Friday, January 29, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 5a

(I have changed the numbering system from this post. This series is very long and I thought that it would be easier for readers to follow if I switched from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals with sub-sections. For example, this post and the next are numbered 5a and 5b respectively.  This means that these two posts are on the same issue viz. manual labor. If there are posts numbered from 12a . . .12f, it would mean that there are 6 posts on the same issue triggered by a comment by Arundhati Roy.) 

Arundhati Roy writes sarcastically about an article in the Harijan where Gandhi writes that 'the ideal Bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par excellence' and that a 'Bhangi constitutes the foundation of all services'. He then writes about the qualities that 'such an honored servant of society' should have. These include 'a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation', 'how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it', 'how to overcome and destroy the odor of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous', etc. 

It is common practice these days to take a quote that somebody made a long time ago, and invest it with huge significance. If somebody wants to condemn him politically, they quote this one line. It’s not that he didn’t say it, but you can't analyze somebody based on one sentence they said years ago. You have to look at their entire body of work. Gandhi's philosophy of manual labor was completely at variance with existing Indian assumptions about labor which was causing sharp caste divisions and the horror of the upper castes in performing manual labor. It was part of his indirect attack on the caste system without saying it in so many words. 

Gandhi is too nuanced for people who want black and white answers and leap too easily to simplistic conclusions. Manual labor is the labor that is essential for meeting basic needs and nobody was exempt from it. While the poor had to do it out of necessity, the rich had to do it out of choice. The Industrial Revolution changed the way labor was perceived. Now labor is seen only as an input to produce profit and power. Manual labor's status was downgraded and seen as fit only for backward, illiterate people. It was looked down upon in Indian culture and Gandhi spent his entire adult life fighting this prejudice. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:

If any single idea demonstrates or stamps Gandhi's credentials as a social reformer, it must be his theory and practice of work. The idea pervades his whole reform preprogram, from abolition of untouchability to construction of village latrines and wells. His unique emphasis on public health and sanitation required social workers-cum-political volunteers to engage in labor that would routinely defy caste restrictions.

For Gandhi, manual labor is not a sign of weakness but our humanity yet he finds it continually degraded. 'In our country manual labor is regarded as a low occupation . . . We should spin, therefore, if only to guard against the pernicious tendency of regarding the toiler as being low in the social scale.' - (Young India, May 20, 1926). He was critical of the devaluation of manual labor in Buddhist monasteries. Although he had very high regard for the Buddha, he had some criticisms as well. He said that 'if I had the good fortune to be face to face with one like him [the Buddha], I should not hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of work, in preference to one of contemplation.' 

He said that he would do the same thing if he met Hindu saints such as Tukaram and Jnanadev. He wondered how much responsibility the Buddha had to bear for the rise of an anti-work ethic in Buddhist monasticism. He said, '. . . did he himself set up the organizations [of monasteries] or did his followers do so? Whoever did it, the monasteries which were established became . . . stagnant and by-and-by acquired a reputation as dens of sloth.' He alluded to the same state in Hindu monasteries also. Anthony Parel writes in Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony:.

. . he felt it necessary to criticize the imbalance between work and the spiritual life. The theory that begging was holy and that living off the labor of others legitimate, provided it was done by mendicants, also came for criticism. He made it clear that his criticism did not spring from any sectarian bias. They sprang from the insight that the work ethic was mandatory on all, mendicants as well as lay people. 

In his ashrams his insistence on everybody performing manual labor caused friction between various castes. In Sabarmati Ashram, manual labor was part of daily routine - inmates had to work for 3 1/2 hours in the field and 3 hrs. in the kitchen and dining hall. The first task entrusted to new entrants was the cleaning of latrines.  Gandhi's reasoning for this kind of initiation was that this would strip the person of any residual ego and make them humble enough to be able to recognize truth and be prepared to serve the weakest and the poorest. To a young man to whom he had assigned the job of cleaning latrines, he said:

I know that you have been educated abroad and so you feel that you must address the bigger issues plaguing India, like reducing poverty, speeding up development and eradicating illiteracy, but as long as you don’t have the humility to do the humblest of jobs you will not be able to recognize the real problems that beset our motherland. 

If you really want to make a difference you will have to first get rid of your ego, only then will you be able to understand that it is essential to recognize the importance of the seemingly insignificant, menial tasks and have the humility to perform them, if you learn to do them with dignity and honor, the bigger tasks will become easy.

He asserted that no work was superior or inferior; the work of a Brahmin, of expounding holy truths, was not one whit better than that of a sudra who removed night-soil. Madeline Slade was the daughter of an Admiral of the British Navy. She came under the thrall of Gandhi, renounced her affluence and came to India to live in his ashrams. Her transformation into Meerabehen, the name given to her by Gandhi, began by cleaning latrines and emptying chamber pots. He wrote in Harijan of September 8, 1946: 

I am a firm believer in the educative value of manual work. Useful manual labor, intelligently performed, is the means par excellence for developing the intellect. One may develop a sharp intellect otherwise, too. But, then, it will not be a balanced growth but an unbalanced, distorted abortion. It might easily make of one a rouge and rascal.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - IV

Gandhi was well-aware that caste was (and remains) a deeply-entrenched component of Indian society (observed not only by Hindus, but by Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians).  He himself had been outcasted by members of his bania sub-caste for going abroad to study and he showed no interest in rejoining it. He chose to focus on the most odious component of the caste system (untouchability) and call for its elimination.  Roy chooses to harshly critique Gandhi for this stance and dismiss him as a hypocrite.  Gandhi was a product of his time, place and culture.  His position calling for the eradication of untouchability was considered radical by most caste Hindus of his time. 

In September 1915, Gandhi accepted in his ashram in Ahmedabad an untouchable couple and their child. Even this limited challenge to the social order posed by the ashram caused such a crisis that the community nearly disintegrated. Various members threatened to leave or actually left including those closest to Gandhi – Kasturba and Maganlal. There was talk of social boycott by the residents of the city. Outside funds dried up.  Gandhi held his ground and refused to remove the untouchable family from the ashram. He was ready to close down the ashram and move to an untouchable settlement. The community was only saved by an ‘anonymous’ donation of 13,000 rupees by a local businessman. 

While the Congress wanted him to concentrate on gaining political independence and deemed Gandhi's tackling of other issues a distraction, Ambedkar said he was prepared to call the former his leader if he dropped all issues and concentrated only on the caste issue. It is easy to to take maximalist positions if you are focusing only on one issue but you have to be more cautious and diplomatic when pursuing multiple objectives. At one point, C.F. Andrews, his closest friend in adult life, advised him to concentrate only on the issue of untouchability even if it meant ignoring other issues. He replied:

I can't devote myself entirely to untouchability and say, "Neglect Hindu-Muslim unity or swaraj." All these things run into one another and are interdependent. You will find at one time in my life an emphasis on one thing, at another time on another.  But that is just like a pianist, now emphasizing one note and now (an)other.

It is important to concentrate on what Gandhi did rather than what he said. Most politicians are radical in what they say but conservative in what they do. But Gandhi was the opposite: he was conservative in what he said but radical in what he did. What he said was due to strategic reasons tailored not to antagonize the audience that he was addressing. So when he addressed an audience of orthodox Hindus, he would make noises in favor of the caste system. But in his actions on the ground, he had no hesitation in breaking rigid caste rules.

He said that the 'most effective, the quickest, and the most unobtrusive way to destroy caste' was for reformers to practice what they preached in their lives. 'Reviling the orthodox' was not the best way to go about getting rid of caste. The change had to be 'gradual and imperceptible'. He did not ask the colonial state to intervene because it was an alien institution. He instead wanted public opinion to create an anti-caste outlook. He would attack the caste system indirectly rather than confront it directly. He was of the opinion that people ‘cannot be made good by law’. He said in Young India on July 9, 1925, ‘The evolution of public opinion is at times a tardy process but it is the only effective one.’ One of his strategies was to start by attacking untouchability rather than take on the whole caste system. 

Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example. Gandhi tried to make Sabarmati Ashram a model of a caste-free society. The members of  the Ashram did not believe in varnashrama dharma and carried out their responsibilities out of a sense of duty without adhering to their prior caste affiliations. He wanted his ashrams to reflect the kind of society that he wanted the whole of caste-ridden India to have. They were laboratories of the future. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  

On April 24, 1947, Gandhi publicly said in Patna that for some time he had made it a rule to be present or give his blessings’ only for a wedding between a Dalit and a non-Dalit.  Gandhi utilized the Dandi Salt march to breach some things other than the salt laws as well. One of these was the caste divide in the villages en route. On his arrival in some villages he headed straight for the so-called ‘untouchable' quarters and drew water from the well there for his wash, making his village hosts, often from ‘higher' castes, to cross those ancient and hurtful divides. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task he faced.  He said that it would be like 'Dame Partington with her mop, trying to push back the Atlantic Ocean'.

Gandhi led a campaign for dalit rights in the 1930s, undertaking a nine-month tour of some 12,500 miles in 1933, campaigning for the opening up of wells, temples and roads to dalits. For a short time this appeared to have a remarkable impact. But Gandhi also encountered much resistance from orthodox caste Hindus. They disrupted his meetings and in June 1933 a bomb was thrown at him in Pune. Gandhi's colleagues in the Indian National Congress questioned his action. Gandhi, they argued, was spending far too much of his energies on a 'religious issue to the detriment' of political activity.

Gandhi's soft approach towards the orthodox was due to his wanting to reform Hinduism from within rather than attack it from the outside. His aim was to bring about a gradual delegitimization of various pernicious social practices by upper caste Hindus. About his soft approach to the Brahman priests during the Vaikkom satyagraha, David Hardiman writes in Gandhi: In His Time and Ours, "In Vaikkom, the latter [the priests] had showed themselves up when their representative had pleaded before him pathetically, 'Mahatmaji, we beseech you to prevent Avarnas [untouchables] from depriving us of our old privileges'' The heart of the matter thus stood revealed - theology provided no more than a cover for social privilege."

All along, Gandhi grounded his struggle against injustice in love, tolerance, and forgiveness. Ambedkar, on the other hand, chose to take Hindu orthodoxy head on. In purely rational terms, it made sense, but given the pervasiveness of the caste system which cut across all strata of Indian society, not just caste Hindus, Gandhi's approach merits attention. While Ambedkar relied more heavily on formal politics and religious separation as a mechanism for change, Gandhi, without ignoring the political dimension, emphasized personal example and the change of heart of a broad mass of caste Hindus. He said, 'I believe that it is impossible to end hatred with hatred.' 

Yet caste-based oppression remains after all this time. Although Dalits now have political voice, caste Hindus dominate the institutions. Horrific acts of violence continue to be perpetrated against Dalits even though there are laws to deal with the same. This has made the sociologist Andre Beteille to suggest that both leaders failed. Gandhi failed because the change of heart did not go far enough or deep enough. Ambedkar failed because conversion to Buddhism or any other religion has rarely led to escape from the stigma of pollution. Both failures testify to the weight and pervasiveness of hierarchical values in Indian society.

Friday, January 15, 2021

An unexpected break

On Christmas day last year, my father-in-law, who had been unwell for 3-4 days, was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed as Covid positive. The next day my brother-in-law, Unni and Uma (who looks looks after me 24*7; she is younger than Sujit, has been with us for over 3 years, helps Jaya a lot and has become like a daughter for us now) went to the hospital since they were unwell. Uma tested Covid positive while Unni tested Covid negative but was admitted in 'suspected Covid ward' since he was showing certain symptoms. 

On the next day, my mother-in-law was showing a lot of weakness and couldn't move or eat anything so she was taken to the hospital by Sujit. (He had come a couple of days earlier and was staying with my mother because people were sick at home and we did not want him to catch an infection.) Although she was diagnosed as Covid negative, she was admitted in the 'suspected Covid ward' since she had certain symptoms. 

This meant that Jaya and me were the only ones at home. Sujit spoke to his branch manager who agreed to work out some way to take a long leave during his period of probation and asked him to stay on in Coimbatore. (All three of us had tested negative.) We hadn't expected his bank (Federal Bank) to be so accommodating and his stay proved very helpful. He continued to stay with my mother who made the meals and sent them to Jaya through him.

Thus passed a couple of tension-filled weeks. Jaya had always stayed with people around with whom she could talk so she found it tough to stay alone. (Conversing with me is not the same as conversing with a person who can talk.) Expectedly, my father-in-law, who is 84, had the toughest time. It was an emotional roller coaster ride for all of us till he was shifted from the ICU to the ward after 10 days. Another cause for worry was Unni who had a persistent cough for many days which made it difficult for him talk or sleep peacefully. 

My mother-in-law and Uma were discharged after a week and they were then quarantined in a hotel room. After another week, Uma tested negative so both were brought home. Uma was almost back to normal which made Jaya and me very happy. My mother-in-law is still weak. Moreover, about a month before Covid struck, she had had a fall which caused multiple  fractures in her right palm. The fractures have healed but the fingers have less flexibility now so she is more dependent on Jaya than before. 

My father-in-law and Unni were discharged on 12th. The former is on two liters of oxygen and is very tired. They have  been quarantined in another room for a week and I have not yet met them. This is being done mainly to ensure that I don't get any infection because that would greatly complicate matters. 

This domestic disruption caused by Covid again illustrated one of Gandhi’s concerns about modernity: the focus on the universal while ignoring the particular. (I see Gandhi everywhere these days.) When I came across Covid only in the news, it was all about disembodied statistics like positivity rates, recovery rates, etc. But when Covid came home, I became more aware of the tensions that people go through, the suffering, the long road to recovery, etc.

There seems to be a dangerous sense of complacency surrounding the vaccine. People seem to feel that once the vaccine is administered, it will be business as usual. Governments at the moment are still ostrich-like, thinking, lets just go back to the same old ways of printing money. Kickstart lending again to get capital flowing. People will be able to borrow again, people will be able to buy things again. It's all going to be fine. 

There doesn’t seem to be a realization that there will be new viruses causing worldwide pandemics due to widespread travel. Due to continuing habitat destruction, humans and wild animals will keep coming into contact causing more virus jumps across species. I heard the science writer Carl Zimmer say that he is reluctant to make any predictions but there is one prediction that he can make with a fair degree of certainty: there will always be some sort of flu caused by some sort of virus. 

PS: I will resume my regular posts about 'Arundhati Roy on Gandhi' from next week.