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Gail Omvedt (80): Some disturbing thoughts

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
30 Aug 2021
Weekly Magazine In India

On the morning of Thursday, the 26th August, I was saddened to read the report of the death of Gail Omvedt (1941-2021), who spent a lifetime studying the caste dynamics that put some sections of the people at the bottom of the ladder of progress, unable to climb further, pushed down as they are by those occupying the higher positions on the ladder.

I have been a regular reader of Omvedt’s articles wherever they appeared, mostly in The Hindu. Born in Minneapolis, USA, she did her MA and Ph.D in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and had been living in India since 1978. She settled down in Kasegaon village in southern Maharashtra with her husband, Bharat Patankar. She became an Indian citizen in 1983.

She had been writing and researching on the “Untouchables”, the deprivations they had to undergo and their relentless struggle for equity. No, she did not confine herself to pure academics, as she joined hands with her husband to play a leading role in the struggle for emancipation. She had authored several books but, I must confess, I read only one.

The one I read in 2004 was ‘Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India’ (Penguin Viking). In this concise biography, she presents with empathy Ambedkar’s struggle to become educated, overcome the stigma of untouchability and pursue his higher studies abroad. She portrays how he gradually rose to become a lawyer of international repute, a founder of a new order of Buddhism and a framer of India’s Constitution.

The most powerful point she makes in the book is: “If Gandhi was Bapu, the ‘father’ of a society in which he tried to inject equality while maintaining the ‘Hindu’ framework, Ambedkar was ‘Baba’ to his people and the great liberator from that framework”. 

Omvedt’s death is a great loss to all those who believe that much of the growth of Independent India was, as described by Ambedkar, like “building a castle on a dung heap”!

It was in this state of mind that I read the Indian Express further. I came across a five-column news-item headlined “Mahasweta Devi, Dalit author works removed; 15 members of DU Academic Council object”. It was the Oversight Committee of Delhi University which removed the works of Bama and Sukhartharini in the autobiography and poetry sections respectively of the English syllabus for Semester 5.

The committee chairman MK Pandit is reported to have said that he did not believe in casteism. By the way, does the committee have any member from the Dalit community? Or, to ask another question, which upper caste person will say that he believed in casteism? 

This reminds me of what Gandhi said far more honestly when the Brahmin head of the Vaikom temple in Kerala, where the famous Vaikom satyagraha was held, asked him a pertinent question.

The Nampoothiri had found out that Gandhi was a Vaishya and did not, therefore, merit a seat beside him in his house. He was given a seat, outside of the house, under a makeshift thatched roof. When Gandhi waxed eloquent about the principles of equality under which the Dalits had the right to walk on the public road skirting the Shiva temple, the learned Brahmin asked Gandhi a simple question, “Shri Gandhi, do you believe in Varnashrama Dharma?”

Gandhi was stunned by the sudden question and he answered as honestly and truthfully as possible, “Yes, Thirumeni”. The head of the temple turned assertive, as he told Gandhi, “That settles the question. If you believe in Varnashrama, how can you say that all are born equal?” The shrewd leader would certainly have realised that he had lost the argument once and, let me add, forever.

Dalit writing has come of age. There are many writers from the Dalit community who write on issues that are of concern to them. Other writers cannot substitute for Dalit writers. 

To give an example, Emile Bronte’s The Wuthering Heights is considered a classic because no one had ever written so brilliantly how a woman’s mind works. No man can honestly write how a woman feels in a particular situation because he has no clue to it.

It is a pity that the Oversight Committee did not find it necessary to replace Bama and Sukhirtharini with two other Dalit writers. What’s more, the committee removed Mahasweta Devi’s short story ‘Draupadi’ from the syllabus. Her Draupadi is different from the Draupadi, whose insult caused the Mahabharata war.

Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi is a tribal woman who was gang-raped by policemen after being picked up on suspicion of being a Naxalite. The story has been read, discussed and studied for years without any problem. The Registrar of the university has in a rejoinder justified the deletion of the short story in this manner:

“Just see the kind of language that is used in it. We have some culture and ethics. (In the story) Indian military is shown in a very poor light. Students should not hate them based on such stories”. Mahasweta Devi’s story highlights the problems tribals face day in and day out from the police, the administration, the corporates and the politicians in power. The job of the writer is to show a mirror to the society and not depict it in the manner of the society that supposedly existed when Mahabali was the ruler of Kerala!

Intolerance is the main issue. Those in authority like those who fill the Oversight Committee cannot accept anything that does not fit into their narrative. Thus, there can be no questioning of anything that is considered part of the establishment. Unfortunately, the establishment, like the chameleon, changes its colour to suit the prevailing situation.

On the same day, in the same paper, there was another report about another deletion. The Information Technology Ministry has a website. It has a “culture and heritage” section. There was a paragraph which read as follows: 

“In India, the Mughal Empire was one of the greatest empires ever. The Mughal Empire ruled hundreds of millions of people. India became united under one rule and had very prosperous cultural and political years during the Mughal rule. There were many Muslim and Hindu kingdoms split all throughout India until the founders of the Mughal Empire came”. 

A few days back this paragraph was removed. In its place, there are now 30 photographs showcasing various dance forms and monuments. Just a fortnight ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort built by the Mughals, not by someone from Gujarat.

It was not for no reason that Emperor Akbar was called Akbar the Great. Yes, Ashoka was also called the Great. By removing the innocuous paragraph on Mughal rule, those who are in power have shown themselves to be bereft of any understanding of history, ancient, medieval or modern.

One of the first things that the Narendra Modi government did was to change the name of a road in New Delhi, named after Aurangzeb (AD 1658-1707). In the popular perception, one of the last of the Mughal rulers, he was identified with violence and ruthlessness.

Few, therefore, objected to the road being called APJ Abdul Kalam Road. It was done within days of the death of the former President. They did not realise that it was just the beginning of a renaming spree that seeks to wipe out all Muslim names.

Another report in the same newspaper said how the district administration of Unnao in Uttar Pradesh has written to the government to rename Miyaganj as Mayaganj. The report mentions that during the 2017 Assembly elections, the present Chief Minister Yogi

Aditynath had promised such a renaming to the electorate. There is no doubt that there will soon be a notification renaming the place. 

For starters, Miya is derived from Mian, an honorific of Persian origin used throughout the subcontinent when addressing a Muslim gentleman. Used pejoratively against the community, the term was re-appropriated by a group of Miya poets who have begun asserting their identity. It is this Muslim connection that the district administration wants to end forever.

Taking a cue from the move, BJP Minister Rama Shankar Singh Patel wants Mirzapur district renamed as Vindhya Dham. The word Mirzapur is derived from 'Mirza' which, in turn, is derived from a Persian term which literally means “child of the Amīr” or “child of the ruler”. The name Vindhya Dham is derived from Vindhyavasini, another derivative of Durga, in whose name there is a temple about eight kms from Mirzapur.

Intolerance of anything Islamic or Muslim is being taken to absurd levels. Take the case of Aligarh. It became famous when Sir Syed set up the Aligarh Muslim University in 1875, first as a college, then as a university. Writes my friend, the late Prof Mushirul Hasan in his book ‘Knowledge, Power and Politics’ (Lotus Roli):

“Here and elsewhere, far removed from the humdrum of campus life, the Aligarhians regard themselves as a close-knit community. Whether in Sydney or in Toronto, they congregate every year on October 17, celebrated as Sir Syed Day, fraternise with one another wearing the black achkan (sherwani) with the university monogram, recall the festive occasion brought by the annual exhibition held in the civil lines in close proximity to the district jail, revive memories of the years spent in Sir Syed, Viqarul Mulk or the Mohsinul Mulk Hall, and take much pride in being part of Aligarh’s old boys network”.

I really wonder whether there will be any celebration worth the name when the university commemorates its sesquicentennial in 2025. A proposal has already been mooted to change the name of Aligarh into Harigarh. There is little doubt that it will be implemented.

Nobody would object to naming a newly developed town or village after Hari. After all, Hari is a name for the supreme absolute in the Vedas. It refers to the one who removes darkness and illusion, God who takes away all the sorrows of his devotees.

It will be a great disservice to society if Aligarh is renamed as Harigarh. One question that comes up is, if Aligarh becomes Harigarh, will Aligarh Muslim University become Harigarh Muslim University? One feels bad even asking such questions. 

When Allahabad became Prayagraj, Allahabad University and Allahabad High Court did not change their names. How long will the names last? That is the moot question.

One is also tempted to ask the question, how long will the jihad against Muslim names last? Till the last Muslim names are changed? Will this make India a great nation? Will it make any difference to the people or their well-being if all the Muslim names are changed? Is this how a Hindu Rashtra is ushered in?

Has the nation crowned itself with glory when it openly said that Muslims from Afghanistan were not welcome, only Indian citizens and Hindus and Sikhs. One of the Afghan woman parliamentarians was asked to go back after landing at the Delhi airport. She came to India not to seek asylum but to obtain medical treatment. She had a diplomatic passport but that did not matter to those manning the Delhi airport.

In the 19th century, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a beautiful short story titled Kabuliwala. It is about a petty Afghan Muslim trader who develops a filial relationship with an Indian girl. He had a daughter of similar age in Kabul. Circumstances force him to spend a few years in jail.

When he returns and meets the Indian girl, she is a married woman who prefers not to recognise him. Such a story is now impossible to be imagined or written, as Afghan Muslims are no longer welcome, whatever threat they might face in their country from the Taliban?

We as a nation have changed. Dalit writing is no longer acceptable as are realistic stories by the likes of Mahasweta Devi. We are busy searching names from sacred Hindu texts and folklore to replace Muslim names. 

To return to Ambedkar, what he considered the dung heap was, of course, the cultural and social inheritance of varnashrama dharma against which he posed the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality and fraternity. The fight, alas, remains!


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