The Indian General Elections, Arundhati Roy, and the Secular Ideal

Arundhati Roy writes a book-length introduction … and a scathing critique of Gandhi and Hindu nationalism.

By Neha SharmaJune 12, 2014

Annihilation of Caste by Arundhati Roy and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar . Navayana . 216 pages.

Caste is no doubt primarily the breath of Hindus, but the Hindus have fouled the air all over, and everybody is infected — Sikh, Muslim and Christian.

— B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936)

ARUNDHATI ROY’s latest piece of nonfiction, “The Doctor and the Saint,” enhances her reputation as the enfant terrible of India’s literary community. This time around she doesn’t strike the usual suspects — like the Indian “plutocracy” or American “imperialism” — but takes aim at an Indian “saint” of world renown.

As the author shifts focus to fiction again — she is finally working on her second novel — Roy leaves us with what might be her last substantial piece of nonfiction writing for a while, a strong admonishment of the origins of Hindutva — an ideology that seeks to establish Hindu hegemony — and a sensationalist takedown of Mahatma Gandhi.

“The Doctor and the Saint” is Roy’s book-length introduction to a reissue of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste — published in March. Ambedkar is not as celebrated as a political luminary, but he is one of the founding fathers of the Indian constitution, and Gandhi’s contemporary and ideological adversary. Roy’s essay is a scathing attack on Gandhi, pitting him against Ambedkar once more, and although it is not without reason or factual basis, it staggers under the weight of Roy’s bias, the absolutism characteristic of her body of work as a sociopolitical writer.

Roy’s nonfiction abandons the careful cadence of her Man Booker–winning novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and employs a combative approach. Roy’s critique of Indian democracy — which underscores most of her nonfiction, from Listening to Grasshoppers to Broken Republic — makes me feel like a reluctant trainee in a guerrilla camp. Critics have derided Roy as a polemicist, an agitator, and a hypocrite, but I believe her greatest failings in her nonfiction are her inability to appreciate complexity and her tendency to dehumanize her opponent.

Her lack of insight is best exemplified by Walking with the Comrades and “TheTrickledown Revolution,” her sympathetic essays about the Naxal movement, which is currently India’s biggest internal security threat. The Naxal movement — inspired by the tenets of Mao — is an armed struggle by adivasis (tribals) to reclaim their mineral-rich land, which the government-owned National Mineral Development Corporation is mining for bauxite. It seemed like a worthy cause, and Roy became a voice for the oppressed, but not a reasonable one. Over the past decade the “cause” inspired disenchantment among many of its own members because of the escalating violence — killing civilians and scapegoating bottom-rung public employees, like teachers and constables. But Roy stood strong in her support for the Naxals, with complete disregard for the brutality and destruction the movement spawned. The main characters of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland (September 2013), are both immediate and collateral victims of the Naxal conflict, and, unlike Roy, the author allows for the inhumanity and disillusionment that an extremist revolution might engender, its noble motivations enmeshed in undesirable consequences.

Now Roy’s recalcitrance is given new relevance by the verdict of the 2014 prime ministerial elections in the world’s largest democracy: on May 16, the majority chose Narendra Modi — a Hindu nationalist who was once accused of abetting a pogrom against Muslims while he was the chief minister of Gujarat — as the 15th prime minister of India.

“The Doctor and the Saint”and its reaffirmation of Ambedkar’s views on Hinduism, caste, and social reform come at a time when the new regime might herald a resurgence of Hindu nationalism, in a country that has struggled and failed time and again to uphold the secular ideal.


The “doctor” in the title of Roy’s introduction is Ambedkar, referencing not only Ambedkar’s academic honorific, but also his scientific approach as an intellectual. The “saint” follows from Gandhi’s canonization as the Mahatma (the Hindi word for “saint”), and is meant to subvert his overly sacrosanct reputation. While Ambedkar worked closely with Gandhi during the years leading up to India’s independence, they usually disagreed on political issues. This caused great distress to Ambedkar, as Gandhi, commanding the more influential position, at times undermined the doctor’s progressive vision for the nation.

Throughout his political career, Ambedkar sought to abolish the Hindu caste system — which identified him as a Dalit (Untouchable) — and to “create a firewall between religion and the State.” Annihilation of Caste was originally published in 1936, when the people of his caste were left scraping at the bottom of the barrel, pushed to the periphery of basic human rights. In 1947 Ambedkar was appointed as the first law minister of the country by the Indian National Congress.

Anand Navayana, the publisher of the annotated critical edition and reissue of Annihilation of Caste, wanted to introduce the literature — which had mostly only been read by the Dalit community and proponents of Ambedkar’s ideology — to the general public with the help of a significant voice like Roy’s. In her introduction, Roy recollects Ambedkar’s description of “Hindu society in a chilling metaphor — as a multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody had to die in the storey they were born in.”

While researching the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate on caste, Roy found Gandhi’s idea of compassion toward the Dalit community patronizing — he vehemently opposed Ambedkar’s proposal for a separate electorate for the Untouchables. Gandhi had an ambiguous, even hypocritical attitude toward issues of race; writing about the years he spent in Africa, Roy highlights his antipathy toward the Kaffirs (black Africans), his efforts to distinguish himself from the “indentured Indians,” and his aspiration to be recognized as a part of Britain’s “imperial brotherhood.”

But while Roy takes down Gandhi’s hagiography, she doesn’t investigate Ambedkar’s own dubious principles with the same intensity. There is only a passing mention about how the doctor supported disenfranchisement of adivasis.

India has institutionalized affirmative action for the Dalit community, and it still maintains reservations for them in educational institutions — a much-debated issue among the privileged of the country. (Roy offers a credible theory to explain a push to reclaim what were seen as the dregs of the societal order in 1917, stating that a certain degree of insecurity had set in among Hindus as Dalits were drawn to convert to other religions like Islam and Christianity that did not practice casteism. Ambedkar had himself converted to Buddhism.)In the recent past, the country has even seen a Dalit woman (Mayawati) hold political office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. But these strides are undercut by frequent instances of grievous discrimination — the rampant rapes of Dalit women that are condoned, honor killings to discourage intercaste marriages, and the fact that manual scavenging is still a traditionally inherited job for Dalits in rural parts of India. Since Modi was sworn in as prime minister on May 26, his “meritocratic” government has made clear its intention of doing away with these reservations for minorities.

An Indian Express report from last year (October 16) revealed that the state government of Gujarat had ordered a probe into the conversion to Buddhism by many Dalits in the region of Saurashtra on the grounds of violation of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Rules (2008). According to Devendra Govindbhai Vanvi, a spokesperson of the community, the Dalits had sought conversion for “emancipation” from the Hindu caste system, which recognized them as “social slaves.”

In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar writes that the main point of contention in the period leading up to the inception of the Indian republic was “whether social reform should precede political reform.” Roy’s criticism of Gandhi will surely intrigue readers, but what makes “The Doctor and the Saint” relevant is the critique of Hindutva and the continued subjugation of Dalits — issues that deeply tied in with this election cycle. The questions Ambedkar asked are equally, if not more, pertinent today, as the idea of social reform languishes in the shadow of economic development.


The major players in the Indian elections were few and deeply flawed. The electorate had three options: Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Gandhi family, who represents the — now dethroned — Indian National Congress, which was in power under the prime ministership of Manmohan Singh; Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat, who represents the right-wing party, BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party); and Arvind Kejriwal, a social activist turned politician who represents the fledgling newcomer AAP (Aam Aadmi [Common Man] Party).

Forty-three-year-old Rahul’s inexperience, and his glaring disconnect with the masses, was amplified by the Congress’s failed governance during its tenure. Kejriwal is a Gandhian activist, so much so that even during his brief 49-day term as Delhi’s chief minister — he quit prematurely because anticorruption legislation he wanted to implement was stalled by the opposition — his governance was defined by acts of civil disobedience.

Kejriwal ranked first on this year’s TIME 100 Readers’ Poll, defeating Modi, who came in second. The ranking was defined by the raw count of votes in the affirmative; Modi had more negative votes (which were discarded) than positive ones. But Kejriwal quickly came under sharp attack for his theatrical “dharnas” (hunger strikes) and lack of authoritative governance. Kejriwal’s unpopularity, and rapid fall from grace, now imbues the TIME title with irony. As has been the case during most general elections in India over the past few decades, the competition was down to the Congress versus the BJP.

A few years ago, Modi’s candidacy seemed an impossibility. A pogrom against Muslims took place under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002. Called the worst episode of Hindu-Muslim violence since partition, the riots — claiming the lives of over 700 Muslims and 250 Hindus — were spurred by a Muslim mob’s setting fire to a train carrying mostly Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya after conducting a ritualistic ceremony at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid. Once the largest mosque in Uttar Pradesh, the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992 by a riotous mob of Hindu volunteers, because the spot was believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu deity. The mob was led by the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad), a Hindu right-wing organization that is affiliated with the BJP. Among various serious allegations — like instructing senior police officials to allow the Hindu mobs to exact revenge — Modi was generally accused of having done little, in his capacity as chief minister, to stop the retaliatory attacks in his state.

As Modi and the BJP came out with their manifesto last month, the construction of the Ram Mandir (a temple for Lord Ram at the site of the Babri Masjid demolition) figured on the list of things this country needs. Even after two decades and so much bloodshed the communal fault lines are being reasserted, thus perpetuating the vengeful cycle.

The popularity of the Hindu nationalist charged with such an egregious offense has been attributed to his administrative prowess and his record of economic development. The ease with which the electorate embraced him, forgiving and forgetting his alleged complicity in the massacre, is likely less these administrative qualities and more a theocratic ideal — the exclusionist notion of India as Hindustan, the land of Hindus.


Over the past four years, as the robust growth rate began to dip dramatically, and frequent instances surfaced in the press of rapacious corruption by members of the ruling party, the Indian National Congress, the Indian republic was fast losing credence as a burgeoning economic superpower.

The Congress’s tarnished image, and the declining popularity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — often mocked as Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s trustee — made a perfect foil for Modi. The chief minister of Gujarat had long been vigorously pitching his leadership qualities and effectively marketing his haven for private investment — which the former Union Minister of Finance, P. Chidambaram, has termed “crony capitalism” — to stake his claim in India’s immediate future. In 2008, Roy wrote about the intellectual community’s changing opinion of Modi in Listening to Grasshoppers:“Editors and commentators in the ‘secular’ national press, having got over their outrage at the Gujarat genocide, now assess Modi’s administrative skills, which most of them are uniformly impressed by.”Modi and his followers argued that his successes were worthy of replication on a national scale.

Even if one were to completely trust the clean chit given to Modi by the Supreme Court, though, the chief minister has never expressed sufficient remorse for the deaths — unofficial reports set the number at 2,500 — or apologized for any laxity on his part. Modi represents a party that has not only unabashedly forwarded its agenda of Hindu nationalism time and again, but also championed his reelection in the state of Gujarat when he was being eyed with the gravest suspicion by every faction of society, the judiciary, and the world at large. Modi was denied an American visa for violations of religious freedom, although that is now a nonissue as he is the prime minister of India.

The Congress, in this election, played opportunist. The party used to rely on dynastic politics, leeching off the rich lineage nurtured by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India and father of Indira Gandhi (née Nehru). But as the root has been sucked dry and the bloodline watered down — Rahul is the fourth generation — the party resorted to playing divisive politics. In an act of desperation, Sonia reached out to Muslim and Christian clerics to influence the vote of the marginalized communities.

Accusations of communal violence cast on the BJP also taint the Congress’s political history — most notably in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that took place after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Indira was shot by her Sikh bodyguards, who sought vengeance for Operation Blue Star, a military operation she launched to neutralize Sikh militias. After her death, Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi immediately took over as prime minister, and the Congress was in power during a retaliatory pogrom that claimed the lives of over 8,000 Sikhs. (Rahul did hesitantly admit, in a Times Now interview in March, that things went awry under his father’s governance.)

At the time, Salman Rushdie viewed the riots as symptomatic of the country’s dangerously dichotomous disposition:

Here is another of the paradoxes at the heart of the India-idea: that the ethic of the independence movement, and of the independent State, has always been secular; yet there can be few nations on earth in which religion plays a more direct or central role in the citizens’ daily lives. (The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, 1984)

Rushdie has always been a harsh critic of the Gandhi dynasty — Indira’s declaration of emergency in 1975-’77 being a highlight of its dictatorial menace. It is a flagging dynasty now, breathing its last; Rahul holds little worth in the eyes of most Indians, and their distrust of the Indian equivalent of Britain’s royals has peaked.

On April 10, Rushdie joined artist Anish Kapoor and a bunch of influential UK-based academics in signing an open letter that stated their collective “dread” of Modi coming to power. It would, they wrote, “bode ill for India’s future as a country that cherishes the ideals of inclusion and protection for all its peoples and communities.”

And their fears are being borne out. With what’s being termed the “NaMo (Narendra Modi) wave,” the BJP’s radical affiliates like the VHP and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) are being revitalized, and this could be a tremendous cause for concern. The RSS is the extremist ideological parent of the BJP. (In “The Doctor and the Saint,” Roy writes about the origins of the RSS in the 1930s, stating that, to the group, “the Muslims in India were the equivalent of the Jews in Germany.” She goes on to cite the RSS’s admiration of Nazi Germany.) Members of the RSS have been accused of planning and executing terror attacks like the 2007 Samjhauta Express — a train which connected India and Pakistan — blasts and the 2006 Malegaon blasts, which targeted the participants of an evening prayer at a Muslim cemetery, adjacent to a mosque in Nashik. In February, The Caravan — an Indian literary and political journal — ran a sensational interview with the prime accused, Swami Aseemanand, a former RSS member. In the interview Aseemanand claimed that the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, was in the know about the plans to bomb “civilian targets.”

These Hindu nationalist groups have consistently endorsed the vision of Hindutva. A report (April 13) in the Times of India revealed that the “NaMo effect” has boosted the RSS’s influence as its branches have increased manifold since Modi was named BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The report stated that fresh blood was giving the “moribund outfit new life.” Bhagwat is being frequently consulted by Modi and his cabinet ministers on important policy decisions. In a 2011 DNA op-ed following the Bombay blasts, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy suggested that Indian Muslims who refuse to identify as Hindus should be disenfranchised. Swamy was also a visiting professor at Harvard at the time — the summer courses he taught were dropped by the university right after the piece was published. Swamy was very active in BJP’s campaigning during this election cycle.

During election coverage, NDTV (one of India’s leading news channels) news anchor Barkha Dutt said secularism had become a dirty word in this election campaign. As the Congress whiplashed the opposition with Modi’s anti-secular agenda, the BJP caricatured the Congress’s as a parrot who’d learned only one word: secularism. In his speeches while campaigning, Modi countered with promises of economic development, making secularism seem like an unworthy ideal, flinging it aside as if it were a cheap ornamental accessory when set against the financial health of the nation.

Roy, in her 2004 essay “How Deep Shall We Dig?,” suggests that this debate is neither new nor as clear-cut as it might seem.

Let’s not forget that on every major issue — nuclear bombs, big dams, the Babri Masjid controversy and privatization — the Congress sowed the seeds and the BJP swept in to reap the hideous harvest.

This does not mean that the Parliament is of no consequence and elections should be ignored. Of course there is a difference between an overtly communal party with fascistic leanings and an opportunistically communal party. Of course there is a difference between a politics that openly, proudly preaches hatred and a politics that slyly pits people against each other.

But the legacy of one has led us to the horror of the other. Between them, they have eroded any real choice that parliamentary democracy is supposed to provide.


There is a defeatist sentiment sapping the nation’s intellectual vigor. In November 2013, Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open magazine, was reportedly forced to resign after he wrote a scathing critique of both Modi and Rahul. In a matter of a couple of months, the magazine’s editor, Manu Joseph, also resigned, and PR Ramesh, a journalist who has close ties with the general secretary of the BJP, stepped in as managing editor.

Earlier this year, CNN-IBN journalist Sagarika Ghose, who was pretty vocal about her anti-Modi views, was reportedly asked to curb her enthusiasm on Twitter by the top brass. “There is an evil out there, an evil which is stamping out all free speech and silencing all independent journalists,” she cautioned via Twitter in February.

Recently, another portentous incident: Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled by Penguin. Dinanath Batra, a conservative scholar revered by the VHP, took serious offense, complained, and Penguin completely disavowed the book.

In February, Roy publicly challenged Penguin — also her publisher — in an open letter:

Everybody is shocked at what you have gone and done — at your out-of-court settlement with an unknown Hindu fanatic outfit — in which you seem to have agreed to take Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History off the bookshelves of ‘Bharat’ and pulp it. […] Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so? Have you forgotten who you are?

This is not the first time that Batra has censored discourse in the country. He was also responsible for pulling the illuminating “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by A. K. Ramanujan from Delhi University’s history syllabus, a book in which Ramanujan explored alternate versions of the Ramayana,an ancient Hindu epic. In October 2011, the university caved in to Batra’s dissent and dropped the text from its syllabus.

Such intolerance is one reason to be frightened by the idea of a Hindu nation. Pakistan was established as an Islamic State, and thus some say India should be Hindu. In fact, while campaigning during this election, Giriraj Singh, a BJP leader, stated that anyone that is anti-Modi should be sent to Pakistan. On May 16, India saw a radical Hindu nationalist come to power; a week later, Roy took a swipe at the democratic verdict in an interview with Dawn, stating: “Now, we have a democratically elected totalitarian government.” The Dalits were still being exploited, she said, describing a visit to villages in the state of Maharashtra where farmer suicide rates are at their highest in the country.“These villages are completely resourceless, barren and dry as dust. The people are mostly Dalits. There is no politics there. They are pushed into the polling booths by power brokers who have promised their overlords some votes,” she said.

Before this fantastical event came to be — for I was stumped by Modi’s victory, realizing how disconnected I might be from the average Indian’s vision for the nation — I always viewed Roy’s diagnosis of the nation’s problems with skepticism. I was critical of her skewed rationale on most issues, and of her anticapitalist stance in a country that needed globalization. But these elections seem to have validated Roy’s fatalistic view of the Indian democracy. Some critics are equating Modi’s phenomenal popularity with that of Indira Gandhi’s — Indira was one of the most controversial leaders the country has had, and it seems like history is repeating itself. In the interview, Roy reiterated her sense of the haplessness of this democracy, which is torturously stretched on the rack with the Congress and BJP at either end:“The two main parties agreed on most policies, and each had the skeleton of a mass pogrom against a minority community in its cupboard. So now, it’s all out in the open. The system lies exposed,” she said.

Ramachandra Guha — a celebrated Indian intellectual, historian, and a critic of Roy’s — who also recently came out with a book on Gandhi, believes that Indian democracy would be able to stomach the blow:

Those who fear that, were he to become prime minister, Narendra Modi would inaugurate a period of ‘fascist’ or even Emergency-like rule in India, underestimate the strength of our democratic institutions, and the robustness of our federal system. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975, her Congress was in power in all but one state. Now, if a Modi-led BJP wins the next elections, the ruling party at the Centre will not be the ruling party in most state capitals. And even if some media houses shall obediently line up behind Modi, others will stay independent. Besides, social media will be impossible to control, or censor. (“The Fear of Fascism,” March 2014)

Modi has won with an unprecedented mandate, empowering him to undermine democratic functions within the parliament, if he wishes to do so. This is the first time since 1977 that India will not have a strong leader in the opposition. So while Guha might believe that the opposition will keep the Center in check, reliance on political opportunists for watchdogs is probably not going to be enough. To combat the likes of Modi and the RSS, the country will need to be armed with “incendiary” and “seditious” critics like Arundhati Roy, who are emblematic of an equal and opposite radicalism.


Neha Sharma is a writer and culture critic based in Delhi, India.

LARB Contributor

Neha Sharma is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like the New Republic, Kirkus Reviews, The Caravan, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, and Rolling Stone (India).


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