Arundhati Roy's My Seditious Heart includes searing look at legacy of Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi

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      Tonight, the great Indian intellectual, Arundhati Roy, will speak to a sold-out crowd at Performance Works on Granville Island in Vancouver.

      The event, which is hosted by the Indian Summer Festival Society, is entitled My Seditious Heart. That also happens to be the title of Roy's recently released 1,000-page collection of nonfiction essays.

      Straight contributor Gurpreet Singh has already offered a broad overview of the book on this website, contextualizing it with rising repression in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist regime.

      So I'm only going to focus on one of the essays, the longest in fact, a 119-page treatise called "The Doctor and the Saint: The Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate".

      It was originally released in 2014 as an introduction to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar's seminal 1936 speech, "Annihilation of Caste".

      Ambedkar was a politician, scholar, and leader of the Untouchables (now usually referred to as Dalits). He played the leading role in writing India's constitution.

      Statues of Ambedkar have been erected in different parts of India. His name even graces a room in a Surrey public library—though he's not that well known in the West.

      With her essay, Roy infuriated many people. And she didn't flinch from using the word Untouchable.

      While praising Ambedkar's efforts to liberate tens of millions of Hindus who were being treated abominably under the caste system, Roy also condemned him for having a colonial mindset about India's Indigenous people, the Adivasis.

      She pointed out that this is a factor why they continue to be dispossessed from their lands by natural-resources companies controlled by India's wealthiest capitalists.

      Ambedkar also came across as a ham-handed politician.

      In the essay, Roy also demonstrated how members of higher castes have retained their hold over politics, the civil service, the media, and the business community in India.

      And she chastised Marxist parties for not paying sufficient heed to this, even though there are more than 200 million Dalits in the country.

      Mohandas Gandhi was a clever politician and not a saint, according to Arundhati Roy's collection of essays.

      Gandhi depicted as a racist

      But Roy's greatest insult, in the eyes of some, was to document how the "saint" in her essay, Mohandas K. Gandhi, was an unabashed supporter of India's wretched caste system.

      Moreover, Gandhi held vile and racist views about South African blacks when he lived in that part of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

      While in prison in South Africa, Gandhi even sought separate wards for the Indian prisoners.

      "He led battles demanding segregation on many counts: he wanted separate blankets because he worried that 'a blanket that has been used by the dirtiest of Kaffirs may later fall to an Indian's lot.' He wanted prison meals specially suited to Indians—rice served with ghee—and refused to eat the 'mealie pap' that the 'Kaffirs' seemed to relish," Roy wrote. "He also agitated for separate lavatories for Indian prisoners."

      As late as 1939, Gandhi was telling India's future prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that Indians could not make common cause with the Bantu people in Africa, according to Roy's essay. 

      This stands in sharp contrast to the adulatory books about Gandhi written by western and Indian writers.

      Scholar and politician Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is still revered by Dalits in India, though he's not that well known in the West.
      KG IITB

      Poona Pact sealed fate of Untouchables

      Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed over the years, with Gandhi, at times, claiming that his political adversary did not represent the lowest-caste people in the country. This statement was made even though Ambedkar was widely recognized as the leader of the Untouchables.

      One of Ambedkar's chief demands was separate electorates for Untouchables so they could gain true political representation.

      Yet Gandhi managed to thwart this, even after it had been approved by the colonial British rulers. Gandhi did this by going on a fast to the death in 1932.

      Ambedkar ultimately capitulated in what was known as the Poona Pact.

      He knew that if Gandhi actually died, Ambedkar would be blamed and the Untouchables would be treated even more disgracefully as a result.

      The end result was to undermine the autonomy of Untouchable politicians by giving them reserved seats.

      This made them beholden to members of higher castes who controlled political parties in constituencies.

      "In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander describes how, in the United States, criminalisation and mass incarceration have led to the disenfranchisement of an extraordinary percentage of the African American population," Roy wrote. "In India, in a far slyer way, an apparently generous form of enfranchisement has ensured the virtual disenfranchisement of the Dalit population."

      From that point forward, Gandhi campaigned against Untouchability, but in a way that Roy described as "infantilizing" members of the lowest caste by renaming them as Harijans.

      They were the "Children of God" who were now "psychologically hardwired into the caste system", Roy wrote.

      Many were grateful when they were allowed entry into Hindu temples, even as they remained subjugated under the electoral system and treated abysmally by society.

      "The Poona Pact was meant to defuse or at least delay the political awakening of the Untouchables," she declared.

      Arundhati Roy gave this speech, called "The Doctor and the Saint", at an event celebrating the 2014  release of Annihilation of Caste, published by Verso Books.

      Roy remains a truth teller

      Perhaps Roy's greatest act of apostasy, in the eyes of the Gandhi admirers, was to suggest that there weren't tremendous differences between this 20th-century saint and the hardline Hindu nationalists who now rule India.

      After all, Gandhi is viewed by many as a secular hero who devoted his life to fighting the forces of the political movement known as Hindutva and which was articulated by his long-time critic, writer V.D. Savarkar.

      However, Roy maintained in her essay that the Poona Pact has led modern-day Dalit leaders to sometimes align themselves with Hindutva parties, including the dastardly Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

      "For Dalits, as we have seen, the distance between the Hindu 'right' and the Hindu 'left' is not as great as it might appear to others," she wrote.

      Reading "The Doctor and the Saint: The Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate", it's easy to draw some parallels between Roy and teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

      Both Roy and Thunberg do not flinch in the face of uncomfortable truths.

      They each leave themselves exposed to persecution and possible physical harm by saying aloud what others are too timid or too ignorant to articulate.

      Their courage is inspiring and it's part of the reason why they're regarded as heroes by so many around the world.

      Roy may write that she has a seditious heart, but it's sedition in the service of humanity. It's sedition on the side of the poor. It's the sedition of rectitude, of precision, and of veracity.

      The Indian Summer Festival Society has stood on the side of truth by bringing Roy to Vancouver, no matter how much discomfort this causes those who want to continue believing that their Mahatma was a living saint.