Comment: Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Doctor and the Saint’


The subtitle of this slim volume of 124 pages with copious notes, bibliography and index spread through another forty pages is: The Ambedkar-Gandhi debate Caste, Race and Annihilation of Caste, published by Penguin, India, 2014, 2019.

As Roy says in her preface, the text of her book was originally written as an introduction to an annotated edition of Dr B R Ambedkar’s iconic 1936 text, Annihilation of Caste published in India in 2014. It is the text of a speech which Dr A was to deliver to a Hindu reformist organization of mostly upper class Hindus, who invited and then, after reading an advance copy, disinvited the speaker on finding it would be an assault on Hinduism. Once it was published it raised eyebrows and debate with Mohandas Gandhi who "took issue with it." Roy steps in and writes about Dr Ambedkar’s book; about him and Gandhiji; and their attitudes to caste and Hinduism. Roy seems to love controversy and debate and even protesting. Her opinions are readable; her research extensive and her writing excellent. She explains her book as surveying the practice of caste in India in the past and present. "I have been faulted for an inordinate amount of attention to Gandhi in an introduction to what is essentially Ambedkar’s work. I am guilty as charged. However, given the exalted, almost divine status that Gandhi occupies … I felt that unless his hugely influential and to my mind inexcusable position on caste and race was looked at carefully, Ambedkar’s rage would not be fully understood." There’s sincerity of purpose here, but can you discern the smiling sneer? Roy seems to love dethroning deities!!

The protagonists

Everyone knows almost everything about Mohandas Gandhi while most know only that Dr Ambedkar was of a very low caste who was one of those who drafted the Indian Constitution adopted after independence from British rule.

Gandhi: born 2 Oct 1869 to a well to do Modh Baniya family in Gujarat; killed 30 Jan 1948. Ambedkar: born 14 April 1891, a Hindu of the Mahar caste who were landless Untouchables, poor but not menial. Died 6 December 1956.

Ambedka’s father and grandfather were British army soldiers. Ambedkar came to the notice of the Maharaja of Baroda who gave him a scholarship of Rs 25 per month when schooling and also part sponsored his higher education at Columbia University NY and then LSE and Greys Inn, London. Returning to Baroda in 1917, he found he could not hold jobs since hostels baulked at having a low caste lodger. He taught for a time and then entered Parliament.

While Gandhi was an ardent Hindu with its rigid caste system, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism after 20 years contemplation and studying other religions. Gandhi was alarmed by Ambedkar’s talk of renouncing Hinduism. On 14 October 1956, in Nagpur, Ambedkar, Sharda Kabiar, his Brahmin second wife, and half a million supporters converted to Buddhism. To Roy: "It was his most radical act. It marked his departure from Western liberalism."

Somewhat freed from discrimination because of his education, he took up the battle for a place for the Untouchables, rural and urban. Gandhi gave thought to only the Bhangis – urban scavengers - because to the Mahatma cleaning toilets was work of religious duty which draws this acid comment from Roy: "It did not seem to matter that people in the rest of the world were dealing with their shit without making such a fuss about it." She details how when Gandhi opted to live in the Balmiki colony of scavengers in 1946, the entire place was cleaned and houses rebuilt. Food for Gandhi came from Birla House. She also writes that Gandhi wanting to dress like the poorest of the poor substituted a dhoti for his western suits; while Ambedkar showed his defiance to the elite high caste by always wearing a three piece suit. Gandhi was funded by rich business men, while Ambedkar died in debt and could not afford printing his ‘The Buddha and his Dhamma’.

Gandhi touted as his utopia his village republic and tradition while Ambedkar opted for justice and modernity

Dr Ambedkar’s attitude as discerned by Roy

Roy writes about Dr Ambedkar based on his book ‘Annihilation of Caste’.

In 1931 when he met Gandhi for the first time, Gandhi questioned him about his sharp criticism of the Congress Party which was tantamount to criticizing the struggle for the Homeland. Ambedkar replied, "Gandhiji, I have no Homeland. No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land."

Roy writes: "History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him King of the Ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence." "Ambedkar’s main concern was to privilege and legalize ‘constitutional morality’ over the traditional, social morality of the caste system. He was seriously disappointed with the first draft of the Constitution but it included safeguards for Scheduled Castes and was a document that was more enlightened than the society it was drafted for." "Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ was his impracticable, unrealisable dream – his utopia - a world of justice." It never came to be adopted, not even at present. The caste system is still strong in India, notwithstanding the fact that many Untouchables have risen to be leaders of the nation.

Mohandas Gandhi’s attitude as discerned by Roy

Roy traces his political life in South Africa; his arrival in India in 1915 and his crusade against British rule and his personal struggles and experiments on living poor and in celibacy. She definitely respects Gandhi and acknowledges his greatness but is critical,

unadmiring and bravely points out his quirks. This has grown in recent literature about the Mahatma. She faults him or rather points out that his battle for equality and non-discrimination of Untouchables was not wholly complete or even aimed at all scheduled castes. This because he was ardently a Hindu and Hinduism is absolutely cognizant of caste hierarchy.

"Notwithstanding stories and anecdotes from Gandhi’s followers about Gandhi’s love for Untouchables and the inter-caste weddings he attended, in the ninety eight volumes of his writings of 48,000 pages, Gandhi never decisively and categorically renounced his belief in haturvarna, the system of four varnas or castes. Though he was given to apologizing and agonizing publicly and privately over things like the occasional lapses in his control over his sexual desire, he never agonized over the extremely damaging things he had said and done on caste. He offered himself to us as a visionary, a mystic, a moralist, a great humanitarian, the man who brought down a mighty empire armed only with Truth and Righteousness. With Gandhi’s views (and deeds) on caste, is it enough to say he was moved and let it go at that? Extraordinary and fascinating but did he really ally himself with the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of his people?"

Roy’ question here is: "Can poverty be simulated? It is not a question of having no money. It is about having no power. Gandhi’s genius was that he yoked his other-worldly search for moksha to a very worldly, political cause and performed both like a fusion dancer for a live audience in a live-in theatre." His sleeping with two young girls to test his celibacy vow to Roy suggests that he views women "not as individuals but as a category." "Gandhi may have learned a great deal from his experiments, but he’s gone now and left his followers with a legacy of a joyless, joke free world: no desire, no sex, which he described as worse than snakebite." Sharp criticism. Roy also says that though Gandhi was against industrialization, he and his ashram were supported by rich mill owners.


The two had met many times and Dr A paid respectful tribute to the Mahatma. Their first visible confrontation was at the second Round Table Conference, were both claimed to be the representatives of the Untouchables. The Congress had boycotted the first Conference in 1930. Ambedkar presented his memorandum: A scheme of political safeguards for the protection of the depressed classes in the future constitution of Self Governing India, advocating a separate electorate for Untouchables. Comment from Gandhi: "I would far rather that Hinduism died than that untouchability lived." Which Roy labels as his usual rhetoric. The British granted Ambedkar’s request for 20 years. Gandhi who was in prison immediately went on a fast protesting this. Ambedkar was the villain in most people’s eyes and had to prevent suicide by conceding to Gandhi. Thus the Untouchables would have reserved seats in general constituencies.

Many more such disagreements are detailed with Roy almost sneering at the Mahatma and in favour of the doctor.

Much has been packed into the 124 paged The Doctor and the Saint: the Ambedkar – Gandhi debate: caste race and Annihilation of Caste, and written in great style as Arundhati Roy invariably does. Reading the book is a must for Indophiles and those interested is caste.

More on Roy and her views next week.

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