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Moot Question about Ambedkar and Caste

Moot Question about Ambedkar and Caste

anoop kumar


Anoop Kumar

anoop kumar

The original YouTube link of the Speech is below:

Jai Bhim friends. I would like to share my views on the debate. I also look forward to listening to you, because whatever we had to say we have already said in the book. So it’s not much that we have to say. But yes, I can tell you the whole story about this. Many of my friends would not be aware of the story.

You need to be aware that this is not the first time we are raising these questions. We have been raising questions of knowledge production of Brahminical Class in this country since ages. Right from my JNU days, inside campus, outside campus, we have been raising these questions on who is producing knowledge and on whom. Can whatever we produce be called knowledge or not? Who gives this certificate that this knowledge is the knowledge and this is something some kind of activist thing or an emotional outburst from Dalit? So I come from that debate. 

The thing is we have been saying this and been questioning this- both academic knowledge as well as activist knowledge on Caste, Gender and on various other things. So please do not think that this is the first time that we have raised this issue. We have been raising this issue, but yes this is the first time that this issue got highlighted. And that is what is very important for us to understand why when we write about Arundhati Roy or Anand, then it gets highlighted? In the past, we have been critical of Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar also. If you read her (Romila’s) books, we feel that in Independent India, there has been a false consensus that has been forced on us that India is moving beyond Caste. That Urban India is “Casteless”. This false consensus has been built up and hasn’t been built up by RSS. Instead, this has been built up by the English speaking Liberal Class of this country that Caste is a thing of the past. That if I articulate, I am articulating Caste Politics. So whenever you read about Dalit Politics, it is called sectarian politics but not “National” Politics, Liberal Politics.

So there have been adjectives which have been added to define our politics. So what we have been trying to do is to fight these adjectives as well as challenge this false consensus that has been built on us that “Caste is just about atrocities, is only present in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar. Caste is in places like Khairlanji but not in this campus or in TISS, Caste is not in JNU.” Since I have been working for the past 15 years on Higher education, I remember those days where the mere mention of the word “Caste” would result in being ostracized, especially by Left Liberals. Believe me, when I would talk about Caste, the Hindutva/RSS people had nothing to offer. They cannot handle Caste. It’s funny that most of my battles about Caste have been with Left-Liberals. This whole narrative is being built that “Dalits are getting saffronised, they are moving towards Hindutva and the Dalit politics is all about Reservation”. So that is where we have to focus on this debate that first of all this whole notion of Upper Caste Elite being Casteless- we are challenging that notion. You have not gone beyond Caste. You are benefitting from the very same structure which has been built by your forefathers exploiting our blood and sweat. So you are not someone who is going beyond caste and I have moved beyond Caste, or in 2015 I am going to tell you what Ambedkar has said that is “I am not going to believe that now, fight you”. 

We have been doing this since long. This is not something which has just come with this book. What I will tell you is that first of all none of us, if you read carefully, have said that non-Dalits cannot write on Dalits. That’s a false allegation against us and most of the times we don’t even bother to defend it. Because what I believe is that I am not going to debate on agenda which has been set by you. I will continue debating on the agenda which is set by us. And the agenda is that when this narrative emerged, we are not challenging Arundhati Roy writing on Ambedkar, but we are challenging the narrative built around this book. And the narrative was “Arundhati Roy being Arundhati Roy is going to introduce Ambedkar to the Upper Caste. She is going to introduce Ambedkar to the White people in America and thus will bring Ambedkar into the mainstream. That is the narrative we are challenging. If you say that only Arundhati Roy has the capacity to do because of her name or her intellectual capacity, none of us has ever criticized her intellectual capability, we are criticizing the narrative that is built. Why do you think Ambedkar needs an introduction in 2015? What stopped Ambedkar to be introduced in your campuses? What stopped Ambedkar to be taught in your Sociology classes? 

I remember in JNU in all seminars that I have participated, these academicians used to talk endlessly about Caste without referring to the name of Ambedkar. So whenever we interfered and talked about Ambedkar, we could see the anger in their faces, bitterness against Ambedkar. What happened in these 10-15 years that suddenly everyone needs an introduction about Ambedkar? Who stopped Ambedkar to be taught in colleges? And if you are not challenging this, then a mere introduction by Arundhati Roy has absolutely no meaning because you are reproducing the same structure that has excluded Ambedkar. Because you are saying that because of Arundhati Roy, Ambedkar will be read by the Upper Castes which means another upper caste is required for upper castes to understand and comprehend him. And then when we question, they say that you are bringing Arundhati Roy’s Caste in this debate. We didn’t bring Arundhati’s caste in this debate. That was brought by you itself. Because you said that Upper Caste will only read Ambedkar if Arundhati will write. What is so special about Arundhati Roy? Okay, she is a Booker prize winner. So these are the counter-arguments. She is a World Class Intellectual. She is a Booker Winner. So this is an argument which is again thrown on us that you are not meritorious and she is meritorious. 

See, I am not questioning her writing capacity at all. What I am saying is the narrative that is built around it. When we started questioning, this is what Mr.S.Anand and all his friends wrote clearly on places like Facebook that, if this edition came with the introduction by Anand Teltumbde or Prof. Gopal Guru, nobody would have got it. It would have “sunk”. So there is this person Gopal Guru who has been writing for almost 30 years on Caste and you are saying he is not capable of writing an introduction? Just because Upper Caste is not willing to read him? Aren’t you then perpetuating the very same structure? What kind of logic are you trying to give to us? You are actually reproducing the same very Structure which has excluded Ambedkar from the Universities’ curriculum and from the textbooks. 

So now an upper-caste would read because there is another upper caste who has written on it? So you need a Brahmin commentary! And this is how appropriation throughout history has happened. How Kabir did get appropriated? How Ravidas did get appropriated? If you read the whole Bhakti movement, what was so Bhakti about it? Bhakti movement was an anti-Caste movement. But when you start writing in textbooks when you became a scholar on Kabir, you have done a so-called doctorate on Kabir, what did you do? You turned this middle ages anti-caste movement into a Bhakti movement! If you read textbooks, I am saying because I am from UP, I have read those Hindi textbooks. Bhakti movement is a Nirgun movement. So there are two ways God can be worshipped in Hinduism. One is where you worship God in a finite form in a Sagunnata, where you have a Tulsidas. But there is another variety of Hinduism where you talk about Nirakar which is without form. So what I’m trying to say is we have a history and we know it. 

It is not out of the vacuum that we are advancing. It is very difficult sometimes to convince people about this. And I am not here to convince anyone on this. I am just here to share what we thought. Always these questions will come when we are ready for it. You need to understand that the danger that we are pointing is not a small danger for us. It is a matter of life and death. Because what this man (Ambedkar) represents is the only history that I can claim to have as my own! In this country, there is nothing that I can claim. Not your freedom movement, not your Vedas, nothing. This is the only tool I have to fight your hegemony. I am not going to let it go like this. I will fight it out, that somebody someday says that I am going to introduce Ambedkar. You need to understand the narrative here. It’s that Ambedkar needs an introduction. He needs to go to Upper Castes homes, more people should read Ambedkar. There is a very subtle narrative that is being played here. It’s that for the past 60 years, the Dalit movement has failed to introduce Ambedkar to masses. I am not ready to take this blame. 

I am not ready to take this blame, this failure on our shoulder. Because it is we who brought it to this stature. Lacs of people have given up their lives, and their whole career carrying his books throughout. How did I get introduced to Ambedkar? Not through your school textbooks. These are the very small publishers & activists who took the books throughout the country. And that is where people like me could read about it.

You see the kind of media Traction that Arundhati Roy got. If we would not have challenged this narrative, the whole thing would have been that finally an upper-caste rose to the occasion and brought Ambedkar to the mainstream! What mainstream are you talking about? The sheer arrogance of this narrative makes me furious. And what are we doing- fighting in the campuses, fighting on the streets! People like Pawar sir (JV Pawar) are there.

We all have fought. And you cannot just say that somebody comes out one fine day and says that “Let me introduce Ambedkar and I will take it to the white homes and Savarna people will read”. I actually don’t care if the Savarnas read it or not. Does my emancipation depend on Savarnas reading Ambedkar? How foolish is that! And how foolish it would look on me that people tell that please read Ambedkar so that you can become a better human being! What kind of narrative are we trying to put? 99% of the Professors in central universities belong to upper caste and they have been extensively writing on caste. Nobody has opposed them. Nobody has opposed Sharmila Rege. Nobody has opposed Valerian Rodrigues. We are only opposing this narrative.

She could have written anything on caste. She can write anything on Ambedkar. Please do not take this whole burden of Upper Caste that I have become so casteless to introduce Ambedkar. If you really want to introduce Ambedkar you should break those structures. The structures that I am talking about is about the media, about academia. These are the very structures which have excluded Dr Ambedkar.

(Pointing to JV Pawar), Sir I will tell you one thing. When I started reading Ambedkar, the first thing I came to know was about Dalit Panther. Coming from North India, I had absolutely no clue about Dalit Panther. And I started looking around for literature. There was none. Still, there was no literature in English. So I had to come to Nagpur to meet people. So who has stopped all these things coming in academia, coming in textbooks? 

You are not challenging that structure at all. If Arundhati or Anand says that I want to challenge those structures, I will be very happy. 

Finally, if you see, this narrative coupled with the narrative that Dalit movement is a failure, there was another thing that is coming up. That Dalits have ghettoised Dr Ambedkar! That Dalits do not allow anybody to talk about Dr Ambedkar. These are the narratives and the statements made by the academicians. Harvard University graduates, Harvard University Professors who want to become an expert on caste suddenly who will follow all our posts, will share everything. And suddenly when we challenge them, we become Demons, we become villains? Do we become abusive Dalits? Identitarian Dalits? If I abuse RSS, I am your darling. When I started looking at your structures, I become a villain? You have to understand the kind of politics that we come from. The politics is against the system. Our politics is against the whole Brahminical system. Because we (liberals) are going to talk about Ambedkar you should consider us your fellow ally?

You are not allowing us to extend our solidarity. You are a fanatical Dalit. How long you will play this game? This has to stop somewhere and you have to let us speak. You cannot keep on speaking on our behalf. That time has gone. It is better if you realise this early. When I talk about structures it includes Academia, it includes media, the literary Publications, EPW and CPI / M/L, Left- all of these. I do not see them as any different manifestations of upper caste. Just as RSS is an upper-caste manifestation in independent India, a very violent one. So are these upper-caste manifestations.

I want to break this consensus that caste is not there in urban spaces. That Caste is not there in Academia. Why do you think that a judge in Bihar sitting in Patna, can very easily write a judgement saying that he could not find any killer in Jehanabad? Why do you think that? Do you think that’s only because Bihar has caste politics? No. Because Caste as a discourse has not been allowed to happen. See the changes happened only through Pressure. Only when you make people think about it. The upper caste Elite in this country has been left completely free. There has been no pressure on them since the last 50-60 years to reflect on the kind of privileges they have. On the kind of hold they have. And they want to play Revolutionary with us! You should look under your own collars first. There is an immense amount of privilege you are holding and you are not letting us talk. Earlier we could not speak in English, we are not very well educated you could do that. Another criticism comes that we are not academic enough! This book (hatred in the belly) is not scholarly enough. We don’t claim that we are scholars. I am not a scholar. I am just a simple activist. I am not even an M.Phil. I do not claim any scholarship. What I claim is the history of the movement that I come from. That is the strength I have. And that you cannot take away. You can call us by names or anything. 

Let me come back to why this issue so highlighted. We (me, Kuffirda) have been critiquing since the last 10 years. We have been very consistent in critiquing all kinds of knowledge production. We have enough articles on Round Table India critiquing everyone in this country. Be it Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib or any Sanghi professor. We have been writing consistently. But why only this got highlighted? This got highlighted because there was a narrative that was built. That she is doing for who? She is doing for your benefit. So that is why when we criticized, there was so much backlash on us. In their heads, the thought process was we are doing some kind of favour to the Dalits or Ambedkar. How can they criticize us? How can Anoop or Kuffir or RoundTable write like this?

In her own words, Arundhati Roy has taken the “trouble” to read Ambedkar. These are her own words. We get to hear all this. And this is not the first time hearing this. Every time we speak, we hear we want to work for you. But we never get this space. I have worked for 4-5 years on students suicide. Me, Gurinder, other friends we have worked for 5 years on this issue. We made documentaries, we went to the Supreme Court. We did a lot of activism. We never got that kind of media space. Not even a line. When we went for this suicide case recently, the whole media has taken up. Where was this whole media 2 years back, when we ran a whole campaign, we documented 22 suicide cases, we produced documentaries? Rohith’s suicide would have been avoided. Do you want me to believe the very same media that says that we are giving air to Arundhati Roy because she is meritorious? Because she is an intellectual? So it means I am nobody? Or we are not intellectual enough? Okay, I have not won a Booker prize. So you will only give space to them only or what? So we are challenging these kinds of narratives and we stood by what we said. The best thing was that in this whole debate, there was a lot of backlash against us, a lot of abuses, we were witness to something which is close to character assassination. My past was dug up, whether I was foreign-funded, whether I was an RSS agent. So it means if I oppose Arundhati Roy I become everything like an RSS agent, foreign-funded! We never replied to that debate. We felt that if we go to these personal abuses they will turn the entire narrative into their advantage. If you see what is happening in the Rohith Vemula suicide case, the whole attempt has been built that Rohith was an extremist. And that was precisely what we were also being called.

So if we oppose anything Upper caste, whether it is RSS or whether it is the Left, the only allegation they can make against us is “we are extremist, we do not believe in solidarity, we are Ambedkar fanatics”. It’s fine. Abuses do not matter to us. We have grown up learning/hearing abuses, so it doesn’t matter to us anymore.

What that did was when we raised questions, I am talking about myself, when I raised these questions first I was also not very sure. Whether I am reading it the right way because the initial reactions were all about the gut, it was coming from within. That something is wrong with this narrative that is being sold to us. I wrote a couple of status messages, which I felt where harmless, but they thought otherwise. But suddenly the kind of reactions that we got from people speaking for Arundhati Roy that made us say No, we are right, we have to oppose this. the more we spoke, the more abuses we got, the more the Dalit students, the OBC students were able to see what we were saying.

This is almost like a movement now. Almost 4000 copies have been sold within a month. This is almost like a record I guess. Within a week we had to reprint it. So what I am trying to say is that there was an audience, was a readership ready for that kind of thing. And I believe that something good has happened and that book will go to many young readers. You are free to read it the way you want to. There is no compulsion from us that you should see the picture only what we are trying to tell you. Especially I am talking to Dalit students, OBC students, and lower caste students that please think on your own. This is not something that we did in a very deliberate or conscious level. Because we have been fighting for the past 10-15 years with this system, we have a sense of how this system works. And because of that sense, we started writing. I appreciate if you can read and give us your feedback, even abuses on us. I was not very well prepared for this. I would like to stop here and would be happy to answer any questions. I have come here on very short notice.  Thank you very much!

~ The speech was given in Mumbai on 23rd of January, 2016 during the launch of the book hatred in the belly. The speech was delivered by Anoop Kumar.
It has been transcribed by Vinay Shende, who works in the Corporate Sector and is interested in the Anti-Caste Discourse.



Anoop Kumar is a senior activist and currently runs Nalanda Academy in Wardha, Maharashtra.