Ambedkar jayanti

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (affectionately know as babasaheb) was born on the 14th of April, 1891.  He was from a harijan (untouchable) caste and campaigned his entire life for the rights and lives of his people.  And all day today people have been terribly troubled by the celebrations in the streets to mark the anniversary of his birth.  I have heard twice that this day is problematic because none of the cleaners (and cooks and chandals and chamars and all those other people who perform essential functions and are then either shunned or patronised or both) are coming in to work.  And several people have mentioned that the streets are too full and the music too loud at the demonstrations being held all around Pune.  If it weren’t so infuriating, it would amuse me.  And not just because when these people speak of caste based discrimination, they all use the past tense.

I am willing to consider the argument that the caste system was a complex and mutable thing.  And that the creation of a monolithic and immutable hierarchy lies at the door of british ethnographers.  But babasaheb Ambedkar had it to rights – all harijans who abide by the religious and cultural practices of hinduism derive no benefit from doing so.  And that living on the outside of a religion that does not accept their presence as human does qualify them as having entirely different needs and beliefs.  The politics here are of affinity under a system of enforced identity, and oh the power of claiming that with pride.  It’s no surprise of course that he and Gandhi had radically different views on the nature, cause and function of the castes in India.  Or that Gandhi bitterly opposed Ambedkar’s proposal of forming separate electorates for harijans even though he considered them necessary for other discriminated against groups and religions within India.

So today I get to celebrate a man who read and wrote and thought when all around him were desperately trying to pretend he didn’t exist while also adding to my ever growing list of why Gandhi was an annoying pest.  Remind me to post that sometime.  In the meantime, and if you’re interested, go read babasaheb’s paper on the genesis and function of caste, or better yet his thesis on who the shudras were.  I need more friends who’ve read this stuff!


Polite protest

Last week (the 26th to be specific) marked the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788.  This has been called many things over the years – Anniversary Day, Foundation Day, Invasion Day.  It is also the anniversary of the declaration of inpedendence by India and the day on which the constitution came into force.  I see a huge qualitative difference between the celebration of colonial control and the celebration of independence from colonial control (however problematic our internal politics were).  So the idea of celebrating Australia day as a good thing makes me more than a little bit queasy.

Last week also marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Tent Embassy in Canberra.  And dear Tony Abbott took the opportunity to question its relevance and suggest that it was time to ‘move on’ because ‘“I think a lot has changed for the better since then … I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian”.  I have no expertise as to the state of first nation peoples in Australia but even I know that the inequalities that were being protested in the 70s when the tent embassy was being set up have not been ameliorated or even dealt with in any respectful way by the governments since.  The benefits to first nations people have been hard won and fought for by them.  And mainstream media and the Australian govt. have been opposing them every inch of the way.

The story being told in the media is about the ‘violent mob’ of indigenous rights protestors who put the c-in-c of the country in danger.  (Let me take this moment to not care about the dominant narrative or the security of the c-in-c)

The protestors were in Canberra to attend a convergence at the tent embassy to celebrate it’s existence, seek support and solidarity from each other and look towards what campaigns/yarns need to occur.  They were there for two days and spent a miniscule fraction of that time being pissed off at Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard.  (Dear over-inflated govt., it really isn’t about you.).  There was no ‘violent mob’ – just a lot of really annoyed protestors who took the opportunity to bang on the glass windows of a restaurant and yell.  The only violence witnessed at the protest came from the police and was directed at the protestors (what a surprise).

Which brings me what really bothers me about the way protest in general and indigenous protest in particular is constructed in the mainstream.  And to a lesser extent in more radical spheres.  As far as the mainstream narrative is concerned, protest is unnecessary in civilised countries.  The only places that protest is valid is in those backward-third-world-countries where they haven’t got it all sorted out like we do.  Even then protest is only acceptable if it is non-violent and is going to ‘achieve something’.  So people in Australia/New Zealand who are protesting a) should just shut up and realise how good they have it, b) should be sensible, rational and strategic about it and c) keep to a liberal non-violent narrative.  I find this deeply problematic.  Not the least because it makes the whiteness of the paradigm for protest so glaringly obvious.  Where I come from, we throw rotten tomatoes and eggs if we disapprove.

A protest can fulfill many functions.  It can bring people together, it can express rage/disappointment/joy, it can make demands, it can create space for dissent and it can show that there is no space.  A protest can come in many forms.  It can be violent and brutal, it can be quiet and peaceful, it can be invisible unless you know where to look and it can lurk in a corner for years until it finally jumps out at you.  When a group of people privilege one form of protest over another, they are revealing their own prejudices, not saying anything about the protest.  And them that thinks collective organising and community building is less worthwhile than throwing molotov cocktails are as shortsighted as them that believe that only a peaceful protest and rational argument will lead to change.

Those in power like to protect their power.  And they are not going to give it up easily.  And before someone quotes Gandhi at me, can I just point out that he’s the guy who said that inaction is rank cowardice and to be shunned at all costs.  And that the blowing up of a train containing blood money is an act of liberation, not of violence.  My point, is that protest needs must be whatever it has to be for the people there.  The protest on the 26th was an outlet for the anger and hurt and grumpiness felt by many.  And the days around it were full of orgnising and talking and planning.  So I for one am glad it all happened.

Also, I wish I had been in Wellington for Waitangi Day.  There would’ve been a tau iwi support for tinorangatiratanga bloc.  And maybe even cookies and a riot!