Friday, 4 April 2014

Private and Public Slaves – Ravikumar.

In a contest where dalit writing is being equated only with autobiography, we present here in book from notes written by B R Ambedkar,which have the characteristics of autobiographical writings. In multi volume writings and speeches of Babasaheb Ambedkar edited by Vasant Moon, these writings can be found in Volume 12, under the title ‘Waiting for a Visa’. The connection between the title and the six autobiographical ‘illustrations’ – as Ambedkar calls them – is not clear. Perhaps, Ambedkar indented adding more to this body of writing but eventually could not. All that the editorial note by Moon says is: “Here are some of the reminiscences drawn by Dr. Ambedkar in his own handwriting. The MSS traced in the collection of the People’s Education Society were published by the society as a booklet on 19th March 1990. – ed.” If these are some reminiscences, were there more? What Visa was Ambedkar waiting for? We can, however, gather frome the content that Ambedkar wrote at least a few of these available notes in 1935. In the second reminiscences, he refers to his return from London to work in Baroda in 1917. towards the end of this section, he recalls that “18 years has not succeeded in fading away” the memory of the incidence of untouchability he experienced in the Parsi inn. The last ‘illustration’ refers to an incident that happened in march 1938, and must have been written well after that. It is clear that Ambedkar jotted down several such ‘illustrations’ over the years, and perhaps many have been lost. In this edition, we have given separate titles to each episode that Ambedkar recalls, instead of numbering them as in the original.

Though Ambedkar’s works are available volumes, and despite the availability of biography by Dananjay Keer (Dr.Ambedkar: Life and Mission, 1954), and two feature films on the man (Jabbar Patel’s Babasaheb Ambedkar in Hindi, 2000; and Dr Padmavathi-Bharath’s Ambedkar in Telugu, 1992), we learn very title about this personal life. What we know of Ambedkar pertains solely to his public life, his public self. Other than occasional reference to his poor helth in his writings, speeches and letters, it has not been possible for us to know anything about the sorrows and joys that came his way. How was his marital life; what was the nature of his relationship with his son; the kind of friendships he had – we know little about these.

Ambedkar emphasized the role of the individual in society. He was someone who waged a hard battle during the drafting of the Indian Constitution to centralize the individual in its frame work. He also accepted the contribution of the individual to the making of history. However he did not leave behind anything his writing for us to understand and approach him as an individual.

The issues that confront dalits can be understood through the binary of the public and the private. The public has come to connote things and space which are inaccessible for the dalits. Common wells, public roads and cremation grounds are space denied to dalits. If a dalit does well in the open competition of an entrance exam, she is often slotted in the reserved category. In electoral politics, a dalit is not expected to contest from a general constituency. Whatever the law – ironically drafted by Ambedkar – says, this is the reality.

The purpose of Hindu politics has been to restrict and relegate dalits to the ‘reserved’ sectors. The dalits have to defy such social strictures to enter the public sphere. This is a difficult process. Even as we infiltrate these common spaces, we need to retain our singularity, individuality. The process is a problematic as the state of mind of a dalit person who has o make sure he does not touch any other person in the village and also remain untouched by others, and yet is forced to consider the village as his own (‘native place’). In this struggle, there is pressure on dalits to merge the specificities of their selfhood into the collective identity of the (dalit) community.

In the struggle that let to his emergence as the spokesperson and symbol of a community, Ambedkar’s personality has merged into a larger collective, public self. Only when a comprehensive biography is written can Ambedkar’s individual self be reclaimed. The several facts of his personality, if collected, could also be useful for the dalit struggle.

These autobiographical notes, written with the objective of enabling foreigners to understand the practice of untouchability, are relevant even today. The atrocities and the justices continue, and so does the indifference.

To think that one could eradicate untouchability while remaining within Hinduism is similar to the attempt to clean sewage with ditchwater. How long will we resist the clear water of democracy?

!5 October 2003.