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Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s views on caste: the representation of historical figures in Arundhati Roy’s «The Doctor and the Saint»

Par Fleur-Ann Dany Brouard : Étudiante en Master 2 - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 14/03/2024

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[Fiche] In ((The Doctor and the Saint)), Arundhati Roy compares and contrasts the lives and beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution. Analyzing the two men's trajectories, Roy seeks to explain their conflict on the subject of Untouchability during the Second Round Table Conference (1931). In doing so, she dismantles the myth of Gandhi's sainthood and radical progressivism while defending and justifying Ambedkar's attack on Hinduism. Through its references to Narendra Modi's career, ((The Doctor and the Saint)) also offers insight into India's contemporary politics.


The God of Small Things (1997), Arundhati Roy’s famous debut novel, is heavily inspired by her childhood in Kerala where she, the daughter of a feminist divorcee, found herself unable to fit in the local Syrian Christian community. In a 2016 interview for the New York Times, she recalled feeling more at ease among Dalits, the lower-caste Indians better-known as ‘Untouchables’: “Nobody paid enough attention to me to indoctrinate me”, she said (Deb, 2014). Another factor explaining her interest in Dalits was her status as a child of divorcees, which was frowned upon and caused her, her mother and her brother to be excluded from the community. This rejection mirrored that of the Dalits, who are excluded from the Hindu chaturvarna system, the caste stratification into four groups (Brahmins, Kashtriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras), and forced to take on the most humiliating roles in Indian society. Thus, Arundhati Roy the outcast found comfort among the Dalit out-castes.

Deeply influenced by this experience, Roy used her writing to give a voice to the marginalized classes of India, making Dalits, women, children and other outcasts major characters both in The God of Small Things and in her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). It is thus unsurprising that she should have been asked by a small printing shop to write an introduction to B. R. Ambedkar’s classic 1936 political essay The Annihilation of Caste. To this aim, she revisited writings by both Ambedkar and Gandhi so as to situate their intellectual opposition on the subject of caste and Untouchability. Soon, her text morphed from a short introduction into an essay that could stand on its own, and was eventually published individually in 2017.

Roy admits it herself: she was raised believing in the myth of Mahatma ((According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, mahatma comes from the Sanskrit word mahātman, meaning “great-souled”. It is an honorary title used by Hindus to show love and respect to a public figure, although nowadays it is mainly known as Gandhi's epithet. Roy describes mahatmahood as a status akin to divinity, and argues that it was employed by Gandhi and his supporters as part of their political strategy (91).)) Gandhi, the visionary Saint who brought independence to India through peaceful protests and rituals of purification (a practice known as satyagraha, or ‘truth force’). What she learned in researching the evolution of Gandhi’s beliefs deeply troubled her and led her to focus her introduction on the man behind the myth. Studying Gandhi’s life from his South African experience to the birth of the Republic of India, Roy challenges the saint’s image and describes a somewhat conservative politician more interested in his own legacy than in the fate of the Dalits.

On the other hand, Roy argues that Ambedkar – who is the most important figure here, as Roy’s text is first and foremost an introduction to his essay – is mainly known as the father of the Constitution of India, a fact that obscures the radicalness of his political beliefs, especially as the Constitution was the result of many compromises. Born in an Untouchable family, Ambedkar sought to put an end to the discrimination against Dalits. This quest led him to condemn Hinduism altogether, thus opposing Gandhi’s traditionalism and launching a debate on the issues of representation and legitimacy.

Through her biographical accounts of the two men, Arundhati Roy sets the stage for the confrontation between Ambedkar and Gandhi concerning the status of the Dalits. While they both wanted to improve the living conditions for the Untouchables, they had different approaches to the issue: Gandhi saw the attitude of the upper classes as the main obstacle, when Ambedkar’s structural criticism was aimed at the chaturvarna system and even at Hinduism as a whole. Thus, Gandhi favored symbolical actions (such as opening temples to Dalits) while Ambedkar sought to inscribe means of emancipation for the Dalits in the Constitution, with a separate Dalit electorate guaranteeing their independence from the upper castes.

Roy’s polemical essay was not well received by Gandhians who severely opposed what they read as an attack on Gandhi and argued that Roy was not taking into account the historical context and misunderstanding his intentions (Kolge, 2014, 162). Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, especially criticized the text, writing: “The Doctor and the Saint comes across mainly as a fierce indictment of the Mahatma, with indications here and there that the demolition of Gandhi is its true aim” (Gandhi, 2015, 36). This claim is based on the fact that a large portion of the text is dedicated to challenging the myth of Mahatma Gandhi. One might argue however that Roy’s uncompromising positioning is unsurprising as she became a controversial figure among upper-class conservative Indians for denouncing issues such as nuclear testing, the building of mega-dams, or the division of Kashmir. Thus, rather than a personal attack on Gandhi, the text can be read as a radical break away from conservative Hindu India, in the context of the growing importance of Hindu nationalism due to Narendra Modi’s rise to power. Indeed, her essay exposes both the careful construction of Gandhi’s image, and the reason why nationalist Hinduism was so easily able to take over, as the modernization of India poorly hides the legacy of traditional caste divisions.

1. Tearing down the myth of Mahatma Gandhi

The largest portion of Roy’s essay focuses on Gandhi’s views so as to provide context to his opposition to Ambedkar. From the outset, Roy explains that her project is an attempt to take Gandhi down from his pedestal: “given the exalted, almost divine status that Gandhi occupies in the imagination of the modern world, in particular the Western world, 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” (7). Here, Roy showcases her personal approach to the topic: rather than write in subdued academic tones, she chooses to offer insight into her feelings and opinions, taking the reader with her in a re-discovery of the Saint.

Starting from Gandhi’s experience in South Africa, when he first theorized non-violent protest, Roy shows that Gandhi’s outrage was mainly aimed at the way upper-caste Indians like him were treated, while the discrimination Black South Africans and Dalit Indians suffered from was not an issue to him. Using W. E. B. Du Bois’s metaphor, Gandhi seemed to believe there was a veil separating white Europeans and upper-caste Indians from Black South Africans and Dalits, and felt betrayed when the white Europeans’ behavior suggested the veil was placed between them and all colonial subjects (Du Bois, 1996, I). From the beginning, Roy explains that Gandhi’s struggle was not aimed against the Empire, but on the contrary was an attempt to ally with the Empire: “Gandhi was not trying to overwhelm or destroy a ruling structure; he simply wanted to be friends with it. The intensity of his distaste for the ’raw Kaffir’ was matched by his affection and admiration for the British” (75).

With this demonstration as her starting point, Roy asks how Gandhi was able to become a hero to South Africans, even after he eagerly collaborated with the British. She explains that Gandhi was able to successfully mythologize himself: “In order for Gandhi to be a South African hero, it became necessary to rescue him from his past, and rewrite it. Gandhi himself began that project. Some writers of history completed it. Towards the end of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa, the first few biographies had spread the news, and things were moving fast on the messiah front” (86). Here, Gandhi appears as a talented public relations officer, less interested in social reform than in his own aggrandizement. Roy goes as far as to question Gandhi’s intentions in practicing satyagraha: “Gandhi’s genius was that he yoked his other-worldly search for moksha (‘liberation’) to a very worldly, political cause and performed both, like a fusion dance, for a live audience, in a live-in theatre” (77).

Through this scathing portrait, Roy outlines the evolution of Gandhi’s public image and disqualifies his political ideas by presenting them as a tool for sainthood-building. In addition to Gandhi’s support for the British Empire, Roy discusses his involvement with Indian businessmen, most of whom belonging to the upper castes. Depicting Gandhi as a superficial reformer on the side of the powerful, Roy plants the seed of her criticism regarding his attitude towards Dalits: rather than advocating for real change, Gandhi is, in her view, only interested in an image of change, considering this would satisfy the Dalits without endangering the interests of his sponsors.

Roy’s compelling narration of the historical debate serves a clear political aim, as the essay starts with the account of the horrific abuse suffered by a Dalit woman, Surekha Bhotmange, in 2006. Combining excerpts from Gandhi’s own writings with appeals to emotion, Roy denounces Gandhi’s superficiality and advocates for a radical change in Indian society. This is where B. R. Ambedkar comes in, embodying the alternative approach to the issue of Untouchability.

2. The father of the Constitution and the radical thinker

The second part of the essay is focused on B. R. Ambedkar’s trajectory, from his humble childhood as a Dalit to his degrees at Columbia University and the University of London. Retracing Ambedkar’s life, Arundhati Roy sheds light on the experiences that led him to develop a radical opposition to Hinduism. Anchoring his political ideas in his experience of Untouchability, both as a child and later on when he returned to India, Roy highlights his legitimacy to speak on the issue of caste: having experienced the worst of the caste system as well as caste-less societies (in the United States and the United Kingdom), Ambedkar seems to have a vantage point on the consequences of chaturvarna. At the same time, Roy’s biographical account of Ambedkar’s early life allows her to paint a more subtle picture of early 20th-century India; indeed, Ambedkar was able to study abroad thanks to a scholarship granted by the Maharajah of Baroda State. This detail places him in a network of reformers, some of them openly anti-caste, thus suggesting that he was not a marginal figure but a prominent thinker inheriting from a long tradition of advocates for Dalit rights.

Roy’s emphasis on Ambedkar’s personal history also provides context for his views on Hinduism: it is his experience with caste discrimination that explains his opposition to Hinduism. To him, Hinduism justifies prejudice against Untouchables, but that prejudice goes far beyond Hinduism as Dalits are also discriminated against by non-Hindus. He wrote in his Autobiographical Notes: “a person who is Untouchable to a Hindu, is also Untouchable to a Mohammedan” (133). What this means is that Hinduism creates a precedent of discrimination, and the only way to destroy prejudice against Dalits is to destroy that precedent, that is, Hinduism.

Roy seems to align with this view: writing from a supposedly post-caste India (according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, “82% of Indians say they have not personally faced discrimination based on their caste in the year prior to taking the survey”), she highlights the legacy of caste in contemporary India in an analysis of business and media ownership. She concludes: “Democracy hasn’t eradicated caste. It has entrenched and modernised it” (31). Beyond Roy’s attack on caste, her essay and the emphasis she lays on Ambedkar’s dismissal of Hinduism must be understood in the context of Narendra Modi’s rise to power. Rehabilitating Ambedkar’s political ideas means de-centering Hinduism in Indian politics and thus fighting against Hindu nationalism.

The title of the essay, The Doctor and the Saint, hints at this project. If ‘Saint’ denotes a spiritual and political status, ‘Doctor’ (of Philosophy, here) refers to a person of science, but usually one who has no political status. In the debate between both men, Roy describes Ambedkar as a radical whose ideas suffered from limited diffusion due to his lack of popularity: “[Gandhi] was a politician. Ambedkar was not. Or, at any rate, not a very good one” (131). With this essay, Roy makes herself the spokesperson for his ideas, using both her fame and her talent to shed light on Ambedkar’s anti-caste views. With this in mind, the reader can understand her apology on page 22: “Pardon the somewhat unliterary interlude that follows, but generalisations cannot replace facts” – with The Doctor and the Saint, Arundhati Roy attempts to miscere utile dulci, combine the useful (a political critique of caste and Hinduism) with the pleasurable (a well-written essay by a renowned author).

3. The representation of Dalits

The bone of contention between Gandhi and Ambedkar is the representation of Dalits within Indian society and all it entails. First, Ambedkar and Gandhi disagree on the question of the representative: Gandhi sees himself as the representative for Dalits due to his widespread popularity, while Ambedkar grounds his claim at representativeness in his experience as a Dalit. Staging this opposition, Roy insists on the appearances of both men. Similarly to stage costumes, their clothes might seem to dissimulate their identities, but in fact reveal their opposed positions in society: “Gandhi [...] put on a dhoti in order to dress like the poorest of the poor. Ambedkar, on the other hand, born unmoneyed, Untouchable, and denied the right to wear clothes that privileged-caste people wore, would show his defiance by wearing a three-piece suit” (76). While Ambedkar’s Western-style outfit could be understood as a symbol of power and capability, it is Gandhi’s apparent deprivation that grants him power. Dressing simply, he can claim spiritual superiority and enlightenment as a Mahatma. This appearance of sainthood is what allows him to call himself the representative for the forty-five million people supposed to serve his caste: “Mahatmahood provided Gandhi with an amplitude that was not available to ordinary mortals” (62).

Behind the struggle for representation of the Dalits is the question of the appropriate means of political representation for the most deprived Indians. While Gandhi defends the idea of a joint electorate for the Dalits and the four varnas, Ambedkar advocates for separate electorates so as to ensure the independence of Dalits, who, due to their geographical distribution, would otherwise need to woo a non-Dalit electorate in order to win. Since the creation of the Indian National Congress, the Dalit electorate had been instrumental in getting an independentist majority; in 1931, the joint electorate was part of a nationalist project that allowed the upper castes to control both the country and the Dalits. Exposing the debate in this light, Roy creates a historical connection between Hindu nationalism and the continued oppression of Dalits, and adds weight to Ambedkar’s attack on Hinduism.

Considering these elements, Gandhi’s advocacy for a change of attitude towards Dalits appears wholly insufficient; he might offer them a new name (Harijan, meaning ‘children of God’) and ask for temples to be open to them, but these superficial religious reforms do not tackle the root of the problem, which is the stratified organization of Indian society. In fact, Gandhi advocates for a strict adherence to caste roles: “The Brahmin’s duty is to look after the sanitation of the soul, the Bhangi’s (scavenger’s) that of the body of society”, he writes (133). Here, the change that Gandhi promotes only affects political discourse, not reality.

Commented excerpt

At the Round Table Conference, Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed, both claiming that they were the real representatives of the Untouchables. The conference went on for weeks. Gandhi eventually agreed to separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs, but would not countenance Ambedkar’s argument for a separate electorate for Untouchables. He resorted to his usual rhetoric: ‘I would far rather that Hinduism died than that Untouchability lived’. Gandhi refused to acknowledge that Ambedkar had the right to represent Untouchables. Ambedkar would not back down either. Nor was there a call for him to. Untouchable groups from across India, including Mangoo Ram of the Ad Dharm movement, sent telegrams in support of Ambedkar. Eventually Gandhi said, ’Those who speak of the political rights of Untouchables do not know their India, do not know how Indian society is today constructed, and therefore I want to say with all the emphasis that I can command that if I was the only person to resist this thing I would resist it with my life’. Having delivered his threat, Gandhi took the boat back to India. On the way, he dropped in on Mussolini in Rome and was extremely impressed by him and his ‘care of the poor, his opposition to super-urbanisation, his efforts to bring about co-ordination between capital and labour’.

ROY, Arundhati. 2017. The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. Chicago: Haymarket Books, p.125

The issue of legitimacy is key in this passage, as both men anchor their political visions in their legitimacy as representatives of the Dalits. Hence, whoever proves to be the legitimate representative for the Dalits symbolically wins the debate on the electorate. Here, the structure of the passage clearly indicates that Roy sees Gandhi’s attitude as the main source of obstruction, using two negative phrases to insist on his unwillingness to compromise: “would not countenance” and “refused to acknowledge”. On the other hand, Ambedkar’s tenacity is described as justified and legitimate, with the negative structure “would not back down” being immediately countered by another negative structure (“nor was there a call for him to”) and the mention of several Untouchable groups rallying behind him and making him their representative.

Eventually, the conflict between the two men is disrupted by Gandhi’s utterance, which transforms the debate on electorate and legitimacy into a disagreement over the nature of India. Arundhati Roy depicts this change of subject as a flight away from a debate that Ambedkar was about to win, followed by a physical escape from the place of confrontation. This flight, followed by the description of his visit to Italy, creates a scathing portrait of Gandhi: not only is he ridiculed through his departure on an undignified “boat”, but his informal visit and positive impression of Mussolini also make him appear as a gullible fool to today’s reader.

Roy’s lively narration and outrage at Gandhi tend to forefront the opposition between the two men, while the issue of political representation is relegated to the background. Nevertheless, and as H. S. Komalesha aptly points out in his review of Aishwary Kumar’s Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy, “what is interesting in both Gandhi and Ambedkar is their relentless determination to make the Dalit issue central in the nation’s anti-colonial articulations of freedom” (Komalesha, 2016, 32).



DEB, Siddhartha. 2014. "Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade”, The New York Times Magazine, 5 March 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/09/magazine/arundhati-roy-the-not-so-reluctant-renegade.html.

DU BOIS, W.E.B. 1996. The Souls of Black Folk. The Project Gutenberg eBook, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm.

GANDHI, Rajmohan. 2015. “Independence and Social Justice: The Ambedkar–Gandhi Debate", Economic and Political Weekly, volume 50, n°15, pp.35-44, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24481885.

KOLGE, Nishikant. 2014. "The Politician: A Response to Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and The Saint", Gandhi Marg Quarterly, volume 36, pp.145-64.

KOMALESHA, H. S. 2016. "Welding the Two Visions of Democracy: A Tale of Ambedkar and Gandhi" in Aishwary Kumar (ed.), Economic and Political Weekly, volume 51, n°10, p31-33.

MERRIAM-WEBSTER Online Dictionary. "Definition of MAHATMA", https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mahatma.

Pew Research Center. 2021. "4. Attitudes about caste", Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project (blog), 29 June 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/06/29/attitudes-about-caste/.

ROY, Arundhati. 2017. The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and Annihilation of Caste, the Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi. Chicago: Haymarket Books.


Cette fiche a été rédigée dans le cadre d'un Master 2 à l'ENS de Lyon.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Fleur-Ann Dany Brouard, "Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s views on caste: the representation of historical figures in Arundhati Roy’s «The Doctor and the Saint»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2024. Consulté le 23/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/gandhi-s-and-ambedkar-s-views-on-caste-the-representation-of-historical-figures-in-arundhati-roy-s-the-doctor-and-the-saint