“I agreed to come to this programme because I think here we are on to the important idea of Bahujan Literature,” said Booker prizewinning writer Arundhati Roy after releasing the Bahujan Literary Annual of the FORWARD Press magazine. Bahujan literature is, she said, “a literature of people who look at the idea of oppression from a complex point of view”.
She was speaking at a function held at the Constitution Club, New Delhi, on April 29 to celebrate the sixth anniversary of FORWARD Press magazine. That “complex point of view” was evident as Roy and other eminent panelists – writers (English and Hindi), a lawyer, a filmmaker, politicians, social activists and other intellectuals – shared their thoughts on “The Future of Bahujan Culture and Politics”.
The 300-odd intent listeners were treated to the variegated observations of MPs Ramdas Athawale, Ali Anwar and Anupriya Patel; thinker and author Braj Ranjan Mani; litterateur and social activist Ramnika Gupta; writers Sheoraj Singh Bechain and Jaiprakash Kardam; Advocate Arvind Jain; and culture critic Sujata Parmita.
“A caste-ridden society is a society worse than a society of slavery, worse than apartheid,” Roy said. “A society that claims this hierarchy of injustice is institutionalized in its scriptures – how do you possibly fight that? And an institution that is so many centuries old where you are asking people to – or people think you are asking them to – deny everything they are, in order not to be unjust, because the composition of every individual human being is one of unjustness … So how are we to fight this with anger while at the same time always holding in our hearts the idea of justice – not just the anger against injustice but the idea of justice, the idea of love, the idea of beauty, of music, of literature? How do we not become bitter, small people? Because that is what they want us to become.”
Indeed, FORWARD Press’ fourth Bahujan Literary Annual was the response of “the inconvenient, challenging magazine” (as Braj Ranjan Mani later put it) to a vindictive attempt by rightwing elements with official backing to shut it down in October last year.
Sheoraj Singh Bechain, too, paid tribute to the “sacrifices” that brought the magazine so far and the “example” it has set. The writer recalled a conversation with Kanshi Ram as they travelled from Indore to Delhi, days before the BSP leader was to announce his protégé, Mayawati, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. “A newspaper is far more important than your chief minister”, Bechain had told Kanshi Ram. Kanshiram had then said that along with political power, cultural power is also necessary. Bechain said an intellectual revolution is needed for a political revolution and that the “rule of a newspaper” lasts longer than political rule. He cited Ambedkar’s struggles with running the weekly Mooknayak to stress that Bahujans should rely on their own strength to bring about a social, cultural and intellectual awakening.
For the audience, it was an enlightening couple of hours. On the one hand, the political leaders in the panel epitomized where Bahujan politics has arrived today, while the writers constantly returned to the radicalism of Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar to point a way to the future.
Ramdas Athawale, whose Republican Party of India is part of the ruling Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance, proposed reservations for the economically backward among the upper castes. His concept of Bahujans also included “farmers”, whose fate hangs in the balance as the government seeks to push the amended Land Acquisition Bill through the Parliament.
Ali Anwar, the head of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, was clearly not impressed with Athawale’s proposal. In his words, “prosperity and poverty can change overnight but you are born with a caste and it doesn’t leave you even after you are dead”. He said much thought has gone into making social and educational backwardness the criteria for reservations. Ali Anwar said the Pasmandas are Bahujan first and then Muslims, and that they are not a minority community.
Following the release of the second extensively revised edition of his 2005 groundbreaking book, Debrahmanising History, the author Braj Ranjan Mani, in his keynote address, said “the so-called Bahujan leaders [including his co-panelists] never attack the fundamentals of the hierarchical order”. He prescribed an “emancipatory unity” among Bahujans and a “social democracy”, moving away from the “cultural tokenism, reservation and dirty power games” of today’s political leaders.
Mani said, “During the last 200 years or so, from the days of Ram Mohan Roy onwards, the modernized Brahmanical system has been created and accomplished in English, not in Hindi, not in any other Indian language. This is very important. Actually, there is a need to not confine ourselves to some Hindi-ism, Marathi-ism or any ism, because this is a trap. We should go after the masterminds, not the minions. We should attack the fundamentals of oppressive constructs. We should go after the greatest of Brahmanic intellectuals, not their poor imitators, which all of us tend to do, and there are so many of them. How many of them will we tackle? Even if we do that, they will remain unconquered because we did not deal with the masterminds of hierarchy and oppression, as Arundhati Roy has done in her majestic novel The God of Small Things. That’s the majesty, that’s the power of her work. We don’t understand these things. It could not have been accomplished in a social science tract. She has captured it in an imaginative way. Hats off to her!”
Both Braj Ranjan Mani and Anupriya Patel invoked emancipative education, what Phule called the “third eye”. Anupriya Patel, Lok Sabha MP and the Apna Dal leader, said the Bahujans needed to be educated so that their political leaders are held to account and stop making compromises. She added that it was the Bahujans’ aspirations that gave Narendra Modi and his BJP a convincing majority in last year’s Lok Sabha elections. She attributed the victory to Modi’s creating a perception that he belonged to the Extremely Backward Caste. However, this is only a small step towards the “emancipatory unity” that Mani suggested, because, as Anupriya Patel observed, “the representation is only symbolic, it is not the real change that should be happening at the grassroots level”.
Unlike Anupriya Patel, Ramnika Gupta wasn’t expecting a change: “Modi is not a true Backward, his is a Baniya caste,” she said. “In Bihar, his caste falls among the Backwards, but in Gujarat and Rajasthan, it doesn’t. A few years ago, he got his caste listed among the Backwards so that he could make this claim.”
Supreme Court advocate Arvind Jain pointed out the irony that it is mandatory to remain a Hindu to get the benefit of reservations. He said this was a part of the desire to dominate. He recounted his first-hand experience of the courts devoid of any empathy for Bahujans or women. He cited laughable verdicts of the Supreme Court relating to the SC/ST Atrocities Act and examples of how women are still being kept out of key positions in the judiciary.
Film critic Sujata Parmita took the audience on a journey back in time to the creation of culture. Bahujans are the creators of culture, she said, but Savarnas have found in religion a convenient way “to entrap and enslave people and seize their culture and rule for a long time”. She proposed government policies to restore to the Bahujan and Dalit artists and craftsmen the recognition and respect they deserve, instead of continuing to treat them as lowly workers.
On the whole, there were a lot of “ideas that excite a society into changing” – which, as Arundhati Roy said, should be the essence of (Bahujan) literature.
Among those listening intently were media critic Anil Chamadia; novelist Sanjeev; poets Madan Kashyap, Vimal Kumar, Ashok Kumar Pandey and Sujata Tevatia; human rights activist Vidya Bhushan Rawat; authors Rajni Tilak, Prempal Sharma and Tekchand; writer and activist Kaushal Panwar; Dalit Dastak editor Ashok Das; sociologist Anil Kumar; and many other eminent personalities.
On the occasion, the second Mahatma Jotiba and Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Balijan Ratna Award was presented to Braj Ranjan Mani, A.R. Akela (poet, folk singer, author and publisher) and Dr Hiralal Alawa (senior resident doctor at AIIMS and founder of Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti). The programme host was Sanjeev Chandan, editor of Streekaal.
Published in the June 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine