Review by Jon Dorschner, PhD
The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and “The Annihilation of Caste” by Arundhati Roy
Haymarket Books: May 2017. ISBN 978-1-60846-797-6. 171 pp.
This is the second book by Arundhati Roy I have reviewed for American Diplomacy. Roy is a radical political thinker who embraces a combative opposition to the status quo, while rejecting (for the most part) Marxist ideology. In this regard, she parallels Noam Chomsky. The two of them are close personal friends and work together on many causes.
Roy’s radical ideology places her in a Manichean world, in which it is the duty of all “good persons” to stand up to evil wherever it is found and adopt a position of speaking “truth to power.” There is little room for gray in this world view; good persons stand up for those at the bottom of the social ladder who endure oppression and brook no compromise with evil oppressors. This position often precludes effective coordination and cooperation with those to the right of Roy. She harbors particular animus for “liberals,” who are aware of oppression, but willing to compromise with it. Roy places Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and his political party, the Indian National Congress (INC), squarely within the liberal camp and this, in turn, shapes Roy’s negative assessment of Gandhi and his place in Indian history.
The Doctor and the Saint is an analytical essay of the conflict between Gandhi and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on the subject of “untouchability.” Ambedkar, himself a member of the “untouchable (now called Dalit)” Mahar caste, emerged as an outspoken champion of untouchable rights and clashed with Gandhi, who claimed the mantle of untouchable leadership for himself. In 1934, an organization of progressive high-caste Hindus asked Ambedkar to address their gathering. However, they withdrew the invitation after reading the text of his remarks. Ambedkar then published the address as The Annihilation of Caste, which remains one of the most widely read political texts in India today.
Ambedkar argued that caste and untouchability are inextricably linked. He decried the Hindu religion as “Brahmanism,” asserting that its principal purpose is to uphold a flagrantly unjust system that sentences human beings to the bottom of the social ladder for life. Ambedkar argued that since Hinduism is irredeemable, the only way for untouchables to find justice would be the elimination of the religion, which would destroy the caste system in its entirely and allow India to reconstruct society on an egalitarian basis that provides equal opportunity to all.
By contrast, Gandhi asserted that he was proud to be a Hindu, and that while untouchability was indefensible and criminal, the caste system was an inherent component of Indian culture that could be reformed to eliminate or vastly reduce its discriminatory practices. Gandhi called for the elimination of untouchability, but stopped short of condemning the caste system in toto. Roy’s book strongly supports Ambedkar’s position, while portraying Gandhi as hopelessly antiquarian and a hypocrite. Roy’s scholarship is impeccable and she supports her position with substantial data, including quotes from Gandhi’s writings that are avowedly racist and depict Dalits in a reprehensible fashion.
I found inherent problems with Roy’s position. I was reminded of the work by leftist historians on Abraham Lincoln and the eradication of slavery from the United States. Like Gandhi, Lincoln was not a radical thinker, but was firmly anchored in his time and place. Initially, Lincoln was willing to accept the existence of slavery in the slave states of the United States and was opposed only to its spread. He did not oppose the common racist thinking of the time and supported the return of freed slaves to Africa, as he thought that blacks and whites would never be able to live together in the United States. These views do not stand up well to scrutiny by 21st Century Americans. Likewise, Gandhi was a product of his time, place and culture.
Calling for the eradication of untouchability was considered radical by most caste Hindus of Gandhi’s time, much as Lincoln’s calls for the eradication of slavery were viewed in 19th Century America. Both Lincoln and Gandhi were assassinated for their advocacy of social change. By the time of his assassination, Lincoln admitted that his early racist views were wrong and called for full civil rights for the newly-freed slaves. Gandhi was well-aware that caste was (and remains) a deeply-entrenched component of Indian society (observed not only by Hindus, but also by Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians). He chose to focus on the most odious component of the caste system (untouchability) and call for its elimination. Roy harshly criticizes Gandhi for this stance and dismisses him as a hypocrite. Although herself not a Hindu, she calls for the elimination of caste from the Hindu religion and supports a thinly veiled demand for the eradication of Hinduism altogether.
The United States and India share a heavy burden. India for millennia upheld and supported untouchability, an abhorrent social evil that condemned countless millions of human beings to lives of perpetual misery and discrimination. Americans for centuries upheld the institution of slavery and after its eradication practiced discrimination and deprivation of basic human rights to the freed slaves and their descendants.
The inherent parallels between these two social institutions and the response of the two countries to them has been widely researched. The most famous book on this subject is, “Caste and Class in a Southern Town,” This work examines the treatment of African Americans in a town in the American South and draws parallels with the treatment of Dalits in Indian society. Social scientists have long remarked on the overlap between untouchability and racism. Both concepts condemn human beings to a subhuman status purely on the basis of birth, and allow no escape for the innocent victims.
When African Americans began to confront racist institutions in the 20th century Martin Luther King (MLK) became the principal leader of the American Civil Rights movement. Mahatma Gandhi was one of his principal inspirations, and he adopted Gandhi’s non-violent model. Just as Gandhi advocated cooperation between Dalits and caste Hindus to combat untouchability, Martin Luther King advocated that African Americans work together with sympathetic whites to eliminate Jim Crow. Just as Roy is critical of Gandhi’s efforts, she attacks MLK as hopelessly misguided by Gandhian thought.
Roy correctly asserts that Mahatma Gandhi failed to eradicate untouchability in India. It is indeed alive and well. She accurately portrays the wave of violent attacks conducted against Dalit activists around the country, and the pervasive prejudice and discrimination that continue to infest Indian society. Gandhi removed legal recognition of untouchability, and supported legislation making it illegal. Likewise, MLK won the passage of civil rights legislation in the United States and eliminated legal racial discrimination, but did not succeed in eradicating racism in the United States.
I observed untouchability in practice during my residence in an Indian village. When I first arrived in 1979, Dalits could not sit on furniture, but squatted on the ground. They were not allowed to use eating utensils at the homes of caste Hindus, and could not look them in the eye. During my last stay in 2014, Dalits used the furniture sitting side by side with caste Hindus, used their utensils and conversed normally with them. Dalits occupied key positions in the village hierarchy and villagers of all castes treated them with respect. I would not have imagined such progress in such a short period of time.
Arundhati Roy’s books are always a good read. They are well-written, take clear positions, and are well-documented. They are a good antidote to the seemingly all-pervasive good cheer one sees in American media coverage of Indian developments. Roy is placing her life on the line by criticizing the repressive and medieval outlook of India’s leaders. Many of her contemporaries have already been murdered.
The caste system and untouchability are the dark underbelly of Hindu society and must be addressed, critiqued and dealt with sooner rather than later. Roy is correct to address this issue now. She does a masterful job of documenting the outrages that occur in India every day, and calling for radical action to deal with the basic inhumanity of this institution. India cannot move forward until untouchability is finally gone. While I do not agree with all of Roy’s conclusions, I recommend this book to an American readership. It will cause readers to look at India (and the United States) in a new, more critical way, and hopefully take action to combat injustice.