Book Review: Search for a‘Real Ambedkar’ in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva

 Co-Written by Badre Alam Khan and Sanjay Kumar

The Republic of Caste: Thinking equality in time of Neoliberal Hindutva by Anand Teltumbde, Delhi: Navayana, (2018), pp 432, Rs,600.

The Republic of Caste

Anand Teltumbde is a prominent public intellectual and civil rights activist. He is presently general secretary of the committee for protection of democratic rights.  He is also associated with the All India forum for rights to education, and regular contributor to academically acclaimed journal Economic and Political Weekly. He has authored and edited several books which include,The Republic of Caste (2018), Dalits: Past, Present and Future (2016), Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt (2016), The Persistence of Caste (2010), Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (2008), Anti-Imperialism and Annihilation of Castes(2005), and Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis (ed., 2005). He was recently in the news for being allegedly considered as an urban Naxal (A term which is coined by the ruling establishment for the Human Rights activists to politically demonize them) by the Indian state and Hindutva force too. However, contrary to the ruling dispensation,we argue that he is an ‘Organic Intellectuals’ in the Gramscian sense,because of in our view Teltumbde champions and fight for the cause of the most marginalized social groups like Dalits and tribals.

In this review essay, we are not going to discuss all his works and writings but our focus will remain to confine the recent book titled,The Republic of Caste: Thinking equality in time of Neoliberal Hindutva(2018). The foreword of this book has been written by an eminent social scientist Sunil Khilani(He is the author of the celebrated and well known book, Idea of India). In his forward, Khilani observes, ‘the Indian left’s unwilling to address caste, and of dalit unwilling to imagine any more general forms of collective action, outside of categories of caste identity’(p-15). To note that most of articles, which appeared in this book have earlier been published in the Economic and Political Weekly and elsewhere. However, earlier version of articles have been updated and revised by the author in the process of writing this book. Since the rise of BJP–RSS combine at centre stage of Indian politics; several episode took place like institutional murder of Ph.D Scholar, Rohit Vemula at HCU,Bhima-Koregaon, Una agitations,  derecognition of the Ambedkar and Periyar study circles at the IIT Madras (P-267),to name a few, have been also incorporated in this book. To be very brief, this book is a relevantand covered range of issues like,Saffornisation of Dr.Ambedkar(Chatper-8) by the Sangh Privar in age of ‘Neoliberal Hinduvta. Besides, present work has also highlighted the manner in which the mainstream parties like congress, political left,AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) and BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) have narrowly used Dr.Abemdkar’s ideas to curve out its political space. For Teltumbde, it is an ironical to note that some section of Ambedkarites (mainly who sided with the present ruling dispensation), still believe that by endorsement of the ‘Dalit capitalism’, we could empower the Dalits and fight against the menace of caste-based discriminations.

In the present prevalent political and social scenario, it has now become imperative for us to preserve Dr. Ambedkar’s radical legacy from misappropriation and selective use by the mainly ‘saffron power’.Drawing insights from radical legacy of Dr. Ambedkar,Teltumbde nicely put forward the idea that without fighting the twin enemies like caste (brahaminism) and class (capitalism), we could not bring about any radical change in the Indian society. In the introductory chapter titled ‘Thinking Equality in the time of Neoliberal Hinduvta’, Teltumbde writes, ‘contraryto the prevailing understanding of both the Dalit and the left movements,I see class and caste as intertwined. Without the annihilation of caste, there can be no revolution in India, and at same time, without a revolution there can be no annihilation of caste’ (P-19,). As Teltumbde’ argues,‘Republic of India has been constructed on the foundation of caste’ (p-14, cited by Khilnani in his foreword). In short, this book in our view must be considered asan academically and scholarly acclaimed work in the history of the post-independent India, to understand the inequalities grappling the Indian society mainly in terms of caste and class.

Noted scholars like Gopal Guru and Teltumbde have consistently underlined that Ambedkar had always stood for ‘Annihilation of caste’ and dismantling the Hindu hierarchical social order to achieve justice, equality and fraternity for subaltern masses. Teltumbde in his several works including in this book has aptly shown that both caste inequality and market based capitalism in the age of neoliberal Hindutva has utterly failed to articulate the aspirations of Dalits and  hence one cannot deny the fact that path adopted by the present ruling dispensation has negatively impacted on the everyday life of subaltern masses.

In this review essay, while toeing the arguments of Teltumbde, we also put forward the idea that assertive Ambedkarites such as Rohith Vemula’s and student outfit like Ambedkar Student Association’s (ASAs) and recent youngleaders like JingneshMevani (now elected MLA from Gujarat) and leader of Bhim Army chief Chandrashakhar Azad and others have launched nation-wide struggle against caste atrocities, material deprivations, and land distributions etc. which must be taken seriously in the age of neoliberal Hindutva. To note that all these struggles launched by radical Ambedkarites-since the BJP-RSS combine came into power at the centre and respective states, have been vividly discussed by Teltumbde in his book.Contrary to the supporters of Dalit capitalism, the book rightly argues that current form of neo-liberal capital is an essentially based on unholy alliance between Hindutva and global capitalist forces. As several studies including this one has underlined that it is  an empirically untenable to say that in time of neo-liberal Hindu India the role of caste and communal discriminations are declining as often argued by the ruling establishment and new middle class Dalits too.

The book broadly covered three pertinent theme, firstly how can forge larger solidarity between progressive left and Dalit movements. In this respect, chapters one to five have discussed around the theme of convergence and divergence between left and the Dalit circles around the issues caste and class debate. However, the author has also underlined the necessity of building the left-Dalit perspective to fight against the neo-liberal Hindutva. Secondly from the perspective of radical Ambedkar, (mainly on the question of Annihilation of caste)and by also drawing some insights from Marxism on question of capitalism and inequality, Teltumbde has strongly exposed hypocrisy of the Hindutva forces and its unholy alliances with global capitalist forces.

And in the last three chapters, Teltumbde highlights the limitations of the so-called social justice and secular parties’ for not firmly taking stand against theannihilation of caste and dismantling the unholy nexus of ‘State–Temple- Corporate complex’(P-32).

Having introduced these issues briefly, let us critically engage with left and Ambedkarties perspective on the several burring problems like annihilation of caste, crony capitalism, and communalism.

Before highlighting the limitations of left politics around the ‘Dalit question’ during the colonial rule, it is important to understand why Ambedkar initially sided with Indian the left and socialist blocks but later parted way on the question of recognizing division among the labourers on lines of caste and untouchability in the Bombay mills workers in the late 1930s. To explain the diversions between Marxism and Ambedkarism, author of this book has underlined that both the left and some section of Ambedkarites have had not actually understood the possible affinity between Marx and Ambedkar in the context of colonial rule.While articulating the problems and issues of laboure and working class, it was Babasaheb Ambedkar who formed the Indian Labour Party (ILP) in 1936, mainly against the brahmanical hegemony and capitalist structures in the Indian society. To note that formation of ILP was not initially supported and welcome by communist leaders (who mostly came from upper-caste strata of the Indian society). Here, diversions took place between Ambedkar and communists solely because of they assumed that this will led to the split amongst the working class. In response to that Ambedkar hadput-forth view that communist leaders were working for the workers but not for the Human rights of dalit workers. It is interesting to note that Ambedkar in his revolutionary text, Annihilation of Caste(1936), had strongly emphasized that “caste is not merely the ‘division of labour’ but ‘division labourers’ based upon graded inequality”.

It is not wrong to say that contradictions highlighted by Dr. Ambedkar long ago, still exist in our society and there is no radical shift in position of left parties with respect to overcoming the tension between caste and class. Ambedkar in his early writing on Caste in India: their Mechanism, genesis and development (1917) had said that ‘caste is an enclosed class’. It has to be noted that the ends of both Ambedkar and Marx (mainly how can fight against social oppression and economic exploitations) were not different but strategies which put forward by both somehow diverge because of socio-historical specify of their respective society. While in the context of India,Ambedkar stressed on methods of non-violent and democratic path to bring about social transformations.However,Karl Marx advocated the violent means and dictatorship of the proletariat to bring out radical change in society, as underlined by Teltumbde his book.

While interpreting Marx writings in the context colonial state, certain section of orthodox Marxists (who mainly taken insights from Russian version of Marxism) had have created dichotomy between base (mode of production) and super-structure (caste, culture and civil society etc). In this respect, Teltumbde while drawing insights from both Dr. Ambedkar’s early works and Marx’s writings, has vehemently disagree with Indian Marxists and Socialists for maintaining the dichotomy of caste and class in the context of India.Keeping these false divides in mind with respect to India, both Ambedkarties and Indian left have had develop an antagonistic relation towards each other. ‘When the Dalit movement gained momentum, the left developed an antagonistic attitude towards it and viewed it as something that fragmented the proletariat. The Dalits, on their part, focused merely on their religio-cultural oppression by the caste placed above theme’, says Teltumbde in his introductory chapter (P-21). However, it is to be note that the recent rise of Dalit and left movements–against the onslaught of Hindutva fascism, have shown that now it is high time to forge the larger left-Dalit unity to deal with current challenges of caste, class questions and communalism. One could notice that for the last four years and even more, several agitations and social protests launched by Dalits mainly from Rohith to Bhima Koregaon movements; it appears that Dalit-left border alliance seems to be emerging. The book under-review has also hinted these points at various places.

In the subsequent chapters like, Dalit Protest in Gujarat: Shifting Pardigm (chapter-6),Slumdongs and Millionaires: The Myth of caste free Neoliberalism (chapter-7), Saffornising Ambedkar; The RSS Inversion  of the Idea of India (chapter-8), and no Swachh Bharat without Annihilation of Caste (chapter-10) etc.,the author has consistently underlined that Hindutva forces and  the present ruling dispensation, wooing the Dalits for merely electoral benefits and hence, doing nothing concrete at ground levels to improve the socio-economic status of Dalits. Contrary to the tall claim made by BJP-RSS combine, Teltumbde has rightly demonstrated that inequalities in all walks of life have deepened along with increasing tendencies of caste-based violence in the time of neo-liberal Hindutva. For instance, it has been reported that one manual scavenger has died on duty every five days. Nearly 123 people have lost their life during cleaning sewers and septic tanks since first january 2017. while introducing the main theme the book, Teltumbde writes, ‘Republic of caste looks at how inequality in India is deeply intertwined with caste and religion, and how in our times both caste and religious fundamentalism have colluded with the market to speak the language of  majoritarianism’ (P-20). In short, Teltumbde has strongly rejected the Hinduvta claim for doing any noteworthy works to uplift the socio-economic conditions of Indian Dalits except the taping into Dalit votes for capturing political power at centre and respective state as well. To explain the enmities between the RSS-BJP combine and Dr.Ambedkar, the author observes, ‘representing the resurgent brahminism, the RSS is nothing but the ideological enemy of Ambedkar’ (P-35).However, in the recent time attempt has been made by Hindutva forces, to Saffornise  Ambedkar by  establishing the Samajiksamarasta Manch (Social harmony platform) in 1983 in Puna. Since then, RSS is trying to assert that Ambedkar was friends of Hedegewar and Golwalkar (early founding members of RSS) and against Muslim (P-35-36).

In the last three chapters (chapters-11 to 13),Teltumbde has critically engaged with the so-called secular (Congress and AAP) and social justice party (BSP), for its claim to be sole representative of the Dalits and subaltern masse. While critically analyzing from the perspective of Dr. Ambedkar‘s ideas on the range of issues, like annihilation of caste, glaring inequality, still Indian society is witnessing presently, the author has underlined that that these parties have not implemented the radical agenda of Babasaheb Ambedkar . In the chapter-11 titled ‘Assertions not Annihilation:  The BSP Enigma’ Teltumbde maintains that party has failed to annihilate the caste and became now ‘status-quoits’ even co-opted by the ruling class. In short, the book under-review candidly pointed out that radical agenda of Dr. Ambedkar has not been truly adopted by so –called secular and social justice parties whenever it’s got power at centre and respective states.

Concluding Remarks: Way forward

Republic of caste is a timely intervention and much needed in the age of cultural intolerance and neo-liberal Hindu India. One cannot deny the fact that Indian society and particularly subaltern masses are now confronting worst form of humiliation, social suffering, threat of rabid communalism, and extreme form of poverty perpetuated by the currently Indian state and ruling classes. Besides, Anand Teltumbde in his work has also highlighted that so-called secular Congress party, AAP and Social Justice Party like BSP have not seriously carry forward the radical agenda of Ambedkar. Besides, it is ironical to note that for a long time, parliamentary left(mainly CPM and CPI) have not also followed the real political legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

To conclude here, one cannot deny that fact Teltumbde’s book is an arguably first kind of intellectually stimulating work since independence, which has systematically reflected all these problems and issues mainly experienced by the India’s Dalits in very dispassionate manners. Keeping the present challenges, the author stressed the need for developing the border alliance of left-Dalit unity based on progressive politics by creatively combining the material as well as non- material issues in the time of the looming threat of Hindutva fascism.

Therefore, in given current political context, we recommend that this path breaking book must be read by scholars and public intellectuals, academics, Human rights activists, and general reader as well,who believed the need for better future to the India’s most marginalized masses like Dalits in our caste embedded and deeply hierarchical society.

Badre Alam Khan ([email protected]) is a Ph.D Scholar at Political Science department, University of Delhi and Sanjay Kumar is a Post-Doctorate fellow at JNU.


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