Should only the Bahujans write on matters of discrimination?

Most certainly the Dalits must do and write what is good for them but they must keep their doors and windows open to their friends many of whom for not fault of theirs are not Dalits. Undoubtedly among these friends will also be some well meaning critics but in dealing with them the Dalits must adopt an attitude exemplified by one of the dohas of Kabir in which the humane saint-poet extolled the virtue of keeping our critics close to ourselves

The publication of Arundhati Roy’s long introduction to a new and annotated reprint of B.R. Ambedkar’s widely read and brilliant The Annihilation of Caste has once again raised the question of who can or cannot be an organic intellectual of the oppressed. Two opposite contemporary views have been expressed on this in the recent past and Roy herself has assembled a most tenable argument on this matter. According to one of the two opposite views, voiced in general by the Dalit-Bahujan critics of Roy, only the oppressed can, and therefore should, write on matters concerning them because the non-oppressed cannot experience or narrate the problems of the oppressed. Since the non Dalit- Bahujans do not, and cannot, feel the exploitation experienced by the truly oppressed they cannot adequately express or represent their feelings. Empathy is exiled from this perspective.

This view, a close inspection would reveal, amounts to a subjective view of politics and raises important questions pertinent to political representation. It may not necessarily be a historically valid or politically preferable view. Without doubt if tested against the whetstone of historical evidence, this subjectivity will be proved wrong. Given the stratified nature of the Indian caste system and the internal divisions within the dalit-bahujan bloc this subjective view of political representation might even prove counterproductive to the dalit-bahujan cause. Let us assume for a moment that only Dalits should write on matters concerning them. In such a case will a single Dalit discourse be sufficient to express the varied views and experiences emanating from the vast multitude of Dalit castes? The problem with caste subjectivity is simple: one caste can always claim that it cannot be represented by members of another caste because either it is above or below it in the caste hierarchy. The emergence of a small Dalit middle class or the proliferation of the NGOs dedicated to serve Dalit interests makes the issue more problematic. It may be said that the life experience of a Dalit more or less integrated into the system is different from the lives of the poor and truly deprived members of the scheduled castes and tribes. Does this automatically mean that educated dalits do not have the right to represent poor dalits and that if they do so this representation will necessarily translate into a betrayal of dalit interests in favor of the Dalit elite? The class difference among the Dalit-Bahujans may militate against the caste solidarities desired by their leaders in the name of caste. Moreover, what will the offspring produced by intercaste marriages write on? Will they have the privilege of writing on both castes or only one or none? Cinema portrayals complicate matters further. Should only Dalit actors play the role of Dalit characters in cinema? Neither is Shabana Azmi a dalit nor is Om Puri a tribal but have they not essayed the role of the oppressed to perfection in cinema? Balraj Sahni was not a Muslim but was he unconvincing as a Muslim in Garam Hawa? And what about art – will only Dalit painters and sculptors be allowed to take up the themes of caste oppression? This debate will go on because the attractions and rewards of intellectual reductionism are not to be underestimated but in the middle of all this let it not be forgotten that Ambedkar wanted the annihilation of caste and not the conversion of caste into a literary or political ghetto.

The other view, with which the Enlightenment influenced rational, progressive and scientific Ambedkar would have concurred in all likelihood, does not define or restrict an individual’s ability to represent a social interest by his or her class, racial, gender or caste background. This view emphasizes the intention and work of the intellectual over and above his social background and is illustrated below with reference to certain historical examples.

In the matter of representations of class interest Ambedkar appears closer to the Marxist position according to which the difference between the traditional and organic intellectual, to deploy concepts developed by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, lies more in the intention than the social background of an intellectual. In both Marxism and the Dalit-Bahujan tradition the role of the educated enlightened intellectual as a representative of the oppressed is highlighted. It is true that a person cannot change his social background but it is also true that he cannot be held responsible for his birth. But he can use his education to promote political reaction, reform or revolution. In India a person’s caste never changes but does this mean that he remains true only to his caste? There is reason to believe that he may or may not always betray his class, caste or gender by speaking up for the other. While a handful of opportunist Muslims and Dalits can be found in communal parties like the BJP a large number of non Muslims and non Dalits speak on their behalf in several social forums. A Dalit in the BJP, for instance, might speak for his community in Manuwadi undertones and yet enjoy the privilege for doing so simply because he is a Dalit individual ! Historians know that a worker can as easily be a fascist, casteist, chauvinist, racist or patriarchal as a petty bourgeois can be an anarchist, socialist or communist. Dictators and fascists may, and often do, come from humble backgrounds whereas famous communists and socialists have often emerged from the middle class. This makes the issue of political representation more interesting.

If only the workers had the moral sanction or social permission to write on the working class we would have learnt nothing from what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote simply because these two were not proletarians by upbringing and social status. Neither would have the Bolsheviks been petty bourgeois in such large numbers. Most of them like Lenin and Trotsky came from affluent families and would have easily become ministers in any European government of the time. Instead they chose the path of proletarian revolution. The question is whether Marx, Engels and Lenin were the organic intellectuals of the proletariat without socially belonging to it? On the other hand the Austro-German corporal called Adolf Hitler

emerged from virtual penury to lead the biggest reactionary mass movement against the German working class called National Socialism. Stalin, the Georgian who masterminded a bureaucratic counter-revolution against his erstwhile Bolshevik colleagues in the 1930s, rose from humble origins to become a virtual Tsar of the USSR. Indeed the problem of social and political representation is complicated– a charismatic messiah can easily betray his followers. In sum it can safely be assumed that to serve a class, caste or tribe a person should not ethnically or socially belong to it. The experience of tribal politics in India, including the recent political history of states like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, lends more weight to this argument. The late Mahendra Karma, founder of the Salwa Judum, was an adivasi but whether he served the interests of the adivasis is a debatable point?

B. R. Ambedkar was the finest intellectual produced in modern India. His grasp of economics, sociology, history, law and anthropology was astounding to say the least. Right from the beginning of his academic career he was influenced by Buddhism. Upon moving on to higher education his intellect was impressed by Western philosophy. One of his close and lifelong friends was a westernized Parsi gentleman with whom he lodged in the United States. The impact of European Enlightenment thought on Ambedkar’s intellectual
evolution into a modernist thinker and leader is too well known to be recounted here. His writings make it clear that unlike the traditionalists he upheld the Enlightenment values of science, reason, equality, liberty, fraternity and constitutionalism. When he had to choose a faith, for faith was important to Ambedkar, he chose Buddhism – a rational heterodox order of universal humanism relevant to all humans developed by an enlightened kshatriya prince. Had Ambedkar subscribed to the view that only a dalit can write on or represent the dalits he would not have reposed faith in the Buddha. He would also not have held steadfast to the universal values propounded by the Enlightenment thinkers almost all of whom came from elite backgrounds; his greatness is to be seen in his ability to give a practical shape to these values unlike many leaders who pay lip service to the slogans of the French Revolution. I am an Indian historian both inclined to Marxism and committed to the scientific values, logic and rigor contained in Ambedkar’s works. I am not an Ambedkar ‘expert’ but I do not remember his ever having said that only the dalit-bahujans should write
on topics related to their condition of oppression. Ambedkar always chose his words carefully because he was aware of his mission in life and therefore in his work an extraordinary commitment to an objective view of the truth and reason is clearly visible. He arrived at conclusions after subjecting the evidence available to him to the most severe test of reason and generalization. All his work is permeated by the scientific method – the hallmark of modern philosophy and political praxis. One of the internet copies of his well reasoned reply to Gandhi’s review of the Annihilation of Caste begins with two illuminating quotations. The first comprises the famous lines by Drummond: “He that will not reason is a bigot. He that cannot reason is a fool. He that dare not reason is a slave.” The second is a quote from the Buddha: “Know truth as truth and untruth as untruth.” Ambedkar’s followers who posted this on the net have neatly summed up his method and objective by resorting to these well known sentences. Gautam Buddha, the Enlightened One, preached reason, a casteless society, advocated the middle path and created a Sangha sans inequality in the 6th century BCE. The Buddha was not a dalit. He descended from a palace and renounced a kingdom to seek the cause of human suffering and his path has been accepted by millions of dalits in India. Hence he, like his great follower Ambedkar, belongs to them as much as to all those who strive for a humane, egalitarian, just, educated and scientific society irrespective of their caste backgrounds.

Mostcertainly the Dalits must do and write what is good for them but they must keep their doors and windows open to their friends many of whom for not fault of theirs are not Dalits. Undoubtedly among these friends will also be some well meaning critics but in dealing with them the Dalits must adopt an attitude exemplified by one of the dohas of Kabir in which the humane saint-poet extolled the virtue of keeping our critics close to ourselves.


Based in New Delhi, India, ForwardPress.in and Forward Press Books shed light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, literature, culture and politics. Next on the publication schedule is a book on Dr Ambedkar’s multifaceted personality. To book a copy in advance, contact The Marginalised Prakashan, IGNOU Road, Delhi. Mobile: +919968527911.

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