ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Who Is the Third that Walks Behind You?

I read Aditya Nigam’s observations on an epistemology of the dalit critique of modernity with great interest. His formulations are both fascinating and suggestive, therefore, I would like to complicate them. Firstly, while I accept that dalit politics and ideologies represent the “problematic ‘third term’ that continuously challenges the common sense of the secular modern”, I am not sure that these exist as an ‘absent presence’; or that they advance a notion of citizenship that is premised on the notion of the community as a rights-bearing subject. It seems to me that the non-brahmin, lower caste engagement with the ‘secular modern’ does two things: it contends with the contradictions of modernity, as Nigam so ably demonstrates, but it also dips beyond and across the wide arc of the secular-modern to articulate an expressive ideology and world view that is still recognisably modern. I would like to illustrate this with reference to the thought of Periyar Ramasamy.

I read Aditya Nigam’s observations on an epistemology of the dalit critique of modernity with great interest. His formulations are both fascinating and suggestive, therefore, I would like to complicate them. Firstly, while I accept that dalit politics and ideologies represent the “problematic ‘third term’ that continuously challenges the common sense of the secular modern”, I am not sure that these exist as an ‘absent presence’; or that they advance a notion of citizenship that is premised on the notion of the community as a rights-bearing subject. It seems to me that the non-brahmin, lower caste engagement with the ‘secular modern’ does two things: it contends with the contradictions of modernity, as Nigam so ably demonstrates, but it also dips beyond and across the wide arc of the secular-modern to articulate an expressive ideology and world view that is still recognisably modern. I would like to illustrate this with reference to the thought of Periyar Ramasamy.

Secondly, I am not sure if the dalit and non-brahmin engagement with the modern can be directly linked to a lived and felt experience of abjection and suffering on the part of dalits and other lower castes. Experiential angst, of course, is central to dalit politics, but it is always mediated, recognised and named, defied and challenged in specific ways and through particular means. In this context, it might be useful to investigate how experiences of pain responded to the promises of modernity, how they re-cast the latter’s constituents, granting them a different weight and resonance, as it were. Thirdly, the fraught relationship between caste and class and the suspicion with which non-brahmins and dalits received communist ideas and hopes are not all that overdetermined by the logic of the modern. In this context, I would like to suggest that Periyar’s responses to socialism represent a critique that is enormously suggestive.

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