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Knowing (Reading) Ambedkar And Being An Ambedkarite: Through The Anti-Caste And Feminist Lens

 

Shivani Waldekar

Shivani WaldekarIn the contemporary period we see that there are very few informed Ambedkarites who are coming to the forefront and challenging the social, economic, cultural, political, educational systems, who are asking for fundamental rights, fighting against inequality and injustice and looking towards Liberation.

"The battle to me is a matter of joy.
The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual.
There is nothing material or social in it.
For ours is a battle not for wealth or power.
It is a battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality"
~ Dr. B.R.Ambedkar.

14th April 2020 was the 129th birth anniversary of a great social scientist and renowned thinker, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, and the best way to remember him is to discuss his ideas and also examine his followers through those ideas.

Once upon a time my beloved asked me, "What is meant by Ambedkar?" "Ambedkar means Revolution" I replied within a second. And the exact same question I asked him and he replied "Ambedkar is a Thought." But Ambedkar isn't limited to 'Revolution' or 'Thought' only. He is beyond that. We couldn't think in unison that Ambedkar is a 'Revolutionary Thought' because we both are different persons with different perceptions, positions and perspectives. We couldn't even understand or realise that day if we both compiled our different perspectives and come together with healthy minds and keep aside our biases, then maybe we can pursue the truth that Ambedkar is a 'Revolutionary Thought' which changes with time, but stands for reclamation of human personality and freedom for all human beings irrespective of their caste, class, gender, religion, and other forms of identities and that is the totality of humanity.

In India, caste and patriarchy are the biggest viruses. We have been struggling since so long against those viruses, but we fail to invent the proper vaccination which can wipe them out completely. Because of caste and the patriarchal nature of society, the marginalised are isolated and excluded and face discrimination and violence. The history of violence and exclusion in India is a dark chapter of history which is still happening and relevant in some parts of the country. Even after independence the condition of marginalised people in some areas remains the same. But dedicated and tremendous work of modern social thinkers like Jotiba, Ambedkar could make people realize some sort of progress. The bitter truth is caste and patriarchy still exist in India, only difference is that the forms and patterns have changed but the brutality and cruel genocide on the marginalised and vulnerable is still continuing and the existing system doesn't care about it.

Ambedkar

Starting in the 19th century, some radical and revolutionary modern social thinkers and social reformers came to the forefront and they tried very hard to change the picture. This is the time some revolutionary voices were raised when the anti-caste and the Dalit women's self-respect movements were underway in India. The voice of equality of women was raised by many social thinkers, reformers, activists like Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Mukta Salve, Shahu Maharaj, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, etc. who fought for women's rights, right to education and right to social-economic-political equality in the society. They fought to abolish the caste and patriarchal structures and their root causes.

Today if we are alive and breathing freely it is all because of these social reformers, especially Ambedkar. A man who belonged to the oppressed community and still dared to fight against dominant caste system. He fought for education not just for himself but for all depressed masses and sacrificed his whole life for the community and upcoming generation.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, called himself 'Indian firstly and lastly'. Ambedkar, also known as Babasaheb, the architect of the Indian constitution, a jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who inspired the oppressed Buddhist movement and campaigned against social discrimination against untouchables or depressed masses. 

The altruistic work of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar for the depressed society inspired Damu to honour him by calling him 'Babasaheb' on his birthday. After that everyone started calling him 'Babasaheb' and it became popular amongst his followers. Then, Indians started respectfully addressing him as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar since September-October 1927 and considered him 'The Great Reformer.' Today not only India but the whole world also calls him Babasaheb which means beloved 'Father'. It is the highest honour to be called a father, which means the one who gives you birth, by a larg population. Ambedkar is the one who dedicated his life for upliftment of several vulnerable people. But do we really know 'the Babasaheb'? Do we really act like 'Ambedkarites'?

Today, many people around us claim to know Ambedkar. But does it mean that knowing Ambedkar is understanding and internalising his thoughts? I see that people know Ambedkar through books, written by Savarna Brahmins, liberal authors and Marxist writers. Some people know about him from their teachers, friends, or they heard or read very few things somewhere. Some people know him little because they want to only criticize Ambedkar and the movement. Actually people follow Ambedkar as per their perceptions and very few people try to understand what exactly Ambedkar means. Many people have bookish knowledge about Ambedkar which is equally important, but do you feel that reading Ambedkar means you know Ambedkar completely? Not at all. Knowing Ambedkar through his books but not inculcating his thoughts in action is meaningless. The best way to know Ambedkar is not only by reading his books but also deeply and critically understanding, analysing and reflecting upon his egalitarian thought. We need to walk the path which Ambedkar showed us. Reading Ambedkar is easy but understanding and following the path shown by him is difficult and many of us fail to follow the footsteps of Ambedkar.

There are varieties of people who claim themselves to be Ambedkarite, some are bhakts, some are emotional followers, and some worship him as a god. But they fail to understand that Ambedkar isn't a spiritual or supernatural imaginary entity. He is a human being like all of us, who found the purpose of his existence and he worked for all sections of society including women. He considered the caste system the root cause of discrimination, inequality, exclusion, injustice, oppression and violence in the society. So, he wanted to annihilate all the evils from the society through the anti-caste movement.

Let me tell you about Ambedkar's movement. In the beginning, Ambedkar had strongly emphasised that his fight was an agitation against the brahminical beliefs that treated one class of people higher over others simply by virtue of birth. The brahmins not only created caste based differences but also propagated the belief that the upper-lower castes are birth based and can never be changed, wrote Ambedkar in a Bahishkrut Bharat editorial (1 July 1927). Ambedkar led the ceremonial burning of the Manusmriti – a 2nd century text that he referred to as the 'book of philosophy of brahminism', a book that prescribed the worst forms of injunctions against the lower castes.

There were people in his movement who came from diverse backgrounds like Brahmins, upper-caste individuals, non-dalits. Yogiraj Bagul and his efforts to bring out these stories intend to recognize the voices of Ambedkarites who are not so well known in anti-caste groups as well as orthodox caste circles. There were some people at the time of Babasaheb who were coming from privileged backgrounds who worked with him like--Sahasrabuddhe and the Maharaja of Gaikwad. And there were many more: some from Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu caste (CKPs), Bhandari caste and other 'uppercaste' individuals who also notably participated in Ambedkar's movement.

During his education abroad, he was introduced to Dewey and Tufts's philosophy on the normative approach to morality and ethics as a morally defined position in the framework of customary action. After returning to India from America, Ambedkar had to face adverse and exclusionary treatment from his co-professors where he was working. So he refused the post because of this untouchability practice and chose instead to dedicate himself to a life of service to his people as he did not want to take up any job in future that would hinder his social work.

Ambedkar's strategy involved progressive Brahmins and others who were interested in upliftment of untouchables. Thus, the first organisation established by Ambedkar, Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha had members from diverse communities. Ambedkar said, to abolish caste "we have to do intercaste marriage, intercaste dinner along with education". In the inter-caste dining initiative, Ambedkar's non-Dalit colleagues excitedly took the lead in throwing grand dinner parties at their respective homes. In the inter-caste dining efforts, twenty two participants from diverse castes such as CKPs, Mahars, Chambhars, Bhandaris, Matang, Malis, Marathas, Shimpis, Govardhan Brahmins, Telugu Brahmins and Vankar-Meghwals took part.

I feel that Ambedkar gave us a second birth. He encouraged us to be graduates. He inspired us to take up academics. He helped us to get prestigious jobs. He empowered us to obtain wealth and power. He demonstrated to the whole world that we had the ability to reach the highest position; that we could even be ministers. He strived hard and brought comfort to our doorstep.

Ambedkarite

Ambedkarites are the followers of the philosophy and standpoint of B.R. Ambedkar. The philosophy which stands for equality, liberty, fraternity and justice and shows the path to enlightenment and reclamation of human personhood.

There are people who made Ambedkar a god and do Ambedkargodism. Obviously, since he made all this possible, he is even better than a god but we need to realize in the very moment that he rejected the idea of god and the superiority of it. For us, he is beyond the materialistic world since it was because of him that the age-old suffering of millions of people could be wiped out within fifty years.

The story of Ambedkar growing up in poverty and studying under street lights is always recounted to students in oppressed households. He influenced students to take up higher education and act like an educated person. Alongside the Ambedkar legends, we also have Ramabai Ambedkar, his wife, and Savitri Phule, the first female teacher and spouse of Jotirao Phule, the founding father of the modern social revolution and anti-caste and feminist revolutionary in India. The female icons have varying characteristics, some demand valour, while some epitomize strong motherhood, some ask to rebel against patriarchal culture while some ask to be loyal wives.

There are some people who are Ambedkarite Buddhists. Buddhism is the educational framework to transform society. Education is the most revolutionary and the most non-violent mode for transformation. And here Ambedkar evoked and pursued Buddha who was a social revolutionary to evolve egalitarian thought system to challenge the intellectual Brahmins.

Some look at the Buddha as a person, most often remembered in the pose of meditation, guiding people towards liberation of the self from the ultimate form of suffering. While some take the Buddha to be a social reformer who stands with reason against Brahminic Karmic faith of birth-based purity. This argument was put forward by Ambedkar in his magnum opus The Buddha and his Dhamma wherein he argues for a walking Buddha, a Buddha in action who works in the community and is not confined to asceticism or stays isolated from the world. For Ambedkar, the suffering of the world for the Buddha meant that he needs to go to the people and teach them about the basic causes of suffering. That's why Ambedkar sees Buddha's Sangha as a far superior motif than the communist way of organising. Some are staunch in their belief in the rebirth and karma theory, while others rebuff this as another form of superstition in Buddhism. Whatever the differences may be, spiritually diverse oppressed peoples are united in their resolve to abide by the trust they put in Ambedkar and his guidance in accepting the Buddha's teachings.

Ambedkarite Buddhists predominantly belong to numerically larger Dalit castes. Due to the radical awareness and proximity to dissent, they adopt an identity congenial to protest movements. Their approach to Buddhism stems from an aversion to Hinduism. Whatever practices are seen in the Hindu order are deliberately rejected by Ambedkarite Buddhists. As a consequence, ritual-checking Dalit Buddhists become the butt of jokes and contempt. Ambedkarite Buddhists tend to find their legitimacy in Ambedkar's version of Buddhism. The Buddha and His Dhamma is a guiding doctrine for them. Superstitious practices are not welcomed in their circles.

If you really know and understand the meaning of 'being an Ambedkarite' then you can adapt the framework of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. We Navayana Ambedkrite Buddhists refused to call it religion. It's a framework and it's open for all but it's the most difficult framework. It makes you a rational human being as rationality is fundamental for an Ambedkarite.

Being an Ambedkarite you must follow the path which Ambedkar has shown. You don't need to do it blindly, but explore its meaning deeply, seeking the truth. When you get all answers to your questions then you can become a follower of Babasaheb. And once you become a follower of Babasaheb it doesn't mean that your responsibility is done. You need to impart knowledge and thoughts to others. You need to take all your actions very carefully so that you never do injustice to others, you never hurt, violate them and their rights. Being Ambedkarite means being Navayana Buddhist too and for that you need to understand critically the discourse of the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha framework. That's the reason I said being an Ambedkarite is a very difficult task. You need to very deeply feel, understand, engage, follow, evolve, improve and reflect.

If you follow Ambedkar then you need to know the philosophy of Buddhism, not through his quotes but through the Tripitaka, through the text on him where he tells about the framework of material reality. Ambedkar had also written an ontological and epistemological text on Buddha and his Dhamma. Buddha talks about the eightfold path and tells us about the fundamental things which are love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Ambedkar's 22 vows are the actual contextualization of Buddhism which you need to follow and must follow. But being an Ambedkarite the Scheduled Castes has accepted the Buddha and follow his path but the upper castes never adopt Buddhism instead of their hindu gods. They like Buddha quotes in posts in social media but they do not challenge the varna and hindu culture and they never see deeply the new way of thinking. Because for an Ambedakrite Buddhist does not follow the rigid idea of religion which is based on superiority and inferiority, but Navayana Buddhism which came after 1956 and which is based on rationality and liberal thoughts.

Ambedkar against casteism and patriarchy: Revisiting the debate 

In "Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development", a research paper, Ambedkar seeks to establish caste as a product of sustained endogamy. It was written in 1916 at Columbia University for the anthropology seminar of Dr AA Goldenweiser and was eventually published in the Indian Antiquary in 1917. In this essay, Ambedkar critiques the essentialization of caste and seeks to establish its knowability – as a theoretical and practical problem. Specifically, he seeks to understand intermarriage restrictions, social relations, and the re-rooting of caste structure in new spaces.

While primarily concerned with how caste was developed, Ambedkar's discussion of endogamy also defines an important shift in social relations. Endogamy was effectively superimposed on the existing practice of exogamy that he maintains was the elemental law of primitive societies, including those in the subcontinent. How did this superimposition actually occur, and how was the marriage circle formed? Practically speaking, it was an issue of parity between marriageable units, men and women, or how to maintain it. The surplus woman is "disposed of" in one of two ways. When sati – burning a woman on her husband's pyre – was not possible, enforced and degraded widowhood was pressed into service. Of course, "male superiority among groups" did not allow a surplus man, or a widower, to be subject to the same treatment. Because losing a man was losing labour and depleting group numbers, the problem was resolved by marrying him to someone from a not-yet marriageable group, a moral fence scaled by institutionalizing girl child marriage. It is precisely for this reason that Ambedkar's view of caste was entrenched in endogamy, which by its prohibition on intermarriage provided the basic framework for the development of the caste structure.

Regarding endogamy's outcome, Ambedkar maintains that scholars have spent more time charting how sati, child marriage, and enforced widowhood accrued social value than investigating their origins. Here, he is no doubt highlighting a double maneuver by which Brahmanical ideology both preserved and eulogized the very practices that degraded women. In Ambedkar's formulation, three operations central to the origin and development of caste come to light: intra-group organisation of reproduction, violent control of surplus woman's sexuality, and legitimating control practices through ideology.

Promising to explain the exact process at a later date, Ambedkar maintains that caste is enclosed class, and that Brahmans were the first class to raise the walls of endogamy, a custom that non-Brahmans certainly emulated, though not strictly. Firstly, the surplus man and the surplus woman received differential treatment, or as Ambedkar puts it, "man – as a maker of injunctions is most often above them all". Secondly, because gendered violence became common and naturalized, castes were regarded as born not made, thus making them automatically exclusionary. By this, sati, and enforced and degraded widowhood became the chief means to disposing of surplus women – practices that castes closest to Brahmans replicated variously, resulting in male superiority in all castes across the hierarchy. It is for this reason that Ambedkar saw caste's exclusionary violence and subjugation of women inherent in the very processes that lead to caste formation.

"The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman", published in the journal Maha Bodhi in 1951, was Ambedkar's response to an article published in the magazine Eve's Weekly that blamed the Buddha for the fall of women from the "golden position". Perhaps alluding to the nationalist myth of the Vedic woman, Ambedkar claims to see a pattern in such indictment and urges an examination of the roots of the repeated charge against the Buddha.

Dr. Ambedkar has written in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India that "History of India is nothing but the battle between Buddhism and Brahmanism".

The text lists three oft-repeated accusations against the Buddha with regard to women. Firstly, the Buddha forbade all interaction with women. This refers to a dialogue between Buddha and Ananda in Chapter V of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Secondly and thirdly, Buddha opposed women's demands to take parivraja (ordination) and when he did permit the same he also subordinated the Bhikkhuni Sangha (community of women disciples) to the Bhikkhu Sangha (community of male disciples). The text attempts a rational rebuttal of these allegations against the Buddha by analysing how codification distorts oral traditions. Ambedkar presents textual evidence that contradicts the charges, and makes historical comparisons between the Buddha's position on women and women's positions before and after the rise of Buddhism. The last section of the essay, which borrows heavily from his earlier, then unpublished text, "Women and Counter-Revolution/Riddle of Women", compares the rights of women in the pre-Manu and Manu eras, and emphasizes the latter as the period that initiates the subordination of women.

Ambedkar contends that Manu's rulings were a reaction to the freedom women enjoyed in the Buddhist period. Manu's design of ideal womanhood, which was based on exalting the husband, or the pativrata ideology, reinforced the gendered contours of the Brahmanic counter-revolution. Prior to Manu, this ideal had been only a theory of the Brahmans. Manu, claims Ambedkar, made this ideal and the related practices – such as denying funerals to women joining heretic sects and those born of mixed unions – state law. In conclusion, Ambedkar's views Manu's turning of what were specifically Brahmanical ideals for women into state law in terms of a defence mechanism. Manu's laws should be read as a preemptive response to the potential threat to Brahmanical religion – if women and Shudras turned to Buddhism for succour.

More recently, feminist historians such as Kumkum Roy have drawn attention to the resurgence of the Vedic woman in writings concerning gender relations in early India. These writings by feminist historians call for further feminist engagement on the many constructions and reconstructions of the myth of the Vedic period as a golden age for women. Ambedkar's history of revolution and counter-revolution in "The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman", which sets the nationalist construction of the "Golden Vedic Age" theory on its head, justifiably should be regarded as one of the proto-feminist approaches to writings on ancient India.

Indeed, in the past decade, in the aftermath of the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and the assertion of Dalit feminism, feminist scholarship has sought to unravel the "truth" of Brahmanical patriarchy and therefore taken Manu to task by exploring the possibilities Buddhism offered to women. A feminist reclamation of "The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman" would lead to a fruitful discussion between Ambedkar's Buddha and contemporary feminist positions on the question of whether Buddhism provides a viable alternative to Brahmanical patriarchy.

Relevance of Knowing the Ambedkar and being an Ambedkarite

Only remembering Ambedkar on his birth anniversary isn't sufficient because he is the man who brought about a revolution and his contribution to the reformation of the Indian society is vast.

So, we need to pay him tribute not only by remembering him daily but also by imbibing his thoughts which should be reflected on a daily basis in our revolutionary actions. Nowadays, social media is a great platform to express views and access information, but correct use of this platform depends on each individual. Some people who are active on social media are mostly engaged in changing their profiles, copying and forwarding content of others without even critically analyzing the facts. Following the trends of these social media platforms without understanding its potential to disseminate ideas to the larger groups is disheartening. Remembering Ambedkar by sharing his pictures on social media is equally important along with awakening larger masses about his work for establishing equality, liberty and fraternity in the society. It would be appropriate to use these platforms to evolve social activism. Some people are actually spreading his great thoughts and ideas through these platforms and I call them the 'fourth wave of feminism'. I look at this platform as a platform of activism. Where people can use internet as a tool for raising their voice against violence and discrimination on the basis of caste, sexual identities, religion or any other identity. Ambedkar wanted people to participate in all forms of journalism and be informed, participate in debate and discussion and create something new as newness and change is of fundamental importance.

There are some progressive Hindu Brahmins, who call themselves nationalist only to be popular on forefront. Some so-called progressive Savarna men and women claim that they understand Ambedkar and his movement but they don't want to work among the Bahujan.

There are some dominant OBCs who try very hard to show themselves as Ambedkarite but fail to internalise Ambedkar's thoughts. They are influenced by the progressive Brahmins and imitate their act. With Savarnas these people are afraid to express their views but when they are in dialogue with depressed class, they act like superiors. This behaviour of dominating the depressed class has been the same as the Brahmin's ideology. Through this article, I would like to challenge them to hang the picture of Babasaheb on their drawing room walls. It doesn't mean that hanging the picture of Ambedkar defines someone as his true follower but it's the way of assertion as it needs courage to refuse worshipping their Hindu gods and keeping picture of Ambedkar in their houses. I often see people liking the quotes and assume that they know about Buddha's teachings but they don't dare to have the Buddha image in their homes. Again it's not worshiping but it's thanksgiving and remembrance so that they can critically think and refute the varna system and try for a cultural and social revolution.

Today a few people around us are actually following the footprints of Ambedkar and acquiring good positions in all domains and academics. This makes Savarna Brahmin and rigid OBCs feel insecure, so they blame and brand them as revolutionary dalits, elite dalits and question their ideology, identity, merit and what not. Actually they have so much hatred, jealousy, ignorance and many disagreements and their subconscious does not allow them to appreciate people of the depressed class who achieve higher positions. Their so-called progressive mind gets hurt and feels inferior. True Ambedkarites don't have conflict with such people and still love them because they know that only the power of love can resolve all this hatred, jealousy.

In my student days during one spring, there was a competition which was a one-act play on the Varna system titled 'Mooknayak'. One of the professors in my college took objection to the use of the word 'Brahmin'. According to him, it is prohibited to use this word in educational and public places. That day I strongly expressed my stand in front of him and proved how the same word is being used in the primary textbook where students have a chapter about the Varna system and these texts glorify the Varna system. I was strongly criticizing the Varna structure and used the same word in my play and won because there was no alternative word for it. Even now, I can't find it. Actually he didn't have a problem with the word but the whole play where I criticized the so called Varna system and it was difficult for him to digest. Actually, I was using Brahmin because there were no alternatives for that word but I don't understand why Brahmins used the word 'untouchable or Harijan' which is derogatory and insulting and legally prohibited to utter. Also, there were alternatives for these words like depressed class, Navayana Buddhist etc.

Hence, if you really know Ambedkar then you will always deeply and critically analyze the truth and reality. Along with this when you internalised Ambedkar within you then only you can become an informed Ambedkarite.

According to me, Ambedkar is the revolution and we should remember that revolution is fundamental in the history of consequences. My foremothers and forefathers have radical revolutionary histories. I realized today that I was right that day when I replied, 'Ambedkar is a revolution.' Unfortunately, my partner's ancestors were proving their existence on the basis of only counter revolution and that's why he doesn't have belief in revolution and said that 'Ambedkar is a Thought', because our epistemic realities and lived experiences are different as individuals. But I respect his reality and mine too. The anti-caste and feminist standpoint is looking for the epistemic realities of truth and knowledge. For me, it's a new phenomenon which is contemporary and its relevance lies it generating a new discourse. 

Here's a poem on Babasaheb, which I attempted while summarizing this piece of thought. Actually I intended to say a lot but couldn't bring it out in words because his work not limited, it is infinite. But still I tried to conclude:

Babasaheb Ambedkar

Dr. Ambedkar is a 'Revolutionary Thought'.
He is the knowledge, he is the truth...
He turned us from untouchable to touchable.
It is not only the Brahmin who takes birth twice, we do too.
Not from any supernatural or irrational elements, but from the man who is far greater than the maker of the universe.
I don't believe in rebirth but I believe that the man-
Who gave us life, in this birth,
Made us Human beings.
The first need of human beings is education.
He made it possible for us to get education.
He makes us conscious about our oppression and fundamental rights too
He inspired us with his message of "Educate, Organize and Agitate."
He introduced to us Equality, Justice, Liberty and Fraternity.
He broke the chain of our mental slavery and liberated our minds,
Later he challenged the system and pursued new thinking
And made us also the truth seekers.
That day we unfriended the irrationality and started living in the world of science and became more rational.
We're the ones finding our reality and our position within the great framework of Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha
And cultivating our minds; thoughtfully exploring the process of freedom of the mind.
He did everything for all human beings irrespective of their identities.
He transformed us completely,
With one hand he picked up the constitution and told us that this is what shall protect you,
And other hand he pointed ahead and showed us the path of enlightenment.
We called him beloved Babasaheb and saying, proudly 'Jai Bhim'
And that is the totality of reality of knowing the Ambedkar and being an Ambedkarite.
Remember, Revolution emerged with Ambedkar, and is still evolving with true Ambedkarites,
The so-called Savarna only counter it. 

~

Bibliography

1. Ambedkar, B. (1979). Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. Ambedkar's writings and speeches (Vol.1)
2. Ambedkar, B. (1936). Annihilation of caste. Ambedkar's writings and speeches

~~~

 

Shivani Waldekar is pursuing her Masters in Social Work in Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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