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Masked Messiahs: The Politics of Comparison

Masked Messiahs: The Politics of Comparison

joby mathew


Joby Mathew

joby mathew[Today marks the 150th birth anniversary of Ayyankali. On 18th June this year, which marks his 73rd death anniversary, Kerala University instituted a chair in his name and invited Arundhati Roy to deliver the keynote address in which she reduced the ‘Ambedkar-Gandhi debate into a Gandhi-Arundhati debate’ and ‘deliberately ignored’ Ayyankali]

The debates on the relevance of Dalit-subaltern leaders obviously create new imageries in the contemporary discourses.Therefore, any acts like building of statues, naming of institutions, and intellectual engagements on them would reflect at various levels. These claims are even more valid where the Dalit experience has been considered and used as a ‘non-historic’ subject to make authentic history. In fact, the social memory of Dalits carries the significance of unwritten history, which has never been a subject matter of history at all.

For Dalits, the available records denote their miserable past and hence any efforts that depict their self-esteem are confronted by the ‘dominant public’. The controversies that emerged on Mayawati’s statues and the Ambedkar Park in Uttar Pradesh are the best examples to illustrate this. These incidents show the ‘common feeling’ of the dominant Indian public against Dalits’ claim over social space. This has been an issue for them since the post-Mandal period. The physical as well as intellectual claims are matters equally relevant to make an imagery of Dalit leaders. In this context, I try to look into the recent controversy that arose as a result of a keynote address given by famous novelist Arundhati Roy in a seminar organized by Ayyankali chair, Kerala university.

The return of Gandhi

These days Ayyankali has become the centre of various debates and struggles though he was neglected by the dominant discourses all this while. Unlike other Renaissance figures, being a technically illiterate person Ayyankali believed in his anti-caste ideology and led the movement to destroy the evil caste codes that existed in Kerala. It is difficult to categorize Ayyankali’s greatness in a single dimension because his radical efforts have been reflected in the life of Dalits in various ways. Thus, the resurgence of Ayyankali put forward new claims over the social space in present Kerala.

The recent discussions merely focused on Arundhati’s criticism of Gandhi, but hardly considered it as her ignorance of Ayyankali. Unfortunately most of the later discussions focused on a statement made by Arundhati that “should Dalits carry human excreta anymore”? It shows her kindness to speak for Dalits at first sight, but if we revisit her words carefully, we would find that there is conscious ignorance towards the imageries of Dalit resistance. In fact, such acts of savarna liberals have not been debated in the public.

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A series of debates occurred in different media on the statements made by Arundhati Roy. ‘Gandhi was a casteist and a supporter of Varna system, our nation celebrates wrong heroes’- these were the major arguments in her speech. She also said that, the university named after Gandhi must be renamed as Ayyankali University. The discussion emerged around the question of “who is the real Mahatma, Gandhi or Ayyankali?”

Soon after the speech there were two kinds of arguments that came out: that Arundhati Roy insulted Gandhi was one such debate, and that she sparked off a revolutionary debate was the other. Interestingly, a few dalit groups have taken up this discussion further by justifying her statements criticizing Gandhi. Most of the media were interested in the Gandhians’ demand to prosecute Arundhati for criticizing the ‘father of the nation’. In fact, the seminar organized by the Ayyankali chair witnessed the ‘return of Gandhi’ and Arundhati Roy became the center of all debate. Unfortunately, once again Ayyankali was disregarded in the public debates.

There are some other questions that also arise from this controversy. It can be argued that Arundhati tries to bring forward Gandhi who had been discarded by the Dalit movement. For Dalits in India, Ambedkar became the core of their political and ideological struggles as soon as his groundbreaking writings got translated into various languages. This was reflected in their knowledge production as well as struggles, which have turned into a political resurgence. As a result, the idea of annihilation of caste became an important phenomenon in the Indian knowledge discourses and naturally Gandhi, the advocate of the Varna system became irrelevant. So then, why is Gandhi being centered in a new socio-political context where the people like Ayyankali should have been the focus?

In fact, it was the Nehru led Congress government which portrayed Gandhi as a central figure of national movement and placed him as father of the nation. This sort of institutionalization of Gandhi spread a message to the world that India means Gandhi. Thus, Ambedkar who has played the key role in the modern nation-building was ignored by the over projection of Gandhi in the post-independent India. Then the works of Dalit Panthers, bahujan samaj, and the other anti-caste movements retrieved Ambedkar into the mainstream Indian political discourse.


 In short these matters were not a concern in Arundhati’s speech in which she simply called Gandhi a casteist and got advantage out of it. In actual fact, a person like Arundhati criticizes Gandhi by using the foundation created by Ambedkarite movements. In addition, she even reduces the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate into a Gandhi-Arundhati debate by taking over Ambedkar’s thoughts.This is a classic example of how savarna critics of caste do not bother about the backgrounds of anti-caste struggles led by Dalit bahujan leaders.They instead try to appropriate the ideas to project themselves.

Intellectual dishonesties and opportunism

In her speech she kept on repeating,” I am not saying anything new”. Here the question that begs to be asked is: why can’t Arundhati or any of the savarna liberals raise their own arguments against caste? Interestingly, many of the dominant caste intellectuals refer to ‘scavenging’ to explain the brutality of caste. Though Roy criticizes Gandhi’s concept of the ‘ideal Bhangi’, she ends up underlining the imagery of scavenging. It has been argued that if any intellectual wants to emphasize the pathetic condition of Dalits through these derogatory images, that itself amounts to symbolic violence.

There are new forms of ‘invisible caste’ that have been operating inside the so-called progressive state. While Arundhati addressed the Kerala public, the uniqueness of caste matters in Kerala did not become a concern for her; instead she wanted to project the alliance of caste and capitalism. The ‘progressive savarnas’ of Kerala always use north Indian circumstances as a metaphor to elucidate caste practice. Hence, this deliberate silence on various dimensions of caste in present-day Kerala exposes the real faces of such masked messiahs.

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Arundhati mentioned only one thing about Ayyankali in her entire keynote address at the seminar organized by the Ayyankali chair. Generally keynote addresses follow certain ethics in their content to evoke the particular person after whom the chair is named. Unfortunately, Ayyankali and his enormous struggle were missed out in her keynote. It can be seen as a deliberate attempt to disregard the contributions of Ayyankali.

Noted Dalit thinker Sunny M. Kapicadu pointed out the same in a news channel discussion where he said, “we can’t just believe that this kind of ignorance is quite natural”. Also it is extremely difficult to tolerate such mistakes. Moreover, he argues: “we can see that scholars and intellectuals are bound to exclude certain facts when they address the caste question” (

This type of ignorance is very crucial because leaders like Ayyankali have been deliberately ignored in the dominant history of Kerala. In fact, establishing a chair in his name is itself a revolutionary act in Kerala where the remembrance of Ayyankali is really needed. Much like Arundhati did in her address, many others, including EMS Namboodiripad, have excluded Ayyankali from Kerala’s history. It is clear that a collective amnesia has been at work to erase certain important figures like Ayyankali from the existing knowledge realm.

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A discussion organised by Kerala Dalit Maha Sabha (KDMS) titled ‘Should dalits carry “shit” forever? – Ambedkar/Gandhi/Ayyankali – Arundhati Roy’s controversy’ on 24th August 2014

Arundhati always tries to compare Ambedkar and Ayyankali with Gandhi in different contexts. The present controversy in Kerala can be seen as the follow-up of her introduction to ‘Annihilation of Caste’. Though the savarna intellectuals criticize Gandhi they clearly want to preserve him as a standard figure for analyzing others’ contribution. In reality, comparisons between the contributions of Dalit-subaltern leaders and Gandhi are unnecessary, because the Dalit movement never used Gandhi as a metaphor to read Ambedkar. Also they have been criticizing him a lot through various political engagements. It is argued that, there is a politics of dominance being inscribed in each comparison, which constantly keeps the savrnas as the center. Arundhati Roy’s unfair comparison also aims to limit the evolving imageries of Dalit icons in India.



Joby Mathew, an ICSSR Doctoral Fellow, is doing Ph.D in Center for Human Rights at University of Hyderabad. He is working on ‘Land and Caste: A study of Land Reforms in Kerala’.

Pictures courtesy:,