REPORTS & ESSAYS
The Ambedkarite vs. Left Debate: A Bahujan Perspective
July 29, 2016
It is summer, and the rage to appropriate on the part of the Savarna left parties is more evident than ever, especially in university spaces such as ours. In JNU they have created BASO, to compete with BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association). We also hear of another Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Study Circle (Delhi Chapter), which very recently read Annihilation of Caste as part of its first program in DU. Left and radical Left groups are indeed turning their appropriation-mode on as if they are the ones who will now fight for the dignity, self-worth and rights of Rohiths, Deltas and Jishas. For the appropriators of the Bahujan aspiration—post-Rohith and the #JusticeforRohith movement—the mood prevalent in the campuses had to be converted badly into votes to maintain the perpetuation of their political species.
As a Bahujan group, we know that from Buddhist times to the present, the Brahminical castes, who are in the minority, have effortlessly appropriated the physical and cultural labor of the Bahujans in order to ensure the survival of their own parasitic communities. As Babasaheb Ambedkar has shown us, in order to dethrone Buddhism, they had to appropriate certain elements of this spiritual-cum-political ideology, and practices like Vegetarianism are a result of this.
Centuries have passed and the appropriating machine is still running and is determined to take more Bahujans in its path. Recently, in a powerful speech, Rahul Sonpimple of BAPSA came out openly against the appropriation of Dalit-Bahujan politics by the Left. Umar Khalid, who is one of those who formed the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organization (why Bhagat Singh before Ambedkar, B before A?) responded and in the debate that followed, many Dalit-Bahujans fiercely exposed the appropriating and casteist Left. We fully support our brothers and sisters in this, and we ourselves as a Bahujan-centric and Bahujan-led reading group have experienced this constant attempt to appropriate our politics within DU too. We seldom care what the Left thinks or does, and we do not feel it worthwhile at all to engage in a conversation with them; at no moment do we treat the Left either as opponents or as people we have to contend with. So, we do not sense the need to respond to their appropriation of our politics in DU. However, we want to point to a few issues that we find problematic in the way our Bahujan side has been framing the debates with the Left. This note is written to address those issues, so that we can together take the debate forward amongst ourselves, ignoring the appropriating and casteist Left.
We have two major concerns, which we will address in two parts. The first is with the way in which we are increasingly moving towards a politics that keeps us trapped in reacting to Brahminical appropriation and politics, and the second is that the language and the framework within which we assert our rights within the university space are the same as the modern liberal language that the Left and other Brahminical groups use. Both these factors, we feel, keep us from developing an alternate perspective drawn from the diverse knowledge systems and experiences of our own communities.
Part I: Reaction as Politics
Today, when we have proved our strength through long-drawn work in various small and big ways, in universities and outside, the oppressor castes and the Savarna Left have woken up to the fact that they have to engage with us. They do this by appropriating our voices, talking in our names and tagging Ambedkar along with other Savarna figures like Bhagat Singh. However, due to this immense cultural violence unleashed against us, we are also caught in a trap, where we are constantly reacting to these appropriations. Even as we realize that we cannot but do this, we see a problem in carrying forward a politics based solely on such "reactions" to hegemony. In fact, this mode of response itself has its political repercussions, and the mode itself is now our politics.
Appropriation is the very structure through which caste operates; without appropriation caste cannot perhaps exist. It is the only mechanism through which the twice-born castes can sustain their parasitic selves. It is their response to us, our achievements, and our voice. They can't survive without copying us, mimicking us, and tailing behind us; that is the tragicomedy of their powerful selves. In other words, appropriation is a symptom of the disease called Caste; it is the primary caste occupation of the Brahmins and the Savarnas. But we have to treat the disease and not the symptom. For this, we need to fortify Bahujan politics and within the university space, we need to transform our mode of engagement with academics.
Instead, when we question each and every act of appropriation that happens within the colonizing structure of caste, we are confining ourselves to constantly reacting to the oppressor, which—in a way—keeps us in close connection and relation (though in a negative manner) with the oppressor. This makes us inhabit the very space of the oppressor without thinking of ways and means to move out of this structure, annihilate this structure, and enable our own non-vertical transformative structure/s.
In fact, instead of turning the gaze on the actions of the oppressor and reacting to them, we need to look at our own selves, and fortify ourselves from within. For this—first of all, we need to be aware of our vulnerabilities. In this particular case, for instance, we also need to see that the Left could hijack the Rohith issue, also because the Bahujan groups in HCU and then later in JNU and DU were forced to form alliances with them as a Joint Action Committee (JAC) in order to carry forward the struggle. Given this, if we are pointing only towards the large-scale Left appropriation that followed this alliance, we are also refusing to examine and rectify the vulnerabilities within us, which aids and perpetuates this appropriation. Talking against Left appropriation might weaken the Left, but looking at our own vulnerabilities alone will strengthen us and keep us safe.
We also have to see this important fact, that often when we are reacting to Brahmins and other oppressor castes, we are working with the idea that we are standing within a Whole, which is dominated by Brahminical castes and within which as modern citizens, we need representation. This is what the modern nation teaches us too. We are an equal and whole entity, and equal among the whole entity; however, there are some who are more dominating, so there should be some way in which we as the 'others' can bargain and find a space for ourselves within the whole. This is the notion that guides the constitutional idea of reservation also. So, when we come to academia or any kind of modern space, we imagine that space also in these terms—as a modern whole—and then assert our identities by bargaining for a space within this whole, which is designed for the domination and perpetuation of the Brahminical communities in the first place.
It is this act of bargaining for a space within the 'modern whole' that casteists dismiss as identity politics. However, what we feel is that there is a need to re-conceptualize the 'modern whole' as the Brahminical whole. Be it academia or any other public space, we are not dealing with a whole dominated by upper castes and Brahmins, within which we can ask for our rights, and become equal. We are dealing with a whole made by, for and of them. If we re-conceptualize modern public spaces, including academia (which is where the present debate is taking place) like this, then we have two choices before us:
1. we can keep on bargaining for our rights within the Brahminical whole; or,
2. we can try to transform this into a Bahujan whole (and this is what Kanshi Ram dreamt about when he organized the Bahujans).
So even as we are talking about appropriation in the context of academia, and bargaining for our special rights and identity, we also need to think of strategies that can transform academia alongside. In other words, we also need to create discourses and debates wherein we are doing many other important activities, along with the constant bargaining with the Brahminical whole. Eventually, we should annihilate the Brahminical whole, assert our identities boldly, and replace the Brahmin space with our own Bahujan selves—spaces for ourselves where [our] transformation and thinking about our transformation shall be facilitated.
In academia, we need to put forward an academic/knowledge mission which will help us see the world and every single thing in the world, from our own perspective. We need to use our Ambedkarite Bahujan perspective to build knowledge not only about our lives, sufferings and oppression—we need to do this surely—but we have to add to this by talking about everything else, too. Instead, as Gopal Guru said years ago, we provide the data and they make the theories. We have to put an end to this. And we have to always remember and be conscious of what G. Aloysius said in a speech once: ACADEMICS IS YET TO BE BORN IN INDIA.
Actually, now what is happening is this: many of us know that by participating in the vile edifice of academics, we can only become powerless collaborators, and thus, we do this meekly; or we soon turn anti-academic and anti-intellectual, and confine our politics to bargaining for representation within academia. Many also leave academics. In contrast, the oppressor castes with all their privileges and opportunities keep on constructing and manufacturing knowledge about us. At the most, we protest against it, and write oppositional notes. And these days, we are making a project of confining our politics to this.
In fact, even the most assertive Bahujan who is bargaining for Dalit rights or OBC rights, is also at the same time producing academic work which borrows from Brahminical scholarship and collaborates with them. Most of our famous academic scholars, except for a few, are standing in the academic space only by collaborating with a Brahmin or Oppressor caste scholar. This is indeed an unfortunate situation. Only if we transform academics from within our knowledge space, which—we must know—is totally inaccessible to the Brahmins and oppressor castes, will we be really able to transform the world around us. This need not even be done from within the structures of the academy, which is so caste-ridden and closed to most of us. We can do this from alternate spaces; we can also use our present alternate spaces for this, i.e., from the various individual and collective Bahujan spaces which are vocal about our issues today. In short, we need to break out of the Brahminical space, and create our own space, not in response to them and not to convince them or interact or collaborate with them—all of which is a huge loss of our time and energy.
In fact, it is no wonder that it is transformative (as opposed to bargaining) acts such as this that threaten the oppressor castes and force them to come down on us with their police and their administration. In many ways, Rohith Vemula and ASA (by powerfully bringing together different identity groups, and by taking on the Brahminical space with confidence) actually put forward such a transformative politics—which is why the authorities came down so badly on them.
So, our larger goal should be to retrieve our thinking traditions, our scholars, to read them, to re-read them, to question them, to re-write them, and to take their thoughts and ideas forward. This should be the work we should do; let them come behind us, mimicking us and appropriating us and using their power to hide the fact that they have done all this.
Once we use our knowledge to transform the equation of power in this caste colony, we don't have to engage with the oppressor castes in power. We will then own a shared, and more or less equal, public space, along with land, resources, and all other spheres. This is what we have to remember. This is what we have to visualize. And our focus should be on this transformation, and not on their antics of power.
Part II: Using the oppressor's language and framework
Equally important is the language and framework in which our politics is framed in the university spaces. Increasingly and uncritically, we are making our claims in the same modern liberal language of the universities. This is happening despite our experiences of the casteist implications of this language.
Taking Rahul Sonpimple's letter as an example, we can see how the framework of the arguments and the political position taken are located in the secular liberal framework of the casteist nation-state. This is most clear in the letter's clarification about BAPSA's stand on the February 9 event and what followed. The letter claims BAPSA's support for the struggle against the entire JNU 'crackdown' as stemming out of its belief in "freedom of speech and expression". This is said at this moment despite the fact that this ideal has been put to question many times within and without India, on both popular and academic levels. In the context of the Ambedkar cartoon controversy of 2012, many Left groups had also categorized the Dalit demand to remove the particular cartoon from the NCERT textbook as a disruption of "freedom of expression". In fact, in many incidents across the globe, it has become evident that 'freedom of speech'—like [the concept of] 'merit'—is a clear liberal tool that erases all pressing political questions of hierarchy and power differences between different communities living within the modern nation-state. We find ourselves again and again in a situation to use the language and tools of the oppressor caste that have historically been used against us, to assert our political positions.
Secondly, in Rahul's speech and other writings from our side, there is a constant attack on the Hindu/Muslim binary. As we all know, the Hindu/Muslim binary has been employed by the Left (and Right) in a way that does not see how caste is implicated in the construction of the Hindu. We surely need to reject this Left understanding, which is close to the RSS understanding of the Hindu/Muslim binary. However, the problem here is that in trying to overcome this binary, we are refusing to see the issue of religion, which is inherent in the Hindu/Muslim question. Thus we are making the same claims (though in a different way) as the oppressor communities do, who leave out the question of caste out as they can see only the issue of religion.
Hinduism got constituted very slowly, first in response to the threat of Buddhism, as Babasaheb Ambedkar shows in his The Untouchables: Who were They and Why They became Untouchables?, and then in the colonial period, as a response to the way in which Dalits and other lowered castes were converting to Islam and Christianity. In fact, many of the things that we associate with Hinduism today—like the Vedas, were brought back into the limelight by people like Dayananda Saraswati, so as to compete with the religious books of the Semitic religions to which lowered castes were beginning to convert. Hinduism also borrowed and appropriated Buddhism heavily to constitute itself. So, more than anything else, this religion was a reaction to the challenges to the caste system; in other words, it was a new and modern form of the caste system itself. However, Islam and Christianity were not created to maintain any power structure like this. In fact, in many ways they were emancipatory religions, which sought to bring a better status to the poor, the marginalized, and women.
Now it is true that both Christianity and Islam—Christianity more than Islam—have indigenised themselves by adopting caste practices. Christians have also institutionalized this at a large scale by having different churches and denominations for different castes all over the country. Yet, there is a difference in the way caste operates within Hinduism compared to other religions. Ambedkar has discussed this difference at length in Annihilation of Caste.
We need to acknowledge this difference. In other words, even if we talk about the existence of caste within Islam, we still cannot equate Islam to Hinduism. In fact, we have to remember that Ambedkar and many of the oppressed caste leaders advocated the conversion out of Hinduism as a way of annihilating caste. Though it is shown that caste still continues within converts too, we cannot let go of conversion as an emancipatory tool. This leaves us within the trap of Hinduism (that is getting stronger and stronger by the day) and very much within its ethos, and the annihilation of caste becomes next to impossible. In fact, if Hinduism is the modern face of caste, this really leaves us with no tool to fight caste itself.
There is another important issue here. We are forgetting that Hinduism was re-created in the modern period, in order to include Dalits and the oppressed castes within its fold. For instance, most of the Hindu social reforms were about finding ways to include Dalits and the oppressed castes, who were literally running away from it [Hinduism]. For instance, the Vedas came into prominence not as Hindu texts alone, but as texts that were now being taught to Dalits and others in the Arya Samaj programs. Shuddhi programs were often undertaken to bring back oppressed castes into the Hindu faith after they had left it through conversion. Similarly, Arya Samaj and many similar movements were focused on making Dalits and the oppressed castes enter the Brahmin fold as Hindus.
Sree Narayana Guru / via Wikipedia
Moreover, as we have often seen in the various riots that happened as a result of the mobilization of oppressed castes towards cow prohibition, and in the love jihad discourses of the 1920s, the oppressed castes were sought to be included in the Hindu community when the Muslim was imagined as the 'Other' of the Hindu. In Kerala today, for instance, we all speak about the very radical temple entry. However, as Dalit scholars (K K Kochu) have pointed out, it was when Ezhavas threatened to leave the Hindu fold through conversion that the Sree Narayana movement was suddenly given such importance and temple entry was allowed. Similarly, when Babasaheb wanted separate electorates, Gandhi was not ready to allow this as he felt that the Hindus would be divided. Although it was the Dalits who fiercely opposed these tendencies from the very beginning (as opposed to other lowered castes, who were totally pulled in), we see the intentions of these Hindu reform activities repeated in certain aspects of the constitution also. Here too, it is the idea that "Harijans are part and parcel of the Hindu community" (K M Munshi, Constitution Assembly Debates, V, p 227) which finally defines Dalits as Hindus within the constitution.
So we have not only to stop comparing Hinduism with Islam, we also have to start talking about how the oppressed castes are implicated in the very construction of Hinduism. If we do not do this, we will be perpetually framed as Hindus officially and through other modern cultural devices, even as we keep on denying this status, saying, "why I am not a Hindu."
Also, we have been using the issue of caste within the Muslim community to equate the Savarna Muslim to the Savarna Hindu, and refuse to grant any legitimacy to the position of Islam as a persecuted and powerless religion in comparison to Hinduism. Instead, we hve been envisioning a Bahujan majority constituted of caste. We are able to arrive at a homogenization of Bahujans of different religions like this—only by refusing to examine the category of religion—by refusing to see that the Bahujan Muslim and the Bahujan Hindu may have completely different concerns. This is nothing but a reproduction of the modern, secular, Brahminical framework, which leaves out religion from all analyses, even as all lives are deeply marked by it.
Moreover, we are also repeating the leftist rejection of religion as "the opium of the masses" when we are dismissing its importance, though in a different way. In looking down on all religions as useless and unnecessary, we are also negating one of the most important messages in Annihilation of Caste, which bases conversion out of Hinduism on the idea that "political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions." In fact, this constant secular/Savarna rejection of religion keeps us very much within the framework of the Hindu nation, and makes us adopt a univocal Brahminical view, which refuses to see the intersections of caste and religion in India.
So, are we also like the Savarnas and the liberal feminists who see nothing but gender? Are we also going to see only in univocal/Brahminical ways, and talk only about caste, and use caste to deny other discriminations and other serious differences and inequalities? How will we sustain a coming-together of the majority Bahujans, if we will not even be ready to see other kinds of discriminations, like Islamophobia, for instance? Does Islamophobia affect only lower caste Muslims? If we are theorizing about the Brahmin woman, will we equate her with, and say that she has the same power as, the Brahmin man? Why were our leaders like Phule and Ambedkar aware of the discrimination of Brahmin women within caste society? Similarly, even if there is a category of powerful Muslims (there needs to be serious study about stratification among Muslims and the share of power which is enjoyed by Savarna Muslims, before we come to a conclusion about it) shouldn't we be seeing how they are still very different from the powerful Hindus? What stops us from doing this, except our own uncritical acceptance of our location within Hinduism? Why are we denying and dismissing this religious location just like the Savarnas and the Leftists deny and dismiss caste? Here too, aren't we creating a discourse from within the given Brahminical framework of the Savarnas, accepting their terms of debate?
Similarly, let us look at the whole debate about the Society/State binary. Rahul Sonpimple talks about the Left's insistence on the power of the State. For the Left, as we all know, the State is the enemy. They see no way of engaging with it and yet, as Rahul points out, they still do go to the courts when it comes to their affairs. Also, they have absolutely no problem in holding government jobs and taking salaries from the State. The Left, as Bahujans have already recognized, are not ready to see caste operating at the level of the society, and by pointing to the State, they are taking attention away from their own power and projecting it on to an external entity. So, for them, it's a way of diverting issues. However, in responding to the Left's insistence on the evilness of the State, we often see Bahujans insisting on the importance of the State. We could see this in these debates, too. Why is it that we are choosing to stand on the other side of the binary and say that the State is important to us? Isn't this an answer framed in response to a debate set by the Left? In doing this, aren't we actually talking from within the structure of the same State/Society binary? Why should we allow the Left to impose this binary on us?
On November 25, 1949, addressing the constituent assembly, Ambedkar said: "On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality, and in social and economic life we will have inequality." However, today, the contradictions have collapsed into a seamless whole where we have inequality both in politics and in social and economic life. Be it the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, or the allocation of funds to SC/ST communities, or even the proper implementation of reservations, we know that the State is a Brahminical State just as society too, and that it is there only for the perpetuation of Brahminical power and has not protected us in any way. In fact, today we know that without the connivance of the State, social atrocities cannot take place. So then, why can't we have a NEW theory of the Society and the State, away from the binary created and handed out to us by the Left?
We see the same problems arising with regard to the discussion about the constitution. Dr Ambedkar himself said many times that he was "only one member of the drafting committee," and that the youth must "change the constitution." Yet in opposing the Brahminical Left's and the radical Left's dismissal of the constitution, we always adopt the opposite view (as was seen in these recent debates). We tend to forget that the constitution has not granted Dalits separate electorates as Babasaheb badly wanted, in the first place. The constitution denies us proportionate reservations too. The constitution took away reservations that were there for Muslims, including in the political arena. The constitution makes Dalits and Adivasis officially Hindu. The constitution has also been used to promote the prohibition of cow slaughter, something that Babasaheb had clearly seen as the origin of untouchability itself. So, even if the constitution has given us a certain space, can't we both acknowledge its importance and still try to modify and add to it, for the emancipation of the Bahujans? In other words, can't we talk about its various shortcomings from our own marginalized positions, instead of merely responding to the Savarna radical dismissal of the constitution with an uncritical celebration? In fact, only by adhering to the constitution even as we develop a clear Bahujan-oriented critique of it, can we oppose the status of Dalits and Adivasis as Hindu, and create a Bahujan politics which will demand for separate electorates and proportionate reservations as Kanshi Ram had done. In not doing this, aren't we allowing the Brahmins and other Savarnas (including the Left) to set the terms of our thinking and even our politics?
In short, the language and frame in which our politics is articulated in the university spaces show al ack of readiness to go beyond the secular (Brahminical) categories from which the State and modern culture of this nation derive its power. This makes it increasingly impossible for us to look into the complicated nature of how caste is located in Indian society and State structures, even after more than six decades of independence. The facts of our historical experiences and failed promises should be urgently used to start a critical reconsideration of the frames of these formations, rather than merely fighting for our share in the modern project.
Finally, the recent Ambedkarite-Left fights set off another minor debate about solidarity between different marginalized communities. We find it very disturbing that in many instances, it was said that solidarity between marginalized groups is impossible. Even as we fully reject any solidarity with Left forces, we really need to rethink the growing position amongst ourselves that any kind of solidarity between different marginal groups is impossible, by pointing to internal differences and other issues. We believe that such a proposition erases the history and larger vision of pre-independence Bahujan politics, which is not a mere coming-together of different politics or a simple surface show but a powerful, pre-nationalist, anti-caste politics which Congress nationalism completely destroyed.
In this context, let us remember that the Brahminical castes totally feared this kind of a solidarity politics of the Bahujans. Gandhi, for instance, responded to the British communal award that offered separate electorates for Dalit community with these words:
The possible consequences of separate electorate for Harijans fill me with horror. Separate electorates for all other communities will still leave room for me to deal with them, but I have no other means to deal with "untouchables"…They do not realize that the separate electorate will create division among Hindus so much that it will lead to blood-shed. "Untouchable" hooligans will make common cause with Muslim hooligans and kill caste-Hindus.
(Quoted in Shabnam Tejani, Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890-1950: 2008)
This reflects a major Brahminical Hindu fear about the coming together of different identity groups. It was this coming together that Kanshi Ram tried to re-imagine with his Bahujan politics. Somehow, we are moving away from such politics, when we refuse the coming-together of different marginalized identity groups in fighting caste-based power in this nation.
In fact, post-independence what we see is a relegation of all marginalized communities into identity groups that fight in the margins for their share of representation in the modern Brahminical whole. Even in this there is inequality, as some identities get greater share than others. Even in our own Bahujan spaces, we see some identities taking precedence over others. For instance, even in our own organizations, including in the Ambedkar Reading Group, many identities like the Adivasis are often subsumed within other more well-asserted positions like those of the Dalits and the Muslims. All of this is happening when a 'neutral', 'identity-free' Brahminical section dominates all the cultural, political, and material properties and resources of this nation.
Somehow the individualized 'identity' that we assert—we have to remember—is also the only modern property that the Brahminical system is ready to allow us, so that they can then monopolize all other real property and all other material and non-material resources. So, what we need is not ONLY a more vigorous assertion of any one kind of identity, be it of the Dalits or the Muslims, but ALSO a coming-together of different marginalized identities (in spite of various internal differences), as a NEW politics—the kind of politics envisioned by people like Kanshi Ram.
In short, we need to urgently address the above problems, and move out of them, into a Bahujan politics that emphasizes solidarity between various differently marginalized communities, that puts forward a transformative agenda based on our own language and framework, and that will work to annihilate caste instead of reacting to Brahmin devices, and without merely bargaining for our different rights within the modern Brahminical space.
* Bahujan is increasingly used to denote OBCs, (even our own Ambedkar Reading Group had used it in that manner,) however, here we use Bahujan in its original sense, as put forward by Kanshi Ram, to denote: Dalits, Adivasis, Backward Castes, Muslims and other minorities.
* BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association) is an Ambedkarite-Bahujan student party in JNU.
* Rahul Sonpimple is one of the leaders of BAPSA, JNU.
* Umar Khalid is a student leader of the recently formed Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Student Organisation (BASO), JNU.
This note is prepared by members of the Ambedkar Reading Group, Delhi University, to inaugurate a series of debates, dialogues and solidarity with various crucial issues that affect the Bahujan communities, both within and outside the academia.
First published in Round Table India.
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