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Gail Omvedt and her lifelong search for anti-caste utopia

Gail Omvedt, who died on 25 August, traced the many ways of thinking about utopia in Dalit-Bahujan movements across India. An excerpt from one of her key works

Scholar Gail Omvedt, who passed away on 25 August, at the age of 81.
Scholar Gail Omvedt, who passed away on 25 August, at the age of 81. (Courtesy: Somnath Waghmare/Twitter (@somwaghmare))

The radical dalit poet, Sant Ravidas, may have been the first to herald a utopia in the subcontinent in the fifteenth century. He sang of it as Begumpura, the city without sorrow. In 2008, the anticaste intellectual Gail Omvedt, who died on 25 August at the age of 81, tracked the many ways of thinking about utopia in this land, expressed variously across dalit-bahujan movements from Bengal to Maharashtra to the Deccan. In Seeking Begumpura, she argued this was the ‘bahujan’, shudra–atishudra way of thinking outside the Sanskrit-brahmanic framework. With chapters on Ravidas Kabir, Tukaram, the Kartabhajas, the Phules, Pandithar Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Ramasamy Periyar, Omvedt showed us how this moral arc bends at Babasaheb Ambedkar’s hands, leading us to the idea of Prabuddha Bharat, Enlightened India—a vision that fused the values of the Constitution of India with the philosophy of Buddhism.—S. Anand, publisher, Navayana.

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, reproduced with permission from the publisher, Navayana.

Seeking Begumpura by Gail Omvedt, Navayana, 304 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399
Seeking Begumpura by Gail Omvedt, Navayana, 304 pages, 399

The first formulation of an Indian version of utopia comes not from elite literature, but from one of the anticaste intellectuals with a mass following.The bhakti radical, Sant Ravidas (c. 1450–1520), was the first to formulate an Indian version of utopia in his song “Begumpura”. Begumpura, the ‘city without sorrow’, is a casteless, classless society; a modern society, one without a mention of temples; an urban society as contrasted with Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram Rajya.“Begumpura” describes a land with no taxes, toil or harassment, where there is no hierarchy but all are equal. Finally, calling himself a ‘tanner now set free’ he proclaims that he wanders freely with his friends: the right to walk anywhere in a settlement, city or village, is a unique matter for dalits.

During this long period of five centuries covered by this study, India entered the modern era, first on more or less equal terms and in exchange with Europe, then as a colonized and subject country. It was a period of turmoil, of growth, of the formation of new ideas. Elite intellectuals sought to absorb challenges from the class-caste subalterns, developing their vision of India, which took multiple forms: the ‘hard hindutva’ of Savarkar which saw India as basically a Hindu nation, the ‘soft hindutva’ of Gandhi which looked to an idealized Ram Rajya as a goal, the mild socialism of Nehru, and the harder leftism of the communists. During the same period, the subalterns put forward their vision and their goals, within the framework of a unique utopia first conceived by Ravidas and other radical sants. …

Utopias are given birth to by the contradictions of modernity, and they involve both what we may call ‘reason’ and ‘ecstasy’. Ecstasy arises because of the hope and fervent emotion aroused by the possibility of a utopian society, a society of equality and love. Reason defines the road to utopia; it analyzes the current situation of society and shows the strategy needed to realize a better one. Utopias have existed throughout the long centuries of entering into modernity, but with some changes. In the initial period, with the promise of a better society very distant, ecstasy is dominant. But gradually, as the outlines of the situation become clear, reason takes an equal place, and the actors seeking utopia begin to grapple with the actualities of realizing it.

A young Gail Omvedt.
A young Gail Omvedt. (Courtesy: Somnath Waghmare/Twitter (@somwaghmare))

They are utopias, not simply fantasies, because they have a foothold in reality and yet contradict the uglier aspects of reality. They have existed for the centuries in which modernity has been coming into existence, promising a new world that is seen as both possible and necessary: possible because of economic growth and the rise of oppressed classes whose struggles are marked by a new consciousness, a new awareness and education; necessary because of the daily denial of such a consciousness of hope by the brutalities of actual life. Utopias exist because the promise and a partial, fragmented reality of a prosperous society exist in the productive possibilities of the present, promising ecstasies of living in this world—but not allowing them to be realized. In an era where they can only foreshadow a distant future, utopias provide hope and even ecstasy for the masses. Once, however, the realization becomes possible, reason can be used to delineate the path towards the achievement of such utopias. Thus, utopias in the modern age unite reason and ecstasy, giving inspiration and outlining a path for the creation of the new society, achieving the utopian existence in which ecstasy is made real. Both ecstasy and reason will be recurring themes in this monograph.

In India, utopias have been posed for centuries by the radical anticaste intellectuals coming from dalit and bahujan (former untouchable, former sudra) backgrounds. They can be traced from the early modern period of the bhakti movement, when they were only hints of a future, to the more determinate forms guiding the struggles under colonialism. The inchoate or determined forms of utopias have thus depended on the situation of the time; as modern developments increased, the new society seemed to become more and more one to struggle for, one with specific outlines.…

Utopias, the posing of alternatives, remain a crucial aspect of any struggle; they are, in other terms, the part of social movement discourses or frames that inspire people to action by uniting ideals with an analysis that makes a claim to possible realization. They unite ecstasy and reason, projecting a future that is achievable by present action. It is interesting that much of postmodernist theory rejects utopias as part of a presumed modernist arrogance; post-modernism rather celebrates the diversities of fragmentation and its acceptance but in so doing ignores inequalities and injustices, and efforts to move beyond them.

FILE PHOTO: Researcher, author and Dalit rights activist Gail Omvedt passed away on August 25. She was 81. 
FILE PHOTO: Researcher, author and Dalit rights activist Gail Omvedt passed away on August 25. She was 81.  (Credit: Krantivir via Wikimedia Commons)

This celebration of diversity and refusal to pose ‘absolutes’ can be simply a justification for relying on oppressive ‘diverse’ traditions or the continuation of existing inequalities of capitalist society. As Vasant Kaiwar points out, in an analysis of one of the well-known Indian postmodernists,“All [of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s] stock critiques of historicism and metanarratives, of Marx’s myopia about difference, the advocacy of fragments, different ways of being-in-the-world are so many codes for rejecting the Utopian imagination and transformative praxis”. Postmodernism in fact harks back to premodern romanticism in that it locates whatever ecstasy is possible in the present, banning the future and efforts to move forward to it as oppressive grand narratives, making ‘Enlightenment reason’ into a curse. It is not surprising that Gandhi is appropriated by postmodernists; he was the symbol of the romanticization of the past in India, as we shall see.

Utopias are projected visions, sometimes imagined in the past, sometimes located in a different world, sometimes inscribed in the future possibility. But they all lay a claim to some kind of reality, the reality of being possible, and in so doing provide the motivation for efforts at social transformation. The ‘heavenly city’ or the glorious life projected in religious traditions is brought down to earth, and posed as inspiration for living and possible action before oppressed human beings. They represent a combination of ecstasy and reason—the two pervading themes of this study—because they envision a society of abundance and enjoyment, and at the same time project through the understanding of history and its forces the way to achieve such a society through reason-guided action.

It is a striking fact that in India we can see the emergence of utopias at almost the same time as in Europe. But these are found at a lower level of society (as contrasted with the high intellectual Thomas More, writing in Latin). Utopias were not available in Sanskrit. Rather they are found in the visions of dalit-bahujan intellectuals of the radical bhakti movement of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. These are not so elaborated as in Europe, but that is in part due to the lack of documentation of mass activities and the fact that there were very few among the more literate elites who could move beyond the sanskritized and brahmanic perspectives that militated against visions of equality. Such utopias were presaged in the universalistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. These religions envisaged a ‘Kingdom of God’, a ‘heavenly city’ placed beyond the world. However, in crucial ways they saw the working out of human destiny within this world, and sought to fashion this world in ways that could correspond to the heavenly vision.This would be achieved through divine intervention, usually a ‘last judgment’. Once, however, industrialization and modernity posed the possibilities of a more just and wealthy society, these heavenly visions laid the ground for envisaging utopias that were more secular and achievable on the earth.

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Brahmanism offered no such vision of equality or a just society for all; rather, its ‘golden age’ was the first yuga or era when varnashrama dharma was truly practised, sacrifices took place, and ‘pure’ men (the brahmans) united with the gods. History fell from this, passing through degenerative periods until the kaliyuga or ‘dark age’ was reached. Brahmanism has envisaged this as the historically existing society, while its historical ‘renewal’ was seen as only a repetition. Countless, endless cycles are imagined, which humans also go through in the process of reincarnation. ‘Salvation’ or mukti was seen as attainable outside this world of maya or illusion. A monism was postulated; it was said that the individual could attain a realization of his or her unity with the whole, that the individual self or atman was equivalent to this whole, or brahman. But this was seen in terms of an abstract, reified self, quite different from the empirical individual. Thus, monism with its universal identity was quite consistent with extreme discrimination and hierarchy at the empirical level because there was no clear linkage between brahman/atman and empirical reality. In the famous dialogues of Yagnavalkya with Maitreyi in the upanishads, there is almost a denial of love for the actual, empirical other. The ‘self ’ or atman is beyond this empirical world.

In this thesis we will deal with intellectual activists and leaders of the subaltern castes, who in some ways all envisioned an earthly utopia, and sought to use reason to achieve it, not just enjoying an ecstasy of religious devotion. In imagining utopias, they drew on nonbrahmanic, nonbrahman traditions, including Buddhism and certain versions of Saivism,rejecting the ritualism and the inequalities of traditional, elite thinking. In the early modern period, for the radical bhakti sants, this utopia was not so fully worked out; however Ravidas envisaged ‘Begumpura’, the city without sorrow, without taxes or toil, where he could wander freely with his friends—something a dalit could never do in the actual Banaras. Tukaram talked of Pandharpur as the city where even the headman was made to toil, where time and death ‘had no entry’, where people went dancing to mingle with each other. Kabir sang of Amrapur, the city of immortality, or of Premnagar, the city of love. These were foreseeings; during the early modern period these subaltern intellectuals had no access to a language of reason and analysis, to a study of history; they were forced to work within and subvert the basically brahmanic religious framework that was hegemonic. Their ‘ecstasy’ of utopia was envisaged in some timeless place.

This was, however, a beginning and a vision that served to inspire many. Later, during the colonial period, such visions were given a more definite embodiment, as ecstasy was (in our terminology) linked to reason. Leaders from Jotirao Phule to Iyothee Thass and Ambedkar analyzed the roots of current exploitation in the past and sought to outline a way to end it. They drew their inspiration from a dissenting religious imagination, rejecting brahmanic Hinduism for Buddhism, Christianity, a universalistic monotheism, even an atheism as in the case of Periyar. Their imaginings of a new society accepted technological progress as an important basis for prosperity; they rejected the village for the city, just as in the early modern period the radical sants had envisaged a city of love and sorrowlessness. The metaphors they used and the traditions they evoked were in sharp contrast to the gandhian reading which relied on the Gita and enscribed a Ram Rajya with its stabilized, harmonic and hierarchical idealized village on the national consciousness, just as the identification with the indigenous ‘non-Aryan’ inhabitants contrasted with the elite identification as Aryans.

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