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

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.