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Provoking Debates

By Shanta Gokhale

17 September, 2004
The Hindu

Three of the first four titles released by Navayana , the new publishing house launched to open up for public debate issues of caste and identity politics ignored by mainstream publishers, are about dalithood, its manifestation, expression and representation in public life and literature. The fourth title too addresses the same issue, but locates it in the larger context of Dr B.R. Ambedkar's "socially and morally concerned, rationalistic, anti-metaphysical interpretation of Buddhism" and the irrational positing of "Hindu science" as a system of knowledge parallel and equal in validity to modern science.

Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes sets out to fill in a very small way, the enormous lacuna that exists in our knowledge of Dr. Ambedkar the individual. Neither Dhananjay Keer's autobiography, Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission nor either of the two films made on him, throw much light on his personal relationships, temperament, likes, dislikes and idiosyncrasies.

This collection of six reminiscences, apparently written during the 1930s, does very little to fill that lacuna. They were not meant to be autobiographical in that sense. Their aim, as revealed in Dr. Ambedkar's brief preface, was to show foreigners what it meant to be an "untouchable" in India. All six accounts illustrate how a brutally hostile world did its best to push down any dalit who dared rise from the filth and humiliation of his given station in life. He is denied shelter ("Scoundrel! You have polluted the Parsi inn"), water ("I was a boy of nine when it happened" and "The Dheds have polluted the tank"), transport ("A tonga ride and dignity"), the right to medical aid in the face of death ("Be inhuman than touch an untouchable") and the right to an official title ("Bhangi! You want us to address you talathi?")

Touchable Tales: Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature debates questions arising from the recent spurt in mainstream publishing of dalit literature with a selected group of publishers, translators, academics and writers. Taking off from Ravikumar's incisive introductory essay, the debate is centred around two questions — whether publishing/ teaching/ studying/ reading dalit literature is a fashionable trend or motivated by a desire to be politically correct; and whether reading it leads to affirmative action.

The first question fetches illuminating answers which largely refute the fashion/ political correctness idea. The second, belonging as it does to the rather foggy area of human behaviour in which none of the 10 respondents can be said to have any expertise, produces at best intelligent conjectures. The question whether non-dalits can claim to write dalit literature put to Arundhati Roy is pointless given that S. Anand has defined dalit literature in his introduction as "literature produced by dalits in a conscious, defined, modern sense with an awareness of what it is to be dalit."

Indeed, even dalits are not always writing dalit literature if it is examined in the context of the second half of Anand's definition. Anand Teltumbde says, "Unlike dalit poetry which represented an emotional outburst against social oppression and implicitly contained a battle-cry against it, the autobiography was too individualistic to socialise the pain of living."

Brahmans and Cricket: Lagaan's Millennial Purana and Other Myths, is the most polemical of the Navayana titles. S Anand's critique of "Lagaan" from a dalit perspective featured as the cover story in the March 2002 issue of the Kathmandu-based magazine Himal and is reproduced here along with the responses that followed its publication. Anand was disturbed both by the way "Lagaan" had dealt with Kachra, the dalit character and by the film's appeal "across the political spectrum". Subsequent research into the caste composition of Indian cricket teams "over the decades", revealed their domination by brahmins. Cricket and Bollywood then illuminate each other in Anand's sharp analysis of how the film portrays Kachra.

Kachra is the only character without a family background. He has a disabled left hand. That this hand gives the ball a deadly spin is an accidental discovery. Kachra is included in the team on account of his handicap, not any skill he might have. Finally, he "is never asked whether he would like to be included in such a game". He must simply submit to "caste-Hindu Bhuvan's words".

In the only substantial response to Anand's article, Sudhanva Deshpande argues that the film must be seen in the context of the history of "this form of high-budget mass entertainment" before being judged as progressive or regressive rather than be looked at from the perspective of a "purely abstract radicalism".

Anand's response to Deshpande begins with an admission of "deep discomfort with debating with someone who announces his brahmin identity in his very name Deshpande". This, along with his contention that "what is wrong with `Lagaan' is what is wrong with the left-liberals" makes any meaningful dialogue with Deshpande's position impossible. However, the six essays in the book clearly mark the ground for future debates on the issues raised by Anand.

Postmodernism and Religious Fundamentalism: A Scientific Rebuttal to Hindu Science comprises Meera Nanda's critique of "science studies", a discipline instituted in American universities in the 1970s, a review of her book Breaking the Spell of Dharma by S. Anand and an interview with Nanda by Ravikumar and S. Anand. In contrast to the deep discomfort Anand felt in talking to the brahmin, Deshpande, he met Nanda "with the enthusiasm reserved for a fellow ambedkarite".

Nanda argues convincingly that the postmodern position has in part served the purpose of Hindu fundamentalists who argue that "Hindu science" is equal to and subsumes modern science. Science studies support this claim by contending that modern science is as much a social construction as local/ traditional systems of knowledge, ignoring the evolved methodology and practice of modern science that encourages self-correction, disallowed in systems of knowledge which concern themselves with metaphysics rather than empirical observation.

Nanda marshals and examines a wide range of positions from the neo-Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda who preached "that modern science was a mere `echo of the same truths' known to the Hindus since the beginning of time" to the post-colonialism of scholars like Ashis Nandy, Gayatri Spivak and Partha Chatterjee who "see western sciences as serving colonial interests in defining the non-West as inferior, irrational and unscientific" to conclude unfashionably, that "science does not need `decolonisation'" and that "defence of secular thought everywhere demands a defence of the rationality of science."

S. Anand’s review of Nanda's Breaking the Spell of Dharma takes happy note of the fact that her battle against Hindu dharma and hindutva is grounded in Dr. Ambedkar's ideas "and the alternatives posited by the dalit movement". But in the final analysis he expresses disappointment that she seems to want to secularise Hinduism rather than call for a movement towards practising radical Buddhism as a political position at least if not as a religion.

The interview treads the same ground as covered by Nanda's essay and Anand's review, with much time and space devoted to the question of whether Ambedkar was truly as influenced by John Dewey, his professor at Columbia as Nanda claims.

The four books together inform, provoke, disturb and stimulate, creating a long-needed space for modernity and rationality in a world dominated by postmodernist, post-colonialist, relativist discourse.

Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes, Navayana, p.31, Rs. 40.

Touchable Tales: Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature, edited by S. Anand, Navayana, p.45, Rs. 45.

Brahmans and Cricket: Lagaan's Millennial Purana and Other Myths, S. Anand, p.60, Rs. 60.

Postmodernism and Religious Fundamentalism: A Scientific Rebuttal to Hindu Science, Meera Nanda, p.81, Rs. 55.






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