Freedom, caste and Ambedkar: An interview with Kannada writer Siddalingaiah

We haven’t got our freedom yet
Freedom, caste and Ambedkar: An interview with Kannada writer Siddalingaiah
Freedom, caste and Ambedkar: An interview with Kannada writer Siddalingaiah
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The Dalits marching towards Una to gather in protest on August 15 over the assault of four Dalit men over skinning a dead cow, are raising the question of freedom on Independence Day.

About four decades ago, Kannada poet and writer Siddalingaiah raised these very questions through his enduring poem “Yaarige Bantu Yellige Bantu Nalavattera Swatantrya”. The title of the poem translates to ‘For whom, and where did the freedom of 47 come?’ The subsequent lines are an answer to that question. Roughly translated, the first paragraph goes like this:

For whom, and where, did the freedom of ’47 come?

For whom, and where, did the freedom of ’47 come?

It came to the pockets of the Tatas and Birlas

It came to the mouths which eat up people

It came to the rooms of the crorepatis

The freedom of ’47, the freedom of ’47

It did not come to the houses of the poor

It did not bring the ray of light

It did not lessen the sea of misery

It did not let bloom the flower of equality

Listen to song on YouTube here:

The 62-year-old Dalit writer’s poem was set into tune by folk singer Janni, rendering its militant verse into a powerful song that is still sung in the protest rallies and marches across Karnataka. (The name of the singer in this YouTube video is not known. the lyrics to the full song can be found here.)

As the debates on rights and freedoms and the assaults on them get shriller by the day, The News Minute spoke to Siddalingaiah. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you come about writing the song?

There was a hotel workers’ struggle and they were going to start their protest after midnight on August 14 (meaning early on August 15). I wanted to write them a song that was suited for their protest. They were treated like bonded labourers. It was Janni who set the poem into song, he made the song popular. They (protesters) sang at midnight when they began their protest. (He does not recall which year this was)

When you look back at the song in today’s socio-political and economic scenario, what are your thoughts?

I think it is more relevant than it was when I wrote it 40 years ago… Economic inequalities have increased, the poor live miserably, farmers are committing suicides. Liberalization, privatisation and globalisation (LPG) are the enemies of people. But the worst hit are Dalits. With privatization, Dalits have lost out on affirmative action, which is not applicable in the private sector. We still need to ask people this question: For whom, and where has the freedom of 1947 come?

What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom (swatantrya) means bidugade (freedom from shackles or bondage). We have political independence. But without freedom from social and economic bondage (of caste) political freedom is meaningless. When Ambedkar drafted the Constitution, he said in the Constituent Assembly that if the questions of economic and social inequality were not addressed, oppressed people would destroy the institution of Parliament… We still don’t have freedom.

What do you think is the biggest threat to Indian society today?

Economic insecurity and inequality. Without economic empowerment, there can be no emancipation for Dalits or women. Caste stands in the way of economic development. Liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG) are the biggest threats… it has thrown everyone into confusion. The left is in a state of disarray. People think that (LPG) are necessary, but they’re a threat.

What do you make of the protests in Una?

People are talking about caste, and the mobilization over Una has brought about a new awareness to the Dalit movement. And it’s not just Dalits, but also non-Dalits who are supporting the movement.

The Dalit question is one of neeti (justice) and aneeti (injustice). It is a spiritual struggle to fight for truth and justice. Those who create trouble for Dalits are on the side of aneeti. The time has come for non-Dalits to think about which side they are on.

Una and other atrocities have shown government that they cannot take us for granted.

Your thoughts on the question of nationalism?

You need desha prema (love for the country), but you cannot build your love for your country on hatred for another person. People of all castes and religions must work together to bring about inclusive development. You cannot keep some people away…

But this is precisely what the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been accused of doing. You have been seen with BJP leaders in the recent past, and accused of leaning towards the party.

I have never identified with the BJP. I have great respect for BS Yeddyurappa, and for the Pejavar seer. When the seers of the other Ashta Mutts were silent, the Pejavar seer at least engages with it. He has his limitations, but he does talk about caste, visit Dalit keris (village Dalit colonies). No one else does.

I have personal relationships with certain individuals like Yeddyurappa and Pejavar seer, whom I respect. But I do not have any links with the party.

The Pejavar seer has been accused of paying lip service to the question of Dalit rights, while Dalit groups have more respect for some of the Veerashaiva seers.

Veerashaiva seers such as those of the Nidumamidi, Suttur, Siddaganga, Thontadarya mutts have a tradition of egalitarianism. The Pejavar seer has still not been able to remove the pankti bheda from the Udupi Mutt. I have known him since I met him in 1974, and we discuss issues sometimes. He wants to break out of the rules (of caste), but he has his limitations. It is a welcome move that he is talking about Dalits. The Veerashaiva seers do a lot of progressive work.

The Ashta Mutt system is centuries old… there is so much of it that needs to be broken down. The Pejavar seer’s statements will have an effect on people. When no one else is ready to talk about Dalits, it will have an effect on his followers. The Pejavar seer is criticised by both Brahmins and Dalits for his views on caste.

How do you think Indian society can be freed from caste?

We must take Ambedkar’s thoughts to both Dalits and non-Dalits. The problem lies not with Dalits but with the non-Dalits who practice untouchability. All these years we have been focused on Dalits, but we need to talk to non-Dalits as well, and discuss Ambedkar’s ideas and why Dalits are made to live in conditions worse than animals.

I have been doing this for a while now. When I was chair of the Ambedkar Adhyayana Kendra, we started Ambedkar Study Centres in 30 colleges. We got distinguished non-Dalits to talk about Ambedkar to non-Dalit students. This was very appealing to non-Dalits. When Dalits talk, it is often about the hotels we are not allowed to enter, the wells we are not given access to. But when non-Dalits speak on behalf of Dalits, it has more value. The students were very interested.

There is the political position that only Dalits have the right to talk about Dalits, caste or Ambedkar.

Any savarna who is sympathetic to the anti-caste position has the right to talk about caste, Dalits or Ambedkar. When Amartya Sen was asked who his inspiration was, he said Ambedkar. Can we deny him that?

Siddaramaiah comes from the Ahinda movement. But he has been accused of not living up to its principles.

For the 12 years that I was an MLC, I demanded that the budget allocation for Dalits be increased in proportion with their population. In the past it has been as low as 7% funds on occasion. Siddaramaiah made it 24.1% percent. I think he and (Social Welfare Minister) Anjaneya are doing good work.

But Siddaramaiah has been accused of being silent on Dalit atrocities.

There are political, economic and social compulsions and vested interests.

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