When A Sambhuka Speaks
TWO RECENT episodes, involving the question of freedom of expression, failed to capture the national imagination. One involved a dalit and the other an OBC. What was common to both cases was that individuals were being targeted not merely because they questioned caste and the premises of brahmanic hinduism, but because they were doing so from positions of exclusion from the brahmanical social order.
In Hyderabad, the Registrar of Osmania University, Dr Pannalal, in a letter dated May 6 to Dr Kancha Ilaiah, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University, took unreasonable exception to the dalitbahujan intellectual's writings. Pannalal drew Ilaiah's attention to an article of his published in the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle, 'Spiritual Fascism and Civil Society' (February 15, 2000), stating that "writing such articles and debating on such issues (as caste system) is definitely an accepted way in civil society... (but) while doing so, it is absolutely essential to bind ourselves within the basic canons of conduct of our profession."
The Registrar, exceeding his brief, issued a crude warning to an academician who has been discharging his duties only too well. Unlike sinecures in the academia who hardly contribute much by means of generating debates in academic circles, let alone in the civil society at large, Ilaiah has been producing stimulating writings in journals such as Economic and Political Weekly and Mainstream and in newspapers such as The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, Pioneer and Deccan Chronicle. His celebrated book Why I Am Not Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (1996) is a classic widely used in the classrooms of both Indian and foreign universities. Pannalal taking exception to Ilaiah's "elaborations" on the "caste system in our country" is not a freak incident where a person is being targeted because of his/her caste position, or lack of it.
In March, Dr K A Gunasekaran, reader and head of the department of performing arts at the Pondicherry Central University, received a 'memo' from his vice-chancellor, Dr V T Patil, seeking Gunasekaran's explanation for views he had expressed in a local cable channel interview on the occasion of Women's Day. The vice-chancellor was reacting on the basis of an anonymous letter he had received which took umbrage to Gunasekaran's 'anti-hindu' views. Gunasekaran, who is better known in Tamilnadu as a litterateur and performing artist whose range spans theatre and ballads, and performance of dalit isai (dalit music), had expressed himself on the question of women's liberation in the interview. His opinion was that as long as people worshipped religio-mythical figures such as Rama, Krishna and Arjuna as 'gods', women's oppression would continue. The sexism and misogynistic views of hindu 'gods' towards women/ goddesses have been already dwelt upon by political philosophers such as E V Ramasamy and Ambedkar among others.
For Gunasekaran, the justification and celebration of the libidinal pursuits of a Krishna or Arjuna as 'raas leela' is dangerous because women, denied agency, are portrayed in these male-oriented myths as inert, willing recipients of such multiple heterosexist lust. When a Krishna or Arjuna is two-timing or three-timing, women caught in these situations are not shown rejecting/ critiquing the men, but are made to embody negative stereotypes of jealousy, vanity and envy; they are even depicted trying to 'win back' their lovers by outmanoeuvring other female 'competitors'. Moreover, certain acts performed by Krishna which would amount to sexual harassment ('eve-teasing') are romanticised as 'cute antics' by caste hindus. An uncritical celebration of such essentially anti-woman attitudes continues to find expression in contemporary popular cinema, and encourages several Krishnas and Arjunas to be on the prowl. (At the high-cultural level, Indian-English poet, Makarand Paranjpe, in his 1993 work, Playing the Dark God, romantically regrets that the contemporary world does not understand his desire to play 'Krishna'.)
What upset Gunasekaran most was that the vice-chancellor's letter was accompanied by a photocopy of the anonymous letter, saying ¾ Explain this! Gunasekaran was disturbed, but wrote back enlightening the vice-chancellor about the fact that similar views of his had found elaborate artistic expression in his recent play, Pavala Kodi Alladu Kudumba Vazhakku, which explores/ critiques the theme of Arjuna's many wives/ sexual partners, with a play-within-the-play teasing out the contemporary ramifications of Arjuna's peccadilloes; the play-within-the-play has 'stage actresses' who act out their real-life parts wherein, ironically, they are themselves the third or nth 'wife' of some contemporary Arjuna. Pavala Kodi was performed in Chennai and Madurai, and India Today (Tamil) had carried the full text of the play in its March special issue. Gunasekaran informed the vice-chancellor that what he told the cable channel in the context of International Women's Day (March 8) was only a rearticulation of his already-publicised opinion, which he had a right to hold and stand by. There the matter seemed to end. But again, we are not to forget that Gunasekaran is an outspoken dalit and such a casual memo would not have been served if the individual had been, say an Indira Parthasarathy (winner of the Saraswati Samman this year), who had raised problematic questions in his play Ramanujar, about the 11th century reformer-saint; for Parthasarathy is a brahman, with which comes the attendant privilege of the right to speak; the right to - in this case - self-critique. Girish Karnad can weave in the Mandal theme with the veerasaiva saint Basava's concerns in his play Taledanda; U R Ananthamurthy can indulge in pointless brahmanical self-flagellation (in Samskara); Parthasarathy can depict Ramanuja as a social revolutionary... but when a dalit reworks some myths and poses progressive questions, even an anonymous letter could pose a threat. It seems as if the vice-chancellor was satisfied with Gunasekaran's explanation and did not press the issue further. However, the memo would certainly be a psychological weight on Gunasekaran, reminding him that he is being watched by anonymous letter-writers and vice-chancellors who are selectively overenthusiastic.
In Osmania University, Pannalal takes the liberty of instructing Ilaiah that "Basically being teachers, we are bound to contribute to the uplift of every segment of society, promote social harmony and emotional integration. We have to positively ensure that either our writings or any other action do not in any way lend a slant in accentuating existing prejudices and inflame hatred among different section of people." And the intimidatory letter ends with a warning: "You are requested to keep these in mind and discharge your role as teacher with greater vigour and vitality to the betterment of society as a whole." It is shameful and sad that an academic who has been doing more than merely "teach" is being victimised. But what provoked the Registrar to issue such a letter?
Almost anticipating Pannalal's action, the article begins thus: "Whenever I raise the question of socio-cultural negation of the Hindu religion, there are many who take serious objection... Do they think that there is absolutely no need for reform in that religion?" Ilaiah goes on to ask: "Can they spell out their programme of reform? Do they believe in the abolition of caste or not? In the process of moving towards the abolition of caste, is it or is it not essential to work towards the equalisation of social status of castes?... How do the RSS and the BJP intend to bring about equal status between all castes? What are the specific programmes?" Pannalal's letter proves that what the brahmanical social order cannot answer, it will seek to eliminate.
However, it comes as no surprise that more people took up the case of K N Panikkar and Irfan Habib when the hindutva dispensation in Delhi targeted the volumes of history written by them for ICHR's 'Towards Freedom' project. The media reported it in a major way and many caste-hindu upper-class leftists/ secularists felt duly offended. Of course, several dalit voices too, condemned the approach of Murli Manohar Joshi. However, Ilaiah's case has had few takers in 'progressive' leftist/ secularist circles. A New Delhi-datelined report in The Hindu (May 17) quoted some of the capital's academics/ intellectuals condemning the attack on Ilaiah. S K Thorat, Nandu Ram, Ambrose Pinto, John Dayal... were signatories to the statement. The sampling of names, and the silence of many, speaks its own story. On one thing the leftist/ 'secular' brigade and the overtly hindutva parties seem agreed - that Ilaiah with his 'casteist' views is doing more harm to both their respective 'causes'. What is unfolding is more than a petty case of academic politics. At one level, it is symptomatic of the larger feeling of unease that animates the entire spectrum of liberal opinion - mostly negotiated by the upper castes of this country - when it comes to seriously tackling the question of caste. At another, to take up Gunasekaran's or Ilaiah's cause is not as 'sexy' as taking up the cause of Deepa Mehta, anti-nuclear activism, the NBA or Panikkar-Habib.
There is no point here in merely invoking the usual liberal line about the violation of an individual's right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression in unofficially hindutvaised India is not an abstract, democratic entity which is equally available to all. When the Sudra Sambhuka in the Ramayana myth attempts to study the Vedas, Rama dispenses 'justice' by beheading him. In the contemporary context, when the Sambhuka of the day is not interested in a pointless acquisition of 'vedic knowledge', but prefers to write his/ her own history and challenges the existing canons of the dominant castes, s/he again is sought to be stifled - intellectually if not physically. The right to speak and be heard in caste society has traditionally been the privilege of the brahman male. In over 2,500 years of vedic brahmanism's history, women, sudras and dalits were not expected to speak. They were structurally denied what the brahman men upheld as 'knowledge'. Only after the advent of Mughals, and more so after the British intervention, did there emerge at least the theoretical possibility of the traditionally-suppressed groups and castes making their point of view known. This is something that first Jotiba Phule, Iyothee Thass and then Ambedkar and Periyar recognised. And genuine, legislated efforts to enable the dalits, women and sudras to express themselves emerged only after the Constitution was drafted. But such rights, we know, exist only on paper in 'independent' India. Despite 50 years of the policy of positive discrimination, the upper castes continue to deny space to the subaltern castes and groups even where positions are 'reserved'. Top jobs in the bureaucracy, universities, think-tanks, both state-owned and private media etc were and continue to be monopolised by caste hindus. At most, some token space was/ is given to caste-hindu women, but only as long as they do not question the caste status quo. Nonbrahmans, and less so dalits, have made their points of view known in Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla etc but the cognitive realm of English continued to elude the sudras and dalits - but for a few exceptions - till the post-Mandal/ post- Ambedkar centenary phase. It is in this context that Kancha Ilaiah, from the Telangana part of Andhra Pradesh, emerged as a dalitbahujan intellectual who articulated his position in English¾virtually the modern-day Sanskrit which is structurally denied to dalits. Ilaiah has a 'national' standing because he writes in English, despite which his case has few takers. And for every Ilaiah or Gunasekaran who have become names to reckon with, there are thousands of nameless activists whose freedom to think, express, act - even live - is being violated with no questions being asked.
More depressing than the bid to precensor Ilaiah's writings or the seeking of an explanation from Gunasekaran is that very few people really seem bothered while we need to shout from rooftops that the dalits, women and OBCs have a right to speak and be heard.
CHENNAI, JUNE 10