The bhakti radical Ravidas (c 1450-1520), calling himself a ‘tanner now set free’, was the first to envision an Indian utopia in his song “Begumpura” – a modern casteless, classless, tax-free city without sorrow. This was in contrast to the dystopia of the brahmanic Kaliyuga.

Rejecting Orientalist, nationalist and hindutva impulses to “reinvent” India, Gail Omvedt threads together the worldviews of subaltern visionaries spanning five centuries – Chokhamela, Janabai, Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, the Kartabhajas, Phule, Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar, and Ambedkar. These are contrasted with Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram Rajya, Nehru’s hindutva-laced brahmanic socialism and Savarkar’s territorialist Hindu Rashtra. Reason and ecstasy – dnyan and bhakti – pave the road that leads to the promised land.

The following is an excerpt from the concluding chapter of Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals.

From Namdev, Kabir, Ravidas and Tukaram through Phule, Ramabai and Ambedkar, dalit-bahujan and many women intellectuals have evoked an ideal of a casteless, classless society, and have increasingly outlined its characteristics as a prosperous, democratic, socialist, development-oriented society. This study has traced the varying expressions of the ideal and the concrete forms in which it was envisaged.

In the form of utopian values they upheld, the anticaste intellectuals differed significantly from those who are taken today as nationalist leaders. As G Aloysius (1997) has pointed out in describing a “nationalism without a nation in India”, Congress as well as Hindu Mahasabha leaders had aimed for “cultural nationalism” – that is a transfer of power without a change in the basic culture (as they saw it) of the Indian people. In doing so, they explicitly or implicitly endorsed its brahmanic elements, and in doing so laid the foundations for a more virulent Hindutva.

Gandhi’s Ram Rajya symbolised the ambiguity of their vision: it was seen as an ideal state, but Gandhi had to neglect the actually written role of Ram (for instance, in his treatment of Sita and Shambuka), something he consistently sidelined.

Nehru’s ideal was a vague socialism, but he associated it with a managed economy, an updated version of what he saw as the traditional brahmanic ideal of service, taking the values of collectivity in family, caste and village as positive and somehow socialistic. This connected him ideologically with Gandhi, though in many respects his marxist emphasis on economic development puts him in the same camp as Ambedkar.

In contrast to the tendency of the elites to seek an independence ideal in the recreation of past values – located in an imagined vedic golden age, with many of them idealising varnsashrama dharma, and without much change in the hegemonic structures of society – the subaltern intellectuals sought what Aloysius calls a “political nationalism”, that emphasised equality with solidarity. Theirs was a vision that sought the reconstruction of Indian society, the creation of a new society that would flourish under independence.

One of the earliest expressions of this search was Ravidas’ poem “Begumpura” – depicting a city without sorrow, with no taxes or toil, no exploitation, no hierarchy, and freedom for all to walk anywhere. It is a city, not a village; there is no mention of a king or a temple; for a bhakti poet indeed no mention of god is unique.

Its prosperity is also stressed. This was to remain a theme—the ideal, whether Begumpura or an imagined Pandhari, was a city of dancing, of merchants, of prosperity. Its anticaste vision may be contrasted with Gandhi’s Ram Rajya which indeed focused on village India, with Ram as a supposedly ideal king. Ravidas, even in the fifteenth century, was more “secular” and certainly more socialistic than Gandhi.

With independence, the creativity of dalit-bahujan intellectuals seemingly died away. Ambedkar died in 1956; he left behind a political party, a policy of a broad Left alliance, a new religion, and a heritage of pride. But the Republican party, though conceived of as a party for all the oppressed (and named after the US Republican Party, seen as the party of Lincoln and the ending of slavery), turned out to be only for dalits and more or less limited to being a powerful pressure group in Maharashtra.

A later, greater effort by Kanshi Ram to recreate the alliance of dalits and OBCs with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has had limited success: for a time it seemed to arouse a thunder all over India. For some time it remained confined to Uttar Pradesh and the northern, chamar belt of the state – though Mayawati’s resounding victory in the 2007 assembly elections brought new hope and new questioning, especially regarding the alliance with brahmans.

Dalit literature had emerged as a powerful voice of the oppressed – first in Maharashtra, later in other regional languages. But it has remained as a literature of protest, lacking the broad vision of the earlier “Begumpura” intellectuals; and to a large degree its consumers, its audience, have been caste Hindus.

When the Dalit Panther was formed in 1972 by some of the leading writers of Maharashtra, it emerged as a militant organisation but quickly became split over “marxism” versus “ambedkarism”, and died within a year. Much of the dalit movement in the following years appeared to be under the hegemony of the Left, and this sapped its creativity.

After 1990, with the new globalisation, and propelled by the internet, a new dalit intelligentsia seized the opportunity to take their cause to the world arena, and in 2001 put caste on the agenda as a form of racism at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. This new form of mobilisation has found it difficult to connect in an organic way with the dalit masses; it was too often based on NGO activity rather than strong mass movements. Yet the many initiatives heralded the beginning of a new era.

Dalits were aspiring to be a global force now, symbolised by the celebration of the “Dalit goddess of English” by intellectual Chandra Bhan Prasad on the birth anniversary of – of all the available icons – Lord Macaulay (for introducing English education to India) on 25 October 2005.

Looking a bit like the Statue of Liberty with a floppy hippy hat, the “goddess” was standing on a computer, with book and pen in hand, springing from the map of India as if to move on to the world. Claims Prasad, who hosted the party, “English the Dalit Goddess is a world power today; it is about emancipation; it is a mass movement against the caste order. Over a century ago, Savitribai Phule, wife of social revolutionary Jotirao Phule, had written the same thing, saying in a poem that sudras and ati-sudras (dalits) now have the right to education; and through English, casteism can be destroyed and brahmanical teaching can be hurled away.” But it remains to be seen how much the subaltern castes will be able to use the weapons of global connections, computer, and English skills.

In fact, the ups and downs of the emergence of anticaste intellectuals were probably not accidental. The two main eras of creativity were the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries – when the great poet-saints and “wandering minstrels” known as leaders of the “bhakti movement” sang their songs to arouse the people against priestly dominance and caste exclusiveness – and the colonial period. Both represented forms of globalisation.

In the first case, Muslim rule brought a wide commercialism and an era of order to the subcontinent, broke through the stagnation of brahmanic regionalised states, and brought a connection with global trends, both in terms of mysticism and broader stirrings of assertion. In the second case, it was British colonial rule that linked India to a wider heritage. These linkages, and the resources they offered, benefited the anticaste intellectuals who emerged to try to give a telling blow to ritualism and hierarchy.

Thus the bhakti poets made use of the openings provided by Muslim rule to reject the brahmanical elements of tradition. It is not accidental that Ravidas chose a largely Persian name for his “Begumpura”, symbolising both the end of sorrow and a feminine identity.

Similarly, other bhakti poets rejected many of the brahmanic symbols – choosing Pandhari over Vaikuntha, often rejecting the avatar theory or turning it upside down, to hail the goodness of Bali, Sibi and the like. Even where names such as Rama were used by poets like Kabir, he made it clear that this was not the avatar “Ramchandra” and at times combined “Allah-Ram”: “Every man and woman born are forms of you, so says Kabir: I’m Ram and Allah’s foolish baby, he’s my guru and my pir” (shabd 97).

Similarly, during the colonial period the initial response of the subaltern Kartabhajas was to hail the prosperity of the kompani, a king bringing wealth and prosperity from oversees. Intellectuals like Phule drew upon missionary research and propagandising to help them provide a full-fledged theory of brahmanism, created by Aryans and maintained through keeping the masses in ignorance. And he turned the avatar theory on its head, again, to hail the rakshasas (connoting demons in Sanskrit) as defenders of the people and Bali Raja as the good king, both powerful and sacrificial.

It is thus not unexpected that the “Aryan theory” in reverse was claimed by the dalit movement in India as a whole – it provided a powerful metaphor for undermining brahmanic power.

These early eras of “globalisation” in many ways benefited the anticaste movement.Yet just as theorists today stress that globalisation has both dangers and opportunities, so it did earlier. The ruling classes and ethnic groups during these early periods also were not interested in promoting mass welfare; outsiders themselves, they often made alliances with brahmans and worked to maintain caste. Muslims themselves absorbed much of caste hierarchy, defining their elite as ashraf – descendents of Turks and Persians, Sayyids and Shahs – and treating the subaltern caste converts as inferior.

The British, in turn, in taking up caste were likely to identify with the brahmans the more distant Aryans. Both Muslim and British rule in many ways actually served to strengthen brahman dominance, for brahmans managed to monopolise education and the roads to bureaucratic service.

In both cases, in spite of challenges from below, a brahmanic recuperation occurred: the bhakti movement was absorbed, and the anticaste intellectuals of the colonial period were deflected as the call for national independence took on a powerful aura. And with independence, most of the issues raised by subaltern groups were buried.

The way affirmative action was handled was typical: through the policy of “reservation” that absorbed all the rigidities of the public sector bureaucracy, renouncing any trust in broader policy decisions, and institutionalising an ideological split between “merit” and “reservation” candidates. The “global” forces have been used, in the end, more effectively by the elites, and rather than revolutionary moves towards abolition of caste, an updating and restructuring of caste inequality has occurred.

Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals

Excerpted with permission from Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, Gail Omvedt, Navayana.