On Appropriation of Ambedkar

When Caravan published Arundhati Roy’s piece The Doctor and the Saint, I was one of those who celebrated it as the next big thing that was to emerge in the Indian academic circles. Roy’s essay constitutes the first half of Navayana’s annotated edition of Bhimrao Ambedkar’s seminal work ‘The Annihilation Of Caste’. The article, like every other work by Roy, sparked instant controversy. Almost in every controversy, and even in the sedition charge, I was one of the scores of Arundhati Roy Fans who not only argued for her right to expression but also the arguments she raised in her works. But this time, my support for Roy is only limited to her rights and liberties, and not the case she and Navayana is trying to make.

I was always of the opinion that Roy because of her activism understood very well how power works. Whether one agrees with her or not, one can not deny that her activism and her politics was always to put attention on the expendables of India. She was the one who made the following statement,

‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

What baffles me is the most is that both Roy and S. Anand, publisher of Navayana, did not see that their action amounted to something as indecent as appropriation. Even this Scroll.in article misses the point. And so do every other privileged activists and writers.

The Dalit anger and resentment against both Roy and a Navayana is best articulated by the irreverent Anoop Kumar here at the The Round Table India (not the nationalist one).

You need Omprakash Balmiki’s Jhootan’s English version to know the caste horror. Need Fandry to get shocked. You required 60-70 years to discover Ambedkar..You also require your own high priestess to now interpret Ambedkar for you. To tell you what was right and wrong with Ambedkar. To force you to even start reading him..

How long this will go on man, just how long!

To be honest even I was of the opinion that all this resentment was highly misplaced. If for Roy reading Ambedkar’s work felt “as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows”, reading Kumar for me felt as if somebody snapped me out of the delusion that I’m blind. Blind to my privilege and the privilege of the likes of Roy and Anand.

In none of my rants I suggested that it is about her essay actually. I do not care what she has written on Ambedkar or on anything else she wrote about in her essay. My rants are about something else. My rants are about what she actually represents before us, not as a person, but as someone who gets two national magazines simultaneously to provide her ample space – to talk about her essay, about caste, about dalits, about Ambedkar – which is so cruelly denied to us, is shut for ever. Not even Ambedkar could ever breach it, till he got discovered by people like Ms Roy.

Closely related with what she represents to us is another issue of the whole politics of her introducing Ambedkar’s seminal text to the world, to upper castes, to western world as has been continuously professed by her publisher and his friends – both desis and whites- telling me in no uncertain terms that this publication is actually not meant for me, for dalits, for all those who know their Ambedkar but for upper castes who have refused to read him and for western academia who have yet to discover Ambedkar. Your introducing him will make them all to read more about Ambedkar they say.

And they are accusing me of wrongly calling you a messiah!

You are already a messiah, Ms Roy!

Declared and accepted by many, all those who actually matter in this country. It is not for nothing that national magazines provide you so much space on issues they care two hoots about. What is it if not the ardent belief of your followers on your miraculous power to make people read something that they have avoided their whole lives?

And like what happens with every messiahs, you already have very cunning followers who are quoting your messiah status for their private gains, cheating gullible masses who believe in your messiah-ness.

I am merely resisting your messiah status now being thrust on us. Just for the simple reason that it is more difficult to dislodge a messiah, a mahatma, than to create one. We spent some seven decades and enormous efforts in dislodging one, thrust on us quite forcefully, by others who also were as persuasive as you are today in claiming that it was only in our best interests.

The Age Old Cultural War and Broom Wielding Footsoldiers

This interview was done more than a year ago during a research concerning social prejudices in mass media of India. The research compared projection of Ganesha festival in Mumbai and Dr. B R Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Both of these events draw a huge crowd from different social groups. However, the mass media has been vehemently prejudiced when portraying these public ceremonies. Ironically, what Dr. Ambedkar had said about bramhanical mindset being “ascending scale of reverence and descending scale of contempt” continued to be a part of the nation’s cultural fabric and even made his legacy to disappear from mainstream public spheres.

Here is an interview of a former sanitation worker who like most others is from a socially and economically backward caste. He comments on the current nature of the cultural war between brahmanic and non-brahmanic forces that have been taking place in Indian peninsula for more than a thousand years. There exists a hidden apartheid in India where the former untouchables are still doing the duties allocated to them in traditional rural socio-economy. Most of the sanitation work in urban India is done by these castes without any hygienic facilities availed to them or any social security. These jobs are done on contract basis and carried on for generations even after India achieved independence. Most inhuman among this work is entering the manholes without any safety equipment and cleaning human excreta by broom and hand.

Some of the revered figures of this land who justified manual scavenging are M K Gandhi (well known as Mahatma) and current Prime Ministerial Candidate from BJP Narendra Modi. Even another Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, who in the most gandhian fashion, is being described as virtuous also did not take any steps which he promised to the sanitation workers in capital region after hijacking their plebian broom as a symbol for his political party.

A recent article in a national newspaper is “surprised” over the existence of manual scavenging in India which is more offending than the existence of manual scavenging itself. Nonetheless she does try to save the last shred of upper caste journalist morality by saying “How can a country that sends rockets into space not be able to figure out how to prevent trains from discharging toilet waste on to the tracks? It’s the same nation whose capital city’s world class metro system has an unmanned ticket checking system but where men and women still have to get into sewers when they get clogged.

Interview of Mr. Ramesh Haralkar, a former Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) clean up worker. He is now a full time activist in Ambedkarite movement.
Date: 9th December 2012.
Venue: Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, New Campus, TISS, Mumbai.

Researcher: What is your opinion on Ganesh Festival?

Ramesh Haralkar: After Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion, the educated Buddhists started spreading the de-hinduizing message of Buddhism. To counter that, Ganesh idols which were inside the home, were brought out on the streets. ‘Sarvajanik Ganesh Mandals’ were formed. From those Mandals political leadership started appearing. From that leadership, Corporators, MLAs, MPs were born. Then, they became conscious of their roles as leaders and the need to protect religious identity and culture. On one side there stood (Buddha’s) Dhamma and on the other there was (Brahmanic Hindu) Dharma. But they noticed that, these people (Scheduled Caste Buddhists) criticize Hinduism but a lot of them still follow it. We (SC Buddhists) critique Hindu gods Ram, Ganesh etc. and make scientific questions about their non-human bodies and behavior. At the same time, they know that a large chunk still follows Hindu traditions. We lacked the co-ordination to implement this revolutionary thought of Babasaheb. We started following Hindu methods of celebrations blindly. We started celebrating Dr. Ambedkar’s Birth Anniversary like they do their festivals. They also started supporting it. They have a powerful mechanism to support such mass participation in grand public ceremonies. So they will encourage Christians, Buddhists et cetera to have rallies and grand celebrations. It is a ‘give and take’ policy. You scratch my back, I will scratch yours. We have adopted their culture. They play cards in the Ganesh Pandal and the lower caste people in the vicinity will also join them. Having such public ceremonies is a platform to gain political weight. The organizers will invite local politicians and the number of participants becomes a tool of displaying political power. Because of such mass processions in a crowded city, a sick person requiring urgent medical attention dies on the way to hospital. This happens regularly. When Bal Thackeray died recently, all the cameras were focused on the procession but no one cared about people’s access to hospitals. There should be some law and order but no one is willing to question this. Such is the terror (in people’s minds).

Researcher: So the processions are all about display of power?

Ramesh Haralkar: Yes. Display is the correct word.

Researcher: During this research I participated in the immersion procession of Lalbaugcha Raja as an observer. There is a mosque near Byculla railway station and the surrounding area was packed with Rapid Action Force, Bomb Squad, Reserve Police Force. So on one side, celebrating Hindu festivals like Ganesh Festival and Diwali is projected as being secular but at the same time we see a subtle discourse of Hindu nationalism in the celebration. No mass media talks about this.

Ramesh Haralkar: No. They don’t talk about it. When a muslim conducts ‘Aarti’ of Ganesh, he attains a status in his area. He is also respected by (Hindu) youth of Lalbaug. No muslim then dares to interfere with him. He gains political weight. Even those religious leaders issuing ‘Fatwa’ don’t dare to question him. They are worried about their own safety. The Imams of Delhi speak only when told by the political leaders.

Police standing outside Hindustani Masjid near Byculla station few moments before Lalbaucha Raja’s procession was about to pass by.

Police standing outside Hindustani Masjid near Byculla station few moments before Lalbaucha Raja’s procession was about to pass by.

Researcher: Please tell us about the treatment given to clean up staff during festivals.

Ramesh Haralkar: The clean up staff is also made to work more than 8 hours. They are treated like servants. Anyone mistreats them. At the time of immersion cleanup workers are considered as servants of that religion and not as BMC employees. (emphasis mine) Having so many festivals is a necessity of their religion. Their festivals are like garbage. Even small festivals leave huge heaps of waste. There are no guidelines or restrictions to it. Whether its Hindu festival or Muslim’s Roza, we are there to clean it 24 hours.

Researcher: 99% of them (cleanup workers) are Scheduled Castes.

Ramesh Haralkar: Yes. The clean up duty of Mahars in the village has continued in the cities. They have no saviors. All the Hindu religions are about noise pollution and waste. If a procession is passing by your house and an elderly person dies, you can’t dare to go out and tell people to stop their instruments. Those noise mapping instruments are used only in Shivaji Park . In the small alleys of city you can’t complain about noise.

Garbage outside Lalbaugcha Raja Pandal, Ganesh Galli, Mumbai

Garbage outside Lalbaugcha Raja Pandal, Ganesh Galli, Mumbai

Reseacher: What about the garbage on Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary? Is it because of internalization of populist Hindu culture?

Ramesh Haralkar: The people, who come to Mumbai for Dr. Ambedkar’s death anniversary, only want to pay homage. They don’t beg for any material desires. They roam the city and buy some books. I don’t know which caste group you belong but Dr. Ambedkar was a Hindu Mahar and so all of those who converted were only Mahars. Dr. Ambedkar was cremated in a small place outside Smashaan Bhoomi in Dadar. The whole neighborhood is dominated by Deshpandes, Bapats et cetera (Brahmins). They feel disgusted about the untouchables. The current scenario is that only old people reside near Shivaji Park and their children live in Thane, Pune et cetera. All of them vacate the place by 1st December to stay with their children. The incoming population of rural SCs doesn’t know the concept of cleanliness. In rural areas the waste has been traditionally organic. Throwing it anywhere was not a concern since it would be naturally neutralized. They will eat and sleep anywhere on Shivaji ground. It’s not as if they don’t want cleanliness but they don’t know the usage of dust bins. We have been serving food through stalls on 6th December since 1975. If you tell them not to spread waste, they will certainly listen to you. They will also wash their hands in the dust bin. That is why we must tell our people not to spread waste. Politicians and urban followers should tell them about this. Not because of the fear of Brahmins but as a necessity of maintaining cleanliness. It is our duty and not Brahmins’. After all, it will be ‘our’ (Scheduled Caste) cleanup worker who will be picking up waste. Brahmin will not be cleaning it. Now we will know (Shivaji Park residents’ attitude) about wastage because a large chunk will again gather on the grounds to commemorate Bal Thackeray’s death anniversary but they will be touchable folks. So no controversy about their wastage will emerge. The Ambedkarite people don’t get enough information about BMC’s sanity infrastructure so they will attend nature’s call in any less visible place they find. If a Brahmin shouts at them for peeing under the building, our people will threaten them. This gets published in print media immediately because ‘their’ people only handle it. Now on the coming 17th November we will see that all the arrangements are done perfectly by BMC on Bal Thackeray’s death Anniversary. Last year, we asked the Ward Officer about insufficiencies of sanity infrastructure on 6th December. The Sanity Van did not have flush. They were not attached to drain. By the Supreme Court order, they should have been attached to drain. Again, ‘our’ clean up worker will do those arrangements. There is no co-ordination. One more aspect of administration I would like to share. Wherever there is a majority of a certain caste or community, people from those social groups will be appointed by the government to arrange administration. In Muslim festivals a Kulkarni (Brahmin surname) is not sent. In Muslim dominated areas, only Muslims are appointed in Police stations. SC officers can also be accommodated but Brahmins are not sent in those areas.

Garbage on Girgaum Chowpatty after 10th day of Ganesh festival

Garbage on Girgaum Chowpatty after 10th day of Ganesh festival

Weeping for the Modern Caste-Hindu?

Jakob de Roover

Outlook recently published, on their website, Jakob de Roover’s reaction to “l’affaire Doniger”. In the article, de Roover cooks up a story to explain how the “deeply flawed” narrative of the caste system and the Hindu religion is responsible for the creation of Hindu fundamentalism.

What brings Hindu organizations to filing petitions that make them the butt of ridicule and contempt? Whence the frustration among so many Indians about the way their culture is depicted? Why is this battle not fought out in the free intellectual debate so typical of India in the past?

S. N. Balagangadhara

Nevermind the fact that the inspiration of this story is S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent University professor and beacon of caste-Hindu privilege blindness and arrogance (“how can we conclude from just 38 murders that caste discrimination exists in India?”), the story even in its isolation stands as a shining example of caste privilege apologia.

What comforts me is the prompt responses it received from Nivedita Menon (first published by Kafila and later by Outlook) and Prashant Keshavmurthy of McGill University.

The following is from Nivedita Menon’s article,

So let us imagine another growing child— not De Roover’s boy, but his sister. She hears (and retains) some other stories that the boy chooses to forget or ignores —the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man, the even more cruel abandonment of pregnant Sita, the Lakshman Rekha that she is called upon to observe every single day of her twentieth century life—imagine her excitement when on growing up and entering the world of scholarship, she comes across Indian feminist scholarship that attacks both Western Orientalist critiques of Hinduism as well as nationalist responses that reconstruct a Golden Age before “Muslim invasions”—for instance, Uma Chakravarty’s critique of the ‘Altekerian Paradigm’. Or Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Or Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s account of women’s Ramayanas in which Rama is a far cry from the ideal man. Village women sing “Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash’. Oh Ram, you have lost your mind. Molla, a Shudra woman in the 16th century wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, which the Brahmins did not allow to be read in the royal court. Chandrabati’s version that told the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view was criticized as a weak and incomplete text by the same arbiters of taste and morality.

Imagine this young woman trying to engage her sulky brother in dialogue as he rants about the denigration of Hinduism. Imagine the absolute lack of empathy from his side as he fulminates…

Imagine after this, the daughter of the Dalit woman who cleans the toilets of that young Hindu boy’s home. Imagine her excitement at learning, if she ever reached school, that one BR Ambedkar had torn apart the entire foundation of the religion so celebrated by the boy and his family. Or that Ranganayakamma had written a book called Ramayana The Poisonous Tree, saying we should reject it because it supports the powerful against the powerless. Or that EV Ramasami had deconstructed the story of the killing of Shambuka by Rama for daring to recite the Scriptures despite being a Shudra.

Imagine the fact that this girl would literally have been invisible to the sulky boy as the household spun silently around him on the labour of women and lower castes, as he prepared to go to America ‘for a few years.’

For De Roover and his ‘Hindu gentleman’, sexuality is not the problem, mention of caste discrimination is. By putting Christian distaste for both sexuality and caste in the same basket, De Roover is able to suggest that both critiques are tainted. But of course, some of us may want to take a more nuanced position, celebrating sexuality and attacking caste oppression, even if critique of the latter comes exclusively from ‘the West’, which of course, it does not.

And this one is by Prashant Keshavmurthy,

One doesn’t have to have read the theorist of post-colonial identity, Edward Said, to expect a modicum of reflexivity in the use of such categories of identity. Nor does one have to be familiar with the English poetry (that adapted an American Modernist minimalism by discovering its elective affinities with ancient Tamil poetry) and scholarship (bringing European Folklore Studies and semiotics to bear on pre-modern Tamil and Kannada literatures) of the founder of South Asian Studies in the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan, to expect a minimum of intellectual sophistication in not simplistically equating ethnicity with scholarly identity. So much for shallowness and theoretical poverty.

In the end I’d like to say that, de Roover’s Hindu Boy is not a fictional character, but a real one. I see him in my family, in my father, my cousins, neighbours, roommates, friends, on the social network, everywhere. He definitely exists and he is someone to be wary of, since avoiding him is not an option in India right now.

How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? Take the Survey

One aspect of the recent Devyani Khobragade controversy has been the treatment of domestic workers, particularly how much (or how little) we pay them. We’ve decided to do an online survey to get an idea of how much domestic workers in India are paid, and for what kind of work. It’s a short survey, consisting of just 10 simple questions. It will only take 5 minutes of your time, so if you employ a domestic worker in India, please do take it – and please spread this link around too. We’ll publish the results on the main Nirmukta site in due course. Thank you! (UPDATE Jan 2 2014: The results of the survey have been published here.)

Click Here to Take the Survey

A female domestic worker sitting on the floor and washing kitchen utensils.

A female domestic worker sitting on the floor and washing kitchen utensils.
(Image via The Hindu; links to source.)

 

Controversy Over Prevention of Caste Atrocities and Equality Act in the UK (Part 3)

(Previous parts: Part 1, Part 2.)

Now to protect their own fair skin (which they are really proud of), the AHO are suggesting that the government and the members of House of Lords themselves are being racist. They are claiming,

In April of this year there was no AHO but after Lord Harries and his racist colleagues publically(sic) denigrated our Community, discriminating against us in the most despicable manner, the British Hindu Community turned its attention to this task and the AHO was born…

It wouldn’t be surprising to observe how they want to distract the UK media’s attention from the real issue at hand. By suggesting that the members of House of Lords who included Caste in the Equality act, as committing racism and continuing a colonial legacy, they wish to hide centuries old barbaric traditions. Such is their brazenness.

The current population of those of exterior caste descent is said to be somewhere between 50,000[i] to 400,000[ii]. While the population of Hindus in England and Wales is more than 800,000 according to the 2011 census. Most of the migrants coming from India who now have settled down in western countries are obviously from upper castes as their socio-economic privilege accumulated in India over generations could afford them such a living. They have accumulated wealth and created social capital of their own to be able to keep the exterior castes socially excluded. Harassment in school, employment, provision of goods and services, and even religious places still continues. They are a minority among minority. The atrocities are being conducted for last few decades and such law cannot be delayed any further considering that even children of exterior caste descent are bullied in UK schools.

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Controversy Over Prevention of Caste Atrocities and Equality Act in the UK (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1. Link to Part 3.)

Now let us take a look at the newly formed ‘Alliance of Hindu Organisations’ (AHO). It was formed in April 2013, only when it seemed like the upper caste or savarnas will be facing the wrath of the law for continuing discrimination. The domain name of their website is, ironically, ‘my caste is hindu.org’. Can there be anything such as society made of only one caste? Caste as a division of labourers organized individuals in different groups and closed them through endogamy. Every caste was assigned different functions and occupations in village socio-economy. Every caste had to depend on the other. The AHO wants to hide this exact hideous reality that the UK Hindus are divided in many castes. Even the names of the groups which are part of AHO give away the fact that they are exclusive for certain castes. One simply can’t be a casteless Hindu. In urban India, when people introduce themselves to each other, they are curious to know the surname of a person. Just knowing the given name does not satisfy them. They want to figure out religion and caste through family name. Many times even by observing physical features, they assume caste  of a person. Fair skin is usually attached to being born in ‘pure’ upper caste, while having darker skin doesn’t hold any social status and is usually connected to being born in ‘unclean’ castes. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the migrants in UK following this tradition.

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The Merit Delusion

with inputs from Sunil.

Reservations (affirmative action) are a highly contentious issue in India but mostly for all the wrong reasons. One of those is an argument that reservations dilute merit. Consider this “joke” that was email forward fodder years ago and is now doing the rounds in social networks. It is good example of how badly caste issues are understood even amongst atheists who consider themselves as better informed than the average Indian:

I think we should have job reservations in all the fields. I completely support the PM and all the politicians for promoting this. Let’s start the reservation with our cricket team. We should have 10 percent reservation for Muslims. 30 percent for OBC, SC /ST like that. Cricket rules should be modified accordingly. The boundary circle should be reduced for an SC/ST player. The four hit by an OBC player should be considered as a six and a six hit by an OBC player should be counted as 8 runs. An OBC player scoring 60 runs should be declared as a century. We should influence ICC and make rules so that the pace bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar should not bowl fast balls to our OBC player. Bowlers should bowl maximum speed of 80 kilometer per hour to an OBC player. Any delivery above this speed should be made illegal.

Also we should have reservation in Olympics. In the 100 meters race, an OBC player should be given a gold medal if he runs 80 meters.

There can be reservation in Government jobs also. Let’s recruit SC/ST and OBC pilots for aircrafts which are carrying the ministers and politicians (that can really help the country.. )

Ensure that only SC/ST and OBC doctors do the operations for the ministers and other politicians. (Another way of saving the country..)

Let’s be creative and think of ways and means to guide INDIA forward…

Let’s show the world that INDIA is a GREAT country. Let’s be proud of being an INDIAN..

May the good breed of politicians like ARJUN SINGH long live…

Medal For Merits. Source - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Medal_%C2%ABFor_merits%C2%BB_%28Rosregistratsija%29.jpg

Medal For Merits. Image in public domain; via Wikimedia Commons (links to source).

That is just one amongst the myriad jokes about the lower castes that are popular among the upper castes.

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“Brahmins Only” Housing

This advertisement for a “Brahmins Only” housing project appeared in a newspaper in April:

Advertisement for "Brahmins only" housing project in Bangalore

The ad in the image shows a aerial photograph of “Shankara Agraharam… the Vedic Village” and lists its various amenities, like “Temple complex”, “Goshala”, “Ayurvedic Hospital” etc. On top, in large print, it says “RESIDENTIAL PLOTS FOR SALE – BRAHMINS ONLY”. And at the bottom of the ad is the description “An Exclusive Brahmin Community Township”. The ad appeared in the Bangalore edition of The Hindu, April 11 2013.

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