In his scathing critique of Gandhi in “What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables”, Ambedkar takes on Gandhi´s views on technology, arguing that Gandhism is suited to a society which does not believe in democracy, and hence will lead to a situation where human beings “must keep on toiling ceaselessly for a pittance and remain a brute”. For Ambedkar modern machinery is “indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute, and for providing him with leisure and for making a life of culture possible”. He goes on to conclude that the ¨ultimate goal of a brute’s life is reached once his physical appetites are satisfied, the ultimate goal of man’s existence is not reached unless and until he has fully cultivated his mind¨.
One can argue that such a characterization of Gandhi does not capture his larger philosophical outlook on technology, especially in view of the late 20th century discourse on risk society, a term popularized by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck. One may say that Ambedkar´s explanation of the misuse, abuse, and adverse impacts of technology as arising from ¨wrong social organization¨ is simplistic. One may also question the significance that Ambedkar affords to leisure as something that enables humans ¨to observe, meditate, cogitate, study and discover the beauties of the Universe and enrich his life and control the animal elements in his life¨. One only has to go into the enormous amount of leisure time it must have taken to come up with the intricate, detailed, convoluted, sophisticated, and vast sets of rituals, norms, practices, and customs that constitute the scaffolding of the caste system, to appreciate the Protestant ethic of an idle brain being truly a devil’s workshop.
However, Ambedkar´s critical insight about how particular ideologies and political systems keep human beings in perpetual brutishness through a life of ceaseless toil “for a pittance”, continues to be uniquely useful to understand one of the critical ways in which power and dominance are exercised and maintained by dominant groups over the rest of society.
This kind of exercise of power and dominance keeps its subjects under control by reducing them to the status of scavengers and rodents. As citizens we are made to constantly scout for food and other basic necessities, spend our time scouring for essentials to keep us alive, look for opportunities to squirrel away that bit of an extra item, look for, avoid, and escape traps set for us, sometimes getting caught by the pest controllers, inhaling pesticides, sometimes surviving, often dying, and at other times getting away with injuries and insults while having to leave behind the item we have managed to scrounge, as we run to save our lives.
In the aftermath of demonetization, citizen-subjects used every bit of available time, sometimes taking time away from work and care-giving to toil at the task of withdrawing one´s own money – as we all became foragers, scavengers, borrowers for several months. Toiling by standing for long hours, making multiple trips to procure essentials with the little amounts of cash we had, fighting over change, fighting to get ahead in the queues – as we became brutes intent only on ensuring that we subsist and survive, with no time for either leisure or culture, or activities for exercising the mind.
With the Covid 19 lockdown, we are back to scavenging and scrounging as rodents – braving police lathis to get that little amount of dal and rice, looking for a safe time to venture out to get groceries, identify safe spots, migrating to safer places, fighting with each other to get that last left-over on the shelf, squirreling away that bit of extra food (in case we are unable to venture out later) …. We became pests that cause the plague – to be hit with lathis when we venture out, or die of starvation, sprayed with disinfectants so that we do not infect the powerful, forced to remain hungry in our burrows, all part of the effort to keep the world around us clean and sanitized of our presence. The world needs to be fumigated, disinfected, quarantined, and so we the rodents and termites have to be kept below the surface of the earth to toil ceaselessly, live the life of brutes, with some of us brought into labs above ground so that experiments can be carried out on us for clinical trials.
If despite your ceaseless toil for a pittance, you still somehow manage to develop a proto-consciousness – find ways of escaping this world or venture out to seek basic essentials to survive – the rulers will make sure you remember your less than human status – by raining blows, taking away your dignity, insulting and humiliating you, refusing to acknowledge that you exist, and spraying you with fumigants and pesticides. An army of pest controllers ceaselessly toil to beat down and keep the rodents and scavengers in their place, differing in their brutishness only in terms of the slightly more power they hold and the weapons they are allowed to wield. A few among these aspire to a life of culture, but are quickly reduced to stories, lest the toilers begin to fancy their chances of a good life. The pest exterminators and predators receive praise as the saviours of the world from the coming apocalypse.
In between if there are populations which evolve, mutate, and seem to be on the verge of becoming autonomous communities that can survive and thrive by rejecting their animal-hood, you can bet that the powerful will come down hard – lock you down, deprive you of essentials, prevent your squeaks from being heard, destroy cultures and petri dishes that develop antibodies, or take you away into their laboratories of control. If you still get above ground and onto the streets and make your squeaks heard, take note that the rulers will keep throwing such a barrage of invectives and weapons, measures, prohibitions, and schemes, that your life will be reduced to a ceaseless toil of protests, intent only on overturning this scheme, that measure, our entire lives taken over by seeking to avoid traps set for us, seeing the world in frames designed for us, content and even taking pride in opposing and resisting, with no time for cogitation, meditation, studying, discovering, no time for a life of culture.
If you protest you are dehumanized. If you seek to escape you are treated as brutes. Our only choice is to live as scavengers and rodents, to ceaselessly toil. At least this way, we remain alive, albeit only at a subsistence level, with no possibility of evolving into cultured beings. If you are lucky you get to live in a relief camp, with food scraps thrown at you as the world moves on forgetting that you exist; your toil ends to be replaced by ceaseless waiting. You can however become a different kind of brute – that of the pest-control agent or exterminator. The only other way is for us to go further down in the evolutionary scale – de-evolve, revert to the more primitive semi-life form of a virus, and then, perhaps then, we have a tinge of hope.
D.Parthasarathy teaches and researches at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. The views expressed are personal and professional, and do not reflect the views of the Institute.