आधार प्रकाशन द्वारा युवा रचनाकार रुबीना सैफ़ी के संपादन में शीघ्र प्रकाश्य प्रख्यात चिंतक आनंद तेलतुंबड़े की वैचारिक पुस्तक (anand teltumbde books) ‘जनवादी समाज और जाति का उन्मूलन‘ की भूमिका
I am immensely pleased to write this introduction to a compilation of my essays on various themes, written at various points in times but all connected some way with caste question by a young scholar, Rubina Saife. The original essays are in English and here they are being made available in Hindi to wider readership.
My views on caste and for that matter on class significantly differ from most people and established scholarship. Fundamentally, I problematize the tendency to see these two terms in mutual exclusion. Particularly, the duality of caste and class so much in vogue in scholarly discourse bemuses me. Classes in Marxist theory were the conceptual categories to actuate dialectics of history. Where and how castes would fit in this schema? How can they coexist?
I have been likewise uncomfortable with even Ambedkar’s location of the roots of castes in Hindu dharmashstras and his solution of religious conversion. I was wonderstruck at Ambedkar providing meat for the communist claim that castes were just a part of superstructure.
Ambedkar was rightly annoyed with the communists that they ignored castes and were hampering upon revolution. But when he articulated his anti-caste argument, unconsciously, it would would exactly support them. That apart, how can caste be just in the Hindu dharmashtras or for that matter the contrivance of Hindu religion. If so, what would explain the existence of castes in all other religions in India?
I could not stomach the idea that some xyz fellow writes something and society gets moulded after it. There had to be some material reason for the emergence of castes. The ideology through religion may contribute to its sustenance but certainly cannot create it.
Initially, I had to face considerable opposition to my views both from the Ambedkarites and Marxists. Ambedkarites with their superficial notions of Marxism easily branded me as Marxist. Marxists did not have to have even that superficiality; for them my being a Dalit was good enough to treat me as Ambedkarite. This is the fate that befalls every progressive Dalit activist in India.
You are always pushed back into your caste cocoon or made an outcaste, as the castes essentially operated. This also proves how much poison the Indian society still contains that even Marxists could not remain unaffected by it. It resembled Bushesque simplification that either you are with us or against us. Dalits could be pardoned, firstly because unlike Marxists they do not claim any grand theory guiding them and secondly they have been vulnerable to all kinds of political manipulations by the ruling classes.
But all this did not bother me; as I knew what I was. On the contrary, I developed in course serious skepticism about these isms which served no purpose other than intoxicating their adherents with identititarian prejudice. I have seen number of people who would claim to be hardcore Ambedkarite not having read practically anything of Ambedkar in original. And similarly, I have known Marxists (now no more so, they are Marxist-Leninist and Maoists) who similarly would be ignorant about basic Marxist tenets. It is a tragic-comic situation of both these supposedly revolutionary movements (although Ambekarites may or may not call it so but the annihilation of castes would not be any less than revolution in India) that they have been reduced to hollow identities of the ignoramuses.
Of course, there are people on both sides serious enough about their revolutionary promises but they are overwhelmed by the identitarian crowds. The very fact that my writings were translated, responded to, and replicated shows that they cannot be ignored. And there is a burgeoning population of youth, even after deducting the huge part of it as neoliberal which is sold out to bohemian disorientation, which is bewildered about its future. That has apparently been receptive to me. From this perspective, I feel this volume will further facilitate understanding of my views.
My understanding of caste as well as class is neither experiential nor bookish. I came to think of caste question through my activism much later. Though born a Dalit, unlike many, I did not have any bitter experience with caste in my childhood although the structural segregation of Dalits existed in our village quite like any other village. The Dalit and Non-Dalit villages were separated by a road which narrowed into a pathway through a field leading to a Dalit well after two fields and eventually to a neighboring village. However, it neither mattered to Dalits nor to others in their relations. People perhaps internalized what they were supposed to be doing and confined to their own spheres.
Much of it, I think with hindsight, was due to the peculiar political economy of the village. This village being rich in minerals like coal, limestone, dolomite, etc., it had one of the earliest coal mines in the country, although it was closed during my entire childhood. On the other side, it had about two dozen lime kilns, and mining of limestone for them. Entire area hummed with activity. The most significant fact was that the industrial township, which grew because of colliery, some two kilometers away from the core village, had cosmopolitan population, representing almost all regions of the country, but with preponderance of Dalits.
Even from our village, most Dalits, men as well as women, worked on lime factories and limestone mining. Thus, unlike other villages, Dalits did not depend on kunabi farmers for their livelihood. On the contrary, Dalits having cash wages every week appeared better off than most farmers who could have cash only after they sold their produce. With dry land farming, anyway, the farm income was modest. This had reflection in the relation between Dalits and non-Dalits who were called by some relation, such as mama, kaka (chacha), aaja, aaji (dada, dadi in hindi) and so on.
My childhood experience was rather of discomfort at inequality around me. Even in the village, where none was very well off, a few people had pucca brick houses, which with their lime washed walls stood out among the surrounding mud hovels. Barring these few houses, which existed on both sides of the street, there was no significant difference between the houses of Dalits and others’. Besides houses, most people had cattle, which I liked as any village child, but we did not have any. As a matter of fact ours was perhaps the only family which did not have any land or any cattle. I would innocently ask my mother about why we did not have a goat and throw tantrums demanding that she brings me one right then. Somehow, she would try answering but soon lose her temper and thrash me. Neither her beatings deter me from raising those questions again nor did her answers convince me.
All these unanswered questions were suddenly answered one day, or so I felt, when I was given a book as my prize for standing first in the class in my third standard. As a matter of fact, I had not taken the exam as I was sick. But it did not matter for my teachers. Exam or no exam, the first rank was reserved for me.
The book was a small Marathi biography of Joseph Stalin. Even the teacher who bought the book from the lone shop in the tehsil town would not have realized what it was. It was just a book for him well within his budget to be given in prize as per the school custom. But in my hand it would become a bombshell. It, kind of, shattered my core that I would no more be my old self. I read and reread the book.
Stalin was greatly impressive but more captivating was the entirely new words like Marxism, socialism, communism and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.
In a flash, I thought all my questions were answered. At the tender age of eight, I began my search for information on Marxism communism, socialism and Russian revolution. Whenever I went to my uncles’ place in town, I would drag him to the Sutrave Book Seller, who just spread his ware of books and calendars on a small stall. The old man would be amused to hear my demand. But he began getting me books through my uncle.
I thought I was already a communist with a mission to bring about revolution in India such that all children would have pucca houses with lime washed walls, their own farms, and goats, cows and bullocks and of course lots of chicken.
Next year, I got to read about Bhagat Singh who instantly displaced Stalin as my hero. I had drawn his picture with imagination and titled him as ‘Bharat Ratna Shahid Bhagat Singh’, which decorated the office of my schools for years after I left it.
It was when I had not heard of ‘bharat ratna’ being a sarkari award. It was my own conferment on this ever inspiring martyr who position as my hero remained undisturbed till today.
The tryst with caste happened with a queer incident in village wherein my mother played a heroic role. One evening, when she went to our well to fetch drinking water, there was commotion among women who saw dirt floating on water.
It was suspected that the Kunabi boys from the family owning the field in which our well was situated had done it. Perhaps, they fancied that Dalits would stop using the well and then it would be theirs to irrigate the field. Having just returned from her grueling work in fields, my mother became very angry and she asked the women folk to follow her to the well of the caste Hindus in the village.
Expectedly, some kunabi women resisted and threw away pitchers of Dalit woman. My mother scared them away by hitting one of them and made their way to get water from the well. The news spread that the well was polluted by Mahar women and some leading Kunabis mobilized people to resist.
The next morning, there was a crowd of men-folk near the well when my mother again led Dalit women to get water. They tried to resist but seeing the defiance on their faces, they had to retreat. Some clash occurred but Dalit women won it.
It created palpable tension in village. There were rumours that they would attack Dalits. That evening a meeting of Dalits was called. We children were quite excited at the prospect of playing out the battle. But men-folk was scared. Some of them tried to blame women for the impending problem. But seeing my mother’s defiant bearing, and other women’s support, they withdrew.
Although I was watching the discussion, along with other children, I had already begun fancying an opportunity to lead my brigade. After the meeting, we decided to collect stones from the surrounding field, take out iron rods, knives from all homes, and be ready. We decided also our formation and distributed tasks among ourselves, a la war strategy.
But no one came to attack us. The next morning the word was sent to the colliery part of the village, where the Dalits were far better organized and militant. Some young women came in collective and stood guard to our village women while they fetched water. The entire Kunabi folks were scared to come closer.
Afternoon a meeting took place with many people from colliery attending it which decided to call the district RPI leader and to have a big public meeting over this issue. Meanwhile, the Kunabis, scared by the support of Mahars from colliery came over and wanted to resolve the matter amicably. It was decided that they would allow Dalits to fetch water until our well was cleaned, which happened immediately thereafter.
The tension however was palpable in Dalit village as they feared the Kunabis might avenge their humiliation after the things were normalized. All these days, there was a contingent of young men and women from colliery frequenting to our village because of which the Kunabis had to take a reconciliatory stand.
As decided, a huge public meeting took place attended by the district president of the RPI, Mr Sondawale. Lots of speeches were made abusing Hinduism and threatening the casteist Kunabis.
Later, a decision was taken by the Gram Panchayat to build a public well in our part of the village which would be used by all the castes. It was this incident which introduced me to the monster called caste.
But the introduction no way contained the oppressive aspects of castes. It was understood that we were different and lived separately from the people called Kunabis. That was it. There was no notion of inferiority. If at all, even in this encounter with caste, it was we who had won. The Kunabis had to yield to have a common well for the village.
In school, I was respected for my scholastic performance although my eccentric behavior was not particularly liked by some of the teachers. Those days there was a competition among the schools that comprised what was called a Board. The examinations for the fourth and seventh standard were conducted by the board at some prominent village. It was a great prestige for the village if its student stood first in the Board. Since I could fetch this honour to the village, entire village respected me. Moreover, since our family did not have land or any cattle, some kunabi families would reach us buttermilk, curds, ghee and some farm produce. This perhaps reflected the interdependence of castes in a village.
My trys with caste did not have an iota of inferiority. When I went to high school at the town after passing my seventh standard from the village school, I lived at my uncle’s place. This house was on the road to the cluster of schools, walked by some Brahman boys. It was our past time to block them and make them say Ambedkar ki Jai (Victory to Ambedkar). Poor chaps would comply and escape harassment. Later, they would literally run away from the stretch and some of them avoid the road itself taking a circuitous route. In the high school, we had a direct struggle against the Brahman boys being allowed to wear RSS black caps in contravention of school uniform.
When I reached 10th and by then had enough following because of my scholastic standing, one day we made Dalit students to wear blue caps in the morning prayers. It was objected to by the PT teacher, who was himself a Dalit. But we challenged him. The Muslim headmaster had negotiation with us and promised to prevail upon the parents of Brahman boys to adopt school uniform for their wards. Soon thereafter, the black caps disappeared. Such were my experience with caste, which matched my childish ‘communist’ belief that if we struggled, we could win.
All this while, Ambedkar was a legend, without any information on him except for the songs bellowed out from loudspeakers at some festive occasions. Only after reaching Nagpur, I got to read his books in the University library. These readings supplemented with the tales of discrimination of fellow students in hostels impelled me to think through caste, often contrasting with class, and interchanging perspectives of Ambedkar and Marx.
I began having a vague sense of something wrong in the ways the struggle against caste and class paralleled while their subjects largely overlapped. When I reached engineering college after passing out from the Institute of Science, I had begun two study circles with my hostel mates, perfectly insulated from each other. One focused on Marx and the other, on Ambedkar. We met once a week when I would explain some text of these people and some discussion would follow. I would test out my views there but would get frustrated as there was none to challenge them. The naxalite movement was in public discourse and daily some or the other news and views would be reeled off by the newspapers.
This lengthy preface incurring the risk of sounding autobiographical, I thought may be better method to see mingling of class and caste in a mundane experiential world of a child in a village setting than sounding uselessly intellectual.
I am wary of speaking about myself publicly, lest it should make another Dalit biography that invariably overwhelms social for projecting the writer’s subjective self. This small account in my view explains germination of ideas of caste and class and how the situation conditions them in a certain ways. It might help in seeing the role of critical thinking.
I do not know with what criteria Rubina selected these essays. To me, they appear quite random. But whichever she did it, it has become positive in sense that as an introduction this collection will provide a flavor of my views on many issues in the context of caste and class. I would shun the temptation of going into further details of them and prefer to leave it to the readers to make their own judgement. I must record my appreciation for Rubina for this initiative and Reyaz, for his admirable translation.
26 November 2015