Creation of an Ambedkarite public /Dalitisation of civil society

The subversion of Brahiminical systems of thought and representation will bring about a cultural revolution which will ultimately ‘Dalitise’ the spaces of engagement. Drishadwati Bargi explores …

Urban spaces are continuously subject to movement of people from rural, semi-urban spaces, so what constitutes the urban remains neither constant nor uniform. It is becoming more heterogeneous (in terms of caste-class–gender-racial identities) and thus, more prone to conflict. If the space is marked by conflicts, the time is marked by an upsurge (electorally speaking) of right-wing force and regressive Brahminical patriarchal capitalist ideology accompanied by small, identity-based resistant movements.

In this situation, the cyberspace is forced to bear the mark of the conflict. The cyberspace is dominated by the right -wing forces through overt and covert means. On one hand, this includes the election propagandas to hagiographies of rightwing leadership to manipulation and management of the entertainment industry, news agencies etc. On the other hand, its unanchored nature, its potential to penetrate and engulf inexplicable number of users and its affordability has made it accessible to some Dalits .A strong desire for upward mobility as well as an equally strong desire for self-representation has fuelled the large-scale use of the internet (including blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc) as a ground for agitation or resistance. The dint in the electoral battle has turned caste into a ‘political category’ worthy of discussion, reflection and agitation. Also, the implementation (half-hearted) of reservation policies has created a second generation of ambitious young Dalits who can access the English language as well as the cyberspace if not the hallowed institutions of knowledge, the reputed academic journals, the mainstream newspapers as producers as well as consumers of knowledge. The few Dalits who make their way into the academia often experience discrimination as well as deafening silence about it. The curriculum does not include their lives, struggles and histories. As a Dalit student studying in an Eng-literature department, the near absence of caste in the syllabus was not as perplexing for me as its total negation was in the informal discussions, addas or students’ political organisations. The informal yet extremely intense discussions outside classrooms are very important because most of the time they evolve into communities, reading groups, solidarity networks and often go on to become an important part of what social scientists call ’civil society’. Partha Chatterjee writes, “Civil society refers to those characteristic institutions of modern associational life originating in Western societies that are based on equality, autonomy, freedom of entry and exit, contract, deliberative procedures of decision making, recognised rights and duties of members, and such other principles.” He has however added that in the post -colonial nation where modernisation is part of the colonising mission, civil society here comprises of an enlightened elite engaged in what is essentially a ‘pedagogical mission’ in relation to the rest of the society. A cursory glance at the surnames of the members of the major and minor organisations, news agencies, educational institutions clearly reveal the absence of Dalits in the civil society. Additionally ,the issues that get due attention in the major newspapers as well as little magazines do not mention caste and say nothing about Ambedkarite struggles . The formative roots of this civil society are embedded in the same institutions as a result of which they end up simulating the production and re-production of exclusions and boundaries that these institutions are guilty of. Moreover, this symbiotic relationship between civil society and educational institutions also draws within its nexus a whole coterie of publishing industry, rewarding practices, fundings etc. In the process, certain issues become legitimised , certain ideologies metamorphose into common sense and certain mode of debating become the norm. Exceptions are sometimes permitted for one or two Dalit activists /academicians to give voice to their opinion..However, the overall discourse remains predominantly Brahminical. On the other side, the syllabus in the classroom is still grappling with Eurocentrism and the discipline’s dependence on the Western academia so that attempts of indigenisation of the syllabi often lead to the fetishisation and reification of an Orient accompanied by a gesture of downright homogenisation of the society.

These days, English Departments are gradually being colonised by postcolonial studies. It refers to the massive amount of literary or non -literary forms of cultural expressions which have foregrounded the relationship between domination and knowledge formation. The question of ‘resistance’ and ‘power’ has been brought to center of literary studies.. Dominated by expat theoreticians and diasporic litterateurs, its overt political thrust often engage students in a way that European literatures cannot. The effect is more intense on those students who bear the brunt of domination. However, the privileging of the moment of colonialism takes away attention from pre-colonial forms of exploitation which continue to be determining forces in the lives of the Dalits. Apart from the familial day -to-day anti-caste discussions that are held in Dalit homes, in gatherings, Post -Colonial studies in many ways insert the questions of power, hegemony, knowledge in the minds of Dalit students. These questions, when juxtaposed with their daily experiences of discrimination and encounters with prejudices become very intimate, urgent and pressing. However, when they seek the answers, they are not met with enthusiasm because the change of questions also changes the target of the questions. The questions and anxieties are often in their infancy and need validation from others. Unfortunately, this is absent in the academic space or the mainstream newspapers. It is here that the need for an alternative space/platform arises that will simultaneously mirror the conflicts, dilemmas and experiences of pain, frustration, anger as well as build up a community of writers/bloggers/activists/students who share similar ideas in different forms and strongly feel the urge to transform the situation. Breaking the silence surrounding caste comes up as the fundamental act towards that end. However, the platform in this case is offered by the cyberspace, in the form of blogs, networking sites, portals etc. Round Table India has become one such space.

Roundtable recognises that Indian media has played a significant role in helping the dominant social forces ‘deny the existence’ of untouchability and caste and ‘repudiate their responsibility’ in building and maintaining an unjust social order. It has consistently promoted the project of twisting the ‘Hindu problem’, as Dr. Ambedkar had once observed, into the ‘Dalit problem’.

… Roundtable shall aggregate news from the mainstream media, piecing together current information on society, politics and policy of interest to the Dalit-Bahujan world…In short, Roundtable shall function as a uniquely Dalit-Bahujan media actor that perceives through their eyes and ears, and speaks through their voice.

 Thus reads the self-description of the portal ( The posts range from vituperative articles on the selection of Arundhati Roy as an “introducer” of B.R Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste or selection of Binayak Sen as a recipient of an award on behalf of India’s adivasis to sarcastic pieces on the Brahminism in classroom or elitism of universities. Often Phule or Ambedkar’s writings are posted with interesting annotations. Some assert Ambedkarism by celebrating and writing about “beef festivals” while some “remember” atrocities and violence of Chunduru, Kharlanji, Marijhjhapi. Most importantly, the articles bring about the prevalence of caste in modern educational institutions, suicide of Dalit students, ragging and marginalised cultural practices. In this connection, I select the articles concerning the introduction of Annihilation of Caste by Arundhati Roy to underscore the political impact of what Round Table India is doing. The debate is about a particular person (upper caste, elite, Booker prize winning author) introducing a text that is borne out of and breathes into the struggle against Brahminism. The attack on the Roy-Navayana project is one of the many attempts that seeks to re-define knowledge as not something that can be generated in a press for a market but a tool that will dismantle the institutions that undermine Dalit voices, originating from their struggles, day to day encounters with caste. Thus, Anoop Kumar writes “My rants are about what she (A.Roy) actually represents before us, not as a person, but as someone who gets two national magazines simultaneously to provide her ample space – to talk about her essay, about caste, about dalits, about Ambedkar – which is so cruelly denied to us, is shut for ever. Not even Ambedkar could ever breach it, till he got discovered by people like Ms Roy.” Further, it is a question of democratising the entire power-knowledge-representation nexus which the Dalits are challenging through their appropriation of the cyberspace .The mode (passionate, robust, vituperative), language (terse, broken rants in indigenised English), space (non-academic, unanchored to any institution) and agents (non-specialists) starkly contrast the accepted norms of deliberation and debates that take place in the civil society at large. In fact it fits into some of the prejudices that have already existed in the minds of many of the most reputed intellectuals of our country. Is not the anger read along these lines by most of the readers, “They (South Asians) are absurdly over-sensitive about their heroes. In this age of identity politics, which non-Dalit would dare to write a dispassionate study of the extraordinary Dalit leader B. R Ambedkar ?”Is there an element of truth in what Ramachandra Guha has said in the above lines? Is the anger, a result of blind-hero worship and over-sensitivity towards our heroes? The question can be answered only if we tease out the characteristic of the debate.

Referring to the publication of her book , in an interview with Saba Naqvi , A.Roy says “Many Dalits and Dalit scholars have, over the decades, been very sharply critical of Gandhi and Gandhism. Having said that, if this book begins another debate, a real debate (emphasis mine), it can only be a good thing. I think it’s high time that there was one”. Does not this bespeak of an exaggerated sense of self -importance? Does not this statement betray a trace of the kind of elitism that pervades the civil society and about which Chatterjee talks? What are the conditions and attributes of this so called “real debate?” Can it only exist when an upper caste intellectual is present to pontificate, to lay down the rules and finally judge the players of the debate? Does it always need an upper -caste mediator who doubles up as the translator of marginalised cultures (for people in the West) as well as the professor rewarding the deserved and punishing the deviants? Does the debate always need the monotonous tone of the critic? Does it always require a grammatically correct English? Does it also need a faith in the disciplines of social sciences and a reverential usage of methods they espouse, concepts they create – circulate – consume and subjects (of history) they vindicate? If these are the attributes of what constitutes a real debate then Dalits quite clearlycannot engage in a “real debate”.

It is important to remember that in the portal nobody claims to be a specialist.. Round Table India is used by activists, students, anybody and everybody. Secondly, the RTI was created to bypass mediation, hence also bypass translators and professors. . Most importantly, the articles have not only simply negated the methods or concepts of the Western disciplines, they have resurrected another subject of history , a figure much maligned ,much neglected by all the existing disciplines of Social Sciences.

It is in such context that the twin processes of creation of an Ambedkarite public and Dalitisation of the civil society take shape. If, by ‘public’, we refer to a group of people organised about a situation, the act of creating an Ambedkarite public, the act of organising people around a common ideology simultaneously relies on a repetitive usage of certain imageries, signifying certain experiences shared commonly by the Dalits as well as non-Dalits who read and write for the portal. For instance, there are a couple of articles around the theme of beef and pork eating that foreground the questions of stigma, pollution, dietary freedom and struggles over them. There are articles on the importance of remembering certain spaces or personas who bear the mark of the communitarian struggle, on the stereotypes of Dalit bodies created by the media, about appropriation of Dalit voices in the academic space and so on. In sum, there is an attempt to be politicised, named and identified through the dissemination of lives, practices and acts. The Ambedkarite public is constantly born through these practices. which have the potential towards Dalitisation of civil society. By Dalitisation I do not refer to simplistic replacement of one group of people with another. Dalitisation “requires that the whole of Indian society learns from the Dalitwaadas or the localities where Dalits live. It requires that we look at the Dalitwaadas in order to acquire a new consciousness. It requires that we attend to life in these wadas : that we appreciate what is positive, what is humane and what can be extended from Dalitwaada to the whole society”. According to Kancha Ilaiah the soul of Dalit-bahujan culture lies in collective consciousness. The thrust of his argument is on the changed role of the dominant castes from that of the pedagogue to an active listener and also a learner. In his now famous Why I Am Not A Hindu, Kancha Ilaiah creates a fundamental opposition between Hinduisation of the Dalit Bahujan masses and the nation and a Dalitisation of the nation that will resist the former force. He writes, “In order to Dalitise society and de-Hinduise it thoroughly, every word and every sentence that has been written by Brahminical thinkers, writers, politicians, historians, poets must be re-examined thoroughly”. Declaring that it is a task more difficult than what is done or undone by politicians, he enunciates a strategy of suspicion. “When we point out that they may be wrong, suspicion becomes their ideology. Now it is our turn to declare that suspecting them is a prime tenet of our ideology. Then they will stop asking questions.” One must not ignore the fact that what Ilaiah is ultimately espousing is a revolution that will use the act of “reading” as a political weapon. If civil society is comprised of brahminical pedagogues,the Dalitisation can only take place if Dalits jeopardise this pedagogic approach by dismantling the former’s resources through continuous suspicion. So as far as creating a politics based on suspicion is concerned the opinions offered by the writers on the portal seem to be following the dictum. The text is being dissected and perforated daily on the portal as well as the social networking sites. Attention has now shifted from the “invisibilisation” of Ambedkar to the multiple ways in which his writings and ideas are being “colonised”.

However, certain issues still remain vexed.

In an open letter to Arundhati Roy, Dalit Camera had put forward a list of ten questions to Roy. One of them reads like, “Do you share the view that Dalit activists and scholars are better qualified to introduce Annihilation of Caste both in terms of their engagement with Ambedkar and their life experience?”Had the question been directed at me I would have answered in negative. This negation would not have come from a faith in the scholarship of Roy or for that matter her opinion that her words are going to help us in our battle against brahminism or an unfaith in the way Dalit cultural politics have sought to subvert Brahminical knowledge-power-representation nexus. Rather,it would have arisen from a deep respect for Ambedkar’s scholarship and the politics he has espoused. The call for Dalitisation privileges the perspective of Dalits that is continuously negated and neglected. However, to claim that Dalits are better suited to “introduce” Ambedkar in terms of their engagement with him and their experience is akin to making way for ghettoisation of Ambedkar at best and trivialisation of the complexity of the power-knowledge-representation nexus at worst. This nexus is far too strong to be annihilated by experience alone which again is not the same for all Dalits inspite of their marginalised location in the nexus. (For instance, the experience of caste discrimination of a Dalit doctor is very different from the experience of discrimination faced by a Dalit industrial worker. Moreover, the experience is also determined by the Dalit’s gender, sexual practice, location, profession and class). All of them may identify themselves as Dalits. Indeed, society will force them to do so. But they may not employ the same strategy of resistance everywhere. Moreover, they may not resist at all. They may remain co-opted by Brahminical ideology, simply parroting its rhetoric and practice. Their co-optation will definitely be part of their Dalit experience but will it be enough to shoulder the burden of Ambedkarite thoughts in their complexity? Does experience of caste discrimination guarantees one’s commitment to the battle against it? If our aim is to annihilate a system and not just create our small cocoons within it , sporadic acts of resistance must evolve into long -term struggles which will not just rant outside the academic space but will take on the space in order to Dalitise it . Given the ephemeral nature of the information that is disseminated in the web, it is only by taking on the academic space that Dalits can inscribe themselves in the civil society and thereafter bring about a cultural revolution. And that struggle will necessitate a kind of politics which will not be able to take the “we” and “them” as unproblematically as it is done outside the academic space.

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  • […] It depends on who categorizes a text as a feminist text. So, if I write something, because I choose to call myself a feminist, I would call that a feminist text. At the same time, someone who is not aware of feminist politics may choose to not call her text ‘feminist’ but, yet it may function and be read as a feminist text.  So, if you look at some of the letters and speeches of Savitribai Phule in the 1830s-50s or Tarabai Shinde, who wrote this one pamphlet called “The Comparison between Women and Men” or Pandita Ramabai- the content of their texts are undoubtedly very feminist, but the term being a Western concept was not identified with them. Same with the writings of men like Periar and Ambedkar. […]

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