James Michael and Akshay Pathak
“His statues—dressed in garish blue, holding a copy of the Constitution—have been put up in city after city” ~ Arun Shourie, Worshipping False Gods
“All the same, Ambedkar’s followers have kept his legacy alive in creative ways. One of those ways is to turn him into a million mass-produced statues” ~ Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint
Caste privilege does not begin at ground zero; neither is it a zero-sum game. As a social capital it defines a subject’s identity at the very moment of her birth— the very act of naming the subject, with various privileged surnames such as Rai, Iyengar, Menon, Cherian, Chacko, Syed, Pathak, Sharma etc., is just a socially visible confirmation of this capital accrued at birth. However, this in itself does not exhaust the definition of caste privilege. One must also add the communitarian angle to this understanding of privilege—the subject is not an autonomous individual, but part of a community that is hierarchically up in the order vis-à-vis other lower castes. Those higher up in the social order not only control most of the resources that should be commonly available to all, but also thrive on exploiting the resources shored up by communities in the lower orders, including that of adivasis. In addition, one should remember that these communities are segregated from each other through mechanisms such as endogamy, which reduces the possibilities of inter-caste love, and maintains the illusion of ‘blood purity’. This practice is prevalent even in interactions between individuals belonging to sexual minorities. On internet dating sites, one comes across profiles which state: ‘looking for gay Brahmins only’.
‘Holy Cows’, illustration by Bhavin Patel
A strong example of such segregation and subsequent usurpation of the capital of lower castes is that of Bharata Natyam. As is known, in its earlier avatar the dance form was known as ‘Sadir’ or ‘Dasiattam’, performed by Devadasis, who were lower caste women ‘dedicated’ to a temple. Subsequently, in the early 20th century, members of the Brahmin varna such as Rukmini Devi Arundale and E. Krishna Iyer became instrumental in ‘reviving’ and ‘purifying’ the art, which is now closely identified with Brahmins. Similarly, the anti-Brahmin Bhakti movement contributed to the many traditions, including that of keertana,that congealed to form the present-day genre of Carnatic Music. However, Carnatic Music is now emphatically identified with the Brahmins, as if they are the sole heirs and proprietors of the art form. One should also remember that most of the musical instruments that constitute the ensemble of a Carnatic music performance are made by the lower castes. Cowhide is a major component of many temple-based musical instruments such as mridangam, chenda, idayka, pakhawaj, dholak etc., and communities who work with the remains of a dead cow or eat beef are historically considered to be the lowest in the caste hierarchy. Similar is the fate of hundreds of thousands of artisans, craftsmen, and weavers who design and produce the Kancheepuram or Pochampalli or Banarasi sarees which adorn savarna bodies, or stone masons who construct the temples populated by the savarna masses.The Bahujans are reduced to types that constitute a menagerie called Bharat constructed after the imagination of the ‘twice-born’.
The point to be noted is not only that the caste system is a well-oiled mechanism that maintains a hierarchical order among communities, but that it makes sure that the cultural capital of the Bahujans – and not just their surplus labour – is perpetually exploited. Bahujans, in the sense Kanshi Ram used the term, denote the SCs, STs, OBCs, and religious minorities who together constitute about 85% of the total population of India. The caste system’s entrenched power in the 21st century, based on the exploitation of the Bahujans, was very well illustrated in the current debates around the republication of Annihilation of Caste (AoC) by the anti-caste, radical publisher Navayana, run by self-proclaimed ‘Ambedkar Zealot’ Siriyavan Anand Iyengar. The Navayana AoC was embellished with a lengthy critical introduction written by none other than Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Rai.
Debates abound around the periphery of the text, and one of the points frequently raised was that of the commercialization and appropriation of the social capital of the marginalized. Although the debate is gathering steam every day, somebody has yet to provide empirical evidence regarding how this appropriation is put into practice in the realm of knowledge production. We seek to offer some evidence in this regard in this essay.
It has been reiterated time and again that anybody can publish Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and write an introduction to it. While nobody has called for a ban on the book (contrary to the false allegations made by some sections of the savarna scholars), it is important to highlight the gross asymmetry that characterises power relations in India. Although everybody gets to interpret AoC, only a certain somebody gets the privilege to be heard, as the mass-media choose to listen only if the enunciator happens to be a savarna who can dip into her privilege-pickle-bottle network at will. This automatic transition from everybody, who has the ‘right’ to publish and speak, to a certain somebody, who has the ‘power’ to command a premium audience, and rub shoulders with the powers that be is not incidental.
Elites’ Ambedkar: A mute Ambedkar stares at us from the background during the launch of Navayana’s AoC in New Delhi (picture courtesy: Navayana)
It is thanks to the yawning chasm that separates the symbolic equality enshrined in the Constitution from the enclaves of actually-existing inequality in this country. Therefore, whenever any such gross generalisations are made, we need to be sensitive about the fact that the scales have always been, and continue to be tilted in favour of the savarnas. For instance, when Dalit Camera raised a set of questions to Ms Rai regarding her caste privilege and ability to write an introduction to AoC, on the one hand, she tried to place the set of questions in the ‘everybody is privileged in some way or the other’ framework, and on the other, described herself as a writer who has had a history of engaging with a variety of issues in the past, including fighting Brahminism. While there is a grain of truth in all this, what is being forgotten during the invocation of such an ‘authenticity’ is the fact that the hierarchy of privilege is not an even-steven game. The higher up the hierarchy one is, the greater is the number and range of resources that are at one’s command.
With strict segregations in place, the vast amount of resources controlled by the savarnas is not up for grabs easily, as the fight to properly implement reservation in Central Universities illustrate. This results in the replication of the hierarchical system further down the order, with the bottom-most bearing the brunt of the most brutal system of inequality known to humankind. The hierarchy is uneven and severely skewed, with the bottom 80% left with less than 20% of the resources to scramble for. In short, if the Bahujans, or the privileged Dalits, are being criticized for replicating the caste order of the savarnas, the savarnas who are unwilling to share the disproportionate amount of resources under their command are to be blamed. For this reason, it is simply myopic to make a general sweeping statement regarding the ubiquity of the caste-system irrespective of the order of caste hierarchy. It is not as if Ms Rai is not aware of this elementary truth. For instance, she asserts in her introduction to AoC: “The top of the caste pyramid is considered pure and has plenty of entitlements. The bottom is considered polluted and has no entitlements but plenty of duties.”
However, we want to emphasise that, most often than not, only the savarnas have the liberty to assert their free will and transform into citizens who studiedly decry caste practices in the public, even as they transmogrify into casteists to protect their private turf at the slightest provocation, suspending all logic in the process: it does not seem to matter to them that their private reasoning collides with their conscientious free will. We studiously assert that all Indians are brothers and sisters in our schools and colleges, but do not find it odd to register our names in marriage websites seeking suitable grooms or bridegrooms who belong to our respective castes.
Ms Rai has taken pains to highlight that she is engaged in a fight against Brahminism, the reason she took the ‘trouble’ to read Ambedkar’s writings. This claim rests on an even shakier foundation. On the contrary, Ms Rai, with her ill-thought, albeit good-hearted, interventions helps rigidify the hierarchy, and is being instrumental in perpetuating Brahminism. This is certainly not the first time that this has happened. Knowledge systems, as illustrated above, have been manipulated and usurped by the privileged throughout the known history of Bharat.
The ‘walled-garden approach’ to knowledge
The process of appropriation and usurpation follows certain codified rituals. Kuffir, one of Round Table India’s editors, articulated this phenomenon on his Facebook wall recently: “What seems to be on offer (not for the average dalitbahujan, only for such rarefied species of humans as the savarnas of India and the west): the 100 pages (or less) of the actual text of the ‘annihilation of caste’ speech will carry a burden of a nearly 200 page ‘introduction’ plus over 100 pages of notes and stuff leading you to all the char or chaurasi dham of savarna academia featuring majorly the kind of writers and ‘intellectuals’ (as is evident from the excerpt we were offered as an appetizer) Dr Ambedkar had fought against all his life.”
This scholarship, Brahminical and imperial in its essence, adopts a ‘walled-garden approach’— an approach where the knowledge-production pattern mimics the WTO patent regime. A freely available text is encased in a copyrighted introduction and layered with copyrighted footnotes. And this is reflected further in how they parse the lines, give glosses to it, and lead us towards further reading scholarship and reading materials. This in itself can be an interesting exercise—for those who can afford it—except that if one dissects the process closely, it reveals a grand and sinister design. A network of conscious gatekeepers/mediators, mostly savarnas and whites, who do not just make knowledge more difficult to access, in terms of costs (redirecting us to websites of international journals and book stores via footnotes where you have to pay in dollars to access knowledge), but also layer it with copious amounts of their own self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. Take, for instance, the repeated references by Ms Rai to her publisher’s articles in footnotes and bibliography. Or how the annotations already redirect the reader to the introduction by Ms Rai (Pg. 273, 103 of Navayana’s AoC) ordaining her officially as the mediator, the conduit to AoC. They do not just appropriate a text, they Brahminize it.
The process involves containing a text that has been floating freely and widely and was enabling the ongoing struggles of the Bahujans against the tyranny of caste by incarcerating and monetizing it by adding ‘value’ by way of ‘research’. And this ‘value-addition’ also tries surreptitiously to canonize the incarcerated version of the text, even as the original falls by the way side and is forgotten. This becomes clear, in the introduction itself, where, by the time the reader reaches page 4, the footnote (no.5) boldly declares the forceful pulling out of AoC from the seminal government-published Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (BAWS) and placing the Navayana edition as the source to be referred to ‘henceforth’. The usurpation is completed with the new stamp of authority.
Caged Ambedkar: Ambedkar of the masses found in Pondicherry. The bust has been caged, possibly to prevent potential desecration (picture courtesy: Akshay Pathak)
This incarceration of the text is accompanied by erecting walls which further the caste discriminations that the text was meant to demolish in the first place. So when Ms Rai talks about Khairlanji and her education of the gruesome incident by Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit writer, his name is restricted to the footnotes. But when elaborating on the usage of the term Dalit, the scholar Rupa Viswanath, a Tamil Brahmin, is provided a red-carpet welcome—in fact she is the first scholar (apart from Babasaheb) to be cited by way of her name in the introduction. The text becomes a mirror of Brahminism and its endogamous caste loyalty, as it is revealed later in the bibliography that Viswanath’s book on caste, The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India, is forthcoming from Navayana this year.
Symbolisms, ruptures, and self-aggrandizements aside, let us look at some hard statistics. In the bibliography appended to the haunted-by-Gandhi introduction to AoC, one notices a list of about 120-odd books, articles, and research papers. More than half of these are by savarna authors (most, in fact, by Brahmins), a quarter by white authors, and less than 15 are by Dalits, and hardly any by OBCs or adivasis. The same is true for the annotated AoC. In the 160 bibliographic references, the proportion of Dalit writers dips even further to less than 10 per cent of the total. The footnotes and annotations follow the same pattern. The book, if one analyzes it in its entirety, is not just a conspiracy, but is a travesty and insult to Bahujans.
Much like the sweatshops that manufacture products for consumer markets across the globe, the hard toil of Bahujans feeds into the data systems whose trusteeship remains firmly in the hands of savarna scholars. The references have high price-tags attached to them, while freely-available resources from Dalit scholars and students, who put in their hard-work and precious research on the web (referred recently to as the insult machine), is deemed unworthy by the savarnas. This is alarming since the book in question is brought out by an ‘independent’ publisher who claims to be an ‘anti-caste junkie’.
The ‘new vehicle’ as the holy cow
The analysis of this particular book led us to closely look at the publishing house that brought out this book—Navayana. Even a cursory glance at its publications reveals to us the extent of Brahminical domination, even in a ‘specialized’ publishing house such as this, in the knowledge-production domain of the country. Out of the list of 61 authors published by Navayana and put up on its website, we could positively identify about 37 authors as belonging to privileged communities—this includes 16 whites, and 21 upper castes. Of the remaining 24 authors, we could identify 11 authors as belonging to Dalit communities, along with 2 blacks and 2 OBCs. However, the most astounding revelation was the discovery that out of the 21 upper castes 16 were Brahmins (the details from Navayana website accessed on 23 March 2014).
This kind of skewed representation of the upper castes, and more specifically Brahmins, in the knowledge-production circle, is all pervasive across India. For example, in the context of progressive West Bengal, comrade Prabhat Patnaik had recently talked about the “the domination of the Brahmin—’Boddi’—Kayastha castes in the intellectual, social, political and cultural life of the state.” He goes on to add, “this domination is so complete, and has been so for such a long time, that one almost takes it for granted, not even noticing it.” What comes across to us forcefully, while making these observations, is the realization that the din of progressive rhetoric adopted by the savarnas has always been tactically deployed to maintain their existing advantage and assert their dominance.
In this context, let us critically look at Mr Iyengar’s claim that he is an ‘Ambedkar Zealot’. The very domination of Brahmins at his publication “named after Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s socially and morally concerned interpretation of Buddhism” proves that this claim holds little water. The description on Navayana’s website adds, “Navayana is India’s first and only publishing house to focus on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective”. While we are unwilling to accept this claim, thanks to our knowledge of anti-caste English publishing houses like Critical Quest, which has made available Annihilation of Caste for a mere Rs 45, and a plethora of regional anti-caste publishing houses, like the Kerala-based Subject Language Press, our acceptance of Navayana as an anti-caste publishing house comes with a caveat—that its anti-caste perspective is stridently Gandhian and hence anti-Ambedkarite in nature. The closest analogy that comes to our mind as we look at the publication’s roster of the who’s who of savarna anti-caste thought is Gandhi’s Harijan Sevak Sangh formed in the wake of the Poona Pact. The programme statement of the Sangh, formed in 1932, claimed:
“The League believes that reasonable persons among the Sanatanists are not much against the removal of Untouchability as such, as they are against inter-caste dinners and marriages. Since it is not the ambition of the League to undertake reforms beyond its own scope, it is desirable to make it clear that while the League will work by persuasion among the caste Hindus to remove every vestige of untouchability, the main line of work will be constructive, such as the uplift of Depressed Classes educationally, economically and socially, which itself will go a great way to remove Untouchability. With such a work, even a staunch Sanatanist can have nothing but sympathy.”
As the statement from the League—the Sangh was called the Anti-Untouchability League in its formative years—reads, it was established to persuade caste Hindus to remove the vestiges of untouchability. Babasaheb Ambedkar was deeply disturbed by the above-described change in the nature of the League, which was established with the good motive of removing the ills of untouchability, without taking into consideration the needs of the untouchables or giving adequate representation to them in the organization. As a result, Babasaheb, who was willing to associate with the League in its earlier phase, chose to resign from it citing the following reason:
“The Harijan Sevak Sangh is intolerant of any movement on the part of the Untouchables which is independent and opposed to the Hindus and the Congress and is out to destroy it. Anticipating that such would be the consequences of the change in the aims and objects, I retired from the Sangh. Since the first batch of the Untouchables left the Sangh no attempt was made by Mr. Gandhi to appoint other Untouchables in their places. Instead, the management of the Sangh has been allowed to pass entirely into the hands of the Hindus of the Congress persuasion. Indeed, it is now the policy of the Sangh to exclude Untouchables from the management and higher direction of the Sangh, as will be seen from the refusal of Mr. Gandhi to agree to the suggestion made by the deputation of Untouchables requesting him to appoint Untouchables to the managing body. Mr. Gandhi has propounded a new doctrine to console the deputations. He says; “the Welfare work for the Untouchables is a penance which the Hindus have to do for the sin of Untouchability. The money that has been collected has been contributed by the Hindus. From both points of view the Hindus alone must run the Sangh. Neither ethics nor right would justify Untouchables in, claiming a seat on the Board of the Singh.” Mr. Gandhi does not realise how greatly he has insulted the Untouchables by his doctrine, the ingenuity of which has not succeeded in concealing its gross and coarse character. […]It is pertinent to ask: why at one time he was anxious to have Untouchables on the Governing Body of the Sangh and why he is determined now to exclude them?”
Does not the claim made by Mr Iyengar and Ms Rai, echoed by several other savarans and whites, who have had the misfortune of being cited by Ms Rai in her introduction and by Mr Iyengar in the footnotes, that the book is of the savarnas, by the savarnas, and for the savarnas, closely parallel that of Gandhi’s, made in the wake of the formation of the Harijan Sevak Sangh? Ms Rai’s reply to the open letter written by Dalit Camera confirms our suspicion that this is indeed the case. How else could we explain her statement –“I was writing for those in India, and as well as outside, who are new to the subject, for whom caste is just some exotic Hindu thing” – other than on terms set by Gandhi while forming the Harijan Seva Sangh?
This confirmation was turned into an absolute certainty, when we tried to get a sense of Navayana’s history as a publishing house. Although the publication was jointly started by Mr Iyengar and Dalit politician Ravikumar in 2003, the latter seems to have become more involved in politics since 2006, when he joined Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit political party based in Tamil Nadu. Navayana has been an Iyengar show ever since. Characteristically, in 2009, as mentioned on its website, Navayana “decided to broad-base its publishing programme, for the struggle against caste cannot happen in isolation from other struggles for justice and equality”, and started publishing white male authors such as Jeremy Seabrook, Jacques Ranciere and Michel Foucault,along with various savarna authors such as Kamala Visweswaran, Dilip Menon, the late Sharmila Rege, among others, who are engaged in the business of writing anti-caste books. Probably as Gandhi put it, this change in tack could have been calibrated for the welfare of the untouchables via the penance of the Hindus. We feel that the re-publication of AoC comes as the culmination of this hidden Gandhian agenda.
The Algebra of ‘gnomification’
The strangely titled introduction, ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, has already witnessed the perils and politics of translation and ‘mediated understanding’. Telugu broadsheet Andhra Jyothi, based in Andhra Pradesh, South India, translated ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ as ‘Oka Vaidyudu, Oka Pravaktha’, which, re-translated, would mean ‘One Medical Doctor, One Prophet’. Senior lawyer and human rights activist BojjaTharakam asks pertinently in an interview given to Dalit Camera: “Is she denigrating both Gandhi and Ambedkar? Or denigrating only Gandhi or only Ambedkar? Sarcastic expressions are used against both or against one? If at all it is sarcasm, then why should she use sarcastic comments on Ambedkar which he doesn’t deserve? Therefore, I feel the very title is mischievous, misleading, denigrating, and in bad taste.”
Headless Ambedkar: A desecrated headless bust of Ambedkar found in Cheyyaru, Tiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu. Desecration is a sign that the statue installed by the masses disturbs Brahminical status quo. Buddha’s statues suffered a similar fate. (picture courtesy: VCK Media Centre, via Joshua Issac)
But interpretations and intentions apart, the introduction itself should be scrutinized for its substance (or the lack of it). Take the language, for instance. A hip and chic deployment of metaphors—Hollywood blockbusters, Occupy Movement, Madonna, suits and designer bags etc.—that relay the location of the writer, a Booker prize-winner residing in one of the most expensive gated neighbourhoods of this country, and speaking to a largely savarna readership receptive to the witty gimmicks of a polemical author. The entire exercise of commissioning and annotation (rewriting the text?) of AoC is an attempt to ornament a text, which is lucid, direct, and deep, and convert it into a decorative item which stands worthy of the purified drawing rooms of the savarnas. The argument that AoC was originally written for a ‘caste Hindu’ audience is flawed, for it ignores the most crucial fact that it was to be delivered by an ‘Untouchable’. Moreover, it inadvertently places Arundhati Rai and Babasaheb on a common platform which is unacceptable on moral, intellectual, and political grounds. Let us not forget that his speech was not delivered, because Babasaheb refused to alter his speech to make it palatable to caste Hindus. In fact, the very act of re-packaging and monetizing a text under the pretext of getting it across to newer readers defies the original spirit in which it was to be delivered. It is as if, 80 years down the line, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal has risen like a phoenix to avenge Babasaheb’s refusal to change even a comma of the original document, by seizing and manipulating the text, and making it malleable to their demands.
The introduction, which by Rai’s own admission is “almost a little book in itself”, begins with the title and the author’s name under it. The same courtesy is not extended to the AoC segment, whose author had been already sidelined in the marketing blitzkrieg around the launch of the book. What is further unscrupulous on the part of the publisher and author of the book is the simple fact that the ‘original thought’ that carries most of the introduction, the deconstruction of Gandhi, is that of Babasaheb’s, as anyone familiar with his works would be quick to point out. The essay just repackages a debate and discussion which had been succinctly and more-than-adequately framed by Babaseheb in AoC and essays such as ‘What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables’.
Navayana seemed to have perfected this technique in its earlier attempts to repackage Babasaheb’s thoughts. The exemplar in this case is The Myth of the Holy Cow by D.N. Jha, which came out in 2009, with additional material appended to it—B. R Ambedkar on beef-eating and untouchability. We would not be surprised, if the book, which is on the politics of beef-eating in India, would make one think that it is Mr Jha who discovered the politics of myth-making around the holy cow or that the Brahmins used to eat cow meat during Vedic times. On the contrary, the foundational thoughts on which Mr Jha’s arguments rest is that of Babasaheb’s. However, Mr Jha neither credits Dr Ambedkar nor cites him anywhere, including in the bibliography. If the Navayana edition of AoC has a book-length introduction way bigger than the text it seeks to introduce, The Myth of the Holy Cow had already taken the process to a different level altogether—the book had relegated Babasaheb’s seminal contribution to the backyard, repackaged as just additional material.
Rai declares in the New York Times, which branded the newly released book as ‘The Gandhi Book’, that “there is nothing in The God of Small Things that is at odds with what I went on to write politically over 15 years”. We must appreciate the truthfulness of that confession. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said had elaborated on how in a narrative or discourse one ‘shuts out’ a de-powered subject ‘even when one includes, compresses, and consolidates’. This is best exemplified in The God of Small Things. In the novel, which many claim is roughly based on Ms Rai’s childhood, one of the main characters—Velutha, a Dalit—is objectified as a ‘sex subject’, whose ‘psychological universe’ remains mysterious but descriptions of the contours of his physique litter the pages in plenty. “He was called Velutha—which means White in Malayalam—because he was so black.” His body constantly is carved out by the author’s exotic gaze: “She knew his back. She’d been carried on it. More times than she could count. It had a light-brown birthmark, shaped like a pointed dry leaf.” Or: “As she watched him she understood the quality of his beauty. How his labor had shaped him. How the wood he fashioned had fashioned him. Each plank he planed, each nail he drove, each thing he made had molded him.”
This gaze, this reduction of the subject to an amorphous object, often romanticizing it to fit the narrative that ticks all the pre-ordained boxes of self-suiting and tailored politics, which the progressive left liberals seem to excel at, has been perfected by Ms Rai in essays such as ‘Walking with the Comrades‘, in which she imagines ossified adivasis (though with ‘fluid identities’) whose ‘struggle’ is glorified via her casteist political lens. Criticising her romanticisation of the armed struggle of Maoists, Marxist scholar Jairus Banaji asks Ms Rai pointedly: “Are we seriously supposed to believe that the extraordinary tide of insurrection will wash over the messy landscapes of urban India and over the millions of disorganised workers in our countryside without the emergence of a powerful social agency, a broad alliance of salaried and wage-earning strata, that can contest the stranglehold of capitalism?”
In The God of Small Things she had already signaled a penchant for fossilizing Dalits. “Though, on the one hand, he [Velutha] was taken by surprise, on the other he knew, had known, with an ancient instinct, that one day History’s twisted chickens would come home to roost.” The sexualized body is further morphed into a primitive mind. At another point in the novel she thrusts her version of sanitized politics on the same object: “Then one day he [Velutha] disappeared. For four years nobody knew where he was…And more recently, the inevitable rumor that he had become a Naxalite. That he had been to prison.”
The continuity of her own indulgent fascinations is synchronized with consistent metaphors. While describing one of Velutha’s moments with Rahel she says: “And that became a delighted, breathless, Rumpelstiltskin-like dance among the rubber trees.” In a earlier essay titled ‘Power Politics: The Reincarnation of Rumpelstiltskin’ she uses the same metaphor of Rumpelstiltskin:”Let’s just say he’s metamorphosed into an accretion, a cabal, an assemblage, a malevolent, incorporeal, transnational multi-gnome. Rumpelstiltskin is a notion (gnotion), a piece of deviant, insidious, white logic that will eventually self-annihilate.” The white-black gnome (Velutha means white in Malayalam) is sometimes a Dalit Naxalite, at other times deviant and malevolent.
Sixteen years later, her politics follows the oft-trodden path, the ‘gnomification’ continues to add to her glass menagerie of Rumpelstiltskins. Only that, the ‘gnomifying’ gaze has now turned towards Dr Ambedkar and his ‘suits’: his followers and their ‘creative’ ways—’million mass produced statues’—of keeping his legacy alive; Dr Ambedkar who ‘did not have enough money to print his major work on Buddhism’; Dr Ambedkar who became ‘anxious, even desperate, to maneuver himself into becoming a member of the constituent assembly’; Dr Ambedkar, over whose world ‘Gandhi loomed’.
This ‘gnomification’ of Ms Rai’s probably explains why she chose to characterise the millions of unique statues made by Bahujans across the country as mass-produced. For the error in judgment made by her is grievous not only because it closely mimics right-wing ideologue Shourie’s statement that Babasaheb’s statues can be found in city after city dressed in garish blue, but that it is patently false. It is false because Ms Rai fails to distinguish between mass-produced statues and statues produced by the masses. The former gives us a sense that these statues are getting produced at a secret location on the lines of the assembly line developed for the Ford Model T, when, on the contrary, as the latter suggests, each of these statues bears testimony to the unique and immense diversity of the Bahujans spread across the length and breadth of the country. The contrast strikes us hard, when it dawns on us that the books she writes, including the book for which she has written the introduction for, are products built after the assembly-line model, each a replica of the other, mass-produced for the global elite.
Nationalist Ambedkar: Ambedkar bust installed at BHEL campus, Hyderabad (picture courtesy: Sreejith S)
In this context, it would be interesting to think about what a non-mass-produced statue of Babasaheb would look like, and we were fortuitous enough to locate one such statue at one of the campuses of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), in Hyderabad—the same BHEL, that arch, prototypical, Brahminical enclave, which Nehru so affectionately called a Temple of Modernity. Babsaheb’s bust was found installed in front of a sports stadium named after him, a Bharat Ratna, now tastefully ensconced among the nationalist luminaries he did not want to ever associate with. The quote attributed to Ambedkar reads, “The centre of religion lay not in the relation of man to God. It lay in the relation between man and man. The purpose of religion is to teach man how he should behave towards other men so that all may be happy.” The original quote taken from The Buddha and His Dhamma reads, “According to him, the centre of religion lay not in the relation of man to God. It lay in the relation between man and man. The purpose of religion is to teach man how he should behave towards other men so that all may be happy”, where him (italicized) refers to the Buddha himself. Plucked out of its Buddhist context, now Babasaheb is made to look like a votary of religion, and more importantly a votary of Hinduism which he trenchantly subjected to critical examination and chose to leave for ever, stating, “Even though I was born in the Hindu religion, I will not die in the Hindu religion.”
How different are Ms Rai’s and Mr Iyengar’s attempts to fossilize and misrepresent Babasaheb? This book clearly follows in the same line of usurpation and distortion that we have been attempting to highlight through various examples illustrated above. Ms Rai weaves her narrative from the vantage point of a writer claiming to tell a story, perhaps sublimating her perceived and even genuine agony; it is then very surprising how she conveniently sets aside her own subjective markers. This is on display the moment one opens the book and sees the page where author biographies are listed. It mentions that Dr Ambedkar (shockingly stripped of his hard-earned title) was born in an ‘Untouchable family’. But S. Arundhati Rai and S. Anand Iyengar get listed—with their caste names either altered (Roy) or altogether dropped (S. Anand)—for their ‘professional qualifications’. How easily they shed caste, varna and various other markers of privilege to which they are born, when they so choose to. It finds a brief mention in the context of the essay or in the acknowledgements, but when listed next to Babasaheb, their ‘Touchability’ is not worth mentioning. Her politics, Ms Rai tells the NYT, ‘comes in the way of her fiction’, but presumably her caste privilege does not. She negates it with casual ease, while making the most of it, a choice that only someone born into the middle of great privilege can afford to exercise. Though, ‘much of the way’ she thinks ‘is by default’, we are told.
While discussing how to go about this essay, the authors (James and Akshay) had agreed that embracing modernity and getting rid of caste are exactly what the Bahujans (and several other marginalized groups) want and demand for, while the savarnas want to ‘travel light’ by either disguising or making invisible their own privileges. One of the reasons why the two of us got together to interrogate the reservations we have had with this particular book was our different locations (Pathak, a savarna; James, a Bahujan) and how that informs our critique.
The wrath of the insult machine
The re-issuing of AoC, with an introduction by a celebrity author, can always be seen as an exercise in vanity. The months spent working secretly on the book and the suspense that was built around it is akin to the theatrics of Gandhi, which as we demonstrated, remains the holy spirit that fuels the venture. Once the book was launched, its excerpts found their way into mainstream savarna media (not the specialized sites on Ambedkar’s thought like Round Table India or Savari).
The interviews and public utterances of the publisher and introducer already suggested an imagined ‘fear’ of a backlash. ‘The Gandhi Book’, as the NY Times re-named it, was expected to create furore among the right-wing Hindutvavadis. The criticism, however, unexpectedly came from elsewhere. But the ammunition that must have been amassed against the imagined ‘fear’ was unleashed without much introspection. A certain clique of writers who also find profuse mention in the book began a slandering campaign on social media, terming Dalit criticism as ‘fascist’, ‘misogynist’, ‘xenophobic’, and ‘intolerant’. The ‘upper castes’ who supported the criticism (such as one of the authors of this article) were branded as ‘opportunists’. ‘Clicktivist’ was a term generously employed to belittle and demonize the opposition.
Ms Rai, continuing with her Gandhian patronisation, asked everyone to ‘keep a cool head’, for the internet is an ‘insult machine’. She chose to pay little attention to the fact that the social media, probably for the first time in history, give scores of Bahujans the choice and freedom to cut through the mesh of segregation that had so far kept them away from the very castles that were built for the privileged by them. Social media, in a sense, enables a very modern form and space for ‘Direct Action’ that Babasaheb had advocated. Perhaps the criticisms posed by the lower castes could be looked down upon as the ‘schadenfreude’ of the ‘clicktivists’. But, as is evident by now, the ‘insult machine’ has managed to expose the insincerity and hollowness of the perpetrators of this bizarre exercise. Annihilation of Caste could very well be denigrated as a ‘utopian’ idea imagined by Babasaheb Ambedkar. However, it is worth remembering that Babasaheb’s true spirit would always be reclaimed and protected from the continuing efforts at Brahminisation that he fought against so bravely and tirelessly.
Please also read other articles on the same issue:
Stigmatizing Dalits, From the Wadas to the Web: by Nilesh Kumar
Caste in the Name of Christ: An angry note on the Syrian Christian Caste: by Nidhin Shobhana
The Not-So-Intimate Enemy: The Loss and Erasure of the Self Under Casteism: by Gee Imaan Semmalar
Flaunting noble intentions, nurturing caste privileges : by Asha Kowtal
The Question of Free Speech: by Vaibhav Wasnik
An Open Letter to Ms. Arundhati Roy: by Dalit Camera
The Judge, the Jury and the Goddess: by Akshay Pathak
Resisting a messiah: by Anoop Kumar
James Michael is a researcher based in Hyderabad. His email id is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Akshay Pathak is a writer based in Pondicherry. He has previously worked in theatre and publishing and has recently been writing regularly on a range of issues. He can be contacted at email@example.com