Like Marx And Ambedkar, One Can Articulate Others’ Sufferings: Badri Narayan
Abhay Kumar Interviews Badri Narayan
Badri Narayan does not have an experience of being a Dalit. Nor has he been “academically-trained” at “prestigious” national or international universities. Yet his research and writing about Dalit culture and politics have redefined the discipline and inspired young scholars to enter the field. One of his major contributions is to invent new sources for writing history such as folklores, songs, pamphlets, myths, memories, interviews etc. Some of these sources have also been used in his recently-published political biography of the BSP founder Kanshi Ram. At JNU’s Aravali guest house, on November 28, Abhay Kumar converses with social historian and cultural anthropologist Badri Narayan. The excerpt of the interview is as follows.
Q. When did you become interested in writing about Dalit movements?
I had a long association with Left movement and I was inspired to work for the marginalised. As a Left activist, I used to stay with Dalits. During this interaction, I observed some Dalit women singing heartrending and painful folk songs. These songs attracted me and I became interested in them. My PhD work was also on folk culture. These folk songs gave me clue to study the subaltern heroes and heroines and their perceptions of pasts. In my reading, these folk songs are about dissents, contestations and everyday politics. Later, in 1998, my book came out on the folklore of Reshma and Chuharmal. Reshma was a daughter of the upper caste Bhumihar raja and Chuharmal was a Dalit Dusadh caste hero. This is a story of an asymmetrical love between them.
Q. Some Dalit writers have strongly argued that svanubhuti (self-perception) should be a precondition for writing about Dalits. In other words, only a Dalit can write about the sufferings and pains of Dalits.
We used to work among the grassroots. We created a very good relation with Dalit community. Unlike the common Dalits, some Dalits, who are based in big cities and employed at big university, have raised the issue that only a Dalit can write about Dalits. I will tell them that they should let me do my own work and they should be doing their own. For example, Marx was not a proletarian but he experienced the feelings of the proletariat better than any proletarian. Similarly Ambedkar was not a Bhangi or Chamar but he articulated the lives of Dalits of every part of India. So being a Dalit cannot be a precondition for writing about Dalits. One can also convert into a Dalit. Sometimes I was called a Dalit and I felt happy and I took it as a compliment. In short, it is possible for a writer to enter someone’s body, which I call parkaya pravesh.
Q. One of your major contributions is to enlarge the scope of sources for history-writing. You also seem to resist the compartmentalisation of disciplines.
I never worked with disciplinary egoism. I am not a historian, nor am I a political scientist. I also do not see myself as an intellectual. That is why my sources are wider. I do not bother about comments. I could not get a position at history departments in India. Besides, I am happy to use multiple sources for multi-vocal histories. Social scientists often do not pay attention to documenting invisible process of social mobilisation, rather they are looking for crude things.
Q. You were a product of a regional university. But you seem to produce much more than many of those who are trained in “prestigious” national or international universities. What message would you like to give to millions of students who do not get a chance to study at big educational institutes?
I can give them my own example. I am from Arrah [in Bihar] and I moved to Allahabad after matriculation. My ambition was to become a journalist with the Lok Lehar published by the CPM. I thought I should do something for the party. But life took a different direction and I joined academics. I was a very ill-trained social scientist. As a doctoral candidate, I had to do my work on my own. If you are not under the supervision of a noted scholar, this works as both a limitation and a prospect. For instance, I have no reference model. I was not compelled to follow any particular canon. Without any constraint, I began writing and my only source of knowledge was people. I remember once [Subaltern historian] Gautam Bhadra told me that ‘if you have imagination you can write’. I learnt like Eklavya. In my writings, I never aimed at perfection. Rather, I just tried to express myself. Not many people of my age, who were trained in the West, were able to publish much. This is because of the fact that they were under the burden of dominant reference model. They might have easily got a job because of their foreign degree, but I had to prove a lot. Those who do have the privilege of going to foreign universities and big institutes, they can still follow the example of Eklavya and learn from people.
Q. Your recent book is a political biography of Kanshi Ram. What inspired you to write about Manyawar?
When I was pursuing my Masters in Allahabad, the BSP movement began to emerge. I observed the movement and interacted with local cadres of the BSP. I also closely followed Kanshi Ram when he was in Allahabad. I had no doubt that he would do miracle and he did it. The reason behind writing a biography of Kanshi Ram was the fact that he did not get his due. Despite the fact that he changed the language of Indian politics, few people are willing to appreciate him. My effort is to create an academic space for Kanshi Ram. As academic world is dominated by English intelligentsia, I consciously wrote this biography in English. The purpose behind writing this biography is to intervene in the debate. The neglect of the contribution of Kanshi Ram is also corroborated by the fact that Mayawati’s biography had been published fifteen-year before Kanshi Ram’s biography. Everyone abused him and no one is ready to recognise his contribution.
Q. But you seem to reduce his contribution by calling him mere a “Leader of Dalits” in the book.
Kanshi Ram started mobilising people on the plank of caste. Despite being a leader of Dalits, he also succeeded in mobilising other most backward castes as well as non-Yadav backward castes, forming the political category of Bahujan. It would have been better if the title of the book had been “Kanshi Ram: Leader of Bahujan”. Since Bahujan is not very popular among academicians, particularly the Western scholars, the publisher and editor suggested that Dalits was more communicable. Moreover, Kanshi Ram was not a leader of Sarvajan as his mobilisation was against Manuwadis and Brahmins.
Q. In this book, you have criticised the BSP for its “opportunism”. Besides, you have also shown that the BSP is dominated by Chamars. Are you not too critical of the BSP, overlooking what positive changes it has brought about in UP?
The BSP movement was an emancipatory one and it fought against Brahminism. But since the death of Kanshi Ram, the BSP has been guided by electoral consideration. Moreover, there is the dominance of Chamars because of their big number. Other small castes of Dalits have been marginalised. Our commitment should be to the marginalised. Why are we against Brahmins? We are criticising them because they are dominant. Similarly, I am also against the dominant castes of Dalits.
Q. Are Chamars in a position to dominate other Dalit castes?
Dominance is not a homogenous term. It is multi-layered and thus there are different kinds of dominance. Brahmins dominate Dalits. Chamars, too, dominate Sapera [snake charmer] caste of Dalit. So, we have to oppose all kinds of dominance. I work to make excluded and invisible castes visible.
Q. With the BSP failing to win even a single seat in UP during the 2014 General Election, what should Mayawati do to revive the party?
It is true that the BSP movement has weakened a bit. I think the BSP should invent a new language of politics. Mayawati should develop the second line of leadership. Besides, she has to focus on Bahujan agenda, which Kanshi Ram had fought for. In order to win election, she also needs other votes, including those of the upper castes. But she should always keep in mind that the base of the politics should be Dalits. She needs to influence middle class, which are attracted to Modi. Small sections of middle class Chamar are under the influence of Hindutva politics and they might have voted for the BJP. Apart from them, she has to mobilise other small Dalits castes as well.
Q. Before we close our discussion, let me ask about your current interests?
I am working on the most marginalised communities among Dalits and on the issues and problems of democracy. My research question is why democracy and state are not reaching out to the marginalised. I am also researching the invisible Dalits. Apart from them, I am studying the migration of Bhojpuri labourers to Mumbai, Surat, and Ghaziabad.
(First published in Countercurrents)