Ambedkar and the Left

Gail Omvedt

(From her blog 'seeking begumpura')

An article by Anand Telbumbde, "Not Red versus Blue" has been recently arousing controversy. Dalits have attacked it. In attempting to "mediate" between Ambedkarites and Leftists, Teltumbe according to many has fallen into the trap of turning Ambedkar into a semi-Marxist.

In fact, Teltumbe does distort Ambedkar in a subtle way. He writes, ""Ambedkar practiced class politics, albeit not in the Marxian sense. He always used 'class' even for describing the untouchables." The one example Teltumbe gives is to Ambedkar's essay on caste, which was written in 1916 for a seminar. In this essay, "Castes in India: Their Genesis, Mechanism and Development", Ambedkar begins by describing a caste as an "enclosed class." However, this is a beginning point, not a conclusion, and it is far from absorbing castes into a Marxian notion of class. Ambedkar's elaboration of the mechanisms and development of caste make it clear that caste is a very different category from the openness of class as determined by division of labor. He is apparently using "class" in a somewhat general fashion in his phrase, "enclosed class," not in any specific economic sense.

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A Life Lived Well, and Lessons Thereof

Braj Ranjan Mani

phule_savitri_copy

Jotirao Phule, and his wife Savitribai, declared war on brahmanic-casteist culture and religion. This Maharashtrian couple presented the first major anti-caste ideology and led a mass activism against the ascriptive norms and values. Their distinct brand of socio-cultural radicalism was based on uniting all the oppressed, whom they would call stree-shudra-atishudra. (Literally, stree means women, shudra is productive servile caste at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, and atishudra means 'those beyond the shudras', earlier despised as outcastes, or untouchables. In contemporary language, shudras and ati-shudras are other backward classes and dalits, respectively. But the Phules included in their notion of the oppressed, other marginalised groups as well such as adivasis and Muslims.)

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It’s Not Red Vs Blue

Anand Teltumbde

Ambedkar was more about class than caste, but the Left won’t see it that way 

India is a land of paradoxes. But no paradox may be as consequential as the divergent histories of the Dalit and the Communist movements. Both were born around the same time, spoke for or against the same issues, grew or splintered similarly, and find themselves equally hopeless today. And yet, they refuse to see eye to eye. A large part of the blame for wallowing in this attitudinal abyss is attributed to Ambedkar, simply because of his explicit critique of the Communists and Marxism. This is simplistic, if not grossly wrong.

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Supersexualised Market and the New Body Politic

Braj Ranjan Mani

The supersexualised market and its mindless validation encourage the assumption that feminist and all equalitarian struggles have ended, that equality for all women and men has been achieved, and the deserving lot can now have anything they want. Its sexy-selfish template trivialises all social commitment and mocks any serious engagement with arts, literature, politics, or spirituality.

In the market culture, money forms the ties of affection and love. Personal relationships, like other things in life, are the function of wealth and possession. Promotional ads seldom depict a man's economic success without possessing a playgirl or a trophy wife, the more (women) the merrier. This fits in with the concept of possession—possessing property leads to possessing fetching and fertile females. The neatness of the fit between economic success and sexual success is not surprising since both are manifestations of the same dominant ideology and value system. This is in sync with the traditional—patriarchal—concept of woman as a maal (property). The modern capitalist commodification of woman is just an updated version of the patriarchal objectification of woman. The commercial culture just packages the old heterosexual stereotypes in a new feisty vocabulary of female empowerment and an exuberant celebration of the body.

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More of the Same in the Global India

Braj Ranjan Mani

The tyranny of capitalism in India cannot be grasped, let alone resisted, in isolation from its wider social context. Capitalism is far more dangerous in India than in the Euro-America because of the culture and economics of caste.

Today, India (after China and the US) has the world's third largest middle class (250-300 million); 49 enlisted dollar billionaires (black market economy and overseas banks allow some crooks to remain unlisted); and the single largest concentration of the world's poor (800 million), most of them illiterate or semi-literate, considering 70 per cent in India's 1.2 billion are either illiterate or have no more than a primary education. A political analyst, representing the views of Indian elite, calls this "a new triad of India's political economy," and adds, "The poor were always with us, but billionaire businessmen and a huge middle class were not. They constitute a historical novelty for India." A more empathetic view with compelling stories and statistics, delineating the depredation of the elite and the suffering of the people, is brought home in a new book which demonstrates that the economy "may be in good statistical health," but "it is by no means in good social or ecological health." Unravelling the social consequences of the growth story, the authors point out that the footprint of the wealthiest Indians is 330 times that of the poorest 40 per cent; and that with each new Special Economic Zone, India loses the capacity to feed 50, 000 to 1,00,000 people each year. * [Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari, Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2012).]

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Questions of name

Gail Omvedt

"Dalit", "Scheduled Caste", "Ex-Untouchable" and "Harijan". These are only some of the many words used to refer to the most oppressed sections of Indian society, "untouchable" in the traditional caste order, performers of the most degrading task, and still today caught in the throes of poverty, discrimination and the remnants of untouchability.

"Dalit" is still probably the most widespread of these terms, but it is not uncontested. Many are uncomfortable with its apparent militancy. It means literally "crushed" or "ground down", and it has an interesting history. It is first found, apparently, in the '30s, when it was used as a Marathi and Hindi translation for the British term "Depressed Classes." (As elsewhere, "classes" here meant "castes", something to remember when we are discussing OBCs.) Ambedkar used it in this way to refer to his Depressed Class conferences, though in English we most often find him using the simple and descriptive term "Untouchable". His conflicts with Gandhi in the early '30s were at least partly a matter of terminology. Gandhi had, for him, the brilliant idea of using the term "Harijan", taken from the bhakti movement. Ambedkar resisted this, just as he resisted Gandhi's attempt to turn an Untouchable League (which Ambedkar thought should take up general issues of civil rights) into a paternalistic organisation controlled by upper-caste Hindus. Ambedkar, and militant Dalits ever since, have seen the word "Harijan" as demeaning and false, hence oppressive.

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