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

By | 1 August 2016

RG: What was the process like, of annotating the work of a great thinker like Dr Ambedkar?

SA: I had tried my hand at annotating AoC on and off since 2005 since I felt no one seemed keen to pick up the gauntlet. But I felt intimidated by the kind of work it required. How was I even qualified? Was passion enough? When I commissioned the Ambedkar Readers, I spelt out why and how clearly. I had carefully read Anthony Parel’s scholarly annotations of one of the most backward texts produced by an Indian – Gandhi’s manifesto Hind Swaraj written in 1909 when he was on a ship back from England to South Africa.

Irrespective of my problems with Hind Swaraj, I found the annotations excellent. In 1999, along with Ambedkar, I also read the Wendy Doniger/Brian Smith edition of the annotated Manusmriti, a work that was undoubtedly a little more backward than Hind Swaraj. I felt Ambedkar’s pivotal text too needed a similar effort to make it reach a wider and newer audience today.

Basically I undertook this task to address my own ignorance of many crucial matters. In 1936, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (the Forum for the Break-up of Caste) invites Ambedkar to deliver their presidential lecture, and on seeing a copy of his address, they disinvite him, for in this work he asks them to ‘apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the Shastras’. Now, what was Jat-Pat Todak Mandal? Who founded it and when? Why did they branch out of the Arya Samaj? Whom did they invite before and after Ambedkar? What was the connection between Ambedkar’s famous 1935 announcement that he’d not die a Hindu and this invitation? Who was Sant Ram who stood up against the mostly upper caste Mandal members who opposed Ambedkar? Why did all this happen in Lahore? What happened to Sant Ram after the 1947 Partition? Each page of AoC threw up implicit and explicit questions – to which I attempted to provide answers through extensive notes.

Ambedkar cites a dozen Sanskrit verses without telling us where they are from. None of the books I had read till then had answers for any of these questions. After the Rege book, I took this task most seriously. Since I ran Navayana almost single-handedly, I set aside time for annotations. I had no membership access to any library and since I worked alone at Navayana I could not disappear to dusty archives for endless weeks or hours. So what did I do? I frankly just Googled. Plus Google Books had come to scan and digitise a lot of old and new books. Though as a publisher I am opposed to this monopoly business of Google and believe in Robert Darnton’s argument, and have even published Julian Assange’s book When Google Met WikiLeaks, I found all this useful.

Then there was archive.org where one could land the first edition of the William Jones version (1794) of the ancient Manusmriti; Lib-Gen in Russia had many free books too. Yet, I sometimes needed access to stuff written or published in journals controlled by corporations that want you to cough up hundreds of dollars to read – it’s a shame that publicly funded research from universities is locked up by private corporations. But then I had friends in the academia. Whatever I needed I’d ask them to access from JSTOR and other forums. They’d also send me full scans of books – such as Pyarelal’s The Epic Fast that gives a detailed account of Gandhi’s 1932 fast at the Yeravada prison in Pune.

So what seems like a monumental effort was actually a hack job, a good hack job that I’m proud of. If you wish to be nice, you could call this historical and literary sleuthism. If you care to sit down and really count – like some ‘critics’ have done but have grossly miscalculated in their enthusiasm, claiming Arundhati’s essay is thrice the length of Ambedkar’s speech and that in itself is an insult – the core text of AoC, including the preface and exchanges with Gandhi, is 36,959 words. The annotations come to 18,059 words, plus a detailed note on the Poona Pact I was asked to write by the peer reviewers which was another five thousand words. Arundhati’s expansive introduction – meant primarily for both the uninformed non-Dalit as for the uninformed globally concerned citizen – is 37,885 words; her extensive notes account for another 8,011 words. The entire work – both Arundhati’s introduction and my annotations – were peer reviewed by five well-regarded scholars, both Dalits and non-Dalits. Now I am surprised no one has said that the annotating itself – which is like writing a running commentary in the tradition of Bhashyas – is brahmanical.

Yes, there was too much engagement with Gandhi in Arundhati’s introduction, and this has to be debated – but then this seemed necessary for a non-Dalit and international audience which continues to be beholden to Gandhi. A critique of Gandhi and Gandhism is, in effect, a critique of Hinduism and caste. And when non-Dalits admit to having read AoC only because of the Navayana / Arundhati effort, and then start abusing Navayana and Arundhati, I would only request them to pause and reflect on who exactly they are indicting – themselves?

For generations, writers, filmmakers, artists, academicians and intellectuals have been beholden to Gandhi. From Premchand to U.R. Ananthamurthy, from Shyam Benegal to Atul Dodiya – everyone swore and still swears by Gandhi. To none of them was Ambedkar ever a hero. Why when I visited Sydney last May, the Indian artist Jitish Kallat had mounted his tribute to Gandhi at the Art Gallery of NSW. So Gandhi has to be dislodged from the pedestal. There’s no question of saying both were great men, and both were right in their own ways. It’s like saying caste can be both good and bad. You can’t be neutral in these matters.

RG: What is your response to the critiques of the book?

SA: The whole book was a labour of love, though it has been dismissed by some as an expression of Hatred in the Belly – the title of the book that seeks to expose the politics of appropriation of Ambedkar by Navayana and Roy. The ad hominem attacks, from a Dalit-Bahujan platform that includes several savarnas and brahmans, began the day the book was announced – before anyone even saw it or read it. I think an explanation is required here.

The word savarna means ‘those with varna’ and this includes the shudras, who occupy the fourth and lowest tier of the fourfold varna order and are unfortunately today the biggest perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits despite being victims of brahmanism. The untouchable-Dalits are outside the pale of the system. Often when we find generalised statements saying savarnas are perpetrating brutalities on Dalit-Bahujans – this is good rhetoric but bad politics. Dalit-Bahujan, the way Ilaiah uses it, refers to Scheduled Castes (17 percent of the population), the Backward and Other Backward Classes formerly categorised as shudra (an estimated 55 percent), and the indigenous population of tribals (8 percent) together comprising seventy percent, and thus constituting a staggering oppressed majority. The shudras are touchable savarnas – at least that is how Ambedkar understood it. In the realm of politics, the late Kanshi Ram of the Bahujan Samaj Party sought to build a coalition of erstwhile shudras and untouchables in Uttar Pradesh and came up with the formulation ‘Bahujan’ – the oppressed majority. Ilaiah then theorised this as an analytical category – but many Dalits and non-Dalits interested in social justice reject this baggy category, for today Dalits and shudras are often at loggerheads. Caste, after all, is a system of graded hierarchy.

To come back to the critiques on Navayana’s edition of AoC – back then, it upset me hugely that those who attacked the book had not even laid their eyes or hands on it. It took me a while – and some distance – to realise such a reading need not be of the book at all; it could be a reading of the entire act or gesture involved in the Navayana edition with Arundhati’s introduction, the annotations, the endorsements, the magazine placements etc., for this edition – a parade of entitlements at one level – was presented as an event, as a totality. They were reading and reacting to a situation that had imposed itself on the world; consequently, it was a reading of the world and not a reading of our reading of AoC.

I was also initially disturbed because some of those attacking had been friends who knew of this project, friends who though skeptical of me, seemed to have guarded regard for the work Navayana did. Now they said, after Arundhati whom will Anand ask to introduce the next Ambedkar book? Sachin Tendulkar? Chetan Bhagat? I was shocked, but soon came to understand the resentment as being historical and not merely particular and personal. Sometimes exaggerations are necessary to convey truths, and as a poet I can say every metaphor is an exaggeration. Here, Dalits appeared to lead this fight, but shudras and brahmans joined in. The Gandhians watched from the sidelines with unabashed glee. The time was ripe for such an attack, it appears. It’s also a question of purchase – attacking someone like Roy will get you eyeballs. Not, however, Sharmila Rege, not that a critique of such ‘lesser’ mortals is not valid.

But sometimes this can get out of hand too. Let me make an exemplum of my longstanding friend, Meena Kandasamy, the poet and writer. People with similar affiliations earlier attacked her, also on social media. This was some three or four years before AoC. Meena used to proudly say she was a Dalit woman who dreamt of Ambedkar’s annihilation of caste. That used to be the slogan on her blog.

Technically speaking, she is perhaps one-eighth Dalit, since her father was half-Dalit and her mother’s not Dalit, but a ‘shudra’. Meena’s father comes from a small nomadic tribe whose occupation is begging and faith-healing – a fact she says is recorded by colonial officials like Edgar Thurston. But since assigning castes to nomadic/semi-nomadic tribes is a ‘state subject’, her father’s community is Scheduled Tribe in Kerala, and listed as Most Backward Caste in Tamil Nadu. Marginalisation and stigma are forgotten and it becomes easier to instead call her out for claiming to be Dalit. She has had to admit all this in public (on social media) after her Dalitness was under scrutiny. And she stopped calling herself Dalit after being hounded. This is what it has come to.

Her bold, stylised novel, The Gypsy Goddess, on the 1968 Kilvenmani massacre in which 44 Dalits were murdered, went undiscussed in certain circles. In all this, Dalit is not being invoked as an anticaste subjectivity for those who have faced some of kind of untouchability and exclusion, but as a politically correct substitute for the official ‘Scheduled Caste’ category. Some serious policing is happening here even when we see ‘Dalit’ being used in various ways: it is as much an empirical identity category as it is a critical political category.

Now, before Navayana’s AoC, several mainstream presses, including Oxford University Press, have published Ambedkar. And Narendra Jadhav, a Dalit and Planning Commission member in the previous Congress government, published a five-volume set called Ambedkar Speaks and Ambedkar Writes in 2014, very expensive hardback editions (priced at rupees 7,000) of Ambedkar’s speeches and writings with no value addition whatsoever. In the copyright page, copyright was claimed for his wife Vasundhra. Such a brazen act went simply unchallenged. Today, Jadhav openly hobnobs with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the extreme right militant Hindutva outfit that worships Mussolini and Hitler, but it is Navayana that is derided as being worse than RSS. So sometimes it becomes tough for me to take such a critique seriously though I understand the essence of it, why it is happening and where it is coming from.

You know there was hardly any debate around the book in the mainstream media? If Round Table India had not mounted this rather voluble and exaggerated debate, we may not have had any debate at all. It is an interesting historical juncture we are in – for years, non-Dalits neglected Ambedkar. And when they do engage with him they are going to come in for some serious stick. After all, it is true that non-Dalits like Arundhati Roy or even a relative nobody like me are late-comers, and yet have a greater chance of being heard and having doors opened for us than Dalits – that too, when it comes to speaking of Ambedkar. There’s something so terribly wrong with the world I live in that I helplessly reflect these wrongs, even when I think I’m righting some of these wrongs.

Given that our media and academia hardly have room for Dalits, access to platforms where Dalits can make themselves heard is seriously limited. There is definitely going to be anger when intellectuals – like Ashis Nandy or Romila Thapar – who have shown no engagement with Ambedkar’s ideas whatsoever are invited to give ‘annual Ambedkar lectures’ by a state university named after Ambedkar with a disproportionately high fee structure that resorts to converting its unfilled reserved seats to the ‘general’ category. This is just as good as Narendra Modi reading Ambedkar, gestural politics that a range of actors can no longer avoid. But interestingly, as I write this, the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations (FABO) in the UK has invited Amartya Sen – who has had little so say of Ambedkar or caste – to speak this June at LSE. Maybe this way they will be forced to engage with Ambedkar? The argument that non-Dalits will make it their business to speak of Ambedkar for merely reasons of convenience and expediency, and profit, is quite a valid one.

But Dalits, too, need to distinguish between possible friends and enemies. They need to ask why Navayana’s Bhagwan Das-edited volume of Ambedkar, again with annotations, had no purchase whatsoever – among both Dalits and non-Dalits. Why was it considered not even worthy of condemnation? Did I ask Arundhati to write an introduction so that Navayana could sell more copies of the book? Of course yes, but that’s clearly not the only reason. I admired her mix of politics and great prose. I thought I’d use her lighting rod effect to canvass for more supporters for the anti-caste cause. It is not as if in magazines like Caravan other Navayana writers have not been featured. Gogu Shyamala, a wonderful Dalit writer, had her short story from a Navayana book excerpted in Caravan. Shyamala’s book did rather poorly in the market despite notching great reviews. Likewise an excerpt from the memoir of a pioneering figure like Bhagwan Das also appeared in the magazine.

There’s also another way of seeing this. I’d like to think that many at Round Table India, Savari, The Shared Mirror publishing house, or The Colonization of Ambedkar Facebook page have a deep and abiding concern for me (and Arundhati Roy). They keep such a close watch on my every move that it is almost flattering. After all is said and done, I believe we’re fellow-travellers. I’m sure we’ll all meet at the gates of Beghampura – the City Without Sorrow that the fifteenth century master poet from Benares, Ravidas, sang of. My saying so may also be seen as some kind of appropriation – maybe it is, or maybe I am just a pervert. But I’m not going to give up on Ambedkar and the space he has created for me just because I’m being scolded or ridiculed. As someone born into a brahman family I have no nostalgia – there’s nothing I can look back upon with pride; there’s nothing really I could go back to. I have everything to gain by clinging to Ambedkar, Kabir, Lionel Fogarty, or to my new friend, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, a Pardhan Gond indigenous artist who trusted me with his stories and allowed me the space to produce a beautiful book with him.

I know I have to take all the flak: it keeps me on my toes and makes me a better person, I hope. These debates have only enriched me. Which is why Navayana has published a new annotated edition of Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism with an introduction by Kancha Ilaiah – and yes, some of the usual critics quickly dismissed the formidable Ilaiah as a sellout, but both they and the mainstream media have simply ignored this book. Why? My response to all this and my relationship with Bhimrao is best conveyed in the poem, ‘To a Bodhisatta’ published on 14 April, 2015 in Caravan, on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary.

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