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 , 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 . 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 , 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. 
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 . 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 . 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.
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.
1 Roy A. (2014). Lancet Lecture: The half-life of caste: The ill-health of a nation. November 20,
2 Kapur N. How Gandhi’s words speak volumes to the NHS today. Health Service Journal, April
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.
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9 Schacter, D et al. (2011). Memory distortion: an adaptive perspective. Trends in Cognitive
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10 Fernandez, J. (2014). What are the benefits of memory distortion? Consciousness and
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11 Lillenfeld S, Byron R. (2013). Your brain on trial. Scientific American, 23: 45-53.