We Need to Talk about Caste: Roanna Gonsalves Interviews S Anand

By | 1 August 2016

Image courtesy of S Anand

It was a cool inner west Sydney evening in May 2015, alive with families out to dinner and bookshops open late. It was also one week after four Dalits were sexually abused, murdered, and their homes set on fire in Rajasthan, India, and three weeks before a Dalit girl in a village in Madhya Pradesh, India was beaten up because her shadow fell on an upper caste man. It was with the knowledge of such a bloodscape rooted in systemic oppression, with the privilege of being innoculated from it, with the increasing awareness of its noxious roots and consequences, I began a conversation with the Indian publisher and writer S. Anand. He is the founder-publisher at Navayana, and co-author of Bhimayana and Finding My Way.

In Australia, Dalit writers speaking about this continuing violence have recently been heard as part of the Literary Commons project convened by Mridula Nath Chakraborty, as well as in my body of work for Earshot on RN, ‘On the tip of a billion tongues’. Some years ago, Anand Patwardhan’s chronicle of Dalit communities and their poetry, Jai Bhim Comrade, was screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Mascara Literary Review carried Meeta Chatterjee Padmanabhan’s review of Unclaimed Terrain, a collection of stories written by Dalit writer Ajay Navaria published originally by Navayana, and in Australia by Giramondo. Malcolm Knox’s SBS article Caste Acts documents the sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, always vicious ways in which the caste system is practiced in contemporary Australia. The work of Anand and Navayana have been entwined in many of these Australian interrogations of an old, tyrannical system.

As a publisher, Anand occupies an unusual position in the literary world. Navayana, the publishing house he co-founded in India with Ravikumar, focusses on publishing work about caste from an anti-caste perspective. Navayana also publishes work that interrogates other exploitative structures and agents, including the myth-making surrounding the ‘saintliness’ of Mahatma Gandhi, and reaches out and builds networks of solidarity around the world, including with Australia. For instance, the Navayana Annual Lecture in 2015 was delivered by indigenous Australian writer Ali Cobby Eckermann.

Most recently, Navayana, and Anand himself have been praised as well as critiqued for publishing an annotated critical edition of a ground-breaking text, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, also published in Australia by UWA Publishing.1 Annihilation of Caste presents a scathing critique of the Hindu scriptures that sanction the caste system. The annotations to this new edition were written by Anand, and the introduction by Booker prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy, both outsiders to Dalit communities, and to the experience of historical pain of those considered ‘untouchable’.

While the praise has come from many quarters, the critique has come from a diverse range of intellectuals from Dalit communities, and anti-caste groups, most notably anthologised in the book Hatred in the Belly: Politics behind the Appropriation of Dr. Ambedkar’s Writings. The title itself, Hatred in the Belly, is a translation of a Telugu phrase from a speech given by Dalit poet Joopaka Subhadra whom we had the privilege of meeting at Literary Commons in Melbourne earlier this year. It cuts to the heart of the debate around systemic oppression, and intellectual and cultural appropriation of the dominated by those with power and privilege, a debate that resonates with the struggles faced by indigenous people in Australia and other subjugated communities across the world.

This interview is the result of a conversation conducted via email over many months. It is a frank discussion in which Anand acknowledges that it is he (as a man of caste and class privilege) who speaks here, and not a Dalit writer or publisher. He addresses urgent questions about publishing Dalit work as a non-Dalit, about becoming aware of caste oppression in a brahman family, about the complexities of getting a high profile non-Dalit writer like Arundhati Roy to write the introduction to a pivotal text about the Dalit experience, about surviving as a small publisher in a competitive market, about interacting with indigenous Australia, about who can tell certain stories and why, and why not.

Roanna Gonsalves: Much of your own work, and the work you publish at Navayana, is concerned with interrogating ideas of the sacred and the profane and the links between them, with a view to combating the horrific, violent oppression perpetrated upon Dalits over the centuries in India. Why do you think the world has not been as outraged about this as it should have been, and what can we do about it?

S Anand: Sadly the caste system remains India’s most open secret. People world over have been made to think Hinduism is wonderful, that Indians are largely vegetarian and that this is the land of yoga and ahimsa. The very existence of caste – what Ambedkar called an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt – means there is inequality. We have the policy of reservation – a system that is more concrete and enforceable than affirmation action – to address the historical wrongs done to Dalits and Adivasis (and now also to those designated as shudras and known officially as Other Backward Classes), but this oddly has also sometimes helped accentuate caste. Why and how?

Hinduism has resisted all effort at reform and even today you have temples that openly disallow women, Dalits etc from their precincts and the law of the land is a mute spectator. Remember, the Supreme Court of India in 1995 declared that Hindutva or Hinduism – they conflated both – is a way of life in India. In 2015, the Supreme Court gave unusual rights to brahmans to exclusively be the priests and controllers of Hindu religion in the name of ‘Agama Shastras’. A non-brahman trained and proficient in priest craft will be ineligible because of the caste barrier. More than 65 percent of judges in India are brahman – and they comprise just 3 percent of the population.

A version of this exclusion happens in universities and other state-funded spaces as recent developments in India have shown. In the post-1991 burgeoning private sector – including the media – there’s no policy of diversity or reservation, and so Dalits and Adivasis are as good as absent.

RG: You’ve written extensively about the English language in India, you’ve also spoken with me about this, about how English has been embraced by Dalit communities as an empowering language, although it has historically been monopolised by the brahmanical classes. Yet at the same time you are attuned to the importance of languages other than English, especially in a multilingual space like India where English is the language of power and prestige, while other languages with much older literary traditions, languish and die out. Would you please tell us a bit more about this?

SA: Language becomes another site of exercising power and maintaining hierarchy. Almost all languages in India carry the baggage of caste. We forget that the various ‘official’ languages – there are 22 listed in the official schedule of the Constitution – themselves are contested terrains. Take Telugu, for instance, the language I grew up with (though I am a native Tamil speaker). What’s called ‘literary’ Telugu has been mostly a brahmanical variation spoken by less than five percent of the coastal population of the state of Andhra Pradesh. And classical literature invariably deals with epics, gods and brahmanic religion. Prosody, meter, ‘suitable’ subject matter etc. are all dictated by the elite few.

By default, the language spoken by ordinary people – the leather-workers, weavers, masons, fisherfolk etc. – is rendered unsuited for literary production. Which is why when a Dalit woman like Gogu Shyamala wrote short stories in Telugu, her work did not find a publisher in Telugu – because the Dalit Telugu she wrote in did not have an audience, and it was a region-specific, caste-specific ‘dialect’, it was argued! Her work was first published in English translation by Navayana in 2013. And such were the problems posed by her Telugu that nine translators were deployed to translate her eleven stories.

The same holds for Marathi or Hindi. This is why when Tukaram in the seventeenth century writes the way he does in Marathi – not shying from using words like fuck even when he is talking of his god Vithoba – it is a revolution. But those who sing, rather perform, his Abhangs – verses – on stage, avoid the Abhangs in which he swears. The same holds for Kabir, the sixteenth century weaver-poet of Benares. Again, these radical poets got assimilated or appropriated, through sanitisation and nationalisation, as part of twentieth-century nationalism. This is the linguistic tradition from which Namdeo Dhasal (1949–2014), one of India’s finest poets and one of the founders of Dalit Panther (modeled on the American Black Panther), comes.

When English comes into play, thanks to colonialism, the brahmans adapted to it quickly. In India, the brahmanical classes were more like Ariel than Caliban. They never said to their Prospero, ‘You taught me language; and my profit on it is I know how to curse’. They just played along, but were careful in restricting access to this language of power, just like they had held Sanskrit hostage. Whenever language becomes a site of power, you have to apply the dynamite of love to it and raze it down. Good poetry does that.

RG: Please tell us a little bit about your Australian experiences when you visited Sydney in 2015 for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Do you think the spirit and work of Babasaheb Ambedkar, ‘that Sun … who belongs to us’ as Namdeo Dhasal said, resonates with the people you met?

SA: While it was, on the whole, a memorable experience, I must say I was rather disoriented by my stay in Sydney. I was part of the Visiting International Publishers program in May 2015 and we stayed at a fancy hotel by the pier, and to be utterly honest, for the first few days my experience of the city seemed all too white despite it opening with a visit to the Botanic Gardens with an indigenous guide who even wondered why the Gardens were still called Royal. Our VIP program was wonderful, and the Australia Council was a great host, but frankly, until I met my friends – poets Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty – I did not feel quite at home. (I had published Eckermann and Alexis Wright earlier in 2015 at Navayana, and Eckermann delivered the annual Navayana lecture.) And then through their friend, Samia Khatun, I visited the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and got a sense of more than the touristy side of Sydney. This was such a contrast to the Vivid lights show!

I ended up writing a poem about all this, for Lionel and Ali, which I think best captures what I felt about Sydney.

As for the spirit of Babasaheb, well it is slowly though belatedly staking its claim on the world. The Dalit movement is seriously becoming global; it wants the world to see what it has shockingly refused to see – the horrors of caste.

Earlier this year, in April, around the 125th birth anniversary of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a delegation of writers from India, many of them Dalits, visited Australia. Some of them were also Navayana’s authors. This would have been unimaginable even ten years ago, when mostly brahman authors would have represented Indian literature. I think we have to thank the project Literary Commons for this – and most important, the Dalit movement that has created the scope for such interventions with a literary output to match, and the translators and publishers who make all this necessary and possible.

RG: You’ve been involved with recasting Mahatma Gandhi as far from a ‘saint’, through his lesser-known, but quite problematic views especially in relation to caste, to women, and to the British empire which he co-operated with for 29 years before he launched the non-cooperation movement that led to Indian independence. Your interrogation of Gandhi, it must be noted here, is from a completely different ideological position from the current Hindutva dispensation ruling India, the same party to which Gandhi’s assassin belonged. What has this journey been like for you, and for Navayana, taking on the globally-entrenched mythology of a ‘saint’?

SA: My critical approach to Gandhi owes directly to the Dalit movement, and more pertinently to Ambedkar’s own anathema (a word that etymologically means ‘a thing devoted to evil, accursed thing’) to this man and his extremely well-constructed Great Man persona – we must remember Ambedkar in 1945 wrote an entire book to expose Gandhi and the Congress, called What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables. For Ambedkar, a critique of Hinduism was not complete without a critique of Gandhi. All those who advocate a false Gandhi/Ambedkar synthesis – mostly Gandhians who belatedly wake up to Ambedkar – are actually suggesting Ambedkar’s assimilation into Hinduism. You could listen to this interview Ambedkar gave the BBC in 1955 on what he thought of Gandhi.

Personally speaking, born into a middle-class brahman family, I grew up like most people in India as someone forced to believe in the greatness of Gandhi. There was no choice. This was inculcated through textbooks, popular culture, sustained government propaganda, the works. When Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was made in 1982, I was 9, and my parents dragged us en famille to watch it. I did not know anything about Ambedkar till I went to college. Once I began engaging with Ambedkar and his critique of Gandhi, there was no way I could accept the nationalist myth around the man.

The best antidote to Gandhi, I have since maintained, is to read Gandhi. The self-obsessed man – he was just 39 when he commissioned a hagiography of himself by his acolyte Reverend Joseph Doke – collected every scrap of paper he wrote and every letter and telegram people wrote to him. Even his laundry list became literature. We have to know perforce when he had poor digestion and when he farted. All this is recorded. Who does that? His collected works span 99 volumes and the hundredth volume is an index to all the other volumes. Just dipping through it is enough to know what kind of a casteist, racist and Aryan supremacist and woman-hating goat-milk drinking faddist Gandhi was, and he could at once sound righteous and patronising in his disdain towards blacks and Dalits. It is really surprising how he managed to present himself as the man the world came to believe he was and still believes he is.

Much before we published the annotated critical edition of Ambedkar’s classic 1936 work Annihilation of Caste (which I am very happy to say has found a home in Australia via the UWA Publishing) which features a massive introduction by Arundhati Roy, we did several books critical of Gandhi – including one by Premanand Gajvee, a Marathi playwright who has written a superb play on the Ambedkar–Gandhi face-off (to my shame again, the book, The Strength of Our Wrists, just didn’t sell, despite carrying an endorsement, at Gajvee’s behest, from a renowned brahman actor Shreeram Lagoo, who played the lead as the melodramatic ‘untouchable’ brahman patriarch in the play Kirwant).

And then last year we did The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by two brave brothers from South Africa, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, which shows us how closely Gandhi colluded with the British against the blacks of South Africa. This book has had wonderful reviews all over and has been published globally. However, we have a long way to go before we begin to make even a dent on the global Gandhi industry which is fairly formidable both in the academia and in popular culture – from the Occupy movement to Norman Finkelstein and Julian Assange and the environmental movements to World Social Forums, from Erik Erikson to Akeel Bilgrami, everybody loves and peddles the Gandhi mythology.

Next to Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Gandhi is another great global brand. When the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek visited India in 2011 to deliver lectures at Navayana’s behest, I was so happy when he said Ambedkar was his hero and identified Gandhi to be a champion of violence. He continues to say this at many platforms across the world, my friends tell me. So I hope the next few generations will take a view more grounded in truth – something, oddly, Gandhi is believed to have stood for.

  1. Annihilation of Caste is a profound text written by Dr B.R. Ambedkar – the brilliant lawyer, philosopher, social reformer, and architect of the Indian Constitution, who was born in 1891 into the Mahar community, considered ‘untouchable’ by upper caste Hindus. He went on to challenge the hegemony of caste in his writing and in his life, finally rejecting Hinduism and converting to Buddhism, taking more than 600,000 Dalits with him, a number that has grown in the millions since his death in 1956.
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