By Shanta Gokhale
17 September, 2004
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
Notes, Navayana, p.31, Rs. 40.
Publishing and Reading Dalit Literature, edited by S. Anand, Navayana,
p.45, Rs. 45.
Cricket: Lagaan's Millennial Purana and Other Myths, S. Anand, p.60,
and Religious Fundamentalism: A Scientific Rebuttal to Hindu Science,
Meera Nanda, p.81, Rs. 55.