is simply unquenchable. I need at least Rs 2,00,000—for Khadi, Untouchability and education. The dairy work makes another 50,000. Then there is the Ashram expenditure. No work remains unfinished for want of funds, but God gives after severe trials. This also satisfies me. You can give as you like for whatever work you have faith in (From Birla 1953 cited in Roy 2014: 106).


Just for a sense of scale: This letter was written a month before the Mahad Satyagraha. To raise money for their satyagraha the Untouchables of 40 villages contributed Rs 3 each, and a play about Tukaram was staged in Bombay that made Rs 23, making the total collection Rs 143 (Teltumbde (mimeo) cited in Roy (2014): 106).


My last point addresses Rajmohan Gandhi’s first. He takes issue with the following statement in my essay: “[Gandhi’s] duality allowed him to support and be supported by big industry and big dams as well.” To illustrate this I appended a footnote that contains a letter Gandhi wrote in April 1924 advising villagers protesting displacement by the Mulshi Dam being built by the Tatas to give up their protest (CWMG 27: 168 cited in Roy 2014: 49). My omission this time, was not mentioning that two years earlier Gandhi had challenged the Tatas in his journal Young India about this very dam. It is a long piece. I’ve chosen—selectively of course—just a part of what Rajmohan Gandhi selected. But you’ll get the drift:

I wish the great house of the Tatas instead of standing on their legal rights, will reason with the people themselves, and do whatever they wish in consultation with them…what is the value of all the boons that the Tata scheme claims to confer on India, if it is to be at the unwilling expense of even one poor man? ( 7)


The Tatas, who had a long and enduring relationship with Gandhi from his South Africa days (they contributed funds for the newspaper he ran), continued with their project. Meanwhile Gandhi was jailed for his part in the first noncooperation movement. By the time he was released, the dam was half-built. Some of the villagers had taken compensation, others were still protesting, because they still had much to protest about. (Many of those displaced by the Mulshi Dam were never compensated.) That’s when Gandhi advised them to suspend their struggle. Anybody who knows anything about dams will tell you that after a dam is past its halfway point the area under submergence increases dramatically. Many of the dams on the Narmada are more than half-built. Many of the villagers in the submergence areas have taken compensation. Yet the Narmada Bachao Andolan (a movement that calls itself Gandhian by the way, and one that I truly admire) continues to protest. Every metre of increase in the height of every dam is contested. As a mark of their protest, villagers continue to stand in the rising water of the reservoirs for weeks on end. Try telling them to accept their fate and call off their agitation and see what they say—especially if you’ve been on their side earlier. Duality would probably be one of the more polite words they’d use.


Dear Rajmohan Gandhi, all the world’s a half-built dam. Some of us will take compensation and swim to safety, some of us will drown and some will stay and fight. Why interfere with fighting people? Why not trust that they know what’s best for them?


“Who is your inspiration, your star, your hope?” you ask me. “Who is it that you want Indians unhappy with their land and world to follow or accompany?”


If you are asking me for the name of a single leader, ideology or political party that is beyond reproach, that must be adored and never criticised—I’m afraid I have no answer. I’m not a megastar blockbuster woman, particularly not in the genre of political drama. I’m more the ensemble-cast type. If you are asking me for names of people or organisations that I admire—I could fill a book. Just off the top of my head, given the subject we are debating—Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Ambedkar, Ayyankali …if you are looking for somebody more contemporary, we could begin with the Dalit Panthers, Shankar Guha Niyogi, Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, Binayak Sen and his colleagues who run the Shaheed hospital, Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghaathan (MKSS), the Comrades with whom I walked in the forests of Bastar (and no, my twittering friends, I did not call them Gandhians with Guns), the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan, Sheetal Sathe and the Kabir Kala Manch, and the Maruti Workers Union, many of whose members are still in jail. I would also include the doctors who continue to work in the (almost wholly destroyed) public health sector though they would earn ten-thousand times the compensation they do in the private sector, and the teachers of our (half-destroyed) universities who are standing up to fight a move to destroy the public universities in our country altogether. If you are asking about younger people, then they are the lawyers in the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that is working for the thousands of Adivasis incarcerated in our prisons in districts and small towns on charges of sedition, the young followers of Bhagat Singh who walk from village to village squarely facing down the vicious communal politics of Muzzaffarnagar that is being cultivated by Hindu nationalists who are running the country these days—would you like me to go on?


Anyway, since you ask, these are my stars. They may appear disparate; they certainly have strong disagreements with each other. But together they make a constellation. And together they and others like them, fight (and have fought) every inch of the increase in height of every real as well as notional half-built dam in our country.


There’s a memorable moment in the famous 1962 John Ford western called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when a reporter who discovers the truth behind the legend of who shot Liberty Valance, tears up his notes and says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I like that idea very much—but it depends on the legend. When a legend continues to harm a people who have already been grievously harmed by history, then perhaps it’s time to step up to the plate with clear, unsentimental eyes.




[1]  There are two versions of this essay, a shorter version printed in EPW, 11 April 2015 which I will refer to as RG (EPW) and a longer online version (http://www.rajmohangandhi. com/sites/default/fi les/Independence% 20and%20Social%20Justice%20 -%20Jan%202015.pdf) which I will refer to as


[2]Arundhati Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint” (Introduction) in B R Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (Navayana 2014).


[3] This is the title in RG(EPW). In the title of this section is “Gandhi, Untouchability and Caste”

[4] JoSzbo



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