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‘We need more Ambedkar; there’s just not enough’

Arundhati Roy wrote that reading Ambedkar was like someone let the light in. S. Anand, publisher of Navayana, tells Ajachi Chakrabarti it’s time for liberal Hindus to follow suit.

Ajachi Chakrabarti  22nd Mar 2014

Babasaheb Ambedkar

nnihilation of Caste was written for and about Hindu society in 1936, part of a fierce debate on reforming a religion in presumed peril. In what ways has the debate changed today?

A. It is different in the sense that at least back then, there was a Sant Ram who swam against the tide of Arya Samaj conservative opinion and there was a Jat-Pat Todak Mandal that believed in breaking caste. Why did Ambedkar say: "I have accepted the invitation much against my will, and also against the will of many of my fellow Untouchables?" Because, despite his reservations — which proved to be right later — he was willing to have a dialogue with the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal. But the Mandal blanched when Ambedkar said, "You have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras." The anticaste Ambedkarite literary and political tradition continues to speak in this vein. But when a Dalit (or non-Dalit) says this today, she cannot be a law minister or chair something of the magnitude of the Constitution Drafting Committee.

Also, the discourse on caste has become completely different, since castes have come to be seen, and sometimes see themselves, as interest groups. There is a theory — something I partially subscribe to — that you need to assert your caste identity if you belong to a subordinated caste, in order to overcome it. But once every caste starts doing that, electoral democracy, instead of undermining caste, makes a snug fit with caste. That's how and why democracy works in India. Like Arundhati Roy argues in her introduction, something scholars like Anand Teltumbde also point to, capitalism, democracy and caste have all formed a nice amalgam and cohabit with each other. Today, to talk about caste in the popular discourse has come to mean talking about reservations, atrocities and vote-banks: not about privilege and entitlements.

The whole debate over equalisation of castes, for Ambedkar, would be a contradiction of terms because as long as you have caste, you can't have equality. He didn't write a book called Equalisation of Caste; he wrote Annihilation of Caste. Another thing we find today, that didn't have as much currency then, is Hindutva. It was being seeded then. Today, you will find the argument that there is good Hinduism and bad Hindutva, which is fallacious — it's merely a ruse to consolidate caste. Like Ambedkar said, "There can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be."

Q. Arundhati Roy calls this the "project of unseeing". What do you think fuels it?

A. Well, the project of unseeing begins in some sense with Nehru and the efforts made after independence to elide caste. Nehru was very uncomfortable with the term "backward caste"; he replaced it with class. There has been constant unease with caste among those who believe they have exited caste. The Left, the liberals, the Gandhians, all these people have participated in this, because it's about losing the status quo. They'll say "Bob Marley zindabaad", that they're with Paris '68; these are people from privileged, elite Brahminical backgrounds who will join black solidarity because MLK also loved Gandhi. It's a nice little international solidarity built around false symbols. For them, the civil rights discourse begins with the 1975 Emergency when their own rights were threatened, not with the Mahad Satyagraha of 1927. The very existence of caste means the suspension of civil rights for millions. We have apartheid here, but when the Dalits went to Durban [for the World Conference Against Racism, 2001], you should see what the liberal intelligentsia had to say. Every effort to talk caste internationally has been stymied. The project of unseeing is not just a national project, but an international one.

The whole debate over equalisation of caste, Ambedkar believes, is a contradiction of terms because as long as you have caste, you can’t have equality.

Q. Ambedkar mentions in the speech that even the ideal state in Plato's Republic, the foundational text of Western civilisation, has a caste system at its heart. Apartheid must be removed, but is it possible to remove the entire notion of caste?

A. If caste were annihilated, would there be equality? It is a rhetorical question. However, caste is institutionalised, religiously sanctioned inequality: hence all the more difficult to dismantle. Besides, Plato's ideals have no legal or religious authority in modern Western societies. As Ambedkar says, "Chaturvarnya must fail for the very reason for which Plato's Republic must fail — namely, that it is not possible to pigeon men into holes according to class." Just because attempts to install an equal society have failed, or that other forms of inequalities exist in other societies, doesn't mean you don't aspire to the norm of equality. To work towards it, you need to have a fit between a certain radical Left idea and the anti-caste project. Purely pursuing anti-caste politics, without having a critique of capital and other forms of pushing inequality through the backdoor, will be futile.

Q. Criticisms of the book have ranged from protesting that the constant bracketing of Ambedkar with Gandhi undermines Ambedkar to accusations that you're trying to cash in on Ambedkar's legacy.

A. Oh, among our very first books in 2003 was Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes. I welcome the criticism that's unfolding around the book, but this annotated edition is just a part of a long line of Navayan's efforts to focus on Ambedkar. The graphic book Bhimayana, the reissuing of Bhagwan Das's works on Ambedkar, Namdeo Nimgade's Ambedkarite autobiography, Sharmila Rege's Against the Madness of Manu, Eleanor Zelliot's Ambedkar's World are all part of this expanding list. As for cashing in, I think more publishers should do this—Navayana, with a staff of three, is just too small. OUP has published Ambedkar; Planning Commission member Narendra Jadhav has come out with well-produced hardback editions of Ambedkar's works launched by Vice-President Hamid Ansari. We need more and more of Ambedkar. There's just not enough.

Q. In her interview with Outlook, Arundhati Roy mentioned that she hoped the book would start "a real debate" on Ambedkar and Gandhi. Has that debate failed?

A. The book itself is less than two weeks old. Like I said at the Delhi launch, debates around AoC have been happening for over seven decades — but largely in Dalit circles. It's indeed an irony that Arundhati's introduction is needed to draw the attention of insular Touchables — these again are just a few. It's only after the Ambedkar centenary in 1990-91 that non-Dalits began reckoning, to a limited extent, with Ambedkar; still, few bother to read him. First, after ignoring him, they tried containing him. Some historians talk about fusing Ambedkar and Gandhi — who represent two completely antithetical streams of thinking. Ambedkar wanted to demolish the status quo; Gandhi wanted to perpetuate it. Now, in this edition Arundhati has merely tried to take this point of view to a wider audience — an audience that's worshipful of Gandhi and indifferent to, if not disdainful of Ambedkar. In the process, she has presented what to non-Dalits is a little known side of Gandhi. There is a lot at stake in not discussing this part of Gandhi, especially his attitude towards Blacks in South Africa. Like Arundhati says, Gandhi is a monument that is blocking the view, especially for non-Dalits. You've got to move it out of the way to get to Ambedkar, a truly universal thinker about whom there's lack of awareness internationally.

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