Battle for narrative

Print edition : March 18, 2016

The Bharatiya Janata Party's election campaign in Indore district in Madhya Pradesh. A 2013 picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A portal working towards establishing an informed Ambedkar age makes an impressive debut.

THE explosive growth of social media has had interesting ramifications for public discourse in India. Apart from democratising freedom of expression, it serves as an unprecedented communication platform for dissemination of ideas and opinions and as a tool for marketing ideas and manipulating opinions. In this context, it is imperative that the strengths of social media are properly harnessed in the battle for narrative so that it is put to use as an instrument of change.

Roundtable India, a news portal working towards establishing an “informed Ambedkar age”, has made an impressive debut with this unusual volume, a collective of various types of content that emerged in the wake of the republication of a seminal text by B.R. Ambedkar. This book is not just an unusual book, both in content and genesis, whose journey from germination to fruition was remarkable, but an important work that organically grew out of several threads of criticism denouncing the appropriation of Ambedkar’s thoughts and legacy. It performs the twin functions of exposing the politics behind such subversion and creating a renewed interest in the life and times of one of India’s finest minds.

In post-Independence India, Ambedkar was largely ignored by the mainstream until the 1990s. But the proliferation of portals, blogs and social media have rejuvenated mainstream interest in Ambedkar. There has never been a greater need to study, understand and propagate the ideas and ideals of the man and their relevance to contemporary society and the progress of the nation.

The trigger for the criticisms was the 2014 launch by Navayana of an “annotated edition” of Ambedkar’s seminal work, Annihilation of Caste, with an introduction by the writer Arundhati Roy titled “The Doctor and the Saint”. Annihilation of Caste was a speech that Ambedkar had prepared in 1936 for the annual conference of a group of reformers called Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, denouncing the perniciousness of caste and Hindu scripture that sanctions it. The speech ultimately remained undelivered after the organisers withdrew their invitation and Ambedkar self-published 1,500 copies of the speech in May that year.

With accusations flying thick and fast against Navayana’s publication, castigating the intentions behind it, a body of commentary began to accumulate in the public space, including poems, blog posts, essays, sketches, video interviews, public addresses and status updates on Facebook and Twitter, by people from various walks of life. This book faithfully collates and reproduces that content, whose nature makes the structure fluid. It also displays an exemplary democratic spirit by including not just questions addressed to Arundhati Roy by Dalit Camera, a YouTube channel run largely by students, but her response too. However, the book is not merely a diatribe against the appropriation of Ambedkar, as the introduction to the book points out, but a call to arms to interrogate the very nature of public discourse in the country and divine the “brahmanic hegemony” prevalent in every sphere of public life—a hegemony that seeks to appropriate the resistance to caste, which is evident in recent right-wing attempts to whitewash Ambedkar’s legacy and claim him as one of its own.

The book’s title comes from a Telugu phrase, kadupulo kasi, used in a speech by the poet Joopaka Subhadra in Telugu (the English translation of which is included in the volume) to denote the “deep-seated hostility of Brahmanic India towards the Dalit Bahujan”. The aptly chosen title and the aptly named imprint (The Shared Mirror) drive home the mission of this work: to mirror, warts and all, the true nature of the society Indians live in, the hatred that the caste apparatus has for reform and liberation of the oppressed castes and the caste privilege that Brahmins and other upper castes (known as savarnas) enjoy but remain blissfully unaware of.

Those attempting to appropriate Ambedkar overlook the fact that his was a radical ideology that brooked no compromise with the Hindu caste hierarchy and its institutionalising of inequality. The book is every bit as radical as Ambedkar was and approaches the issue of brahmanic hegemony with a candour that is hard-hitting, eye-opening, and refreshing. Arundhati Roy declared that she was writing for those readers for whom caste is an “exotic Hindu thing”. In the same vein, this collective is of greater import to the privileged members of society who get a firm grasp of the history of appropriation, right from the time of Manusmriti, as delineated by Naren Bedide (better known as Kuffir or Kufr online), the driving force behind the portal and the book.

Two essays that stand out are those by Gaurav Somwanshi, whose search for Ambedkar in popular bookstores is in itself an illuminating account of how Ambedkar’s ideas and thoughts continue to suffer from the discrimination of rejection and relegation by mainstream society long after his time.

The other, by Nidhin Shobhana, is a trenchant critique of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala, to which he belongs, wherein he urges them to relook at their histories.

The recent suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad brought into the national spotlight the issues of oppression and discrimination that Dalits face on campus. True to the nature of news consumption in an age dominated by TRPs and attention-grabbing headlines, the issue soon gave way to other stories.

But Dalit oppression is a story that will not go away, nor should it disappear from the public consciousness. Books like this keep the debate alive and are much-needed at a time when change is needed and inevitable. And everyone who came together to make this book a reality is also working towards making that change an achievable reality.

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