In Conversation with Dr. Y.S. Alone
Ques 1: The Delhi University has recently removed the works of the writers Sukirtharani and Bama, among many others, from the English syllabus. Their works, Kaimaru, En Udal, Karukku, and Sangati, focus on Dalit politics, oppression, and caste hierarchies. A move like this can be seen as the suppression of the Dalit voice by the state.
How can we understand this in the context of the history of invisibilisation of Dalit voices and representation in India?
The nature of invisibility has been part and parcel of Indian society and culture. The people who claim to be modern, secular, constitutional, or have constitutional morality and claim to be very legal, or even for that matter, claim to be part of great tradition, great Indian, or the great nationalistic kind of syndrome that is being propagated over a period of time, they are solely responsible for creating this invisibility and nurturing this invisibility. This is because the moment any schedule caste or schedule tribe or anybody describing the society, with its location and the cultural metrics and the kind of violence that person faces in the society, which is expressed through literary words or any other word, they’ve become a big challenge for people who claim that India is a great country. It becomes intellectually challenging to digest that kind of social reality where abject conditionality and how trauma is inflicted now and then, on all kinds of bodies, any gender bodies, and then one claims that they are a modern society.
So, modernity is a big ‘bakwaas’ (nonsense) in this nation. I want to use the term ‘bakwaas’ (nonsense). This kind of dogmatism is being practiced and how the culture of what I call ‘vidambana wadi sanskriti’ or the culture of defamation. The word defamation misses the intensity of the word ‘vidambana,’ which exists in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and some other languages. So, this ‘vidambana wadi sanskriti’ is nurtured in the urban and rural areas. It is problematic in India to call somebody as educated or to call somebody as intellectual. There is a remarkable difference that Dr. Ambedkar makes between the intellectuals and the educated class. He believed that the intellectual class is open to ideas, willing to change. However, the educated are self-centered. They will only think about themselves.
This differentiation which Dr. Amedkar makes long ago still very much exists in Indian society. Therefore, this claim of being intellectual is so problematic, and it becomes so easy for people to bypass completely or completely burn away or remove this kind of chapter from the syllabi. The is reason is that education is very important. What is one taught from childhood? They are taught about mythology, about the great Gandhi, and all kinds of nonsense. However, one is not taught the contradictions of Gandhi; one is not taught about the people who are considered great nationalists whose names are used to name the streets or who the districts are named after. One is constantly inscribing these personas, and if one sees the history of this persona, one will notice that they are the one who opposed the Hindu code when Dr. Ambedkar had introduced it. These are the anti-women personas projected and inscribed all the time in the Indian political sphere, the social sphere, the intellectuals, and the so-called academic sphere.
However, the academic sphere never attempted to see the other side of this person as they had been responsible for nurturing this kind of culture of anti-women personas. One needs to see how the anti-women, anti-caste personas are constantly being looked down on in academia. Therefore, it is so easy for those who sit in that committee to formulate a majority or come to a so-called consensus; who say, “Yes, it is our opinion, and now we are removing it.” Democracy has been reduced to dictatorial terms; Dr. Ambedkar had said long ago that the majority in India is a communal majority. It is not a rightist majority.
It will not have any rational thinking, and democracy is all about taking care of people, taking people along, and give equal rights to everyone. This sense of equality and equanimity doesn’t exist in the academic sphere. Therefore, one can notice that removing these kinds of components from the Social Science syllabus has been very much there. In Maharashtra, people have been fighting to include Phule and Ambedkar in the academic syllabus. There have been morchas (rallies), protests, petitions, and all kinds of other things. Gradually it was later incorporated. However, incorporation comes as a part of political pressure and does not become part of intellectual and academic pursuit. There is a difference- the political composition vis-à-vis that of intellectual honesty.
There is neither academic intellectual honesty nor an academic intellectual morality and ethicality that gets practiced among the academicians of this nation, the university system, the professors, and so on. For example, while launching a satellite, they go and see the moon to find an auspicious time and do the things accordingly. For that matter, it is not just the minister concerned but also the officials and the people around. Even if the defense system as and when you include some fighter aircraft or gun or even something in your system, they put all kinds of tikka and all kinds of things which does not have any meaning at all. However, our minds are so vitiated that scientific rationality does not come as a part of our everyday thinking.
That is why these are the kind of moves that are very much part and parcel of this viciousness of maintaining protected ignorance. I want to reframe this whole idea that there is this intellectual disgust or call it ‘educationalist disgust.’ This syndrome of disgust among the educationists is so high and directed by their considerations, by hierarchal thinking that they cannot teach any rationality in their academic training process.
That is the reason one can find it so easy to cut down on these kinds of things. Imagine this happening in the capital, so what will happen in the rest of the country one can easily imagine. In a state like Maharashtra, there is social consciousness, and that social consciousness drives this kind of urge to put this retained these kinds of things in their selects. There was so much hue and cry when the writings of Amedkarites became part of the syllabus process. Suppose one thinks of a change in society. In that case, one needs to see the so-called Mahatma that people or, for that matter, any other politician in this nation and even the current political dispensation. Is anybody talking about transformation? Is your politics for transformation? This is a fundamental question that one needs to understand and see how they are being taught, what they are told, and what they are asked to write on.
Ques 2: Visual culture has often served the hegemonic, dominating narratives of Caste-Hindu society. You have written about the notion of ‘protected ignorance’ as well. How does this ignorance manifest in art and scholarship about Indian art? What are some ways in which visual representation (or artwork) by Dalit and Ambedkarite artists challenged the ignorance of Caste-Hindu society? How do their ideologies shape their art?
There have been people who have been working in the sphere of contemporary art practices. I began by saying that modernity in India is a big ‘bakwaas’ (nonsense). I want to extend that argument further but in the context of art production. Modernity in terms of art has been fossilized so much into formalism. It has become completely about the formalism, like what forms it takes? How do you look at space/ what kind of composition one creates, and so forth. However, social concerns were never there. Even if one notices the West, European modern art is a part of their societal product and how the society moves, the technology moves, the changes that take place, etc.
The artist community also responded that in those ways, and there are those claims which are very important. Firstly, why do we have such claims? Secondly, modernity in India is under the backdrop of colonial trenches, and it gets transformed into Brahminic modernity because it is all about fossilizing self. One claims that they are going to institutions or are going here and there, but their idea of worshipping an icon for education doesn’t go out of your mind. Despite knowing the fact, that particular image of a god or goddess has not done anything for education or, for that matter, has not written or does not have any opinion on education. However, irrespective of that, it becomes your cultural practice. Similarly, one retains their belief systems, the idea of sacred and divine, continues their practices, adapts certain western cannons, and tries to claim that they are modern.
The modernity in India has always been Brahminic modernity. After independence, there has been an attempt to make education inclusive, and therefore, it has become a constitutional publication. Therefore, the government must enact those things, and therefore administration has to do those things. Had there not been a constitutional mandate, that sense of inclusivity would not have come in the Indian society, bureaucracy, and administrative system. This is because the administrators also come from the same baggage of tradition, but because it becomes a constitutional compulsion, they need to teach those students. These are the people who come, and what they start in the fine art institutions of this nation has absolutely no criticality barring few institutions in India like Baroda or JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). There is no questioning whether you can question your predecessors or, for that matter, question the ongoing art practices. It is this very process of interrogation and rejecting these kinds of cannons.
This becomes a significant challenge, and this kind of challenge gets posed today by people with an Ambedarkian consciousness. There is a distinction, the Ambedkarite consciousness and Ambedkarian consciousness, and these are the two important consciousness that is very necessary to understand. The Ambedkarian consciousness cuts across the community, and it is that kind of consciousness that allows one who claims the constitutional values. The Ambedkarite consciousness is deeply rooted in the outright Ambedkarism and deeply entrenched in India’s constitution. It is only these kinds of consciousness that are deeply rooted in the constitutional ethos of this nation. There is no other consciousness that can claim to be rooted or affiliated with the Indian constitution.
Whether it is left, whether it is so-called secular, whether it is Gandhian, whether it is Nehru, whether it is Patel, whether it is anyone or even for that matter likes of Hussain. Their firm belief in Brahminical cultural nationalism has produced the narrative of Brahminic modernity and, therefore, gets challenged by Ambedkarian thinking. The Ambedkarites are the ones who first challenge that. It’s not the other section of the society that challenges it; it’s the Ambedkarite section of the society that challenges that meta-narrative of modernity and rejects that kind of modernity. It poses a considerable challenge. It is this challenge that is very important to produce a work of art. In the literary world, there is a distinct way of using language- community language, for individual arts. Language is universal and free, and one can choose any medium, any language, to represent one’s Ambedkarite consciousness guiding you around. Whereas others don’t.
This Brahminic modernity does not allow them to think otherwise, and therefore, the aesthetic canons also get challenged by the Ambedkarites. Consequently, there is a rise of this Ambedkarian thinking where people come and realize and make artworks about it. That is where the challenge to mainstream art production is being produced. How literature in Marathi challenges the entire aspect of the very language of Marathi itself. Similarly, Ambedkarite consciousness produces distinct visual pictorials or makes pictorial expressions so vivid that it instantly hits one’s gaze, and it instantly hits them.
The belief system for sacred or the divine, the idea of hierarchy, or the idea of inhuman behaviour gets challenged through these kinds of pictorial representations. It is a challenge that all pose to this ‘vidambana wadi sanskriti’ culture of defamation and hierarchical thinking. The hierarchies are deeply rooted in one’s idea of jati dharma (caste). Irrespective of one’s profession that becomes immaterial, but one’s jati dharam becomes important. For example, although one knows what the meaning of saptapadi (seven steps) is, even then, the girls go for that kind of a marriage ceremony, including the educated lot.
Why does that element of rejection not come? Why does that enabling process not come irrespective of your education? This is where one has to think- can your knowledge production system or why is your education system creating that enabling process and creating a samyak mind consciousness within oneself to challenge those ideas, to remove these practices. That is where the Ambedkarian thinking process is creating this challenge of the Brahminic meta-narrative and posing considerable challenges in pictorial representations.
The idea of representation is not just a physical one- it is also a mental one. It is to do with one’s consciousness- how consciously one chooses certain pictorial signifiers to veer their language and claim that one can reject the ongoing meta-narratives modernity and Brahminised canons. One can then consider whether the art must be global. There is no doubt that art is global. There are so many painters who are represented on a global forum. The art galleries are also taking the artists to the international forum. However, have they ever taken this Ambedkarite consciousness to the international forum? The answer is no. Why is it so? Why is their consciousness guided by the Brahminic meta-narrative or the visual production? This is an important question to ask. Secondly, it is important to question the ideation of canonization of aesthetics. It is in the hands of the people so much so that they need to rethink.
Secondly, the whole idea of canonization of aesthetics. It is in the hands of a people or in the hands of those who are ruling on the top, and they need to rethink. There is no doubt that this is global. Personally, going global in the art world doesn’t go beyond materiality. The Ambedkarite consciousness challenge those kinds of ideas. If one is only talking about it in material terms, then what about the consciousness of the mind? How is one’s thinking get reflected, and for what? These are the important fundamental questions that are constantly confronted and raised by this section of the artists.
Hence, one can find that there is a shift that is happening gradually. There is already a set of artists who wish to challenge. It is a daunting task, and there is absolutely no doubt about that. However, it exists, and it is happening. The current Brahminic framework cannot be used as simply as that. It is not possible because Vedantism guides it- it is a Vedantic kind of framework. There are fantastic examples of people who are Vedantic par excellence under the garb of post-modernism. Therefore, the thinking and ideas do not come as a part of one’s reflective realization in order to dismantle your beliefs.
Ques 3: The subaltern has been a part of the discourse around representation, you have written about the pitfalls of subalternity, or the space created around it. How can we read caste and its representation through subalternity? Are there linkages between subalternity and nationalism in the Indian context?
People believe that I am against Antonio Gramsci or the whole idea of the subaltern. However, that is not the case. Gramsci is a very prominent and fantastic philosopher. He defines subalterns as people who do not have any access to power and resources. This is a very simple definition- that people who do not have any access to power and resources. How did the Indian subalternist scholars define the term subaltern in the Indian context? Anything which is non-Congress, which is non-mainstream, they have categorized as subaltern. This includes a peasant movement. 95% population of the peasant community, those who are the agriculture communities in India, have been followers of untouchability. Will one call them the subaltern? They are the ones who have access to power and resources.
These are the hard realities of this nation. The subaltern as a category cannot give one the internal contradictions, differences, and conflicts in society. This is because India is not a class society but a caste society. Dr. Ambedkar defines caste as a division of labor and a division of labourers, and the subalterns would never empower one to understand this division of labor. Interestingly, if one goes over Gramsci’s writing, he was very critical of Gandhi. The claimed followers of Gramsci in India have been fans of Gandhi; rather, they elegize Gandhi like anything.
Imagine that Gramsci was critical of Gandhi, whereas the followers of Gramsci in India were not at all critical of Gandhi; rather, they elegize Gandhi. These are the fundamental differences and examples. The so-called subaltern studies took so much time to have one article on the scheduled caste and tribe. They are the ones who do not have any access to power and resources in this nation. In the ‘State and Minorities’ by Dr. Ambedkar, one can realize how it is.
The so-called subaltern scholars, by using Gramsci, are exercising their hegemonic thinking and power. The right to interpret is fundamental to understand, even in sociological terms. The likes of Dr. Ambedkar were one of the first ones to use Durkheim’s idea of sacred and profane in sociological analysis. However, none of the analysts would like to accept the position that Dr. Ambedkar had taken and the analysis he made. They don’t consider it a sociological right or have to do with sociology as a discipline.
It is dastardly thinking on the part of the Indian sociologist not to consider such important information irrespective of the fact that Ambedkar happened to be the first person to write and analyze caste in this country, whether it is “Caste in India” or it is “Annihilation of Caste” etc. The idea of sanskritization exists in the colonial documents and the education policy. The word sanskritization is used by Ambedkar as a part of an aping or following the upper caste practices by the lower caste masses. The same thing gets used by M.N. Srinivas, who is also a great sociologist. One can then imagine how sociology in India is Brahminic in nature and how it becomes dubious to bypass this fundamental deliberation of formulations that Ambedkar, Phule, and other scholars had made. The idea of subaltern and how it is categorized is hugely problematic.
Therefore, one needs to understand that the experience of violence, trauma, and defamation faced by a particular section of society does not get addressed and explained through the idea of the subaltern. It may be good in order to consider large masses under the rubric of subaltern and can produce political mobilization. That political mobilization as a subaltern doesn’t exist in India. This is because there is this idea that Ambedkar mentions that one has to make the slave realize about his slavery; only then will he revolt; otherwise, he will not revolt. There is no affinity between the people in India. The idea of fraternity does not exist in Indian society. Though we have a constitution that is completely based on fraternity.
However, this idea of fraternity as a functional entity exists only in terms of political democracy. It doesn’t exist at par with one’s social function, and therefore one cannot affiliate themselves. There is no compassion in society. Indian society does not practice compassion, but it does practice ‘vidambana wadi sanskriti.’ Without compassion, fraternity does not exist. Therefore, this rubric of subaltern needs to rethink and analyzed. There is this full legitimacy that comes through one’s jati dharam with your religious sanction.
One does not question their religion or the agency of caste. Untouchability is not humane; it is animalistic. The communities (mainly the shudra communities) that commit rapes and other violence are reduced to an animal. This animalism becomes part and parcel of one’s behavior and conduct. Similarly, the right to interpretation becomes hegemonic in nature. The power of interpretation lies with the hegemonic group, and they have abused Gramsci in India.
They are responsible for creating this kind of abusive discourse in the academic sphere, where they blatantly use Gramsci to tend to their own hegemony. The idea of introspection doesn’t exist in Indian society. Dr. Ambedkar has stated that it is not enough to know. For those who know, it becomes their responsibility to tell others. How many people have taken that responsibility?
The whole idea of theorization in India is all the reductive urge that thrives on the derivation. Therefore, it does not produce a key; it cannot produce any critical, theoretical tool or, for that matter, anything that can be used for interrogation at the universal level. It is because people take it as shabda pramani (obtaining knowledge). As long as the belief of shabda pramani exists, it cannot create a new thing. It will always be a derivative logic.
That is precisely why the subaltern becomes derivative without seeing its application and the internal dynamics; that is how much it empowers one to interrogate society. There is no lust or desire on the part of these people that they will examine everything. Whether you are part and parcel of protected ignorance are you desire to dismantle this protected ignorance. Under the rubric of the subaltern, how many subalternist thinking has managed to dismantle this normative thinking? It doesn’t exist. It is so deeply entrenched in one’s mind and psyche that they cannot see that they are a psychotic perverted society; caste in a psychotic perversion. Education does not empower one to come out of it. It does not give one the strength to dismantle their own normality. This is what is being challenged by the Ambedkarite thinking.