Ambedkar: Universal as the Sun

S. Anand

Good evening and welcome everybody. Jai Bhim!—this salute is to the Ambedkarite movement what Lal Salam is to comrades, and what Azadi is to Kashmiris, what the Black Power salute is to civil rights. Though we chose a date that was available at India Habitat Centre, I am glad this book is being discussed on a day that happens to be Kanshi Ram’s birthday.

B.R. Ambedkar—we can all see him on the stage—looms on us like the Sun. For the past 15 minutes you heard his voice from a 1955 BBC interview where he denounces Gandhi and his manufactured Mahatma status.

Asad Zaidi is a dear friend, publisher of Three Essays Press, and poet of renown in Hindi. He immediately agreed to be part of this conversation with Arundhati Roy. I’m thankful to him. Arundhati and I have travelled a long way—our first conversation, in 2003, was over Ambedkar, and why she had not read him. Since then we have come a long way and this edition of  Annihilation of Caste bears testimony to that.

Some intense conversations have been happening around this book for nearly eighty years; this evening we will be merely continuing that conversation. Let me begin with what Ambedkar says in AoC: “Caste is no doubt primarily the breath of the Hindus. But the Hindus have fouled the air all over.”

In my reckoning, the air in this Habitat Centre, too, is fouled by caste-breathing people.

In 1936, when the Hindu reformist group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore (Forum for Break-up of Caste) invited Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to deliver its annual lecture, it asked for and received the text of the speech in advance. It found the contents “unbearable”. Ambedkar has anticipated this; for he begins his undelivered speech with an injunction from the Manusmriti: “Varnanam Brahmano Guru”—“Among varnas, the Brahman is the teacher/preceptor.” An Untouchable, however qualified, being asked to preside over a conference of caste Hindus in 1936 was, as Ambedkar himself points out, ‘an act of great daring’. For, as Ambedkar says:

I have questioned the authority of the Mahatma whom they revere. They hate me. To them I am a snake in their garden. The Mandal will no doubt be asked by the politically minded Hindus to explain why it has called me to fill this place of honour… I shall not be surprised if some political Hindus regard it as an insult.

Today politically minded Dalits, at least a section of them, have regarded this act—of Navayana, run by a person born into the brahmin varna annotating it, and getting a writer of the diligence and intelligence of Arundhati Roy to write the introduction—as a historical reversal of that insult. This is as it should be.

Ambedkar’s utterances in this undelivered speech are deeply disturbing; perhaps even more so for a Dalit. I quote:

The Mandal knows best the reasons which led it to travel to Bombay to select a president, to fix upon a man so repugnant to the Hindus, and to descend so low in the scale as to select an antyaja—an Untouchable—to address an audience of the savarnas. As for myself, you will allow me to say that I have accepted the invitation much against my will, and also against the will of many of my fellow Untouchables. I know that the Hindus are sick of me. I know that I am not a persona grata with them. Knowing all this, I have deliberately kept myself away from them. I have no desire to inflict myself upon them. I have been giving expression to my views from my own platform.

If this is the painful story of the origin of a text that is among the most radical and important texts ever written in this subcontinent, then surely those who are today saying this gesture of a brahmin annotating the text and a non-Dalit introducing it—to take it to a wider audience—are acts that need to be viewed with suspicion, and even contempt. Would such an audience have turned up today had this been an entirely Dalit-run Dalit-led enterprise? Would Caravan and Outlook give so much space for a Dalit to speak? These are questions that we cannot duck. But then, these are the very questions of representation and privilege—questions of structure and power, of entitlement—that the edition of the book we are discussing today is all about.

Freedom of expression is not an absolute value. Some have more of it, some have none of it. Therefore questions being asked by a section of Dalits about this edition cannot be dismissed as identity politics. It is just like what the right to vote was for Ambedkar: he wanted to augment the ‘value’ of Dalits by ensuring them a double vote; and you will find in this edition of AoC one of the finest defences of the double vote.

Yes, there are hundred of editions of AoC—and they are freely available on the net. Yet, the privileged castes have had the privilege to ignore this text; they have had the privilege to jettison any serious dialogue on Ambedkar’s radical ideas carried forward by the Dalit movements of India for over sixty years. While a majority of the privileged castes are blissfully ignorant of its existence, Annihilation of Caste has been printed and reprinted—like most of Ambedkar’s large oeuvre—by small, mostly Dalit-owned presses, and read by mostly Dalit readers over seven decades. It now has the curious distinction of being one of the most obscure as well one of the most widely read books in India. This in itself illuminates the iron grid of the caste system.

Punitha Pandian, editor of Dalit Murasu, a Tamil monthly of over fifteen years standing, on seeing the Navayana edition of AoC wrote to me, saying since 2007, Dalit Murasu had published 17,000 copies of AoC in Tamil. He ended his letter saying, “But there’s not a single debate in Tamil Nadu so far. I’m glad you made a national debate in a single day.”

However, as someone asked on FB: “Pata nahi book fairs mein Samyak Prakashan ya Gautam Book Centre ke stall ke andar yeh log kabhi gaye?” This question is posed to the kind of readership this edition of AoC ostensibly seeks—to the people gathered here today. To add to this question: do we keep Ambedkar confined to Samyak, Gautam and Dalit Murasu and thousands of such Dalit platforms?

A related and important question to be asked is: what is it that we do with privilege? Sharpen it into a weapon and wield it against the very banyan tree of brahminism that entangles us with its roots in the air? Or should we just enjoy the shaded comfort of this tree? I believe it is the former that this edition of the book attempts. Navayana has been an attempt to create a platform to engage those smug about caste privilege to interrogate that privilege. Navayana is, in my view, a necessary historical mistake. It will pass. But for now, it will stay.

This annotated edition of AoC comes in a series of books that Navayana has done over the last ten years: by Bhagwan Das, Namdeo Dhasal, Sharmila Rege, Namdeo Nimgade, N.D Rajkumar, Kancha Ilaiah, Ajay Navaria, Meena Kandasamy, Premanand Gajvee, Gail Omvedt, K. Balagopal, Siddalingaiah, Gogu Shyamala, Durgabai Vyam, Anand Teltumbde and many more.

If Ambedkar is the writer I most admire among those dead, Arundhati Roy is one of the writers I most admire among those living. And in this edition of the book, I have managed to sandwich myself between both of them. That’s my privilege and honour.

While I understand the anxiety and politics over who gets to introduce or annotate Ambedkar, I do strongly believe Ambedkar belongs to all. After all, annihilation of caste is something those who have caste have to undertake—the caste Hindus, Touchables, as Ambedkar called them.

And I believe, Ambedkar is like the Sun—he is as universal as the Sun. He illumines the lives of Dalits as much as he illumines the lives of non-Dalits—whether most non-Dalits like it or not, whether most Dalits like it or not. He is the Sun that, as Namdeo Dhasal writes in his powerful “Ode to Dr Ambedkar” in 1972, “moves only from one freedom to the next.” Annihilation of Caste is Ambedkar’s call for rebirth and regeneration—in this life. His was a call to destroy something ugly in those who practice caste so that they may have a sense of the genuine beauty of the humanity nesting in each person. To turn to Dhasal again, “Everyone is, as a matter of fact, as complete as the Sun.”

Speaking to a Dalit audience in 1942, Ambedkar said: “The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality.” You can apply this anywhere—to the struggles of Romas in Hungary, in Kashmir, in Manipur, or to the LGBT struggle against 377.

Ambedkar genuinely wanted the privileged castes, too, to get in touch with their human personality, which is smothered by caste. Ambedkar was—and a section of Dalits today is—deeply sceptical of such a possibility; I respect that scepticism.

It is for the Hindus—and everyone who practises caste—to make a belated effort to prove them wrong. It is time to rid the air of the foulness of caste.

(This is the written version of  Anand’s opening speech at the Delhi launch of AoC on 15 March 2014.)

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