by -Pallavi

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Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

[Note: This post is a result of several discussions with friends and acquaintances on the recent publication of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘Annhiliation of Caste’, by the publisher Navayana, with an introduction titled ‘The Doctor and the Saint’ by Arundhati Roy. Since then, based on the criticism of Brahminical hegemony it has evoked from Dalit sources, several academics, journalists and commentators have criticized the objections as being ‘essentialist’ and ‘reductive’. Read Dalit Camera’s ‘Open Letter to Arundhati Roy’ and ‘Arundhati Roy replies to Dalit Camera’, for some context, and below those posts on Round Table India, do read every single post by critics contributing to the debate around the introduction and what it represents.

This post is my own attempt to sort through the issues with my experience in academia, and to explain why I agree with those in Roundtable India on the appropriation of Ambedkar’s work and legacy.]

… I cursed another good hot curse.
The university buildings shuddered and sank waist-deep.
All at once, scholars began doing research
into what makes people angry.

– Keshav Meshram, ‘One day I cursed that mother-fucker God’, (trans. by Jayant Karve, Eleanor Zelliot with Pam Espeland)

Before I even begin, I fear I am guilty of what Keshav has accused me of. Savarna scholars have a long history of exploiting opportunities to ‘make a name’ for themselves, and Keshav is not wrong in pointing at a Brahmin scholar like me in accusation. But the task of listening to, comprehending and accepting the anger against Brahminical appropriation has been dismissed for too long now, and perhaps looking inwards into our university buildings can teach us what provokes curses and such anger against scholars.

Like many of the notorious liberal savarna crowd, I had been anticipating Roy’s introduction to the Navayana edition of ‘Annihilation of Caste’, hoping her association with the book would make Ambedkar more popular among a readership unfamiliar with him. Roy the author, has a certain intellectual status among left-liberals in India, and I had always held her non-fiction and essays in some regard for her skill with language, her eloquent rhetoric and her ability to reimagine a politics of resistance. Sure, she was inconsistent and she exaggerated for effect, but I had more than once argued that she was a necessary counter-narrative in a country that had narrow narratives on everything. With the news of her introduction to Ambedkar’s text, I wilfully believed that Roy was a great marketing device, and intellectual choice, for writing the introduction to push Ambedkar into global visibility. What a hammering those beliefs have taken, in light of my experience with Ambedkar in the classroom, and Roy’s own comments and responses regarding the issue.

Because these are not just abstract debates about somebody’s identity and the right of those with the ‘right’ identity to write about Ambedkar. These arguments once again raise the question of the role of an author contributing to existing discourses, whether they are just limited to the texts they write and the wider implications of the texts on their readers. These arguments particularly have long-term implications in how readers, particularly students, will view power, privilege and empowerment in India. Let me illuminate this with an incident.

In my time as a lecturer in a media college at a private university, I used to be of the opinion that the classroom could be a sacrosanct place, with no taboo subject or a stupid question, and where ideologies and divisions could be openly debated, dissected and hopefully, delegitimized. It was with this assumption that I had set readings on Ambedkar and caste in the mainstream media, for a subject called ‘Media and Society’. Remarkably in one of the classes, an OBC student spoke up openly about her background and her experience with caste affecting the dynamics of her social circle. There was some immediate disagreement from a vocal group of savarna students who felt her experience (and her experience alone) was subjective. The discussion expanded into topics such as reservation and intermarriage, and I struggled in vain to bring a sense of balance to it, by attacking some arguments myself and by encouraging the girl to counter savarna arguments. But as the lone person contradicting their opinion, she soon became quiet, and without wanting to dictate or force an opinion, I had to back off. The discussion ended abysmally with the savarna group arguing on the lines of “But this is an exceptional case, not the norm”, “times are changing”, and the always popular “I don’t know any of my friends’ castes”.

Alongside that was another incident. In my institute’s library, I discovered a year or so ago, that despite volumes of MK Gandhi’s works, several collections on Indian freedom fighters and political thinkers, there was not one book in our library of Ambedkar’s writings. There were biographies and critiques of Ambedkar, but not his actual words. On speaking about this to the head librarian, I was told that some editions such as the OUP collection edited by Valerian Rodrigues had already been requested, but the usual bureaucratic explanations like red-tape, funding, timing of orders had just not seen it through. This April though, the head librarian contacted me to say they were considering ordering the ‘new’ edition of AoC, with its special introduction by Roy. The ‘old’ editions were most likely not going to be ordered because one copy would suffice.

This is where the arguments over appropriation make a very serious point. It struck me that in less than a year, many of my students would most likely access and read Roy’s introduction to AoC, which as the only edition of the text would be the ‘prescribed’ reading for any subject I taught. And in a class, if one or two OBCs or Dalits would brave narrating their life experiences, other students would quote from Roy’s introduction and Anand’s annotations their understanding of caste. What are the chances in this kind of classroom that the Dalit-Bahujans’ empirical narratives and readings of caste will be given as much credibility as Roy’s introduction, which shows no empirical engagement with Dalit issues? How often will Dalit-Bahujans continue speaking up in a class and college where most of the readings on their own lives (even if there are any) are by upper-caste authors like Sen, Guha, Sainath and Roy? How much can Dalit-Bahujans engage with in universities where Tagore festivals and Gandhi Jayanthis are celebrated annually, but Ambedkar Jayanthi depends on the efforts of a handful of faculty and students?

This right here, is the crucial point that the entire Roy-Navayana project symbolizes. This is the crucial point where the savarna university colludes with the savarna library, colludes with the savarna faculty and students to create an exclusive savarna classroom, where already fewer and fewer Dalit voices are being heard. This is the crucial point, where even a Brahmin lecturer like me – who has read Ambedkar, who has some engagement with Ambedkarites, who can organize an Ambedkar reading group on Ambedkar Jayanthi, and who puts Ambedkar into a syllabus – cannot shed my Brahmin-ness long enough to create a safe open space for discussion on caste. This is the crucial point where my earnest efforts at provoking radical thinking in a classroom cannot overcome the students’ and my own caste capital.

Even bookshelves have their politics. One of the defining institutions of the private university with its revealing bookshelves is its library. Libraries are where you can see the gears of the Brahminical corporate system at work – what ideologies drive them, what biases they hold, what populations they serve, what surnames they stock. The academic library in particular comes with its own vocabulary these days – acquisitions, affiliations, catalogues, collections, collaborations. All of these stress on a network, a well-connected group of like-minded individuals and institutions involved in the business of knowledge. Professors publish with reputed publishing houses; they go on to solicit books by other highly qualified academics, authors, and publishing houses; reading lists are prescribed on intellectual merit (decided by the small world of mainstream English media and academia) and research is guided along tried and tested methodologies and conclusions. Research bibliographies run like a veritable “who’s who” in the area – PhD scholars from the west, internationally published authors, award-winning journalists from mainstream media – and research publications tend to be peer-reviewed by an invisible circle of peers, published in journals with impact factors that count the number of citations they then get to rate themselves better.

How is an outsider, an outcast of centuries, expected to break through these circles of privilege?

Ambedkar may be as universal as the sun, but reading him, writing him and teaching him cannot be seen as easily universal as that. The classroom is a political space, as is the library, and when the Navayana project defends their goal of dismantling Brahminism from the inside, we have to remember Audre Lorde who prophetically said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It is not mainstream publishing, western academia and the mainstreaming of authors and books that will dismantle Brahminical knowledge machinery. It is always the alternative and the independent press and media that diverge from the Brahminical mainstream, and that challenge their words and their views. Regional press networks, pamphleteers and book fairs have been keeping Ambedkar’s words alive in several languages for decades, and Columbia University along with a few other websites have ensured his work circulated on the Internet, universally accessible and free of cost. Dalit voices are being heard more and more across websites like Dalit Camera and Round Table India. It is in those spaces that the counter-hegemonic narrative of caste has its roots. Those roots cannot be transplanted and appropriated into mainstream media, or Ambedkar will be trivialized into a pop icon, just another logo for Brand Navayana.

The only way to learn Ambedkar in the classroom is to begin by interrogating those who teach Ambedkar in the classroom. Brahmin and savarna teachers, authors, publishers need to be prepared to look at our own interpretations of Ambedkar with a far more critical eye than we have done so far.

Keshav Meshram curses the university angrily because of the hypocrisy it represents – the promise of illumination masking decades of hegemony and discrimination. In a lifetime of privilege, with a liberal education and a passion for reading, I still ended up reading Ambedkar seriously only at the age of 28, and it makes me very angry too. Ambedkar taught me more about being Brahmin than any Brahmin did. And so I will still bring Ambedkar into the savarna classroom, still tell savarna students (and myself) to listen instead of just arguing, and I will continue to imagine Ambedkar standing in my class, shaking his head at my inadequacy, because the alternative – not having Ambedkar in the savarna classroom – is unthinkable.

Someday, maybe the Brahminical monoliths that are our universities will address the monster in our midst that is caste, and attempt a conversation around it. But at this moment our education will be incomplete and incorrect if we don’t acknowledge the fact that the subaltern has already spoken, eloquently, and without an arbitrator. The only question is who will listen?

(My thanks to Gaurav Somwanshi, Samvartha and Akshay Pathak who provided valuable feedback for this post.)