Warriors of Truth and the Theatre of the Absurd
Shivam’s post actually gives me the opportunity to explicate certain things at greater length, especially in relation to Chandrabhan Prasad (CBP) but also, more generally, in relation to our relationship to the political in the contemporary. Shivam’s article from Himal Southasian, though it was written in a different context and with a very different intent – that of defending OBC reservations from the attacks by upper castes – opens out to my mind all the problems that I wish to underline. The fact that Shivam has posted this article in response to my comment and Ravikant’s earlier post, indicates that his argument there has a certain larger relevance to how we understand what CBP represents.
Let me at the outset however, clarify that my reading of Chandrabhan Prasad and his stances, especially his political mode and style, do not necessarily mean that I endorse his politics. In fact, let me confess, most of the time his politics makes me quite uncomfortable – even though I have on each occasion been persuaded enough to modify my own positions in trying to confront his. Moreover, there are still large areas of his politics that, I believe are based on a somewhat deliberately partial understanding of the situation. So for instance, his adulation of ‘American society’ or US corporations like Microsoft and IBM for taking the diversity issue seriously, is to say the least, naïve. It refuses to recognize that these were gains of hard won struggles against racism which are once again being seriously challenged. One only has to look at the recent agitation in Michigan University to be able to see that the so-called liberalism of white society is in a sense not very different from modern upper caste arrogance. Note also that the language espoused by both the white opponents of affirmative action in Michigan and the upper castes in India is that of equality: “affirmative action is anti-equality” is the common refrain.
Similarly, I want to underline that I totally disagree with CBP’s glorification of the state (in fact an authoritarian state, as is evident in the Bhopal Document) against what Gopal Guru calls “twice born civil society”. Some of us, let me state for the record, had in fact presented our disagreement in this regard in a note of dissent at the Bhopal Conference itself (and CBP was gracious enough to photocopy and get it distributed to delegates). I have also placed this on record in an article subsequently published in the Economic and Political Weekly. As a matter of fact, in this regard, I find myself closer to Kanshi Ram’s celebrated “humein mazboot sarkar nahin, majboor sarkar chahiye” or to put it in a statement attributed to Romain Rolland: “where order is injustice, disorder is the beginning of justice.”
I do also see the need for a Dalit-Shudra unity – but that is not necessarily because it is good for Dalits; it is simply my wish to see the Hindu Right defeated that fuels this fantasy. I see CBP’s point therefore, that such unity, even if it is possible, should be prevented – and I can see scandalized expressions on many faces as they hear this. The point here is really not that there should never be Dalit-Shudra (Bahujan) unity but that it can only take place on a completely renegotiated political terrain where the Shudras, especially the more powerful among them have been forced to accept a relation of equality with the Dalits. This fundamental renegotiation is not an easy matter and involves a long drawn out and bitter battle in every village, a transformation of everyday life.
This much said, let me now come to my problem with the kind of reading that Shivam’s article presents. The stance of the article, along with that of all the venerable names cited by him (with the possible exception of Kancha Ilaiah) is one that contests CBP on grounds of Truth. I think it is easy to dismiss some of the arguments made by him on the ground of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and yet, none of it would diminish the power of his argument. For the argument is not being made on the grounds of Truth. CBP produces and immaculately scripted theatre of the absurd, where he invites you to participate. He invites you to a debate where the mise-en-scene is already laid out; where he has already turned the tables in a carnivalesque manner, producing a mocking laughter off-stage. He invites you to a party to celebrate the birthday of Lord Macaulay, whom he christens the ‘Father of Indian Modernity”. He invites you to a party to unveil the portrait of a new goddess – the Goddess of English. He invites you to a party to celebrate Dalit Capitalism where he claims that the winds of globalization are ‘de-freezing us’, removing the layers of ice that Hindu domination had imprisoned us under. He celebrates modernity in all its grotesque forms as well – for he knows where it hits – when it comes not just to ponga pundit Hindus but also to refined, modern ones – and he knows that it hits really hard.
The entire scenario is often deliberately bawdy and grotesque to refined aesthetic middle class tastes. Earnest upper caste and upper class radicals and liberals who have ever only learned the language of Truth and Falsehood, cannot see, I submit, the mode of cultural resistance that this theatre of the absurd embodies. Can it, for that matter, ever understand that famous line of the Dalit Panther poet, Keshav Meshram: “One day I cursed that mother-fucker God”?
What exactly is going on here? After Keshav Meshram’s curse,
He just laughed shamelessly/
My neighbour – a born-to-pen Brahman – was shocked
He looked at me with his castor-oil face and said,
‘How can you say such things to the
Source of the Indescribable,
Qualityless, Formless, Juggernaut?…
I cursed another good hot curse,
The university buildings shuddered and sank waist-deep.
This was in 1978. The Dalit Panthers lived deep in vernacular society and its literature. Unlike CBP, they did not advocate flight from the vernacular; they transformed the very language they spoke – much like the non-Brahmin movement had transformed Brahminical Tamil. They took a part of their inspiration from marxism and maosim – much like the young Chandrabhan Prasad, Udit Raj (then Ram Raj), and many others. Ideologies failed them. Parties failed them and the secularists failed them. The Dalits have none but themselves to depend on and hence the insistence that only Dalits can speak for Dalits.
Bitterness and Anger were the main mode of Dalit politics of yore – but as Ravikant rightly points out, Dalit literature and writings called for an entirely different order of aesthetic tools. Much the same can be said of its politics – politics here is about an existential truth no doubt but not, emphatically, about Truth. It requires different tools – in fact precisely aesthetic tools – for its appreciation, as the difference between real life and fiction, between performance and politics exists no more in this theatre. From then to now – from the voiceless days of state sponsored reservations to now, the moment of the breakdown of upper caste/class hegemony, the brave new world of globalization and a newfound voice, anger and bitterness have given way to a resounding laughter. One might say, even a condescending laughter which seems to say good-bye to the nation and its custodians: I did not choose to hate Hinduism, says Chandrabhan nonchalantly; it was Hinduism that never loved me. So fare thee well. This is the logic of cultural resistance at work in the form of fleeing.
For those who still want to read CBP literally, let me just say that he is perfectly aware that he really gets his main audiences not from The Pioneer that very few people read; it is the lakhs of Telugu readers of a Vaartha or those of Rashtriya Sahara that make him what he is – a pain in the neck for many.