The Importance of Anand Teltumbde’s Thoughts in a “Caste Republic”


As an email circulates in support of a campaign to nominate Professor Anand Teltumbde to the list of the world’s top thinkers to be featured in Perspective magazine, it’s time to take note of his important work: Caste Republic (2018) and put it into perspective. It’s more important in the context of the campaign to have a “harghar tiranga” for the Amrit Mahotsav of Azaadi. If the 75th year of freedom of this nation cannot be celebrated with a free man and a free spirit, the waving of the flag is only symbolic.

Accused of plotting to assassinate the prime minister along with (albeit much later) numerous other social activists, Teltumbde has been incarcerated in Taloja prison for over two years now. If a man’s thoughts over the years have debated the constitution and diverged with using violence as a means to get anything, something is not quite right. A careful reading of his latest book to see why it is not important.

Teltumbde talks about one of his students asking him why he writes about caste, class and communalism and not about subjects in which he is formally trained. It’s not that he didn’t write about the issues he internalized academically. He is formally trained in engineering and management. He is not only an academic who has published and taught, but he is also someone who has held important leadership positions within the government itself. “I liked being in the belly of the beast and fighting it at the same time,” he says.

Noted Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy had a special term for it. He would call Teltumbde a “critical insider”: fighting for change in the system while you continue to be part of the system. Someone who fills the boardrooms, but doesn’t shy away from being an activist either. Someone who believes in engaging with the system while trying to change it, and who comes from an ideology of engagement, not confrontation (except of course facing problems head-on, intellectually and structurally).

In an ideological struggle, where methodologies for bringing about change are discussed, the means are also clearly stated. We are unlikely to see Maoist literature that celebrates gaining power through a democratic electoral process. Therefore, labeling anyone as Maoist is simply throwing ideological differences into a big “not us” bucket. Unfortunately, Teltumbde was thrown into this bucket.

People engaged in discourse and dialogue, by definition, will be in contact with people with diverse ideological positions and so “being in touch” or “having literature” is in itself likely to continue conversations, rather than to get involved in a conspiracy. Violence in Ambedkarite discourse is as much anathema as peace is to terrorists.

It is important to note that Teltumbde’s work is not a writing that has emerged in recent times, against the recent regime. It is an abstraction of his writings over the decades on this issue. We do not find new and radical thinking in Teltumbde. We knew that from the start.

These writings show the differences between Marxists, Gandhians and Ambedkarites. There is a fundamental difference between the social transformation approach of the Ambedkarite movement and the economic transformation approach of the Marxists. He devotes an entire chapter to caste and class dialectics – bringing out the fundamental differences. Here is a quote: “Ambedkar seems to recognize the Marxists as his competitors, the second after him” and “he blames Marx’s methods on two fronts: one, his recourse to violence, and the other, dictatorship”.

Teltumbde’s arguments are nuanced and engaging. The division of class struggle based on skill and labor against capital accentuated the caste problem rather than diluting it, because it did not pay as much attention to social structures. The capitalist cadre could easily co-opt a handful of Dalit businessmen who could embrace the idea that capital and profits are casteless, but even for that to happen the fundamental question is whether there is equality of opportunity.

Teltumbde links this seamlessly to neoliberal policies of commodification of education. This not only creates modern ghettos of the privileged (with symbolic representation to prove diversity), but also prevents access to the basic tools that help access capital and entrepreneurship.

The entry of privatization into basic services such as education (including technical and higher education) and health care are issues of access and affordability. When educated, a disadvantaged family needs both stamina and close identifiable role models to make the cut. The higher castes, because they occupy intellectual positions, have it in far greater numbers than the Dalits. It’s a question of horizon and belief in class rupture. The more privatization there is (even if it is at the highest level), the more speed bumps there are for the poor. It is an economic argument woven into that of caste.

Health services affect the livelihoods of the poor and even here, while there is universalization of disease and affliction, there is categorization of curative facilities. Since class is so closely tied to caste, it is impossible to address the larger problem by ignoring caste.

When defining inclusion, it is said that we need four types of inclusion: social, political, economic and financial. Ambedkar’s view on social inclusion was expressed in the long essay caste annihilation. On political inclusion, we are pleased with the limited achievement that we were one of the first nations to adopt universal adult suffrage. Teltumbde challenges this notion by asking the fundamental question of whether this right to vote has led to adequate representation. It not only highlights Ambedkar’s failure to win the elections, but exposes the contradictions in later claims based on Kanshiram and Mayawati’s caste and identity.

The greatest challenge of Ambedkar’s ideology is to escape its saffronization. The co-option of Gandhi’s symbolism of cleanliness and the propaganda around the toilets built while the state of safai karmacharis (sanitation workers) has not changed, the symbolism of starting the movement from the settlement of Valmiki, thus reaffirming the caste roots of the problem, and the making of memorials and statues are the means by which Ambedkar is co-opted. It is known that while Ambedkar was the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution of India, he had serious differences with it, as evidenced by the debates in the Constituent Assembly. To make him the author of a so-called holy document, only to mutilate him from time to time with ordinances that take the soul out of the structure is a farce in itself.

If these are the issues Teltumbde has been arguing over for years, would he have time to plot an assassination or wage war against the state? As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of independence, we would like to engage and think freely. For that, someone like Teltumbde should get more than his quota of mulakat time with his family on the phone and in the letters he writes to his daughters. He is much more than that. We may not agree with everything he says, but we need to be part of these debates. The flag represents the diversity of colors, the diversity of our land, our languages ​​and our thoughts. This flag must fly in every house.

MS Sriram teaches at IIM, Bangalore. Views are personal. E-mail: [email protected]

Featured Image: Illustration: The Yarn

This article was first published on Thread.

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