Indian Progressivist Arundhati Roy Echoes American Activists’ Concerns About Gandhi

Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi are “irreconcilable,” say both Roy and US-based Indian minorities

SACRAMENTO: March 8, 2014 — Civil rights icon Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar and Hindu saint Mohandas Gandhi can never be reconciled with one another, declared Indian progressivist Arundhati Roy this first week of March, echoing claims which are prompting protests against Gandhi statues in North America and resulted in a conference last year at New York’s Columbia University to celebrate the centennial of Dr. Ambedkar’s arrival in America.

ambedkar&gandhiRoy, who has historically been a leading critic of the Indian State’s use of indefinite detention, targeting of dissenters, and policy of impunity for human rights crimes like unwarranted arrest and elimination of detainees, makes her fierce new claims in an extended introduction for a new edition of Dr. Ambedkar’s book, Annihilation of Caste, where she calls Gandhi “the saint of the Status Quo.” Broadly hinting that his public image is carefully constructed, she notes, for instance, that the Academy Award winning Gandhi film “was co-funded by the Indian government.” Though Roy doesn’t mention it, India’s Ministry of External Affairs admitted in 2010 to actively seeking installation of Gandhi statues throughout the world, reporting it funded production and transportation of 65 statues to Indian diplomatic missions, including at least 4 in Canada and 5 in the USA. [1]

Despite India’s promotion of Gandhi, Roy says of Gandhi and Ambedkar: “Their differences were (and remain) irreconcilable…. Ambedkar was Gandhi’s most formidable adversary.” Her claims are identical to those undergirding rising discontent among segments of the Indian diaspora with global promotion of Gandhi as the unofficial “Father of India.” For instance, Gandhi’s status was challenged at Columbia University’s conference on June 29, when panelist Dr. Manisha Bangar (national vice president of India-based civil rights group Mulnivasi Sangh) described Ambedkar as “the tallest personality of modern India.” As reported by India West, her American audience was enthralled when she declared: “There has not been a more urgent need for Dr. Ambedkar’s message of emancipation than today.” [2]

The conference concluded with all attendees unanimously affirming a resolution proclaiming Dr. Ambedkar, who studied at Columbia from 1913 to 1917, as “the true father of India and a preeminent liberator of the oppressed peoples of the world” and committing to “moving his caravan forward.” Organized by U.S.-based non-profit Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation (BRASF), the conference was sparked in response to a lecture at Columbia hosted by the Indian State funded Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Chair in Constitutional Law entitled: “Reconciling Gandhi and Ambedkar.” As reported by India Abroad, conference panelist Pieter Singh, an Indologist and activist, stated:

“Ambedkar and Gandhi mix as well as oil and water, sand and fire, cats and dogs, or snakes and babies. In other words, they don’t go together. They are irreconcilable…. On the one hand, Dr Ambedkar stood for the annihilation of caste. On the other hand, Gandhi stood for the perpetuation of caste.” [3]

Roy argues that Gandhi sought to advance caste, as clearly evidenced by his writings. In one quote she references, he stated: “Caste is another name for control. Caste puts a limit on enjoyment…. These being my views I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the Caste System.” However, she writes, “His views on race presaged his views on caste.” Particularly, she notes Gandhi’s support for segregation in pre-apartheid South Africa, especially highlighting his 1895 campaign to divide black Africans from Indians by demanding separate doors for each at the post office in Durban.

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Opposition to Gandhi statues is picking up steam internationally, with documented protests ranging across three continents. In 2013, while reporting on a protest of a Gandhi bust at Fresno State University, an article in Punjab Spectrum stated: “A demonstration occurred over a Gandhi statue in Cerrito, CA on September 14 and a statue in San Francisco has been the site of multiple demonstrations. In 2010, plans for a statue proposed for the grounds of the State Capitol in Sacramento were quickly derailed after opponents spoke with legislators. Statues in Ottawa, Flint, London, and Johannesburg are among many others which have faced opposition.” [4]

Gandhi’s racism is a recurring theme in North American protests against his legacy. For instance, The National Post reported another protest in October 2010, this one in Flint, Michigan, where a new statue was protested at its unveiling. Ajit Lear, a protester who travelled from Toronto to make his voice heard at the U.S. unveiling, flatly stated: “He was a racist person.” The National Post article stated: “A small but vocal camp that has arisen in recent years to accuse Gandhi of shoring up India’s rigid caste system and of supporting racial segregation while working as a lawyer in South Africa. Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy has sometimes been interpreted as tacit support of Nazism.” [5]

Indeed, virtually all of these protests link opposition to Gandhi to the racism noted by Roy, as well as to his sexual abuse of his teenage relatives, as The Los Angeles Times reported last year: “The Organization for Minorities of India — the same group that has sought the removal of similar statues across the country and in Canada — holds that Gandhi perpetuated the caste system, allied himself with Adolf Hitler and was a sexual deviant who slept naked with his grandnieces.” [6]

Furthermore, at a protest in San Francisco in 2010, The Bay Citizen reported that, when “a group of mostly Sikh and low-caste Indians gathered” on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, to demand a removal of his statue from the city, Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), joined the protest, saying: “The whole world sees Gandhi as a symbol of non-violence, but we are the victims of generations of his racist policies.” [7] Singh also spearheaded a campaign in Autumn 2013 for removal of a Gandhi statue in Cerritos, a city in southern California nicknamed “little India” because of its high proportion of Indian-American residents, where Orange County Register reports he told Cerritos City Council: “You promoted a piece of racial hatred. This is totally un-American. You continue to support a monster.” [8]

Monster may seem a provocatively strong term to some and yet Roy reveals that, while in South Africa, Gandhi not only advanced racial segregation but also volunteered to serve in the colonial British Army in two separate wars in South Africa — first in the Boer War (1899-1902), in which the British established the first concentration camps of the 20th century, and second in the Bambatha Rebellion (1906), in which the occupying British brutally crushed an uprising of the native Zulus. About the Boer War, Roy writes:

“Almost thirty thousand people died. Many simply starved to death. These concentration camps were the first of their kind, the progenitors of Hitler’s extermination camps for Jews. Several years later, after he returned to India, when Gandhi wrote about the South African war in his memoirs, he suggested that the prisoners in the camps were practicing a cheerful form of satyagraha (which was the course of action he prescribed to the Jews of Germany too).”

At the outbreak of the Bambatha Rebellion, Gandhi began writing pro-war editorials in his personal newspaper, The Indian Opinion, including one where he invoked Indian participation the Boer War as a reason to raise an armed Indian corps to fight in the new war, stating: “At the time of the Boer War, it will be remembered, the Indians volunteered to do any work that might be entrusted to them…. If the Government only realised what reserve force is being wasted, they would make use of it and would give Indians a thorough training for actual warfare.” [9]

In a June 30, 1906 editorial, Gandhi encouraged his fellow Indians to show deference to the whites waging the war, writing:

“There is hardly any family from which someone has not gone to fight the Kaffir rebels. Following their example, we should steel our hearts and take courage. Now is the time when the leading whites want us to take this step; if we let go this opportunity, we shall repent later. We therefore urge all Indian leaders to do their duty to the best of their ability.” [10]

This war was also bloody for the opponents of the colonial British Army, as Roy reports: “Four thousand Zulus were killed, thousands more flogged and imprisoned.” She cites Winston Churchill, who documented British losses of only eight men. Gandhi’s concern for the Zulu deaths was non-existent, as he was chiefly interested in promoting the interests of Indians to the deliberate detriment of Africans, describing, for instance, the difficulties of his community as “one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” [11]

Coupled with his voluntary participation in the 20th century’s earliest colonial wars, Gandhi’s stereotyped perception of black Africans as ignorant and lazy and promotion of segregation in pre-apartheid South Africa inspire people like Bhajan Singh to invoke terms like “monster.” Yet Gandhi himself objected to using the word for as universally reviled a figure as Adolf Hitler. On December 24, 1940, Gandhi sent a lengthy letter directly to the genocidal leader of Nazi Germany. Opening “Dear Friend,” he explained, “that I address you as a friend is no formality,” and then wrote: “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.” [12]

Though Gandhi objected to describing Hitler as a monster, as Roy writes, not only did he recommend cheerful satyagraha to the Boers killed in the British concentration camps, but he did so as well for the Jews slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Col. G. B. Singh, author of two revisionist histories of Gandhi and one of the original scholars to spark a reexamination of the Hindu mystic’s life and legacy, uncovered a 1946 interview of Gandhi by Jewish journalist Louis Fischer in which Gandhi declared:

“Hitler killed five million Jews…. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs…. It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.” [13]

Ambedkar, conversely, remains an enduring hero to the Dalit (previously called “Untouchable”) people of India, who, according to Dalit Freedom Network, “are history’s longest standing oppressed people group” and currently “make up nearly one quarter of India’s 1.2 billion society, with population estimates of 250 million.” [14] Unlike Gandhi, who demonstrated a regressive commitment to degrading Africans, advancing caste, and even denigrating the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Dr. Ambedkar consistently pressed an agenda of liberation of the Dalits from the caste system and, moreover, the total annihilation of the system which kept them socially enslaved.

After graduating from Columbia University, Ambedkar, who was born a so-called Untouchable, returned to India to pursue civil rights for his people. The task he faced was daunting as the repression imposed by the caste system was (and is) unparalleled in the modern world. For example, Roy notes that the caste to which Ambedkar belonged, the Mahars, “had to tie brooms to their waists to sweep away their ‘polluting’ footprints, and hang pots around their necks to collect their spit.” As she also points out, however, the greatest injustice was not necessarily the outrageous “ritualistic end of the practice of caste.” Rather, writes Roy, “The real violence of caste was the denial of entitlement: to land, to wealth, to knowledge, to equal opportunity.”

In 1920, Ambedkar began publishing a newspaper, Mooknayak, condemning the caste system in his first editorial for making India a “home of inequality.” Caste, he wrote, created a society he likened to: “A tower which had several storeys without a ladder or an entrance. One was to die in the storey in which one was born.” [15] Having identified the problem, he dedicated his life to an unswerving search for a solution. His methods included facilitating inter-dining and other caste-integrated events, leading movements challenging ancient laws forbidding lower-castes from using upper-caste water sources, publicly burning copies of The Laws of Manu (the foundational text teaching hereditary segregation of castes), promoting education and political organization of Dalits, study and critique of the causes and results of caste practice, and providing representation of his people’s interests in independence talks with the British.

In 1936, Dr. Ambedkar published The Annihilation of Caste, in which he sought to convince his audience that caste was not religion but actually law. He called it a “bounden duty to tear off the mask, to remove the misrepresentation that is caused by misnaming this law as religion.” Only once those burdened by the law recognize it as law rather than religion, he argued, will they “be in a position to urge its amendment or abolition.”

For his part, Gandhi had only a few years previously, in 1932, declared: “Caste is necessary for Christians and Muslims as it has been necessary for Hinduism, and has been its saving grace.” [16] After advocating the expansion of caste to the entire world, the following year Gandhi went a step farther, staking the existence of Hinduism on social stratification, stating: “The caste system, in my opinion, has a scientific basis. Reason does not revolt against it. It has disadvantages. Caste creates a social and moral restraint — I can find no reason for their abolition. To abolish caste is to demolish Hinduism.” [17]

Although Gandhi stood alone in his extraordinary claims concerning caste, Dr. Ambedkar, as Roy writes, “was heir to an anticaste intellectual tradition” tracing back over two millennia, beginning first with the Buddhists, who founded casteless communities, and particularly expanding under the guidance of people like Ravidas and Kabir, whose poems are recorded in the Sikh holy book, Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Ravidas introduced a vision of a society of true liberty, which he described as a metaphorical city called Begampura, meaning “City Without Sorrow.” Speaking of this city, Ravidas proclaimed:

There is no suffering or anxiety there…
God’s Kingdom is
steady, stable and eternal.
There is no second or third status;
all are equal there.” [18]

This movement for equality, last led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, has, according to news reports, “sparked a chord” in the USA, especially in California. As reported in The Sacramento Examiner, the California State Assembly passed a resolution in May 2011 entitled: “Honoring the legacy of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who championed human rights for his people, the depressed classes of the Indian subcontinent called the Dalits, and so sought the annihilation of caste.” [19] In its conclusion, the resolution “recognizes Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as an exemplary figure in the struggle for human rights and civil liberties for oppressed people around the world.”

According to The Bay Citizen, at the October 2010 protest in San Francisco, “the group filed a memorandum to the city’s Arts and Ports commission requesting the replacement of the Gandhi statue with either Martin Luther King, Jr., or the low-caste Indian hero Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. [20] The following year, in March 2011, India West reports an “Ambedkar Rally” was staged at the San Francisco Gandhi statue, at which one banner displayed stated: “Ambedkar: Father of India’s Poor; Gandhi: Creator of India’s Poor.” [21] At a demonstration in Cerritos, CA in September 2013, demonstrators carried placards reading: “Ambedkar: Hero of India’s Minorities.”

Activists in North America appear devoted to heeding Dr. Ambedkar’s admonition, given in 1956 in his final message, to “move the caravan forward.” Indeed, the resolution unanimously passed by the audience at the June 29, 2013 centennial conference at Columbia University admitted as much. In part, Dr. Ambedkar admonished:

“Whatever I have done, I have been able to do after passing through crushing miseries and endless struggle all my life and fighting with my opponents. With great difficulty I have brought this caravan where it is seen today. Let the caravan march on despite the hurdles that may come in its way.” [22]

Citations:
NOTE: All quotations by Arundhati Roy are from “The Doctor and the Saint,” her introduction to The Annihilation of Caste, which was also published as an article in The Caravan magazine on March 1, 2014.
[1] Government of India Ministry of External Affairs, Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 379, Answered October 11, 2010: “Unveiling of Mahatma Gandhi statue.”
[2] “Ambedkar’s Resurrection as Icon of Liberty Resonates at Columbia University.” India West, July 9, 2013.
[3] Mozumder, Suman Guha. “Columbia event hails Ambedkar’s American journey.” India Abroad, July 12, 2013.
[4] “Gandhi Celebration Cancelled as Fresno State Students March for Truth on Gandhi.” Punjab Spectrum, October 11, 2013.
[5] Hopper, Tristin. “Gandhi statue ‘a travesty,’ U.S. activist tells Carleton University.” National Post, October 6, 2011.
[6] Gerber, Marisa. “Gandhi statue sparks tussle in Cerritos.” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2103.
[7] Gigerenzer, Thalia. “To Some Indians, Gandhi No Hero.” The Bay Citizen, October 7, 2010.
[8] Woolsey, Brittany. “Statue of Gandhi sets off protest in Cerritos.” Orange County Register, September 15, 2013.
[9] Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG). Vol. 5, p. 11.
[10] CWMG. Vol. 5, p. 273.
[11] CWMG. Vol 1. p 410.
[12] CWMG. Vol 79, pp. 453-56.
[13] Fischer, Louis. “Mahatma Gandhi – His Life & Times.” Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, [1951], p. 392.
[14] Dalit Freedom Network. “Who are the Dalits.” DalitNetwork.org.
[15] Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1971 [1954], pp. 41-42.
[16] Gandhi’s 1932 speech at Trivandrum, cited in “The bleeding wound: Being a most up-to-date collection of Gandhiji’s speeches, writings and statements on untouchability,” by Ramnath Suman
[17] Gandhi, Mohandas. Harijan magazine, 1933.
[18] Guru Ravidas Ji. Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 345.
[19] Singh, Dr. Amrik. “Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s legacy strikes a chord in California.” The Sacramento Examiner, June 14, 2011.
[20] Gigerenezer, Thalia.
[21] “‘Ambedkar Rally’ Confronts Dandi March-II Walkers.” India West. April 1, 2011.
[22] Ambedkar, Dr. Bhim Rao. “Last Message to the People.” December 6, 1956.