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Hitching Dalit Modernity to Anti-Modernist Wagon


The anti-Enlightenment intellectuals have a mad aunt living in the attic. They cannot disown her; they do not want to disown her. On the contrary, they want to speak for her, protect her against the oppressive Enlightenment Rationality outside. But the trouble is that they cannot keep her quietly hidden away, for she insists upon singing praises of the same old big bad modern world that the Enlightenment has wrought. The mad aunt bears many names, from those brave women at Seneca Falls in upstate New York, Martin Luther King Jr, the May 4th students in China, to Ambedkar’s Buddha who speaks in the language of John Dewey, the quintessential philosopher of reason, secularism and democracy. Through modern history, the oppressed have embraced the universalism of reason in the service of a universal spread of the spirit of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, the Enlightenment ideals that so embarrass our ever-so-sophisticated intellectuals. They smile patronisingly at such naive enthusiasm, for they have seen through the maya of reason and realised that all is power.

What to Do?

For the Indian anti-Enlightenment brigade the solution is clear, and very classically Hindu in its contradictions-be-damned eclecticism . They simply absorb the aunt’s song into their own ponderous and pedantic tirades, and pretend that regardless of what the oppressed say, they actually hate the intoxicating but terrifying freedoms and obligations of the modern world, and would be happy living in the attic, embedded in the life of their community and the comfort of local knowledges. The aunt in the attic is declared to be the standard-bearer of the “insurrection of the little people”, defending their local traditions, regardless of the fact that these self-same traditions have sent her to the attic in the first place.

In what follows, I will raise some questions for Aditya Nigam whose ‘Secularism, Modernity, Nation: Epistemology of the Dalit Critique’ (EPW, November 25, 2000) tries “to read the dalit movement and its discourse as a text, against its own self-perception, in order to extricate the elements of an epistemology of its critique of modernity” (emphasis added). Not only the oppressed cannot speak, it seems that the oppressed cannot even understand what they themselves mean when they speak! They need Aditya Nigam to tell us what their own ‘texts’ really mean.

Here is what Aditya Nigam thinks dalits really think of modernity:
(1) It is the fundamental “key theoretical categories of modern political discourse”, and not the sacralised sense of entitlement to ritual and secular power that Hinduism conferred on the twice-born, that are the real enemy of dalits and other lower castes. Of course, Nigam wrings his hands over the fact that the secularists ignore the role of traditions in understanding Indian reality, but when it comes down to explaining the continued existence of caste prejudices and oppressions, it is the English-speaking, colonised modernists, and not the centuries of sacralised privilege, who do all the dirty work. Traditions are invoked only to beat up the modernists’ unpardonable neglect, but not as causal factors in India’s peculiarly reactionary modernity.

Take, for example, how Nigam declares Ambedkar’s and Periyar’s critique of brahmanism as “essentialist” and “naive” while praising them for resisting the “universalising urge” of modern political categories which treat caste as irrelevant, e g, the nation, class, the secular state. The trouble is that Nigam underestimates the validity of Ambedkar’s critique of brahmanism, and overrates beyond recognition Ambedkar’s opposition to ‘universalising urge’ of modern political ideals. He is too quick to condemn what is fundamental to Ambedkar’s project, and too hasty to find a streak of anti-modernism which isn’t really there in Ambedkar. (How Nigam gets Periyar wrong has been already dealt with by V Geetha, see EPW, January 13, 2001.)

As we know, time and again in his writings, Ambedkar expressed concern with how the brahmanical view of the world and the rituals and rules of pollution and purity it prescribed had infected all aspects of the civil society, draining the ‘associated life’ of community out of it. He saw brahmanism as a pan-Indian, pan-class worldview which “negated the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity”.

A Spent Force?

Nigam closes his eyes to the fact that Ambedkar’s understanding of brahmanism is amply borne out by the all too painfully visible working of the pollution-line in our families, among our friends, in our public institutions, indeed, in our inner lives. Instead, he goes on to suggest that Ambedkar, Periyar and “Shudra thinkers” in general, erred in understanding caste in a “sociologistic essentialist” manner – as “mere brahmanism”, rather than understanding it as a specifically Indian way of becoming modern and secular. Dalit intellectuals erred, in Nigam’s account, in failing to see that the ritual power of brahmans had been transformed into secular power that came from English education during and after the British. Rather than fight a battle against traditional/religious legitimation of the culture of caste, Nigam’s unstated but very obvious suggestion is, dalits should concentrate on fighting a battle against modern secular institutions. Nigam argues as if the traditional attitudes and habits have nothing to do with the differential power modern institutions confer on upper castes. Is brahmanism really the spent cultural force in Indian society that Nigam makes it out to be? Is religious reason no longer functioning in the pores of the civil society to uphold and justify its various irrationalities and divisions?

Holding brahmanism accountable for illiberalism of the civil society, Nigam continues, is naïve because it “implies that [the upper castes] are incomplete moderns. It is to imply that this lack can be cured by more of the same medicine”. In other words, ‘shudra thinkers’ were wrong to peg their hopes on the epistemological break that modernity is capable of bringing with it. They were wrong to hope that with the spread of modern political ideals, modern education, scientific thinking, industrial production, the Hindu worldview that upholds hierarchy as natural and just should be, and can be, changed.

No one doubts that hierarchy and the worldview that sanctions it has been more intractable than the dalit reformers thought. But it is not the slow pace of change that worries Nigam. It is not too little modernity, but too much of it that is silencing the dalits and preventing them from developing their own history, their own traditions and their own identity. The real problem is not the caste-bound thinking of brahmanism, but the universalisation of the ideal of a modern self that “is thoroughly purged of traditional caste socialisation…that erases all thought of caste and religion from [one’s] mind”.

(2) But why should universalisation of the even the ideal (for they are nowhere realised) of modern citizenship which holds all accidents of birth as irrelevant to the rights of a citizen be a source of oppression in India? Nigam uses a very peculiar understanding of the ideal of “unmarked modern citizenship” to combine red-baiting with identity politics.

(3) Let us first look at the red-baiting. Nigam seems to labour under a strange misconception that those who are committed to the realisation of the ideals of a caste-less society are somehow blinded by these very ideals from seeing the workings of the actual existing caste institutions on the ground. He claims that all modernists, but Marxists above all, were so “embarrassed” by any reference to such a “non-secular and retrograde category”, so keen were they to rise above “narrow sectional identities” that they were unable to adequately understand how caste was actually playing a role in “negotiating” with modernity.

There is no denying that Marxists underestimated the power of ideas and culture – a culture as infused into the pores of the civil society as Hinduism – in bending the ‘laws’ of dialectical materialism. Thoughtful Marxists are fully aware of the futility of separating the ‘Dharmic’ and customary legitimations of differential entitlements to productive and cultural resources, from the actual construction and operation of classes. But it is regrettably true that in practice, Marxists have a tendency to place more faith in class struggle rather than a simultaneous but autonomous kulturkampf against the workings of dharma and traditions. It is true that Marxists tend to assume that economic redistribution will bring secular and democratic cultural change in its wake. It is also true that Marxists have, on occasion, made strategic alliances with romantic anti-modernists, ‘post-developmentalist’ ecofeminists, etc, who speak the language of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. These are serious limitations indeed.

The More Dangerous Snakes

But in Nigam’s account, it is not the blindspots of Marxist theory and practice, but rather its ideals that are to blame. Indeed, so bent is he on delegitimising the ideals of modern citizenship that Nigam can see no difference between the ideas and policies of “Nehru and the communists” on the one hand, and the cultural nationalism of a “Savarkar, Tilak or Sardar Patel” on the other. The former may have been more inclusive than the latter but both are “snakes in the grass”, insofar as dalits are concerned: the secularist-modernists are the more dangerous green snakes, because their radical worldview and language makes them harder to identify, while the Hindutva-modenrists are less dangerous white snakes, easier to detect because of their brahmanism.1  Both are enemies of the dalits, because both are equally willing to sacrifice the interests of dalits to the ideal of creating a modern state which is to be “governed by notions of citizenship and defined by contractual relations and rules of free entry and exit … [and whose institutions are to be guided by] the values of equality, autonomy and deliberative procedures of decision-making.” Blinded by these ideals, they are hostile to any institution that allows itself to be guided by what they think is a non-secular, non-modern social logic derived from a non-western rationality. It is of no concern to Nigam that for Nehru and the communists, equality and other ideals of the Enlightenment were to be created, through social struggle, against the grain of Hinduism, which was to be transformed and secularised in the process. It is of no concern to Nigam that Savarkar and the Hindutva ilk, on the other hand, are claiming, against all evidence and logic, that Vedantic Hinduism itself is fully modern, ‘scientific’ and even egalitarian and secular. These are minor matters for Nigam. In his calculus, even those who are clearly using the language of modernity purely as a fig-leaf get counted as bona fide ‘modern’: all their sins then become available to tarnish the very ideals of modernity. In the “non-dualist” world of Nigam, such distinctions do not count for much: we are all living in a “hybrid modernity”. Why worry about the content and the social logic of traditions, for they are enabling us to become modern in their own way. ( Nigam fails to appreciate that that for dalit intellectuals, becoming modern with the value system derived from the old order was precisely the problem. They wanted to resolutely challenge and dislodge the old value system, retaining only those traditions which were compatible with a modern, egalitarian and rational culture.)

I find Nigam’s suggestion nothing less than preposterous that Marxists were so determined to imagine a new identity for themselves that they simply repressed the existence of caste, both within their own psyche and in their understanding of the rest of the society. One could as easily argue the exact opposite: rather than putting a veil of embarrassed silence over traditional identities, those who are committed to the ideals of a modern society can just as well get obsessive about searching out, exposing and rooting out all manifestations of non-modern and reactionary traditions. There are, after all, sufficient historical antecedents for this kind of political struggle, viz, the May 4th movement in China, the agitation against the Church in Europe during the Enlightenment, and indeed, the aborted traditions of ‘tamasha’ among the dalits, which were used for a while to expose and critique traditional oppressions.2  Commitment to the ideals of modernity need not necessarily mean blindness to traditional forms of injustices.

Indeed, Nigam could learn a precious lesson from Ambedkar in understanding both the limitations of Marxism, as well respecting it as a worthy ally that shares the ends – although not the means – of justice that dalits seek. Ambedkar is critical of communists and socialists, but not because he does not share their modernist ideals. He is critical of the communists for they do not see that they need to kill the “monster of caste” before they can hope for a revolution. In his Buddha or Marx, Ambedkar clearly lays out the shared ground between his Buddha and Marx: both want to diminish suffering (‘dukkha’ for Buddha and exploitation for Marx), and both turn to reason not just to understand the world but to change it, to lessen the suffering in it. The differences that Ambedkar had with Marxists had to do with means for achieving very similar goals. Ambedkar was a democratic socialist, with a greater stress on the democratic part, than an average Marxist socialist would feel comfortable with.

(4) All of this is should be perfectly clear even on a cursory reading of Ambedkar. But Nigam is highly selective. He makes Ambedkar appear more anti-universalistic, more of a votary of dalitisation based upon a “dalit epistemology” than he was. One can see clearly that Nigam is trying to rally the great moral authority of Ambedkar to the anti-modernist, Gandhian project, euphemistically called ‘alternative’ or ‘hybrid’ modernity by its votaries.

Take Nigam’s appreciation of Ambedkar’s resistance to the “universalising urge” of modernity. That Ambedkar and Periyar strongly dissented from the kind of nation that was being imagined by the Congress Party at the time of independence is no secret. But did Ambedkar resist the very idea of a ‘nation’, ‘working class’, ‘abstract unmarked citizenship’ or indeed, any universal category “over the question of caste”? Did he, as Nigam suggests, “resist the idea of a part being represented in an essential section of a whole”?

I’ll admit that I have not read every word Ambedkar ever wrote. I come to him more as a philosopher of science, and find in his Annihilation of Caste and in his Buddha and His Dhamma a very illuminating defence of scientific temper, which he partially borrows from John Dewey, the American pragmatist and his teacher at Columbia University. Limited though my reading may be, I believe that imputation of Ambedkar as resisting universalism goes against the spirit of the man.

Far from rejecting the very idea of a nation, I find Ambedkar practically hankering after a nation that he could identify with, without having to insult his own, and his community’s, humanity: a nation in which political revolution is preceded by a social revolution, a nation, in other words, whose social philosophy and traditions have been leavened by reason. Witness how in Annihilation of Caste, he bemoans the fact that Hindus do not constitute a nation. Unlike the nationalists, including secularists like Nehru, he was not satisfied with pan-Indian Hindu heritage and a basic similarity of traditions. Disparate communities become a nation, Ambedkar insisted, not when they possess similar things, but because they possess things in common. It is not enough for different castes to observe similar customs side-by-side, but separately. What Ambedkar was after was “associated life”, a community bound by shared activity so that “the same emotions are aroused in [one] that animate the others”. Ambedkar treated this kind of “associated living” as the essence of democracy. And for this kind of a nation, Ambedkar had nothing but great respect. He didn’t express any reservations regarding any fragment to be ruled by this kind of a whole, which emerged out of a reasoned conversation of fragments.

Modernity of Tradition?

(5) What should cause even more grief to the anti-modernists, Ambedkar had no faith in the “modernity of traditions” that Nigam celebrates in the name of “hybridity’ and “alternative modernities”. Modernity was to be struggled for against the grain of traditions. ‘Chaturvarna’ and the Hindu ontology and epistemology that support it were in principle antithetical to the kind of democratic nationalism Ambedkar could live with. They encouraged an obscurantist and superstitious “religion of rules” and rituals which sapped the associated life out of the public sphere. Like his guru, John Dewey, Ambedkar saw publicly shared principles, modelled on scientific method, as the basis for associated living in a democratic society. Like idealised scientists in a lab, free, autonomous and equal citizens were to demand reasons and evidence for beliefs, which could be tested using ordinary reason and sensory experience available equally to all. The success of science in explaining the world was to provide the epistemological justification for a democratic public sphere. Accumulated knowledge of modern science was to demystify, as Ambedkar endeavours to do in his Buddha and His Dhamma, the ontological sanctions for hierarchy.3 

Nigam, like the rest of post-marked intellectuals, would find such a frontal confrontation of traditional and the modern worldviews a sign of “dualist” or “binary” thinking, supposedly responsible for the sins of the Enlightenment and modernity. The argument is familiar: by presenting itself as the sole repository of reason and progress, modern science is denying the rationality of non-western traditions and thereby silencing them. What is worse, the argument continues, the supposed universality of science is a social construct of dead-white-men-with-moneybags (to crudely paraphrase the reigning ideology), which is being imposed as the very definition of reason on the rest of the world.

The critics prefer to see modernisation as a process of ‘hybridisation’ between the old and the new. Traditions don’t (and should not) just die when confronted with a worldview informed by the knowledge generated by science in the last three-four centuries, they very correctly argue. Rather, traditions ‘negotiate’ between the old and the new, the argument continues, again very correctly. Nigam even gives an example, although he entirely misses its import. Citing David Washbrook, he argues that the ritual power of brahmans got transmuted into secular power that comes with access to English education. So it is not as if modern education just erased all hierarchies: the existing hierarchies ‘negotiated’ with modern ideas and led to a new kind of hierarchy. This is a very persuasive argument, except that Nigam himself fails to see that access to ritual power enabled the brahmans to corner access to English education. For all his anti-dualism, he fails to see the connection between ritual and secular power and argues, pretty much like Washbrook, that Periyar and others were actually fighting a secular battle, as if centuries of religious traditions had nothing to do with this ‘secular’ advantage, as if the religious legitimations for privilege had already ceased to operate in the civil society and did not need any more engagement.

In order for modern ideas to find a toe-hold in the common sense of a society, they have to negotiate with traditions. This is a very cogent and persuasive argument, and has to be granted. (In my more ‘materialist’ phase, I used to ignore the full import of cultural pathways needed for new norms to become a part of the common sense. I used to find the creation of a whole new set of cultural values relatively unproblematic. I have since revised my views, thanks in part to my engagement with postmodernists.) My problems with this theory of hybridity and negotiations begin with the next two questions: First, which traditions should we encourage modern ideas to ‘negotiate’ with? The answer to this question depends upon the prior question, which goals of modern society are taken as desirable?

The problem is that most postmodernists and postcolonial critics of modernity, and Nigam fits this description very well, answers both these questions with a thorough-going relativism of rationality as well as norms. All ways of knowing the world are equally rational, thus science has no greater epistemic authority than local knowledges. Indeed, local, non-modern, non-western knowledges, regardless of the large fund of the objectively false beliefs about the world that they contain, are declared to be preferable to scientifically certified knowledge, because the former is the knowledge of the ‘little people’. As progressives committed to the flourishing of the little people, postcolonial intellectuals take it upon themselves to defend the claims of “indigenous modernity”, against the imperialism of “high modernity” (Nigam’s terms).

The problem with such “epistemic charity”, as I have dubbed this stance of seeming open-mindedness towards the “other”,4  is that it allows the existing stock of knowledge to go unexamined and uncorrected. Even that would be unobjectionable : one could argue that one should let a thousand flowers bloom. But the trouble is that objectively false knowledge of nature, acquired through unreliable methods of inquiry, has social and ethical consequences. Insofar a culture’s fundamental ontology (what is the world made of? what are the forces that cause things to happen?) and epistemology (how do we know? how do we settle disputes? who/what do we trust?) has any influence on what a culture holds dear (yogic mediation as a valid source of ‘higher’ knowledge, for instance) or what a culture holds as taboo (fear of pollution, for example), uncritical acceptance of local epistemologies as ‘scientific’ amounts to giving immunity to the cultural values that follow from these epistemologies.5 

Ambedkar understood the connection between knowledge and cultural norms all too well. Unlike the assorted “critical traditionalists” Nigam so admires, Ambedkar was convinced – correctly so, as the persistence of hierarchy in the social life in nominally democratic India shows – that left unchallenged by the superior knowledge made available by modern science, the ontology and epistemology of brahmanical Hinduism will continue to bolster hierarchical and fundamentally undemocratic social values. That is the reason why in his magnum opus, Buddha and His Dhamma, Ambedkar reads back, in a very historically incorrect manner, the findings of modern science into the worldview of the Buddha. He reconstructs the Buddha as a prophet of scientific reason. A challenge to brahmanical common sense from a scientific perspective was of crucial importance to Ambedkar. Without it, Ambedkar feared traditions will simply bend the new to their own purposes. Unfortunately, his fears have turned out to be well-founded: witness the reactionary modernity of Hindutva.

Dalit Epistemology

(6) Nigam turns a blind eye to the fundamentally universalistic, rationalist aspects of Ambedkar. And there is a good reason why. Very simply, he wants to make room for ‘dalitisation’ of knowledge and culture. Patterning his arguments after the well known arguments for feminist epistemologies, Nigam argues that the “experience” of dalits is a sufficient basis for epistemological authority of a specifically dalit idea of modernity, grounded in dalit history and traditional dalit knowledge.

Experience of oppression does open one’s eyes to aspects of social reality that may remain invisible to the elites. But to give raw experience the final authority in establishing the validity of evidence is extremely problematic, for it opens the way to complete politicisation of knowledge and results in radical relativism. Furthermore, experiential epistemologies only sound empowering: in reality, as Dewey would say, they deprive the oppressed an opportunity to enrich and expand their primary experience (sensory access) as well as their secondary experience (reflective understanding).6 

(7) Finally, Nigam is encouraging the worst tendencies of identity politics by suggesting that only dalit-bahujan have the moral and epistemological authority – thanks to their experience of oppression – to write dalit histories, or to create new knowledge that can advance dalit freedoms and rights.

Caste society works by making all of us complicit in its insidious workings. And given that there is no central hierarchy-enforcing authority, casteism perpetuates itself, virus-like, by infecting all of our minds, our hearts, our memories, our habits, our friendships. Just about everything – from the nursery tales we grew up on, the foods we eat, the friends we make, the gods we pray to – is polluted and corrupted by the Hindu cosmology of natural inequality. We may not rationally and consciously consent to this worldview but it is a part of our meta-reality that guides our sense of what is right, proper and desirable.

That does not mean that we are all dalits: clearly, all of us have not suffered the kind of psychological mutilations that non-recognition can inflict. But all of us are complicit in causing these mutilations. Even dalits are not fully exempt from the pollution of hierarchy.

All of us have an equal obligation to honestly, rigorously and rationally examine our inherited values. That is the true message of dalit modernity.


1 Nigam here is quoting, approvingly, the BSP leader, Kanshi Ram.

2 See the most interesting and informative little book by Gopal Guru on this issue, Guru, G 1997, Dalit Cultural Movement and the Dialectics of Dalit Politics in Maharashtra, Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai.

3 For a more complete treatment of scientific temper in Ambedkar, see my “A ‘Broken People’ Defend Science: Reconstructing the Deweyan Buddha of India’s Dalits” forthcoming, Social Epistemology.

4 See my “Epistemic Charity of Social Constructivist Theories of Science and Why the Third World Should Reject the Offer” in Noretta Koertge (ed), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

5 For a detailed critique of hybrid modernities, see my “We are all Hybrids now!: The Dangerous Epistemology of Postcolonial Populism,” Journal of Peasant Studies, New York, January 2000: 162-86.

6 I provide a fuller argument against the authority of experience in my forthcoming paper on Ambedkar-Dewey-Buddha connection. See note 3.


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