Memory that keeps getting in the way of history

My suspicion started
when the anyam household
raised their brass tumbler in a different way
to pour water into my cupped palms
during my high school days.

Then, when, as we fought at play,
someone called me
‘mala bastard’,
the suspicion smarted with a grazed knee and heart.

History presses itself upon us in the ever-unfolding present. It burgeons in a forever-happening future. There’s no better time to conduct the business of history than now. In this physical world, a deeply unequal caste-world, our history project is a partisan one—what Soumyabrata Choudhury calls the ‘real history of factional sequences that add up to the star mark on the university form by the column for Scheduled Caste students’ and not the stardust that Rohith Vemula spoke of—and so we ought to develop a bias towards equality. It is a bias that Choudhury, in Ambedkar and Other Immortals: An Untouchable Research Programme, celebrates as an ‘Ambedkarite’ exercise in ‘dalit rigour’.

What are the stakes of this ‘untouchable research programme’? It is our thinking about the star mark. The asterisk—*—had forced caste society to offer the ‘compensation’ of reservation under legal duress. But the inclusion of the dalit into the realm of equality—through reservations or the Prevention of Atrocities Act—has come to be seen as an exercise in the exclusion of the touchable. That asterisk of condescension, exhibited on a departmental notice board of a university, serves the same function as the recent Supreme Court ruling—the assertion of the habitual right to dehumanise an untouchable in public view without legal consequences. To put it in the way one hears it unflinchingly said on Delhi’s streets—‘What do you call a chamar but a chamar?’ To most of caste society, backed by the wisdom of its courts, this seems a fair question to ask. Caste is a habit—a habit of violence that flourishes in everyday language. The highest court of the land therefore concludes that it is the touchable who needs protection from the petty inconveniences that the very thought of equality—triggered by a dalit’s fraternal presence—can cause. The extreme end of this spectrum has come to be just as ubiquitous: say, tying up dalits to a jeep, stripping them, and mauling them without fear of consequences.

And so, the suspicion of the poet grows:

When Mr Chayanulu wondered
during an interview
why a reservation fellow
should sport a foreign shirt,
Pilot pen and Bata shoes,
my suspicion grew bigger.

With his dissident extraction of Ambedkar the thinker, Choudhury supplies us with the apparatus for thinking equality with Ambedkar and, of course, other immortals of his ilk. He offers us a militant reading of Ambedkar the politician and activist at once—in fact, his impious readings dare us to label the man as one and not the other. If Ambedkar was just a well-educated young mahar leading some three thousand people, mostly untouchables, to drink water at the Chavadar Tank in Mahad in March 1927—not to quench thirst but to commit an unprecedented act of establishing ‘the norm of equality’—why should we come to regard it as a watershed moment that is ‘plugged into a shared teleology of universal human progress’? Equality was indeed thought of before Ambedkar. But as Choudhury says, ‘These upsurges though incomparable to each other, between themselves form a kind of reversible eternity. There is no hierarchy of axioms, no history of one historical immortal owing a debt to another.’ Upon considering such a constellation of ‘exemplars of radical egalitarian logic’, Slavoj Žižek concurs: ‘I find incredibly forceful the idea of the community of ‘immortals’—mortal people personifying an immortal Idea.’

Ambedkar and Other Immortals tells the story of how and why Ambedkar’s militant fidelity to equality must govern any project of emancipation that is to come. Aishwary Kumar, author of Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy, writes in his foreword:

Choudhury grapples with Ambedkar’s singularity—and his fearless solitude—with unrivalled audacity, as he pauses painstakingly on syntaxes, words, sentences, and names: those elements of Ambedkar’s language whose depths have barely been skimmed, whose heights barely comprehended, and whose dots barely triangulated.

Meanwhile, Shikhamani the poet arrives at this conclusion in “Steel Nibs Are Sprouting” (translated from the Telugu by Kiranmayi Indraganti):

When in literary discussions
my two brahmin friends found
my language inept—
my suspicion came home to stay.

‘Is Shikhmani SC?
I mistook him for OC—
judging by his poetic sensibility.’

To help us think harder about both equality and history, and sometimes beyond Ambedkar’s formulations, we are fortunate to publish the scholar and activist Anand Teltumbde’s opus, Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva. It is unlike the histories that the self-anointed official biographers of post-independence India proffer, elite histories that loop from one headline to another without walking the ground of real struggles. Teltumbde’s fidelity is to the easily forgotten lives and deaths of (non)citizens of a republic, that despite its formal allegiance to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, habitually violates the rights of the majority of its population, especially if they are dalit or adivasi. If the manifold increase in the rate of crimes against dalits is one thing, their rabid intensity is just as worrisome, especially when the state and justice system are sympathetic time and again to the aggressors.

Given its commanding scope and unsparing argument, it is tempting to respond rhetorically and offer Teltumbde’s Republic of Caste as a chronicle of ‘India after Ambedkar’, but that would be unjust for he is not beholden to the cultish following of any figure. In the chapter “Ambedkar, Ambedkarites and Ambedkarism: From Panther to Saffron Slave”, he writes unsentimentally about the situation we find ourselves in:

It [Ambedkarism] has manifested as anti-communism, keeping dalits antagonistic towards class questions. It is sought to be submerged within Hindu ritualism, as the entire paraphernalia of idol worship is steadily assembled around Ambedkar as the godhead, luring dalits into the reactionary camp of the BJP. It has also been harnessed to the narrative of pushy individuals on the make who happen to be dalit: whether Ambedkarite Hindu nationalists, Ambedkarite capitalists or other such deformities.

Asked to engage with Teltumbde’s arguments, Sunil Khilnani, best known for The Idea of India, wrote a felt-for foreword where he held that the founders of modern India, led by Ambedkar, laid out a vision that saw our diversities as advantageous and not a threat, as seen by the upholders of hindutva. Crucially, Khilnani does not say that this vision is as old as the vedas, the stock defense of the liberal–left. The time for such humbug history is over:

It is certainly not a vision innate to our civilisation, nor does it have great intrinsic virtue in itself. It is a politically created vision, and it’s one clear advantage is that it can sustain the frame, the republic, in which our real struggles, for equality, universal rights, and addressing the serial wrongs of our history—the necessary struggles that Teltumbde gets us to think about—can advance to some better outcome.

We ask our readers to join us in celebrating these two wonderful books—we are sure you will keep going back to them often. Dalit History Month gives us reason to tell our readers that all our titles will be on sale at fabulous discounts exclusively on our website. The experience of ordering from us may not be as smooth as on Amazon or Flipkart—but your solidarity will help us keep up the partisan fight for equality.