Dalitality will be incomplete if it doesn’t honour my predecessor, Chandra Bhan Prasad, a shining thought leader and India’s leading public intellectual. At a time whenDalits were barely noticed, CBP was our eyes and ears. He was our man, dressed in a soigné suit, sharp black tie and handsomely combed hair. Sitting in the studios or penning his philosophy, CBP gave us reasons to be proud and assured.
CBP is known to the world for his stellar work as a columnist in The Pioneer. He was the first Dalit in independent India to have a dedicated column space in the English press. His popular column, Dalit Diary, came at a time when newer interventions in India’s changing geography were desperately needed. His primary motive was to prioritize the Dalit voice. He did that with a flair of robustness and feat of a dapper. He beautifully observed that in their act of love Dalits redefine love. And this experience of love in my opinion is sweeter, lasting and transcendental.
Born in 1958 in Bhadwan village in Azamgarh, UP, CBP began writing as the last decade of the twentieth century dawned. His life at the Jawaharlal Nehru University was shaped by the radical uptightness of the Dalit exploitation. He found a pathway to articulate the simmering anger through the CPI (ML) outpost. After paying closer attention to this politics, and the politics of the liberal and progressive, CBP chose to expose their hypocrisies through honesty. He took upon the liberals and progressives both in the urban and rural scape. His targets were the influential class who were articulating public opinion— professors, editors, columnists and leftist feudalists. In many ways, Dalit Diary was a vicissitude for these people who talked about Dalit liberation but also held on to the beliefs of their varna privileges. CBP’s openness to limited private capital came from his reading of Ambedkar and that of Mao wherein nationalist bourgeoisie were given adequate space in China after 1949 revolution till 1956.
The much-hyped Bhopal Declaration which brought together Dalit academics, thinkers and babus to frame a policy of diversity was token-like successful. It created a buzz but the results are still to be seen across a wide spectrum. However, the credit to articulate that idea and bring about new perspectives can be attributed to CBP. He is the father of India’s diversity movement who argued for an increase in colours to the monochrome of what he called “varna viciousness”.
CBP is a wayfarer. He is trying to find the best possible ways to liberate his people. He loves his community and for it he has dedicated his professional life. CBP has utilized his glamour and name to advance the Dalit cause in his chosen field. He has toyed with new ventures and this is what brought him to propose Dalit Capitalism – a radical imagination of finding avenues in the centers of liberal structures. He was a pragmatic uncle who advised Dalit movements to “seek share in globalization” instead of “wasting resources, time and talent in trying to stop the unstoppable”.
His reasoning for a capitalist solution was his active position against the twice-born left and Sangh. Both these cronies are united in keeping the permanent subordinate positions of Dalits. He was cognizant that American imperialism was going to attack vulnerable Dalits but what would a landless Dalit labourer think of his landlord who has been tormenting him for generations? “What could be a happier moment for Dalits than witnessing the total collapse of farmers (landlords) who do not pay minimum wages and humiliate Dalits in their day-to-day life?” Those ruling classes of India did not democratise resources such as education. Thus, he advised Dalits to “pray for the collapse of desi industrialists”. He took this position from two vantage points: 1. He hoped that the MNC would open space for Dalits like it did for the Black population in America. 2. Empire had a history of turning fruitful for India’s Dalits.
Although, his Dalit Capitalism is an admirable concept it needs detailed scrutiny and much more critical understanding before it is presented as a penultimate panacea after the Constitution. CBP tried his best to find ways for Dalits to explore and I love his heterodox style. That is why, even in my pragmatic critique of some of his ideas, his love for the community and restlessness to liberate our people binds us together in the genealogy of our freedom loving ancestors.
No Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh could guide us nor control our thoughts. Prasad pushed for more Dalit centric voices in the publications. He emphatically argued for every publication to run at least one column by a Dalit in addition to hiring several thousand journalists and few more in weekly edit pages. CBP’s columns were deeply sociological and had a literary command. He believed in the power of English language which gave him a higher status. He wanted the same for his community. He remains a strong advocate of the Dalit English language movement.
In his feisty reprimand of the twice-borns, CBP also held no filters towards Dalits. He felt the Dalit movement’s singular focus on Brahmins as enemy No. 1 was wrongly placed, especially when since Independence the upper Shudras had claimed their dominance in India. Thus, the “principal contradiction of our times” was between “Dalits and upper Shudras”.
CBP fronted attacks and counter-punched detractors for berating Dalits. Prasad was in direct assault mode against anyone trying to pull his community down. His new ventures “Dalit Food” and “Dalit Entrepreneurship” are thought-provoking and inspiring. Needless to say, also entertaining.
Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 20, 2020 under the title ‘The importance of Chandra Bhan Prasad’. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column
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