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The collective dilemma of the left, right and centre: What to do with Ambedkar?

The collective dilemma of the left, right and centre: What to do with Ambedkar?

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Anoop Kumar

(His speech at the ‘The Colonization of Ambedkar: Caste Politics behind Roy-Navayana’s Appropriation of Annihilation of Caste ~ A Discussion‘ held on 21st December, 2014, at University of Mumbai)

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My name is Anoop and I am not an academician or a very accomplished speaker so please excuse me if I am not very coherent in what I am trying to share with you. This issue has been emotionally very draining for some of us, till now, till today. There are a lot of arguments which have come up, for and against. So, I will try to speak my own point of view. I am not representing here all the writers of Round Table India. There are more than thirty writers on Round Table India coming from different parts of the country and different spheres of life who have written on the issue. Many of them are students, some journalists, some plain activists from across the country.

 So, I am not here trying to represent the entire gamut of arguments which have come up in this debate but I will try to put forward what I felt when I saw this (news of the launch of Navayana’s edition of AoC) on 27th February, probably. I would like to give a little context to it because otherwise this whole debate is sought to be reduced to us opposing her just because she is an upper caste woman. No, it was never that. If you look at our arguments, we have never said this. So, this whole debate gets decontextualised and pushes towards misjudging what we are trying to say. For us, it is not just something that has got to do only with Arundhati Roy or even S. Anand. There is a history behind it and that is what I want to contextualise.

I have been a student of JNU and I have seen this debate earlier also. When I joined JNU in 2001, there was this whole debate surrounding Dalit literature in Hindi. Suddenly there were a lot of autobiographies; Om Prakash Balmiki, lot of Dalits had also been writing. And then this sudden debate comes that, what is Dalit Literature? Can only a Dalit write Dalit Literature or text? As a student, I was reading all this and there was a magazine called “Hans”, which was in the forefront of the debate. What I saw was that none of the Dalits were actually arguing that only Dalits can write. But the moment they claimed that there is a Dalit Literature and the moment they claim their own agency to write.. about their pain, their struggle, immediately this debate comes up (whether upper castes can write) and we are being pushed into a corner.

I have seen this time and again, Dalit writers being forced to take a stand regardless of whether or not they want to enter this debate: Can Non-Dalits write about Dalits? Non-Dalits have been writing about Dalits since time immemorial. Nobody has stopped them. How can a Dalit stop a Non-Dalit? It’s a ridiculous question. They have written extensively on Dalits. This is the first time, some of us have started writing, started articulating and then this whole debate comes up. And these are all manufactured debates. All these Pandeys, all those Hindi stalwarts, who have never written on Caste suddenly say that “no, we have been writing on Caste. Why are you creating division between Dalit and Non-Dalit literature?”

None of the Dalit literary people actually said that there should be segregation. The only thing they were seeking was their own claim of agency, saying that we are writing our experiences and this is what it is. And none of these writers were from the academia, so they never had this sophisticated language. So, this was a very interesting debate and this was my first learning experience as a graduate student. It (this debate) appeared very phony to me because it went on for 7-8 years. What I understood was that the claiming of agency by a Dalit is a huge problem. That I am a Dalit and I am writing.

The moment I say I am a Dalit, it is considered as if I am accusing all the Non-Dalits (of some wrongdoing). We have this organization called “UDSF (United Dalit Students forum)” and I was a part of that. We used to invite those big shots who worked on caste, irrespective of their caste background. So we invited upper castes too. There was this very senior person, I wouldn’t name him, he was working on tribal and Dalit issues. We had a brochure (for UDSF). We had just printed it and were very excited and we gave it to him. The first thing he says is “why do you want to segregate?” We were shocked. We didn’t understand what he was trying to say. We then figured that the word (Dalit) itself was a problem.

So, you see there is a history behind it. Whenever we try to articulate, whenever we try to assert, there is always an opposition, you know, we are treated like criminals. When we say Dalit Literature, they say “why are you segregating Literature?” If you say that you are writing Dalit Literature, this means that no Non-Dalit can write Dalit Literature. These are very manufactured debates and I do not participate in them normally. The same thing happens when you utter the word caste; the first reaction from the upper castes is “What about reservation?” And they will not listen to you. They will not listen to the point you are making and they just want to reduce the debate to reservation. Because that is their issue; that is what hurts them. Reservation doesn’t hurt me at all so it is not my issue. For me, the reservation debate was settled when the constitution was written. I am not debating reservation. Whether it’s good or bad, that is your debate because it hurts you.

I am going to talk about caste. I am going to talk about discrimination, I am going to talk about atrocities. I am going to talk about things that my community goes through because that is what is important for me. In this debate also, the same thing happened. I wrote a few status messages on Facebook about it. I made it clear that we are talking about a structure. We are not interested in fighting with Arundhati Roy or S. Anand. There is a structure behind it. When you say that you need to introduce Ambedkar, I want to ask, why has this need come up? It means that Ambedkar was not there in your syllabus. Ambedkar was not there in your academia. You finally say one day, that ok, fine: Today I am going to introduce Ambedkar because Ambedkar is not there.

Fine, you can introduce Ambedkar. I want to talk about this need to introduce Ambedkar. Why was Ambedkar not there earlier? You know, Dalits have been talking about Ambedkar since last 70-80 years. Many say that we only talk of Ambedkar, that is how much we talk about Ambedkar. And it is still not part of your curriculum. I have been in sociology seminars where caste was discussed but Ambedkar was not discussed. Some of us, we were very cruel to our teachers actually, we used to pop up this question about Ambedkar. Immediately, their facial expressions changed and we were looked down upon as if we were criminals. So, when I speak, I speak from that history. So, it’s not like one fine day, I see an upper caste woman writing about Ambedkar and I raise this issue. No, I have a history of struggle, a history where I have struggled to talk about caste in class. I have been called criminal, that I am introducing politics. This is from JNU campus and from my engineering college, not some village, but symbols of modern progressive India.

Let’s get back a little bit. What I see, and this is my own interpretation of Indian History, you may agree or disagree with it. There are three main ideologies, which are upper caste ideologies; Left, Right and a nationalist secular Centre. If you go through the literature which all three have produced, Dalits were always footnotes. In the last 60 years, none of the three ideologies could figure out what to do with Ambedkar, what to do about caste?


Until the 1990s, they had a very ambivalent relationship with Ambedkar. If you take up this right wing, earlier there was so much opposition but later, they started claiming him as a kind of Hindu Social Reformer. They were just taking one aspect of Ambedkar, there was this portrait of Ambedkar in Advani’s book. So, they don’t know what to make of Ambedkar. They cannot completely ignore Ambedkar and they cannot completely talk about Ambedkar. So, they have these strategies. On one hand, RSS is calling Ambedkar a social reformer. On the other hand, we have Arun Shourie coming out with a book, condemning Ambedkar. This is there in all the three camps.

If you look at all the CPM literature, Dr. Ambedkar is treated as a British stooge but then, in the nineties they have started appropriating him, well I won’t say appropriating, but accepting him as a bourgeois democrat. It’s all a game of language actually. If you look at the nationalist secular centre: For Bipin Chandra, Ambedkar is a failure and Gandhi is the hero. For Ram Chandra Guha, Ambedkar and Gandhi are complementary. All this is happening in the background of the portrayal of Gandhi as the sole fighter against untouchability for the last sixty years.

As Dalits became more assertive in the late eighties and nineties, there is a shift among the upper castes and they give a little bit of space to Ambedkar. I see it as a historical process. It is still not a complete acceptance. They have taken only one or two of the several facets of Ambedkar and appropriated it or are trying to appropriate it. They cannot, you know (appropriate Ambedkar). I don’t think that even S. Anand can do it but the debate is necessary. Along with this question of what to make of Ambedkar and Caste.

There is a very strong narrative of upper castes being casteless being played out, post independence. There was this cartoon debate two years back and we took a stand. We started looking at all the cartoons from before independence and if you see the cartoons during those times, you will notice they were able to clearly show a Brahmin, talking about Brahminism, with all the symbols like chotis.. all of these were present in the cartoons. The moment India got independence, all those cartoons vanished. So, what suddenly happened post independence that these cartoons vanished?

I have been reading newspapers for the last 30-35 years and I have never seen a cartoon which shows the Brahmin as a symbol of casteism. Suddenly, there is the common man, R.K Laxman, and the common man is a casteless man. This common man has nothing to do with caste. I remember this cartoon of R.K Laxman when V.P Singh brought in the Mandal commission. The common man is worried because whole of India is burning. The common man is hurt, because V.P Singh has given reservations, accepted Mandal commission and he is watching whole India burn.

It is very curious. The identity of being Indian, being Hindu, or a secular Indian got promoted. So now, if I say I am a Dalit, the upper caste gets offended immediately and I get criminalised because I am bringing up caste and they are above caste. I always wonder, they live and die in caste, just like me. How can they say they are above caste? This branding often happened from the most progressive of the students, the comrades. The moment you talk about caste, they talk about class and then they pretend that we are not interested in class.

None of the Dalit activists or writers I have worked with are blind to class. Yes, class is there, we are not blind to class, we are not stupid people. But the moment we start talking about caste, you talk about class. The questions of a debate are important but the politics of debate is also important. The moment we raised the question about this book (Roy Navayana edition of AOC), they asked “Have you read the book?” I replied, I dont need to read the book. I want to talk about the politics behind writing this book. Are you telling me that there is no politics behind writing, no politics behind publishing? Then there can be no debate. I will be a criminal for you. I am trying to shut up someone and am against freedom of expression.

You can carry on, these abuses do not matter to me. I have grown up listening to these abuses. I was a non-meritorious student the moment I entered engineering college. But that (abuse) is not the debate. I was called a casteist, a misogynist because apparently, I am against Arundhati Roy because she is a woman. Good for you. So, that is the context. Now, I shall come to the debate and why some of us opposed it. It started on Facebook. Facebook is a very funny place because it is the only place which gives me a window to look into what the upper castes are thinking. It has been a very good learning experience for me.

So, what I saw was everybody congratulating S. Anand for making Arundhati Roy read Ambedkar. Everybody congratulating Arundhati Roy for reading Ambedkar. There is a team of people involved in this. Second rung academicians, young academicians, sitting in academia, sitting in Germany, who are part of this project and congratulating each other because they have been cited. There was this one academician who was gloating over it on Facebook. That gloating, I found very obnoxious. I started with a small status message and suddenly the response was very very abusive and everybody started abusing me.

The moment I spoke against Arundhati Roy, it was as if I had committed a crime. At the beginning, even I was skeptical. It is not as if everything is clear in your head from the very beginning. You have a hunch but you are not able to articulate it. I always had to judge mentally whether the stand I am taking is right or wrong. Because the problem is, if one Dalit speaks, immediately all the Dalits are branded. That is why I am wary of what I speak.

The thing is, the moment I speak against S. Anand, a hundred Brahmins will come up saying that, see, this brahmin is good, that brahmin is good, so you cannot blame (brahmins in general). I will give you a small example. After this Modi got elected, there were a number of articles in EPW and The Hindu on how Dalits are getting Hinduised. And they are all doing it in a very sorrowful tone but I have never seen a single article which says that Brahmins and upper castes are the biggest vote chunks of Modi and you should be worried about them because they are the people who have brought Modi to power.

There was this article about the “Twitter sena” of Modi, on Outlook I think, and there was this whole profile of “Internet Hindus”. Every detail was there on the profile, their general job description, and their age groups; only thing missing was their caste profile. So, you are not looking at the upper castes, who have built the RSS and are its most blind supporters, sending money from abroad and building the Modi mania and the whole media which constructed this. The entire onus now is that it is the Dalits and the OBCs who brought Modi into power. So, you criminalise more than half of the Indian population whereas BJP gets only 31 percent of the votes cast. If all of us had actually voted for Modi, BJP would have won all the seats.

This is what I am wary of; it is very easy for them to brand us. The same thing happened in the cartoon controversy: “The Dalits are becoming Fundamentalists”, “Dalits are against freedom of expression”, “Dalits are getting fanatical”, “Dalits are treating Ambedkar as a God”. All this starts getting thrown on us and we get very uncertain. There are very few of us who read and write in English and we get ghettoised. We get targeted. It happened in this debate too.

My question was about this whole narrative that was being built around this book; “Ambedkar needs introduction. Ambedkar needs to go to west. The upper caste people need to engage with Ambedkar and that is why Arundhati Roy has to write this.” That was the narrative being sold to us and that is what we are challenging. What I need to know first is what actually stopped Ambedkar from getting introduced until now? Dalits have been fighting for Ambedkar, carrying him all their lives. Why isn’t he already a part of your academia or media discourses?

You are not challenging that. In fact, you are using exactly the same structures which have stopped us from introducing Ambedkar. I want to challenge those structures. I am not challenging any one person. These questions were never answered. The only thing we got was “you don’t want her to write because she is upper caste”. I am not going to defend myself on this because that is not what we are saying. This is your debate. When we question Ambedkar being introduced to the west, we are told “why do the Dalits then go to foreign universities or the UN?”

The worst part is, when we said that there is a problem in the narrative that you are building, they started saying that “if any Dalit had written this edition, it would have sunk the edition”. And these are the exact words of S. Anand and his friends. And they named us. They said, “if Gopal Guru had written it, nobody would buy it; if Teltumbde had written it, nobody would buy it”. This is what I am challenging.

If Gopal Guru is writing something and it is not being bought by an upper caste, the problem lies there, not with us. And it is you, who are bringing Arundhati Roy’s caste into this. You are saying that an upper caste will read Ambedkar only if an upper caste writer is introducing him and this is a very casteist statement you are making. You are erasing our entire history and this is what I am against. There are many many good writers among Dalits and Dalits have been writing for 50-60 years now and you can see their work in Dalit book stalls everywhere. You will see some fantastic literature. But, if that literature is not coming up in your discourse…. .

Then there is this very stupid and casteist and racist argument, sorry to have to repeat this, that Dalits have ghettoised Ambedkar. I am amazed. Tell me what have I done to ghettoise Ambedkar? It is you who had never accepted Ambedkar and you are blaming me for you not accepting Ambedkar. So, here again, I am the criminal? I am a nobody. I am not in academia, I am not an activist. I am just some, what they call a fanatic social media Dalit. I just write status messages. Suddenly why are my status messages being taken so seriously? Why are they talking endlessly about it.

Everybody, from TISS to JNU, all comrades, all left liberals started abusing me. They ganged up against us. What actually happened was, the debate turned in our favour because the more they spoke, more casteist things came up. Because, Arundhati Roy is such a big icon. I got so scared, at first. That what have I done, they will lynch me. But, the young Dalits from TISS, from JNU, they were watching us, reading, learning. The more the debate grew, the more support we started getting.

Last thing to note here is that, for the last two decades, there has been a tremendous rise in Dalit student activism in university campuses. All their attempts were not sufficient for you to start reading Ambedkar but when this edition comes up, written by an upper caste, there are critical reading sessions being organised. If you still say that it is good that at least Ambedkar is being read, then I would say that you have got Ambedkar all wrong. This is not what Ambedkar wanted for the Dalit masses.

Ambedkar for me is a symbol of assertion. The first thing, a Dalit does when he is asserting, say in a slum area or anywhere, is to erect a statute of Ambedkar. He is not trying to make him a god. It is a tool of his assertion. The moment a statue is erected, the others come to know that, yes, Dalit assertion is here and there is a strength that comes up. That I am not going to take things lying down from here. History has been so cruel to us that the only symbol I have to fight for, against upper caste hagemony, is Ambedkar.

Thank you very much.

(Transcribed by Madhuresh Roy)


Please read about all other articles (with links) on the subject here.


Anoop Kumar‘s email id is: anoopkheri(at)gmail(dot)com