The Doctor You Didn”t Show And The Saint You Didn”t See: A Reply To Arundhati Roy

Posted on April 3, 2014 in Society, Staff Picks

By Abir Misra:

There is no absolute ‘objective’ scientific analysis…of ‘social phenomenon’ independent of special and ‘one sided’ viewpoints according to which — expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously — they are selected, analysed and organised for expository purposes…All the analysis of infinite reality which the finite mind can conduct rests on the tacit assumption that only a small portion of this reality constitutes the object of this reality and that only it is ‘important’ in the sense of being ‘worthy of being known’”— Max Weber.


Reading the excerpts from ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ published in the Caravan Magazine almost instinctively reminded me of the words of Max Weber. Since the writer of the article claims the analytical points she made are the results of a ‘research’, it becomes imperative to investigate what led her to the conclusions that she has presented. She has clearly quoted and presented those views of Gandhi which she personally thought were ‘worth of being known’ while at the same time trying to neutralise the effects of her undoubted and popular bias against him by cunningly confessing that he said everything and its opposite as well. I hereby intend to somewhat show the side she didn’t see or deliberately chose to ignore for reasons purely and surely political. I intend to tackle only certain views put forward in the introduction and not analyse the introduction as a whole. The publisher of The Annihilation of Caste and the writer of the introduction to the book seem to be having different ideologies and viewpoints. But what is common to those two viewpoints and also to both the individuals in person is their well known dislike for Gandhi. Identifying a common enemy always makes professional fusion seem more beautiful.

The first issue I would like to take up is the issue of Gandhi’s Mahatmahood. The writer saw Gandhi’s claim to be the representative of the untouchables as a sign of him actually believing in his Mahatmahood. For her, a Bania can never represent or speak for the Dalits. Ambedkar and only Ambedkar could be the rightful leader of the untouchables by virtue of his own caste origins. Going by that logic one fails to understand how she can herself claim to speak for Ambedkar, Dalits and of course tribals. She clearly does not look at herself from the same lens with which she looks at Gandhi. Even with respect to Ambedkar’s claims of representing all untouchables, she tends to ignore uncomfortable questions like those related to the subsequent failure of Ambedkar’s own political party even among dalits. By virtue of being introduced to Ambedkar only recently, she may have judged the past in lieu of the present popularity of Ambedkar among the dalits which is the result of strong rhetorical anti Gandhian politics over the years. In all historical fairness, there were a huge number of Gandhian Harijans (who were later on sidelined and rendered invisible by the radical dalits in the post independence era) in those days and neither Gandhi’s nor Ambedkar’s claims of being the leader of all untouchables at that time were devoid of egoism. As for the Mahatmahood, it is a tag Gandhi fought all his life. Rabindranath Tagore had once commented ‘Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed and Christ failed to wean men of their iniquities but he will always be remembered as the one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come’. During Gandhi’s lifetime, Romain Rolland had already tagged him as the ‘Second Christ’. Many years later Martin Luther King was to say ‘Christ gave us the goal, and Gandhi gave us the methods’. Even the writer of the essay herself refers to Gandhi as the saint in the title. However, one voice that is absent here is Gandhi’s Himself. He had said —

I deny being a visionary. I do not accept the claim of saintliness. I am of the earth, earthy….. I am prone to as many weaknesses as you are. But I have seen the world. I have lived in the world with my eyes open. (1920)

On another instance he had commented ‘I can give no guarantee that I will do or believe tomorrow what I do or hold to be true today. God alone is omniscient. Man in the flesh is essentially imperfect’. He clearly made no claims of knowing everything and treated his changing views as a sign of his imperfection.

The writer may have not seen these comments or maybe she chose to ignore them. Nevertheless they do give an alternative insight into the man who she claims was drowned in his own Mahatmahood. And at the same time, the writer seems to have totally ignored the representation of Ambedkar as a godlike figure among the Dalits who love to place him alongside Gautama Buddha. In a speech in the constituent assembly dated 25th November, 1949, Dr. Ambedkar (While quoting John Stuart Mill) had warned all those who are interested in the maintenance of Democracy not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions”. This statement supposedly aimed at Gandhi at that time can well be ironically used as a warning today for Ambedkarites themselves.

gandhi-ambedkarThe second issue I would like to take up is the issue of Gandhi’s views about the natives whom he referred to as Kaffirs. The writer of the article takes Gandhi’s views about the native community as his views on race as a whole and tags his efforts to distinguish Indians from the natives as a sign of his racism. It is again part of a larger politico-rhetorical argument which tries to present Gandhi as someone who spoke only for the privileged and not for the oppressed. In the writer’s argument there seems to be an assumption that Gandhi trying to differentiate Indians (coolies) from Natives (Kaffirs) was a sure shot indicator of him seeing the two as ‘unequal’ rather than simply as ‘different’. The lines dividing difference with inequality are not always clear and it is easy for the former to give way to the latter via prejudices. The writer has made good use of this ambiguity to present Gandhi as racist rather than someone who saw natives or Kaffirs as merely ‘different’ from the Indians. However, it must be kept in mind that her views are purely interpretive and can never be seen in isolation from her ideological biases. She presents a quotation as evidence of Gandhi’s arguably racist views. However I would like to present another quotation here —

“The only matter of satisfaction during the discussion on the resolution was that Messers, Mackie Neven, Quinn, Rockey, and Pim did not forget that the Kaffirs, too, were human beings and raised their voice [of protest] against their unwarranted humiliation. But theirs was a cry in the wilderness. Nevertheless, they deserve our respect for giving expression to their true thoughts unmindful of popular sentiment”.

Talking here about ‘Attack on the Kaffirs’ his views appear to be rather sympathetic towards the natives and supportive of their cause. He may not have taken up their cause but was with them in spirit. Moreover, the author also ignored other facts like the role Gandhi played in voluntarily tending to native victims during the Zulu War although it was clearly not within the scope of his duties in the Ambulance corps. He volunteered for active service during the wars for the simple reason that he saw the Indian’s claims of rights as empty without a commitment to duties as British citizens. If Indians were to ask for rights as British citizens, they were to necessarily perform their duties as citizens of the empire too. But working for the British did not make him lose sight of the miseries of the native soldiers and he tended to them with equal sincerity. Even if his views can be interpreted as racist, his actual practices suggest on the contrary. The writer clearly chose to judge Gandhi based what he ‘said’ and not on what he actually ‘practised’. In addition, the writer ignores the fact that the story of Gandhi is also the story of a man who, by virtue of being aware of his imperfections, constantly tried to overcome his weaknesses and constantly fought against his own prejudices. Moreover, while he called the Kaffirs unhygienic, he was equally disgusted by the unhygienic ways of the Indians themselves. Why Gandhi tried to differentiate Indians from Natives was purely for the purpose of his politics and not for reasons racist. He saw himself as the leaders of the Indians alone and not the natives. He resisted the idea of Indians and Natives being tagged under the common category of ‘Coloured’ people for the simple reason that he recognised a divergence of interest between the original inhabitants of the land and the Indians who migrated to South Africa for purposes of trade and other activities. He refused to club Indians and natives together simply because they both faced racial discrimination. Clubbing the two together would have led to ignoring of differences among them by the whites. There were innumerable cultural differences and prejudices among the two communities and Gandhi did not intend to bridge the gap between the two as it would have taken years to accomplish it. His task in South Africa was a relatively hurried one. He instead focused his attention on securing rights for the Indians and then quickly returning back home. However, before going back he did leave behind the legacy of his methods which were used by the natives to gain their freedom and fight apartheid.

On reflection, one fails to understand how Gandhi’s views about natives have a bearing on the Gandhi – Ambedkar debate. Elaborating on Gandhi’s views on caste would have been sufficient. It’s a game of perceptions that is being played here. However, while the writer criticises Gandhi for his supposedly racist views about the Blacks, she makes no mention of Ambedkar’s views about Blacks even for the sake of pretended fairness in comparing the two. In addition also she goes totally silent on Ambedkar’s views about the Tribals which, in a recent interview, she herself confessed were rather ‘patronising’.

Now finally coming to the question of caste. The writer mentions Ambedkar’s critique of the nationalist movement as tending only to the interests of the higher castes. His concerns were not without merit. However, unlike what the author tries to portray, it was not something that Gandhi failed to notice or was not worried about. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were equally interested in removal of untouchability. Gandhi had said —

As in the matter of Hindu-Muslim unity so has there been misrepresentation in the matter of untouchability. It has been stated that I am sacrificing the interest of the untouchables for the sake of swaraj. I know that the lacks of untouchables will not believe any such thing of me. For me just as there is no swaraj without communal unity, so is there no swaraj without the removal of untouchability. But what I do feel is that without swaraj there will be neither communal unity nor removal of untouchability. He who runs may see that it is to the interest of the ruling caste to keep up the divisions among us. That caste (ruling caste) is no more interested in Hindus and Mussalmans coming together than in the removal of untouchability”

This brings me to the conclusion that the essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ is part of the unfortunate but continuing tendency to see Gandhi and Ambedkar as two sides of a see-saw. So for one to go up, the other has to be pulled down. This is what the writer is trying to do here. True she tries to balance things a bit by praising Gandhi’s views about modernity and industrialisation. But the inherent bias in her choice of quotations and events used to criticise Gandhi cannot be missed at all. I agree that history has been relatively unfair on Ambedkar. But to undo that, we can’t start being unfair to Gandhi. They probably unknowingly agreed on many issues as is apparent from the quotation above. The existence of a middle ground between the two has been pointed out my many scholars. Instead of seeing them as two sides of a see-saw we must visualise a plateau that both have to climb. Gandhi climbed it earlier which perhaps gave the impression of him actually occupying a saintly peak. But now is the time for Ambedkar to rise and stand with Gandhi side by side on top of the plateau. There is enough to learn from both of them. This game of pitching the two against one another is played for petty political satisfaction serves no real purpose as such. The writer of the introduction fails to raise herself above considerations of petty ideological and political satisfaction and is found wanting in trying keep up the pretention of supra-political objectivity.

All history is history from particular points of view. The essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ must be seen as ‘one’ history and not ‘the’ History. The reader must remain conscious of the subjective biases and prejudices of the writer and publisher that are in play here. The same applies to my own article as well. I am a novice as compared to the academic credentials of the writer I have here tried to criticise. I am no match to her in terms of writing skills and intellectual depth. But still I felt a grave need to present a response to an article that seemed horrifyingly biased. It’s my effort in trying to restore some kind of balance.

Additional Sources:
1. Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi
2. Lelyveld, J. (2011) Great Soul – Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India. New York: Alfred A Knopf
3. Ebine, K. (2011). Gandhi – A Manga Biography. New Delhi: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.