A Tale of Two Prefaces
Originally published on Round Table India
With her new preface to Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ Arundhati Roy, and the publishing house Navayana, have received criticism from Dalit activists and writers. Very compelling critiques have been put forth explaining how Navayana’s annotated version of an Ambedkarite classic is an act of appropriation. In the short essay that follows, I seek to explain why it is an act of appropriation with the help of an analogy.
In 1961, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was released. The book, which was later praised as the “Bible of the Third World”, had a preface written by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, probably one of the most recognizable faces of “First World” philosophy of the 20th Century.
The beauty of Sartre’s preface was that it offended everyone privileged – the French nationalists who wanted him murdered, liberals like Hannah Arendt who thought that the preface was more incendiary than the original, dogmatic leftists who dubbed it anarchistic and also a section of Black American academics. These critics’ only contribution to Fanon studies is to reduce an intellectual giant’s thoughts to a Lilliputian idea of “lived experience”, who felt that a White man had overstepped the boundaries in writing a preface for what they felt was the work of a “Black man”.
However, Fanon himself was above such thoughts. He wanted Sartre to write the preface because he considered Sartre a “living god” and several biographical accounts confirm that he was greatly satisfied with the controversial preface. The power of a preface is that it conditions the way a text is read. And when the author of a work has conveyed an explicit approval for a preface, he is in a dialogical process with the one who writes the preface, and he also indicates that he wants to be read in that spirit. Or, Fanon wanted to be “framed” in the ideological parameters of Sartrean humanism and posthumous criticisms of the preface can only be termed as acts of bad faith.
Now, let us turn to a book that can rightfully be called a Bible, a manifesto of liberation, for the Dalits and the other oppressed castes in India – Babasaheb Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste.” Is there any indication anywhere in “Annihilation of Caste” that he wanted a Brahmin publishing house and upper-caste intelligentsia to frame how he should be read? Is there any indication anywhere in any of Ambedkar’s works that he wanted upper castes to assist in interpreting him? Since the answers to these questions, to the best of my knowledge about Ambedkar, is in the negative, the critics are right when they allege that Navayana is engaging in an act of appropriation when they decided to frame him in the fashion that they did. What those defending Roy should realize is that what is being contested is not Roy’s right to write an essay on Ambedkar – I’ll add here that I enjoyed reading the essay for the stuff on Gandhi – it is this essay framing Ambedkar within certain paradigms and reading him in a manner which has little relevance to Ambedkar’s politics that is being challenged.
There is also a particular way in which the Dalit criticisms are being read by those to whom it is addressed to and the way they respond to the same. It is as though they are responding “Ooh, we understand and sympathize with your lived experience but we are trying to help you with our knowledge.” This seems to be a way of saying “Ha ha ha. Knowledge still belongs to us, but you guys can only talk from experience.” Sorry to disappoint you friends. Ambedkar’s critique of caste was not based on lived experience alone but rather was and is one of the most rigorous theoretical analysis of a social system of oppression that has confounded and condemned the oppressed for millennia. And likewise, the Dalits and lower castes who are “claiming Ambedkar for themselves” are not doing so based on their lived experiences alone, but rather because of a thirst for emancipatory knowledge by challenging the epistemological privilege that Brahmins have enjoyed for ages.
What is this privilege? The superiority of the Brahmin is not based on economic power that can change with fortunes. It is also not a weak pseudo-science argument of race superiority. It rests largely on the Brahmin’s power over definition, on his ability to determine good and evil, social and anti-social, clean and unclean, high and low, acceptable and unacceptable, interpretation and misinterpretation. It is the Brahmin’s power over the Word, over knowledge, and over meaning.
In contemporary India, take the Indian nationalists, the Hindu nationalists, the central committees of the various socialist parties, postcolonialists, liberals, anti-modernists, anti-Eurocentrists, anti-Enlightenmentists, anti-colonialists, feminists – which caste defines the ideological paradigms in any of these different political/intellectual/ groups?
When the Brahmin determines what the philosophy of oppression is, the Brahmin determines what ‘neutral’ liberalism is, and the Brahmin also determines what resistance is, where is the space for a counter ideology to emerge? And when a Brahmin runs a powerful publishing house that markets how Dalit thinkers should be read, is it not legitimate to think that the traditional monopoly over knowledge and meaning is being extended to assimilate even the voices that counter it?
Going back to Fanon, he clearly recognized that Europe had a thousand problems. But he also recognized that it produced schools of thought that sought to take man to a higher level. Thus, Fanon accused the White colonizer of hypocrisy, of belonging to intellectual traditions that spoke about equality but behaving as a person practising inequality. But in our case, as recognized by Ambedkar and thinkers like Periyar, the Brahmin is a hypocrite only when he talks about equality. The radical potential of the thoughts of Ambedkar lies in the fact that he recognized that, throughout history, even in the most liberal vision of equality as propounded by the Brahmin, whatever intellectual tradition the Brahmin hails from, to take an Orwellian line “some animals are more equal than other animals.” Consider this, Arundhati Roy has pointed out several times in her public speeches that over 90% of the cadres of the Maoist party are Dalits and Adivasis. But why is it that over 90% of the leaders of the Maoist party and its urban intelligentsia come from the upper castes?
Some years back, Hindutva ideologue Arun Shourie wrote “Worshipping False Gods”, a third-rate pamphlet against Ambedkar. The sordid history of the Hindu religion shows us one thing – while there are one section of Brahmins who denigrate and deride the gods of the lower castes, there is also simultaneously another section of Brahmins who try to accommodate and assimilate these gods within the Brahminical tradition and spin their own myths about these gods which are then imposed on the rest of the population. The lower castes have lost several such gods in history. They cannot lose anymore.
They cannot lose Ambedkar.