Arundhati Roy Questions Gandhi’s Status as the ‘Mahatma’ in a Lecture at Jamia

As part of its Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture series, the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, organised on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 a lecture on the topic “The Doctor and The Saint: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate” by noted writer and political commentator, Arundhati Roy. The program took place in the conference hall of FTK- Centre for Information Technology of the varsity and was chaired by Prof. S.M. Sajid, Vice Chancellor JMI. [Audio link to lecture]

The title of her lecture is also the title of her introduction to a recently published work on ‘Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition B.R. Ambedkar’ (2014) edited and annotated by S. Anand. [Buy the book here]

Arundhati Roy speaking on the topic “The Doctor and The Saint: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate," at the FTK-CIT Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia; Tuesday, March 4, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)
Arundhati Roy speaking on the topic “The Doctor and The Saint: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate,” at the FTK-CIT Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia; Tuesday, March 4, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)

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.

"Annihilation of Caste" By B.R. Ambedkar, with an introduction by Arundhati Roy [Buy the book here]
“Annihilation of Caste” By B.R. Ambedkar, with an introduction by Arundhati Roy [Buy the book here]

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.

Audience at the Arundhati Roy lecture delivered at the FTK-CIT Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia; Tuesday, March 4, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)
Audience at the Arundhati Roy lecture delivered at the FTK-CIT Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia; Tuesday, March 4, 2014 (Photo: Khalid Jaleel)

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.”


Download and listen to Arundhati Roy’s complete lecture here:

About Samreen Mushtaq

Samreen Mushtaq is a Staff Writer for Jamia Journal, and a PhD student in the Department of Political Science. She can be reached via email at: samreen_mushtaq[at]

Check Also

JMI VC Assures of Opening Distance Learning Centres in Seemanchal

19 March; Sehratola (Purnea), Bihar: During a seminar on educational backwardness of Seemanchal, Prof. Talat ...


  1. Avatar

    it was beautiful audio but you couldn’t manage the quality of audio , though you say you have indias best media centre

  2. Avatar

    Thank’s to Arundhati Roy for spreading the Truth to the world.

  3. Avatar

    Excellent Talk ….. Thanks to JJ…

  4. Avatar

    What are her references, other than Gandhi’s own writings? Is she just create this sensation because she is speaking at Jamia….run by students of Jamia Millia Islamia?

    • Avatar

      Just like all publicly-funded universities in India, if not the world, Jamia Millia Islamia is also run by the State, and not by its students.

  5. Avatar
    Dawn Wisteria Bates

    I am an African American woman who resides in Atlanta, Georgia. I must state that the
    scholarship, activism, and courage of Arundhati Roy is an inspiration for all women in the world. Thank you for posting this audio lecture.

  6. Avatar

    Did Ghandi have a negative impact on the situation in the various places he presided?

  7. Avatar

    An interesting talk by Roy, but as a South African Indian I find this kind of analysis perturbing on a number of counts, which a sensitive writer like Roy should be aware of, but I cannot comment on the gender issue as I have not looked into, but will do so.
    1. Anachronism – to judge Gandhi by our standards when he lived in a different time is not on. In South Africa, some black leaders said that they should do for their people what Gandhi was doing for his people.
    2. False expectations – it is not possible for anyone to be everything to everybody. That was why in other contexts saints and prophets and shamans and gurus were followed. Experiments with the truth are just that. Ambedkar perhaps was much better on the Dalit question. How is it that some Indian British trained went for justice instead of a comfortable life?
    3. Literary license – We can really only understand Gandhi in our times and we can find him wanting. I do too. But not for Roy’s reasons. He wanted production profiles that basically meant going back to the village, instead of embracing modern production. Agriculture is typically decreasing returns, has poor backward linkages, and predominantly agricultural economies tend to feudalism or banana republics – not independent states (the same can be said for Julius Nyerere). it was his lack of focus on the mode of production that was a problem.
    4. Radicalism and reform – the choice between radical and reform is made out to be much too easy. Roy is of a left persuasion, but should not be so casual about reform. Not everyone is an activist, and some people are constrained by circumstances not of their making nor liking. And let us be clear, despite political independence Third World countries have not achieved economic independence – and it is not for want of radicalism or reform. The First World rules with ease and it is time we moved away from these simple formulae of the left – aside from corruption, selling out how does the left explain the failures of progressive movements from Bolivia (TIPNIS), Venezuela, Ecuador (Yasuni oil in the hole)… and it is this last flank that I find Roy disappointing… more complexity needs to be embraced…

    • Avatar

      “Roy is of a left persuasion, but should not be so casual about reform”
      Really now? I’m sure a reactionary like yourself knows exactly how any woman should be. Get over yourself.

      • Avatar

        @ Bejuwala – Reactionary for disagreeing on a methodological point? But let me give your play the player not the ball comment a generous interpretation. Are not change processes often dialectical relationships between reform and radicalism? When one introduces change, rather contentment with explanation, the dynamics change. It is not reactionary to ask the ‘What is to be done?’ question.T

  8. Avatar

    Asak.All have to understand one’s innerself. Like Ghandi Ji to have no caste system in society as Creator made all humans alike.It. Is up to person what he or she thinks of Ghandi ji.

  9. Avatar

    I don’t see either any problem with the audio. An excellent work and a very good reporting.

  10. Avatar

    Very interesting. I have thought some of this about Gandhi for some time, especially his stance on caste and related issues. I do also believe, from what I have read, that while was irreplaceable in starting the move toward Indian independence, later he became a distraction, and later yet he became an obstruction.

  11. Avatar

    Audio working in excellent mode

  12. Avatar
    Harbans Lal Badhan

    Mahatma Gandhi was a fundamentalist Sanatni Hindu and he was also a staunch supporter of Varna System and Caste System. Both Caste and Varna are the mother and father of Untouchability.

    “Indian Caste system is more dangerous, cruel, barbarous, violent, hard, inhuman and harmful than any other kind of Racial discrimination or Slavery system. It (Indian Caste system) is an unnatural and unscientific man made system, made by the enemies of society and nation. It (Indian Caste system) is not only a social, economic, political and religious evil, but also a mental disease and mental sickness. It (Indian Caste system) should be banned at any cost by Act of Parliament or by the Law of the State. Otherwise, it (Indian Caste system) will spoil and kill the democratic institutions and secularism of any great civilization or state and society. It (Indian Caste system) will also slaughter the unity, peace and economic and scientific development and progress of any civilized society or state and society. Caste (Indian Caste system) is not only a devil but also a monster, who destroy equality, liberty and fraternity. It (Indian Caste system) divides the society and the nation. It (Indian Caste system) is also an enemy of social justice and social equality and the fundamental rights of an individual. . To believe in Untouchability and Caste is not only a crime against humanity but also a violation of human rights of an individual. It (Indian Caste system) is more dangerous and harmful than chemical weapons. It (Indian Caste system) is a great challenge global society.”

  13. Avatar
    Harbans Lal Badhan

    “The Untouchables ( Dalits ) of India want economic, social, political, religious and educational equality in Society, not in the eyes of God”

  14. Avatar
    Harbans Lal Badhan

    “The Untouchables (Dalits) of India want economic, social, political, religious and educational equality in Society, not in the eyes of God”
    (Harbans Lal Badhan)

  15. Avatar
    HarbansLa lBadhan

    ”The whole world knows that Dr. Ambedkar is the heart and the brain of the untouchables (dalits) of India.”
    (HarbansLal Badhan)

  16. Avatar
    Harbans Lal Badhan

    ‘Gandhi stands for the substitution of Brahmins domination for British rule in India’
    Winston churchill (Albert Hall London 18 March,1931)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *