‘We have to create an unbreakable chain’


Arundhati Roy being presented with the Ambedkar Sudar Award by Thol. Thirumavalavan of VCK. Photo: New Indian Express

On 2 May 2015, Arundhati Roy was honoured with the Ambedkar Sudar award by Thol. Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi at Periyar Thidal in Chennai. She addressed an audience of about 5,000 people which had been provided with the Tamil translation of her speech. After warning us that ‘Ambedkar’s thought is being twisted and used like a knife against himself’ by the RSS and its affiliates, Roy made a plea for solidarity: ‘We have to create a long, unbreakable chain, a chain whose links rise out of fields and factories, slums and shanty towns, classrooms in schools and universities, from cinema and literature—a chain of awareness, understanding, and relentless action.’ She also said ‘it is hellishly difficult to tell your friends from your enemies in this fight—but it must be done. This was one of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s greatest skills.’



The citation for the award reads:


Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), takes immense pride in conferring upon Arundhati Roy, the Ambedkar Award. Ms Roy is the conscience of India, a nation still in the making and a comrade in arms.


The daughter of Mary Roy who fought the patriarchal inheritance laws of Kerala’s Syrian Christians, Arundhati Roy was born to rebel.


Despite winning the prestigious Booker prize in 1997 for her novel ‘The God of Small Things’, Arundhati Roy chose to employ her pen to uncover the complicated web of injustice, even when it makes her unpopular. Ms Arundhati Roy has donated the Award money of about two crore rupees which she received from Booker and Lannan Foundation to various people’s movements of India.


Roy tirelessly works against every form of injustice: from the horrors of big dams and nuclear power to Operation Green Hunt


From being an active campaigner in the Narmada Bachao Andolan to traveling to Muthanga to express her solidarity with the Adivasis in their struggle for land rights, Arundhati Roy has always sided with the silenced, the oppressed.


For being a relentless crusader against ‘projects of unseeing’

For being a public intellectual who uses her voice against the designs of empire. 

For being an uncompromising critic of Hindutva,

For being an advocate of Ambedkar’s philosophy


Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi—a party striving to translate the dreams of Dr Ambedkar into reality—deems it an honor to confer the ‘Ambedkar Award’ on Arundhati Roy

On this day, the 2nd of May in the year 2015


Here’s the full text of her acceptance speech.





Dear Shri Thirumavalavan, Comrades in the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi Party and Friends


Thank you so much for honoring me with the Ambedkar Award. It is an act of solidarity that I appreciate in more ways than I can say—especially now, at a time when making political alliances against the rising tide of fascism is urgent and necessary.


We have at the helm of this nation today, those who unashamedly advocate that India is a Hindu Nation. The wheels are in motion, in public and in private, to realize that vision. University and school syllabi are being changed, history is being re-written (it should be, but not in these ways); the whole structure of pedagogy is being re-vamped, the high priests of Hindutva are being placed in the judiciary, the police, the intelligence service and even the army.


What I want to talk about today is the grotesque ‘Ghar Wapsi” programme that the VHP and Bajrang Dal are carrying out all over the country. It used to be called the Shuddhi Movement in which the “impure” were “purified and “returned to the Hindu fold.”  It began more than a hundred and fifty years ago. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with demography, with the effort to expand the numbers of what they see as the “Hindu constituency.” What we today call “vote banks.”


However, there never used to be such a thing as the “Hindu fold.” It is a relatively recent concept. As Babasaheb Ambedkar said, and I quote: “The first and foremost thing that must be recognized is that Hindu society is a myth. The name Hindu was given by Mohammedans to the natives —who lived East of the Indus—for the purpose of distinguishing themselves.”


This process of cultivating ‘vote banks’ began more than a hundred years ago when Empires turned into Nation States and the politics of representative governance replaced the era of Emperors and Kings. The politics of representation set up a new anxiety about numbers and the privileged castes became desperate to prove that they were a majority. It was only then that those who call themselves “Hindu” today began to do so. Until then, they only identified themselves by their caste name. Until the anxiety about demography came about, they did not mind that millions of people who belonged to Oppressed Castes were converting to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism in their millions to escape the scourge of caste. But when the anxiety about demography set in, they decided that the 45 million “Untouchables” whose touch they shunned, whose food they would not eat, whose homes they would not visit, were actually Hindu. A huge campaign began—not against the caste system and its hierarchical rights of entitlement, but against the practice of Untouchability— in order to keep “Untouchables” in the “Hindu fold.”  That was when the Arya Samaj began the Shuddhi movement which the current regime is trying to re-introduce on a large scale. The Savarna problem was how to bring Avarnas into the Big House but to keep them separated—in the servants’ quarters? How to maintain the sanctity of caste and yet create a Hindu majority? This  explains the crocodile tears they shed over “untouchability”, even as they uphold the social practice of caste.


Babasaheb Ambedkar—to my mind the most brilliant of our modern day politicians—recognized all this years ago and denounced it with anger, contempt and intellectual erudition. All of it is contained in his writings during that time. 


And yet today the leaders of the BJP shamelessly unveil statues and portraits of Babasaheb Ambedkar every day, proclaiming their love for him. Organizer, the magazine of the RSS, has put him on its cover. While they pretend to adore him they boil Babasaheb’s politics down into glue and resurrect him as a symbol of Hinduism. The ferocious attack by their goon squads on the Christian community, burning churches, raping nuns—in places like Kandhamal and Bastar where they live in absolute terror—is nothing but an attack on Dalits who did what Ambedkar wanted them to: To renounce Hinduism and to convert to another religion. 


Today, most cruelly, the incentive they hold out to get Dalit Christians and Muslims to participate in their Ghar Wapsi programme is to use what Babasaheb Ambedkar fought for—the idea of reservation (positive discrimination) as a honey trap to lure those who converted to other religions—and who are therefore not eligible for reservation—back to the “Hindu Fold”. So Ambedkar’s thought is being twisted and used like a knife against himself and everything that he believed in. And his people’s poverty and vulnerability are being used against them. 


Our leaders tell us that India is a superpower. In this superpower more than 800 million people live on less than 20 rupees a day. Is it possible to live a life of dignity on that amount? Most people think of Africa as a poor continent and India as a rich country.  India has more poor people than all the poorest countries of Africa put together. We are home to the largest population of malnourished children in the world. At the same time, a handful of billionaire industrialists own more wealth than the millions of poor put together. We live in one of the most disgracefully unequal societies in the world. Unlike other countries, in our country inequality has been institutionalized with divine sanction by the Hindu caste system.


The great majority of the 800 million people who live on less than 20 rupees a day, the great majority of the millions of people displaced by huge development projects, dams, mines and SEZs, the great majority of malnourished children, of landless laborers, of homeless people and slum dwellers in the cities, the great majority of the prison population are Dalits, Adivasis and now Muslims. They also make up the majority of the victims of violence who die in pogroms and massacres in our extremely violent country.


According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a crime is committed against a Dalit by a non-Dalit every sixteen minutes; every day, more than four “Untouchable” women are raped by “Touchables”; every week, thirteen Dalits are murdered and six Dalits are kidnapped. In 2012 alone, the year of the Delhi gang-rape and murder, 1,574 Dalit women were raped (the rule of thumb is that only 10 per cent of rapes or other crimes against Dalits are ever reported). And 651 Dalits were murdered. That’s just the rape and butchery. Not the stripping and parading naked, the forced shit-eating (literally), the seizing of land, the social boycotts, the restriction of access to drinking water.


As Babasaheb Ambedkar said, “To the Untouchables Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors.”


The violence however, is not limited to mobs and militias committing criminal acts. It is in the very imagination of the Indian State.


Last month, on the 7thof April, in Andhra Pradesh the STF shot 20 people in cold blood. Nobody has been arrested. Like the Hashimpura case in which the PAC shot 42 Muslims in cold blood and got let off, like the case of Kizhavenmani and almost every other massacre of Dalits, the chances are that nothing will happen to these STF men. The same day in Telengana the police shot dead five Muslim prisoners while they were transporting them from Warangal to Hyderabad in chains. Then they registered an FIR against the murdered men!


In the 67 years since India became a sovereign State, there has not been a single year in which the Indian Army has not been deployed to address political problems within the country. It has been deployed in Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Hyderabad, Goa, Telengana, Assam, Punjab, West Bengal and now it is being readied to be deployed in the adivasi heartland of Central India to turn over land to mining and infrastructure companies. Tens of thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands tortured and imprisoned. Who are these Enemies of the State?  Think about it… they are Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs and Dalits. We live in a Savarna Hindu State that is permanently at war with its minorities and its Avarnas.  


But then India is a nation of minorities—so how does this very elite minority (Brahmins and Banias make up less than 6% of the population) maintain its privileges and its power? Like any colonial power—by pitting people against each other. By sending Nagas to fight in Kashmir, Kashmiris to Chhattisgarh, Tamils to Assam, by pitting OBCs against Dalits, Dalits against Muslims.


There was a time in the 1960s and 70s when resistance movements—like the Dalit Panthers—precursors to your party today—and the Naxalites—talked about justice, about revolution. They demanded Land Reforms, one of their slogans was “Land to the Tiller.” Today the idea of justice has been erased from our minds and replaced with the much narrower concept of ‘human rights’. Whatever minor land reforms took place are now being reversed. Even the most radical movements, like the Maoists in the forest have been reduced to fighting so that what little land remains with people, mostly adivasis, is not snatched away and given to private corporations. Today, seventy per cent of Dalits are by and large landless. In states like Punjab, Bihar, Haryana and Kerala, the figure is as high as 90 per cent. These millions of landless people have ceased to even be part of the radical debate. 


Who owns these corporations that now own our coutry? Not just the land, but the forests, the mountains, the rivers, the water and the power supply systems? In keeping with the caste system, the billionare industrialists —Mukesh Ambani (Reliance Industries Limited), Lakshmi Mittal (Arcelor Mittal), Dilip Shanghvi (Sun Pharmaceuticals), the Ruia brothers (Ruia Group), K.M. Birla (Aditya Birla Group), Savitri Devi Jindal (O.P. Jindal Group), Gautam Adani (Adani Group), and Sunil Mittal (Bharti Airtel)—who own and operate ports, mines, oil fields, gas fields, shipping companies, pharmaceutical companies, telephone networks, petrochemical plants, aluminium plants, cellphone networks, television channels, fresh food outlets, high schools, film production companies, stem cell storage systems, electricity supply networks and Special Economic Zones are, almost all of them, either Banias or Brahimins. 


In his new book, Capital in the 21st Century, that has caused a sensation all over the world, the French writer and professor, Thomas Picketty, shows how economic inequality in the world which has now almost equaled what it was in the Gilded Age. He amasses formidable  statistics to show how , even in today’s age of big banks and corporations, the engine that drives this inequality in Europe and America even today, is inherited wealth that is passed down by families from generation to generation. This makes the Hindu Caste System—the supposedly divine incarnation of the system of inherited wealth, knowledge and privilege—the Mother of Capitalism.


Returning to the question of how a small minority of Brahmins and Banias manage to hold on to their privileges—brute force is only one of the techniques.


The pre-dominantly Bania family-owned Corporations also own and control the media—and they decide what is newsworthy and what is not. By controlling the media they try and control and mould the imagination of the nation. Of the four most important English national dailies, three are owned by Vaishyas and one by a Brahmin family concern. (The Times Group (Bennett, Coleman Company Ltd), the largest mass media company in India, whose holdings include The Times of India and the 24-hour news channel Times Now, is owned by the Jain family (Banias). The Hindustan Times is owned by the Bhartiyas, who are Marwari Banias; The Indian Express by the Goenkas, also Marwari Banias; The Hindu is owned by a Brahmin family concern; the Dainik Jagran Hindi daily, which is the largest selling newspaper in India with a circulation of fifty-five million, is owned by the Gupta family, Banias from Kanpur. Dainik Bhaskar, among the most influential Hindi dailies with a circulation of 17.5 million, is owned by Agarwals, Banias again. Dainik Jagran is also baniya owned. Reliance Industries Ltd (owned by Mukesh Ambani, a Gujarati Bania) has controlling shares in twenty-seven major national and regional TV channels. The Zee TV network, one of the largest national TV news and entertainment networks, is owned by Subhash Chandra, also a Bania.)


‘Intellectuals remain silent on the issue of untouchability’—in an interview to Junior Vikatan magazine

‘Intellectuals remain silent on the issue of untouchability’—in an interview to Junior Vikatan magazine


Statistics show that these media houses hire journalists who are pre-dominantly Brahmin or Bania or other privileged caste people. You can count the number of Muslim journalists in the mainstream media on your fingers, Dalits and Adivasis are of course out of the picture.


By deliberately subverting the policy of reservation, the situation is the same in the judiciary, in the bureaucracy and in the academia. The only place where Dalits are over represented is in government municipalities where 90% of the sweepers are Balmikis. In this great superpower 1.3 million women still earn their living by carrying baskets of shit on their heads.


Democracy and the new Free Market economics have entrenched and modernized caste, and yet, India’s best-known intellectuals, historians, development economists and writers consistently either minimize or completely ignore the issue of caste in their writing and analysis. It is a great Project of Unseeing. It is our job to draw aside these curtains and show the world what is really going on in this great democracy.


The only time when the submerged, iron grid of the caste system is dredged up by the mainstream media and the intelligentsia and spoken about loudly, and in the most grotesque fashion, is during elections, when all the political parties and their Savarna leaders fight for the “Dalit” or the “OBC” vote. Once the elections are over, once again the issue will be submerged in all sorts of intellectual idiocy. I have actually heard a mainstream TV anchor argue in all seriousness that because Ambedkar was against caste, it followed that he was against the policy of reservation.


It has become very fashionable these days to talk about, and rally around the issue of financial corruption. But few of those who are so exercised by this problem care to turn their minds to the problem of intellectual dishonesty— a sort of moral corruption on an unimaginable level—that is practiced by many in this country. A dishonesty that has some of the best known scholars and historians who write books and thesis on justice and identity and society, but completely elide the question of caste, which is perhaps the most cruel, oppressive form of social hierarchy that any society has ever invented.


One of the greatest travesties of history is that this intellectual dishonesty has allowed Mohandas Gandhi, a man who believed in the caste system, who was consistently disrespectful to workers, to women, to black Africans, to become the world’s greatest modern saints, the Friend of the Poor, the hero of Black Americans, of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr, and the Father of our Nation. We cannot allow the foundations of our country to be built on such falsehood. Once again it was Babasaheb Ambedkar who had the courage and the intellectual rigor to take on Gandhi when he was at the height of his power. The Ambedkar–Gandhi debate that ought to be compulsory reading in every schoolroom has been cleverly obfuscated, and now the attempt by liberal intellectuals and historians is to portray them as fellow travellers who had a few friendly tiffs along the way. This is just completely untrue.


We must make it our urgent task to prevent the legacy of Ambedkar being falsified in this way.


Before I end I would like to say that in order to continue the battle to eliminate caste, we need to continuously and empirically uncover the connections between Brahminism, capitalism and imperialism. We need to form political alliances across the world. How else was Apartheid dismantled (at least in name) in South Africa? We need the world to look with absolute contempt upon this society that practices this most horrible form of discrimination. Right now most people outside India have no idea what caste is—to them it is something mystical connected to Hindusim, to fashionable vegetarianism and yoga and to the most fashionable thing of all—Gandhism. Annihilating the caste system is a task to which each of us must bring our skills and abilities.


The really major challenge before us is to fight caste without inadvertently strengthening and deepening caste divisions that were designed to prevent political solidarity. This makes it a very complicated struggle—because you will see people striking radical postures, encouraging isolationism, and destroying the possibility of solidarity which defeats the very purpose of the struggle. As you all know far better than me, it is hellishly difficult to tell your friends from your enemies in this fight—but it must be done. This was one of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s greatest skills.


We have to create a long, unbreakable chain, a chain whose links rise out of fields and factories, slums and shanty towns, classrooms in schools and universities, from cinema and literature—a chain of awareness, understanding, and relentless action.


Once again, thank you very much for honouring me thus.

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