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Why Dalit radicals don't want Arundhati Roy to write about Ambedkar

Roy's new essay about BR Ambedkar is being assailed by some Dalit radicals. They are doing him a disservice.

As blogs and social media took India by the storm in the mid-2000s, their big target was Big Media. For the first time, journalists and editors got a taste of their own medicine. They began to hear criticism of their work on a minute-by-minute basis: some fair and some unfair, some in long prose and some in nasty one-liners. They did not take to it nicely. They complained about the language used by bloggers and social media enthusiasts, they went on and on about the abuse. One often heard the grouse, "On the internet, anyone can say anything!"

It was funny that they complained about almost everyone acquiring the ability to say anything, a transformation of public discourse they should have actually welcomed. I wondered at the irony of journalists seeming to be unsure about free speech and expression. Matters became serious after 2011, when their insecurities about social media fed into the discussion about Kapil Sibal's attempts to 'regulate' online speech, which led to such events as cartoonists being jailed. 

At that moment, I felt grateful to Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. When India's Constituent Assembly was debating free speech, it was proposed that there be a special clause to ensure press freedom. But Dr Ambedkar, chairperson of the drafting committee of the Constitution, intervened to say that every Indian should have the right to free speech, and nobody should be more equal in this regard. Had it not been for that intervention, I thought, the celebrity faces of Indian journalism would have been using the law to muzzle voices online.

Had Ambedkar been alive today, he would have been shocked to find that some Dalit radical intellectuals are arguing that they are more equal than others when it comes to reading Ambedkar.

The most famous text from Ambedkar's collected volumes is called "Annihilation of Caste", a long essay that is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Indian society. It is freely available on the internet. Among other places, the Columbia University website is a good place to read it.

This month, Delhi-based Navayana Publishers has published Annihilation of Caste with detailed new annotations and a long introduction by Arundhati Roy. Titled The Doctor and the Saint, Roy's introduction enters the Gandhi vs. Ambedkar debate, which is fitting because Annihilation of Caste renewed the debate between the two in 1936. Gandhi responded to Annihilation of Caste in the 15 August 1936 issue of The Harijan, and Ambedkar subsequently appended his 'Reply to the Mahatma' as part of the original text.

Navayana's Siriyavan Anand has obtained blurbs by eminent academics that praise his annotations more than Roy's introduction, even as it is the latter that has been presented as the book's USP in the media. Caravan magazine carried an excerpt as its cover story and Outlook magazine carried another excerpt along with an interview of Roy.

Ambedkar wrote Annihilation of Caste as a speech on the invitation of an anti-caste group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore.  The group found the text of the speech offensive, particularly the parts where he criticised Hindu sacred texts such as the Vedas and said that this would be his last address as a Hindu. As a result, it decided to cancel the event. Ambedkar then printed 1,500 copies of the speech himself and distributed them. Ambedkar was being prevented from letting the world hear what he had to say about annihilating caste but he did not allow himself to be censored.

You would think, therefore, that Dalit intellectuals would only be happy that Arundhati Roy is engaging with that text, that leading English language magazines are telling the world about it, that we need to read Ambedkar, and explaining why.

Strangely, some Dalit radicals and intellectuals have a problem with Arundhati Roy reading, learning from and expounding about Ambedkar. On March 9, Roy was to be in Hyderabad to launch the book. But the event was cancelled because the publisher feared protests from Dalit radicals who have been upset about the book. The Hindu quoted some of them:

“The book is extremely important for Dalits and it not right to add footnotes to the book. We feel Arundhati Roy has diluted Ambedkar’s writing and there is every chance that the book might be misinterpreted. Roy has always been a Maoist sympathiser and has never been vocal on Dalit atrocities. So with that understanding, how can she write a foreword for the book?” asked J. Srinivas, state co-convenor for the Dalit Shakti programme, and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Hyderabad.

Renowned author and lawyer Bojja Tarakam, who will be the guest at the event, also plans to raise objections regarding the content. “Most of the preface is about Gandhi, rather than Ambedkar. What is the need to write so much about him?” Mr. Tarakam said. However, he opposed any kind of curbs on the release of the book and felt it should be released in order to facilitate healthy discussion on the subject.

In other words, Dalit intellectuals think it is their right, by virtue of their caste, to decide whether a Maoist sympathiser can write on Ambedkar; whether one can write on the Ambedkar debate with Gandhi; or whether one is allowed to write more words in criticism of Gandhi than in praise of Ambedkar. Annihilation of Caste was written for the upper castes, meant to be addressed to them.

Conversations such as the ones between Ambedkar and Gandhi seem no longer possible, even between those on the same side as Ambedkar.  In a pithy statement announcing the cancellation of the Hyderabad events, Navayana said, "There have been some difficulties in the distribution of the book and it is not yet available, especially in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai etc. Meanwhile acrimonious debates have been taking place without many people getting a chance to read it. The launch is therefore postponed till such a time as the book is widely available, and a more informed conversation can take place."

Translation: please read the book before you dismiss it.

Navayana's blurb for the book reads, "Roy breathes new life into Ambedkar’s anti-caste utopia, and says that without a Dalit revolution, there cannot be any other in India." Writing on the Ambedkarite blog Round Table India, Dalit activist Anoop Kumar understands the word utopia to be meant in a negative sense, though it was not. Kumar tells the powerful story of a village where just last year, the erection of a statue of 15th century social reformer and bhakti poet Sant Ravidas n Bihar's Rohtas district led to violence. Incensed by the assertion over public space with the Sant Ravidas statue, Rajputs attacked Dalits, killing one and injuring 54. Kumar's point in recalling the incident as a response to Arundhati Roy is to suggest that upper caste intellectuals like Roy are preventing Dalit intellectuals like him from asserting themselves in the sphere of ideas. Ironically, by writing about Ambedkar, she is seeking to expand that sphere.

Kumar writes, "By talking about our deity, you are not allowed to reproduce the same exploitative structures that we erected our deity against. Our deity is merely a manifestation of our struggles, our claims and you just cannot bypass these pretending to be free, pretending to be mere individuals, pretending not to be part of the very same structures that we are fighting against and without acknowledging your role in perpetuating it." (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, his problem is not with what Arundhati Roy has written. It doesn't matter what she has written. He hasn't even read it yet. The problem is that until she can produce a certificate saying she was born in a caste considered untouchable by others, she can't write about Ambedkar.

There are some errors in Kumar’s piece. It isn’t true that Roy is pretending “not to be part of the very same structures”. In the very second paragraph of her introduction, she says, "My father was a Hindu, a Brahmo. I never met him until I was an adult. I grew up with my mother in a Syrian Christian family... And yet all around me were the fissures and cracks of caste. Ayemenem had its own separate 'Paraiyar’ church where 'Paraiyar’ priests preached to an ‘Untouchable’ congregation. Caste was implied in peoples’ names, in the way people referred to each other, in the work they did, in the clothes they wore, in the marriages that were arranged, in the language we spoke. Even so, I never encountered the notion of caste in a single school textbook. Reading Ambedkar alerted me to a gaping hole in our pedagogical universe."

It is a great disservice to Ambedkar to say that someone cannot write about him because she is upper caste. Comparing Arundhati Roy's eulogising of Ambedkar with murdering Rajputs who don't want Sant Ravidas is even more fallacious than comparing a statue with a text. Statues are built to be worshipped; texts are written to be engaged with. The worship of texts leads to the kind of tyranny that the caste system is. Considering texts sacred in a way that they cannot be commented upon, is the politics of the Hindu right, which tells Wendy Doniger what she can't write. Telling people they can read and write a text on the basis of their caste, is not Ambedkarite politics. It is the politics of Brahminism. It is a politics that Annihilation of Caste speaks against. Questioning anyone's right to read or write anything can never be progressive politics; subaltern subjectivity can never be excuse enough for intellectual bullying.

“Freedom of mind is the real freedom," wrote Ambedkar, explaining, "A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man. One whose mind is not free, though he may not be in prison, is a prisoner and not a free man. One whose mind is not free though alive, is no better than dead. Freedom of mind is the proof of one's existence.” It would be the most Ambedkarite thing to do, to assert one's existence by defying the Dalit radicals and write about Ambedkar despite one's own upper caste birth.

(Disclosure: The writer was born in an upper caste family.)
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