Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India 
by Sujatha Gidla.
Daunt, 341 pp., £14.99, May 2018, 978 1 911547 20 4
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This​ is a family biography that encompasses a history rarely told: despite its longevity, caste, and caste oppression, is not a popular theme in India. Sujatha Gidla writes of poisoned lives, of disillusionment, betrayed hopes, unrequited loves, attempted escapes through alcohol and sex. What distinguishes her book is its rich mix of sociology, anthropology, history, literature and politics.

Gidla’s great-grandparents were born in the late 19th century in the Khammam district of what is now Andhra Pradesh. They belonged to a clan of pre-agricultural, forest-based tribal nomads. Hunting and gathering supplied basic necessities; they worshipped their own forest gods. When the occupying British cut down forests and replaced them with teak plantations, the clan was forced out. They found a large lake with no villages nearby and settled on its shores. The soil was rich. They took to agriculture and produced much more rice than they needed. They found a market for the surplus, which meant that they caught the attention of local landlords and their agents: they were forced to pay taxes and dragged into the caste-based Hindu world. As landless agricultural labourers they were the lowest of the low, classed as untouchables, ‘outcastes’. They carried on as normal, until one day they provided shelter, as was their custom, to a fugitive from the Yanadi clan who was on the run from the police. (He was a burglar: the Yanadis rejected all private property rights and it was their ‘sacred duty’ to violate them.) When a few policemen arrived the villagers drove them away. But then Gidla’s clan encountered modernity in the shape of a hundred baton-carrying colonial policemen, who destroyed their goods and food, harassed the women and took every male into custody. ‘The villagers did not know what to do,’ Gidla writes.

They did not know about jails, bail, courts or lawyers. By luck, some Canadian missionaries active in a nearby town learned what had happened. They sent a white lawyer to defend the villagers and win their release. In gratitude, the villagers started to give up their old goddesses and accept baptism. They began sending their children to attend the schools set up by missionaries.

Untouchables had long been forbidden from learning to read or write. But when the missionaries arrived, they opened schools that, to the horror of the Hindus, welcomed even the untouchables … caste Hindus often refused to send their children, unwilling to let them sit side by side with untouchable students.

The stigma extended to animals. Gidla’s uncle K.G. Satyamurthy, later one of the founders of the Maoist People’s War Group, was startled at the age of ten to discover that ‘untouchable buffaloes were not allowed to graze in the same meadows as the caste buffaloes.’

Gidla’s maternal grandparents, Prasanna Rao and Maryamma, lived after their marriage in a village called Adavi Kolanu, where they taught in a mission school. But they moved to the city after Maryamma was insulted by some local upper-caste men who had seen her wearing a new sari the missionaries had bought her as a Christmas present. The two groups – untouchables and caste Hindus – had gathered in the village square when a brahmin intervened:

‘Kill me first before you kill each other,’ he challenged them. To kill a brahmin is the sin of sins. First the untouchables backed down, then the caste Hindus.

The nonviolent brahmin then counselled the untouchables to never again try anything that might provoke the caste Hindus. This was the way his idol, Gandhi, always resolved caste disputes.

When they arrived in Visakhapatnam (Vizag in British shorthand), their two sons, Satyamurthy (‘the wise one’), henceforth known to all as Satyam, was five and his brother, William Carey, was two. Their sister, Mary Manjulabai, was born in Vizag. The parents got jobs as teachers in Christian schools and earned enough to rent a modest apartment. The landlord was a caste Hindu and so they lied, claiming they had converted to Christianity from middle-caste Hinduism. The landlord was suspicious, but their status as teachers clinched the deal.

A few years later an orphaned niece of Prasanna Rao’s caught tuberculosis. He brought her home with him from the village and she was admitted to hospital and recovered. But Maryamma caught the infection and died on 5 October 1941. This is what it meant for the children: ‘One afternoon, not long after, their father bathed them and dressed them up in their best clothes. He had them sit on the steps of the school where their mother used to teach. “Just wait here, like good boys and good girl,” he told them. Hours passed, night fell. Their father did not come back.’

Prasanna Rao could not imagine life without Maryamma or deal on his own with the debts he owed for her medical care. He fled. The flight was, in its way, a tribute to the role she had played in the household and a subconscious self-indictment. Years later he returned, but it was too late. They didn’t need him any more. The boys had been taken in by an aunt and the girl had gone to live with her grandmother. Of the boys, Satyam was cleverer, a dreamer whose discovery of modern Telugu verse inspired him to write. Carey was tough, a natural street fighter. The intersection of their lives with British withdrawal from India and the eruption immediately after Independence of a huge peasant uprising in the state of Telangana, which borders Andhra Pradesh, helped shape all their lives. In Telangana, which had its own feudal ruler, ‘every untouchable family in every village had to give up their first male child as soon as he learned to talk and walk. They would bring him to the dora [landlord] to work in his household as a slave until death.’ Other castes suffered too. This wasn’t, as Gidla writes, ‘a traditional system’, but one instituted in the late 19th century to allow the large-scale cultivation of tobacco and cotton. The peasants, aided by the Communist Party, rose up and fought this servitude. By now the brahmins were in power in Delhi. No untouchable or low-caste Hindu harboured many illusions. Some even feared that after the British withdrawal things would get worse for them. They did. The Indian army invaded the city of Hyderabad in Telangana, deposing its rulers, but then turned its guns on the peasants, detaining, torturing and raping thousands and evicting them from the land. The more progressive elements in the Congress Party may have believed that with industrialisation and modernisation the problem of caste would solve itself. It never did. Capitalism itself may be caste, colour and gender-blind but the dominant classes utilise these divisions to preserve their own rule. As Gidla recounts, the 1928 general strike in Bombay was defeated thanks in part to caste divisions within the workers’ movement. This isn’t the only example.

Christianity could not provide social upward mobility, but it ensured that Satyam and his siblings received a proper education, despite taunts from caste Hindus. Because they were educated, Gidla’s relatives could get jobs in Christian schools and hospitals. But a brown-skinned Christian was still treated very differently from a white-skinned one, and brahmin converts to the imperial religion refused to marry untouchable Christians. Conversion didn’t erase the stigma of untouchability. As a teenager, Satyam was hostile to Nehru and Gandhi – he saw them as products of British rule and tied to it in too many ways – but sympathetic to the militant, secular nationalism of Subhas Chandra Bose. From here, Satyam moved the short distance to the Communist Party, inspired by the accounts that student CP members gave him of the Telangana peasants’ struggle. Until a few years before his death in 2012, Satyam was engaged in the peasant resistance in Andhra Pradesh. After the Communist Party split in 1967 he became involved in the Naxalite, Maoist wing of the party, backing an armed revolt. After its failure, and the killing of many Naxalite leaders, he cofounded the People’s War Group, which Gidla describes as the ‘most notorious, famous and successful Naxalite party, a thorn in the side of the Indian rulers’. He was eventually expelled from it after complaining about the party’s treatment of untouchables. ‘Talk of caste feeling within the party had always been taboo,’ Gidla writes, but young untouchables were beginning to see it as a political issue. They told Satyam that ‘when they joined, they were not given a gun. Instead, they were handed a broom and told to sweep the floors.’ For a long time, too long, he’d preferred to believe that caste prejudice was false consciousness and would disappear in time. It never had. Even in the People’s War Group, members of the barber caste shaved their comrades, washer-caste members washed the clothes and the untouchables ‘were made to sweep and mop the floors and clean the lavatories’. This was life in a revolutionary group committed to an armed struggle to liberate the poor.

Satyam can’t have been too surprised by this. He had suffered many insults from upper-caste members of the party, some of whom would leave money in the lavatory in order to see if he pocketed it. Feeling that the question of caste had now reached a new stage (there had been massacres of untouchables and angry responses), he confronted his comrades on the Central Committee. Their response was ‘swift and ruthless. He was expelled on the spot for “conspiring to divide the party”.’ The news of his expulsion became public when Gidla’s mother wrote a letter to a newspaper explaining what lay behind it. That was when most people found out that the founder of the People’s War Group, whom they knew as a revolutionary and a poet, publishing under the pseudonym Siva Sagar, was also an untouchable.

Gidla,​ born in appalling conditions in an untouchable ghetto in the city of Kazipet in Telangana, now works as a conductor on the New York subway (she lost her job as a software programmer in a bank after the 2008 financial crash). Her experiences in the United States pushed her to write this book, an attempt to explain to her new friends and colleagues the difference between caste and race. Race is visible. Caste is a hierarchy established more than 2500 years ago. ‘What comes by birth and can’t be cast off by dying – that is caste,’ Arundhati Roy describes it in an essay introducing B.R. Ambedkar’s 1930s classic, The Annihilation of Caste:

What we call the caste system today is known in Hinduism’s founding texts as varnashrama dharma or chaturvarna, the system of four varnas. The approximately four thousand endogamous castes and sub-castes (jatis) in Hindu society, each with its own specified hereditary occupation, are divided into four varnas – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (servants). Outside of these varnas are the avarna castes, the Ati-Shudras, subhumans, arranged in hierarchies of their own – the Untouchables, the Unseeables, the Unapproachables – whose presence, whose touch, whose very shadow is considered to be polluting by privileged-caste Hindus … Each region of India has lovingly perfected its own unique version of caste-based cruelty, based on an unwritten code that is much worse than the Jim Crow laws.

Unsurprisingly, Gidla’s tone in her portrait of everyday social and political life in India over the late 19th and 20th centuries is defiant, sometimes angry: Gandhi is portrayed as a hypocrite, Nehru as a conscienceless Kashmiri brahmin who was happy to send troops to crush the Telangana peasant uprising and remained unaffected by the resulting thousands of deaths. Unlike his many apologists, Gandhi never concealed his views on the caste system. He was opposed to treating untouchables badly, but defended the system itself: ‘I am one of those who do not consider caste to be a harmful institution,’ he wrote in the journal Young India in 1920. ‘In its origin, caste was a wholesome custom and promoted national wellbeing. In my opinion, the idea that inter-dining or intermarrying is necessary for national growth is a superstition borrowed from the West.’

Contrary to the radical slogans of the late 1940s, India’s wasn’t a ‘fake independence’. Self-rule was achieved at a high price and it meant something, but it incorporated many colonial practices. The new masters benefited, but for the untouchables, tribals and others conditions remained the same or got worse. According to recent estimates by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, every 16 minutes a crime is committed by caste Hindus against an untouchable – or Dalit, as they prefer to be called. The figures are horrific: every month 52 Dalits are killed and six kidnapped; every week almost thirty Dalit women are raped by caste Hindus. This will be a serious underestimate. Most victims of caste violence don’t report the crime for fear of reprisals, notably death by burning.

In 2012 the Indian and Western media extensively covered the gang rape and murder of a single woman in Delhi, largely because students and feminist groups had protested on the streets and made it an issue; that same year 1574 Dalit women were raped and 651 Dalits murdered. Add to this the regular mob punishment of Dalit and low-caste women: they are forcibly stripped then paraded through villages to humiliate them further. Politically a democracy, constitutionally secular, India has, since 1947, been a caste Hindu dictatorship. During the run-up to independence, B.R. Ambedkar pinpointed the futility of ‘rights’: ‘If the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, no law, no parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the word … What is the use of fundamental rights to the Negro in America, to the Jews in Germany and to the Untouchables in India?’ He also advised the leader of the Muslim League, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, not to place any trust in the brahmin-dominated Congress and to fight hard for a Muslim state. Ambedkar considered demanding a separate status for untouchables, slicing them away from Hinduism. This would have given them separate electoral representation as was the case with Muslims and other minorities. Gandhi talked him out of this by flattery, and by arguing that since Ambedkar would be drafting the new Indian constitution he could write in all the safeguards he wanted. This did happen, but had little impact. ‘Implement the Constitution’ remains a Dalit demand to this day.

In the post-independence period, the political choice was essentially limited to Congress or the main opposition force, the Communist Party of India. Gidla recounts what life was like for those below the lowest rung of the caste ladder and for local communists during Congress rule. The Dalits were left to rot, while the communists were targeted by Congress goon squads. Nehru visited Andhra Pradesh before the first post-independence election at the end of 1951, intending to drag middle and low-caste Hindus back to the Congress fold. He was seriously worried, wrongly as it turned out, that the CPI might win the province. They had, after all, led the Telangana peasant revolt that had inspired and radicalised Satyam and many others and that Nehru had crushed.

The evolution of caste in India remains a subject of heated debate. In its earliest forms it must have been in existence at least 2500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) began a reform movement to purge the brahminical religion of its impurities. The hierarchical caste system was a principal target. After he failed his followers were driven out of India to Sri Lanka and further east. The untouchables, pushed out of the officially designated caste system, remained silent. There isn’t a single recorded account of a Dalit rebellion. The repression was systemic: worse and more effective than that imposed by slavery and making it unnecessary. Three medieval mystic poets spoke for them. In the 15th century, Ravidas, a tanner (hence low-caste), imagined Be-gham-pura, the city without sorrow, a place without caste segregation, ‘where there is no affliction or suffering, neither anxiety, nor fear, taxes nor capital, no menace, no terror, no humiliation. One who shares with me that city is my friend.’ Kabir, a weaver, writing in the same period, was more aggressive. His poems (badly translated into English by Rabindranath Tagore) are still sung in many parts of India. One of them, not a Tagore translation, reads:

Cow dung’s impure
the bathing-square is impure
even its curves are impure
Kabir says: Only they are pure
Who’ve completely cleansed their minds.

A century and a half later, the Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah lamented, ‘Come Bulleha, let us go/to the land where all are blind/where none can recognise our caste/or a sage in me find,’ and later speaks on behalf of an untouchable cleaner:

I’m a sweeperess,
I’m untouchable,
They avoid me,
I don’t care.
My pay after a long day’s work?
A stone pillow and what you leave behind.
My life?
Cold and sickness and scorn
Empty stomach,
Clothes always torn.
The straws of my broom are all I own.
I’m a sweeperess.

These poems are still sung at rural concerts, especially those marking the anniversaries of the poets’ deaths. It’s difficult to believe (and I don’t) that the oral culture of the Dalits did not produce laments and vicious anti-brahmin songs and satires or jokes. Some of these must survive. But in Satyam’s era poets and short-story writers didn’t write about caste: it was considered divisive. Muslim progressives ignored the theme, as did many leftist intellectuals of Hindu and Sikh origin. The publication of two books within months of each other during the 1930s was the first sign of some movement on this issue. The first was a novel by Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable, a social-realist depiction of the Dalit condition. The second was Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, the transcript of a speech he was not allowed to read at a conference of anti-caste Hindu reformers in Lahore in 1936: the text was too much for the organisers and the event was cancelled. In his collection Vindication of Caste, Gandhi wrote that while the ban had been a misjudgment, Ambedkar’s ‘utopian’ hostility to Hinduism was unacceptable.

I met​ Anand for the only time in 1965 at the World Peace Conference in Helsinki. He was born in Peshawar, but Lahore – where I grew up – had been his favourite city, though he had not returned there since Partition. After discussing family friends we had in common, he asked whether I’d read any of his novels. I had, all of them. My favourite was Untouchable. He smiled. ‘That one will last as long as untouchability. Eternal.’ He had read Ambedkar’s essays and journalism and met the man himself. The extract below is a fictionalised version of a real event. Ambedkar’s father worked for the British Indian Army, but even in army schools, untouchable children were not permitted to study in the same classroom as other Indian children. They sat outside in the heat of the dusty courtyard. Anand offers a memorable account:

The outcastes were not allowed to mount the platform surrounding the well, because if they were ever to draw water from it, the Hindus of the three upper castes would consider the water polluted. Nor were they allowed access to the nearby brook as their use of it would contaminate the stream. They had no well of their own because it cost at least a thousand rupees … Perforce they had to collect at the foot of the caste Hindus’ well and depend on the bounty of some of their superiors to pour water into their pitchers … So the outcastes had to wait for chance to bring some caste Hindu to the well, for luck to decide that he was kind, for Fate to ordain that he had time to get their pitchers filled with water. They crowded round the well, congested the space below its high brick platform, morning, noon and night, joining their hands with servile humility to every passer-by, cursing their fate and bemoaning their lot if they were refused the help they wanted.

Anand asked me many questions about northern Pakistan. We shared a love of what was then a tiny hill station called Nathiagali that served as the summer capital of the North-West Frontier Province, usually administered from Peshawar. I told him of my first encounter with the Christian untouchables there. There was no sewage system, and excrement was collected from wooden thunder-boxes by these Christians three times a day. We went to Nathiagali for two months every summer and I got to know some of them reasonably well. In June 1962 all the other local council workers were given a pay rise, but not the shit-collectors. They were despondent. I asked their leader, Abdul, the reason. He said they had not received a pay rise the year before either, unlike everyone else. I suggested a strike. ‘Listen,’ I said to him. ‘Most of the people whose toilets you clean are senior civil servants, government ministers and the like. Let them smell their own shit for two days. You’ll win.’ The strike was a huge success. Within 48 hours they got a backdated pay rise. Anand laughed. ‘If only it was so easy all the time.’

The far-right BJP government led by Narendra Modi deliberately misinterprets and distorts India’s ancient history to justify its cultural offensive against Islam and other minorities, aiming to create a monolithic Hindu narrative and an official Hinduism. School textbooks, university education, what is and what should not be stocked in public libraries are policed. The Hindu epics, long read and appreciated as literature, are now being characterised as history. When asked to explain the elephant god, Modi responded: ‘We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.’ The new monolithism confronts a giant obstacle in the shape of the caste system. Last month, at a huge gathering of the party faithful in Meerut, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS – effectively the BJP’s parent organisation, a movement influenced by European fascism that was founded in 1925 to preach the superiority of Hinduism – stressed the importance of Hindu unity:

Say with pride that you are a Hindu. As Hindus, we have to unite because the responsibility of this country is upon us … The roadblock to being united is that we are fighting on the lines of caste. We have to say that all Hindus are brothers irrespective of their community. Those who believe in Bharat Mata, her culture, and are progeny of India’s forefathers are Hindus. There are Hindus in this country who do not know they are Hindus.

Here, Bhagwat is referring to those whose forebears converted to Islam many centuries ago.

The message that all Hindus are brothers hasn’t percolated very far. Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad University, was the author of a well-regarded book called Caste Is Not a Rumour. He was active in the university’s Ambedkar Students’ Association, formed by untouchable students in 1993. In July 2015 the university authorities abruptly suspended him. It emerged that an investigation had taken place and he had been found guilty of ‘raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association’. Punished for defending Dalit students against caste Hindus he felt completely isolated and committed suicide on 17 January 2016.

The BJP/RSS veneration of the epics is another huge obstacle to unity: they easily outpace the Old Testament and the Quran as far as gender oppression is concerned. The ‘self-immolation’ of caste Hindu widows was ordained by brahmin patriarchy. A number of poems praise the ‘sacrifice’ of a woman ‘voluntarily’ climbing onto her husband’s funeral pyre. The British made it illegal in 1829, but widow remarriage has continued to be regarded as unacceptable by caste Hindus. Attempts by some BJP supporters to revive the burning of widows haven’t succeeded, yet dowry deaths, where parents, desperate for dosh, marry their son for a large dowry and at the first opportunity set the young wife on fire, with her mother-in-law playing an active role in the process, do still occur, even if they aren’t much written about these days.

How the BJP will create a single Hinduism without abolishing the caste system is unclear, but the BJP should not be underestimated. In 1989 it formed an alliance with socialists and the CPI(M) which, its key organiser claimed, ‘increased our legitimacy in the eyes of backward communities’. Simultaneously, the party claimed to represent Hindus ‘hurt’ by the 1981 Meenakshipuran conversion, when several hundred Dalits publicly converted to Islam. The aim of winning the support of Dalits and low-caste Hindus wasn’t supported by senior brahmins in the BJP leadership, who were publicly critical of the ‘social engineering’ envisaged by their opponents. The uppercaste Hindus won the day, but the BJP suffered badly in subsequent elections, failing to win Uttar Pradesh (the most important state in the country) in 2007, 2009 and 2012. Enter stage further right, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the current BJP party president. The upper-caste rebels were sidelined and Shah renewed the appeal to lower castes and Dalits by setting up social programmes and opening schools, health clinics and so on. The model here was the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its commitment to provide to the poor what they were denied by the state. A decade earlier, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he had effectively justified the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in 2002. Many thought this would finish him off as a politician, but his support of the rioters was used by Amit Shah to make him seem a plausible national leader. In 2017 the BJP won a huge majority in Uttar Pradesh and a spectacular victory in the Indian parliament. For the first time in thirty years, a single party had triumphed. No need for coalitions. The Congress Party, incapable of dumping a dynasty long past its sell-by date, is in a severe crisis. The CPI(M) has not been the same since it lost its stranglehold in West Bengal, though with at least half a million members nationally it remains in a strong position to challenge the BJP. But this will require it to dump the bankrupt strategy of forming indiscriminate electoral alliances in the hope of defeating the main enemy. Few believe this will happen.

Satyam would be horrified by the number of Dalits voting for the BJP. He decided to work in the countryside not simply out of Maoist convictions. He used to explain that two-thirds of the population is rural and a quarter landless, a majority of them not Dalits. A firm believer in cross-caste alliances of the poor, he argued for the creation of new movements and parties to embody this reality. His niece’s book shows how much such change is needed.

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Vol. 40 No. 18 · 27 September 2018

Tariq Ali writes that there are no Dalit rebellions on record (LRB, 30 August). In fact one took place in 1927. A few years earlier legislation had been passed allowing Untouchables to use public watering places, but they had been prevented by caste Hindus from using the Chowdar Tank, an artificial lake in Mahad. B.R. Ambedkar led a procession of thousands of Dalits to the tank to take drinking water from it, which led to violent repercussions from local Hindus, who saw the tank as having been polluted.

Protests against the oppressions of caste Hinduism did not stop there. On 14 October 1956 Ambedkar publicly renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism in a ceremony in Nagpur. Immediately after his own conversion, he turned to the assembled crowd of 400,000 Dalits and led them in another conversion ceremony. Ambedkar died that December, but the conversions continued, and by February 1957 an estimated four million Dalits had become Buddhists. This may not have changed their political status, but it was a significant step towards greater self-determination. The Buddhist Dalit community continues to thrive, mainly in the state of Maharashtra, to this day.

Mark Liebenrood
London NW5

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