Ambedkar Jayanti: Inspired by BR Ambedkar, TN ideologue looks to unearth ground realities of Dalits
Stalin Rajangam, an Ambedkar ideologue, Dalit intellectual and writer, has been studying caste complexities in Tamil Nadu to unearth Dalit ground realities.
"North Arcot district, from where I hail, in Tamil Nadu can be called mini-Maharashtra. The Ambedkar movement has been that strong here,” Stalin Rajangam begins.
Stalin, a Dalit intellectual and writer, is the author of six books in Tamil, including one on pioneering Tamil Dalit intellectual Pandit Iyothee Thass. He is a member of the well-known Tamil literary magazine Kalachuvadu’s editorial board and a lecturer in Tamil Literature at the American College in Madurai. Stalin has been writing with rigour, intellect and a great grasp of ground realities on Dalit issues for over 17 years now.
I first met him at the Sangam House Residency in Nrityagram, in Karnataka, in December 2016, in the midst of beautiful greenery and absolute quiet. Between writing in solitude, readings in the nights, community dinners and boisterous banter, Stalin spoke of his work, life and more. What better occasion than Ambedkar Jayanti to probe him further on Ambedkar’s influence on him?
Excerpts from the conversation:
Stalin believes in Ambedkar’s ideology and philosophies and sees relevance for them even today; especially, in these turbulent times. He also rues the state of Tamil Nadu’s politics, where he fears Ambedkar’s iconography alone is used to invoke certain sentiments.
"Lot of what he said is still relevant today in our current political situation. But both the Hindutva parties as well the Dravidian ones merely use Ambedkar for their own politics. They do not care for his thoughts. They use him to garner the votes of SCs. Therefore, Dalits must look at him for his thoughts and ideologies and not at whoever else is appropriating him. Nobody wants to actually live by his ideas or regard him as an ideologue," Stalin said.
Stalin finds resonance, even today, in Ambedkar’s two texts. The first, Castes in India, he says, remains relevant in Tamil Nadu because even after 100 years of its coming out, nobody is looking at how caste operates in reality the way Ambedkar did.
"There is a tradition of looking at Tamil Nadu as a state that rejects caste. Whereas, the reality is something else. To understand this, Ambedkar’s book is very important." Annihilation of Caste, he says, is an extension of the first text.
"Ambedkar has given us a tool for modernity with this text. A text that draws up a framework for a new society that leaves caste behind. Until the book came out, people were just talking about removing caste. But when it came. it gave us an ideology,” Stalin said.
In Tamil Nadu, Stalin feels many people use Ambedkar only in reference to Periyar Ramasamy. "I concur that there are similarities in their ideologies but that is not the only reason to remember Ambedkar. Ambedkar used Buddhism, a religion, to bring Dalits together. Periyar was an atheist. These things need to be remembered and there needs to be a better dialogue,” he said.
"My upbringing was in North Arcot, where people would move in and out of the district to nearby places like Bengaluru, Kolar and Chennai for work. That gave them not only relief from the otherwise oppressive shackles of village life, but also the desire to be modern," Stalin said.
"My father was from this sort of a setup and was steeped in Ambedkar’s thoughts and ideas. Though uneducated in the traditional sense, he was very knowledgeable on Ambedkar and even Gandhi," he added.
Stalin, named after the Russian leader Joseph Stalin, has two brothers. Yashwanth Rao, named so after Ambedkar’s son and the other named after Republican Party of India leader Khobragade. His cousins are Ambedkar, Periyar and Lenin.
"Forty years ago, I grew up in this sort of space where we were named after these people," he said. "My father would drink and narrate stories in the nights, all true and real of course, of Ambedkar and Gandhi." In his father’s stories, Ambedkar was the hero and Gandhi the villain.
Stalin spoke at an Indian Republican Party meeting while in class four. It was this speech, though prepared by someone else, that set him down the path of polity. He has moved with communists, in Dravidian circles and those involved in the Ambedkar movement all his life.
"I moved to Madurai for my bachelors in Tamil at the advice of a teacher, though I had no connections with the city. It was the late 1990s. This was a very important time for me... it was in the aftermath of caste violence between the Shudra communities and Dalits in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu,"
"This was when Krishnasamy and Thirumavalavan were emerging as leaders. This was when a man called Murugesan and six other were hacked to death for standing in the Panchayat elections in Melavalavu. In this backdrop, I started reading a lot of Dalit literature,” Stalin said.
"I have been writing for 17 years now. I never really set out to write books. I started by writing small essays. My writings were my reaction to the violence around me. I felt a need for a dialogue with non-Dalits. I wanted to talk about caste with others, not Dalits. They already knew what was going on. I was writing largely in non-Dalit spaces. I was angry and young," he adds.
A collection of Stalin’s essays was published by a friend as a book called Jananayagamatra Jananayagam (An Undemocratic Democracy). That was his first book. "My writings were based on my own findings from ground realities. While Tamil polity’s discourse has been about the Brahmin-non-Brahmin divide, on the ground, undoubtedly, the tensions are actually between Shudras and Dalits in Tamil Nadu," Stalin said.
Writing about caste, Stalin says, combines his two strengths. Research gleaned from ground realities and language. "I am able to, first, have a conversation with myself while I write about caste. This gives me clarity. It then allows me to engage with others fruitfully. I am also very interested in the rich cultural past of Dalits. Today, they are being ignored by most people because it suits them to build a victim narrative alone around Dalits. This is what my book Theendapadatha Noolgal (Untouched Books) talks about. It deals with the works of Dalit litterateurs and intellectuals of 20th century," he adds.
Stalin has also done some very interesting work around cinema and Tamil society too. In fact, one of his books, Tamil Cinema: Punaivil Iyangum Samoogam (Society Operating in Illusion), talks about cinema and caste assertion of Tamil Nadu’s intermediate castes.
"I am interested in cinema, not as a critic, but as someone who’s watching it from the bottom-up. If I take a shared auto, I want to know why the driver has a particular hero’s image, or movie poster in his vehicle. Even if a movie’s intention might not have been to glorify caste, I want to see how the people of that community appropriate songs or scenes or dialogues (as it happened with the film Thevar Magan) to assert their dominance,"
"I am not interested in the text, but in how the society receives and responds to it. I am interested in the banners and posters. The songs people play and listen to," he said.
Stalin says that he enjoyed the first two movies of the filmmaker Selvaraghavan, Balaji Sakthivel’s affecting Kaadhal and he, of course, likes Pa Ranjith; but he is fonder of his first two films (Attakathi and Madras) than the latest Kabali.
Though Stalin doesn’t reject Dravidian politics entirely, he says, "Today in Tamil Nadu, scholars, leaders and revolutionaries, while heaping praise on Dravidian polity, go beyond the truth. According to me, this politics has failed to highlight to the Shudras, the oppression faced by Dalits in Tamil Nadu."
Stalin believes that when Dalits talk about the widening gap between the Shudra communities and Dalits in Tamil Nadu, they are called agents of Hindutva or Brahminism. They are accused of trying to disturb the unity of the two communities.
"But these people should be asking the Shudra communities why they are disturbing the alliance with their actions and violence? What Dalits do is merely reaction," he said.
Stalin also believes that Dravidian politics has failed to stop non-Brahmins from accepting the puritanical superiority of Brahmins. "A Brahmin priest still goes to a caste Hindu’s religious functions to conduct rituals. What the intermediate castes then want is for the land and political power to be with them,"
"Allow Brahmins their ‘puritanical space’ but where does this leave the SC/STs? They are to be where they have been kept... under these intermediate castes. Dravidian polity has helped consolidate all power in the hands of the numerically large intermediate caste groups of Tamil Nadu," he said. It is Stalin’s belief that a Dalit-Left alliance would be a favourable one.
Be it the Jallikattu protest or the farmers’ protest in Delhi's Jantar Mantar, he says, Dalits do extend their support to such causes but unlike others, they are also forced to do so due to structural oppression. Within these protests, he sees the operation of caste.
"What the farmers are wearing (loin cloth) or saying they are eating (rats) as protest in Delhi – in front of the PMO – is what Dalits were and in many places, are still wearing. They simply only wear loin clothes. They eat what these people are eating as protest, in reality, when they cannot afford anything else. How can they participate in this protest? What is their place in it?"
Be it the brutal rape and murder of a young Dalit girl, Nandhini, recently, or the killing of the Dalit man Ilavarasan that continues to make news, Stalin finds the condemnation by intellectuals and politicians of the politics that has led to these murders to be less than lukewarm. Most political parties, he feels, stop giving out statements. As do intellectuals.
"That is because in some ways they too owe their success in life to these Dravidian parties. So, they refuse to see just how much power the Dravidian politics has handed to those who inflict death and violence on Dalits."
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