“A new experiment in Ambedkarite – Marxist alliance” – in conversation with Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

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(Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd pays his respects to Jyotiba Phule on 11th April; photo: Abhishek Bhattacharyya)

Abhishek Bhattacharyya

Prof Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, now Chairman of T-MASS, or ‘Telangana Mass and Social Organizations,’ appears to have put behind him the recent spike in threats to his life, and is very busy with travel and various meetings. I learn from him of a celebration organised here in Hyderabad by KVPS (Kula Vivaksha Vyatireka Porata Sangham – an anti-caste front led by CPI-M workers) to mark Jyotiba Phule’s birthday, where he is scheduled to speak. We walk out after his presentation, and speak in his car, as he heads home before flying to Delhi later in the afternoon. Below is a full transcript of the conversation, with minor editorial interventions.

A: You have written of T-MASS on your website as a “new experiment in Ambedkarite-Marxist alliance”. What is the need at the present juncture for such a project?

K: After the BJP came to power, the Ambedkarite forces realised they will not be able to fight a very organised Hindu radical force like RSS. The Communists have a history of fighting against communal forces, against feudal lords, against capitalists. Marx and Lenin, as great classical thinkers, have given a vision of socialism as well as democracy. It is because of their thought that the world is still practicing democratic socialism, with welfare measures. For example, before the Soviet Union democracy did not have any understanding of old-age pension, free education, free hospitals, and so on. Even Europe, England and America never had this economy. Along with great welfarist liberal thinkers like John Stuart Mill, it was Marx who gave a full picture of human development. Proletariat dictatorship is a short term measure that he suggested. But ultimately human welfare that the state has to … So that welfare – though the Soviet Union collapsed, and the socialist experiment in certain states such as China transformed into something else … I thought, Ambedkar and Marx as a combination will do a great service to India’s democratic experiment.

Before BJP came to power in 1999 we didn’t realise that need – that communists and Ambedkarites should come together. Secondly, communists were also not willing to accept Ambedkar as a great liberal democratic thinker. They were earlier criticising him as a bourgeois constitution writer, a lackey of the British. Even in my early phase, in early 80s, that was their argument. CPM, CPI also had that argument. They were against this constitution too. RSS was against this as well, to put Manudharma in the new constitution form. Ambedkar burned Manudharma, and wrote this constitution. Nehru being a true liberal democrat and secular politician managed to sustain constitutional governance. So we realised this – I was a great anti-Nehru person for a long time. Now I realise that Ambedkar and Marx coming together is very important. And Marxists have also realised this. There are a number of SC/ST/OBC forces in Telangana, who fought for a long time for revolution. They didn’t succeed though. So they went into different streams of thought – Ambedkar, Phule Thought, universities, civil liberties, CPI – CPM, even ML groups – now all of them have come to a stage to influence their parties. For example there is one G Ramulu in CPM, who is an Ambedkarite within CPM, at the secretariat level, for a long time fighting to include Ambedkar in their references. So they made their effort, and we made our effort from outside. I think [my books, such as] Why I am not a Hindu, Post-Hindu India, and Buffalo Nationalism, made many realise that this is a great argument about productive force – the lower castes are productive castes, and they need to be seen in conjunction with the working class. That alliance has now formed in Telangana, and I hope CPM in their upcoming conference, from 18-22, will pass a motion approving this constitution as the main protective force …

A: You said that after ’99 there was felt this need for a Marxist-Ambedkarite alliance, but if we go back even to your work in the late 80s, when you were trying out discussions within the party that you were a member of, or discussions in Nalupu (Black) which you also referenced today, or Edureeta (Swimming Against the Tide), and then you being part of forming ML-Centre, there’s this long history of things you have been involved in. How would you take this story further back, or how do you relate to that period in the present context?

K: In 1985 the Karamchedu massacre happened. At that point I was in OPDR [Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights], Nagi Reddy faction – I raised the issue of supporting Dalit Mahasabha, and going fully with their demands, with their slogans – including Jai Bhim, Ambedkar and so on. The organisation didn’t accept it. They said Ambedkar is not acceptable to us, he is a bourgeois constitution writer, and we are fighting to overthrow that constitution. There for the first time I [car honks!] and later from the party forum also, U Sambasiva Rao came to the same conclusion, so a group of us came out of that network, and they expelled us. We started experimenting with various other things, working amongst starving masses, about drought as a civil rights issue, then caste as a civil rights issue, and so on. At that time I wrote a book called The State and Repressive Culture (1989). Through Nalupu [started 1989] we made our first entry. And at that time, some sort of document I wrote too – Kula Nirmulana – oka Marxist drukpatham (Abolition of Caste – a Marxist perspective). There I formulated some basic things. They were very rudimentary. Then Nalupu came, by then I was reading more and more of Ambedkar, more and more of Phule, even though the translations were few by then.

At that time I was doing my PhD, on Gautam Buddha as a political philosopher [finished 1991]. This whole going back to ancients, looking at the Buddhist versus brahmanism fight in the discourses of Buddha, made me think that there is a deeper issue here. Karl Marx’s PhD thesis was a model for me. He worked on the question of Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy, in Greece. How Democriteans were positive people, and Epicureans anti-Democritean or negative. Similarly Brahmanism is negative, Buddhism is positive. More or less time-frame is the same, pre-Socratic period. From there to Nalupu, from there to Why I am not a Hindu – you may notice, Why I am not a Hindu uses Marxism, without saying so. It’s a huge text of production relations, economic relations. Then my writing in national newspapers, then Buffalo Nationalism coming out on the question of symbols, and working from then to the Post-Hindu India book – all this made me realise that there is a huge possibility for Ambedkarism and Marxism joining hands. And I’m now looking at the Kerala model: alternating Communist and Congress governments, then there’s a huge reform base, after Adi Shankara Hinduvad, then the Christian expansion there, and the Muslim expansion there. Kerala did not allow cow protection laws, Kerala is better in English education. Then I realised that in terms of language we should go for English. English as an Indian language, not any longer colonial or anything like that. All this has very strong roots in Ambedkar. Ambedkar wrote in English, studied in English, and became a philosopher in himself. So also is Marx [rooting this project]. This long history of my struggle with ideas, intellectual discourses, and groups of people, made me realise that these two forces can join.

A: Especially since we are talking today on Phule Jayanti, and GroundXero is publishing this on Ambedkar Jayanti, and given that in the West Bengal context such celebrations aren’t yet a comparably big thing, what would you say about the importance of having events like these?

K: The importance is for our youth. In my student days I didn’t know who Phule was. But he was the one who wrote the first liberative text, Slavery [Gulamgiri], and dedicated it to African-Americans.  We only knew Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Bengalis are still struggling and only living in Raja Ram Mohan’s thought. They don’t know Phule. Phule is much more radical. His Satyashodhak Samaj, it’s not Brahmo Samaj.

See Satyashodhak is very much the true spirit of finding out the truth. Bengalis have to come to know about Mahatma Phule, Savitribai, Ambedkar. And they should read Buddha as a political philosopher, rather than Buddhism as an old type of religion. Though Ambedkar also used some sort of religious jargon in that. But my book God as Political Philosopher is not known in Bengal. Why I am not a Hindu has not been translated into Bengali. I don’t know if Annihilation of Caste has been translated into Bengali. And Post-Hindu India has not been translated into Bengali. If that is the progressive state of discourses, these books should have been translated into Bengali. They are not doing this because there is no intellectual force amongst shudras and namashudras. And the Brahmins, whether in communist parties or outside, they are against it. They think they have all intellectual resources with them. But they are all brahminical intellectuals. Even people like Partha Chatterjee, Amartya Sen and Gayatri Spivak have not introduced these people to them. They tried to introduce their thinkers to us. You know, people such as Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, and Subhash Chandra Bose or Ram Krishna Paramhans. But these people, the southern thinkers, who have far more democratic, welfare socialist ideas, were never introduced in Bengali.

A: By southern thinkers you mean people like?

K: From Phule to Ambedkar to Periyar to Narayana Guru to presently my writing. If they don’t introduce them, how will the youth know? And these people have names, names in foreign countries, but I don’t think they are doing any good service to Bengal.

A: What would say is the relationship of this project (T-MASS) to electoral politics and the Bahujan-Left Front? What are you trying to achieve? I read a report which said you will be fielding candidates for elections to all Assembly seats in Telangana in 2019.

K: T-MASS will do the groundwork, to expand the SC/ST/OBC and women contesting space. We will pressurise parties. All parties should have dalit-bahujan leadership – that is what I was saying at the meeting today too. We will focus on the left more because they have agreed with us. The Bahujan Left Front came about in that context. It will definitely have an electoral impact. Because the communists in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have their own media, their own active SC, ST, OBC leadership at the ground level. This will impact the ruling parties also. Already there is a lot of churning. In Bengal CPM lost because it has not recognised caste identity and religious identity, and they have not given power to shudras and non-shudras and tribals. And neither to Muslims and Christians. So this will have an impact in ideological discussion at an all-India level. I was appealing to CPM even today, that you should pass a resolution in your national congress, approving this idea, so that it can become a national debate. Because CPI, CPM should be united first. But their unity will have to go through this process. Because there also there is a blindness in the Marxist understanding.

A: What kind of specific campaigns are part of this? Around what issues?

K: We had all-district meetings, we now have mandal committees, we have thousands of village committees, and we had one round of conferences and public meetings with thousands of people. After this month we will have classes for all the SC, ST, OBC leaders. Then we’ll address press conferences, regarding [what to do] in the elections. It’s going to be a continuous reform fight, not just a pre-election fight.

A: So you’re mobilising around a whole set of issues, not a particular demand at the moment?

K: No, our idea is for SC, ST, OBCs to join hands, pressurise parties to recognise Phule – Ambedkar – Periyar thought, and on the reservation question – call to sustain reservation. And fight against BJP as a collective. We don’t believe that BJP is transformable, because its base is in RSS. I wrote an article yesterday, “India’s Dalit Spring, the OBCs and the Hindutva Game Plan,” in Countercurrents. I wrote about how radical Hinduism, like radical Christianity, or radical Islam, will not be able to run democracy. This is proved with ten years of BJP rule now. Similarly it happened in the Catholic phase, with Popedom and all. That’s how Machiavelli, Hobbes, Voltaire and Rousseau emerged, opposing religious radicalism. We now need to oppose religious radicalism because this will go down the line of Pakistan and Iraq. They will not be able to sustain democracy.

A: You mentioned reservations, and at today’s event you were also talking about it – what would you say are the big achievements of reservations, and what are the shortcomings? Like today you were speaking about the private sector and the need to have reservations there.

K: Reservation has created an ambition to study, among SCs, STs, OBCs. Earlier there was no ambition. Reservation has created a small organic intellectual force, and small middle-class among them. It has not replaced the mission of the upper caste anywhere. That may go away over some time. But reservation is not the solution. One uniform education is the solution. English medium for all. Teaching dignity of labour for all. And having rotating cycles of communities and leaderships. So I wrote an article after this dalit spring, in DailyO, regarding how Brahmin should become Dalit, Dalit should become Brahmin, in a cyclic order. And they should not remain stably there. Cyclically keep changing, up and down. Till then the struggle has to go on. These are some of the new arguments. Because now for the first time Dalits are coming to the states and fighting. After the Mandal struggle of 1990 this is the first struggle.

A: On a different note, how would you say your long civil rights experience informs your present organising efforts?

K: Civil rights activism was dominated by Brahmin intellectuals, influenced by Marxism. They were not even shudra intellectuals. But the Brahmin intellectuals were limited. They were for Marxism and democratic rights and so on, but they were not for caste change. They were not understanding the caste system itself as a problem of civil rights. That I was trying to … they were not willing to get the point.

A: Is there anything else you would like to highlight about T-MASS’s current work?

K: T-MASS is an experiment. There are Ambedkarites in it, there are Phuleites in it, OBCs and Dalits – who have sometimes tensions [amongst themselves], then there are adivasis, and there are pure communists also – those who do not want to even recognise Ambedkar. I think the Maoist elements have not come into it. They are not joining, they are keeping themselves aloof. And the ruling parties – we have asked all parties, except the BJP, to come. Not many Reddys and Velamas are coming forward. But others are coming. It’s a first time experiment, and its more influential on certain issues than even political parties. If T-MASS activists go somewhere, police are responding. Because we also have good working relations with the police. Police forces have many SC, ST, OBCs amongst them. They have their own problems. Unlike the classical Marxists we don’t constantly attack state missionary police, no. So they cooperate with us – around dowry deaths, inter-caste marriage related deaths, so on and so forth.

A: Could you give one or two examples of the successes you are referring to, that you achieved when you went somewhere?

K: Oh, many such. For example, recently, one Gowda family killed a dhobi (washerman) family person, for inter-caste marriage. T-MASS went and whatever property they had, it was written in the name of the girl’s family. And the police cooperated. And many cases like that. Also in one village, on Sankranti day, the BJP-RSS forces went and hit lot of Dalits for having beef. They had their own cows – so they took away cows and all that. Till T-MASS went there, nobody stood by them. Lot of cases like that. In T-MASS, CPM workers come first in that – lot of their workers are there, they have whole-timers. But others also join it. BCs, SCs, Ambedkarites. So you can see blue flags there, red flags there, and Muslims join with green flags, so the issue becomes suddenly big. In Nizamabad district one fellow attacked Dalits and made them dip into mud-waters, and abused him [sic], but he wasn’t being arrested under SC/ST Atrocities Act. T-MASS went there and police had to respond to this. There are a number of cases like that, and it’s a very young organisation, it was born only in July.

(Abhishek Bhattacharyya (obhishekbolchi@gmail.com) is a researcher and activist, currently based in Hyderabad)

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