“A milestone in the history of Ambedkar publications”

AoC Bib-1In his expansive and critical review of the Navayana edition of Annihilation of Caste in the review journal Biblio, the scholar Soumyabrata Choudhury says AoC “possesses a generic openness to the wounds and decisions of existence which can breach the prisons of the world as no amount of scholarship can. Complimentarily, Navayana’s annotation pays a definitive tribute to that very scholarly illumination which sheds the most remorseless light on the ‘constitution’ of caste-imprisonment in the terrible world that is Indian society.” Among other things, Chaudhury tells us a few things about why “Annihilation of Caste is not The Annihilation of Caste and The Annotated Critical Edition is not An Annotated Critical Edition.”

Of Arundhati Roy’s introduction, he says: “If AOC was the radical demystification of Hindu caste-society and its ridiculous immemorial claims, Arundhati Roy’s Introduction “The Doctor and the Saint” is a comparably powerful demystification of one such claimant. Roy’s interventions share Ambedkar’s acuity — when they write, it is as if the lightning flashes, storm clouds gather, and the times are on edge. Something is about to happen.”

Choudhury also points to how, in his view, Roy’s exercise here differs from Ambedkar’s: “But unlike Roy’s mobile independence as a writer which she puts to salutary use always, Ambedkar’s was an inherently self-divided position. Why? Because the position of the scholar is always governed by the norm of the institution of knowledge.”

At about 2800 words, it’s a fairly long and engaging review. Worth a read.

A militant and light reading

Soumyabrata Choudhury


Biblio: A Review of Books
, May–June 2014

In the course of this review, I will say something about the fact that Annihilation of Caste is not The Annihilation of Caste and The Annotated Critical Edition is not An Annotated Critical Edition. That in due course but first things first: The annotated critical edition of BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste published by Navayana is a milestone in the history of Ambedkar publication(s). It is a brilliant milestone which marks, and, indeed, illuminates the arrival of a terrain quite unlike the average landscape of scholarly publication. You see that landscape hospitably unfold in the average metropolitan bookstore where the academic titles and the popular ones — which, of course, are far greater in number and I am not sure that’s a bad thing — suddenly enter into a new kind of intimate neighbourhood, nay, a nuptial upon that particular shelf which has at least the following two titles: MK Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. That BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste is not to be found on this shelf, that it is not one of the popular-serious treatises by an average-great man certified commercially, that Ambedkar from these average nuptials is excluded — these are some tender deprivations one can actually be grateful for.

And yet…Yet Ambedkar must be seen, his Annihilation of Caste must be heard (we will talk in a moment about the fact that it was meant to be a speech). Seen and heard — again. And again. This point is crucial because as the Editor’s Introduction to the present volume says, the history of publication of Annihilation of Caste is equally a major history and one of marginalisation. I will go a step further and say that the impact caused by each episode and modality of the publication and re-publication of AOC (the acronym the edition conveniently uses) resulted every time from some major questions the text addressed to a predominantly Dalit audience at the margins. The first major question was, in fact, meant for the Dalit minorities and for the Untouchable in Ambedkar’s own time: How will we breach the Hindu fortress and its caste-bastion? How will a casteless society become even thinkable for such a people who have been in the stranglehold of caste as if forever? The second question, again, transmitted to the Dalits who published and read AOC in different editions and translations, was the following: What will the new casteless society, so difficult to think and yet which must be thought, be like? What will be its constitution, its landscape, its rhythm and its repose? Now this is a major question for everybody — and the Dalits hitherto have been the emissaries of this generic question to the ‘centre’, which of course remains occupied by the upper-caste Hindu majority.

So might one say that Navayana’s effort opens up a breach in the centre, a kind of ‘liberated zone’ of publication in occupied territory? That radical prognosis I will not conduct; instead I want to point out a third major, well, not question but arrow, that Ambedkar shoots via AOC. It is the arrow of a decision that so terrified the upper-caste Arya Samajist reform organisation meant to host Ambedkar’s speech that it cancelled the function itself. Now this third major aspect was always fundamentally addressed to the Hindu majority, of which the Arya Samajist organisation, Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal was a reformist, if not contrite, part. The Mandal approached a highly reluctant Ambedkar to deliver the annual lecture at its conference in Lahore in 1936 (and be its President) since there was no scholar as great as he on caste and its evils. It was as a scholar that Ambedkar was meant to isolate, expose, criticise and subtract caste from the Hindu ‘totality’. Indeed to their own Arya Samajist practice of spiritual purification, Ambedkar would provide the intellectual counterpart — this was the ideal schema of reform with its assigned scholarly place for Ambedkar. But the man disappointed his admirers by stating the decision, by declaring in the pre-circulated text of AOC that this was the last time he was speaking as a Hindu. The spectral scene arose before the eyes of the ‘good’ Hindus of the Mandal that their chosen President, even as he was speaking, was becoming someone else. This was not the ‘average-great’ lower caste-Hindu scholar they were happy to honour. Rather this was a militant of estranged existence and then as much as now it is in the sphere of existence that a decision militates its true consequences. As the contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou says, “The truth is not erudite; it is militant.” (“History And Event In Alain Badiou” by Quentin Meillassoux in Parrhesia No 12, 2011).

It is in the above context that I find Navayana’s annotating project — what a heroic job S Anand, the publisher-editor has done with research assistant Julia Perczel — particularly fascinating. The depths of reference to be plumbed, the rare historical detail to be excavated, the comparative, even cosmopolitan, perspectives to be re-inserted into the flowing speech, the myriad biographies moving in and out of the frame of allusion to be recounted, the casual virtuosity of citing sources obliquely without quotation marks to be formalised — all these daunting tasks of annotation do not saturate Ambedkar’s intervention in AOC. That intervention arrives as the threshold of decision, which itself cannot be annotated. It is an ‘event of existence’, not a proposition of knowledge. And yet the passion of annotation is entirely worthwhile because only upon undertaking it, can one get the measure of the infinitesimal and shattering difference between the sum of knowledge and the act of existence. In this sense the annotation must indeed be The Annotated Edition and from its side, definitive and exhaustive. Being thus and flooding the margins of AOC with its tremendous energy, the annotation must still hold back in that brief, dense space even while across the abyss, Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste asks its fundamental, major questions urgently but without the support of the definite article. AOC possesses a generic openness to the wounds and decisions of existence which can breach the prisons of the world as no amount of scholarship can. Complimentarily, Navayana’s annotation pays a definitive tribute to that very scholarly illumination which sheds the most remorseless light on the ‘constitution’ of caste-imprisonment in the terrible world that is Indian society.

A brief parenthesis before the concluding part of this review: S Anand, while tirelessly tracking Ambedkar’s footprints, unravelling each knot and piecing together all the parts of the many puzzles of the text, also invents a kind of autonomy for the annotation. This means it extends beyond putting on record all the references latent in Ambedkar’s speech-which-was-not-delivered. It introduces, beyond the time of the speech and its intense scholarly latency, the future of AOC. This contentious ‘history of the future’ is of course the history opened up by the (suspended) act of decision enunciated in AOC. In the turbulent murmurs at the margins we hear, again and again, the several contentions around the right path of Dalit emancipation, the right method of doing a sociology of caste, the right interpretation of the political history of modern India from at least the end of the 19th century (the time of Jyotiba Phule) upto the present which is also a history of caste-sovereignties… I will call this rich range of sharp contentions aimed right at the heart of the present, the ‘postdecisional’ history of AOC. Coevally, Navayana’s annotation is aimed at the heart of the present and there is indeed, a lucid, if subtle, partisanship, if not militancy, contained in the exercise. At the same time, this partisan intellectual energy must, of necessity, be modulated by the equivocal nature of at least some facts as they present themselves. So, in annotation 57 (pp 245-246) we learn about the history of Chitpavan Brahmins, who were Peshwas implementing caste-law as part of the structure of rule in Maharashtra in the 18th century. Then a list of ‘modern’ Chitpavan Brahmins, from late 19th to early 20th centuries is presented. It is a fascinating list of such a varied people —MG Ranade, GK Gokhale, Pandita Ramabai, Nathuram Godse, among others — that one is also a bit stupefied in one’s fascination. One does not quite know what to ‘do’ with such a list. And yet, one is led by the partisan energy of this equivocal description which is motivated to expose the historical structure of Chitpavan Brahminical power unequivocally.

If AOC was the radical demystification of Hindu caste-society and its ridiculous immemorial claims, Arundhati Roy’s Introduction “The Doctor and the Saint” is a comparably powerful demystification of one such claimant. Roy’s interventions share Ambedkar’s acuity — when they write, it is as if the lightning flashes, storm clouds gather, and the times are on edge. Something is about to happen.

Of course this comparison must go no further. Roy’s position as a writer is relatively free of the possibility of self-scission even in the face of the most deeply fissured historical objectivity. She will analyse this objectivity relentlessly; she will write about the implications of the situation in terms of justice and injustice; she will even take a partisan stand in the polarised environment. None of these are mutually contradictory and are contained in the organic undulations, or even tectonic displacements, of the process of writing itself. But unlike Roy’s mobile independence as a writer which she puts to salutary use always, Ambedkar’s was an inherently self-divided position. Why? Because the position of the scholar is always governed by the norm of the institution of knowledge. Remember Har Bhagwan’s generous and reproachful Brahminism while expressing the Jat- Pat-Todak Mandal’s disappointment with Ambedkar’s decision on the eve of the proposed lecture: “…In fact, we thought you would give us a lead in the destruction of the evil of caste system, especially when you have studied [emphasis mine] this subject so thoroughly…but [a] declaration [emphasis mine] of the nature made by you, when repeated, loses its power, and becomes a hackneyed term.” (pp 197). At this point the mirror of scholarship must crack and the scholar standing before it, in a three-piece suit, must be abandoned to the solitary courage of his decision. And in so far as this precarious threshold of decision is every Untouchable’s threshold, every Untouchable, every Dalit shares the scholar’s predicament. Seen from this trembling moment of collective solitude and courage, every Dalit is a post-decisional scholar-to-come.

I think in Arundhati Roy’s vivid personifications of history, her two-tonal calculus of opposed historical and ideological poles to choose from — between the doctor and the saint —, she lets slip in two errors. Both are predicated on the evocation of a philosophy of history seen as theatre. The first error is the equalisation of the very forms of these two images — the doctor/scholar and the saint. However unequal their historical destinies might have been, this form of confrontation, enacted in the sequence upto the Poona Pact and after the publication of AOC in 1936, averages out the two so-called great men into the generalised persona of the ‘average-great man’. It is in this light that I recall my point about Ambedkar’s self division between the scholar he was and the scholar he was expected to be. The whole point of the demand for separation of electorates in the 1930s was that such a separation would express the structural truth of separateness through (literal) Scheduled Caste political bodies. In 1936, after the successful blackmail of the Poona Pact, when Ambedkar will have enunciated the decision to leave Hinduism, his purpose will have been to abandon all the theatres of Indian history. This would include the ritual Hindu stage (on which Gandhi strode like a colossus), the nationalist-Congressist stage (on which too Gandhi strode like a colossus) and the Western liberal-constitutional stage insofar as it was a happy host to Gandhi’s performances regularly (read Ambedkar’s “A Plea to the Foreigner” in Writings and Speeches: Vol 9, edited by Vasant Moon, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1991). In 1956, Ambedkar, finally, envisioned a mode of incorporation for this separateness itself which he called “Buddhist”. Though still in a three-piece suit and now in debt (as Roy pictures him like a character from Chekov as foil to Gandhi’s continuing tragic-ridiculous theatre in and beyond death), who can say that Ambedkar was not thinking of new names, new styles, new dispositions of the body inaccessible anymore to either ritual purification or ritual atrocity (both essentially the same, as Roy so pertinently points out)?

The second error, not strictly compatible with the first, that enters Roy’s unsparing demystification of Gandhi is that she, despite herself re-establishes the man as a total exception to the rule(s) of evaluating Indian history. The choice is razor-edged and two-tonal (so should be too Roy’s taste): Either the demystification works and his entire credentials crumble in the face of his racist and casteist record — in which case, Gandhi becomes that much more exceptional, now an ‘illegitimate’ force who changes the course of history. So you need an ‘illegitimate’ theory of truth rather than the analytically consistent and legitimate one Roy uses to judge the real effects of Gandhi. In the same way that you need to improvise a subjective theory of truth for sinners and criminals who become saints and apostles. This is a kind of confessional or ‘conversional’ truth that one must try to think before judging whether even by that theory Gandhi can be called ‘true’.

Which brings up the second option: If it can be established that Gandhi was a total manipulator, that every true claim was actually the strategy of a politician or the mask of the (ritual) actor, and he was the unique effective force in history during a certain period, doesn’t his sheer craft of efficacious performance make him the entirely exceptional actor of history beyond comparison, whether with Ambedkar or anyone else, a power of exception beyond the power of any demystification? Moreover, then Roy’s own superb craft of describing a history without imagery and spectacle would only be a craft geared to secretly prepare for the exception’s entry into the theatre of history with suitable, if dubious, thrill and aplomb. For instance, her first few pages on the recent history of the Khairlanji victims are a sobering pleasure to read when unburdened of the obligation to culminate in the Gandhi-spectacle. Unfortunately the heady obligation of mounting the Gandhi-spectacle is a burden the author seems to relish. As a result, we read such climactic lines as, “…the person who stepped into the widening breach [between the upper-caste elites of the Congress and the Untouchables, the Muslims, etc] was perhaps the most consummate politician the modern world has ever known — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.” (p 58)

Where does all this leave BR Ambedkar and Annihilation of Caste? Well, to Arundhati Roy, Ambedkar was an exemplary – and heroic (with certain moments of fall too) – life; Gandhi’s was a force beyond mere life. To that extent Ambedkar was beholden to Gandhi’s force, which he resisted with the resources of his life (intellect and critical scholarship being some of them). Before asking how successful was Ambedkar in his resistance, we must ask whether Ambedkar, indeed, treated Gandhi as an epochal force. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. My reading of AOC is that in its inner, affirmative impulse the text is not fundamentally governed by Gandhi’s provocation. When at a certain point Ambedkar will have said — and the world will have heard, in exquisite wonder — “…the only way by which men can come to possess things in common with one another is being in communication with one another…For that purpose [of possessing things in common] what is necessary is for a man to share and participate in a common activity, so that the same emotions are aroused in him that animate the others” (p 244), he won’t have been thinking of Gandhi. It’s a Gandhi-free vision, not utopia, of what a new casteless society will be like. A casteless society, at the same time, is necessary here and now. In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar is able to think this necessity sovereignly. Of course upon the publication of AOC, he has to turn his attention to Gandhi who emblematised the greatest resistance to castelessness here and now. But is it possible that now since Ambedkar had withdrawn his stakes, separated from the very thing dearest to Gandhi, that is, Hinduism, he was also capable of being less interested in the latter? In such a spirit of a post-interested Ambedkarite lightness, is it possible that we too lose a little interest in Gandhi?