The bhakti radical Ravidas (c 1450–1520), calling himself a ‘tanner now set free’, was the first to envision an Indian utopia in his song “Begumpura”—a modern casteless, classless, tax-free city without sorrow. This was in contrast to the dystopia of the brahmanical kaliyuga. Anticaste intellectuals in India posited utopias much before Thomas More, in 1516, articulated a Renaissance humanist version.
Gail Omvedt, in this study, focuses on the worldviews of subaltern visionaries spanning five centuries—Chokhamela, Janabai, Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, the Kartabhajas, Phule, Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar and Ambedkar. She charts the development of their utopian visions and the socioeconomic characteristics of the societies conceived through this long period.
Reason and ecstasy – dnyan and bhakti/bhav – are the underlying themes in this book. They constitute the two main strands of the utopian vision: the joy taken in the consciousness of a promised land and the analytical power that defines the contours of that land. Together, they make the road that leads to the promised land.
Rejecting Orientalist, nationalist and hindutva impulses to ‘reinvent’ India, Omvedt says all we need to do is take up the India envisioned by its dalit-bahujan intellectuals and leaders—the Begumpura of Ravidas, the Bali Rajya of Phule, the Dravidastan of Periyar, the Buddhist commonwealth of the Sakya Buddhists and Ambedkar’s Prabuddha Bharat. These are contrasted with Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram Rajya, Nehru’s hindutva-laced socialism and Savarkar’s territorialist Hindu Rashtra. Finally, Omvedt emphasizes the continued relevance of the vision of the anticaste intellectuals in the era of globalization.
Gail Omvedt is the author of Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (1994), Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste (2003) and Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India (2004) among other books. Seeking Begumpura is the product of five years of research and writing as Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. She lives in Kasegaon, Maharashtra.