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2014 UCL Lancet Lecture by Arundhati Roy – The Half-Life of Caste: The ill-health of a nation

Arundhati Roy giving the 2014 UCL Lecture. image © UCL

Arundhati Roy giving the 2014 UCL Lancet Lecture.  Image © UCL

The 2014 UCL Lancet Lecture was given by Arundhati Roy – The Half-Life of Caste: The ill-health of a nation.

The UCL video of the lecture can be viewed here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nawWZYhUWBA&list=PL794B0AE51832BE14

Arundhati Roy, acclaimed novelist and political activist, won the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction with her novel The God of Small Things. She has published several collections of political essays on issues ranging from large dams and nuclear weapons to the corporatisation and privatisation of India’s New Economy.

 

‘Goddess of big things?’ A rejoinder to Arundhati Roy’s 2014 lectures in London that offered a critique of Mahatma Gandhi by Narinder Kapur

Arundhati Roy, the celebrated author and Booker Prize winner, recently gave two talks in London on the subject of caste, one at University College London (UCL), and the other a few days later at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the South Bank Centre, London. I presume the two talks were very similar, but the one at UCL appears available for viewing, and I did not attend either talk in person.

As Professor Michael Arthur, the UCL Provost, outlined in his Introduction to the Lancet Lecture given by Arundhati Roy at UCL on November 20, 2104 [1], the Lancet Lecture series has been delivered by an impressive feast of minds, including two Nobel Laureates – the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the economist, Amartya Sen. It was an imaginative and bold decision to invite Arundhati Roy to deliver this year’s lecture, which was both stimulating and controversial, in line with the reputation which Ms Roy has gleaned over the years.

Her lecture was entitled, The half-life of caste: The ill-health of a nation. However, while caste was a key theme of the lecture, much of it was also taken up by a rather savage critique of Mahatma Gandhi. Her criticisms were so strident, and so divergent from established views of Gandhi, that it is only fair that some form of rejoinder is offered. A rejoinder of Ms Roy’s general thesis, which actually takes the form of a 153-page Introduction to a new 2014 edition of the 1936 book, Annihilation of Caste written by Dr B R Ambedkar, has already been written by the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Raj Mohan Gandhi (http://www.rajmohangandhi.com/ambedkargandhi-debate-reply-arundhati-roy).

Ms Roy’s critique of Gandhi comes at the same time that the British government has decided to erect a statue of Gandhi in Parliament Square, and I suspect Ms Roy will not be donating any royalties from her books towards the Gandhi statue appeal (www.gandhistatue.org)! Some of the questioners who raised queries after the lecture prefaced their question by ‘I am a fan of yours’. Well, I am a fan of both Ms Roy and Gandhi, and so Ms Roy has managed to tear me apart, something that hitherto up to now only my children have succeeded in doing! I am a long-standing member of the Gandhi Foundation and have written a number of articles about Gandhi [2-4]. My interest in Gandhi started when I was researching Gandhi and Indian history for my book, The Irish Raj [5]. Sitting in the Oxford South Asia library, and having Gandhi’s volumes of writings in front of me, was a daunting experience while I was researching for the book.

Arundhati Roy has rightly achieved international acclaim for her Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things. But she seems to have acquired a messianic appeal, akin to that of Mother Teresa, and – dare I say it – Mahatma Gandhi. In the eyes of many people, especially in the west, she can do no evil and say no evil. She appears to have taken on the charisma of ‘Goddess of Big Things’, pronouncing on issues that include nuclear weapons, terrorism and dams. She is seen as a manly figure in a world where we need a strong personality to stand up to male chauvinist pigs. However, as her Wikipedia entry shows [6], she is also a controversial figure, and she has been criticised by many in India for some of her statements and actions. She has also been criticised by the very people, Dalits, whose rights she claims to be defending and upholding. [7]

I do not intend to focus on Ms Roy’s pronouncements on caste nor on what she states were statements and views of Gandhi or Ambedkar in respect of caste. Caste systems lack logic and are relics of a bygone age, though a similar argument might be made of royalty! I wish instead to critique at a more general level the content of her lecture.

Ms Roy made it quite clear in her lecture that she considered Gandhi quite undeserving of the respect and accolades that he has been given, going so far as to criticise the Oscar-winning film on Gandhi by Sir Richard Attenborough. We are then to assume that those who got Gandhi all wrong include not only Sir Richard Attenborough but also Einstein, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and current leading academic figures such as Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard and Professor Lord Bikhu Parekh of London. Even those who disagree with Gandhi on certain issues have recognized his major, outstanding contributions to political thinking, such as a previous Lancet Lecturer, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. In its recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala and to Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave a rare insight into its reasoning behind the award. It made little bones of the fact that it regretted not giving the award to Gandhi, and that the award to Malala and Kailash Satyarthi was in a sense an atonement for that grave error [8]. So, Ms Roy also stands on the other side of the fence to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

In the eyes of many leading figures, both past and present, Gandhi’s major achievements were two fold – firstly, to show that nonviolence was a viable means of bringing about political change and to show this at a time when violent means (two World Wars) was the norm; secondly, to point to superordinate principles of living and thinking which could usefully help to understand and guide human behaviour.

‘God is Truth’, ‘God is Love’, were the two key principles espoused by Gandhi. Where is Truth and where is Love (Compassion) in the Lancet Lecture that Ms Roy gave? Ms Roy’s compassion for those in lower castes is no doubt genuine and unarguable. The caste system is as degrading as it is illogical. What about Truth? How can one distinguish between Truth and Myth? Ms Roy gave the impression that this is an easy task, but I argue that it is not. There are three fundamental problems and flaws in the broad argument behind Ms Roy’s critique of Gandhi, flaws that lead me to doubt whether her lecture represented the Truth. Firstly, a major problem is that Mahatma Gandhi is dead, while Arundhati Roy is alive.

Ms Roy passionately believes in justice, as witnessed by her campaigns for justice in India. But there is a fundamental injustice in making strident criticisms of a man after he is dead, for the simple reason that he cannot respond to allegations – ‘Dead Men Cannot Talk’. This applies equally to other past figures such as JF Kennedy and Winston Churchill who are often the subject of allegations and innuendos. In the eyes of some people, to be assassinated once while alive is bad enough, without also having a character assassination long after you are dead. Apart from justice, I also argue that such criticisms are fundamentally disrespectful. If I was to criticise Michael Arthur or Richard Horton after they died, their families would quite rightly regard it as disrespectful for me to do so. Secondly, who is Mahatma Gandhi and who is Arundhati Roy? Is Arundhati Roy the combination of sperm and ovum one second after conception? Is Arundhati Roy the little girl in Corpus Christi school in India? Is Arundhati Roy the person on the day she won the Booker Prize? Our biology and our brains change from one day to the next. Arundhati Roy was not even the same person at the start of her UCL lecture as she was at the end of her lecture. Ms Roy tried to make the point that it was the same Gandhi throughout, that he was rigidly and 100% consistent in his views throughout his life. Ideally, one would wish to have gathered Gandhi’s views the day before he was assassinated to be sure that he had not changed his views. The point I am making is that Gandhi was a dynamic figure living in dynamic times, and it is quite likely that snapshots of his utterances, even if completely accurate, were not representative of the ‘true’ Gandhi, and the ‘true Gandhi’ may in fact be evanescent. Thirdly, Ms Roy relies entirely on words and verbal descriptions of events from the past. The Psychology of human memory tells us many things, amongst which the two key messages are that memory can be selective and can distort past reality, and that much of this selectivity and distortion can occur unconsciously, below the level of our awareness [9]. Indeed, we are often fooled by our confidence in how accurate our memories are, and in some cases the more confident we are of a recollection from the past, the more likely it is that we may be fooling ourselves. Memory distortions are so prevalent that they are considered by some to have adaptive value [10-11]. In legal settings, credibility is often given when ‘contemporaneous notes’ were taken of a conversation or event. For verbal utterances, a tape recorder would also be a key source of validity for the record that was kept. We do not know if the written statements alleged by Ms Roy to emanate from Gandhi were not subject to error (perhaps he did not mean ‘sex’, but ‘six’ or ‘sects’, and his secretary got it wrong or the proof reader did not pick it up!). We now have the advantage of modern technology that is more likely to ensure that posterity has a more veridical record of words and events. Such technology was largely absent in the period during which Gandhi is alleged to have made comments that Ms Roy so heavily relies upon.

Towards the end of her lecture, Ms Roy appealed to the audience to ‘apply their minds to false myths’. I respectfully appeal to her to apply compassion, objectivity and science to some of the false myths that may be lurking in her own mind.

Narinder Kapur is a consultant neuropsychologist at Imperial College NHS Trust, London and a Professor of Neuropsychology.
https://twitter.com/narinder_kapur
http://londonmemoryclinic.com/

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Gandhi Foundation.

References
1 Roy A. (2014). Lancet Lecture: The half-life of caste: The ill-health of a nation. November 20,
2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nawWZYhUWBA&list=PL794B0AE51832BE14
2 Kapur N. How Gandhi’s words speak volumes to the NHS today. Health Service Journal, April
18, 2013.
3 Kapur, N. (2013). The NHS could learn much from Gandhi’s teaching. BMJ, 346: f2411.
4 Kapur N. Bringing Gandhi to Science and Medicine. In: Mashelkar, R. (Ed). Timeless Inspirator:
Reliving Gandhi. New Delhi: Gandhi National Memorial Society, 2010; pp. 228-237.
5 Kapur N (1997). The Irish Raj: historical and contemporary links between India and Ireland.
Antrim: Greystone Press.
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arundhati_Roy
7 http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7283:an-openletter-to-ms-arundhati-roy&catid=119&Itemid=132
8 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Kailash-Satyarthi-was-in-running-for-Nobel-peaceprize-for-over-half-a-decade-Nobel-Institute/articleshow/44774768.cms
9 Schacter, D et al. (2011). Memory distortion: an adaptive perspective. Trends in Cognitive
Sciences, 15: 467-74.
10 Fernandez, J. (2014). What are the benefits of memory distortion? Consciousness and
Cognition, in press.
11 Lillenfeld S, Byron R. (2013). Your brain on trial. Scientific American, 23: 45-53.

The London Pacifism and Nonviolence Discussion Group

 

london pacifismThe London Pacifism and Nonviolence Discussion Group are meeting soon to discuss:

Tuesday 10 February 2015, Pacifism and Property Rights

Your thoughts on these topics are welcome, in advance and (especially) on the day.

The group meets on the second Tuesday each month, at 7pm (until around 9pm)
at Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross, London N1.
Nearest tube: Kings Cross

Please try to arrive promptly by 7pm.

Everyone with an interest in pacifism and nonviolence is welcome.

The April meeting will be: Tuesday 14th April on Pacifism and the General Election

For more information about the meetings: http://londonpacifismnonviolence.wordpress.com

Join Conscience in Parliament

John McDonnell MP will be hosting a Conscience event in Parliament
as part of his ‘People’s Parliament’ series

peoples parliament
Wednesday 11th February 2015 at 18:30–21:30
House of Commons
London, United Kingdom

Tickets Available:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/peoples-parliament-with-john-mcdonnell-mp-tickets-14576505721

Working with John McDonnell MP Conscience will be launching the consultation of a Peace Tax Bill. This would enable Conscientious Objectors to Military Taxation to have their taxes redirected away from military spending towards conflict prevention projects as a more ethical and sustainable alternative to military intervention.

Conscience would like to invite you to an evening in Parliament where politicians and peace building experts will discuss alternatives to military security and how mediation and demilitarisation programmes are being used to avert conflict.

Please allow 20 minutes to clear security before your arrival. The committee room is TBC – details coming soon.

View from the Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering 2014

Room with a view…on the Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering 2014
by Linnet Drury, 11 years old.

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The Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering (GFSG) is a great way to combine sharing, peaceful thinking, practicality and ideas on fitting Gandhi’s practices into the modern world. This year we all had great fun exploring the Summer Gathering’s topic “Gandhi and Education” and it was hosted at the beautiful Abbey and its grounds in Sutton Courtney, Oxfordshire.

The GFSG this year had people of all ages (8 months to 80 years!) and people from many nationalities, even from India! We had great fun sharing games and delicious food from around the world. It was also excellent for our discussions as we had contributions from such varied backgrounds, as well as ideas and points of view about education from many different sources. In our discussions we shared our personal experience with education, and it was interesting that those who had experienced the Comprehensive system seemed to have enjoyed it more and met a broader range of people. We looked at how schools have improved, how they can still improve and about how we can include Gandhi’s practices in education even more. We picked up on different styles of education, ups and downs, about home education and learning throughout life.

But the morning discussions weren’t the only way of learning at the Summer Gathering. Through living in a community we find that we learn loads from sharing and having fun. Also individual ideas and thoughts can combine to create a harmonious teamwork that showed through in everything we did at the Abbey. In discussions, we combined ideas to think up answers to questions; in shramadana we worked together to do the jobs for the community; in free time we could have fun together; and in the creative activities sessions we combined our skills to fulfil Gandhi’s ideas on practical work.

GF SG 2014 group shot

We had a lot of fun at the GFSG. The beautiful Abbey (some parts dating back to the Norman period) set in between lawns, woods, orchards and a walled garden, was great for its peaceful and meditative aura and practical facilities. People could camp in the orchard, stay in the modern guest house or in the Abbey building itself. In our free time we set out badminton on the lawn, went on river walks, went swimming in the lido in the nearby town, read in the Abbey library, played games, and just talked on the grass. In our creative activities we did painting, weaving, calligraphy, bracelet making, photography and yoga. We had beautiful weather all week so we could do most activities outside. All the food was vegetarian, and delicious, ranging from salads, pasta and homemade bread to genuine Indian curries. The kitchen always had a great aroma.

We all enjoyed ourselves and with next year’s exciting topic “Gandhi in the Digital Age”, I can’t wait until next summer.

The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2015

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The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration will be on
Saturday 31st January 2015 at 2.30pm
at
the London Interfaith Centre
125 Salusbury Road, West Kilburn, London NW6 6RG

‘Caring for the Future of People and Planet’
Different Faiths, Ecology and Spirituality

Speaker: Dr Ursula King

Followed by a discussion with representatives of various faith traditions. Refreshments afterwards.

Ursula KIng

Ursula KIng

Ursula King is Professor Emerita of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. She has lectured in many countries and has published on such subjects as religion & gender, interfaith dialogue, modern Hinduism, Christian mystics, and the French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Nearest stations are Queens Park (Bakerloo Line) and Brondesbury Park (London Overground) and the 206 bus from Wembley Park to Kilburn Park runs right past the venue. Please register with william@gandhifoundation.org to aid refreshment planning.

Gandhi: An Inspiration for All

Gandhi: An Inspiration for All
by Krystalia Keramida

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It is undeniable that Gandhi is one of the world’s greatest political and spiritual leaders. In India he is honoured as the father of the nation. He inspired his compatriots to fight for peace, freedom and democracy. He upheld the importance of human rights and non-discrimination. This is why he was named ‘Mahatma’, which means great soul.

Gandhi promoted Human Rights, which are part of every human being, independent of origin, religion, age, gender or social status. They are not just a history lesson or words without meaning, but include the essence of every single person all over the world. They allow us to live with safety, dignity, unity, love and of course peace. This latter is another word with deep meaning, because peace is not just a situation, it is the only way to joy, respect for diversity, and democracy.

But his influence has not ended. Gandhi was the light-guide for thousands of people, in order to fight against war, especially using his method of protest – ‘satyagraha’. Acceptance of suffering for the sake of truth and resistance to violence with nonviolence became a powerful movement all over the world and also a way of life. The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round, in every department of life. Justice, respect for diversity, unity and solidarity, love of nature, are the keys for a better world, according to Gandhi.

The question is how someone can achieve the complete development of body, soul and mind. Gandhi answered that it was through education. Only the right and congruous combination of these three elements could lead to an integrated person. The key is the growth of the five senses. Through the conscious exercise of the senses of touch, hearing, vision, smell and taste, a person acquires better contact with others, observes, meditates and feels, looks and discovers the essence of things. Education is important for everyone, regardless of age or lifestyle.

His theory of complete development of body, soul and mind was inspired by Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, three of the most significant Greek philosophers, who changed the history of the world and became founding figures in Western philosophy. Gandhi was always looking for historical figures who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of truth, so these Greek philosophers were a natural choice for him. Gandhi translated Plato’s Apology into Gujarati and titled the story of Socrates as The Story of a Soldier of Truth. In his translation summary, he described Socrates as a “heroic, extraordinary person with a fine moral character.” “We must learn to live and die like Socrates”, these were Gandhi’s words.

Socrates lived in Athens in the fourth century BCE. He altered Western thought, because he devoted his life to the search for Truth, existing in everyone’s soul. This Truth could become the ultimate knowledge and change the way we live. Gandhi called him a great Satyagrahi and emphasized, like Socrates, that we should not spend our time in finding faults with others, because only a pure person can fight evil with courage.

Plato, the student of Socrates and founder of the Academy in Athens, often characterized as the first university in Europe, developed a theory of knowledge that goes deep into the nature of knowledge itself. This is the true knowledge and it is permanent, unlike the knowledge based on appearance which is the untruth. This theory was adopted by Gandhi.

Last but not least, Aristotle, born in Macedonia and a member of Plato’s Academy, considered psychology to be the study of the soul and claimed that everything has a multitude of causes. These thoughts were the basis for Gandhi to say that hard work is necessary to succeed at anything in life and to be a socially active citizen, because nothing could be achieved on one’s own.

These were the inspiring reasons for UNESCO in Serres, a city in the north of Greece, which is a Club of people of different ages but with the same goal to promote culture, education, human rights, environment and innovation, to organize an educational program about Gandhi’s legacy. We want to help students of primary and elementary schools come close to Gandhi’s philosophy and understand the importance and the values of him, especially nowadays in a society that suffers from the economic, political and also moral crisis. As a team, we cooperate with Greek universities and significant institutions about Gandhi worldwide, because we believe that no one could achieve everything alone, but together we can move forward. Besides, as Gandhi claimed “the whole world is like the human body with its various members. Pain in one member is always felt in the whole body.”

Moreover, we think that in the century of knowledge, being racist only proves how low in society you really are. This is why Gandhi and his words inspire us to help children, who are the basis of every society, understand that humane education is the only way to overcome racism, discrimination, war and to broaden your horizons.

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In order to achieve these goals and also make it fun for the students, we prepare different actions, such as music, theatre, painting, and writing. Every time, based on each one of the ten most important moral values of Gandhi, we plan one action. For example, according to the value “Learn to forgive”, we ask the students to play a role game. If someone hurts you, could you forgive him ? If not, why ? And if you hurt him, would you ask him to forgive you then ? Why ? Moreover, these actions aim to connect Gandhi’s values to the moral intelligence of the children. Creativity, self-control, respect, consciousness, justice are the parts of moral intelligence which helps children understand and express their feelings and have self-esteem.

Finally, this educational program is the tool to make clear that philosophy is one, commonly shared value that could change the way you think and live every day. So, despite the current difficult situation in Greece, we must look forward, try to be reborn from the ashes and get inspired by Gandhi and our ancestors in order to build the foundations of a world where peace, democracy and human rights will be the reality for all and not just a dream for a few.

Krystalia Keramida is a lawyer, a member of UNESCO in Serres, Greece, specializing in the field of Human Rights and project manager of the educational program for Gandhi.

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