Anand Teltumbde Explains the Genesis of His Articles on Bhima-Koregaon

Instead of addressing the pathetic condition of Dalits, many Ambedkarites are busy promoting a devotional cult of Babasaheb, hollowing out his radical content and helping the ruling classes exploit his legacy.

In view of the controversy my article in The Wire of January 2, 2018 created – which I did not have an occasion to respond to with an explanation due to my entrapment in the case that paradoxically pivoted on the allegation that I was the main organiser of the Elgar Parishad – this note is intended to explain the factual background and motive for my writing the article.

Incidentally, it was not the only article I wrote on the topic; there were two more pieces which were completely ignored by those seeking to attack me. On the basis of whatever happened to me thereafter, it may not be difficult to guess the source of this controversy.

However, with a hope that many Dalits who fell prey to the motivated propaganda of some police agents masquerading as Ambedkarites would want to know the truth, I am writing this explanation. Far from being apologetic, I will additionally demonstrate how the so-called Ambedkarites have – not unlike the Sanghis – inverted the meanings of what Babasaheb Ambedkar actually meant and stood for.

It all began thus

I was in an important academic meeting of my institute in Goa in late 2017 when Justice P.B. Sawant telephoned me. By the time I went out to speak, Justice Kolse Patil was on the phone and he informed me about their plan to observe the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle in a contemporary context. He said a meeting of all progressive intellectuals and activists of Maharashtra was planned at Pune to discuss the plan and I was invited to attend.

Since I was quite immersed in my new programme, India’s first, in big data analytics, I politely regretted. He then requested me to be on the convening committee along with Justice Sawant and himself and many other intellectuals and activists, which I happily accepted with the proviso that I might not be in a position to contribute much or even attend meetings/programmes. It is thus that I, the only non-resident of Maharashtra, came to be included in the convening committee for whatever was to be planned to observe this event.

No one contacted me thereafter on this matter. Suddenly, I noted pamphlets flashed on WhatsApp, which gave an idea that many cross caste-community organisations and individuals had joined the organisation of the Elgar Parishad on December 31, 2017. Significantly, these included some prominent Maratha organisations, which to my memory had never joined Dalits on a political agenda.

I was extremely pleased with this historic development. But then came some more pamphlets –which created the impression that the Bhima-Koregoan battle was won by the Mahar soldiers as though to avenge the oppressive Brahminic rule of Peshwas. I saw this as the usual stereotype of Dalits making the battle their identity marker, which could potentially jeopardise the incipient unity of Dalits and non-Dalits that was being achieved perhaps for the first time. For, if the victory was projected solely due to Mahar valour, why would others join them?

As I pointed out, the facts too did not bear this out – there was a majority among the martyrs (as engraved on the obelisk) who were not Mahars. Moreover, it was perhaps anachronistic to attribute the valour of Mahar soldiers to the consciousness against caste oppression in 1818, which as a matter of fact would take almost a century to germinate. It was, in my opinion, important to commemorate the victory against the debauched Brahminic rule of Peshwas which was oppressive to all non-Brahmin castes so as to inspire them to rise against its contemporary incarnate – the BJP’s rule.

It is from this anxiety that I wrote my fateful piece in The Wire, which annoyed a section of Ambedkarites and which came handy for some to whip up a campaign against me that I was ‘anti-Ambedkar’.

Babasaheb Ambedkar expected his disciples to be prabuddha (enlightened), which is much more than being educated and being able to scribble nonsense on WhatApp or Facebook. Photo: PTI

And the article happened

The precise context of that article may also be necessary to explain. As I told Justice Kolse Patil, I never had a plan to attend the commemorating event. However, nearer the date, one of my classmates in IIM-Ahmedabad and a friend who lived in Switzerland invited me for the marriage of his son which was to be solemnised in Pune on December 31, 2017 at 10 am.

In view of our family relations over many years, I just could not decline his invitation. Consequently, my wife and I engaged a driver and started off from Goa for Pune on the previous day. On the way, Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, called me to solicit a piece on the impending event on December 31, 2017, to which I agreed.

Nearer Pune, we noticed the treading on two tyres of our car had given way, creating an anxiety in us to change it at Pune before starting off for Goa the next day. We reached Pune and checked in to the hotel our friend had booked. After dinner, I began writing the article on my laptop which always accompanied me. I decided to give expression to my fond theme that Dalits should shun their identity obsession and strive to build a broad unity with others along class lines using the context of the anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle. I left the skeleton of the article and retired for the night.

The next day, we attended the marriage in the hall just across the road, had lunch and hurriedly checked out of the hotel to search for tyre shops on our way. None of us knew the exit roads to Goa. As we started off from the hotel, we saw Shaniwarwada, where the Elgar Parishad was to take place. On the fly, we decided to stop for few minutes and saw some friends at the stall of Prabuddha Bharat. The stage was being set up and we did not find anyone known to us there. We soon resumed our mission of finding a tyre shop.

Having made unsuccessful attempts at a couple of shops, we reached the highway petrol pump, where we fueled our car and learned that we could get tyres only at Satara fata. We changed two tyres there and reached Goa at midnight. On the way, as I am wont, I finished the article in the car.

The next morning, i.e., January 1, 2018, amidst my academic chores, I mailed the article to Varadarajan and got busy with my routine. When I went home at around 2 pm, my wife informed me about the attack of the Hindutva goons on the Dalit congregation at Bhima-Koregaon. The TV was on and I could see footage of saffron flag waving crowds attacking Dalits. It was shocking. In the evening, I had a meeting but the horrific scenes on TV haunted me all along and I forgot about the article, which was published the next day in The Wire.

Also read: On the History and Memory of the Battle of Koregaon

What is it to be Ambedkarite?

Though I received quite a few congratulatory messages, my detractors had a field day. They created a chorus that I was anti-Ambedkar or that I insulted Babasaheb Ambedkar by calling Bhima-Koregaon a myth. None refuted the facts I had mentioned or touched the theme of the article. Instead, they reveled in suicidal irrationality, ignorance and abuse – all un-Ambedkarite depravities.

Babasaheb Ambedkar expected his disciples to be prabuddha (enlightened), which is much more than being educated and being able to scribble nonsense on WhatApp or Facebook. As for the meaning of following Babasaheb Ambedkar, these worthies should read his Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah wherein, more than any of his contemporaries, he elucidated the relationship between the master and disciple. I know they would never read it in original and hence give here the requisite extract from it to open their eyes:

All Liberals I know will say our duty is to follow the master. What else could be the attitude of a devout band of disciples?  It means that a great man works by imposing his maxims on his disciples. It means that the disciples should not be wiser than the master. Both these conclusions are wrong. They do injustice to the master. No great man really does his work by crippling his disciple by forcing on them his maxims or his conclusions. What a great man does is not to impose his maxims on his disciples. What he does is to evoke them, to awaken them to a vigorous and various exertion of their faculties. Again the pupil only takes his guidance from his master. He is not bound to accept his master’s conclusions. There is no ingratitude in the disciple not accepting the maxims or the conclusions of his master. For even when he rejects them he is bound to acknowledge to his master in deep reverence “You awakened me to be myself: for that I thank you.” The master is not entitled to less. The disciple is not bound to give more. [Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches,Vol. 1, p. 240 (Govt. of Maharashtra),]

A sincere Ambedkarite would be disturbed seeing the pathetic condition of Dalits, and of the institutions Babasaheb established and left behind. He would invest his or her intellectual energy to addressing what went wrong and not promote a devotional cult which Ambedkar detested. They would be able to see that what I have been doing is the former – analysing the past and trying to contribute to strategies for future, and not showing off my scholarship for any gain whatsoever, unlike most others.

While this is what a true follower of Ambedkar ought to be doing, many are doing the latter – promoting a devotional cult of Ambedkar, hollowing out his radical content and helping the ruling classes exploit his legacy. This is precisely what his followers ought not to be doing. In terms of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s assessment in the above quotation, all those engaged in shouting ‘Ambedkar ki jai’ and variously showering encomia on him are actually eulogising their own identity and not necessarily upholding Ambedkar and his ideas.

Only those few who have adopted the arduous path of critical analysis, unbeknownst to them, are the true followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar. I leave the task of judging who is insulting Babasaheb Ambedkar to discerning readers.

The other articles I wrote

My piece in The Wire was not the only article that I had written on the topic. Actually, after the attack on January 1, 2018, I had written an article which was carried by News18, which historically situated the Bhima-Koregaon battle in the Dalit universe. It was not in any way a contradiction of what I wrote in The Wire, nor was it written out of ‘fear’, as some of my ignorant detractors have tried to suggest.

In response to their abuses, I had in fact also written a strong rejoinder –‘Bhima–Koregaon: Myth, Metaphor and Meta-Mission’ –  in my column in the Economic and Political Weekly. This article was a response to the critique from an unlikely person, my scholar friend Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

The purpose of writing this explanatory note is not as much to clear my own position vis-à-vis my detractors, for I really do not care about them, as to clear the thickening dirt being spread by them and their ilk in the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar which is disorienting emancipatory movements in the country.

Anand Teltumbde is former CEO, PIL, professor, IIT Kharagpur and GIM, Goa; writer and civil rights activist.