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Interrogating the Thesis of 'Irrational Deification'

Mass gatherings on significant Ambedkarite dates are seen by some as irrationally deifying Ambedkar. In fact, on these days dalit history is remembered and reinterpreted, notably through the large sale of audio cassettes of compositions from the 1930s extolling Babasaheb's struggles to the current I Love You Ambedkar collection that celebrates selfless commitment to the community.

COMMENTARYfebruary 16, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly16Interrogating the Thesis of ‘Irrational Deification’ Sharmila RegeMass gatherings on significant Ambedkarite dates are seen by some as irrationally deifying Ambedkar. In fact, on these days dalit history is remembered and reinterpreted, notably through the large sale of audio cassettes of compositions from the 1930s extolling Babasaheb’s struggles to the currentI Love You Ambedkar collection that celebrates selfless commitment to the community.The commemoration of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s‘mahaparinirvan’(death anniversary) on December 6 is usually followed by a stream of commen-taries on the “irrationality” of the gather-ing at Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai. The usual middle class “common sense” read-ing of the annual Ambedkarite gatherings is that these events are irrational/emo-tional and cause civic problems related to traffic and hygiene. Comments by social scientists on these annual gatherings sug-gest more continuity than differences with the common sense view. There is very little in the way of socio-logical documentation of these gather-ings and social scientists with notable exceptions have continued to explain these “publics” through a thesis of either “deification of Ambedkar” or “manipu-lation of the masses by the leadership”. Some of them contrast the rationality of Ambedkar’s thought and practice withthe “irrationality” of these annual gatherings and the “public” is then seen as “undeserving” to claim the legacy of Ambedkar. A documentation of Ambedkarite calendars and the sociological mapping of annual gatherings of the popular masses that constitute the calendar in-terrogatesthe easily drawn conclusion about the irrational deification of Ambed-kar by the dalit masses. It foregrounds the reflexive circulation of “mud-house representations”1 of Ambedkar, mapping thereby the contours of an Ambedkarite counter public.I would like to begin by situating my engagement with the mud-house writers and their literary representations of Ambedkar in the formation of dalit femi-nist groups in the early 1990s and in the interrogation and revisioning of feminist politics that followed. For many like me, the alliances with democratic dalit bahujan groups and cultural movements brought the realisation of gross ignorance of histories and cultures that have been violently marginalised and the manufac-ture of ignorance in which academic prac-tice is complicit. For some of us curricular transformation became the immediate site for engagement and projects with explicit pedagogical functions were undertaken. It is in this context that the documentation of the Ambedkarite calendar and some of the gatherings that constitute it began.A Date with History The Ambedkarite calendarrefers to those published yearly by several dalit groups which are visually distinct in their styles of establishing the historical lineage from Buddha, Jyotirao Phule, and Shahu Maharaj to Ambedkar. The advertise-ments (mostly middle-level entrepreneur-ial efforts from the community) occupy a very small space at the bottom of the page. Each of these calendars is a documenta-tion of history in that while marking the days, each day is represented as a day in the history of dalit doing. The calendars become a mode in which critical memory and history of the dalit movement is reiterated, reinterpreted and reindexed. What does this empirically documented history from below of the publics that con-stitute and are constituted by the Ambed-karite calendar suggest?A documentation over the last six yearsofthe gatherings on December 6 at Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai, October 14, at Diksha bhoomi in Nagpur, January 1, at Kranti Stambh in Bhima Koregaon and March 20 and December 25 in Mahad sug-gest that thousands of people repeatedly visit these places. Can the visits be ex-plained solely in terms of their special value in being connected to Ambedkar? Why do these places continue to be cultur-ally and politically meaningful year after year? As a part of the empirical documen-tation, we asked people to tell us about what they do, why they visit these places, the cost of the visits, the way they are organised and their experience of trave-lling without tickets that often places these groups in direct confrontation with the state. We also documented the trade in these gatherings – the activities at the different stalls exploring questions of – who puts up these stalls, what do they sell, and what sells. Sharmila Rege ( is with the department of sociology, University of Pune.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW february 16, 200819And others as high, This culture has been blinded It has been rendered lame.19Kardak’s social imaginary20 is one that at once recognises the failure of modernity to deliver on its promises and invites it to deliver. He says:Bhima, your thought It’s like the shade of a Peepal tree, A door to happiness, a storehouse of knowledge, a message for good living, This is all a favour from youA New house, a car at the door, Your community owes it all to you, We have the sword of your thoughts as sharp as ever, Your thoughts and new vows.We have to follow in your footsteps, Singing you song, For the poor-you are the only support.There’s hunger in my stomach, My face may look sad, But for Waman, the joys lie in your shade, In this shade, lie the embers of revolution- the door to happiness.21The jalsa became central to the Bud-dhist conversion movement as well as the land grab movement led by Dadsaheb Gaikwad in 1959 and 1964. The decline of the jalsa in the late 1960s has been ex-plained by scholars in terms of the politi-cal subordination of dalit politics to the Congress. The neglect of the tradition by dalit political leaders, the rise of the electronic media and dalit youth musical groups are also seen as contributing to this decline.22 While the impact of these forces cannot be denied, our documen-tation of the cassette culture of the gayan parties suggests that the issues of tension between preservation and expansion of cultural forms cannot be settled at once. As the jalsa troupes faced closure in the post Ambedkarite period, a new generation of gayan parties or quawal partiesemerged. Buddhist mahila mandals (women’s groups) formed local gayan parties which travel to perform at the calendar events. One such group articu-lates their relation to Ambedkar and his to the nation:They went away just the way they had come, All shattered to pieces, Who says our nation stands on the rupee note, You must say only that what is true, My Bhima lifted the nation, Just on the nib of a pen!My father called him father, My mother calls him father, I call him father, My son too calls him father Try searching in the world One such relation, Does anyone share this kind of relation?Like the one we share with my Bhima?23Cassette CultureThe compositions of these travelling troupes move across regions and genera-tions so that often (unless mentioned in the composition or obvious by the individ-ualised style) the original composition is difficult to trace. The rich genres of Ambedkarite music cannot be reduced to “organising tool for politics” or to some-thing all too “readily appropriated by market forces”. In the late 1980s the possibilities opened by locally produced inexpensive cassettes, have meant a revolutionin quantity and variety of mu-sic and it has sometimes revitalised the gayan parties. The “cassette culture” has brought more women singers and parties into prominence and has not eroded the base of the live performances. At the Chaityabhoomi and Dikshabhoomi the audiocassette stalls are the most colour-ful with posters announcing new cassettes with live performances of artistes at regular intervals. A preliminary documentation of cas-settes sold at Chaityabhoomi suggest that recurring themes include a re-reading of events in modern Indian history, a map-ping of the struggles in the everyday life of Ambedkar and commentaries on contem-porary issues in the socio-politicaldomain. In re-rendering modern history, musical meanings centre on the Pune Pact while in articulations of contemporary politics it is saving the Constitution that occupies the imagination of the composers. The intellectual war between the two great men, Gandhi and Ambedkar, is imagined to be an “intellectual ‘akhada’(wrestling ground)” and the interesting and repeated imaginary in the compositions is the request made by Kasturba Gandhi to Ambedkar to grant ‘jeevandan’(boon of life) to Gandhi.24The compositions in the much circula-ted popular cassette I love you Ambedkar outline the contours of conjugal relations in the new Ambedkarite community. The four compositions on “side a” present an interesting mix – the first one Ambedkar I love you Lucy Mhanali (Lucy said, “I love you Ambedkar”) narrates the story of a British woman Lucy who expresses her love for Ambedkar. Her lack of control over her feelings and her plans to entice Babasaheb are underlined. She drops her books andThen says sorry sorryAll these efforts of Lucy are lost on Ambedkar who tells her that she is like a sister to him, for fidelity and commitment are important to him. The second compo-sition ‘Baba Mhanto Samaj Mala – Lagna Konashi Karu’ (The community calls me ‘Father’ – who can I marry) imagines the doctors advising Babasaheb to marry a second time after the death of his first wife Ramabai. Babasaheb replies that the wel-fare of his dalit children numbering nine crores is his real aspiration and work. The whole composition places on record the reason why Ambedkar might have mar-ried Savitabai, a brahmin doctor and the secondary importance of conjugality as compared to the community. The third composition outlines the condition that a young dalit boy makes before agreeing to marry. He agrees to marry if the wom-en can find him a bride like Ramai (Ambedkar’s first wife) whose contribu-tion to Babasaheb’s work is then under-lined. The fourth composition, ‘Tumcha Kahi Nahi Mala Akaycha’ (I will listen to nothing you say) is the voice of a wom-an’s determination to attend the jayanti celebrations at her paternal village where the celebrations are grander than her con-jugal home. She warns her husband that her mind has been made up. The four songs together weave patterns that con-test upper caste bourgeois ideals of con-jugality. The ideals of faithfulness and loyalty of the man, of the priority of com-munity over conjugality, of a supporting and giving wife – who can challenge the husband if he stands in the way of her commitment to the Ambedkarite ideo-logy are grounded socially and in dalit historical struggles.Critical Memory The musical meanings, it is apparent, are grounded socially and historically in struggles and operate on an ideological field of conflicting interests, institutions and
COMMENTARYfebruary 16, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly20memories. This project of documentation with all its methodological and other problems, seeks to bring the jalsa,gayan parties and cassettes into the curricula thereby interrogating the uncritical classical anthropological gaze at dalit publics and suggests that the analytical gaze of the publics be thrown back at ac-ademic practices in general and those relating to the analyses of recognition struggles and social movements in partic-ular. It seeks to recover dalit intellection erased by dominant frameworks in the academy and interrogates the assumption of dalit citizenship as incapable of think-ing in universal terms and engaging only with everyday mundane problems. The foregrounding of mud house liter-ary representations brings up the signifi-cance of critical memory and passionate politics in studying dalit identity and politics. Articulation of the present crisis through linking it to moments of the time past is a defining feature of the mud house literary representations. This work of critical memory is not to be confused with “nostalgia” – for nostalgia is selec-tive and conservative in that it does not link the past to the crises of the present. Critical memory of the mud house com-posers works in a cumulative manner, through a collective maintenance of a record that links time past and the crises of the present. The music plays a distinct role in organising a dalit counter public. A public (as also counter public) is no-tional and empirical and never is just the sum total of persons. It has to have some wayof organising itself – for it is different from crowds or audience which require co-presence. The dalit counter public emerges as a distinctive social space through the re-flexive circulation of the music; with textsnotonly asserting their own posi-tion, but also characterising their relation to all other positions in the imagined horizons of circulation.25 How do we understand the musicasconstitutinga “counter” public – is it the claims to the oppositional that constitutes the counter? Or is it the host of the alternate publishing and circulating institutions, practices and sites that make it “counter”? To some extent it is both – the claims and the institutions that make these publics “counter”. But more importantly it is also in the aware-ness of the subordinate status – and of the conflict of ideas, the modes of address, and the speech genre that it marks itself off from the dominant public. Exploration of the Ambedkarite counter public and the passionate politics that constitutes it not only opens up new dimensions of dalit politics – but also brings emotional reflexivity into the analyses of dalit assertion by allowing a mapping of the relation between repre-sentations of Ambedkar and the genera-tion of subversive counter emotions. If gratitude and loyalty to Ambedkar and his ideology emerge as the predominant cementing emotions; moral outrage and anger against the leadership coopted by the state play an important role in holdingback cynicism or resignation – emotions that otherwise demobilise the popular masses. Notes 1 See Gopal Guru, Dalit Cultural Movement and Dialectics of Dalit Politics in Maharashtra, Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai, 1997. 2 ‘Watan’ refers to the lands that the Mahars re-ceived in return for the discharge of caste-based village duties. This was not fixed on individuals but on the entire community. Ambedkar intro-duced a bill for abolition of mahar watan in the Bombay legislative council in 1927.3 The term heterotopia is a medical term, intro-duced in the social sciences by Michel Foucault in Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, inDiacritics, 16, 1(1986), pp 22-27. 4 Guru, op cit.5 Gaikwad R D,Ambedkari Chalvalitil Athvaani, Sugava Prakashan, Pune, 1993. 6 Ibid, p 62. 7 Ibid, p 64. 8 Bhimrao Kardak, Ambedkari Jalse: Swarup va Karya,Abhinav Prakashan, Bombay, 1978. 9 Baban Londhe, Ambedkari Lokgeete, Akshar Pra-kashan, Mumbai, 2001.10Sharmila Rege, writing caste/writing gender: narrating dalit women’s testimonios, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2006.11 The first generation of Ambedkarite shahirs in-clude Patitpavandas, Bhimrao Kardak, Keriji Ghegde, Arjun Hari Bhalerao, Keruba Gaikwad, Keshav Sukha Aher, Ramchandra Sonavane, Am-rutbhawa Bavaskar12 Kardak, op cit, pp 86-87.13See Krishna Kirwale,Ambedkari Shahiri: Ek Shodh, Kalpana Kirawale, Pune, 1992, p 66.14 Ibid, p 83.15 Gaikwad, op cit, p 93.16 Ibid, pp 248.17 Kirwale, op cit, p 93.18 The second generation includes Wamandada Kardak, Sridhar Ohol, Rajanand Gadpayle, Deen-bhandu Shegaonkar, Annabhau Sathe, Dalitan-and and Vithal Umap.19 Baba Borade. Ambedkari Lokshahir Waman Kardak, Prachar Prakashan, Kolhapur, 1995, p 21.20 In over 4,000 compositions Vamandada articu-lates the popular dalit social imaginary and we are at present trying to document this – both through a collection of the texts and memories of the context of their production and reception. 21 Ibid, p 19.22 Guru, op cit.23 These compositions are a part of the audio-visual documentation of songs of mahila mandals (Ma-had 2005); this and other compositions will soon be accessible on the digital archives housed by the CSS, University of Pune. 24 Listen to, for instance the songVachava Gandhi (Save Gandhi) in the popular cassette ‘I love you Ambedkar’, Wings, Mumbai, 2000. 25 My understanding of counter publics draws upon Michael Warner, Publics and Counter Publics, Zone Books, New York, 2002.SUMMER SCHOOLonPhilosophy for the Social Sciences and HumanitiesA three-week summer school on the above topic will be held at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. This workshop is organized by the Centre for Philosophy, NIAS. For details, see Dates: Monday, June 2, 2008 – Friday, June 20, 2008Who can applyMA, MPhil and early PhD students working in the broad areas of social sciences and humanities (including philosophy) can apply. If there are exceptional candidates from the natural sciences who are interested in philosophy, they will also be considered. How to applySend a CV (with marks and with email contact) along with an essay/working paper that you have written. The last date for receiving the complete application is March 20, 2008. AccommodationSelected students will be provided accommodation free of cost at NIAS during the period of the course. Contact: Send your applications to: Centre for Philosophy, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore 560012. Email:

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