Why Should We Object to Amit Shah’s ‘Chatur Baniya’ Comment?

Amit Shah’s remark not only reduces Gandhi’s status by identifying him only by his caste, but is also a stunning reminder of how pervasive caste prejudices are.

Amit Shah’s remark is a reflection of the political jumla we are currently witnessing. Credit: PTI/Wikimedia Commons

Amit Shah’s remark is a reflection of the political jumla we are currently witnessing. Credit: PTI/Wikimedia Commons

There are a variety of reasons why we should not object to Amit Shah describing Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘chatur baniya‘, or wily baniya.

To begin with, on many occasions Gandhi had described himself as a baniya. Second, Gandhi’s life, in his own words, was an open book and he himself was open to criticism. In other words, Gandhi had not put himself above criticism; he taught us an experimental method of evaluating our lives and critiquing ourselves. Third, in being honest and polite towards Shah, we should not object to his remark because of the context in which he made it. By referring to Gandhi as a chatur baniya, Shah has indicated that Gandhi was prophetic enough to predict the future of the Congress and suggest dismantling the party after India became independent. There is absolutely nothing wrong in that remark, and Gandhi himself would have endorsed it.

Shah’s remark should also not be objected to because it is a reflection of the political jumla we are currently witnessing. The situation is bereft of a genuine desire to search for the truth.

When Arundhati Roy, in her introduction titled ‘The Doctor and The Saint‘ to the annotated edition of Annihilation of Caste authored by B.R. Ambedkar, attacked Gandhi on issues of race, caste and gender, I objected to some of her criticisms. I even wrote a response to her critique of Gandhi. Roy’s critique manifested a genuine desire to have a deeper understanding of the life and work of Gandhi. A healthy discussion with her helped me better assess and understand my own position on Gandhi.

Shah’s remark should also not be objected to because it expresses what many academics have already articulated about Gandhi.

In most academic writings, Gandhi is referred to as an orthodox Hindu, as a ‘bania more brahmanised than brahmans’. Here I would like to refer to my recent article (‘Was Gandhi a Champion of Caste System?’) in the Economic and Political Weekly and my forthcoming book, Gandhi Against Caste, where I argue that for strategic reasons Gandhi, in his early writings on India, has defended and validated some aspects of the caste system. However, in his personal practices and the cooperative life that he led in his ashrams, Gandhi revolted against the most regressive caste restrictions from a very young age. He transgressed every restriction that was assigned to his own caste. And his personal practices served as an example to his wife, children and other friends to follow, helping them overcome many caste prejudices.

In my book, I explain the several different strategies Gandhi employed in the course of his long struggle against the caste system. No doubt, it should be made clear that Shah was being unfair to Gandhi by identifying him by his caste identity – particularly when Gandhi, throughout his life, had fought against the caste system. But that should not be the only reason for objecting to his remark. There are in fact more compelling reasons for doing so.

We should object to Shah’s remark because it is nothing but a reflection of the society he lives in. Shah has grown up in a society where one’s caste interests influence one’s socialisation and consequently one’s thinking, awareness and participation in society. That is the reason he has learnt to identify others primarily and solely by their caste. His remark should be objected to because it is symptomatic of the kind of politics we do in India.

Shah is president of a political party that is well aware of the fact that in India, caste plays an important role in influencing voting pattern. Hence he views others through the prism of caste alone. Shah’s remark should also be objected to because it resonates with the ideology of the organisation he belongs to, where he is taught to recognise others by their caste and religion in order to save his gaumata.

Shah’s remark also needs to be refuted  because it reflects the poverty of dominant academic thought as well. “Indian social science,” in Gopal Guru’s words, “represents a pernicious divide between theoretical Brahmins and empirical Shudras.” He adds that “the pernicious dichotomy indicates the lack of egalitarian conditions in social science practice in the country.”

In the final analysis, then, Shah’s remark needs countering not just because it reduces the status of Gandhi by associating and identifying him by his trading caste, but also because it is a stunning reminder of how pervasive and deeply entrenched caste prejudices are in every layer of our society.

Nishikant Kolge is an assistant professor at Tripura University and author of Gandhi Against Caste:
An Evolving Strategy to Abolish Caste System in India, to be published later this year by Oxford University Press.

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    Gandhi might have been born in any caste and also might have practiced Hindu tenets, especially brahminical but he did not promote caste or religion in such a way that he could be called a communal person. The present statement is a clever one to reflect Congress failure as well as appropriating Gandhi by the right wingers. The hindutva forces are concerned with caste of Gandhi simultaneously despising his approach of communal harmony. This is, in a way, appropriating Ambedkar minus his annihilation of caste

  • Anjan Basu

    Aside from every question of principle, what I find completely unacceptable — indeed, revolting — is Amit Shah’s tone as he refers to the ‘Bahut Chatur Baniya’. ( Of course, he was speaking approvingly, even condescendingly.) Who did he think he was talking about? His pal from school, a comrade-in- arms from an RSS shakha, a fellow crusader in the 2002 Gujarat progroms? I thought the smirk on the BJP President’s face, as he showered ‘praise’ ( for, he really was praising Gandhiji in his habitual know-all manner) on one of our greatest men, was quite sickening.

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Instead of getting so upset about Amit Shah’s description of Gandhi, why don’t we start a campaign upholding Amit Shah as a `Bahut Chatur Chutia.’ ? Before being accused of using that term in a sexually pejorative sense (which is common in colloquial parlance), let me remind Amit Shah and his followers that the term `chutia’ finds a place in a respectable dictionary – `Bhargava’s Standard Illustrated Dictionary of the Hindi Language’ (first published in 1946, and reprinted in 1968 in its Hindi-English edition), where the Hindi word `chutia’ is translated into English as `blockhead.’

    • Anjan Basu

      Not a bad idea, I should think, except that it is a bit of an oxymoron. But yes, in a sense, all blockheads tend to be street-smart. Thus, your anointing of the BJP President in the manner you propose should get all-round support. It has mine.

  • Amitabha Basu

    Amit Shah is a fraudster and cheat (Madhavpura Cooperative Bank case, etc), apart from being Modi’s hatchet man who has been involved in fake encounters of ‘terrorists who want to kill Narendra Modi’ (to boost Modi’s stature) and killing of Modi’s political rivals like Haren Pandya. He has got ‘clean chits’ from a pliant judiciary and police because of his closeness to Narendra Modi. That such a creature should be the president of the ruling party is sickening and shameful, to say the least. His utterances should be treated with the contempt that one reserves for the words of a sadak-chaap goonda.

    • Anjan Basu

      ‘That such a creature should be the president of the ruling party is sickening and shameful’, you say. But theirs is a sick party, after all, so sick that they are beyond the pale of shame or any other normal, human emotion.

  • Anjan Basu

    Into Rajasthan school textbooks, for sure! Rajasthan is now the flag-bearer of all Saffron wisdom.