Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2014 > Missing the Woods for the Trees: Gandhiji and Arundhati Roy’s (...)

Mainstream, VOL LII, No 41, October 4, 2014

Missing the Woods for the Trees: Gandhiji and Arundhati Roy’s Polemic

Monday 6 October 2014


by Suresh Jnaneswaran

The controversy of Ms Arundhati Roy’s Mahatma Ayyankali address at Thiruvanantha-puram refuses to subside. It has assumed a momentum of its own and moving around the globe on its own volition. The socio-political issues raised by Arundhati Roy have agitated the country in the past and has assumed turbulent proportions in the present especially in the context of religious terrorism and Maoism breathing down our necks. Instead of deliberating on the core issues raised by Roy, peripheral rodomontade largely with hurt primordial sense of feudal superiority, dominates the discussions.

 More important than Gandhiji’s persona were the issues he confronted in the complex and highly imbricated social geography of the Indian subcontinent. The structured sociology of Caste was perhaps the most challenging in the days of the freedom struggle. Untouchability and its moribund ontology with an effete philosophy had to be condemned in an era when Socialism was in the air and the message of the Russian Revolution strong and compelling. An altern-ative praxis to the non-violent Gandhian movement was always present, challenging caste and ethnic animosity. These two problems had to be confronted. Gandhiji in his political shrewdness began with Harijan welfare and the Khilafat campaign. Mobilisation and an assertion of Indian unity were of prime importance in the struggle against colonialism. The glaring fissures had to be erased or at least camouflaged in haste. The sentiment close to his heart of Hindu unity that led Gandhiji to a fast unto death at Yerwada Jail in the Aga Khan Palace, consequent to the Communal Award is history. The sincere effort at religious harmony failed leading to Partition, a catastrophe of epic proportions with more deaths and psychic devastation than the French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions put together. It is also a historical fact that Gandhiji failed to change the hearts of his upper-caste followers either on the question of accommodating Muslims or Harijans. Another partition took place this time within his loved brahmanical Hinduism with Babasaheb walking away with the base of the structure making it jittery and unbalanced.

 Ever wondered why we have been subjugated and colonised by foreigners one after another with ease throughout our history? We live as an unstable and spooked nation in the deadly embrace of Caste. We don’t need external enemies to divide and trample us; we already have it within our structure, within our psyche, in our history. The British used it, the Americans and the Chinese are using it against us to undermine our civilisation and nation in its modern manifestation. What have we learnt from Gandhiji’s failure? We are obsessed with super-ficialities of its Khadi propagation and vegetaria-nism forgetting the quintessential core of his actions. Gandhiji in his myriad intellection was a man of apodictic action, not empty palaver. He abhorred the arm-chair demagogue and mandatorily practised silence to drive home his message. Even this virtue has been lost like everything else that he stood for and bequeathed as his legacy. The architecture of hypocrisy that we politically disseminate and cosmetically construct vis a vis the Mahatma has to be deconstructed.

Who are the noble patriots and Gandhians that were uncontrollably irked by Arundhati Roy’s address? At least academically we need to resort to such an illustrative exercise. Much of the assertions go against the grain of objective historical investigation and interpretation. Myth has to be separated from History. In popular imagination they are often seen as interchan-geable. Among those who took umbrage at the remarks of Arundhati Roy were politicians, Gandhians, social activists, relatives of Gandhi and many more. However, a retired bureaucrat writing in a Malayalam daily went many steps further concentrating his fire on the academia, organisers, and the first academic of the Kerala University. He rubbished the concept of academic autonomy, questioned the appointment of the Vice-Chancellor and other University functionaries at the helm, lamented the pollution of the sacred Senate Hall with hoi polloi and subaltern riff-raff, alluded to the Adivasi-Dalit biases and enthusiastic fervour of the invited dignitaries. The coup de grace was delivered against Dr Gail Omvedt, an American-born Indian sociologist, who has been inter-alia involved in Dalit and anti-caste movements even though she was not present at the seminar.

What has provoked this retired babu to go berserk? He ought to remember that even Gandhiji was described as a Bolshevik and very dangerous by the British. (Lord Wellingdon, Governor of Bombay, 1918) Was the vitriolic outpour caused by: Gandhiji being called a Casteist? At the way Arundhati Roy took forward her subversive averments? Was it importantly, the blasphemy of even suggesting that the backward and untouchable castes be treated on an equal footing? Was privileging them in contemporary discourse as Gail Omvedt, Kancha Ilaiah, Arundhati Roy and others did their unpardonable crime?

If the last two mentioned are the reason for the indignation of the elite, society is still in the terrible grip of the disease—Caste, and the so-called upper castes are still obsessed by the aspiration for primordial superiority. We liberated ourselves from two hundred years of colonial rule but have been unable to liberate ourselves from, the stigma of three thousand years of Caste prejudice andVarnashrama-dharma. Neither Gandhiji nor sixtyeight years of independence in a secular democratic India achieved anything by way of satisfactory social justice. The Dalits are still being cheated at the hustings and in their homesteads by demago-guery and corporate machinations. How else are we to explain the support Bapu received on this issue in Delhi from groups that were responsible for his assassination? It may be recalled that along with Gandhiji they had even rejected the Indian Flag but endorsed the heroic deeds of Hitler.

 The historical discourse does not come to us in binaries of easily identifiable signifiers and signified in the Saussurean trajectory. They come most often in Derridean multi- trajectories. Karl Marx, (Eighteenth Brumaire) Gayatri Spivak (Can the Subaltern Speak?) et al., have drawn our attention to the inability of the marginalised to represent themselves. They still need to be represented for myriad historical reasons. That is where Gail Omvedt and Arundhati Roy come in.

Not to forget that even the elite within the Congress, have cast aspersions on Gandhiji. “His (Gandhi’s) support for the Caste system has won over the higher classes and the reactionary elements in Hindu society to his side.” (Sir C Sankaran Nair, Gandhi and Anarchy, 1922, p. xiii) Sankaran Nair was the President of the INC in 1887, Amraoti session and Member of the Viceroy’s Council with Education as portfolio. Jawaharlal Nehru had critiqued Gandhiji as one who wanted to maintain the status quo inclusive of Zamindari and Varnashrama-dharma. The paradox of Gandhiji was that he with all the keen intellect and passion, for bettering the downtrodden and oppressed, supported the system which created misery. “He seeks a way out, it is true, but is not that way to the past barred and bolted?”(Nehru, An Autobiography, pp. 515-536) Gandhiji’s Past continues to haunt his universally accepted aureole just as the untouchable is tormented by his Past in spite of his improved status in the Present. President K.R. Narayanan at the Versailles Palace on an official visit was stigmatised by the French media in a banner head line—‘Untouchable in the Versailles Palace’.

The popular narrative of history and consequent “historical consciousness” of people has remained hostage to what can perhaps only be described by a neologism: non history. In psychiatry, the term neologism is a tendency considered normal in children, but in elderly adults it can be a symptom of psychopathy or thought disorder. Hindu communal historiography had demonised the Muslim, now we see the Dalit being demonised though not directly but through allusions and inferences. The media focus on the immediate and the particular is justifiable but it would be disastrous historically if you forget the antecedents that made the phenomena possible. The Past controls the Future just as the Present controls the Past. It would be apposite to recall the conversation between Narcissus and Echo in Ovid’s mythological epic Metamorphoses. Here the beautiful nymph Echo, suffering from a curse, but in love with Narcissus could only repeat the last words said and couldn’t speak on her own. The larger message of the discourse has been lost and only the last echo reverberates.

A nation of 1.27 billion cannot afford to be emotional of its Past and jeopardise its Future nor can it be status quoist in dealing with its 225 million Dalit’s in a resurgent India. The crux of the problem is neither cheap anathema nor easy apotheosis in assessing the father of the nation but the movement towards a better future for all. You can use the microscope that does not mean that you abandon the telescope as the message of the seminar can only be profitably viewed by the latter; the larger woods are not to be missed for the trees.

Dr Suresh Jnaneswaran, the Director, Mahatma Ayyankali Chair, is a Professor and the Head, Department of History, University of Kerala; He is also the Editor, Journal of Indian History, Journal of Kerala Studies. His e-mail is:

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.