THE WORK OF OUR HANDS

June 16, 2007

Tehelka Jun 23 , 2007

Vatsala Kaul has high praise for Kancha Ilaiah’s book for children on the values of ‘simple’ work
The cavernous divide between those who ‘labour’ and those who ‘work’ in India has always inhabited the shaky bedrock of our social system. Labour is work that leads to no accumulation of wealth, though it often perpetuates its own impoverished struggles. Its devaluation, as scripted in Hindu religious texts and fostered by years of selfish conditioning, has only worsened, aggravating the disengagement between the historically privileged and those banished to the fringes as ‘lower castes’, ‘Backward Classes’, ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘untouchables’. Flung into such compartments without escape, millions of Indians — adivasis, potters, weavers, dhobis, farmers, cobblers and domestic workers — are regarded as a lobotomised, unskilled mass, providing ‘services’ it seems they have no choice but to perform. As Ilaiah points out, the modern education system — in continuance of an ideology that considers physical labour undignified — anoints mental endeavour but is derisive and disparaging of physical work. Basic productive services are neither valued nor well-paid. It is to this work and to those who perform it that Ilaiah seeks to restore a core of long deserved respect.

The book is presented as a possible course book for children of classes 7-10, their teachers and parents. Of the book’s 11 ‘lessons’, eight deal with the scientific temper, artistic abilities, knowledge pool and many skills of adivasis, cattle-rearers, farmers, weavers and barbers. There is enough to grip the imagination — how the adivasis discovered and standardised most of the foods we eat; how leather workers used the tangedu plant for eco-friendly tannin; how tillers use traditional knowledge in planning their harvests; how potters improve their clay with smooth ash and charcoal; how dhobis use fuller’s earth to remove stains and kill germs; how dais — largely the women of the barber community — are able to turn breach babies in the womb without ultrasounds or other costly techniques. There are interesting asides, and inventive exercises readers are encouraged to try — they work as well for adults as for kids. What do you know about CK Janu? Ever tried composting? Or protesting against manual scavenging? How much does a farmer earn on a crop?

Grownups who fret over whether to let their domestic help use the ac are advised to resolve their own conflicts before handing this book to their children. The book was sparked off by Ilaiah’s shock at students from the iits and iims protesting against reservations by going out to sweep roads and polish shoes, clearly demonstrating what little dignity they associated with such labour. Through lucid, logical text, Ilaiah places this work in socio-historical perspective, impressing upon the reader how entire categories of usually marginalised people have learnt, invented, discovered and created products we use but take for granted, and how they are as capable as others — often more so — of becoming teachers, software engineers, doctors, nuclear physicists or anything else.

Ilaiah’s well-intentioned narrative can become simplistic in places, such as in the chapter on ‘Labour and Religion,’ where he denounces Hinduism and its caste system. It’s an impractical approach — one can not imagine the relatively privileged suddenly converting to Ilaiah’s point of view if they are not already attuned to caste’s heinous unfairness. By contrast, medieval Europe is described as a blissfully classless society — an assertion that is simply not true. Admittedly, however, while almost every religion has had cliques that arrogated to themselves powers and privileges, neither class nor slavery were sanctified by religion in the way Hinduism sanctified caste. Even if the word ‘caste’ were now to disappear, a vicious complex of reasons helps its long-entrenched effects to survive in this country and seep even into the lives of converts to more egalitarian religions.

Although one understands that Ilaiah’s case rests on presenting ‘labouring’ people as informed, skilled and creative, it is a little disappointing that he doesn’t touch upon the fundamental, intrinsic equality of all people, skilled or not, learned or not, labouring or not. We may owe weavers a ‘historical debt, so they must be given preference in education and employment,’ but that should not mean that those whom we do not owe any such debt should not get, or be enabled to get, the same opportunities. Ilaiah excludes those who may not be ‘skilled’ or ‘inventive’, and new migrants to the ‘labouring’ classes who may or may not have traditional wisdom and learning.

While most of the writing in the book is blissfully straightforward and not without humour (Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo are ‘cobblers’, for instance), academic jargon does creep in. But then, it’s always hard labour to build up debate and easy work to nitpick.

The cause is worthy, and the last chapter on gender issues more than welcome. This wonderfully designed book is a much-needed resource for both parents and teachers and anyone else who wants to educate themselves — teeming with interesting information, yet spacious and uncrowded. It is also beautifully embellished — one can’t use so neutral a term as ‘illustrated’ — by Durgabai Vyam of Bhopal, whose Gond-style black-and-white drawings are feisty works of art.

In times when children think cows eat garbage and not grass, and that flower pots grow one on top of the other on roadsides, Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land will prove vital in empowering our children to respect all kinds of peoples and their work, and to understand, and hopefully work against, the atrocious machinations of the caste system. Class 7 is too late to start, though; it would be best to share the contents of this book as soon as kids are old enough to understand the words ‘play’ — and ‘work’.

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By Chittibabu Padavala* 

 

Anand Teltumbde is an eminent Dalit theoretician who is respected and influential. He is among the few intellectuals who is also self-critical; someone who does not necessarily believe in ‘closing ranks’. Compared to Dalit intellectuals who think criticizing Dalit politics and social movements will always necessarily be used for anti-Dalit politics, and that Dalit politics could do without self-critical exercises, he is perhaps an exception in coming up with trenchant criticisms of Dalit politics, movements and perspectives from time to time. Most times, both well-meaning, pro- but non-Dalit intellectuals and Dalit intellectuals think it is dangerous to even air legitimate criticism of anything Dalit. Thus Teltumbde is also a lonely Dalit intellectual. His position is unenviable. Almost everything Dalits do or think is either unfairly dismissed and criticized or not given sufficient credit by the media and the dominant progressive-liberal left. Intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad or Kancha Ilaiah  focus exclusively on exposing the hypocrisy of so-called progressive intellectuals and highlighting the admirable features of Dalit life and politics. Reading Teltumbde is complementary and sometimes corrective to the work of both Ilaiah and Chandra Bhan Prasad. What is missing in the latters’ intellectual practice is that they don’t entertain any sustained self-critical perspective of Dalit politics and movements and lines of thought.

However, having read Teltumbde’s recent attack on Mayawati—circulated on e-mail, posted on ZEST-Caste, and copied below—I feel the need to critically engage with his ideas, which in this case are far from acceptable. At the outset, let me say that such a critical posture is almost unique in the context of the  celebratory reception of the news of Mayawati’s victory by upper caste progressives and Dalit intellectuals alike. His critique is not just unique, but is necessary and useful. That does not mean the burden of his argument is fair and acceptable. He does not posit any acceptable formulation or new revelation but reminds us of the basic fact that doing political theory is not the same as participating in celebrations but thinking a bit beyond.

First, he points to the fact that Mayawati does not have a comprehensive plan that includes such programs as land and resource redistribution and enhancement or at least does not reveal any such project either before or after the elections. It is unusual for a politician who has spent well over three decades in politics to be without any such agenda. It is equally unusual for the left and progressive intellectuals to uncritically celebrate such a politician’s victory in so unqualified a manner. I hazard an attribution to the beginnings of a conspiracy whose effects will be known only after Mayawati’s future failure. The conspiracy is simply that of undeserved praise being heaped on a personality and politics that are not going to deliver any great results, only to be withdrawn in the aftermath of the loss of the luster she now undoubtedly possesses. This praise on the part of the progressives is irresponsible for it neither points to the obvious ambiguities of her victory and politics nor offers any prescriptions to avoid the danger of being viewed as patronising.

So the question is what Mayawati can do, combined with the question of what a state government can do in the kind of system we have. And it is to be supplemented with what she wants to do, what she should do. Teltumbde does not appreciate one paradoxical difficulty she is bound to face if at all she is serious about her basic mandate: empowering the Dalits and putting an end to the discrimination against them. Unfortunately in our history the upliftment or empowerment of Dalits results in a simultaneous increase in the oppression of Dalits. The development of others too results in an increase in violence against Dalits. Of course, it is yet to be seen how much Mayawati’s emphasis on rule of law can work to prevent attacks on Dalits in the course of development and make social conflicts less violent. She has already made it clear through three government circulars that filing of cases under the SC/ST Act will not be encouraged unless in the worst of cases. She is going to have a tough time particularly in uplifting many backward communities which have been consistently showing a pattern of behavior in the course of their upward mobility: an eagerness to distinguish themselves from Dalits by means of discriminating against them and attacking them to assert their newly gained upliftment. The tragedy of Sudra ascendancy is that many Sudra communities in that phase very soon realize the difficulty of beating the upper castes in the realm of culture, public visibility, media, educational institutions, services and in fact try to imitate the upper castes rather than compete with them. The only way out they could imagine is to construct an ugly substitute of degrading the Dalits in order to feel certain ‘above-ness’ in relation to the Dalits.

The greatest challenge for Mayawati would undoubtedly be the problem of the ‘middle’. In terms of caste, it is the OBCs. In a class scale, it is the middle peasants. No party can think of winning elections without the support of this numerically substantial, resource-rich and power-seeking constituency. How Mayawati can reach out to this constituency is a big problem. It should not be forgotten that Mayawati, even in the moment of her highest triumph, could not cut much into this constituency, which remained firmly with Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Teltumbde very usefully calls our attention to the media-created myth based on Mayawati’s victory that upper caste votes are very important and that even they could be decisive. It is true that UP has a higher percentage of brahmin votes relative to other states and that they are important in deciding the victor in the elections. On an all-India scale, this is causing a new kind of ‘sensitisation’ among politicians in other states. What Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu said in his recent party’s conclave (Mahanadu) bears testimony to this Uttar Pradesh after effect. He for the first time addressed the issue of doing something for the upper castes; and his choice of words is unmistakably similar to that of Mayawati’s. The self-defeating dynamic inherent to such inflated importance bestowed on the so-called upper caste constituency is that it repeatedly calls everybody’s attention to their numerical minority and the marginal importance of their votes for winning elections. I think we should welcome it. But with the media’s shameless and unrepentant bias in favor of upper castes it is going to be a problem in the short run. It is particularly dangerous because most of our progressive social movements and political assertions express themselves in the vocabulary of anti-upper-caste struggles. Faced with the political incorrectness stigma to their rhetoric, which will soon follow the policy of upper caste appeasement on the part of political class, many subaltern social movements and political expressions will face difficult problems in legitimating their grievances and be forced to express their views in some liberal vocabulary which might be not so appealing to the purposes of mass mobilizations. Such discursive controls will result in some unproductive tension between media and social movements.

Many false paradoxes are pointed out in media analyses of the BSP victory in Uttar Pradesh. The most frequent of them is the idea of Brahmins and Dalits coming together to vote for BSP. Nothing could be farther from common sense. Unlike journalistic analysts and progressive intellectuals, the common people do not see the caste system as a textual entity. It is a matter of life and death; not an idea or ideology coded in ‘sacred texts’. It is not a superstition that has outlived its time (as urbanites tend to project it) and causes embarrassment to one’s sense of being enlightened. It is a lived practice enmeshed in the questions of power and resources. For ordinary Dalits, what texts the Brahmins take pride in are not important but the everyday encounter with the dominant Sudras on whom they are at once dependent and whom they also resist. Electoral alliances are not about deep social psychological transformations. People know very well that they will not be solved at the level of culture alone without reference to power. Thus they find no problem in aligning with Brahmins as opposed to dominant Sudras and even OBCs. None of this is lost sight of by Teltumbde. However, he fails to show the lesson the Dalit-Brahman-MBC alliance teaches the intelligentsia for whom the caste is a problem of texts and beliefs. Teltumbde should have used this as an opportunity not just to write diatribes against Mayawati but to confront the most damaging superstition of the intelligentsia that caste is merely an absurd idea still lingering among backward people. If Mayawati is praised for being everybody’s leader then Teltumbde objects to it by saying that her solid support base is just Dalits and that the other support is volatile. If you claim that she demonstrates Dalit power he would plausibly point to the possibility of she being poised to implement non-Dalit agenda and protect anti-Dalit interests because she has won with the support of non-Dalit votes. If his pessimism, which borders at cynicism, is true, he is not in fact seeing any genuine problem faced by this leader. Given such real-politik complexities, whatever contradiction is faced by Mayawati, Teltumbde sees scope only for her opportunism there and nothing else.

 

At one point in his essay he says,there is an intrinsic conceptual error in assuming that the BSP as a dalit party. “At no time BSP, even from the times of its precursor movements like BAMCEF and DS4, had claimed to be a Dalit party. As its name eloquently suggests, it is a bahujan party.” However, at another point he contradicts himself: “Even though the BSP likes to don the bahujan identity, in reality its base has been dalits. It is they who provide a foundation for its victories.”

 

The most bizarre formulation of all is his characterization of the construction of Dalit identity in UP. For him, it is just with abusive slogans, casteism, and propagation of Dalit icons that the BSP constructed Dalit identity in the state.( He writes, in what could be termed as the most insensitive and inaccurate passage in the whole article, “The process of constructing a rock solid constituency of this mass of Dalits comprised systematic operation of exclusivist strategy with a rhetoric of manuvad, an offensive lingo against the dwija castes and later use of political power to reinforce Dalit identity by promoting Dalit icons.” Every Dalit knows that it is upper castes that construct Dalitidentity while the latter are always ready to at least forget and generally ready to relinquish the claims to a separate identity. He  misses the significance of the early attempts by Kanshi Ram to organize Dalits as a separate political entity while they were of course already a separated social community with out any sympathy or understanding. Teltumbde merely notes, without any adverse qualification, perhaps with the hope that it would be disgusting enough for a left-liberal sensibility, that Kanshi Ram used to ask the upper castes among the audience to leave his meetings. He however forgets to add that even at the height of BSP’s power it does not entertain the idea of asking the upper castes to leave their places from villages. In fact, Teltumbde’s complaint is precisely that the upper castes were over-represented in her party and government. If Mayawati is exclusivist, it is a problem; even if she is inclusive she is the villain for our comrade. What appears to be consistent in such a contradictory attack is nothing more than an uncompromising hatred for her.

What angers Teltumbde is not exactly what is involved in Mayawati’s victory rather the descriptions it is receiving from the upper-caste intelligentsia. For him, a revolution is a precise political-scientific term. He frowns at the misuse of such a term. A Dalit woman’s power doesn’t automatically mean the power of Dalits and it cannot be equated with revolution. Fair enough. But it does not stop him from characterizing the victory of BSP, which included upper caste votes and disproportionate representation in party and government ranks, as ‘counter- revolution’. The representation of individuals belonging to upper castes in her party and government somehow becomes the power of the upper castes and what is more, it miraculously becomes a ‘counter-revolution’! He objects to imprecise use of political jargon only if it is used in favor of Mayawati, and doesn’t mind diluting the same if it is to dismiss her. Though he seems to be lamenting only her recent moves as degeneration of BSP politics, he seems to also disapprove of the early, movement phase of BSP’s actions since the BAMCEF days.

All in all, he is disappointed with Mayawati for her not being a communist and not implementing socialism. It does not occur to him that even CPI-M with its three decades of uninterrupted power in West Bengal, strong organisation and ideological indoctrination could not behave the way it wants largely because it is caught up in a quasi-federal system whose meta-logic is for everybody to obey. If he were to think that without the socialist restructuring of society Dalit problems could not be solved, he should say that. Then his argument would be to say that the problems of Dalits are structural and cannot be solved at electoral and governmental level. It does not have to depend much on attributing the opportunism of the Dalit leaders and mobilizations that do not think so. Teltumbde’s fixed solutions don’t grant any credit to the struggles and compromises of Dalit movements, politics and its leaders with the hope of improving their lot with the available means under the prevailing conditions. Perhaps Teltumbde needs to be reminded of Marx’s famous passage: “Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” The Dalits cannot wait, unlike intellectuals, until the ultimate moment of socialist revolution. This small section of humanity sets certain realistic goals for itself and sees what it can achieve. Sometimes, like in UP, they even manage achieve a little.

 

Not only this, he fails to appreciate the gestures (yes, just gestures neither programs nor manifestos) of Mayawati ever since she assumed office. He did not have the heart to hail her very first speech in which she thanked the upper castes and assured benefits for the poor among them. It was a Mandelian moment! An oppressed community’s leader on the eve of transfer of power assures the former tormentors full safety. Yes, the scale, impact and the nature and stature of the politician and the gesture are incomparably varied. But the poignancy of the moment is unmistakable and deserves all praise.

Forging coalitions and maneuvering numbers in elections amount to opportunistic politics for Teltumbde. One wonders what he thinks of a revolution whose calculations involve weapons, brute force and military matters. All said and done, the so-called electioneering and that insensitive phrase, ‘social engineering’, are ways of dealing with people not coercing them. Getting people to vote may be a less edifying task then talking them into taking up arms but it is no crime either.

Teltumbde admits that the daughter of the most oppressed section of the most unequal country assuming office is a gratifying sight. However, he grossly underestimates the meaning of such an event. Politics and social processes are not dead objects. Inversions are not  mere retentions of the same. It is no secret that Teltumbde   prefers class-based politics to a caste-based one. His own writings have underscored the importance of interpenetration of the two. If he is a realist, as his piece appears to emphasise, he should know that to assume power in this country you not only win the confidence of the masses but also convince the ruling sections of society that you are not going to harm them much. It is now fairly clear that Mayawati has achieved this two-pronged, contradictory but necessary task. He grossly underestimates the relative autonomy of the state in relation to economy and society even in these days of globalization. If many of the exclusions Dalits face are structurally not inevitable and something can be dealt with through state power, winning elections is the shortest route toit. Social movements are, of course, a much better way to achieve such objectives. Nevertheless, Dalit movements have one inherent defect to them: almost everywhere at every level, from national to village level, Dalits are a minority group. And, against them even the otherwise passive or conflicting communities come together. Any politics based completely and solely on the mobilization of Dalits runs the risk of antagonizing the majority of the given unit of society. So far, all unifying social movements could do so only by sidelining the problems of the Dalits. In such unfortunate circumstances state power alone can achieve certain necessary, though not sufficient tasks of Dalits and Dalit movements. One of them is  eliminating thesymbolic disqualification of Dalits to be in important positions in the public space. Achieving the office and using it to dispel the myth of Dalit inability is an end in itself. Even if it is dangerous to believe in the state’s capacity to transform, the best education in this regard comes by trying that means rather than by hurling copies of Lenin’s State and Revolution at ordinary Dalits without whose support no revolution worth its name can happen in India.

Perhaps Teltumbde  evaluates the importance of the fact of Ambedkar writing the Constitution of India and K.R. Narayanan serving as the president only in terms of what they achieved or failed to achieve. They played a much bigger role than any rigidly biographical or historical account can capture. Like it or not, such facts have been, and continue to be, the source of confidence and self-worth among Dalits. Such an impact of the lives of Dalits goes beyond the actual doings of these representative figures. However unsavory it might seem to our rational mind, they contributed more to Dalits as symbols than by what they actually were. Mayawati is now doing something akin to that. She is proving that Dalits can rule a state on their own and not as an appointee of some other party.

Besides the question of causes and consequences of Mayawati’s victory, there is an equally important issue of the meaning of the victory which cannot be equated to or exhausted by causes and consequences of the event . For Teltumbde, the symbolic is simply what is not real or what is mistaken or substituted for the real. Whatever be the merits of such an approach, he simply cannot imagine the continuities and translatability of the real and symbolic. It is obvious that he thinks that such thinking is marxism. Even if we forgive him for such an impoverished idea of marxism, one element of his analysis should be vigorously contested. He finds no problems with the existing, even popular yardsticks to measure a political phenomenon. That is dangerous. That is giving away the dominance in the debates to our enemies.

Teltumbde fails to appreciate the single most important particularity of the fate of being a Dalit politician. So far, Dalits could be legislators, mostly in reserved constituencies. Given the fact that most of the voters are non-Dalits while all the contestants are Dalits it is only the candidate most appealing to or least objectionable to non-Dalit voters who wins the election. It is at the root of the comprador and ineffective nature of our Dalit politicians rather than class dominating caste in their political behaviour . Mayawati emerged from within such structural limitations imposed on Dalit politicians in the country. We must also remember that of the 93 Dalit candidates fielded by the BSP only four were fielded in general constituencies. And of the four none could win, whereas 62 of the 89 fielded in reserved constituencies won. This shows that even today the ‘sarvajan’ support to BSP is not unconditional; a Dalit, even in Mayawati’s UP, is expected to contest and win only from reserved areas; in general constituencies, neither the brahmins, MBCs nor others seem to support Dalits. Despite such structural limitations, Mayawati today is there as chief minister with mostly non-Dalit votes. What is true of a legislator in her constituency is true for her at the state level. That is the fate of the dalit leaders in our democracy. They are a universal minority. Without resources, but only votes and the power to be organized, they are condemned to be a mere minority and not a powerful bloc. Any assertion or attempt at upward mobility has to take up the issue of some symbolic clearing. As the social practices in our country are based on systematic and totalitarian insults to Dalits even in  the most unimportant aspects of daily life, it is simply not possible for Dalits not to take up such issues. This results in all the non-dalit sections of society uniting against them. Many groups, though not all groups, can afford to live parallel to each other. Dalits do not enjoy such an opportunity. Many a shrewd politician and party can please various groups separately and gain from such a policy. With Dalits, it is not a possibility. You cannot empower Dalits without angering the others. Many communities have learnt the manner of evaluating the status of their well being in terms of how well they are doing in comparison with the lowest denominator—Dalits.

How do you do politics in such a crooked world? Communists quickly learnt the hard lesson. Though their initial blindness to Dalit question was due to their brahminical prejudices and groundless hope of withering away of feudal vestiges, later some honest attempts were made to address the question of Dalits. However, they were quick to learn that you can’t command the loyalty of the rest of the society if you take Dalit issues seriously. Most of the so-called hypocrisy of the communists in the face of Dalit question can be explained by this, rather than by any essentialist understanding of its leadership’s caste origins. In fact, all enduring groups in India are minorities given the size and diversity of the country. While most other groups are allowed to be indifferent and coexist parallel to each other, it is only Dalits who are not permitted to coexist peacefully. Contempt and comparison are imposed on them relentlessly.

Such complexities do not matter to Teltumbde. He simply asks for a comprehensive program for development and resource redistribution. When he talks about this very fundamental question, he somehow gives the impression that here he thinks only about ‘class’ and not about the relational concept ‘caste’. Besides providing for the basic necessities of the people, a politician with long-term goals should also think of issues of perception. This is a society in which a caste or a group evaluates its situation not in terms of development or well being in absolute terms or comparatively with its own past, but in relative terms by assessing who are supposed to be above and below. It is suicidal for a politician to come up with a context-blind concept of development. One example I have noticed repeatedly in my home state Andhra Pradesh is telling: in many a village the absence of a school causes less protest than the construction of it near a Dalit street. I am not claiming that Mayawati might have all these  factors in mind in keeping the cards close to her chest about the economic policy she is going to pursue. Perhaps she is just as clueless about economic policies as Teltumbde appears to fear   Or perhaps her economic policy is not going to be much different from what obtains in other states.

With all my differences and dismay at his diatribe against the first woman Dalit chief minister of the country,  we must be thankful to Teltumbde for his timely reminder that our Mayawati not so long ago campaigned for Narendra Modi and aligned with the BJP twice. Nothing can excuse her for doing this; it will forever be a black spot on her otherwise impressive career. Her chant hati nahee hai ganesh hai (It’s a Ganesha not an elephant) is one of the most dangerous slogans in recent times by any politician. The triumvirate Brahma Vishnu Mahesh is all-Hindu and too brazen for anyone to be missed. This degeneration is hopefully only a result of political shortsightedness and not going to be an enduring trend. It is clear case of ‘Congressification’ of BSP and its end point is playing into the hands of the BJP.

On the whole, it is heartening to see that a Dalit theoretician has highlighted this aspect at the very moment of the dalit leader’s victory; a courage the likes of Aijaz Ahmed or Prabhat Patnaik did not show when CPI-M and CPI came together with the BJP to form a government at the center which led to the eventual victory of the BJP and its subsequent influential position in India. Teltumbde deserves our salute for his courage and timing and it is even more praiseworthy given that most of the Dalit intellectuals of the country seem to be suffering from a ‘closing the ranks mentality’ all the time.  

 

Then what is the meaning and significance of Mayawati’s victory?

We should not equate the government with the state and the state with society and economy. Then, there is the relative autonomy of the state and its fallout: autonomy of the government. We have an amazingly enlightened constitution given the overall backwardness of the society and culture. The Dalit contribution to it is well known. Here is an opportunity to even implement it.  Implementing the basic constitutional provisions amounts to a radical program. I don’t think she will be able to make the best of these provisions even if she wants to. But what she can really achieve by being simply the chief minister is this: Many atrocities against Dalits are perpetrated not because the culprits are very strong but because Dalits are weak. Such elements will get an exaggerated idea of Dalit power and it will have some deterring effect. A government that is not anti-Dalit will surely make a difference in this regard.

Rather than narrowly focusing on what Mayawati government will do or will not do, it is better to think about the ways in which the Dalits of UP can benefit from the symbolic opportunity for them. The much bigger question is weather the UP Dalits can use this opportunity and achieve higher levels of education, conversion, mobility, visibility. The question is not what Mayawati can do to UP Dalits but what they can do to themselves with BSP around. It is here the role of organizations, social movements and intellectuals become important. Will the Dalit intellectual class provide such a direction, inspiration and participation for the Dalits on the street or field or it simply waits for the government to do everything is the question. It also opens up a unique and unprecedented opportunity for Dalits: Dalits are the only group whose emancipation cannot be achieved without enlightening the entire society. It is in the best interests of the Dalits to lead the rest of the society towards enlightenment. To such a task somebody like Teltumbde can contribute more than Mayawati can. Now, the Dalits of UP should invent creative ways in which they can conduct their rightful assertion less spectacularly but deeply.  Jews provided despite their universal marginality the intellectual leadership to the West. Perhaps we can draw instructive lessons from that history. Mayawati’s victory is objectively and potentially no more than removing certain hurdles to Dalits. If the ruling complex of classes and castes cannot dethrone Mayawati in the next elections or stop her from becoming the Prime Minister in the future, they will definitely try to strike a deal with her. Such a bargain would be similar to the CPI-M’s implicit agreement with capitalist and business classes. Then, the Dalit party will be the most effective container of Dalit assertion. Just like the CPI-M is the most reliable and effective container of proletarian unrest in the country. The only immunity from such a nightmarish future for Dalit politics is the intense and effective educational and cultural movements in UP which alone can create a Dalit constituency that can take the smoothest road to social transformation—educational and cultural movements. Only the emergence of such an enlightened Dalit constituency can preclude the possible future temptations to exchange Dalit loyalty to the office for Dalit leaders and parties. Therefore, the question is not what Mayawati can do to us but what we can do to ourselves.

 

(I would like to thank S. Anand and Ravikumar of Navayana for suggesting this article, and Anand for editorial assistance.)

*The author is an independent researcher studying genocides. He recently completed a journalism course from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

The one-eyed twice-borns

June 16, 2007

S. Anand

Tehelka, 23 June 2007

Confronting the extremist fringe of the Right comes easy to the liberal-secular set but it ignores the more widespread casteist slurs by other sections of society

Two recent incidents, seemingly unrelated, demonstrate how the “secular” common sense can react in shockingly contrasting ways. The first, much publicised case from MS University, Vadodara, involves Chandramohan Srimantula’s paintings, the rightwing opposition to his work, and the subsequent rallying of the secular-liberal intelligentsia around the victim. About the same time, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, a case of blatant victimisation of a postgraduate student, Sukhbir Singh Badhal, was reported. The case came to light through the findings of a three-member committee inquiring into caste discrimination at AIIMS headed by University Grants Commission chairman Sukhdeo Thorat. Badhal’s case was highlighted by The Times of India (May 13, 2007) and followed up by cnn-ibn. Badhal had stood first in a selection examination in lab medicine, but he was superseded by the second-ranker in the appointment to the coveted post of senior resident at the department of lab medicine.

Like Chandramohan, a Lalit Kala award winner, Badhal had distinguished himself in his field. Both were wronged. In both cases, the deans of the departments concerned — Shivaji Panikkar at msu and RC Deka at AIIMS — stood up for their students whereas the respective managements not only justified their maltreatment but actively participated in their persecution. Where the similarity begins, it also ends. While Chandramohan’s victimisation outraged a cross-section of voices — artists, academics, writers, actors, public intellectuals, lawyers, concerned citizens — there was no one to take up Badhal’s cause. While a Free Chandramohan Committee quickly came into existence, a Help Badhal Committee did not materialise. Crucial here is the fact that Badhal happens to be a Dalit, and a Dalit who could stake a rightful claim to an institutional position without taking recourse to reservation. He had topped in the General category.

In Chandramohan’s case, the very obvious villainy of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal provided an ideal foil for the righteous though predictable indignation of the Left-liberal-secularists against the loony Right. Many times in the past they have appeared to feed off each other, and seem to unwittingly participate in a theatrical ritual where words and phrases such as “artistic freedom, cultural freedom, land of Khajuraho and Tantra, freedom of expression, moral policing, cultural intolerance/ hijack”, etc, cross swords with “Western ideas, Hindu culture, hurting the sentiments of the majority, desecration of gods”, and so on. These tiresome expressions, in turn, occupy placards, editorials, television bytes and SMS polls.

In this secular theatre, Chandramohan and not Badhal would appear “the good victim”. This phrase was used in another illuminating context by Gary Younge (The Nation, April 19, 2007) while comparing Rosa Parks’ case in Alabama, 1955, with that of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old who too had a few months earlier refused to get up and offer her seat to a white man. But unlike Parks, Colvin was too dark, too poor; and worse, an unwed mother. Colvin being the trigger for the boycott that spurred the civil rights movement would have been unacceptable. Parks, however, was seen by Martin Luther King Jr as a woman of family values, someone who had “character, integrity and Christian commitment”. Strategists of movements, argues Younge, need a good victim and wait for one if they have to. In India, this plays out a little differently. There are people whose victimhood, however grievous and morally grounded, does not qualify as campaign-worthy for the rest of civil society.

AIIMS is a high-profile institution headed by P. Venugopal, an unabashed opponent of reservation who has done little to hide his prejudices against Dalits and other oppressed sections of society. (A white man in a similar position at Harvard Medical School would not have so zealously paraded his prejudices as Venugopal has.) Badhal, with his indisputable academic “merit”, represents an attack on the new sense of victimhood claimed by the entrenched classes and castes, the likes of Venugopal and his no-less-tactful supporters in the media. When news of Badhal’s victimisation broke, we did not see any outrage from the usual interlocutors who launched email signature campaigns and organised protest meetings in support of Chandramohan. Badhal’s, for that matter, is not an isolated case. Reports of Dalit and Adivasi students being hounded at AIIMS surfaced in April and September 2006. One student, Umakant Nagar, had reported that an “abusive and threatening” message had been inscribed on the door of his room forcing him to shift out. In due course, 29 students — all Dalits and Adivasis — were forced to shift hostels. But such ghettoisation and segregation at AIIMS — justified by Venugopal and his ad-hoc appointees — did not become a campaign issue for the secular-liberals.

More recently, Ajay Kumar Singh, an mbbs student at AIIMS, testified at the Indian People’s Tribunal on Untouchability organised by the National Council for Dalit Human Rights. His account of systematic abuse by the AIIMS administration appeared in Tehelka (June 2, 2007) in which he describes how the privileged caste students and management at AIIMS had joined hands to make sure he does not get his medical degree.

This selective indifference is not so inscrutable. It could be argued, perhaps rationally, that Badhal’s being a Dalit is not the sole factor, and that the secular-liberals who show up at these protests relate more easily to a case of denial of freedom of an artist’s expression than to a case of denial of a job to an otherwise qualified candidate. The latter comes across as a dull, drab case in comparison with one like Chandramohan’s. It is likely that most of those who identified with the Baroda student-artist were in fact offended by the encroachment by unenlightened lumpens on the turf of art. Art becomes a good cause to fight for and Chandramohan the perfect victim. However, the reason why most players who took to the streets for Chandramohan did not deem it necessary to react to Badhal goes a little deeper than the attractiveness that “art” provides.

When students in elite institutions across the country (led by iits, iims, AIIMS) protested the suggested reservation for the Other Backward Classes in Central colleges, and demonstrated their protest in the most vulgar and demeaning manner — by sweeping roads, polishing shoes and selling vegetables — the same secular-liberal intelligentsia that jumps at the opportunity that a Chandramohan or a Husain provides, remained completely indifferent. Perhaps they decided that the protesting students could not be denied their rightful freedom to express their contempt towards the labouring castes.

It is this silence — ‘indifferentism’ as Ambedkar had prophetically termed the caste Hindu/liberal attitude to anti-caste concerns — that continues to echo for Badhal.

What happened to Badhal was unconstitutional, as much as what happened to Chandramohan. msu Vice-Chancellor Manoj Soni, Narendra Modi’s rss-backed appointee, is quite easily the ugly villain compared to Venugopal; unlike Soni, the AIIMS director does not have any direct Hindutva connection. We are left with a scenario where confronting the obvious wrongs of the overzealous Hindutva brigade seems an acceptable national-secular pastime, whereas taking on the casteist non-Hindutva demons who have prowled this society for far longer, becomes nobody’s burden. When only Dalits are forced to bear the burden of articulating Dalit issues they are dubbed sectarian; the casual betrayal of Dalits by the rest of society passes for secularism. While everyday secularism in India is animated by concerns for issues that relate to religion, and especially the religious Right, issues concerned with caste discrimination leave them cold. Such secularism fails to acknowledge, forget understand, that for civil society to come to real terms with the Modis, Sonis, Goradias and Togadias, it has to first take a position on invisibilised everyday caste discrimination. In the hierarchy of wickedness, Venugopal must share space with Soni and Modi. We can no longer afford to choose to free Chandramohan from Soni and yet allow Venugopal to hold Badhal a prisoner of caste.

The writer is publisher, Navayana

anand.navayana@gmail.com

 

Street Fight Poet

June 7, 2007

[This interview first appeared in Tehelka.]

The words are a spume of raw fire — degradation, obscenity, filth and horror rage untamed; there’s a hymn to hear when they’re spent. Nothing cushions in the world of Namdeo Dhasal, poet feared and revered, founder of the Dalit Panthers, comrade of controversy, born ‘untouchable’. Selections from thirty years of his work, 1972 to 2006, brilliantly translated by fellow poet Dilip Chitre have been released by Navayana, an award-winning publishing house, dedicated to bringing out titles for social change. Dilip Chitre and Navayana’s S. Anand talked to Shyama Haldar about the exhilarations of finding Dhasal.

Dilip, you’ve been a friend, translator and champion of Namdeo Dhasal for over four decades. These poems, they rip through you — how is it they aren’t better known?

Dilip Chitre (DS): Namdeo Dhasal is known in Marathi as a major poet and is almost unknown beyond the language — he’s won awards and things like that, but very few critics have dared to delve into his works and say exactly what it is about him that makes him great. While I have no doubt that he is one of the world’s best 20th century poets, he hasn’t been translated even into other Indian languages because he is extremely difficult to translate.

There is, of course, the problem that India does not have any publishers worth their salt consistently publishing or promoting poetry, even in the English language. In fact, there are actually more publishers in the Indian languages promoting poetry than in English. In English, you have to be very close to your grave to be acceptable to most of your contemporaries, and then they may publish your collected poems. Then along comes this niche publisher who reads four translations of Dhasal in a magazine — Tehelka, as it so happened — and he contacts the translator, gets after him: do you have more?

S. Anand (SA): This was around the Sahitya Akademi’s golden jubilee in 2004; they gave Namdeo a lifetime achievement award. I didn’t know Dilip was on the committee, I just read this article he wrote. Navayana was very young then, and had never done poetry, but this was something I knew I wanted to publish. I hunted all over for a way to contact Dilip, googled madly, and somehow found his number.

That’s something the poems do, read just a few lines and you know you’re with an enormously exciting writer.

DC: And that’s what translation is about, sharing excitement. You can either share it in a very quiet, sober, scholarly way, or you can share it in a poetic way. Now, I am a practicing poet in two languages, English and Marathi, and I am committed to translation — I’ve been translating poetry from Marathi to English for the last fifty years, poetry from the 13th century right up to the 21st. With Namdeo, I found that he has it in him to be considered one of the world’s major poets, and the only way I could substantiate that claim was to bring the best of his poetry to the notice of Anglophone readers.

Namdeo’s a lumpen, as he describes himself, with no assets except poetry — he sometimes says he hurls his poems like stones, so they’re a street-fighting weapon as well. To convey the idea that poets can come from anywhere, that they bring from wherever they come something to the surface of the world — that’s a role he plays exceptionally well. Namdeo’s also an activist, and he’s been a good activist. But like most Dalit leaders, small-time and big-time, he knows he lives in India where Dalits cannot, by themselves, form a government anywhere. They can only act as a pressure group…

SA: Not until Mayawati.

DC: Even Mayawati has had to make that compromise with her ‘rainbow coalition’ — the elephant has been turned into Ganesha. These things will continue to happen, but let us not be deceived about the facts of the Dalit situation. No minority in India can ever come to power — and, in fact, there is no majority, not even the Hindus are an absolute majority, thank God. We are a land of minorities. And here is a minority voice, someone from the urban dispossessed, uprooted from his rural place, planted in the megapolis of Mumbai at the age of seven to grow up in that urban underbelly that no one notices. In the 19th century, the French poet Baudelaire wrote about Paris, wrote The Flowers of Evil, and started the trend of modern urban poetry. Baudelaire talked about decadence and so on, but he himself was a bourgeois trying to become a déclassé. Namdeo Dhasal is a lumpen, that is the difference, he’s already there. We also know that, although he was not dealing with cities and so forth, Dante in his Commedia was dealing with his contemporary world through the metaphorical frame of Paradise, Limbo and Hell. So you start with Inferno, you come to Purgatorio, and then you are elevated to Paradiso, in Dante’s framework. Now, here’s a person who gives that epic, mytho-poeic quality to Mumbai, and installs at the heart of his universe Golpitha, the red light neighbourhood of central Mumbai. It is an impenetrable world unless it can be illuminated by someone like Namdeo, illuminated from within. Golpitha, which was published in 1972, is, to my mind, a milestone in world poetry.

Anand, I’d like to go back to the point about Namdeo as a Dalit leader. What do you make of the issue of his aligning with the Shiv Sena?

SA: I really get cheesed off when people start talking about Namdeo Dhasal with the words, ‘Oh, but hasn’t he joined the Shiv Sena?’ It’s like people read a lot of newspapers and very little poetry…

DC: And he’s not with the Shiv Sena, this is factually incorrect. The Dalit Panthers supported the Shiv Sena for a while, and then in the last municipal elections in Mumbai, they supported the cpm. That’s the 360 degree world of Indian politics — why isolate Namdeo Dhasal? Just because he’s a Dalit? Why isolate Mayawati? Just because she’s a Dalit? I think there’s high hypocrisy at work here, upper-caste, upper-class, journalistic hypocrisy. And for people to use this to obscure the fact that he is one of India’s major poets, it makes me furious.

SA: He writes for Saamna, I’m told — I don’t read Marathi. And, yes it’s a thin line, being with the Shiv Sena and writing for their paper — but, again, it’s what you write that matters. I’ve been told Namdeo speaks his mind in his Saamna essays, and Bal Thackeray lets him. It’s not a Namdeo I’m interested in at all, though, right now. Are we to divorce him from forty years of his work and say, ‘Oh, now he is with the Shiv Sena’?

Namdeo’s wife is a Muslim, and the daughter of a Communist…

DC: Who was a well-known balladeer, Amar Sheikh. Mallika is about ten or fifteen years younger than Namdeo, and is an outstandingly good poet in Marathi in her own right. They’ve had a very turbulent marriage; in fact, Mallika wrote an autobiography, I Want to Smash Myself, about their relationship, how much she disapproved of his Panther movement, how difficult it was to live with this man, an activist with cases against him all over Maharashtra, many of them implicating him in crimes he did not commit. At the time they married, he was constantly underground, they were hounded from place to place.

Modern Marathi literature has this constellation of outstanding contemporaries: Vilas Sarang, Kiran Nagarkar, Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Kolatkar, yourself. There’s this strain of defiance, rage and relentlessness that runs through this group — where is it coming from?

DS: Well, one of the things that’s common to all of us is that we are rooted in the same metropolis, we are very much Mumbai writers, all of us are rooted in the maddening cosmopolitan mix of Mumbai. We have our different modes of approaching it — for example, in Vilas’ case, he is consciously located in the existentialist tradition of Camus and the nihilist tradition of Samuel Beckett; Kafka has also been a very significant influence on him. You cannot say that about Arun Kolatkar. Kiran Nagarkar has a variety of narrative voices, but you can also read the European influence in Kiran very distinctly. Putting Namdeo aside, Arun, Vilas, Kiran and myself are all bilingual writers who practice writing in English as well as Marathi. Namdeo is monolingual, he writes in Marathi, speaks in Marathi. He doesn’t read any French or Spanish or German or English, for that matter. Where does his surrealism come from, where does his existentialism come from? It’s something native, it’s part of his self-education. He is a self-educated, dispossessed Dalit, fighting his way up into the literary world of the megapolis. Everything he’s read, he’s read in Marathi translation, and if he hears of someone whose work is untranslated, he’ll say, ‘Who is this person, tell me more about him, will you translate him for me?’

SA: There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, Dilip. His political followers — as you’ve told me — when he’s in hospital, there are some two hundred Panthers outside. Do they read his poetry, do they have an understanding of it? Or is there a split between Namdeo the poet, and this other, political, person?

DC: I don’t see it as a split in Namdeo; it’s the one-sidedness of his multiple audiences. His Dalit audience sees him as a charismatic leader, but they may not possess the literary sensibility demanded by his poetry. He’s not someone like Gadar, who will write these very simplistic poems, and some of them rank bad poetry, and express revolutionary sentiments and rouse people and so on. A middle-class person approaching his poetry does not know the Dalit situation, he does not even want to know. So he misses part of the poetry.

SA: So, is there’s no perfect audience for Namdeo’s Dhasal’s poetry? Nobody who’d have the sensibilities of his politics and be able also to appreciate his poems?

DC: Turn the shirt around and the shirt asks if it fits the audience as well. The shirt poem…

SA: I’d like to read the last three lines from that one, ‘Speculations on a Shirt’:

A human being shouldn’t become so spotless / One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt / One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin.

And just look at the beginning of it: Let’s change the sex of Eve / Let’s make Adam pregnant. And then you find it so odd that he should be with the Shiv Sena — maybe he’s saying, ‘Let’s do that, let’s go out and confuse you.’

DC: Namdeo dares you, as a reader, and as a translator. There’s something I describe as aesthetic subversion. Namdeo subverts bourgeois sensibilities, and that’s what appeals to me. A subversive act tries to undo the entire system on which your values are based. Namdeo is a guerrilla poet. In one phrase, one line, he’ll juxtapose dialect and the slang of Kamathipura with European references in very sophisticated Marathi. These shifts and transitions of register make translating him very hard. Translating someone like Namdeo is in a sense like Method acting — you have to find a space for him inside you, make room, and then act it out.

Viju Chitre (Dilip’s wife): At the time Namdeo started writing, his poems were the sort people couldn’t bear to go near. The words he used were the kind educated people would never even think of. That’s why most people can talk politics with him, but they don’t want to go into his poetry, because they get scared, even now. When you ask why he’s not better known, it’s because of that. He’s too rough for the sensibilities of even literary people like Vijay Tendulkar. We all pass Golpitha every day, but we try not only to not see what is there, but not to even feel it.

DC: You know, there are many Dalit poets writing in Marathi, none of them write this way. He’s far above them. It’s not as though he could be the leading light of Dalit literature when Dalit writers have such very small ambitions. They all have too many statements to make about being Dalit.

What you’re saying is this is past being an identity statement: I am Dalit, this is my voice. Maybe this is one way of getting over the question of audience — maybe the perfect audience for Namdeo Dhasal is the reader’s gut.

DC: How does he reach German audiences through a secondary translation based on my translation?

SA: Or how would I read one small excerpt and get so excited by it, and say I want to publish this, somehow, anyhow? When I show this book around, when people read just one poem, first they’re not sure they’re reading a translation, and then they can’t understand why they haven’t heard of him before.

DC: But it is also the case that you cannot really separate Namdeo’s politics from his poetry. On April 14 [Ambedkar’s birth anniversary], every year from 1972 onwards, Namdeo Dhasal has been writing one long poem addressed to Ambedkar, but also at the same-time a self-questioning poem. He is talking to Ambedkar and to himself, and is asking himself and all Dalits the question, have we lived up to the standards Ambedkar set us? These are self-examining poems that also point to several things that happened after Ambedkar passed away in 1956 that he did not have to face — the India that Ambedkar never knew and that Dalits have to face today is also part of those poems. There is this too in Namdeao’s work — if people were to read his poetry first and then read his politics, perhaps they will be less clueless than they are when they start with his politics and don’t even approach his poetry.

Jun 02 , 2007

 

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