Navayana, the independent anti-caste publisher, gave a call for the first ever Dalit History Fellowships in April 2021 on BR Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. Six months later, eight fellows have been awarded the fellowship of Rs 1 lakh each to work on projects leading to books. S Anand, publisher of Navayana, spoke to over email on the eve of the announcement of these fellowships. Excerpts from the interview.

Can you tell us the back story to the fellowships?
Ahead of the Dalit History Month in April this year, I wondered how we could meaningfully talk about history at a time when we were faced with a dire present: a deadly second wave of Covid-19, and a lockdown that affected all life in all its bareness, and all work in all its late-capitalist caste-infested vulnerability.

The virus may go, and the vaccines may work despite a murderous inhumane regime calling the shots. But caste was here, is here, and will be here. The fight against it must go on. We came up with what we immediately realised was a long-felt need – two or three fellowships to write dalit history; primarily, but not exclusively, for dalits.

We announced this on 14 April, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 130th birth anniversary. After a sedate start, by 30 June we received an overwhelming 70 proposals, 52 of them from dalits, half from women. We were amazed by the range, ambition and quality. Many who applied said they had grown up reading Navayana books and that it would be an honour to work on a book with and for us. Why didn’t I think of this earlier, I asked myself; and I shared this regret with friends on the jury. I am reminded of how a Tuka abhang opens:

काय करू आता धरुनिया भीड
निःशंक हे तोंड वाजविले

Of what use is clinging to trepidation?
This tongue speaks without fear of retribution

How did you go about selecting the fellows?
Broadcast in a country of many tongues, the fellowship call was not limited to English, although Navayana publishes only in this language. We received two applications each in Marathi, Tamil and Hindi, with scope for – and the added work of – translations.

Alex George, editor at Navayana, and I read each application as it came, with anticipation, excitement and expectation. We had a stellar and diverse jury lined up – Suraj Yengde, Thomas Blom Hansen, Yashica Dutt, Divya Malhari, Shailaja Paik, Aman Sethi – academics, writers and story-tellers who helped us think things through at every stage. Given the quality and promise of the proposals, drawing up a long list of 32, and then culling this to a shortlist of 20 for the interviews, was challenging. One thing became clear quickly: we needed to think of maybe ten fellowships, not just three. But how?

As Tukaram asks in his abhang – a song that is unbroken – of what use is clinging to trepidation?

नव्हे जगी कोणी मुकीयांचा जाण
सार्थक लाजोनी नव्हे हित

The world has no messiahs for the meek
Shame will not lead you to the destiny you seek

How did you find the funds?
At Navayana, our small team of three barely manages to keep its head above the rising waters. How could we be so foolhardy as to offer fellowships based on the words of a Marathi abhang that is some five hundred years old? Should we get carried away by a song? Is less more? But then Kabir asks: “I felt light when placed on the scale / When found immeasurable, what do I say?”

So, midway through the exercise, I decided to get a measure of, and a measure out of, Navayana’s savarna readers, friends and well-wishers, who I thought could help raise the money. Addressing a select few, known half-known unknown, some I had never met, some who I thought would pay, and some that I felt should pay, I wrote – rather appealed – to help fund what was now a longer list of potential fellows. Like Charles Malamoud says, debt is a form of power, and the more powerful castes have a greater ontological debt to society.

Many responded warmly and with affection, and assured us support. And that is how and why we are here now – with eight fellowships and not just two or three – that will lead to eight titles in the next year or two.

But it was not easy raising this protean construct called capital. It came with riders. Terms and conditions. Some of them endearing – “Is it okay if I paid in ten instalments?” Someone asked if they could get an income-tax benefit and if Navayana had 80-G. It was practical because that’s standard practice.

And yes, there were polite refusals dressed as caution. One historian told us to restrict ourselves to two fellowships, for often there’s a yawning gap between promise and fulfilment. We were told tread carefully and heed wisdom. You simply cannot have ten good candidates every year for years to come, I was warned.

Another well-meaning éminence grise told us Rs 1 lakh for working on a book was far too less and that we must ideally offer such a sum every month for a year. We were even told which doors to knock, which models to follow. This worthy did not offer any support though.

Yet another liberal thought that even doing two fellowships with “fierce quality control” would be tough—ah meritocracy! the Aged for Quality as an answer to Youth for Equality. Another suggested a neoliberal sellout plan – give out more, good history comes at a cost. Just ask the right donor and make a good pitch.

At the heart of this effort is not money though – but a love to see things change and be a small part of it when history offers us the odd chance. A will to politics that is not about business as such. True, when the UGC-issue Junior Research Fellowship comes to Rs 31,000 a month (from the state), what’s on offer seems paltry.

Then there are the well-established well-funded private fellowships that reward you handsomely to research history and write biographies without having to earn a living for their durations; but you will be hard-put to find DBAs being part of such exercises; nor are projects involving translations encouraged.

They have no reservations about saying that they do not have, nor will have, reservation. The words affirmative action, or the neoliberal charm word diversity, do not appear that threatening but even these are easily sidestepped. Those who bemoan that the BJP and Hindutva are threats to the Constitution themselves defy its equality-seeking provisions in letter and spirit, day in and day out.

Did Navayana’s own publishing history lead up to these fellowships? And will they change the future of Navayana’s publishing?
Let me turn to Tuka again:

आले ते उत्तर बोले स्वामीसवे
धीट नीट जीवे होऊनिया

Let courage suffuse you till the very end
Speak fearlessly, with god for a friend

I can’t vouch for the god Tukaram speaks of or to, but I speak taking Baba for a friend.

With all this eagerness to deliciously expose tasteless savarna hypocrisies, what business does savarna-led Navayana have in taking the moral high ground in this manner? What is its own history of seeking out authors and commissioning books? How many DBA authors has Navayana really published, compared to savarnas and foreign academics?

This was asked plainly in 2014 when Navayana came out with the annotated critical edition of Annihilation of Caste with Arundhati Roy’s introduction. The “Why Roy?” question led to other sharp questions. These were not mere identitarian concerns as they were made out to be in savarna circles. These questions were moral and political and honest, all at once. They came from those who expected better from Navayana, and had been reading our books for all their faults. The questions were raised with an anger and an urgency that was as understandable as it was uncomfortable.

I surveyed the authors’ page on the Navayana website in 2014: of the sixty-odd authors (including artists and translators), I recall barely one-fourth being Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi. I counted again while writing this. Of the 94 authors listed today (even those who have written an introduction to a book often figure), Navayana has 31 DBA authors, and here I have included dalits, shudras, adivasis Muslims, blacks and aboriginals. There are a handul whose caste I have no way of inferring.

This 33 per cent could perhaps make us feel better than other publishers, but the truth is even at Navayana the balance is lopsided. Despite more conscious choices and efforts at addressing this imbalance, progress has been visibly slow. These are errors in history that cannot be erased; but they do not bear repeating.

The Dalit History Fellowship opens up more possibilities than we had imagined – in the years to come, our authors list should come to reflect the kind of correctives to the inequalities of history that we advocate. Sceptics notwithstanding, we fondly hope Navayana’s savarna readers will help us with this redress in the future. And hopefully, as this unfolds, other publishers will see the need to have more DBA authors and editors in their midst.

While the major global corporate publishers who operate in India (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hatchette, Bloomsbury and so on) espouse employment diversity in their Western offices, not even such lip service is paid here. Independent publishers in India, who often act and speak self-righteously, as demonstrated here, fare no better.

When Navayana began publishing in 2003-04, in the pre-social media world, I sought out popular anti-caste writers and thinkers: Chandra Bhan Prasad, Kancha Ilaiah, Gail Omvedt, Anand Teltumbde, Meera Nanda, Eleanor Zelliot and Meena Kandasamy. They all obliged with generosity and love. In the early days, the academic Dilip Menon put his faith in our modest efforts when we were barely five titles old.

The big Namdeo Dhasal book happened and I recall paying the translator Dilip Chitre Rs 5,000 and Dhasal Rs 10,000 as advance: the first advances Navayana ever gave. Other authors followed, although some friends understandably preferred more prestigious mainstream publishers.

In the last few years, even this perception has been changing. None of the eight nDHF fellows was known to Navayana – their paths had crossed with our books, but we had no prior acquaintance with all 70 applicants save one. Many said they had never imagined they could get a chance at publishing a book. One of the fellows wrote to us: “It was only after Navayana fellowship was announced that I began to think about it as a book project.”

Where do you trace your inspiration for these fellowships?
For all this, Navayana owes thanks to a singular author who has also often been the subject of several Navayana titles – Babasaheb Ambedkar, a figure from whom the almost dalit-free publishing industry has been wary of benefiting. Books by and on him have defined us, and brought us here.

Recall the situation Ambedkar faced in the 1950s, as perhaps most of his life, battling to raise resources to make possible his many projects committed to the establishment of equality – colleges, hostels, newspapers, organisations, the movement, and yes, books. Through the 1950s, Ambedkar, living in Delhi and working on the Constitution and then as law minister, was under tremendous financial stress and in a hurry to publish as many books as he could. His failing health made him more restless.

Ambedkar’s personal assistant and typist, Nanak Chand Rattu, records in his memoirs in 1997 the following draft-manuscripts that he had typed out: (i) Buddha and His Dhamma, (ii) Buddha and Karl Marx, (iii) Revolution and Counter-revolution in Ancient India, (iv) Riddles in Hinduism, (v) Riddle of Rama and Krishna, (vi) Riddle of Trimurti and (vii) Riddle of Woman.

Of these, Ambedkar gave priority to The Buddha and His Dhamma – an unfair but tactical choice he was forced to make. Even to publish this opus, he sent out several letters seeking financial assistance including a few to MR Masani, chairman of Tata Industries Ltd. In a reminder on 17 March 1956, Ambedkar says, “I’m dreadfully in a hurry and if Mr Tata refuses my request I’d like to go with my bowl to another door.”

After assuring themselves that a book on the Buddha might not be “controversial”, on 1 May 1956, the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust sanctioned Rs 3,000. Needing another Rs 20,000 to cover printing expenses, Ambedkar, swallowing his pride, wrote to Nehru on 15 September 1956, asking “if the Government of India could purchase 500 copies for distribution among the various libraries and among the many scholars whom it is inviting during the course of this year for the celebration of Buddha’s 2,500 years’ anniversary.”

Nehru replied to Ambedkar the next day saying that the sum set aside for publications related to Buddha Jayanti had been exhausted, and that he should approach S Radhakrishnan, then vice-president of India and chairman of the Buddha Jayanti Committee – that had thoughtfully excluded Ambedkar, the greatest living champion of Buddhism. Nehru also offered some business advice to his former law minister: “I might suggest that your books might be on sale in Delhi and elsewhere at the time of Buddha Jayanti celebrations when many people may come from abroad. It might find a good sale then.”

Radhakrishnan is said to have informed Ambedkar on phone about his inability to help him. The Buddha and His Dhamma could not be published till after Ambedkar’s passing, by Siddharth College Publications in 1957. Nearly half of Ambedkar’s writings have been published posthumously as part of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches volumes, known as BAWS, by the Maharashtra government since 1979.

Our inagural Dalit History Fellowship, that started on the day that marks Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s birth, befittingly culminates on the chosen day of his rebirth, of embracing “a new life”, the day of conversion to Buddhism, of exiting the world of caste and embracing the idea of equality, when over half a million people participated in a bloodless battle for “the reclamation of their human personality”.

The abhang by Tukaram that frames this little history, and a future to come, adorned the masthead of Mooknayak (launched on 31 January 1920), the first of four newspapers Ambedkar founded. The first line of the second stanza, नव्हे जगी कोणी मुकीयांचा जाण – navhe jaagi koni mukiiyaanchi jaana – features the word mukiiyaanchi, from which Ambedkar arrived at the name of his fortnightly, Mooknayak.

Image credit: Vijay Surwade.

On its centennial last year, I tracked down the full abhang on the internet, and sent it to Rohan Kamble (Delhi University PhD scholar and a former intern at Navayana) on WhatsApp, urging him to tell me its meaning. He worked on it for some days, and I tinkered with the translation, goading it towards songness.

तुका म्हणे मना समर्थासी गाठी
घालावी हे मांडी थोप टु नि

Says Tuka, when confronted with a nemesis
Slap your thighs, put up a fight

These tongues – Ankit Kawade, Arul Muthu Kumaran, Babasaheb Kambale, Chandrabhan P Yadav, Ishita Roy, Mahitosh Mandal, Meera Jatav and Murugan V – speak without fear. Listen.