‘To make democracy count, need to revisit some of the principles Ambedkar believed’

April 20, 2017, 11:26 am
‘To make democracy count, need to revisit some of the principles Ambedkar believed’
‘To make democracy count, need to revisit some of the principles Ambedkar believed’

‘To make democracy count, need to revisit some of the principles Ambedkar believed’

Amit Sengupta started journalism when he was 19, even while he was working in the relief camps as a student of JNU after the State sponsored genocide of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Since then, he has been an independent president of the JNU Students’ Union, writer, activist and editor, closely involved with multiple people’s movements and conflict zones in contemporary India. He was Executive Editor, Hardnews magazine, South Asian partner of Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris. He has earlier worked as a senior editor and journalist with Tehelka, Outlook, The Hindustan Times, Asian Age, The Pioneer, The Economic Times and Financial Chronicle. Till recently he has been a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.

Once a journalist, S Anand is a co-founder of the pioneering publishing house, Navayana, which has brilliantly resurrected the finest writings and thoughts of Dr BR Ambedkar, among other books on Dalit history and politics, hitherto buried amidst the conformist status quo of a caste society (or knowledge system) dominated by the dominant castes. He is the co-author of ‘Bhimyana: Experiences of Untouchability’ -- a graphic biographical account of Dr Ambedkar’s life, undoubtedly, a classic of our times. This extraordinary book conceived with great imagination and originality, has been co-authered by Durga Bai, S Anand, Srividya Natarajan and Subhash Vyam. The latest book by Navayana is yet another landmark: Ambedkar: The Attendant Details. It is a collection of essays by authors who have witnessed and observed Dr Ambedkar’s life from close quarters. On the occasion of Dr Ambedkar’s 126thbirth anniversary, in a conversation on email, S Anand interacts with Amit Sengupta on a wide spectrum of complex issues centred around the founder of the Indian Constitution, and Dalit resistance, identity, politics and liberation.

Q: Why do you call April as the Dalit History Month? What, according to you, in brief, is Dalit history?

The idea of Dalit History Month was suggested by Ravikumar, with whom I had cofounded Navayana. Navayana was formally founded in November 2003. Earlier that year, in February, Ravi, who used to be a bank employee and lived in Pondicherry, had suggested that April be commemorated as Dalit History Month on the lines of February being observed as Black History Month in the US. What began in 1926 as ‘Negro History Week’ conceived of by the former slave, Carter Goodwin Woodson, had by 1976 become Black History Month, and is now observed globally. Back then, I was working for Outlook as a Chennai correspondent. Despite it being the best commercial newsmagazine around, it was extremely difficult to get stories related to caste or Dalits published. Around then, I was associated as a consultant editor with a short-lived bi-monthly journal called The Dalit published from Chennai by the same people who published the Tamil monthly, Dalit Murasu. After me, the poet and writer, Meena Kandasamy, still in her teens then, took over as editor of The Dalit. In the 2003 April issue of the journal, following up from Ravi’s idea, Dalit History Month was first announced and commemorated. In fact, Navayana’s logo of buffaloes kissing is derived from the cover of this issue. It features the work of the artist Chandru.

Why April? 11 April is Jotiba Phule’s birth anniversary; 6 April is Jagjivan Ram’s; 14 April, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s; on 7 April 1930, Dalits stormed the Kalaram temple in Nashik, and in April 1972, the Dalit Panther was founded in Bombay, and so on. These are major landmarks in history that ought to seep into public consciousness. But that’s now how it works. Much of Dalit history is written out by people who wield power. This does not mean it has not been recorded. Today, one sees that commemorating Dalit History Month has become a movement of sorts.

Several Dalit-run websites and blogs and social media spaces have several features that tell us about events, incidents, men and women and history we hitherto had little idea about. In the US, of course, the state officially celebrates Black History Month — you never know Trump may stop this too. In India, however, this is unlikely to happen. Hence, Dalit History Month remains a people’s initiative and hence is even more powerful.

Q: Your new book Ambedkar: The Attendant Details encompasses writers from various languages who have seen Babasaheb Ambedkar from close quarters. The book explores a certain intimate, invisible realm of his life. What inspired you to publish it?

Over the years I have published a lot in and around Ambedkar. Among our very first books, in 2003, was Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes, based on the ten-thousand-word fragment ‘Waiting for a Visa’ that Ambedkar wrote by long hand and never published. It first appeared in print in 1990 in a booklet published by People’s Education Society. In 1993, Volume 12 of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (BAWS) series featured it, but it was buried in 800-odd pages of the volume. Again it was Ravikumar who suggested we publish this as a standalone text, and he did a short introduction. The fact that we know so little about Ambedkar, the individual — his quirks, his habits, the food he liked, the music or literature he read, his moods and so on — concerned a lot of Ambedkarites. People in Maharashtra had a better idea, but outside of that he had little access to Ambedkar, the person.

Subsequently, at Navayana, I curated and published the graphic biography of Ambedkar based on ‘Waiting for a Visa’. This was Bhimayana. What ensured its translation into Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, besides French, Spanish and Korean and a UK edition published by Tate Books was the art of Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam, two Pardhan Gond artists. Still, we did not know the private Ambedkar. Even when Ambedkar writes about his experiences of untouchability, he tells us only what we need to know for the purpose of politics.

Around this time, I also worked with some of the finest writers on the anti-caste movement, Bhagwan Das, Namdeo Nimgade, Eleanor Zelliot, Anand Teltumbde and so on, and I began annotating Ambedkar. In the process, I read and collected a lot of material by various writers who had shared an intimacy with Ambedkar. For long, I had wanted to make a book of fragments. I recently hired a new editor at Navayana, Salim Yusufji, and I suggested he take this forward. And he did a very fine job of assembling these many voices into a symphonic whole. We are fortunate to have Bama and Urmila Pawar, two pioneers of the Dalit movement, write the introduction, and foreword to this volume that sheds new light on the kind of person Ambedkar was.

S Anand 
S Anand 

Q: Clearly, many of the books published or authored by you don’t care to walk the mainline, and, yet, it is the mainline, or, pushing the boundaries of what is the cliche of prejudiced mainline; your books explore the non-conformist byway, a twilight zone of imagination, shifting dominant paradigms. Bhimayana, a graphic biography of Ambedkar, is a classic of our time. So was the republication of Annihilation of Caste with an introduction by Arundhati Roy. They are like dreams. So, tell us, is it like a dream, before it becomes realism?

The challenge Navayana set itself from the beginning was to ensure that Ambedkar’s writings and books on the anti-caste subject are available in what are called mainstream bookstores and the market.Bhimayana happened out of a political desire to ensure that non-Dalits too came to know about Ambedkar and his experiences. We are saturated with information about Gandhi and Nehru and so on, but know so little about Ambedkar, and at the rate at which he is being Hinduised by the current RSS-BJP outfits, in a decade it may be difficult to sift truth and facts from new mythologies and fictions.

I have always seen Navayana’s books as acts of subversion and resistance. When I asked Arundhati Roy in circa 2004 about whether she’d read any of Ambedkar, she had said no. When she asked if she could buy some of his books in Delhi’s well known bookstores, I said no and sent her a photocopy of Annihilation of Caste (AoC). Yes, there are scores of editions of ‘AoC’ by many anti-caste publishers, but what makes the Navayana edition special are Arundhati’s introduction and the annotations. These are, of course, dream projects, but once you realize such a dream, you reboot yourself and start dreaming again — for the monster of caste cannot be easily slayed. Truth be told, our edition of AoC has sold just over 20,000 copies in more than three years. This is a pathetic figure in a nation where at least 20 million people can read such a book, and where Amish Tripathi and Chetan Bhagat have first print-runs of 5 lakh copies.

Q: A section of Dalit readers took a rather ghettoised view about Roy’s painstaking and brilliant introduction. I believe the book found a whole new audience, after its resurrection. How do you explain this repetitive phenomena? Is it a legitimate reaction, or is it a kind of reductionist argument?

I have spoken at length in an interview to an Australian literary magazine last year —when an Indian writer and academic from Australia asked me some pointed questions on this — about the many kinds of reception this book has had, and I compared it to the kind of neglect our other books suffer from. Firstly, I do not see the reaction of a section of Dalit and non-Dalit readers as ghettoized — you must remember that not all of them who raised objections to the very existence were Dalit; a good lot were Brahmins and other castes. Yes, the book found a whole new audience but some of the Dalits were not entirely wrong in asking some valid questions that were about power, identity and representation. The questions — will non-Dalits begin to read and engage Ambedkar only when an icon like Arundhati Roy writes of him?— is a valid one. The flip side is this: if we personally attack and ridicule the few non-Dalits who seek an engagement with Ambedkar, what will be the possibility of alliances and solidarity? All these are nice, righteous questions to ask. Here, I’d like to draw upon what I already said in response to similar questions to the Australian magazine Cordite.

I’d ask everyone to consider what the scholar Soumyabrata Chaudhury from JNU draws attention to. He turns to none other than Ambedkar to argue that the habit of not feeling grateful must be practised. Speaking of Gandhi and his shenanigans with the Harijan Sevak Sangh, Ambedkar says in his book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables: “Untouchables having become independent will cease to be grateful to the Hindus.” We must take this out of context and treat this as an axiom. Now, I could cry myself hoarse that Navayana is not in the least a Gandhian or brahmanical enterprise, and that Arundhati Roy must be seen as an ally and so on. But there’s a larger lesson we must draw from Ambedkar here. Howsoever I fashion myself as a radical Ambedkarite, the Dalits have the right to reject me outright, even if my birth should be cited as the primal cause. Are they practising casteism? No. If a Kabir teaches us to love, Namdeo Dhasal teaches us to both curse and love. For the first time, we have a historical reversal, of a Dalit-led group boycotting a brahman-made (if not brahmanical) ‘product’. Dalits who have always been at the receiving end of social boycotts, have decided to politically boycott something and someone with a ‘no-thanks’, even a ‘fuck off’.

We assume we have the right to ask, ‘Oh why are Dalits angry when Arundhati Roy or Anand Patwardhan (though these two are poles apart in their views on Gandhi or the Left, or, many things) engage with Dalits?’ How long have Dalits had to wait for this change in mindsets to happen? And why should they be delighted or grateful when this turn happens?

Now we can endlessly debate whether this is just, and if there are not better recipients of such a boycott call than Navayana/Anand/Roy etc. Soumyabrata, or Shomo, as we call him, says: “I will call this the project of a new conduct of defaulting rather than induction into the old brahmanical habit of ‘being-in-debt’.”

And so I have come to not expect any gratitude from anyone for the historical debt I owe to the caste society I am born into. Such a debt can be waived perhaps only when axiomatic equality establishes itself at the practical level: in other words, when caste disappears or is completely annihilated, a realm where no one would have to be grateful to anyone. But, then, that realm of truth and reconciliation, that moment of enlightenment, is not even on the horizon.

Bhimayana: Experiences Of Untouchability
Bhimayana: Experiences Of Untouchability

Q: Do you think the huge victory procession of the ‘Hindutva forces’ will have any impact on Dalit politics in India? Are new forces emerging in the Dalit leadership, as after the Una lynchings and the long march? Is a new language, or new contradictions, even a new synthesis, a possibility? Can Dalits lead a broad, progressive front? Or, will they join an alliance of liberating forces?

These are a complex set of questions and I shall try to answer them as best and as simply I can. We must first acknowledge and understand that the Left and liberals have never really shown any proper engagement with Ambedkar or any of the anti-caste movements since the colonial period. In fact, the Left and what comes under the ‘liberal-secular’ forces in India, have for long treated Ambedkar and Dalits as untouchable. The so-called progressive people expect Dalits to naturally, automatically and axiomatically resist Hindutva. This is not going to happen as easily as you imagine or wish it to happen, and there are historical reasons for this. Mere hand-wringing will not do. We need to have a sense of history and understand why things are playing out the way they are. In two central universities that have been in the news recently for more or less similar reasons — HCU and JNU — we have seen how the broadly Left and radical Left formations accuse Dalits and Ambedkarites of having betrayed them in the fight against the Hindutva forces. The Dalits have let the ABVP win, is the charge. But, the Left, even in its most radical non-CPI(M) avatar, finds it difficult to accept a Dalit leadership. Therefore, we see that AISA (forget the SFI) would never work with BAPSA — or, rather, accept BAPSA’s leadership — in JNU. And they accuse Ambedkarites of doing identity politics and having helped Hindutva, unwittingly or unwittingly. Such a charge is implicit in the way some of your questions are framed, if I may say so.

The aforementioned Soumyabrata Chaudhury of JNU spoke rather powerfully and movingly some weeks ago after the suicide of the research scholar Muthukrishan, alias Rajni Krish, about how ashamed he is of the fact that the faculty at the Centre for Historical Studies said there was no discrimination at the centre. At the BAPSA-organized protest demo, he also spoke with anguish about the cleavage between the Left and the Dalit-led groups in JNU. I am invoking Shomo here since he is faculty and a non-Dalit capable of such introspection. It is his engagement both with Ambedkar and with contemporary Dalit politics that’s worth heeding to and learning from. People should also listen to how several Dalit students from the margins — such as Jitendra Suna, spoke about how they deal with JNU — if an elite, progressive university like JNU can hound Dalits so badly, what hope does society offer?

I’m tired of people saying, ‘Look at how Ambedkar worked with non-Dalits and enlisted a Brahmin like GN Sahasrabuddhe in burning a copy of the Manusmriti at Mahad on 25 December 1927.’ These are exceptions, and Ambedkar was a good strategist. And the key lesson here is this: A Sahasrabuddhe or Surendranath Tipnis, a man of the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP) caste, who were both part of the Mahad Satyagraha, accepted Dalit leadership and worked under Ambedkar. This is not happening today. AISA and SFI need to ask themselves why they cannot work with BAPSA, not the other way round — especially when Dalits have not assumed leadership positions even in the most radical leftist formations. This is not easy but this needs to happen. People do say Dalits are not so keen on the fight against capitalism, they are not leftist or radical enough, and so on. Those who say this are well-ensconced and enjoy all the benefits of capital. To accuse Dalits or a section of Dalits of being beholden to capitalism is to accuse the least empowered and most marginalized sections of India as being responsible for the way power and capital have accrued in the hands of few castes today. It is not as if capitalism needs Dalit support to march ahead.

To be able to see things a little clearly, we need to heed Ambedkar. He says clearly in ‘AoC’: “There can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be. This is so not because there is anything wrong with his personal character. In fact, what is wrong is the entire basis of his relationship to his fellows.” Now, a range of leftists and liberals — for instance, to name two men I respect, Harsh Mander and Apoorvanand — think of how one can be a ‘good’ Hindu and resist ‘bad’ Hindutva. I think we are deluding ourselves by being nostalgic about a better variant of Hinduism. Like Gopal Guru said in another context in an essay in 1999, Dalits cannot have the luxury of being nostalgic. For nothing in the past seems like something you can yearn for and return to. This kind of thinking about ‘good Hinduism’ pervades among the Left academics who ruled the roost at places like JNU for over 30 years and never bothered to implement reservation at the faculty level — it is a fact that before this phase of aggressive and state-backed Hindutva, places like JNU had less than 2 per cent of Dalits in the faculty. And I don’t need to name here the eminences who ruled over the social sciences departments in JNU. In other words, they defied the Constitution of India that stipulates 22.5 percent reservation among faculty. This is exclusion and untouchability of the worst kind from people at the forefront of opposing Hinudtva today.

If you have a largely Dalit-free or Adivasi-free faculty, discrimination against Dalits and Adivasis will naturally ensue. Chandra Bhan Prasad, who is much reviled in Left circles for his arguing that Dalits must have a share in the capitalist enterprise (or in the English language) and must look beyond reservation, has written about all this in 1999–2000, about how anti-Dalit JNU was and has always been. And remember, Chandra Bhan started as a naxalite.

Now ask this: how many non-Dalits quit Hinduism and embraced Buddhism with Ambedkar? You can count them with your fingers. You may need your toes at best. Since Siddhartha Gautama was a high-born man, kings and people accepted him as someone they can follow. Then a resurgent brahminism vanquished Buddhism from the land of its birth. So much that Ashoka had to be re-discovered during the colonial period. Since Ambedkar was a low-born Untouchable, and even dared to rescript and refashion Buddhism as a godless credo, he did not emerge as a leader to non-Dalits. And, today, we have the so-called good Hindus, the old-fashioned Nehruvian Hindus, lamenting the rise of Hindutva. I think we had this coming. Just like the US had Trump coming and refused to see it.

You ask whether a new synthesis will emerge from all these contradictions, and if a broad Dalit-led platform can emerge. I doubt it. It took two decades before Kanshi Ram-founded BSP could land itself a political majority in 2007 under Mayawati. Even in that landmark election, of the 93 Dalit candidates fielded by the BSP, only four were fielded in general constituencies. And, of the four, none could win. This means, even at its peak, despite its slogan of ‘sarva-samaj’ (inclusion of all castes) and its political alliance with Brahmins, even a party like BSP could not ensure a Dalit victory from a non-reserved general constituency.

Forget the BSP, how often has the organised Left or the Congress in its best phase fielded Dalits in general constituencies other than perhaps in unsafe constituencies where they are bound to lose? A survey of this kind will reveal a lot about the kind of society we are, we were, and shall remain for a long time to come. Today, whatever Mayawati’s faults, the biggest Dalit-led political party in post-independence India has been left rudderless. In the recent UP elections, the BSP could win only two reserved seats out of total 84 reserved for Scheduled Castes. Ironically, of the 19 seats it has, 17 have been won by non-Dalits from general constituencies. The BJP and its new-found Dalit allies — groups that splintered from the BSP such as the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and Apna Dal (Sonelal )— won 70 of the reserved seats. Given this, I am rather skeptical about what Jignesh Mewani can really do in post-Una Gujarat, though, he, given his love of Kafka and Marx and Ambedkar, represents the best hope. But, I doubt non-Dalits or even the doctrinaire Left will rally around him.

Q: If Ambedkar had been alive today, how would he look at the new landscape of politics in India? Can we look at Narendra Modi and his victory march after the Gujarat genocide of 2002, from Ambedkar’s eyes?

I usually find it impossible to answer such ‘what-if’ questions. But I’d surely say Ambedkar anticipated this. In the 2007 Gujarat assembly election, only five Muslim legislators (2.7 per cent) were elected in an house of 182 (only from constituencies where they are the majority community and where none but a Muslim can win in an FPTP system). In 2012, this was down to two. In UP, a similar thing has happened. With the BJP fielding zero Muslims, like in Gujarat, Muslim representation in the state with the largest Muslim population, at 19.2 per cent, has plummeted from 17.1 per cent in 2012 to 5.9 per cent in the Assembly (24 of 403 MLAs). With Dalits, this won’t and can’t happen since they have reservation. But in the kind of first-past-the-post (FPTP) system we have, only pliable Hindu-friendly Dalit candidates fielded by ‘general’ parties such as the BJP, Congress, or, say, TDP or AIADMK in the south, will win. Remember the Congress led by Nehru ensured that Ambedkar lost two elections in post-independence India.

In the 2017 UP elections, Rajvir Diler, a Dalit candidate of the BJP for the reserved Iglas constituency, while campaigning for votes from the jats, sat down on the floor, never on a chair, and used his own cup to drink water or tea. The Times of India and others reported this. Unsurprisingly, Diler trounced the BSP’s nominee, Rajendra Kumar, by 74,800 votes.

Addressing a meeting of the All India Scheduled Castes Federation held in Bombay on 6 May 1945, Ambedkar said:  “In India, the majority is not a political majority. In India the majority is born; it is not made. That is the difference between a communal majority and a political majority.” On the same topic, in 1955, in his work Thoughts on Linguistic States, Ambedkar said majorities are of two sorts: communal majority and political majority. “A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it.” In India, the play of caste and religion ensure that voting is always communal and ‘a majority community carries the seat by sheer communal majority’.

Ambedkar was generally disinclined towards the FPTP system wherein the communal majority could easily command a political majority. Ambedkar also favoured the single transferable vote (STV) system, where voters get to rank candidates in order of preference (also known as preferential and cumulative voting). With STV, one can rank as many or for as few candidates. To get elected, candidates need to reach a quota of the votes. This also ensures proportional representation.

If we have to make democracy count, we need be brave enough to revisit some of the principles Ambedkar truly believed in; we must ensure that the majority community of Hindus never gets to have more than 40 per cent share in an elected body; to make democracy count we need to abjure the FPTP system and explore plural-member constituencies. We need to rescind the Poona Pact that Gandhi won through sheer blackmail and we must go back to separate electorates. In such an Ambedkarite utopia, a Narendra Modi can perhaps never win even a panchayat election, forget mastermind a pogrom.

All this seems far away now. At least as long as we had coalition governments, the interests of large minorities like Dalits and Muslims could be taken care of. Today, we just have to helplessly watch the BJP-RSS and its many affiliates make use of democracy, parading a communal religious majority as a political majority, and changing the very shape of the subcontinent. The only solution seems to be unfolding in occupied Kashmir — where there has been such a near-total boycott of the farce called elections.