Ramachandra Guha is a well-known historian and writer who has authored a number of books and regularly contributes to newspapers like The Telegraph, Hindustan Times and The Indian Express. He also writes for such journals and magazines as Economic and Political Weekly, Outlook, Seminar and The Caravan.
He is a person of eminence for his scholarship on Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi. He probably qualifies to be called a public intellectual, too, since he writes on a range of topics (history, environment, cricket, and so on), regularly appears at literature festivals, cultural events, and, more importantly, since he is a Brahmin.
His reputation as a public intellectual is perhaps what compelled him to write an op-ed in The Indian Express on June 13 in response to Amit Shah’s crass remark that Gandhi was a “chatur baniya”, because as is apparent from the article, Guha has little understanding of the topic he was writing about — caste.
The article is headlined, “Does Gandhi have a caste?” and the strapline goes on to answer: “He had the ability to be of all castes and no caste at all.” Guha tries to build his case thus: “We have recently been reminded that Gandhi was born in a bania household. But, back in 1922, few, if any, banias were farmers or weavers; few, if any, are even today … in the Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi did not trade, but he did spin daily and experiment with crops and livestock rearing.”
The assumption here is that every caste or caste group (that is, varna) is forced to restrict itself to a particular occupation. But the reality does not correspond to this assumption, largely so for the upper castes. As opposed to Bahujans, upper castes have always been spoilt for choice and options. They look at white-collar jobs as their natural right. The upper castes have the option to stick to their generational occupations as well as branch out if and when they want to. Their caste capital (the sum total of educational, economic, cultural and ritual capital) makes it easily possible for them to do so.
Contrast this to the Dalit experience. Forget ritual sanctions; do the material conditions of the lower castes’ lives even allow them to have the option to break out of their “caste-assigned occupations”? Why do the sons and daughters of sanitation workers struggle to get jobs, even though they want to and there are no caste sanctions against branching out in post-Independent India?
Was the situation different in 1922? Perhaps it was, in a way, more difficult for even the upper castes to move out of their traditional occupations than it is today. But was it so different that we would have to consider someone a revolutionary for indulging in farming and weaving? No. Indeed as Nidhin Shobhana in an article for Round Table India, says, “Being a Brahmin in the caste system meant the ability to do anything with very few or no restrictions. On the other hand, lower-castes continued with certain occupations because it was institutionally forced upon them in a caste mode of production. Thus, Gandhi weaving for fun or doing organic farming to feed his ashram were not actions beyond his caste.”
Guha also lauds Gandhi for going overseas, defying the caste sanctions. Even though Gandhi may have faced opposition from his caste brethren for this act, was it heroic? Did Gandhi cross the sea for his own instrumental reasons or for a larger cause? How does something that Gandhi did for his own personal benefit — go to London to obtain a law degree — count as a proof of his anti-caste credentials?
Guha, then, goes on to tell us how Gandhi made friends with people from across religions and was egalitarian in his treatment of people from across castes. This supposed egalitarianism of Gandhi, in Guha’s eyes, makes him “casteless” (the one who has transcended caste). This is a very thoughtless understanding of the caste system. Though discrimination is how caste expresses itself overtly, it is just one part of it. The more insidious aspect is the material resources that upper castes have cornered for themselves over centuries by actively oppressing Bahujans, and the caste capital they have accumulated with each passing generation by denying education to Bahujans. Whether Gandhi discriminated or not is immaterial to the fact that he benefitted from his upper caste position – in that sense, he certainly did not transcend caste.
Later in the article, Guha tells us that Gandhi had adopted a girl from an “untouchable” family. This again is supposed to buttress the fact that Gandhi had risen above his caste. But such proofs of “castelessness” are useless as far as the anti-caste movement is concerned. They do nothing more than valorise upper caste men as “noble”, and try to keep them relevant. Gandhi faced no problem in adopting a girl from a Dalit family. How easy would it be for a Dalit family to adopt a girl from a Baniya family? Does that option even exist in practicality? (Here, I am drawing on Kuffir Nalgundwar’s criticism of journalist Rahul Pandita in another context. Read: Why Bant Singh can’t go to Rahul Pandita.)
Guha is, I suppose, a proud Tamil Brahmin. In an article in Swarajya magazine, a tribute to C Rajagopalachari, he writes: “Gandhi died before I was born, and Nehru died when I was only six. Rajaji was the one man left over from an age when the profession of politics still drew in men of character and integrity. Being a sentimental sort of fellow, I suppose I would have wept anyway, but the tears flowed more freely because the leader who had just died came from my own community of Tamil Brahmins.”
Guha’s tears flowed more freely because C Rajagopalachari was a Tamil Brahmin. But I am sure, just like Gandhi, Guha dines with people from across religions and across castes. And just like Gandhi, he treats everybody equally. And just like Gandhi, I am sure, he has the ability to be of all castes and no caste at all. After all, Brahmins–Kshatriya–Baniyas are our true anti-caste radicals.