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Mihir S Sharma: The annihilation of Ambedkar

Why has Arundhati Roy written an introduction to a glossy new edition of B R Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste

Mihir S Sharma
More Columns by Mihir S Sharma

Why has written an introduction to a glossy new edition of B R Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste? Ambedkar's angry masterpiece, something that could not be written today for fear of outraging religious sentiments, requires very little introduction in truth. Perhaps a short note on the historical context, such as is provided as an afterword by S Anand, who runs the publishing house Navayana, which has produced this fine edition. So why has Ms Roy written this introduction?

The choice has caused growls of discontent from various scholars. Some Dalit scholars have argued that Ms Roy is, once again, appropriating a struggle not her own. Ambedkar does not belong to everyone, they maintain, just to Dalits. This language of defence against appropriation makes very little sense in most cases, and even less in the case of this book, where Ambedkar was obviously writing for a larger progressive public. An upper-progressive like Ms Roy is clearly a segment of the book's intended audience. Accusations of "appropriation" are used far too often merely to put alternative interpretations in their place.

More sharp, however, is the critique that Ms Roy has chosen to focus her introduction less on Ambedkar and more on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Ambedkar himself is the subject of just over one-third of the 150 pages of this introduction; significantly more. Nor is anything so new and novel in the Gandhi sections that repeating it was necessary. Indeed, all of it - his attitudes to black Africans, to indentured labourers, to Dalits - has been rehearsed, and just a few years ago done to death in six dozen prominent reviews of Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul. It is, thus, hard not to agree with the claim that, by making Ambedkar the junior partner in this comparison, Ms Roy is belittling the breadth of his ideas. Surely that belittling serves a purpose; Ms Roy is never mean-spirited without reason.

In order to understand that, one has to read this essay carefully. This is difficult. After all, it is rife with the rhetorical flourishes that make Ms Roy's essays difficult to read for those of sane mind. It has the usual glib, made-for-Twitter Arundhati-isms: that Gandhi was kept afloat by mill owners, making him the "forerunner of the corporate sponsored NGO"; that, "unlike Gandhi, Jesus was not sponsored by big business"; that, in the Poona Pact, "Uncle Tom won the day"; and, on Ambedkar, "he wore suits, but he died in debt". There is a tragic surfeit of her usual, terribly chosen metaphors - the enclosures of caste hierarchy as a "radioactive half-life" stand out. There is that unerring eye for the faulty example: she tries to discredit Gandhi's power idea of capitalist "trusteeship" by saying it was reminiscent of what, say, was saying. (This would be the Carnegie who did, in fact, give away his entire fortune; perhaps Ms Roy should choose to quote capitalists who didn't? There are quite a few.) There is the usual unmistakable snideness about other progressives, especially if they're white: read the short passage on meeting Gandhi for an epic act of dismissiveness of an entire, admirable life. And there are the usual baffling holes in the argument: a long discussion of the persistence of caste divisions ends with blaming it, with neither supporting evidence nor even a hint of intent in the previous few pages, on "democracy".

But, eventually, Ms Roy's purpose shines through her words, like the beam of an oncoming truck through the fog of a winter morning. She needs Gandhi to show up Ambedkar's limitations. She needs Gandhi so she can hammer home that Ambedkar was fatally flawed because he believed in "urbanism, modernism, and industrialisation". She needs Gandhi so she can say "both were wrong". For Ms Roy, Ambedkar is allowed to express his pain, but he is not allowed the liberty of choosing how best to end it. God forbid he turn to the West, or to liberalism, or to rationality. Far better that he turn away from rationality altogether, like Gandhi.

That the purpose of this essay is to attack Ambedkar's against-all-odds is clearest when she quotes him as bewailing the lack of effort to take medical aid and civic sensibility to India's - and says that by viewing the Adivasi problem through the "lens of Western liberalism", his views become "dated". But she is a story-teller, and so she must provide us with a redemptive arc, and so Ambedkar redeems himself before he dies through his conversion to Buddhism, which she says marks his "departure from Western liberalism", although as far as I can tell, it does no such thing.

So why has Ms Roy written this introduction? Because she, like many upper-caste politicians and missionaries before her, needs converts. She needs converts to her creed of anti-capitalism; and she has come to disparage Ambedkar's legacy of liberalism. "Can caste be annihilated?" she asks at the end of her essay. Her answer: "Not unless those who understand Brahminism sharpen their critique of capitalism." At the very last, Ms Roy makes her game, her purpose explicit. This essay is just 150 pages of another upper-caste do-gooder talking down to Dalits, expecting them to be cannon fodder for her revolution.

mihir.sharma@bsmail.in

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