Savarna India Under Permanent Siege: An Excerpt From "Hatred in the Belly"

29 May, 2016

Hatred in the Belly: Politics behind the appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s writings is a collection of essays by writers, academics, students and activists, who are referred to as the Ambedkar Age Collective in the book. The book comprises essays, speeches, and writing that emerged as spontaneous reactions to an edition of BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste that was released in 2014 by the publishing house Navayana. The writer Arundhati Roy had written an introduction to the book titled, “The Doctor and the Saint.” In the introduction, Roy discussed the ideological battle between Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi (In its March 2014 issue, this magazine carried an excerpt from Roy's introduction). The launch of the Navayana edition was met with severe criticism from many quarters of the Dalit-Bahujan community. The discourse that it initiated, the Collective wrote, was a “glimpse of the ways through which the marginalised resist continued attempts made at hegemonising their knowledge and lives by the brahminic oppressors irrespective of their political leanings.” The title of the book, “hatred in the belly,” is a Telegu phrase (ka dapulo kasi). The poet Joopaku Subhadra had employed it in a speech criticising the Navayana edition.

The following essay, titled ‘Savarna India under permanent siege,’ was written by the activist Anoop Kumar. In the essay, Kumar writes about a temple in Baddi, a village in Bihar’s Rohtas district, dedicated to Ravidas, who is revered in the Dalit community. He elaborates why the struggle faced by the Dalit villagers to build and maintain the temple is emblematic of the Dalit-Bahujan response to the Navayana edition.

I, Ravidas, proclaim all Vedas are worthless. ~ Sant Ravidas.

Nishan Singh was a freedom fighter, who fought against the British to gain freedom for the country and was martyred. A Rajput whose memory must be cherished, his life celebrated. Therefore, we have statues, a memorial, a school, and other government buildings named after him in Baddi, his village in Bihar’s Rohtas district. A village of very prosperous Rajput landlords—many among them are now doctors, engineers and teachers posted in neighbouring big cities but are quite steadfast in maintaining their linkages with the village. They regularly visit to take care of their lands, dispense justice to the local people, and regulate the activities run in and around the village for cherishing the memory of the slain freedom fighter.

It is a village of patriots. Every year on Independence Day, Rajputs hoist the tricolour, take out a rally, fire guns, and sing praises of Nishan Singh and the country. The completely landless and impoverished Dalits are patriots too. They also hoist the tricolour. At least they try to.

Since the last few years, both groups try to hoist it at the same place, just in front of “a modest nondescript structure,” as this newspaper report calls it—a Dalit temple, dedicated to the memory of a Dalit saint, Ravidas. And not at any of the memorials inside the village dedicated to the martyred freedom fighter, Nishan Singh. This modest nondescript structure was the result of enormous efforts and sacrifices made by the local Dalits and it took them more than 30 years to build it. In June 2013, they were even able to install a statue of Sant Ravidas, the 15th century poet saint, inside the temple.

But the Dalit saint was no freedom fighter. He did not give up his life for the country, at the altar of Mother India. He was a mere utopian who, when not singing or complaining to God about the sufferings of his own community, dreamt about Begumpura (a land without sorrow):

Aisa chahu raaj main, jahan mile saban ko ann, Chhot baade sam basse, Ravidas rahe prasan

[May such a kingdom come where everyone gets enough to eat, God resides in every man, small or big, and Ravidas is happy]

In the land of patriots this was a great sacrilege, an insult to the memory of Nishan Singh, to the Rajputs and perhaps even to the country. And they opposed it from the beginning, from the day the idea came to the Dalits to have their own public space in the village where even the local school has a Rajput name attached to it. There were multiple attacks, ransacking of Dalit property throughout these 30 years, but when all this could not stop the Dalits, the Rajputs decided to do something else.

“They want Nishan Singh’s statue before the temple. They do not like the fact that when you cross the area you first lay your eyes on the Ravidas statue,” the temple priest Teja Ram Sadhu told the newspaper reporter. He was lying in the hospital grievously injured after the attack on the Dalits by hundreds of well armed Rajput men, led by a father-son duo, both government doctors posted in a far-off city. True to their patriotic nature, they had come to participate in the flag hoisting ceremony in the village. And the Dalits by resisting them had committed a grave crime.

“They came with lathis, rods, firearms, and petrol bottles. Most of us fled, but the older people, women and children could not escape. First, they started beating up people, then they broke down the temple gate, vandalized the idol and set everything on fire. Some children were playing on the temple roof. They pushed them off. They caught hold of the elderly and beat them with lathis,” Kashinath Ram, the temple chairman, told the same newspaper reporter.

An 80-year-old Dalit man was killed, and 54 others, including women and children, were injured. It happened on August 15, 2013, the day India and all Indians got their freedom, 50-60 years ago, some say.

Asked if they wanted Nishan Singh’s memorial exactly in front of the temple, Radharam Singh, a retired teacher from the community replied, “Where else? This land belongs to the martyr. He was a freedom fighter. Moreover, the temple ends with the threshold, after that it is government land. Does any memorial require any land papers?” he asked.

“All of them [the attackers] are zamindars owning vast tracts of land,” pointed out Kashinath Ram. “But still they are after these six decimals. They have a school in the name of Nishan Singh. They have even usurped much of the government land in village. We are all landless. The problem is that it hurts their caste pride to have the Ravidas temple in front, with their school located behind it.”

But then not all Rajputs are the same. Not all are that patriotic. Not all are too violent. A few even sing songs of resistance, of emancipation for others. Some even claim to have left the village Baddi behind, forever. Some even get amazed at the resistance and resilience shown by Dalits, against all odds, to survive in the situation of permanent siege singing praises to their deity, constructing a temple, installing a statue, despite their meagre resources, despite their children going hungry, unschooled, suffering unbearable violence. All for a poet saint who had nothing but utopia to offer.

It has to do with the Dalit deity and his awe-inspiring spell on these otherwise miserable Dalits, they conclude. It is their fanatic devotion to the utopian deity that is not allowing them to leave their ghetto and join the waiting army of poor Rajputs raring to go for the Revolution, for their instant emancipation. The deity has even turned them into tricolour-hoisting statists, and therefore, accomplices in the state’s killings of Kashmiris and Manipuris. This spell needs to be broken and the deity thoroughly exposed for being fake, incapable of any miracles, they decide. Only to emancipate Dalits, to lead them out of their blind beliefs.

Some kinder Rajputs might even be looking at the miraculous powers of the deity and suddenly developing the desire for bringing it out to the entire world. He needs a shrine, right at the centre of the village, right alongside Nishan Singh’s, and our high priest to deliver sermons, to tell everyone about his miraculous powers, to sing hymns in his praise. A powerful deity requires an equally powerful priest to do the introduction, and for the world to recognize. It is your ghetto, it is your illiterate priest who no one listens to except you, it is you that is holding such a powerful deity back from conquering the world, they might say earnestly.

But it was never about the deity. The deity never offered any miracle. It is his followers that made the deity appear all miraculous, all powerful. With great sacrifices and enormous effort, they even turned him into their most potent weapon; his simple words preaching equality for all, into texts of resistance. And his statue into the very image of their unassailable challenge to everything that exists in that village. Thereby, rejecting all kinds of Rajputs, their deities, their priests, their marble shrines together with all Rajput narratives about themselves, about Dalits.

The Rajputs of Baddi village know it too well. It is not the idol in the Dalit temple that they abhor, it is not the ramshackle building erected on one decimal land by Dalits that they feel insulted about and want to destroy. It is this very rejection by Dalits of everything they stand for that scares them the most. They know Dalits staking claim on their lands, their schools, on all the village resources which they have usurped using their narratives and their deities, is just a small step away. Therefore, it is not the Dalits of village Baddi, it is the Rajputs who are under permanent siege.

And being unable to break free, many Rajputs attack, they kill, they destroy, a few start distorting the Dalit resistance, calling them fanatics, mere deity devotees. A few pretending to be free, claiming to have left the village Baddi behind forever, try to take the deity out, wishing away his people and their struggle, to preserve him at their money-minting, beautiful and large shrines, where his people cannot even enter. To hand him over to their enchanting priest, to reduce him to just one minor addition to the long list of their own deities. All in good faith, it is all for the deity, it is all for his people, they say.

No, you are not allowed to break free from the siege. By talking about our deity, you are not allowed to reproduce the same exploitative structures that we erected our deity against. Our deity is merely a manifestation of our struggles, our claims and you just cannot bypass all these pretending to be free, pretending to be mere individuals, pretending not to be part of the very same structures that we are fighting against and without acknowledging your role in perpetuating it.

When Sant Ravidas was proclaiming that the Vedas are worthless, he was not opposing the freedom of expression of the Brahmins but rejecting all their interpretations of the world and all the hegemonic structures that came along with the Vedas that made their interpretations the only gospel truth.

This is an excerpt from Hatred in the Belly: Politics behind the appropriation of Dr Ambedkar’s writings, published by The Shared Mirror. 

Correction: the introduction to this article has been edited to include the fact that The Caravan published an excerpt from Arundhati Roy's introduction to Navayana's edition of Annihilation of Caste