The Dalit-Ambedkarite struggle for self-actualization has been non-violent and idea-driven through its history. It's time for the two competing factions of the political and social elite to stop playing the good-cop-bad-cop game and pass the baton
Self-determination has meant many things to many people across time. For some it has meant empire, for others it has meant a fortification against expanding empires.
Pick up any general-issue history book and you’ll find that both the imperialists and the anti-imperialists have used horrible means to achieve it.
Strip away the means used to achieve that ideal state of self located within a community clan, located in a patch on the face of this earth. Behind the lies and the performance, the craftily imagined selves and the notions of nations, is the barebones of an ancient game.
Rulers vs raiders, nations vs mutineers. Emperors have run for their lives and guerrillas have gone on to build dynasties, like the Castros of Cuba. Revolutionaries never last. Those who manage not to get killed become premiers, of some sort anyway. Look at the Dalai Lama, the ceremonial head of a nation in exile, or Thuingaleng Muivah, the head of a country under construction.
In all this time, the war machine has changed into all sorts of beautiful things like democracy, elections, courts of law, the free press and free love. And ugly things too like genocides, invasions, surgical strikes, that loud TV anchor and love-jihad.
The battle formation has, however, always remained the same. It has the prime monster at the centre, surrounded by a tight group of clanswomen and men, surrounded by a thick padding of dark slaving-hordes. When these monstrosities collide, the slaves absorb the shock.
Some dynastic bloodlines have waited for generations for the climate to change before rising again. Like microorganisms under the permafrost. And the silent majority—nearly 300 million Dalits in India alone—have been either collaborators in their own destruction or spectators.
Theirs is always a grand battle between good and evil. The fight is always over dharma and always in the name of the slaves. They make war and conquer new lands to feed the slaving poor, or so they say. Their battle, their terms.
The present-day dharma-yuddha, it seems, is between Sitaram Yechury and Rahul Gandhi’s Hinduism against the Hinduism of Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi. What about those who want neither?
I wonder what would happen if, suddenly, the slaves stopped identifying with their master’s war machine. How would they determine their self, their community, their patch under the stars? What could the Dalit nation look like?
In the last few years, I haven’t been able to get this thought out of my head. What does it mean to emerge from the shadows and become a king, or, at least, the chieftain of a serious rebellion?
It’s a question that has been scratching my insides since Rohith Vemula was pushed to his death and I got involved in a project to document the outcome of his suicide note. It has come to be known by its battle cry: From The Shadows to the Stars. Google it.
Before anything, I must first try and describe what the nation looks like right now—through the lens of the slave—in the times of the present empire.
Once again, battle lines are being drawn. Two distinct formations are taking shape, each more self-righteous than the other. There is a sense of historic urgency on both sides to finish it once and for all.
In Parliament the other day, when Rahul Gandhi went up against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it took you back to the days when Mahabharat used to play on Doordarshan.
Both of them said they were fighting a holy war. Both said they were doing it for our upliftment. One side has picked up Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mewani for padding and the other has found President Ramnath Kovind.
There are parallels to be found in my profession too—journalism has its fair share of both Modis and Rahul Gandhis. Money, running into millions of dollars of funding for so-called independent journalism, continues to magically pour into the war effort against so-called fascist governments. The Omidyar Network pledged $100 million (around ₹ 686 crore now) last year. Rohini Nilekani and Azim Premji put up ₹ 100 crore for independent journalism in 2015. And there’s plenty more going around.
Courageous journalism is not pushing editors into smaller houses and cheap alcohol. I can’t think of one mainstream editor who is poor. When liberal, upper-caste editors are accused of being anti-Dalit, they commission a few Dalit writers. Often these writers are used to make points that upper-caste people can’t make in these times of being woke. Like the hit job where a Dalit intellectual was commissioned by an outlet, which is funded by philanthropy, to mock the annual Bhima Koregaon pilgrimage made by Dalits.
In cinema, good, upper-caste directors are fighting for their actors’ right to use profanity, go naked on screen and criticize the government by shifting to online platforms, where censorship is less of a menace. The best they can do is make the Hindi version of Sairat and remove the few portions which had references to untouchability. Karan Johar made My Name Is Khan for his Muslim friend. But it is highly unlikely that he will do a remake of Fandry, a story about a family of Dalit pig-herders, a better film by the same man who made Sairat. I hope they don’t remake Kaala in Hindi and call it “Maida".
On the opposite side, a larger group of directors are spreading out before the emperor. They will make sure the recent Modi-backed film doesn’t flop. Signs are, Kangana Ranaut, the feminist queen of Bollywood, won’t settle for anything less than a Modi blockbuster.
In literature, a consensus is building on the left. Times are such that I can’t any more tell the difference between the integrationist writings of Ramachandra Guha and the separatist firebombs of Arundhati Roy. Modi-bashing has become a regular feature at literature festivals, as fashionable as Trump-bashing. Even Chetan Bhagat has started turning a corner. But they’ll never be as widely read as Amar Chitra Katha and the Gita Press, which helped shape the idea of a Hindu India.
Intellectuals and activists being on right-wing hit lists is passé. Comedians are getting serious and defending free speech. Some have even become smart enough to make jokes on complicated things like the goods and services tax, demonetization and sexuality, while also giving actor Alia Bhatt a woke makeover. But they are still no match for the slapstick, right-wing empire of Kapil Sharma and Navjot Sidhu. At times their new-age mask falls off to reveal that they too have a Kapil-Sidhu inside. Remember India’s first comedy roast show when everybody dug into comedian Ashish Shakya and told him how he was ugly because he was black?
Call this ageless battle what you will—Hindu vs Muslim, Brahmin vs Bahujan, Kane vs Abel or Atapi vs Vatapi or Habil vs Kabil—it has nothing to do with us.
We are desperate to explore life outside these two tracks. Today, when I hang out with my friends in our slum hideout near my old house in east Bengaluru, we talk about the spectacular fights that are breaking out in the country.
Sometimes, it feels like we’re back in our teens sitting on the terrace, watching planes taking off from HAL airport. We could see them, they couldn’t see us. They used to fly so close that the loose change in our pockets hummed with the vibration of jet engines. We dreamt of becoming pilots, not knowing it was near impossible.
I got that feeling of flightlessness recently in an interaction with a powerful editor, a Rahul Gandhi of Kashmiri origin. He said he liked my work and offered to commission me for a piece a month at $1,000 a pop.
He said he completely “got it" when I said that caste and untouchability are a South Asia phenomenon, with slight changes every few hundred kilometres, like food and dialect. The Brahmin empire, he said, is what we are all fighting. He said we are a nation of the oppressed from Kashmir to Imphal, from Sri Lanka to Balochistan. Their fight for self- determination and our fight for self-determination was the same.
I got really excited. I could also feel the crunch of dollars on my palms, almost. But the idea I pitched—Dalit feminist Raya Sarkar’s list of sexual offenders as part of the larger #MeToo movement—was too local for international readers, I was told. The friendliness of the previous interactions vanished the moment I challenged the verdict.
My reporter instincts eventually proved right. No less than Tarana Burke, the black feminist founder of the #MeToo movement, praised Sarkar for the effort. Her list caught the attention of the Western press. By then, upper-caste Indian writers had locked in and covered all the angles in “think" pieces.
I felt crushed, and, more than anything, stateless once again, a slave in search of a new ruler. I realized that my entry into such spaces could only happen on terms set by somebody else. They would tell their audience that I am a Dalit expert while tutoring me on issues that are important to my people.
Dozens of new and old media outlets have offered me the exact same deal since Rohith Vemula died. I should’ve seen it coming. They are all looking for a Dalit face to meet their diversity goals. They want to be rescue-rangers. The experience made me pray for at least one big and powerful Dalit editor and one Dalit media magnate.
But the Dalit-led Ambedkarite movement has taught me better than to be fatalistic in the face of ancient games designed to exclude us and keep our rulers entertained. It is the only mass movement I can think of that has remained non-violent in the face of extreme provocation of a sort with no parallels in human history.
There isn’t a single example of Dalit-Ambedkarites picking up arms to fight caste, setting up ambushes, launching fidayeen attacks, packing bombs into suitcases. There are many Dalits in the Maoist ranks but they slave for somebody else’s dream. Also, no Brahmins were injured in our fight for self-determination.
In that sense, we are perhaps the only true nationalists fighting to preserve the founding principles of this young democracy. The beauty of the Dalit Wakanda, unlike the Marvel Comics version of the black empire, is that it has space for everybody. It is a paradise without barriers to liberty, equality and fraternity. An alternative system of human existence based not on false binaries but on incredible diversity, respectful love, freedom along with independence and the promotion of merit, not inheritance.
The nation of our dreams, where our heads are held high and our minds are without fear, was born on the midnight of 14 August 1947. The three-year-old infant nation was baptized with a radical Constitution on 26 January 1950. The Dalit nation was not imagined as a plot of earth but as an idea that could illuminate the world. A genuine alternative for posterity that exists outside the subjective categories of good and evil.
What we seek is autonomy to shape our own future in a safe democracy. We want our cinema directors, our actors and our comedians, one of us to become prime minister. We do not trust the well-meaning upper-caste editors who claim to be interested in our emancipation but can’t stop themselves from adding context to our essays. We need our own editors. We seek a nation that recognizes our talents and stands behind us as we reach out to fulfil our destiny and redeem the idea of India.
In the time since Vemula’s passing, I have travelled to different parts of India and the US to find Dalits inspired to action by his words, “From The Shadows To The Stars". I found not one but 64 brilliant minds. I wanted to name each of them in this piece. I realized most of those names would mean nothing to regular readers of the English press.
They are all way ahead of their time; thinkers who have emerged in the afterglow of a great man’s passing. Yet, they are virtually unknown in spaces like this. They might never make it to the higher ground occupied by ruling castes. But let it never be said that they didn’t get their turn to speak because they had nothing important to say or that they lacked merit and ambition.
I am sharing this list of 64 with the editors of Lounge. I hope they will be invited to express themselves freely and share their vision for India without being edited out of context. For too long have others spoken on our behalf.
Sudipto Mondal is a journalist based in Bengaluru. He is working on a book on the Dalit resurgence triggered by the death of Rohith Vemula. Through his writing and football coaching, he is interested in building autonomous Dalit ecosystems.
Starting next month, he will guest-edit a series focusing on caste for Lounge.