Ambedkar’s journalism was an integral part of his call to ‘educate, agitate, organize’

Ambedkar’s call to ‘educate, agitate, organize’ applied to himself, too. He followed up his 40-odd acerbic writings in ‘Mooknayak’ about the injustice in Indian society and the Freedom Movement, with the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha to mobilize the awakened masses. His journalism stands in sharp contrast to the media today that is subservient to the State, writes Goldy M. George 

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the launch of ‘Mooknayak’, we remember the journalist Ambedkar that founded it. His journalism began in 1920 and continued till 1956. The first issue of ‘Mooknayak’ came out on 31 January 1920, while his last newspaper ‘Prabuddha Bharat’ was launched on 4 February 1956.

We will be publishing a series of articles in the run-up to the centenary of the day when Ambedkar’s journalistic journey began. The focus of these articles will be Ambedkar the journalist and the standards, values and ideology of his journalism.

If anyone not of our own

happens to read this manuscript:

Heads will roll

hearts will beat to death

brains will curdle.

All that one has learned

will be lost.

Now,

I have placed curses

on my own words.

– N. T. Rajkumar

Translations from the Tamil Panirendhu Kavithaigal

 

In 1995, Clint C. Wilson II and Felix Gutierrez wrote a book titled Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media which narrates the history of discrimination, disparity and exploitation in the American media with a specific reference to the African American and Latin American peoples. India has been undergoing a different form of discrimination for centuries and in modern era it has permeated deep into the media. The underrepresentation of Dalits, Adivasis and Backward Classes in the Indian media is not just accidental or due to lack of trained personnel among them, but a result of the casteist attitude of media houses. It is the casteism that has been passed down to the present India through generations.

No wonder today the upper-caste media houses are capitulating to the extremist brahmanical ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the State hurtles towards a new construct of India – “The Hindu India”. A representative media would check this downward slide by exposing their hegemonic schemes.

The situation was not very different when B.R. Ambedkar entered public life. As the country appeared to be changing hands from the British to the minority upper castes, the rest of the country wasn’t being heard.

Need for an exclusive media of the Untouchables

The lifelong struggle of Ambedkar for justice is to be understood in relation to his struggle for equality and liberation. He was convinced that no form of discrimination could be justified, be it social, religious, cultural, economic or political. Hence, one after another he decoded all forms of discrimination and the resulting inequality. On 9 May 1916, in his first paper “Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development,” Ambedkar (1979: 3-22) analyzed the institution of caste starting at its roots. He critically delved into how Manu had legitimized and philosophized an inhuman code:

A young Ambedkar

“Every country has its law-giver, who arises as an incarnation (avatar) in times of emergency to set right a sinning humanity and give it the laws of justice and morality. Manu, the law-giver of India, if he did exist, was certainly an audacious person. If the story that he gave the law of caste be credited, then Manu must have been a dare-devil fellow and the humanity that accepted his dispensation must be a humanity quite different from the one we are acquainted with. It is unimaginable that the law of caste was given. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Manu could not have outlived his law, for what is that class that can submit to be degraded to the status of brutes by the pen of a man, and suffer him to raise another class to the pinnacle? Unless he was a tyrant who held all the population in subjection it cannot be imagined that he could have been allowed to dispense his patronage in this grossly unjust manner, as may be easily seen by a mere glance at his ‘institutes’. I may seem hard on Manu, but I am sure my force is not strong enough to kill his ghost. He lives like a disembodied spirit and is appealed to, and I am afraid will yet live long. 

“One thing I want to impress upon you is that Manu did not give the law of Caste and that he could not do so. Caste existed long before Manu. He was an upholder of it and therefore philosophized about it, but certainly he did not and could not ordain the present order of Hindu Society. His work ended with the codification of existing caste rules and the preaching of Caste Dharma. The spread and growth of the Caste system is too gigantic a task to be achieved by the power or cunning of an individual or of a class. Similar in argument is the theory that the Brahmins created the Caste. After what I have said regarding Manu, I need hardly say anything more, except to point out that it is incorrect in thought and malicious in intent.”

Babasaheb was convinced that if the Untouchables were to be awakened and empowered, they needed to have publications of their own. It was with this objective in mind that he began publishing Marathi fortnightly Mooknayak (Leader of the Voiceless) on 31 January 1920. Although Ambedkar was not the official editor of Mooknayak, he was the man behind it and it was his mouthpiece. 

During that period the newspapers were actively involved in promoting the idea of the Indian nation and mobilizing the masses to participate in the Freedom Movement. Many prominent nationalist newspapers, including Bombay Chronicle and Kesari, regularly published advertisements on brahmanical religious literature, events and activities, which clearly upheld Brahmanism and patriarchy. Kesari refused to publish an advertisement of Mooknayak even though it was going to be paid for (Keer, 1954). On his part, Ambedkar said he would rather have no advertisements than publish “socially immoral and vulgar advertisements”.

The Untouchables thus were untouchable to the extent that brahmanical newspapers would not publish their advertisements. Ambedkar endeavoured to deconstruct and reconstruct Indian society and bring about fundamental changes. Though there existed many other media houses, the social reformers did nothing beyond paying lip service to the issues of caste and untouchability. At the most, they criticized untouchability. Ambedkar, himself a product of unequal social order, used any available media space to vehemently criticize the social reformers of his time, the construct of caste and the non-ethical Hindu religion, and to share his vision of a new Indian society.

Also read: Through ‘Mooknayak’, Ambedkar questioned Gandhi’s Swaraj

Explaining the logic behind its publication, Ambedkar wrote in the editorial of Mooknayak’s inaugural issue,

“ If we throw even a cursory glance over the newspapers that are published in the Bombay Presidency, we will find that many among these papers are only concerned about protecting the interest some [upper] castes. And these can’t care less for the interest of other castes. This is not all. Sometimes, they go against the interest of other castes.” (Round Table India, 2015).

On 11 February 1933, Mahatma Gandhi started his newspaper named “Harijan” to propagate the cause of Untouchables. Ambedkar on this occasion immediately reacted, “I cannot give a message.” He went on to say: “The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcastes except the destruction of caste system. Nothing can help Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of Hindus faith of this odious and vicious dogma” (Ambedkar, 2003: 230).

The phase leading to Mooknayak

The anti-caste phase that preceded Ambedkar is also crucial and needs to be understood. The Dalitbahujan movement and writings acquired solidity in the mid 19th century, when Jotirao Phule established his Satyashodhak Samaj. Jotirao and his wife Savitribai became the first Indians to start a school for the Untouchables. Jotirao’s Din Bandhu was the first anti-caste Marathi periodical and perhaps the very first Bahujan periodical. And Jotirao was the first person to launch an intellectual attack on the Brahmanical religion. 

Jotirao Phule

In 1888, inspired by Phule’s periodical, Gopal Baba Walangkar – a retired Mahar soldier – launched the newspaper Vital Vidhvasak (meaning destroyer of brahmanical or ceremonial pollution) (Zelliot, 2004: 42-44) in Marathi language and became first Untouchable to do. (This wasn’t the first Untouchable-run newspaper or magazine though. In Tamil Nadu, the first magazine against caste system and upliftment of the Untouchables was Sooryodayam started in 1869, followed by Panchaman in 1871.) Walangkar strove to remove the stain of untouchability and tried to convince caste Hindus of their inhuman behaviour (Keer, 1954: 4). 

The 1910s were the formative years of Babasaheb, when he engaged in an in-depth articulation of caste as a systemic process of slavery. By the 1920s, his thoughts were more focused on the awakening of the masses and the scope of organizing the Untouchables. The 1920s marked a radical transformation of the Untouchables’ movement. There was a new awakening not only in Maharashtra but also in the entire country, particularly against the violence of caste and untouchability. 

The 1920s witnessed two significant moves by Babasaheb. First, he established the fortnightly Marathi newspaper Mooknayak and second, he formed the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha (BHS). Mooknayak had the financial support of Shahuji Maharaj of Kolhapur. In Mooknayak, he argued that a nationalist consciousness couldn’t be developed by arrogantly ignoring social divisions. In the first issue he called India a “home of inequality”. In the editorial of the inaugural issue of Mooknayak (Round Table India, 2015) he noted:

“… inequality among the Hindus is as incomparable as it is hateful. Mutual dealings among the Hindus based on their inequality do not suit the character of Hinduism. It is clear that the castes that exist in Hinduism are inspired by the feelings of high and low. Hindu society is just like a tower, which has several stories without a ladder or entrance. The man who is born in the lower storey cannot enter the upper storey however worthy he may be and the man who is born in the upper storey cannot be driven out into the lower storey however unworthy he may be.”

Ratnamala (2012) says that the kind of response Ambedkar received from colonial and post-colonial national media reminds one of the coverage that the renowned spokesman for the African American people, Booker T. Washington, got in the White press. In many of his writings, Ambedkar cited the antagonistic attitude of Indian newspapers to the problems of the oppressed people. He also critically observed that the oppressed people were gravely underrepresented in the Indian newspapers, thereby silencing his and his people’s views. His criticism could be understood from these words:

“It was depressing that we don’t have enough resources with us. We don’t have money; don’t have newspapers; Through out India, each day our people are suffering under authoritarian with no consideration and discrimination; those are not covered in the newspapers. By a planned conspiracy the newspapers are involved full-fledged in silencing our views on socio political problems.” 

Ambedkar added: “The Untouchables have no Press. The Congress Press is closed to them and is determined not to give them the slightest publicity. They cannot have their own Press and for obvious reasons. No paper can survive without advertisement revenue. Advertisement revenue can come only from business and in India all business, both high and small, is attached to the Congress and will not favour any non-Cong­ress organisation. The staff of the Asso­ci­a­ted Press in India, which is the main news distributing agency in India, is entirely drawn from the Madras Brahmins—indeed the whole of the Press in India is in their hands—and they, for well-known reasons, are entirely pro-Congress and will not allow any news hostile to the Congress to get publicity. These are reasons beyond the control of the Untouchables.” 

This is the backdrop against which Mooknayak came into being. In the issue dated 14 August 1920 of Mooknayak, he wrote:

“Dogs and cats eat the leftovers of the Untouchables; they also eat the faeces of children. When these dogs and cats enter the homes of the touchables, these animals do not pollute them. They touch these animals, they hug them. Even if these animals put their mouth into their plates, the touchables have no objection. But if an Untouchable comes to their home for some work and stands outside, the house owner shouts at him, “Keep away, the ‘khapda’ (earthen tile) for dumping the excrement of the child is kept there. Now, you will touch that, too?” (Chaube, 2017).

These heart-rending lines hold a mirror up to Indian society even now. While Mooknayak expounded the difficult task of documenting the agonies of the Untouchables, the formation of BHS on 20 July 1924 was central to organizing and mobilizing the masses. This was the beginning of a new socio-economic and political movement to establish equality for the oppressed classes. Through the BHS, Ambedkar for the first time gave the clarion call to “educate, agitate and organize”.

Ambedkar’s writings over the decades speak of a transformation in his thought process that led him from being a seeker of relief within the Hindu fold to that of liberation from the Hindu religion. He was clear that the religion stands upon the unjust foundation of varnashrama dharma. He realized that the institution of chaturvarna could not be seen in isolation from the overall philosophy and theory of Hinduism. Ambedkar developed the belief that the purpose of human existence should be the cultivation of the mind. No person should attempt to prevent another person exercising this right. 

Ambedkar’s journalistic legacy

Ambedkar wrote some 40 articles for Mooknayak, including a dozen editorials in its initial issues. Pandurang Bhatkar was its first official editor. Mooknayak ceased publication in April 1923 due to financial crisis and a dispute between Ambedkar and Gyandeo Gholap, who had taken over from Bhatkar as the editor. Four years later, on 3 April 1927, Ambedkar launched his second Marathi fortnightly, Bahishkrit Bharat, which remained in publication till 1929. In 1928, Ambedkar brought out another fortnightly called Samta. Its name was changed to Janata later and again in 1954, it was rechristened Prabuddha Bharat. By then, it had become a weekly. All of this meant Ambedkar spent 36 years in journalism with gaps in between.

The names that Ambedkar chose for his newspapers – Samta (Equality), Janata (People), Prabuddha Bharat (Enlightened India) – clearly indicated his politics and objective. His writings in these journals challenged the basic premise of upper-caste journalism in four different ways: 

  1. They pointed out the brahmanical hegemony in journalism, writing and literature.
  2. They gave a clear message that newspapers could be professionally owned, edited and published by those whom the caste Hindus had kept away from the media.
  3. They spread a new awakening and conscientization among the Untouchables leading to a higher degree of mobilization, resistance and assertion. 
  4.  A balance and coordination emerged between battles on the ground and intellectual battles.

The wheels of socio-political change were thus set in motion by the journalistic endeavour under Ambedkar’s leadership. Mooknayak and Bahishkrit Bharat, oriented towards mass activism, played a crucial role in setting the tone for new politics. His arguments were not only impactful in mobilizing the Untouchables, but they also greatly helped in establishing his leadership (Pol, 2018). His editorials and other articles were comprehensive and consistent in their attack on the brahmanical social order. His timely intervention challenged everything that preserved the status quo, be it caste, class or religion. His insightful writings not only challenged Marathi journalism but also fundamentally redrew the contours of journalism across the country. The vividness, scholarly approach and appropriate language of his journalism constituted the central thesis of his intervention. Even his strongest critics and opponents could not help appreciating him. 

An upper-caste perspective still prevails in the Indian media. Yes, it covers Dalit movements and atrocities committed against them, but it leaves the root causes of social contradictions untouched. Ambedkar’s legacy as a journalist and his view from below need to gain centre stage. His journalism not only illustrated his radical politics, but it also represented his firm belief in professional integrity. India today needs the ‘leader of the voiceless’ back in journalism to tell the true story of its society. 

Copy-editing: Anil

References

Ambedkar, B. R. (1979). ‘Caste in India’. In Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra.

Ambedkar, B. R. (2003). ‘Nothing Can Emancipate the Outcastes except the Destruction of Caste System’. In Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol. 17. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra.

Chaube, K.S. (2017). ‘Ambedkar’s Journalism and its Significance Today’. Forward Press. 5 July. Retrieved on 10 January 2020 from https://www.forwardpress.in/2017/07/ambedkars-journalism-and-its-significance-today/

Keer, D. (1954). Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

Pol, P.A. (2018). ‘The Journalistic Legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, The Editor’. The Wire. Retrieved on 10 January 2020 from https://thewire.in/caste/the-journalistic-legacy-of-b-r-ambedkar-the-editor 

Ratnamala, V. (2012). ‘Ambedkar and Media’. Round Table India. 14 April. Retrieved on 20 January 2020 from http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4992:ambedkar-and-media&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 

Round Table India [RTI] (2015). ‘From the Pages of Mooknayak’. 14 April. Retrieved on 10 January 2020 from https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8158:from-the-pages-of-mook-nayak&catid=116&Itemid=128 

Zelliot, E. (2004). Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Untouchable Movement. New Delhi: Blumoon Books.

 

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