Arudhati Roy, the Booker prize winning author, has accused Mahatma Gandhi of discrimination and called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed.
Speaking at Kerala University in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram, Roy, 52, described the generally accepted image of Gandhi as a lie.
“It is time to unveil a few truths about a person whose doctrine of nonviolence was based on the acceptance of a most brutal social hierarchy ever known, the caste system … Do we really need to name our universities after him?” Roy said.
The caste system is thousands of years old but still defines the status of hundreds of millions of people in India. So-called untouchables, or Dalits, continue to suffer discrimination.
The author’s comments provoked immediate outrage from descendants and some scepticism from historians.
“Being outspoken is one thing but being so blase about your ignorance is quite another,” said Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of the world-renowned thinker and activist. “It’s just an attempt to get publicity.”
Prof Mridula Mukherjee, an expert in modern Indian history at Jawaharlal University in Delhi, said Roy’s criticism was misplaced. “Gandhi devoted much of his life to fighting caste prejudice. He was a reformer not a revivalist within the Hindu religion. His effort was in keeping with his philosophy of nonviolence and bringing social transformation without creating hatred,” Mukherjee said.
Roy’s comments are part of a long-running historical argument over Gandhi’s views on caste.
Gandhi’s stance is sometimes contrasted by commentators with that of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a Dalit who grew up in poverty but went on to become a prominent independence leader and India’s first law minister, with responsibility for much of the country’s constitution. Roy recently wrote a new introduction to Ambedkar’s undelivered 1936 speech, The Annihilation of Caste, in which she called Gandhi “the saint of the status quo”.
Mukherjee said Gandhi and Ambedkar “represented different understandings of how to solve problems of caste oppression in India, but each was equally sincere”.
The British government recently announced that a statue of Gandhi would be placed in Parliament Square.
Roy’s comments come amid a series of rows over the study and representation of Indian history.
The appointment of a little-known academic to the head of a national research body has raised concerns that the new Hindu nationalist government in India may try to promote an ideological version of the country’s past.
The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, won a landslide victory in May, ending a decade of rule by the centre-left Congress party. When last in power, between 1998 and 2004, the BJP prompted controversy with its criticism of prominent historians and efforts to excisewhat ministers claimed was a Marxist or western vision from textbooks.
Prof Yellapragada Sudershan Rao took up his post as chair of the Indian Council of Historical Research last month. Rao was formerly head of history and tourism management at a little-known university.
Rao immediately caused controversy with comments criticising alleged Marxist influence on Indian historical studies and western-inspired methods of research. He also told interviewers that he believed the Hindu literary epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were historically accurate accounts of real events.
Salil Tripathi, a columnist in Mint, a local newspaper, wrote: “His appointment is troubling … because he appears to believe that history is shaped by both faith and reason. Faith matters, of course, but faith is part of a culture, it should not dictate history. Faith is about unquestioned belief; history is about facts and reality.”
Romila Thapar, one of India’s most respected historians, said she feared “the ICHR may now turn the clock back”.
“Historical research in India is no longer limited to trying to prove that the narratives of the ancient texts were historically accurate. We are now perhaps more concerned with what they tell us about our past societies and cultures,” Thapar wrote.
BJP officials have denied any intention to change the way history is taught in schools or elsewhere.
The decision in February by Penguin to stop distributing an academic work on the Hindu religion by US expert Wendy Doniger after a legal challenge from conservatives prompted particular concern among liberal writers and thinkers in India. The BJP government last week denied reports that it had destroyed thousands of files, including some related to Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu fanatic in 1948.