Learning from Anand Teltumbde
February 4, 2019
This time last year, I was part of a team of editors getting Anand Teltumbde’s Republic of Caste (Navayana, 2018) ready for the market. The volume was an unusual project. It sought to collect a topical output, scattered across his columns of political commentary over the years, and publish it not as found but woven into essays under broad heads, offering an assimilated view of India’s post-Independence history. Would discrete writings addressed largely to the news of the day make for a coherent account of our times, one with a clear line of argument and a big picture? How would this book measure up against more conventional histories of the period, doorstoppers composed in the archives? With its hardback edition sold out and the publisher’s newsletter informing us of a paperback in the works, these questions are redundant today. Watching Republic of Caste take shape was the most intensive political tutorial I ever received, and I have turned to it frequently since, whether to confirm details of fact in other people’s writing or to strengthen their footnotes. These may sound like trivial uses but the book is an indispensable reference because it covers ground that no other political history has attempted. It treats the story of the Indian republic not as a succession of plans, policies and initiatives from on high, but in terms of the experience of its most devalued citizens, their fleeting traces saved from vanishing away. There are other ways in which the book’s rigorous, up-to-the-minute analysis of India succeeds only too well, as the events of the past month show.
On January 14, the Supreme Court rejected Teltumbde’s appeal to quash the FIR against him in the fabricated Elgaar Parishad case. He was left with a reprieve of four weeks to seek bail from a lower court before the Maharashtra police could act against him. Stripped of legal protection and with his back to the wall, he appealed for public support against his impending arrest. An online campaign was launched on his behalf, to collect signatures and petition the prime minister to intervene in the case. There may be friends and admirers of Teltumbde who could not bring themselves to sign this letter, or have anything to do with the pretence that Narendra Modi might direct the police to proceed correctly. Those of us who signed it did so in the hope that we would be joined by many others. The fear of losing votes has been known to concentrate the minds of leaders. We hoped our numbers would persuade Modi to do the right thing.
January 19 came at the end of the same week. It was the day Mamata Banerjee hosted her mammoth gathering of eighteen opposition parties in Kolkata. With every news channel covering the event live, the leaders took it in turns to speak of the ever-disappearing rule of law under the BJP, and the sufferings of dalits, minorities, women, farmers, adivasis, the unemployed, and workers in the unorganised sector. Other political hot buttons were pushed: demonetisation, the GST, the Rafale deal, the flight of mega loan defaulters from the country. It would have been the work of a minute for one of the speakers to mention Teltumbde and the preposterous charges he is facing. Millions of citizens might have pulled out their smartphones, acquainted themselves with the facts of the case and joined their voices in solidarity with him. As I write this on February 3, the petition struggles to reach 7500 signatures.
That Teltumbde went unmentioned at Kolkata is a disappointment but no surprise. The opposition meant to install itself as the prime exhibit of Indian democracy under attack: front and centre of a heroic pushback against the BJP’s misrule. A mention of Teltumbde or the ten other academics and rights activists implicated in the Elgaar Parishad case, and held in various forms of detention since June and August 2018, would have detracted from the optics of the show. Acknowledging individual victims from these five years, of whom there have been such hundreds and thousands, would also call attention to the fact that the opposition had made it relatively unscathed through the same period. Another inconvenient fact is that during this time no effective buffer had existed between citizens and state/vigilante actors; no checks and balances worth the name – not the judiciary, the mass media, or the opposition.
Writers, artists and academics are the traditional prey of India’s political parties. Unconventional, frequently loners, they make for easy targets. The cost of persecuting them is negligible while the returns, in visibility and crowd mobilisation, are hard to better. When you send your cadre round to rough up a writer you also draw a red line that cows everyone else; free expression is established as your prerogative alone. Every party has utilised this special dispensation. Mamata Banerjee, who overflowed with poetry and song at the rally, had jailed Prof Ambikesh Mahapatra in 2012 for circulating a political cartoon about her. The then deputy commissioner of the Kolkata police had explained the charge as one of “spreading derogatory messages against respectable people”. The point about two tiers of citizenship could not have been expressed more succinctly. Every party on stage that day has form in this practice, and in the complementary one of melting away from the scene when it’s time to defend individual rights. Take the newest figure among them, Arvind Kejriwal. He and his party are vocal, even noisy, on the subject of civic values but, as Teltumbde points out in Republic of Caste, they were less forthcoming when the film Padmawat was under attack, and have shown no great inclination to take on the khap panchayats either.
The last five years have seen such attacks increase in ferocity and extent, as the BJP has finessed this tactic towards new ends. A continual application of low-grade violence achieves the same psychological results as a pogrom, without the logistical hassles of organising one. Targeting individuals as proxies for communities is efficient, since the entire community comes to feel hunted and insecure. Hate speech has flourished, alongside everyday bullying and trolling; flogging, lynching, assassination; the outrages have been relentless. These energies are part of the story of our republic, and merely the latest manifestation of institutionally-endorsed inequality. An order of full-scale citizens, followed by one of semi-citizens, followed by the hemi-demi-semi citizens – is home-grown and entirely in sync with the ideology of brahminism, nowadays called hindutva. And so, a statue of Manu presides over the entrance to the Rajasthan High Court. It was erected in 1989, seventy-two years after Ambdekar had burned the Manusmriti. Its sculptor, the late Sumahendra Sharma, has another judicial figure in his oeuvre, a Lady Justice, who stands outside the district and sessions court of Jaipur. We don’t know if he saw any contradiction between the two works. The members of the Rajasthan High Court Bar Association evidently do not.
Was the republic hijacked, or did the Constitution fail to visualise a true republic? Teltumbde notes that since the Constituent Assembly (1946–50) preceded the enactment of universal franchise, the resulting Constitution was bound to reflect the conservative leanings of the members. It should not surprise us that the bulk of this document is simply the Government of India Act of 1935 placed between new covers. The Constitution perpetuates the flawed system of representation Gandhi had wrested from Ambedkar, under the Poona Pact of 1932: joint electorates that reward docile SC/ST candidates and routinely sideline more outspoken figures. Significantly, Ambedkar would never win an election after the enactment of the Constitution he had helped prepare, and about which his feelings fluctuated violently in the remaining six years of his life. A system of representation without agency was in place. It would only ever neutralise those it purported to represent, keeping them in a state of vulnerability. This shows clearly today, whether we consider human development indices such as life expectancy and nourishment levels, or indices of persecution, such as atrocity, forced displacement and incarceration; the SC/ST communities lag in the former respect and lead in the latter, disproportionately in both cases. That’s our hemi-demi-semi citizenship realised.
Here, Teltumbde’s writing stands apart from conventional histories of the post-Independence period. Where a classic liberal account, say, Ramchandra Guha’s India after Gandhi (2007), is very much a story of leadership and institutions, of democracy deepening, expanding and adapting itself to the Indian setting, Teltumbde gives us a ground-level report that belies claims of steady democratisation. Why, he asks, does a new order of anti-dalit atrocity – the caste massacre – come into its own in the decades after Independence. How do we explain the authorship of this new violence, typically perpetrated by the former “shudra” communities now designated as OBC? The “atrocity triangle” he draws – the coincidence of a grudge, the guarantee of impunity, and a mainspring or immediate trigger – obtains with disheartening regularity all the way from Kilvenmani (1968) to Una (2016) and beyond. Why have the authorities not cottoned on to the typical profile of this violence, nor moved to pre-empt it? Is it by any chance part of the functioning of India’s democracy and electoral politics that such atrocities should occur?
The Constitution abolishes untouchability but not caste, its source, which travels under the tame guise of diversity – the “Indian thaali” trope of multiculturalism – implicitly celebrated in films, blatantly promoted by matrimonial columns, nosily probed in social interaction, and slyly endorsed by liberal thinkers. Even to call it out as such risks the accusation of playing “identity politics”. When the black feminist Combahee River Collective first coined the phrase in 1977, they did so upon the realisation that “the only people who care about us is us” (in the words of their Declaration). They were drawing attention to their exclusion from the Anglo-Saxon mainstream of feminism, and explaining their ghettoisation as a sad fact, not an objective pursued by them. In the same way, it is Indians who deny the centrality of caste who are parochial and exclusionary, not they who call attention to it. We notice a lynching now that it offends our secular nostrils, and never did so in all the years when dalits were the typical victims. This selective vision is how the “consensus” of the republic presumed the assent of those who had never participated in its formulation. As a result, caste got baked into the republic, the Constitution, state structure, and party politics, in insidious but demonstrable ways.
One of these ways, as we have seen, is how representation translates into the appropriation of voters, rather than their empowerment. The BSP is a case in point. There is little ideological coherence to the party. Rather, Teltumbde notes that its success owes to a mastery of caste arithmetic and a purely transactional approach to politics. Mayawati campaigned for Narendra Modi directly after the Gujarat pogrom. (It’s all part of the game that he repays her with Enforcement Directorate raids today.) In the opacity of its functioning, decision-making and finances, the BSP is hard to tell apart from any ruling-class party, and that’s the secret of its success. Its deployment of Ambedkar as an “inert godhead”, the object of idolatry, strips him of intellectual substance. The Ambedkar totem has been put to similar use by the hindutva brigade, who lavish money on his memorials and simply ignore his verdict on Hinduism. Their stratagem succeeded, and of a total of 131 reserved seats in the sixteenth Lok Sabha, the BJP won 66.
A farce re-enacted each year shows this ideological meltdown in stark terms. It involves a tussle, a game of political one-upmanship. Statues of Ambedkar “defiled” by the garlands of rival politicians are these days ritually “purified” with libations of water from the Ganga and with milk. Congress workers did this, not for the first time, at Aligarh in April 2018, when they hosed down a local Ambedkar effigy with milk after the BJP MP Satish Gautam had sat on a fast under it. In August the same year, a group of dalit lawyers went one better, using Gangajal after the BJP state secretary Sunil Bansal and Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha had garlanded a statue of Ambedkar in Meerut. With enemies like these, why would the BJP need friends? Statues and garlands, desecration and purification, milk and Gangajal – that’s the annihilation of Ambedkar right there.
What of those who resist being flattened? By far the stupidest and most heartbreaking feature of the Pune police’s Elgaar Parishad probe is that they could have asked Teltumbde to draft their chargesheet for them. In his essay “Manufacturing Maoists”, he looks at a series of trumped-up prosecutions of social workers, dalits and adivasis, all labelled Maoist. Many of their names are familiar to us: Binayak Sen, Soni Sori, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale; others are little known outside of Teltumbde’s writing: Ramesh Pandhariram Netam, Buddhu Kulle Timma, and Arati Majhi. What they have in common is years of wasted time behind bars, on charges of which they were later acquitted. Their wrongful imprisonment – punctuated by instances of torture and rape – should have meant that the police stood discredited for all time and couldn’t touch them again. Instead, Sudhir Dhawale, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, having served time – forty months, over four years, and six years, respectively – in wrongful confinement, are now back in custody. At the Yerawada jail they join human rights activist Rona Wilson, lawyer Surendra Gadling, Nagpur University professor Shoma Sen, adivasi rights activist Mahesh Raut, Telugu poet Varavara Rao, and trade union activist Sudha Bharadwaj. The Pune police’s 5160-page chargesheet against them is a whopper in more ways than one. “Spreading rebellious thoughts” and forming a nationwide “anti-fascist front” are among the accusations they face. But the palm surely goes to the charge of plotting to assassinate Modi.
Now that the police have proposed the idea, it may be instructive to look at Anand Teltumbde and Narendra Damodardas Modi side by side. Both are driven men who have come a long way from backgrounds of hardship and disprivilege. Modi cultivates public notice – on twitter and in photographs – carefully varying his activities and outfits, and sharing stories of his experiences. When he considers his mother, or the love and trust his party reposed in him, the sacrifices he’s made to serve us as prime minister, or the slights he has encountered over the years, he is apt to choke up in public. Teltumbde’s emotional biography is not on tap. An active professional and a private citizen, he is less devoted to his social profile than Modi, less attentive to outward appearance. And yet, much more is known and ascertainable about his past than Modi’s. With his multiple degrees, corporate career, professorships, work with slum dwellers and land-rights activists, his columns and books, Teltumbde’s time is visible in the public record. Less so Modi’s. From a boyhood in which crocodiles and tea were recurring motifs, to two lost years of wandering, a graduate degree at the age of twenty-eight (the degree in some dispute), all the way to his handling of India today, a shadowy and unresolved quality clings to him. Unlike Teltumbde, who places his facts, sources and reasons on the table, with Modi you get the rhetorical flourish, the bait and switch, smoke and mirrors all the way. The changing justifications of demonetisation are my favourite example. Last week, he was still discovering new virtues in that catastrophe. You may choose a different example since there’s no dearth of them. But since we’re speaking of a proclivity for violence let us remember that only one of these two men follows bigots and trolls on social media. Only one of them has a trail of corpses in his past. Only one has dismissed murdered citizens as roadkill. And it’s the other one who has till February 11 to secure anticipatory bail.
Ten people are in custody for something called the “Elgaar Parishad plot”, despite former Justices B.G. Kolse-Patil and P.B. Sawant’s repeated protestations that they were the main organisers of the Parishad and its sole funders. Meanwhile, Milind Ramakant Ekbote and Manohar “Sambhaji” Bhide, named in the FIR of January 2, 2018, and in subsequent ones, remain free. The Pune police are preoccupied with quite another FIR, one filed on January 8 by Tushar Damgude, a businessman and self-described “political neutral”, who in June uploaded a picture of himself with Bhide on Facebook. Bhide – “guruji” to Modi – has had as many as six cases against him withdrawn by the Maharashtra government. Cases that went all the way back to 2008, three of them involving riot, damage to public property and manhandling police personnel in the course of his crusade against the film Jodhaa Akbar.
January 26 happens to be Australia Day. Over there, the national commemoration has both official and unofficial components, triumphant parades as well as protests on behalf of indigenous Australians, the environment, immigrants detained offshore. People seem to get it that life and history are complex, one size won’t fit all. Back home, it was the usual fare, a day that belongs more to the state than the people. The largest arms importer in the world watched its weaponry and fighting forces go by, followed by regimented and choreographed bands of civilians. A ragged trail of vapour travelled with each marching formation. It floated just at head level in the morning air, in wisps that clung, unclenched and vanished. Like something important left half said. Imagine a counter-parade on Republic Day, made up of the ghosts of the lynched and the diasappeared, of riot victims and couples murdered for their inter-caste marriage, followed by marching contingents from states under AFSPA, and displaced adivasis, and undertrial prisoners, victims of police and caste atrocities, silenced and censored writers, painters, filmmakers. Seventy years into the life of the republic this parade might stretch longer than the official one.
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