Cartoon controversy – In conversation with Satyanarayana: Sharmila Rege
Guest post by SHARMILA REGE
Satyanarayana’s interview addresses the crucial issue of a sharp division between the dalit and the left/liberal viewpoint on the NCERT textbook cartoon controversy. Clearly, Satyanarayana’s foregrounding of this difference is not a denial of the differences between the positions taken by dalit intellectuals in this debate. Further, Satyanarayana is referring not just to responses by dalit academicians but to the presence of critical viewpoints in the larger dalit public sphere – the very perspective/viewpoints that Liberal/Left/feminists have in a sense not seriously engaged with, equating them to ‘manipulations by opportunistic dalit leadership’ or /and ‘always and already emotional iconisation of Ambedkar’. In fact, despite important differences between the arguments put forth by Satyanarayana, Gopal Guru, Anoop Kumar, Harish Wankhede, Raj Kumar and other dalit intellectuals; all of them interrogate these hasty conclusions about irrational or manoeuvred dalit publics. Gopal Guru contends that the controversy has created a field of power in which even the supporters of Ambedkar and Dalits have ended up reproducing the compounded insult through two assumptions –that Ambedkar belongs to the dalits and that dalits are pathologically emotional and thus not capable of rational independent views.
Guru and Satyanaryana’s arguments raise uncomfortable questions for feminists – at least for some of us who have since the 1990s sought to revise our understanding of histories of feminism and sought to rethink its futures in dialogue with dalit-bahujan feminists. Do we as feminists think that Ambedkar just as much belongs to us? Further, why does our patently feminist engagement with the power of emotions – individual and collective – fail us when it comes to listening to dalit publics? Feminists by and large have gone along with the thesis of emotional dalit iconisation of Ambedkar that renders dalits as incapable of going beyond symbolic identities. Some even go on to contrast the rationality of Ambedkar’s thought and practice with the ‘irrationality’ of dalit public’. The rationality with which dalit public on the Pune University campus responded to vandalism of Suhas Palshikar’s office – their divergent views on the cartoon apart – is good enough to put at rest all those who are worried about dalits becoming deserving claimants of Ambedkar’s legacy.
Satyanarayana’s interview makes a strong argument for the existence of dalit publics, manipulation by leadership and iconisation notwithstanding, and calls for more reflexive listening by liberal-left scholars to the many voices that constitute the dalit publics. Significantly he locates the process of iconisation historically; thus revealing the thin theoretical and empirical basis of the several arguments on iconisation .He draws out the politically charged and highly loaded contexts within which the representations of Ambedkar come to assume different meanings in different social locations.
I am reminded of Baburao Bagul, the well known dalit writer and intellectual’s analysis of the academic neglect of Ambedkar’s writings. Bagul draws attention to the two or more decades after independence in which the tendency to turn the national movement into a form of historical, mythological movement of ancestor worship led not only to academic neglect of Ambedkar but labelling of the Phule-Ambedkar discourse as ideologically particularistic. Further, in the 1970s, the challenges posed to the academia by Dalit Panther ideology and activities and dalit literature—at least in Maharashtra— came to be co-opted through frames that evaded the epistemological challenge posed by Dalit Panthers. As Satyanarayana mentions in the interview, Mandal opened up a new dialogue between dalit and liberal/left/feminist academics. Many of us left-liberal- feminists came to recognise the manufacture of ignorance in our institutions of higher education and ways in which one is complicit through the privileges of caste and education. The greater representation of Ambedkar and dalit writings in textbooks that Aditya Nigam mentions in his response to Satyanarayana’s interviews, were no doubt enabled by the impact of the dalit movement on the mainstream.
If the engaged debates on Mandal brought forth greater sensitivity to the changing social composition of classrooms; dialogues with dalit intellectuals and activists for many of us initiated a process of learning to read Ambedkar and also think through perspectives strategies that throw the gaze of the dalit bahujan students back on to curricular and pedagogical practices. This promoted several experiments in curriculum transformation and design of innovative learning teaching materials – the NCERT text books being an important case in point. Following the cartoon controversy, Anoop Kumar’s nuanced articulation of his experiences of the classroom and Satyanarayana’s foregrounding of the right of dalits to ‘different’ interpretations really push us further to fathom the multiple complexities involved in such projects. How do we as teachers, move beyond merely including the excluded contributions of Ambedkar to address the right of the dalit to divergent interpretations of representations of Ambedkar?
Critical questioning of the cartoon by dalit publics is as Satyanarayana reminds us, neither an opposition to the textbook nor denial of its immense contribution to pedagogic innovations. In fact, I would agree with Satyanarayana that a dialogue with dalit publics, which would very much in keeping with the dialogical spirit of the textbooks would deter state intervention. This I recall was a position that was hinted at by Prakash Ambedkar in his statement to the Marathi electronic media immediately after the controversy broke out .
In response to Satyanarayana’s interview, Aditya Nigam raises questions about non-dalit academics and activists working in close interaction and conversation with dalit intellectuals, being reduced in the last analysis to ‘upper caste’ agents. As a non- dalit Phule-Ambedkarite feminist, I do admit to sometimes feeling pained /hurt at such ‘last-analysis’ – but recognize that such reminders from dalit feminist comrades and critics has always been an opportunity to unlearn and relearn. I have found very useful sharp criticism of my work by dalit feminist scholar and activist Abhinaya Ramesh who details the complex structures and processes of brahmanical surveillance as they operate in our academia and points to the limits of border-crossing. In the same vein, I see Satya’s intervention as underscoring the vital significance of deliberations on discord and divides in the process of building sustained dialogues . It is not as if we liberals- left- feminists simply cannot, despite ourselves, transcend our caste selves but yes the journey can be long – requiring us to go back and forth – never giving up listening and dialogue.
Lastly, processes of representing Ambedkar in textbooks and other learning-teaching materials, would definitely be enriched if we were to look at what SAVARI has rightly referred to as the amazing rich collection of visual material on Ambedkar. We may add to this also musical compositions and booklets that circulate within the spaces constituted by the Ambedkarite calendar events in Maharashtra. The rational critical dimension of the booklets and the rich social imagination of the music do not only question the caricatured and distorted conceptions of dalit publics but reveal that multilayered representations of Ambedkar have a much longer and richer history outside the formal print media- in the dalit counterpublics. Ambedkar as the maker of the Indian Constitution continues to occupy the imaginary of composers and singers of the Ambedkarite gayan parties. I will end with one such composition performed by a Buddhist Mahila Mandal, documented at Mahad in 2004
One who says Jai Bhim,
Knows the Value of Jai Bhim
He knows that Baba’s Constitution,
is the real pride of India,
Why sing the false praise of the Yogi?
India is a great nation,
Because it is here that Phule and Ambedkar were born…
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
It would serve us well to remember the words of Zhingubai, a dalit woman composer/singer from Murtijapur, a gentle reminder that understanding the relation of dalit publics to Ambedkar is no simple task ..
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?
Sadhus and saints have come and gone,
my vows and prayers too,
none bore fruit.
Where were you yesterday,
today you have come so far,
in your hands smeared with cow dung,
he placed a pen!
Sharmila Rege is the Director of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune.