Ascension: Notes from a Public Lecture

By Anshul Rai Sharma 

A new voice reverberated through the National Law School’s Krishnappa Memorial Hall on the 9th of December. The university’s Friday evening was affected by the visit of a scholar who is regarded as one of the foremost voices in Ambedkarite studies. Dr Suraj Yengde, in his blue suit, Afro and a suave that is rare in lecturers (rarer at the Law School) holds the crowd to his beat. I sat in the front row and without turning I could tell the particular moment when he entered the hall. His movement is marked by a corresponding movement by the people gathered, who line-up to meet him, ask about his work and appreciate his presence here. From students to faculty members, everyone beams at this new guest.  

Introduced by his friend and collaborator, Dr Karthick Ram Manoharan, Yengde rose to the cheers of the crowd and started his address at the podium, titled The Unearned Privileges of Meritorious Caste. Before getting into his keynote, he makes a point to introduce Dr Karthick to his audience, talking about the latter’s work on Fanon and Periyar. His address is engaging, he moves as his words flow. This is a blues man in a jazz suit telling us the truth about our own lives. Karthick mentioned Yengde’s work with Cornel West and my mind goes back to their conversations on caste and race, about violence in which all of us are implicated. He has no use of notes, notebooks or papers, nothing except the work, the inexhaustible work that he articulates in his brief speech before moving on to questions from the audience. His address focuses on the hierarchical order embedded within caste and the dichotomies of inferiority and superiority that emerge from this order. He connects this structure with the current meritocratic debate in India. On the question of communism and caste-based movements he identifies the muddling of ideals as the key problem. At one point he remarks ‘The communists are so brahmin they lost sight of the communist plot’. His plea is to avoid this muddling through deep engagement with the writer as is, forgoing the assumption such as one held by some Marxist who see Ambedkar as pro status quo. 

‘We are a deeply broken people suspicious of each other,” one can almost tease out the Fanonian echoes in what Yengde alludes as the wretchedness of caste. Fanon’s zeal for action is evident in this hall when Yengde makes it clear that we need to move from the registers of atrocities to representation and community-building. It is only the latter that will bring forth any possibility of a democratic order that is promised by our Constitution. At the same time, he admits that representation is important but not enough. Going back to the central Freirean problem of the oppressed becoming the oppressor when designated with authority, he calls for responsibility by all. In a discourse that is characterized by genuine intellectual truth-telling (a phrase by Cornel West), no one is spared. He regards the feudal order as the kernel of the current hierarchies and described that ‘some backward classes’ have become custodians of a para-Brahmanical order by maintaining that order. 

Another key idea he engaged with which is often overlooked in such discussions is that of oppression Olympics, a one-up game that he balks at. His concern is the creation of  ‘islands of identities’ where each one is pitted against another with separated interests. At this point one reflects on the ways in which certain identity groups claim ownership of suffering, claiming ‘we’ are more oppressed than the other. Yengde points to this as the fundamental mistake, that ‘identity-based struggle cannot bring about a change because it is asking for a share and not a change’. Community-based movements, as he sees it, is what is regarded as the antithesis of the Brahmanical order which by definition does not allow formation of community. 

The Q&A session witnessed a range of question that touched on issues such as EWS verdict, ableism, Hindu-Muslim politics among others. What was moving was how accommodative Yengde was in responding to the questions, welcoming all interventions. One of my highlights was when he asked the people among the audience to raise their hand if they have used any quota carved for disadvantaged communities, asking the rest of the audience to applaud them. This is the song of the jazzman in the blue suit, he celebrates and embraces you. After the lecture he met and talked with every student or faculty member who came up to him, asking about their work and signing books. I volunteered to click a picture of a few of my batchmates with him. He nudged me to get into the picture, shook hands and asked my name. Grace ensues in the presence of someone who can make you feel recognized and listened to. 

Where does this leave us? Some of that voice still lingers on here. He opened the conversation for us, demanding us to create a better portrait of the Brahmanical order and align against it. Such a feat will require us to use a wealth of practices that are imaginative and solidaristic. He leaves us with examples of Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV and Ashoka. I had the odd feeling of being inspired in a law school lecture and that is precisely what he intends to convey, to be inspired by the canon and push against the order. The canon may be inhabited by Ambedkar’s fierceness, Periyar’s sense of humor or maybe Coltrane’s improvisational possibilities, but it is there to be drawn from, to be embraced.  And it demands only one thing from us, to always speak the truth, a truth that is raw, unfettered and proud. 

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