Sunday, December 18, 2011

Towards a Dalit Theory- VENOMOUS TOUCH

Towards a Dalit Theory

Venomous Touch

Dr. P. Kesava Kumar

Ravi Kumar’s recent book Venomous Touch Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics are compilations of essays that were published in alternate Tamil journals, such as Dalit, Dalita Murusu, Taaimann, Manusanga, Unnadham, Nirapirikai, Kalachuvudu in between 1993-2005. These selective articles are translated and compiled as a book by Azhagarsan , English professor of University of Madras , who is closely following the politics of Tamil society in particular and contemporary cultural studies in general.
The initial years of this millennium witnessed the violent political turmoil of Tamil society, especially in Northern Tamil Nadu. These articles are a response of conscious dalit scholar to this situation. This book is sign post in understanding alternative culture and politics of Tamil society. These are critical reflections on Dravidan and tamil nationalist politics from a dalit point of view. Ravikumar is an organic intellectual, civil rights activist, writer, poet, translator, journalist, book publisher and a political leader of different kind. He expressed effectively through all these forms. He becomes a member of Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly (2006-2011) by representing the dalit political party, VCK.

As Susie Tharu in her foreword mentioned that these essays provide us with a rich feel for the political ruptures of the 1990s.It is post Mandal Phenomenon, in which dalit struggles against upper castes hegemony are prominent. It is the period of Political turmoil. The conscious educated dalits started asserting in public space. This is the time with the entry of dalits, one has witnessing the collapse of carefully constructed brahminical world in one hand, and on the other alternative politics that came in the form of Marxist and Dravidian ideology. This is the phase dalits of all walks got mobilized and consolidated to liberate themselves from the clutches of suffering, exploitation and violence that took place in the name of caste. Dalits are mobilizing towards the politics of power. In that process, they are searching for words, digging the past, inventing dignified life from the rich repository of their culture and history. It is an effort not to please theories of academics, and not to impress the existing polemics of alternative politics. It is dalit journey towards dignity, social recognition and social justice. Venomous touch is the critique of upper caste concerns towards dalit issues.

The Venomous Touch has its importance in many ways. First of all, this work is an authentic representation of dalit experience. This is not just articulating the feelings of suffering. It is also a voice against oppression. Moreover, it is theorizing about one’s own dalit self. It goes against the academic principle of dalit as empirical object and upper caste scholars as theoretician. If one believes authenticity and representation are important criteria in evaluating the knowledge systems, this work is a testimony of dalit knowledge system.
It is historically known fact that, for dalit writing, there is no space in mainstream media.
First of all who will publish the feelings of dalits? If any space is bargained, one has to compel to accommodate with existing dominant canons of political and cultural debates. In this context, the little magazines came with an idea of propagating alternative politics has a value in forcefully representing dalit writings. Ravi Kumar has deliberately chooses the little magazines of alternative political tradition. Mostly one has the feeling that dalit discourse is confined to vernacular and does not have national and international recognition as in the case of elite brahminical writing. By available dalit writing in English, this work got its importance as dalit scholarship in countering brahminical scholarship.
Ravi Kumar is fond of knowledge systems that liberate dalits. He had a strong conviction that dalit intellectual has to construct alternative knowledge system by critically evaluating existing systems of thought. It involves lot of labour, feelings, urge to change our lives. To fight against the system is not so easy, that too to fight against the caste hegemony of the nation one has to pick up courage and strength. He suggests that dalits need to develop a self critical attitude towards their own conceptions and activities. To understand, get more clarity and to provide proper direction for our struggles we need solid theoretical foundations.
Ravi Kumar looks at Ambedkar as not only a symbol of power but also a symbol of non power. Dalit movement must be willing to follow Ambedkar also in renouncing power. This alternative perspective on power can best be understood only when we understand Ambedkar and Tamil Buddhism from a foucauldian perspective. This shows that he borrows tools from scholars of the world to understand us in better way. ‘The strategic knowledge demands that our primary task should be to expose the forms of brahminism which offer ethical justification for all kinds of oppression in India. This is the role of organic intellectuals in the Indian context.’

Ravi Kumar is very much concerned with philosophical ideas that underplay politics rather mere politics. He declares, I give priority to philosophy rather than politics. He forcefully argues that ‘let us open the gates of philosophy’. He is fascinated with Gramsci, Althussar, Derrida, Bakunin and postmodernism. His fascinated with these theories is how to adopt in our social context. He believes that classical Marxism does not provide proper answer to resolve the questions related to power. To understand nature and function of power, Foucault seems to convincing to him. Foucault’s idea that power is all pervading in social relationship came as a critique of Marxism. Ravi Kumar reached Ambedkar in this backdrop. Apart from Marxism, he is equally critical about Dravidian ideology that practicing in Tamil society. As he says, behind atheistic ideology, communalism survives in the guise of caste majority. It is Hinduism in disguise. At the same time he argues that dalits need to develop a self-critical attitude towards their own conceptions and activities. Dalits have not only claims for sharing power but also have to learn to renounce power as in the case of Ambedkar. He proposes alternative perspective of power. Further he searched for alternative colonial modernity in Buddhism. He believes that the role of dalit intellectual is to expose the forms of Brahmanism and have to develop critical ability among the dalits. In other words, Ravi Kumar’s Venomous Touch is in search of constructing dalit theory. We may find his theoretical reflections on caste, literature, media, cinema, history, politics and human rights.
For dalit politics, the understanding of caste and its manifestations in various forms is central and crucial. Ravi Kumar explores the functioning of caste in all his writings. On the issues of caste, he is critical of both Marxist and Dravidian politics. As he puts: It is an important question whether the Marxists in India, can succeed in crossing caste barriers. Is it this barrier that has kept discussion of Ambedkar’s ideas out of Marxists circles today? The Dravidian politics has popularly known for anti-brahminical leanings by recognizing the issue of caste. Ravi Kumar observed that contemporary Dravidian politics are not critical of Hinduism. He points out that the same majoritarian Hinduism is surviving in the guise of Dravidian politics. Even in symbolic representation, the Dravidian politics are not critical about Hinduism. As he reminds that changing names in the campaign of Dravidian politics is remained at the level of anti-brahmin and anti-Sanskrit, but the attack on Hinduism never occupied a central place in such campaigns. (The Politics of Naming). For Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu regards Jaffna Tamils as role models. For any struggles in Tamil Nadu, Srilankan nationalist liberation struggle is inspiring force. Ravi Kumar is daring in questioning the caste of Tigers. He argues that these struggles are silent on the issue of caste. The wave of Tamil national liberation suppressed the voices of the dalits. For caste tamils in Srilanka are more Hinduistic than the caste Hindus in India. And the tigers are exception to this. To articulate his view, he borrowed the phrase from K. Raghunathan, Srilankan Poet, Caste lie hidden under the shadow of guns; they are not dead .(Caste of the Tigers). Ravi Kumar embraces the philosophy of Ambedkar in his struggle against brahminism, In understanding Indian society and readings its history, he believes that Ambedkar is appropriate. As he says: We can see in Ambedkar a continuation of Hegel’s study of social history. We can even say that what Marx did for Hegel in the economic sphere, Ambedkar did for him in the sphere of social history (The Shadow that cannot be Crossed). Ravi Kumar’s line of thought is clear by saying, Brahminism and its ‘counter revolution’ must be defeated. We must now think not of how to live, but how to die. He is equally critical about patriotism put forwarded by hindutva forces. What we need today is not the politics of patriotism, but a politics that articulates the singularity of the dalit question. (Is Sonia foreigner)

In State, Caste and Land, historically explores the relations of caste and land, from Chola, Pallava, and British period to contemporary times. He came to a conclusion that dalits are inextricably tied to land but do not have any right over it. The ownership of the land might change; but the coolie stays with the land. The landlords and rulers used the practice of untouchability to treat the dalits worse than slaves. In this context, he problematised the issue of Panchami land that given to untouchables in the time of British rule. This land has grabbed by upper caste and dalits have no claims on this at present.

Media plays an important role in imagining nation. It sets the tone for politics. Ravi Kumar’s articles on media are important in understanding history of media and the politics of media in relation to dalits. In Unwritten writing, explains the issue of dalits and media. he brings out the parallel between upper caste media, The Hindu and dalit intellectual Iyotheethas run journal Oru Paisa Tamilan(1907-14). He differentiates the difficulties in sustaining the dalit media even after their success, and sustenance of The Hindu(1905- till date) even after losses. He argues that caste makes the difference. He also demands for representation of dalits in media for effective functioning of democracy.
Further he argues that we have to understand the politics of media. He raises the questions: The caste system is preserved and reinforced even in media. How many dalits are employed in private TV channels? How many dalit issues have been highlighted on such channels?
Apart from the representation of dalits in media, he is ideologically explains the nature of media in his writings. As he says, television will not help to expand our knowledge; on the contrary, it dims our intellect. By limiting our thinking and throwing readymade solutions continuously before us, it turns us into fools and slaves. Worse still, it converts us into objects and commodities. Every thing, including sorrow, atrocity, destruction and death, has been converted into a commodity. (A Commodity called the Human being)

Dalit movements are aimed at annihilation of caste. The issue of caste has to be fought from many fronts and in many ways. Apart from political struggles, cultural struggles are equally important. For this dalits have to assert themselves by celebrating their own culture and history. Ravi Kumar argues that dominant history has excluded dalits, even in subaltern discourses. He is in favour of celebration of dalit history month in the line of black history month. Dalit history month is counter to dominant fabrications of history. The idea behind this acts is, invocation of dalit history. In the context where history has been subjected to planned erasure, events (Keezhvenmani, Tsundur, Kumher), institutions (Sakya Budhists Society) and names ( Jashuavea, Sankaranand Sastri, PR Venkatswamy, Iyotheethass) from the past century seem unfamiliar even to dalits. The subaltern studies group, which gained immense currency on academia, has systematically excluded dalits from their discourse .He believes that these kind of symbolic and semiotic representations have implication even for material plane. The violence against dalits in semiotic sphere must be met in the same sphere. It can not be fought on a material plane. This will be made possible only by turning the existing power equation in this system against itself. (Semiotic Violence of Independence Day). While recording the campaign of re-naming dalits by giving them tamil names, organized of Dalit Panthers of India of Tirumavalavan is considered as a protest launched on the semiotic plane. Rejecting hindu names and renaming dalits with caste-free names is part of the struggle to annihilate caste. This semiotic protest will destabilize the material plane too. Changing names is part of transforming society. we can name ourselves, seem also to say, ‘we can decide our own politics, and ‘we can secure our freedom. (The Politics of Naming).

In literature, Dalit literature brings into perspective the issue of authenticity and representation. The upper caste writers in general and progressive writers in particular are upset with charges of dalit writers. Ravi Kumar illustrates the upper caste writers view by reviewing Vaasanti’s short story Thinavu his article Venomous Touch, Untouchable People . He exposes the inherent vengeance and venomous literary touch towards dalits in the name of progressiveness. In another article Noon That Slaughters Shadow reads the celebrated Tamil writer Pudumai Pithan from a postmodern perspective. He reads the film Knockout as male centric text.
This book also contains the reports on ongoing atrocities against dalits. As a Civil rights activist he reports the Chidambaram poll violence in Dalits and Parliamentary Democracy. This article has not only provides the chronicle of incidents of caste violence took place in Chidambarm constituency located in Northern Tamil Nadu, but also provides the backdrop of rise of two political parties namely, DPI(VCK) and PMK.
As a Human rights activists and dalit intellectual, he is equally critical about some of the aspects of dalit movements and its concerns. In his essay On the Borderlines : Dalit Rights vs Human Rights points out that the cultural agenda seems more importantant than the issue of human rights violation. The major agenda seems to gain political power; the issue of human rights violations therefore becomes a matter of secondary importance. Though dalit oppression is itself a human rights issue and a part of the struggle for democracy, these two things are not taken seriously even within dalit movements. Why is it that the cultural sphere gains more significance than the killing of a human being? Ravi Kumar noted the contradictions within the dalit movements. Why there is no protest from dalits in case of dalit killings as in the case with demolition of Ambedkar statue by upper caste?

Ravi Kumar celebrates the dignity and freedom of dalits in every page of this book. He is in favour of insurrection of dalit history. In his own words, neither is our government stronger than the USA’s; nor are we less in number than the Blacks. It is for history to record how lambs become lions. (Celebration/Insurrection)

Venomous Touch
Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics

By Ravikumar
Translated from Tamil by R.Azhagarsan

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