BR Ambedkar, Arundhati Roy, and the politics of appropriation
AoC has been a well spring of spiritual succour and moral support for Dalits whose lives have been questioned on a routine basis
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In 1936, the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal (Forum for the Break-up of Caste), a Lahore-based Hindu reformist group, invited B.R. Ambedkar to deliver its annual lecture. They wanted a copy of his speech in advance, and when Ambedkar shared it with them, the progressive-minded, reformist, anti-caste Hindus found the contents “unbearable”. They withdrew their invitation. Ambedkar never got to deliver his speech. He ended up self-publishing it — at his own expense — under the title ‘Annihilation of Caste’.
Three-quarters of a century after its publication, Annihilation of Caste (AoC) still remains largely unread by its target audience — caste Hindus, or the people Ambedkar called ‘the Touchables’ (the terms ‘Touchables’, ‘privileged castes’, ’caste Hindus’, ’savarnas’, and ’non-Dalits’ are used interchangeably in this essay).
All these years, AoC has been kept in circulation, in multiple translations, largely by small Dalit presses and Dalit readers. It has served, and continues to serve, as an inexhaustible resource for Dalit political mobilization. It has been a well spring of spiritual succour and moral support for Dalits who have had the misfortune of being born, growing up, and having to make their lives in a society that assaults their dignity and questions their self-worth on a routine basis.
Now this revolutionary classic is all set to gain a wider, savarna readership — the audience whom Ambedkar could not address. The Delhi-based anti-caste publishing house, Navayana, has just published an annotated critical edition of AoC, with an introduction by Arundhati Roy.
On the face of it, this special publication, with an introduction by a writer of the stature and international fame of Roy, and detailed annotations by the Navayana publisher S. Anand, ought to be a good thing, and worth celebrating. Given the recent resurgence of the Hindu Right in the Indian political landscape, one could even consider it timely.
But this edition of AoC, though widely welcomed in non-Dalit circles in India and abroad, has evoked fierce objections from Dalits, with many even calling it an insult to the Dalit community.
The Ambedkarite website, Round Table India (RTI) published an open letter to Arundhati Roy questioning, among other things, her motives in writing this introduction, her suitability for such a task, her excessive focus on Gandhi in her essay, and the politics surrounding her decision to write it.
Roy replied to the letter explaining the logic behind her choices. Anand, who’s also copped a lot of flak from Dalits, especially on social media, has published his response on the Navayana website. Unlike Anand and Roy, both of whom have shown a willingness to engage with their Dalit critics, other privileged caste writers have come down heavily on these Dalit voices, accusing them of intolerance, fanaticism, misogyny, and of trying to curb the freedom of expression of non-Dalits. This piece hurls the ultimate insult at Dalit writers and activists angered by the Navayana edition, charging them with practising “the politics of Brahminism”.
In view of the limitations of length imposed by a column of this kind, one can either review the book or engage with this debate. I propose to do the latter, as I believe it offers an important opportunity for savarnas (like myself, I might add) to introspect on how privilege determines their very subjectivity and worldview.
Given the complexity of this debate — on the politics of publishing a seminal text of Dalit resistance with an introduction by a celebrity non-Dalit who has almost no history of engagement with Dalit politics nor any track record of Dalit scholarship — I intend to do no more than present the broad contours of it, and end by attempting to show why this Navayana edition, for all its good intentions, constitutes a typical example of the politics of appropriation.
Who can represent Ambedkar?
If one were to sum up the Ambedkarite position in this debate in one line, as enunciated by Dalit writers such as Anoop Kumar , it would be this: You want to represent Ambedkar without bearing — or having borne — the burden of being Dalit in a society that oppresses Dalits. How could you?
First of all, does Roy’s introduction qualify as a form of representation? Well, it certainly does – not in terms of talking for, but in terms of talking about. As for the act of annotating, it is a practice embedded in what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the “scholarly habitus”, which, again, is so tied up in structures of power and privilege that, in the field of caste, it is available to a Dalit only rarely and against heavy odds.
Roy has defended her act of representing/introducing Ambedkar by asking: “If it is your case that only Dalits can write an introduction about Ambedkar, then I must disagree with you. What if tomorrow Gujarati banias say only they can write about Gandhi? Or Mahars say that their understanding of Ambedkar is more authentic and more radical than that of other Dalits?”
Raising the question of how, given that caste is a graded system of inequality, anybody can arrogate to themselves the status of the “authentic victim”, she cautions Dalits against “essentialism”. This might be a good place to point out that all those who practice identity politics have always been susceptible to the charge of essentialism. It is the very reason why, for instance, a Dalit cannot take a stand on an issue unless she can also demonstrate that it is the unified stand of the entire Dalit community, whereas no savarna intellectual is ever expected to be a representative of all savarnas. While it is true that any self-proclaimed Dalit stand will necessarily be essentialist, the charge of being essentialist can only ever be made by other Dalits with divergent points of view on the issue at hand. When voiced by a non-Dalit, it necessarily will be — and should be—be met with suspicion.
For Roy, the only thing that matters is this: “The point is, whatever my privileges are – or yours for that matter – are we fighting against Brahminism or strengthening it? If it is your argument that through my introduction I am somehow actually perpetuating caste please tell me how that it so.”
Anand, in his statement, makes a similar case, asking: “What is it that we do with privilege? Sharpen it into a weapon and wield it against the very banyan tree of brahminism that entangles us with its roots in the air? Or should we just enjoy the shaded comfort of this tree? I believe it is the former that this edition of the book attempts.” He further adds, “While I understand the anxiety and politics over who gets to introduce or annotate Ambedkar, I do strongly believe Ambedkar belongs to all.” Well, does he, now, is what some of his Dalits interlocutors are asking.
The dynamics of privilege
Let us assume for the sake of argument that both Dalits and the privileged castes have an equal right to introduce Ambedkar. Do both of them also have equal power to exercise that right? If they do not – and both Roy and Anand would readily acknowledge that they do not – how should a Dalit interpret a savarna’s assertion that they both have an equal right, if not as an instance of insincerity?
Moving on from the assertion to the action, if we acknowledge that Dalits do not enjoy the kind of opportunities for exercise of knowledge capital that members of the privileged caste such as Anand and Roy do, Roy’s writing of the introduction and Anand’s annotations are an exercise of exactly the same privilege that is being denied to Dalits day in and day out on some ground or the other. That is why Dalits find it offensive.
Given that Navayana is the foremost anti-caste publisher in the world – a Dalit writing the Introduction could have yielded a tremendous amplification of a Dalit voice. But Navayana believed that Ambedkar’s text would be better amplified by a celebrated writer who commands a ready audience across the globe.
To paraphrase what Chippewa poet Lenore Keeshig-Tobias says in her essay, ‘Stop stealing Native stories’, Roy, having squeezed out the possibility of a Dalit intellectual introducing AoC, turns around and tells Dalits to write their own introductions. Dalits can ask, like Keeshig-Tobias does, “How can we?” Even if they had access to the means to do so, they would be told — it’s already been done, and done by none other than Arundhati Roy.
From this standpoint, even this very essay, showcasing a savarna writer laboring to present a Dalit perspective, is an absurdity that is fully deserving of the scorn of Dalit critics. Far from seeking to defend myself, all that I (or anybody else in my position) am entitled to do is to acknowledge it as a valuable reminder of my own status as an oppressor perched on the higher reaches of the dung heap of privilege.)
One argument trotted out time and again in support of the claim that Ambedkar belongs to all is that that his work is now a part of the global intellectual heritage of ideas that anyone should be free to engage with irrespective of their caste identity. Dalits, most prominently Kumar, have maintained that Ambedkar is their deity, and that non-dalits who seek to represent him are appropriating the Dalit deity. Savarna writers have responded to this by arguing, as Roy does, that we should not turn Ambedkar into another ‘God’ and instead recognize that he too is a human being, with his merits, flaws, and so on.
History, however, offers ample evidence that such modes of representation can and do serve as mechanisms of appropriation. Music, for instance, was one mode of political resistance that was available to Black Americans. But the histories of jazz, rock n roll, and now rap, are all of them testaments to white appropriation.
“How can any non-Dalit be part of a Dalit movement when you will not even concede that they have the right to engage with Ambedkar?” asks Roy. Well, for starters, a sense of entitlement to every single intellectual, political, and cultural space available is precisely how the power of privilege operates.
The story-teller’s tale
At the launch of AoC in Mumbai, Roy spoke eloquently about the importance of story-telling, and how it wasn’t as if she was picked to write the Introduction only because she was famous – if she was famous, she said, she was famous “for something” – implying that she was chosen to write the Introduction because of her exceptional story-telling skills, and the story of Ambedkar and Gandhi and the politics surrounding AoC is such an important story that it can only gain by someone of Roy’s caliber telling it to an audience that has so far not been interested in hearing it.
Roy’s argument here is deeply flawed on at least three grounds.
Firstly, nobody can, of course, dispute Roy’s genius as a story-teller. She has behind her an unmatched body of work, uniquely among Indian writers, wherein she recounts, with imagination, passion and empathy, the courageous struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized against the might of a corporate state. But to even attempt to say — based on Roy’s story-telling skills or ready command over a vast global readership or any other criteria one might care to bring up — that she is therefore the best possible candidate to narrate the tale of ‘the doctor and the saint’ is to fall back on the dubious ‘merit argument’ whose notoriety Anand and Roy are all too familiar with.
Secondly, neither Anand nor Roy can say that she wrote this introduction or he did the annotations to help the Dalit cause – for the simple reason that to say so would be an insult to all Dalits. To their credit, neither has said anything like it in so many words. But they ended up further stoking Dalit anger by implying it, for instance, by saying that they have done it (published this edition) only for the noble cause of fighting Brahminism.
Thirdly, in the savarna view of the world, for Ambedkar to be just a Dalit deity is not an exalted enough status given his great intellect. He must, therefore, whether the Dalits like it or not, be elevated to his true position in the global, non-Dalit, pantheon of intellectual giants. And this requires transporting him – in a Brahmin bag -- from the claustrophobic confines of a Dalit temple to the open air of the global free market.
Structural privilege, as in the case of racism or casteism, invariably displays two properties. The first is invisibility: by its very nature, it is invisible to its biggest beneficiaries. The second is it induces blindness. Brahminical privilege induces blindness to the possibility that there might be alternative value systems that rule out exporting a cultural property or commodifying it. And nobody can deny that this edition of AoC, targeted at a non-Dalit audience, for many of whom caste is “an exotic Hindu thing” (Roy’s words), will render Ambedkar as an object available for consumption.
Strangely enough, Roy herself has written, most eloquently, about how it is the prerogative of the Dongria Kondh adivasis to keep the bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, and about the central role of their deity, Niyamraja, in giving them a sense of identity and community. If Dalits wish to keep Ambedkar for Dalits alone – for after all, they, and not the savarnas, have been the ones who have kept his legacy alive all these years – how can she then say that Ambedkar belongs to all? How different is it from an industrialist saying that the minerals in the mountains belong to all and not just the adivasis who happen to live there? How can she acknowledge the political power of the Niyamraja for the adivasis, and be blind to the political power of Ambedkar the deity for the Dalits?
One could make the argument that it is not as if Ambedkar doesn’t already belong to all --- for isn’t he the father of the Indian Constitution? Well, the Ambedkar that the Dalits revere as a deity is not the same as the non-deified avatar the savarnas admire as a legal luminary and scholar. And for Dalits, AoC as a text signifies the former, and not the father of the Constitution. Incidentally, Ambedkar was hardly pleased with the document he is credited with fathering. He had this to say about it: “The Constitution was a wonderful temple for the gods, but before they could be installed, the devils have taken possession.”
Again, borrowing Keeshig-Tobias’ argument against white appropriation, the savarnas have a lot of intellectuals and gods and revolutionaries to write about and discuss and worship if they choose to. But Ambedkar is all that the Dalits have – “to fight off illness and death”.
As regards story-telling, Keeshig-Tobias writes, “So potent are stories that, in native culture, one storyteller cannot tell another’s story without permission.” Did Roy take the Dalits’ permission to write the Introduction to AoC? Or is it the case that “maybe they just know a good story when they find one and are willing to take it, without permission, just as the archeologists used to rob our graves for museums”?
Ambedkar as a cultural good
AoC embodies Dalit labour. And not just Dalit labour but Dalit pain and Dalit humiliation have gone into its creation and its post-publication life. But the royalties, as well as the social and cultural capital accruing from this Navayana edition – which is a private, cultural property and not part of the Dalit commons -- would not be flowing into the estate of a Dalit writer. If even this is not appropriation, then it is difficult to understand what appropriation means.
Roy’s argument that she has written the introduction to AoC not as an authority on Ambedkar but simply “from the position of a writer who engages with things that she feels are important to her, and to the society that she lives in” is a textbook instance of romantic individualism that proclaims the absolute right of an author to the entire realm of cultural and intellectual resources in the name of a common public domain – dismissing any restrictions as a form of censorship – while ignoring the fact that such a common public domain of ideas is not equally accessible to all. Roy seems unable to recognize that such authorial self-assertion, in this case, coming from a position of privilege in the face of protests voiced from the margins, cannot but be complicit with the relations of power that undergird this so-called common public domain of ideas.
All this does not mean that no political or social good can ever come from those who, by no fault of their own, happen to occupy positions of privilege. Had that been the case, no white person could ever have played any role in the anti-slavery and civil rights movements in the United States, no man could have played any part in women’s liberation movements, and no heterosexual could ever take part in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) struggles for equality. But any such intervention on the side of the oppressed from those occupying positions of privilege needs to be done with sensitivity to the immediate political context of inequality and exclusion that structures all such engagements.
The ethics of exercising rights
So, should Roy have written her essay at all? Of course, yes. And she has produced, as usual, a brilliant piece of writing that not only situates AoC in its historical context but also carries out the epistemologically and politically important maneuver of reprising the Dalit perspective on Mahatma Gandhi for a non-Dalit audience. Even so, Dalits have pointed out serious flaws in it, especially in its presentation of the Ambedkar-Gandhi encounter – but this is one aspect of the ongoing debate that I cannot go into here as it is beyond the scope of this already very long essay.
Roy’s essay, for all its faults, is bound to be unsettling and disturbing for most caste Hindus, who ought to read it for that very reason. But what could have been avoided is its presentation as an introduction to AoC. If the main thrust of her essay, in her own words, is to move the Gandhi monument out of the way so that savarna readers can get to Ambedkar, then this operation could very well have been carried out in a standalone publication. Why did it have to be presented as an introduction to AoC?
All said and done, one positive fallout of the entire debate triggered by this initiative of Navayana’s – “a historical mistake”, as Anand calls it – is that it just might awaken savarnas to the possibility that the real magnitude of their caste privilege is something they may never really be able to grasp either intellectually or morally – at any rate, not to the same degree or with the cosmic immediacy with which it bears down on the personhood of those who bear the brunt of it.
Perhaps the savarnas can take a hint from a self-proclaimed white appropriator of a black invention, the rap artist Macklemore. Here is someone who is not only sensitive to his own white privilege but is respected by Blacks for his readiness to acknowledge, in his work, that his adoption of rap – which ought to be his right as an artist -- is itself an act of racist appropriation.
Macklemore sums up it up well in this song where he talks about the nature of white privilege:
“Hip-hop started off on a block that I’ve never been to
To counteract a struggle I’ve never been through
If I think I understand just because I flow, too?
That means I’m not keeping it true, I’m not keeping it true.”
Roy and Anand both flow, for sure, but have they kept it true? In their 416-page edition of AoC, there is not a single acknowledgement anywhere that their enterprise, notwithstanding its indubitable merits, is essentially a casteist one – not merely an exercise of Brahminical privilege but a Brahminical exercise of privilege. If Dalits are angry, it’s because they have every reason to be.