ಭಾನುವಾರ, ಏಪ್ರಿಲ್ 13, 2014

On Introducing Ambedkar

-Sankaran Krishna

Sankaran Krishna (krishna@hawaii.edu) teaches
politics at the University of Hawaii.
curtusy:Economic & Political Weekly EPW APRIL 19, 2014 vol xlIX no 16

"For an act of representation
by savarnas to seem fair and
unremarkable to dalits, we
need to have achieved a society
in which to be a dalit is not a
stigma, and to be a savarna
is not a marker of superior
status. Until that day arrives
in India, the dalit objection to
B R Ambedkar’s Annihilation
of Caste being introduced and
annotated by savarnas will
remain a worthy objection"

Arundhati Roy’s “Introduction” to
Navayana’s reissue of B R Ambedkar’s
Annihilation of Caste has
evoked a spectrum of reactions, including
some from dalit intellectuals and
activists. The annotations to Annihilation,
by S Anand, head of Navayana and,
like Roy, an upper-caste person, has
come in for fl ak as well.

Essentially, the critique by a section of
the dalits may be summarised as: (a) two
savarnas, one of them a world celebrity
for her work as a public intellectual
and novelist, fronting a classic on caste
society written by the foremost leader
of the dalits is yet another instance of
upper-caste appropriation of dalit labour
and voice; (b) given the reality of the
caste society we live in, and the extraordinary
infl uence of upper castes in
representing India to itself and abroad,
Ambedkar’s voice will be swam ped by
this “introduction” and “annotation” which
will probably be read by far more people
than will read Ambedkar’s own prose;
(c) it is only dalits who understand the
painful experience of untouchability
and oppression of caste society – hence it
would have been more appropriate for
Navayana to have chosen those with
such experience to do the introduction and
annotation; (d) there are a number of
dalit intellectuals or others who have paid
their dues over the decades with their
politics of solidarity with the credentials
to write the introduction and the annotation
– the choice of Roy and Anand is a
slap in the face to all of them; (e) Roy’s
essay focuses too much on Gandhi and
his multiple foibles – and thus ends up
drawing the eye away from Ambedkar
and his robust critique of caste Hindu society;
and (f) both the marketing strategy
(choice excerpts in mainstream outlets
such as Outlook, Caravan and The Hindu)
and pricing (Rs 450-500) suggest that
the target audience for Annihilation is
savarna society and motivation is profit.

The responses to such critiques –
inclu ding those by Roy and Anand
of such responses would include: (a) the
target audience of Annihilation was and
still remains upper-Hindu society – which
remains resolutely casteist in its practice
if not in rhetoric – and hence fronting the
volume by such savarnas makes sense;
(b) arguing that only dalits can articulate
the thought and politics of Ambe dkar is a
form of essentialising and/or ghettoising
him that is neither politically nor epistemologically
defensible; (c) both in his
lifetime and there after, Ambedkar’s intellect
and politics have been overshadowed
by a most undeser ving Mahatma:
bringing Ambedkar to his rightful stature
will necessarily have to be accompanied
by submitting Gandhi to a welcome
and long-awaited critical scrutiny, one
further enabled by recent historical
scholarship on the man; and (d) freedom
of speech and ideas is a constitutional
guarantee – and no one ought to
legislate who can speak for whom in
a democracy.

Ambedkar’s Democracy

Before rushing to decide whose side I am
on, and quickly drop anchor in a particular
normative position that rapidly
hardens, I would like to think things
through more slowly (and aloud).
Ambedkar’s take on democracy is intriguing
and different. His writings on the
importance of separate and reserved
electorates for dalits; on the inadequacies
of a Constitution that guaranteed
legal but not substantive equality; on the
refusal of caste Hindus to permit the
reform of their religion; and a host of
related issues have received attention.
Yet, outside of electoral arrangements
and the nitty-gritty of legal constitutional
engineering, I am fascinated by his idea
of democracy as something that is fundamentally
associational – a demo cracy
was a society in which everyone interacted
with everyone, dined with them,
married them, spoke with and to others
as equals, studied, debated and learned
together, and were not divided by
notions of hierarchy. It was a full and enriching
interaction amongst all people in
a certain space that defi ned it as a
democracy. Befi tting one of his intellectual
mentors while at Columbia, the
pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, for
Ambedkar the essence of democracy
was the easy commingling of equals in
all forms of associational life – personal,
intellectual and political.

India was and remains a horrendous
departure from that ideal. Perhaps it is
time for us to admit that we are one of
the most egregious departures from that
associational ideal anywhere in the
world. It underlies Ambedkar’s response
to Gandhi when the latter asked him why
he was so critical of Congress: “Gandhiji,
I have no nation. No untouchable worth
the name will be proud of this land.” It
also informs Ambedkar’s des pairing description
of caste Hindu society as a multistoried
building bereft of staircases or
elevators – you were destined to live permanently
and inter- gene ra tio nally into
whatever echelon you were born. The
simple and unescapable fact of the matter
is that nearly seven decades after
Independence both of Ambedkar’s views
regarding India remain very substantially
true: hardly any dalit has any reason
to feel proud to be an Indian, and
the building remains free of staircases
or elevators. That associational democracy
he imagined is no closer today
than it was back in his lifetime.

I fi nd the free speech argument least
persuasive. In India’s structured inequality,
to assert the rights of the likes of
Roy and Anand to introduce and interpret
Ambedkar on the basis of this constitutional
right may be legally defensible
but it morally does little more than
underline dalit powerlessness. I am very
ambivalent about the argument that
only dalits can and should represent
Ambe dkar. That form of nativism, while
understandable especially when it
emerges from those in a position of
weakness, closes dialogue and understanding
rather than opening it up. Nor
am I inclined to agree that too much of
Roy’s “Introduction” deals with Gandhi.
Gandhi has become a universal signifi er
of a vacuous and apolitical brotherhood.
And yet his actions (as distinct from the
contradictory volubility of his 99 volumes
of collected writings) reveal a man
with serious issues when it came to race,
caste, gender, inequality and a host of
other matters. In part, the undeserving
halo that surrounds Gandhi has thrown
the robust intellect and appealing democratic
egalitarianism of the likes of
Ambedkar into the shade. The latter in
any case saw Gandhi as emblematic of
the hypocrisy and hegemony of caste
Hindu society. Deconstructing Gandhi
on the way to introducing Annihilation,
does not seem wrong to me.

Issue of Representation

Inevitably then, we turn to the issue of
representation and representativeness.
Edward Said’s Orientalism begins with
two interesting and appropriate epigraphs
for this moment in our republic. The
fi rst is from Marx on the French peasantry
in The Eighteenth Brumaire of
Louis Bonaparte, “They cannot represent
themselves – they must be represented.”
Despite the enduring and structured
inequalities of economic, cultural
and symbolic capital in India, this is no
longer true for dalits today. There has
long exi sted a thriving and active dalit
intellectual community from whom an
introducer and annotator could well
have been found.

But that brings us to the second of
Said’s epigraphs (from Disraeli’s play
Tancred): “The East is a career.” Hard
as it may be for some to acknowledge,
an edition of Annihilation, with an
introduction by Kancha Ilaiah and annotated
by Gail Omvedt is not likely to
expand the readership of that seminal
work in any signifi cant way, nor is it
likely to make it commercially viable as
a book that sells copiously. At the same
time, I think it highly signifi cant that a
publisher like Navayana senses an
opportunity to publicise Ambedkar’s
writing nationally and internationally
at this moment while also seeing it –
with the “right” introducer no doubt –
as a profi t-making enterprise. Would
that have been possible even a few years
ago? I doubt it.
I suspect it is the publication of works
like Perry Anderson’s Indian Ideology,
(Verso 2013) and Joseph Lelyveld’s
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His
Struggle with India, (2012), alongside
a growing disenchantment with celebrations
of India’s emerging economy
status and its democracy by the usual
for something like this edition of a long
extant book to emerge. There is little
point in aesthetic distaste for the whiff
of commerciali sation of Ambedkar’s
words. In a world saturated by market
capitalism, to not be commercially
viable is the same as being doomed to
obscurity. Or, to paraphrase the Marxist
economist Joan Robinson, the only
thing worse than being exploited by
capitalist marketing is to be ignored
by it.
Inherent in every democracy is the
tension between “representation” and
“representativeness”. When various sections
of society are seen as acceptably
equal, when a certain modicum of egalitarianism
has been achieved, the issue
of representation ceases to be of much
friction. Anyone from the putatively
equal citizenry can represent others in
politics, culture, literature and the like –
they are all seen as seamlessly and interchangeably
“national” in some way. Hardly
any society has achieved such egalitarianism,
though it remains a powerful
chimera animating the struggle for
equality and democracy in many places.

Representation vs

In postcolonial societies such as India,
given deep and sustained caste inequalities
amid persistent poverty, “representation”
has repeatedly – and understandably
– reduced itself to “representativeness”.
If x-caste or y-religion or z-community
constitutes a certain percentage
of the population, one notion of fairness
demands that they be able to access precisely
those percentages of every form of
capital – economic and symbolic. Any
departure from that correspondence is
deemed to be unfair or a result of historical
legacies for better or worse or evidence
of sustained discrimination.
While one may argue that the equation
of “representation” to “representativeness”
sometimes reduces and impoverishes
it, there is no denying the veridical
basis for it.

When some dalits claim that Roy and
Anand cannot introduce or annotate
Ambedkar, and only dalits can, before
rushing to decry that as emblematic
of precisely this sort of reduction of
representation to representativeness,
we should pause to think. For their act
of representation to seem fair and unremarkable
to dalits, we need to have
achieved a society in which to be a dalit
is not a stigma, and to be a savarna is
not a marker of superior status. Until
that day arrives in India, the dalit objection
to Annihilation, being introduced
and annotated by savarnas will remain
a relevant and worthy objection. In other
words, their objection is not a sign of
their essentialism or nativism – it is
rather an index of the failure of the
savarna-led national project. More
precisely, it signals our failure to approximate
Ambe dkar’s vision of democracy
as the mutually enhancing association
of all.