Monday, June 9, 2014

Caste reflects the genius of India, said Gandhi. Beware of Gandhi, said Ambedkar. Who wins?

Gracious words in print and speech marked Jawaharlal Nehru's 50th death anniversary recently. Narendra Modi himself, a day after taking oath as Prime Minister, twittered his respects on the departed leader's punya tithi. It's good to be mindful of history, respect the past and generally be civilised. But reality floats above sentiment. And the reality is that historical interest in Jawaharlal Nehru has all but vanished while that in Mohandas Gandhi and Bhimrao Ambedkar is rising spectacularly.

It's like a reversal of the story of India. The global appeal of Nehru's glamour was a phenomenon from the 1940s up until the early 1960s. At that time Gandhi appeared to the world either as a "half-naked fakir" or as a dreamer who wanted India to shun industry and remain a congregation of villages. Ambedkar did not count outside the Constituent Assembly. How things changed in a few years. Today books are coming out one after another on Gandhi and Ambedkar while authors seem to have forgotten Nehru. In terms of popular as well as academic interest, we'll have to say that Nehru is dead. We cannot say that about Gandhi and Ambedkar. They are not only alive but kicking.

As irony would have it, the two icons were ideological enemies. Each detested the social-political philosophy of the other. When few dared to take a public stand against Gandhi, Ambedkar fought him relentlessly. It is no surprise therefore that two new books on Ambedkar are as much on Gandhi as on Ambedkar. Narendra Jadhav's Ambedkar: Awakening of India's Social Conscience is a collection of Ambedkar's speeches and writings. Annihilation of Caste, described as "the annotated critical edition", presents a speech Ambedkar was to deliver at a Hindu reformist organisation's meeting in Lahore in 1936 but did not because the group considered portions of it "unbearable". Ambedkar later published it on his own. Now it is republished not only with annotations but also with a fiery introduction by Arundhati Roy.

The Lahore group was not alone in finding Ambedkar's thoughts unbearable. Many still bristle at his statements like, "inequality is the soul of Hinduism". When Gandhi talked primarily about winning freedom from the British, Ambedkar put social reform on the agenda. He condemned Gandhi's stated belief that caste represented the genius of India and was a natural order of society. His 1945 book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables left nothing to the imagination. "Beware of Gandhi", said a chapter heading. Ambedkar's scholarly approach gave a cutting edge to his arguments. Pointing out that political revolutions by Chandragupta Maurya, Shivaji, and Guru Nanak were all preceded by social revolution, he said: "The emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people".

Narendra Jadhav claims that his book is an "intellectual biography" of Ambedkar, repeating the claim and the phrase several times in his preface. Actually it is neither intellectual nor a biography. Its usefulness is that it presents in one handy volume a compendium of Ambedkar's ideas. More organised and polished is Annihilation because (a) the annotations are provided by S. Anand, co-author of an earlier graphic biography of Ambedkar, and (b) Arundhati Roy's rigorously researched introduction is 125 pages long with her notes and bibliography taking another 38.

No one will grudge Arundhati taking more space than Ambedkar. Her juxtapositions, examples and arguments are as sparkling as her language. And provocative. She goes as far as to question the bonafides of Gandhi's politics in South Africa. If Ambedkar said that "to the untouchables Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors", Arundhati says: "For a writer to have to use terms like Untouchable, Schedule Caste, Backward Class, Other Backward Classes to describe fellow human beings is like living in a chamber of horrors".

The fact remains that six decades after independence the chamber of horrors has expanded under the impetus of adult franchise. On the one hand, there are politicians and parties that have built entire careers -- and fortunes -- on the basis of caste. On the other, rape has caught on as the preferred way for castes and khap panchayats to show off their power. Add to it the Sangh Parivar's tactical shift from Brahminism to OBC inclusiveness, an electoral necessity. Ambedkar who was vilified as a 'false god' by presumed BJP intellectuals is now held up as an idol. For all that, casteism marches on, brutal, unstoppable. Could it be that while Ambedkar lives, his cause is dead?