Karan Thapar of CNBC -TV18 recently presented a half-hour debate on whether Dalits have a better future adopting English rather than one of the so many Indian languages. Some of us followed it keenly because we knew where it was comig from and also the dramatis personae – Chandrabhan Prasad(CP), Yogendra Yadav(YY) and Alok Rai(AR) – all very dear friends, and people who have been deeply engaged with the politics and practice of languages in North India. It was a one-sided debate from the moment it started: clear victory to Chandrabhan Prasad from the word go, first of all, because he had managed to pitchfork his provocative stance into a full scale discussion in the national press and the big media. Think about it: it has taken him just three consecutive annual Macaulay’s birthday parties to friends, to bring it to the attention of a much wider number of intellectuals and a larger public. It was a victory for his own brand of Gandhigiri – that you could very much debate and advance your cause while having fun: ‘chicken, mutton, daaru and daliton ki kuchh samasyayein’ is his style, in his own inimitable words. This is not to say that he does not believe in agitational politics. He does that as well.The debate was also one-sided because CP’s interlocutors did not have convincing answers to his extremist views on language and religion and the coupling of the two, which had to inevitably sneak into the discussion, considering en mass dalit conversions were fresh in media memory. For example, when Karan Thapar probed CP on why he suggested Dalits take flight from Hindi and Hinduism; was it because he hated Hinduism? CP had perhaps an obvious but pithy answer: I did not choose to hate Hinduism, Hinduism never loved me!YY and AR looked aghast and betrayed at the idea of rejecting Indian languages, for Dalits, after all, were communicatively, politically and experientially rooted in these languages, beginning with Marathi, most of the(autobiographical) dalit literature was written in indian languages. They went on, the NRI example of turning away from one’s language is not a healthy one: look how they have all become Hindutva supporters, etc. etc. CP of course rubbished this secular middle class sentimentalism by citing Ambedkar’s example, that he always wrote in English and he did so knowing very well that it is not the Dalits who would read him!
I loved this debate because I generally like it when I am rendered speechless by good political arguments or situations, when my intellectual resources simply run dry! But this particular debate tickled me more since it was a revisit, a moment of deja vu for me. I was caught in a similar situation with CP on the same issue of language and politics when Nivedita Menon called us together to a refresher course lecture at DU, braving academic and other objections. I had been to CP’s party earlier that year and was aware of his new found love for Macaulay. He had in fact circulated some pages from his (in)famous Minutes and my task, I thought, was cut out: I reread Macaulay, and disgusted as I was with his Orientalist take on Indian language literatures, I thought I would I argue my case against CP or, at the very least, maintain a critical distance from his position. As it happened, he was the first speaker and he spoke intermittently, amidst widespread and loud murmurs of discontent from the audience. I knew this audience very well – they were mostly upper caste north Bihar, most of them having passed through DU Political Science exams in English medium. So in the Q n A session, they launched into a virulent defence of the national languages, which basically meant Hindi in this context. So when my turn came, I had to do a mental turn around and defend CP all the way against the marauding hypocrisy of the DU lecturers!
My other drishtant is also from an academic encounter with reflections on Dalit issues. The setting was last year’s Labour History Conference and I was called upon to discuss a paper on Dalit notions of work. I had not read much of dalit autobiographies till then, so I did a bit of homework. The paper was not a bad one, it did talk about work as we understand it in the paradigm of Marxian economics, and so on. But that is not the sense I got from reading Akkarmashi, and I had to say that the book was not talking about work but worklessness and a series of failed struggles to find and create contexts for dignified work. Looking for (and living on) Uchhrishta (leftovers, literally, but ‘thrownarounds’ comes closer) food, cloth and house is not what we can define as work! The whole structure of the book – the language, texture, content and characters – demands another order of aesthetic tools. And it is crying out to be treated differently from the mainstream literature so neatly divided into chronologies named after great creative writers and poets so brilliantly speaking of the problems of their age!
These were signifcant encounters for me, reminders that I could not assume permanent connect with their ways of thinking and knowing, just because I happened to spend half my life with Dalits and went to SC/ST schools. Schools from which very few of my dalit friends made it past graduation or even 12th grade. I do not have them as common allumni friends, I do not know them anymore. All I know is that one reason they could not make it bigger in life was ‘English’, which comes not only with basic schooling but with whole lot of other kinds of cultural capital. So I quite undertand the compulsions of this dalit ‘betrayal’, even if it goes against their hitherto preferred language of narrative creativity.
One silver lining in the televised debate came towards the end – when YY argued for multilingual learning rather than abandoning one for the other. Dare I assume, CP would not object to that but it would definitely diminish performative affect that comes naturally when things are pitted in a stark binary contrast. The point has to be made first, nuances will follow.
There is definitely more to this debate and I hope all of us return to it. I definitely will.