From Brahmanism to Ambedkarism: An Ongoing Ontological Expedition

 

Yashwant Zagade

yashwant zagade 1I was raised in the suburbs of Mumbai in the 90s, at a time when Hindutva politics reached its peak for the first time after independence. I still remember how this political atmosphere influenced my childhood — I grew up sloganeering "Tai, Mai-Aakka vichar kara pakka ani magach dhanushybaanavar mara shikka" (sister, mother, and aunts, think clearly and decide firmly, pick only Dhanushybaan {bow and arrow} at the ballot box). I lived in Chunabhatti, which was traditionally dominated by the Shiv Sena. During my school days, I was not part of any socio-political activity. Later, when I began attending Junior college, I joined the newly formed local group called Janta Raja Sangahtana. The group had staunch belief in Hindutva ideology and were followers of Shivaji Maharaj. The group's main aim was to protect the Sanatan Hindu religion. It often used the tagline 'Mam Diksha-Hindu Raksha' (my oath: To protect Hindu Dharma) in their public programmes. The formation of this group was a political outcome of the strong presence of Shiv-Sena in Mumbai. The group was led by Maratha-caste youths. Through this group, at the age of eighteen, I began my socio-political life.

Looking at this past, I can now say that my caste location being Mali1 (gardener) played a critical role in the following of this ideology. My family traditionally followed 'Hinduism' and Warkari Sampradaya2. This cult of the Bhakti movement has historically upheld 'Hinduism' and strictly follows vegetarianism. So, until I completed my bachelor's degree, I did not encounter any alternate perspective other than 'Hinduism' towards understanding the world. Hindutva politics has its own way of operating – one born as a 'Hindu' unconsciously becomes a part of the Hindutva political project.

My being 'Hindu' is not just to do with my family location but has a larger connection to the broader Hindutva majoritarian politics of the country. While I was growing up, the Mandal agitation was going on in full force. To counter this, the leading Hindutva parties started the Anti-Mandal agitation in order to grasp opportunities through this politicisation. Right-wing parties began to change their face of Brahmin leadership by accommodating many OBC castes in their fold, and mine was one of them.

I was becoming active during my bachelors through a local right-wing group, and the atmosphere back home was also the same. My father came to Mumbai during the drought of the 70s and joined a cotton mill. He was a worker and union member of the Left party inside the cotton mill and outside, he was a supporter of the Shiv Sena. I extended his legacy in the public sphere. I took the first lesson of samaj seva from the local Hindutva group. As a member of this group, I used to organise a few programmes every year - the birth anniversary celebrations of Shivaji Maharaj, organising blood camps, distribution of notebooks to needy students, etc.

Along with this, a major activity of our group was combat training, with swords, lathi-kathi (sticks) and dandpatta (gauntlet-sword), which were part of King Shivaji's guerrilla war tactics. Practising with sticks and swords was not just a normal self-defense activity, but a training given in order to 'preserve the legacy of Shivaji Maharaj's guerrilla war tactics'. I personally took training for three years and later practiced the same for several years. In those years, we often did the performance of guerrilla war in various processions like the ones during Ganesh festival and Navratri. This also helped us raise funds for the functioning of the group. Sometimes, my friends would tease me for practicing with a sword in the era of machine guns, but I was so fascinated with the 'Hindu version' of King Shivaji, that I did not pay attention to what others had to say.

Through this engagement, I also began reading right-wing literature. Before that, I had not read any books other than my school textbooks. The first books I read beyond them were the biography of Shivaji Maharaj, and other literature published by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) for their cadres. Such reading helped me develop as a staunch Shiv Sainik and also built hatred towards Muslims. Meanwhile the caste question was absent in the group discussions. There were group members from various OBC and NT-DNT communities, but we never asserted our caste identity. Instead, we always claimed ourselves as 'Hindu'.

Although people from various castes were part of our group, Marathas were always at the leading position. Now when I recall the memories of our daily conversations, I remember how these Maratha youths would claim themselves as descendants of king Shivaji and take pride in the kingly valour of Shivaji. Through this act, they asserted their caste pride as Kshatriyas, whereas I always remained confused as a 'Mali', wondering what the contribution of my caste was in the making of Hindavi Swarajya (Hindu self-rule) led by King Shivaji. It often made me feel guilty for not being part of the glorious 'Hindu' history, and I felt inferior to the Marathas. During that time, because of my 'proud Hindu' consciousness, I never realised this unequal treatment given to me based on my caste, which I can sense now. Also, like other right-wing groups, our local group was also led by upper castes and backed by lower caste foot-soldiers.

During the same period, I began attending programmes organised by the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, with the senior members of the group. Later, I began volunteering for an NGO run by the RSS, named 'My Home India'. I even participated and voted in the election campaign for the Shiv Sena and BJP alliance in the Mumbai Corporation and Maharashtra assembly elections of 2009. In the six years from 2004-10, with the various engagements through literature, attending programmes and participating in activities organised by our local group, I became a Shiv Sainik. But I now regret my past.

After my graduation, I started working at a major private bank as a Sales Executive. During this period, with some friends, I attended 'Nirman', a youth camp organised by Gandhian activists Dr. Abhay Bang and Rani Bang. This camp influenced me to look towards life beyond the 'self.' In this camp, I was inspired by Gandhi's thought 'Kar ke Dekho' (experience by doing it). Through the Nirman camps, I was introduced to the work of 'Sarvahara Jan Andolan'. It is a Socialist-Marxist people's movement, led by activist Ulka Mahajan. After learning about her work and their sanghatan's struggle for the last 25 years, I was inspired. Attending this camp was one of the turning points in my life. It made me realise that I should do something substantial in the social sector. Also, my ongoing banking job was not giving me any work satisfaction. After thinking for a long time, I left my bank job after a year of attending the youth camp, and became a full-time activist for Sarvahara Jan Andolan sanghatan in Raigad district of Maharashtra. Leaving a private sector job and working as a full-time activist was not acceptable to my family, so I left home to join the sanghatan. Working in the sanghatan gave me a Marxist orientation towards socio-political and economic issues of society, and made me understand the issues in the framework of 'structures'. It also taught me the importance of movement politics in an era of NGO-isation of social movements.

After working in the organisation for two years, I started feeling like life had got stuck in one place, and that my learning was also not being enhanced. Working in the sanghatan, I realised that societal issues are not personal, but emerge out of 'structures'. But the work in sanghatan was limited to a particular geographical area and I was not able to make sense of the entire structure. I began feeling that in order to make sense of the structure, I should get back to studies, read more and understand the world and its issues in a better manner. Also, it was financially tough to survive within the minimum honorarium provided by the sanghatan. I had closely seen how activists of the sanghatan were forced to compromise with the principles of the sanghatan due to financial issues, which I was not ready to do. Hence, I decided to leave the sanghatan and do something else. I decided to join Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, so I could get to know more about the socio-political sector holistically and learn some ways of earning.

I thought that resuming higher education would fulfil both my agendas. With the guidance from my friend Gopal Mahajan, I took the admission in TISS for the Master's course in 'Dalit and Tribal Studies in Social Work' (DTSA). Earlier, I completed my bachelor's and immediately took up a bank job as per my parents' wishes. If you see in lower-caste communities, there is no trend as such, of pursuing higher education. Even in my family, no one went for higher education beyond a bachelor's degree, except two or three siblings. I was the first person from my extended family to enroll in one of the prestigious institutes of the country for a master's programme, through the benefit of reservation.

Having worked with the sanghatan and attended study camps on Marxism, I was inclined towards 'class' analysis of society. It was later that I encountered Phule-Ambedkarite thoughts, which made me realise the importance of caste. Yet, the class perspective was overarching for me at that point. I joined TISS thinking that both class and caste were equally exploitative structures in our society. So I joined the New Left group on campus during my first semester. Later, due to the vibrant presence of Ambedkarite discourse on campus, I came closer to Ambedkarite thought, left the Leftist group, and joined the Ambedkarite Students Association. My master's programme in Dalit and Tribal studies in Social Work gave me a critical Ambedkarite perspective to analyse societal issues. It helped me understand how caste is the basic oppressive structure of this nation, and if we wish to alter this social structure, we can't do it without annihilating caste.

With this, I gradually began to understand the importance of the Ambedkarite movement. In order to further develop this understanding, I started reading more about the history of the movement. I started with Ambedkar's biography and did not stop there. I strategized my studies according to my interest – I began doing my course assignments in such a manner that I selected topics related to the Ambedkarite movement, Buddhism, and issues of caste exploitation for my assignments. I also did my master's research on the alliance of RPI and Shiv Sena-BJP and its impact on the Ambedkarite movement. Through this study, I tried to engage with the Ambedkarite movement from Phule's era to the contemporary period. This reading helped me understand that the real struggle in our society is that of Buddhism against Brahmanism. It brought clarity to my future socio-political discourse.

This journey brought many changes in my thinking process. Earlier when I was working with sanghatan, I was mainly working with Adivasis. During that time, because of my 'non-tribe' location, I sometimes used to feel alienated from the struggle. Also, I was working with the notion that I was working for someone else. But the caste-lens of understanding society gave me a consciousness of my own social location. Being a Shudra in the varna hierarchy of the Brahmanical system, I can now see my lower-caste position in the graded caste structure, and that has encouraged me to be an active part of the Anti-caste movement. After becoming part of Ambedkarite movement, the previous feelings of alienation ceased. As I am part of a caste society, I have the location to be part of the anti-caste struggle and assert against caste oppression.

I am not part of the Ambedkarite movement just because I have a Shudra identity. I follow Ambedkarism because the Ambedkarite analysis that caste is the primary source of exploitation in this country is apt for Indian society. So is its stand that we cannot build a nation based on democratic values of the Indian Constitution without annihilating caste. While bringing social change, Ambedkarism does not focus only on altering the larger structure (like Marxism) but also stresses on individual and personal change simultaneously. This appeals to me the most since I believe theory without practice is futile.

Ambedkarite perspective changed my views on many issues; reservation was one of them. Earlier I used to oppose and hate the reservation policy, as it used to give me guilt. I thought I didn't need the reservation quota as I was 'smart' enough to get admission. This was because of aversion towards the reservation system and the need to distance myself from the label of 'quota'. I did not obtain caste certificate during my junior college admission. Later, while taking admission for bachelor's degree, out of compulsion to secure admission to a reputed college, I got my caste certificate issued. Until a few years ago, I thought that only non-meritorious people needed the help of reservation system and that I didn't require any such support system since I was 'meritorious'. The majoritarian casteist perspective on reservation creates an inferiority complex among most OBC, SC and ST students to a great extent, and I personally experienced that till my graduation.

When I entered TISS for my master's, I used to think about the students who were taking the benefit of reservation – how could they afford to have smartphones and good clothes? Did it mean that the benefits of reservation are only reaching the well-off students from marginalised sections and not the needy ones? This view was challenged during a public lecture on the occasion of Shahu Maharaj's Birth anniversary (delivered by Prof. Anil Sutar) and later through the readings of Phule-Ambedkar literature and debates on the reservation policy. These readings helped me get an insight into the provision of affirmative action and convinced me about the significance of such policies.

The earlier progressive ideas of Marxism followed by Ambedkarism not only changed my socio-political views but also made me start reflecting on my own behaviour critically. A drastic change happened to my eating habits. I was 'pure vegetarian' for almost 25 years. When I started working in sanghatan, I gave up these habits. When working with the Tribes, I used to stay in their vastis, and it became an ethical dilemma for me to remain vegetarian while working in a community that was non-vegetarian. Until my engagement with Ambedkarism, I was not aware of the politics of food governed by caste norms. Ambedkarism helped me unpack the ideas behind one being a vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Hence I later began eating beef and pork, which have now become my favourite foods.

Along with reading, participating in the various programmes organised by Ambedkarite Students' Association in TISS sharpened my critical understanding of Ambedkarism. Also, I became an active volunteer for the organisation, which gave me a platform for my leadership skills, which I never recognised earlier. The discussions with Ambedkarite friends, especially about their life experiences, made me realise the everyday oppression of caste and made me more sensitive to the caste issue. Additionally, the ever-going discussion with female friends (especially with Disha Kr and Asha Singh) helped me change and widen my perspectives about gender inequality, the suppression of women by Brahmanical-patriarchy and the need for a 'gender-just' society. It helped me understand the world from a gender perspective, and particularly from a Dalit-Bahujan feminist perspective. Discussion with them made me understand how men dominate the movement that is based on equality, and to look critically at the unequal functioning of 'our' group operating on campus.

Due to the influence of TISS academic culture at the end of the first year, I decided to pursue my higher education. So I enrolled in the M.Phil-PhD programme in TISS itself. When I look back, I remember the days before taking admission for masters; a senior activist of the left movement opposed my decision to take admission in TISS as she felt that TISS would make me one among the established. However, I feel TISS made me more critical. I now have widened and diverse perspectives to understand society and also I have a clearer vision and agenda for my future engagement with regard to academics and politics. In the last few years, I have understood the importance of higher education and I finally realised that my decision of joining TISS was apt. I am the first member of my family who is pursuing a PhD programme.

If I didn't have the influence of Babasaheb's thoughts on education, I wouldn't have decided to continue with higher studies. It was Phule-Ambedkar thought that inspired me to get into the academia. Ambedkarism helped me understand the influence Brahminical-Capitalist hegemony on society. I have decided that in the future, I should be part of a process of democratising knowledge production, which has been dominated by the upper castes of this nation for thousands of years. Also, I am aware that in becoming part of the Ambedkarite movement, you have to be a scholar-activist. Only then can you be in a position to contribute in a substantial way. The struggle of caste annihilation is not merely material but also a cultural struggle. As Babasaheb says, 'the cultural revolution will lead to political revolution'. As part of this cultural struggle for liberation from oppressive caste structure, I wish to embrace Buddhism in the future after understanding more about the Dhamma's teaching.

I conclude my short essay here by paying homage to Babasaheb through the poem of revolutionary poet Namdeo Dhasal. Only now have I been able to understand the meaning of this poem, and I am trying to internalise the essence of it.

Whatever we have today belongs to you
All of this is yours
This life and its end
These words and the tongue
This joy and the grief
These dreams and the present reality
This hunger, thirst and all that we undertake is all yours.

 ~

 Notes

1. Mali administratively falls in OBC category at state and central level.

2. Tradition of pilgrimage to Pandharpur which marks an important Bhakti movement in Maharashtra.

~~~

 

 

Yashwant Zagade is a PhD student in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, and is interested in doing sociology from an Amebdkarite perspective.

 

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