Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes
Joopaka Subhadra, poet, writer, and women’s rights activist, was one of the key speakers at the ‘Democratic Debate on Appropriation of Ambedkar’s Writings’ held on April 10, 2014, in Hyderabad. The following text features her intervention at the debate.
180 pages. When I read that, what I felt was, she had been hoarding up a heap of all kinds of news stories. Is there such a need? She talks about Malala, in the very beginning, and so on. Instead of talking about matters related to annihilation of caste, her efforts actually increase the intensity of pain caused by caste. Our pain. Only if you are an untouchable will you understand that pain.
‘Don’t come close to me, stay away’. When they pour drinking water for you from a distance saying, stay away! That pain is of many kinds. In the villages, it is direct, naked, in cities, it is polished, clothed. In the villages, you’ve ‘chaakali’ (dhobi) doctors and ‘mangali’ (barber) teachers. Whether they are doctors or teachers, whatever they might be, for them there is only caste.
This pain…. She is not a Christian, she’s a Brahmin. Her father is a Brahmin, mother is a Syrian Christian. What does she say, ‘why should I not write?’ Please write, but write by trying to understand these pains, engage with these pains. But..don’t write to trivialise and humiliate our pains.
When we look at this book, as soon as I saw the image on the cover I was very surprised. When the excerpts appeared in Andhra Jyothy. I have never seen Ambedkar’s image like this. You’ll understand what kind of hatred they nurse in their bellies when you look at this picture. You will understand clearly when you look at this picture!
Amebdkar’s pictures evoke in us the image of a very sophisticated, well-groomed person, wearing neat spectacles and smart suits. That is the kind of impressive images of Ambedkar we are used to seeing. From where did they find this image for the book cover? Nobody has seen this image; don’t remember seeing such an image ever, from my childhood till now. I haven’t ever seen it. Where does this photograph come from?
Where did they find this photo, a photo that we could not find, how did they find it? Who gave it to them? There are so many posters, so many books, and so many photos in Maharashtra, all across the entire country. We see only his inspiring photos, smart suits, beautiful books. When he is perceived in this manner, how did they create this drawing, from which photo did they get this? Even his facial expression evokes helplessness.
Does Ambedkar look pathetic? He exudes intelligence. Ambedkar’s face exudes enormous dignity, intelligence, self-confidence and inner strength. His face gives all those impressions. In such a scenario, how did they find this one, where did they scour and choose this one? How much hatred they must have in their bellies to pick this one and print? This picture itself is enough evidence of that! When I saw it in Andhra Jyothy itself I wondered, from where did they get this photo? It was right then that I understood (about the hatred).
Further she asks, why should we not write? Amma write, Ayya write. Tell the whole world about the caste system in this country. Write about caste discrimination, tell the whole world, but, engage with the pain, empathize with it and then talk about it. Talk about the intensity of the pain. Instead, the pain is trivialized, humilated and conveyed sarcastically. This is not the way it has to be conveyed, this is not the way the world should know about our pain. This is for us to articulate.
If the publisher had asked one of us, we would have written. Why has she been asked to write about annihilation of caste? It does not matter how big an intellectual she is, as Ilaiah said, it is not easy to grasp caste. And how does one talk about ‘untouchability’? Only when one is an untouchable can one talk about it.
She says, ‘didn’t Ambedkar write on the Indian nation, as the chairman, didn’t he draft the Constitution that applies to every citizen? Like that, I am also writing.’ Please look at this, can anyone talk like this? She should understand the pain. What if we spoke in the same way?
Further, she seems to say, I wrote about bomb blasts, wrote about dams, about globalization, am I a bomb technician? Am I a politician? I am not, but I still wrote (on those topics) and no one questioned me then. Why am I being questioned for this? Did we say anything about Ambedkar, he worked on the Constitution, on religions, on Hinduism, on Muslims, on Marxism; he wrote about the caste system in the whole country, about all castes, did we question him? Did we say, you’re not one of us and therefore you can’t write? Didn’t we accept Ambedkar then?
Is your situation and ours the same? Did we ever walk on the same path? Did we eat in one home? Is your food and mine the same? Are your clothes and mine the same? She says Dalits didn’t wear clothes. Manu himself said, Dalits should not wear clothes…They should not wear gold, should use only iron ornaments. Who are you to tell us our history now?
She further says, about Gandhi, can we say, only Gujarati banias should write about Gandhi? Gandhi has to be owned by everyone, right? She claims, the Hindu society in India doesn’t know how Gandhi suppressed Ambedkar, I am revealing that, as no one else has done it. She says this very proudly. Who does not know this? Everyone knows how Gandhi suppressed Ambedkar.
If we look at the introduction, talking of annihilation of caste, she doesn’t speak of what should the country do, what should the Dalits do, what should all these castes do? She says low is privileged as compared with the lower. Meaning everyone is benefiting from the caste system, no one wants the system to go. But for us, it has to go.
This caste has to go, it is because of caste that we have become slaves. It is because of caste that we sweep the roads, it is because of caste that we have to do manual scavenging. It is because of caste that we are denied education; it is because of caste that we don’t have jobs; it is because of caste, we don’t have civil rights.
All of this is experienced by us. We suffer. Whatever may be your knowledge, you could be the fifth ranking intellectual in the world, but in India, it is clear that you don’t have the knowledge to grasp caste and tell the world about it. Arundhati Roy does not have it because she’s not a Dalit, as she herself says: I am a Brahmin, my father is a Brahmin.
‘My mother is a Syrian Christian’, she says. Syrian Christian means Brahmin. So what she is declaring is, anyone can write. I have worked a lot for dalit movements, I have the right. I worked to write about the nature of Indian society, have worked in movements, even I want caste to go. Another thing that she says, people have written, they will write, we will write, more people will write, what I have written is correct.
All that is fine, but her mode of engaging with the subject is not good. It seems to express cruel sympathy. When she talks about Ambedkar, this cruel sympathy comes through. This, we don’t want. This kind of sympathy we don’t need. Caste has to go, work with the dalit intellectuals, the pain has to be expressed through them in their own voices. And the intellectual resources to combat caste, to annihilate caste have to be developed.
So, I came here to share my views, I am grateful for this opportunity. Brother (Karthik Navayan) had said, there is limited time for speakers, I have kept to that. But there is a lot to talk, there is a need to talk until caste is annihilated (laughs). This is a saga that won’t end until caste does. To my friends who organized this, thank you, Jai Bhim.
[Transcribed by Anu Ramdas]
Joopaka Subhadra, is a Telugu poet, writer and activist based in Hyderabad. ‘Ayyayyo Dammakka’ is her collection of poetry. ‘Raayakka manyam’ is her collection of short stories.