Arundhati Roy started her lecture with a backgrounder of Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste” – a speech that was never delivered – and then went on to speak mainly of Gandhi’s early years in South Africa and his views on caste.
She raised the question of how Gandhi came to be called a Mahatma despite never having renounced caste and whether he began with the compassion and egalitarian instincts of a saint or they came to him along the way. “How could a privileged-caste Bania (Gandhi) claim that he, in his own person, represented forty five million Indian untouchables unless he believed he actually was a Mahatma? Mahatmahood provided Gandhi with an amplitude that was not available to ordinary mortals. It allowed him to use his inner voice affectively, effectively and often,” she said, further adding that it permitted him to contradict himself and then say “my aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements but to be consistent with the truth as it may present itself.” She went on to pinpoint the contradictions and inconsistencies in Gandhi’s own statements during those years.
Highlighting how he looked at the blacks in Africa, Ms. Roy pointed out: “Gandhi’s views on race presaged his views on caste. He thought it below the dignity of the privileged castes to be sitting with blacks. He was trying his best to signal to the British that we are looking forward to an ‘imperial brotherhood’. He led the struggle of the passenger Indians bravely … And then his worst nightmares became a reality–the man who couldn’t bear to even share the entrance to a post office with ‘Kaffirs’ (blacks) now had to share a prison cell with them.”
She went on to speak of how Gandhi developed the idea of Satyagraha during his stay at the Tolstoy farm and that he wasn’t trying to destroy the ruling structure, rather looking forward to be friends with it. She castigated Gandhi for how he looked at women not as individuals but as a category and also for his silence on the accumulation of capital and the unequal distribution of wealth, in addition to his statements of wanting to live like the poorest of the poor. “Can poverty be simulated? Poverty is not just a question of having no money or no possessions, but about having no power. As a politician, it was Gandhi’s business to accumulate power, which he did effectively,” Arundhati Roy explained.
Overall, the lecture brought forth a perspective, quoting from Gandhi’s own writings and speeches from time to time, that is little known of and has hardly been analyzed before, a different image of Gandhi than the one commonly known and accepted. Perhaps that’s why Ms. Roy had to state at the very outset, “What I am going to say is going to be very unsettling to almost everyone here.”