Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ambedkar, Gandhi, caste and novels in DR Nagaraj's The Flaming Feet

Two imagined voices suddenly pipe up midway through The Flaming Feet, the Kannada intellectual DR Nagaraj’s book of essays on the history of the Dalit movement in India, and they turn out to be none other than those of the principal protagonists of the book: BR Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. For once we, as early twenty-first century readers, see them not spoken about, but speaking in their own voices, as if restored to life. Nagaraj, a great lover of fiction and a skilled interpreter of its capacity to tell the truth about the world even more powerfully than reasoned argument or autobiographical testimony – unusually for an Indian observer of society and politics, his work is full of references to Indian novels – is found here taking the fiction writer’s license to compose “two imaginary soliloquies”.

It is 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence – an independence about which both men were, from the very beginning and for different reasons, sceptical. Ambedkar and Gandhi occupy adjoining rooms in heaven, and look down somewhat disconsolately on an India that has moved on. Ambedkar speaks of his immense antipathy to religious superstition and myth-making, and acknowledges that “my intimate enemy, that Gujarati Bania Mr.Gandhi, also does not like these things”, even if Gandhi is always seen as a man of religion. Gandhi, meanwhile, is found contemplating “how Hind Swaraj would be if my nextdoor neighbour, the learned Babasaheb, had written it”, and thinks that Ambedkar, a trained economist and the quintessential rationalist, would have found an enormous array of statistics to improve the argument.

Perhaps no one in the pantheon of Indian intellectuals had earned the right to appropriate Gandhi and Ambedkar in this fashion more than Nagaraj. Although clearly written from a perspective sympathetic to the Dalit viewpoint, Nagaraj’s essays repeatedly dramatised, with the deepest understanding and attention to detail, the epic clash between the two over the kind of society and polity that would finally grant Dalits a life of dignity and self-respect.

For Gandhi, this could happen only if high-caste Hindus examined their consciences, took account of the historic wrongs committed against Dalits, and experienced “a conversion of the heart” that made them redress these injustices. Gandhi’s method seemed idealistic, but was in its own way practical, trying somehow to identify “simultaneously both with caste Hindu society and the untouchable” so as not to lose one or the other.

Nagaraj grants that this was an enormous step forward for upper-caste Hinduism, but remains sharply critical of it. He holds that the Gandhian project had no real role for untouchables themselves, once again making them spectators to history in a drama in which high-castes were the chief protagonists, experiencing the guilt of a tragic hero and acting upon it. The Gandhian appellation for Dalits – “Harijan”, or the child of God – was not so much a generous as a patronising one.

In contrast to Gandhi’s language of conscience (what Nagaraj acutely calls the mode of self-purification), Ambedkar spoke the language of rights and of political agitation (or the mode of self-respect). While Gandhi wished to bind Hindu society into a refashioned whole, Ambedkar’s vision was of a complete break with Hindu society and all its encrusted modes of viewing the beleaguered and alienated masses on its margins. Ambedkar wanted the Dalit to stop being a subject in history and start becoming an agent, thereby “eliminating dependence on mercy and benevolence”. The modern systems of democracy, rights, political suffrage, and the nation-state allowed Dalits all this, while the traditional village panchayat never had.

This bifurcation in views set up one of the pivotal clashes of modern Indian history: the disagreement in 1933 between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the issue of separate electorates for untouchables, which Ambedkar desired deeply. By launching a fast unto death in Yeravada Jail over this issue, Gandhi forced Ambedkar’s hand, and had his own way. But even if Gandhi won the immediate battle, the larger war over the next eight decades for the Dalit view of self and the world has been won by Ambedkar, whose vision of aggressive self-mobilization and minoritization has found a variety of expressions in Indian politics and public life, especially since the seventies.

But, Nagaraj acknowledges, even if Dalits have won themselves new rights and greater security, especially from upper-caste violence, the result is not so much a rapprochement but rather a kind of detente. The structure of caste society remains basically unchanged from the top, and the peace achieved is a fragile one – it needs a dose of Gandhi to convert it into something more meaningful. In this way, as the scholar Ashis Nandy remarks in a short foreword, Nagaraj attempts heroically to reconcile Ambedkar and Gandhi. This posthumously published book, the only one written by Nagaraj, is a memorable examination of the Dalit encounter with history and modernity, rage and healing.

One of the pleasures of reading Nagaraj is his constant awareness of local contexts and frames to ideas which, over time, we have come to see in a somewhat general or pan-Indian way (this applies even to the word "Dalit"). Here he is, for example, on the specific roots of Ambedkarism in Maharashtra and in ideas Ambedkar adapted from his western education, and on other "proto-Dalit" movements which over time have become invisible in history:
Untouchable activism, finally, came into being only with the arrival upon the scene of Ambedkar, a Maharashtra Mahar untouchable. However, the proto-Dalit phase is under-studied in modern Indian history; in this phase, and afterwards too, many other models of lower-caste revolt were active and disappeared only after the decisive victory of Ambedkarism over other competing discourses to define and shape the identity of Dalit politics. For instance, in order to get an accurate and comprehensive picture of the emergence and consolidation of Shudra identity in general and Dalit identity in particular, we must study the insider culturalist-rebel model of Narayana Guru, the religious reformer of Kerala; the model of Manguram of Punjab; and the South Indian model of gradualism. Only then will we arrive at a deeper understanding of the specific strengths of the Ambedkarite paradigms.
Another virtue of Nagaraj's work is his reluctance to restrict himself solely to an empirical style of argument. He is an adventurous rather than a safe writer. Sometimes he advances by applying a vivid metaphorical imagination to the reading of history, and very often he uses examples from Kannada novels, plays, and poems to illustrate particular cruxes and dilemmas in Dalit thought and the representation of Dalits (in an essay on representations of Gandhi, Nandy writes of how he follows in the tracks of Nagaraj, "who loved to claim, following William Blake, that stylised exaggeration could be a path to wisdom"). The Flaming Feet is full of allusions to the work of Shivaram Karanth (whose 1931 novel Chomana Dudi Nagaraj calls "perhaps the earliest Kannada novel to explore the theme of untouchablity"), Kuvempu, UR Ananthamurthy, Devanuru Mahadeva, and the radical Dalit poet Siddalingaiah. These allow us to glimpse a literary universe with very different themes and tropes than those thrown up by Indian fiction in English. Although Nagaraj very rarely offers close readings of literary texts at the level of word or phrase, he is frequently stimulating and provocative when looking at them at the level of ideas and thought systems. Here he is, for instance, on Devanuru Mahadeva's Kannada novel Kusumabale, which he compares to Ananthamurthy's much more well-known English novel Samskara:
While studying the narrative technique of the novel, an inevitable question came to my mind. Does the cosmology of lower castes mean the death of the realist novel? ...I have always been nagged by the doubt that realism can provide full justice to the collective psyche and worldview of the lower castes. Even at its best, realism can only, in our context, reflect and accommodate the rationalist and empirical worldviews of the modern middle class. It can only deal with untouchability as a theme. The life of untouchables and other lower castes –in a total sense –has always remained outside the patterns of realism. If images are the distillation of worldviews, then naturally realism can only create images out of human situations. Images do not appear there as the synthesis of myth and history. Realism can only transform history into fiction. In fact, the realist novel is even seen as a fictional strategy to appropriate a form of history wherein, for example, a cot cannot be made to talk in an autobiographical vein. in Kusumabale, as in folk tales, by contrast, an ill-used cot tells the story of the decadence of the family to which it belongs.

Such restrictions [placed on writers by the realist novel] do not merely reflect the aesthetic rules of a narrative game. They are basically the restrictions of philosophy and ideology. Even if the realms of experiences and worldviews barred by realism seek entry into the fictional world, they are permitted only after making sure that they do not wreck the narrative. It is without argument that their philosophical explanation has no legitimacy in this context: irrational structure are allowed, but only in order to be monitored by the inbuilt rationality of the realist novel.

The Flaming Feet is scheduled for publication in America early in 2011. A essay by Ramachandra Guha on Nagaraj is here, and a long essay by Nagaraj, "Critical Tensions in the History of Kannada Literary Culture", can be found in Sheldon Pollock's massive anthology Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions From South Asia.

And here are some older Middle Stage posts on Indian history and politics: "On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male", "Mark Tully and India", "Krishna Kripalani's Faith and Frivolity", "Jawaharlal Nehru As A Writer of English Prose", "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom", "On the speeches of BR Ambedkar", "On Gandhi's autobiography", "Talking India With Ashis Nandy", "Harsh Mander and Gujarat", "Amartya Sen's large India", and "Utpal Dutt on Theatre and Film".

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