Friday, December 31, 2010

The “intimate enmity” or Bapu’ and ‘Babasaheb”

  • DR’s stroke of genius is to see that the ‘self’ in Gandhi’s project of ‘self-purification’ is the upper-caste self; the ‘self’ in Ambedkar’s project of ‘self-respect’ is the lower-caste and untouchable self. The two political projects, thus, unfold upon different subjects, even as they appear to both address one and the same social evil, namely, untouchability. For Gandhi, it is the upper-caste person who must purify his being of the ‘sin’ of untouchability through a variety of spiritual practices; for Ambedkar, it is the untouchable who must reject the entire history of his humiliation at the hands of caste society and embrace equal citizenship. Gandhi’s motivation is his deep religiosity; Ambedkar’s is his thoroughly political understanding of human life and human dignity. Gandhi comes to the problem of untouchability from the side of tradition; Ambedkar’s approach is radically modern.  

  • DR knew how to index his appropriation, equally, of Gandhian and Ambedkarite politics, and he forced us to think: Why not? Why should we not learn from our two greatest modern thinkers how to make sense of caste and how best to critique it? Why should the Dalit Movement eschew the Mahatma’s legacy, which is India’s most potent ethical inheritance from the freedom struggle? Is it really worthwhile to ridicule and denigrate Gandhi’s sincere—and in its own way, successful—war on untouchability, just to assert Dalit pride? If you have to lose ahimsa in order to reject the category ‘Harijan,’ then that is just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. DR astutely used the language of intimacy, familiarity—and love—to show up the poverty of identity politics in Dalit discourse. He always said/wrote ‘Gandhiji,’ ‘Bapu’ and ‘Babasaheb’, as a reversal of the unthinking, self-defeating patricide that has marred and embittered so much of post-colonial India’s ideological life. 

  • In fact, in my view, DR was beginning to appreciate that Ambedkar’s own turn towards Buddhism at the end of his life was an effect of Ambedkar’s dissatisfaction with a purely political, constitutional and materialist solution to the inequity and injustice of the caste system, and also of Ambedkar’s realisation, after Gandhi’s death, that his greatest adversary had, in many crucial ways, been right. To forget and deny caste altogether would mean, for Dalits, to cut themselves off from their communities, unmoor themselves from their histories, and become mired in self-loathing. Ambedkar came to recognise that these costs were too high a price to pay for the emancipation of the low-caste subject.  

  • Untouchability for both Gandhi and Ambedkar, at the far side of their decades-long wrangling with one another as intimate enemies, converged as a problem that was not primarily one with material dimensions—land, agrarian relations, poverty and so on—but as a problem of value structure, having to do with the very soul, the psyche, the spirit, as it were, of Indian civilisation. At the end, Ambedkar left Marx and went to the Buddha; Gandhi began in Manuvada and came closer to the Bhagavad Gita. Bapu and Babasaheb, one a Bania, the other a Mahar, had changed one another irrevocably. To use DR’s words, “the beauty and the horror” of their respective positions on caste had been reconciled, synthesised, interchanged and brought into a truly dialectical relationship: beauty, from the idea of equal citizenship and the revolt against traditional inequality, and horror, from the nitty-gritty of positive discrimination and compensatory justice. As a matter of fact, Indian society could not progress without both the idealist and the materialist aspects of the struggle to undo the damage of caste. We needed as much the spiritual exercises, the disciplines of self, advocated by the Mahatma, as we needed the affirmative action of the new Constitution, drafted under Ambedkar’s supervision.  

From “Let Poetry Be a Sword!” by Ananya Vajpeyi

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