‘BLACK PIMPERNEL’ Photographer Eli Weinberg’s
famous picture of Mandela in traditional garb,
hiding from the police
The 94-year-old South African antiapartheid hero, now ailing, is a source of hope and inspiration for poets and activists fighting injustice in our midst
Nelson Mandela is perhaps the most powerful rallying point for the exploited around the world. In critical health now, he has the entire world praying for his recovery. Talk spoke to well-known writers UR Ananthamurthy and Siddalingaiah on what they thought people here should take from Mandela’s life. Ananthamurthy, the Kannada novelist and short story writer shortlisted for a Booker earlier this year, was quick to say, “Who says he will die? Mandela’s spirit is immortal. Mandela is immortal.” “In our times,” says Ananthamurthy, “the greatest people are not Lenin, Mao or Stalin. They are cruel people.
The great ones are Gandhi and Mandela.” His view: “People know Lenin, Mao and Stalin were cruel. Gandhi was not only a man who brought us freedom, but he also showed us a way to live life. Sometimes I think there would have been no Mandela without Gandhi, though each fights his own battle. Mandela took a lot from Gandhi, but that doesn’t take away anything from Mandela himself.” What telling facet of Mandela’s life should people emulate? In Ananthamurthy’s words: “Mandela’s spirit of forgiveness. It is the ultimate grace a man can have.
He fought the whites, defeated them, and forgave them. Is it possible to forgive in a life that has been bitter and exploited? But he made it possible. Indians had picked up something of Mandela’s qualities, but I regret to say we are turning away from the land of Mandela to the land of Modi.” The Dalit movement in India and Karnataka, says Ananthamurthy, draws inspiration from Mandela. “Dalits see their life, social experience and struggle similar to Mandela’s. They see race and caste as similar. They invoke Mandela as their own. Karnataka’s Dalit poets have written on Mandela and his struggle, and the references are natural.
When Talk reminded Ananthamurthy he had referred to Lincoln also as a great man along with Gandhi and Mandela, he clarified: “Lincoln was a good politician. He did a few things people everywhere in the world can emulate— one among which was the abolition of slavery. Even if it was politically beneficial to him, he did what was right—end slavery. I honour him along with Gandhi and Mandela for that act. I had in an Indira Gandhi memorial lecture several years ago seen similarities—all three had overthrown orders of exploitation—although the lives of Gandhi and Mandela are parallels apart. Dalits find resonance in Lincoln’s act.
They seek an overthrow of the caste order. The caste question, however, is immensely complex in relation to race though there are similarities at an experiential level. Which is worse is not easy to say.” Mandela’s act of forgiveness was so great that it produced guilt in the oppressor, says Ananthamurthy. “Mandela was able to make the whites see his point. He fought his battle within the moral frame.
To be able to convert a whole race that looked down upon another race into looking into themselves is not easy to achieve. The West felt guilt that it had never allowed a non-white life to be a legitimate life with legitimate desires. The British deeply honoured him. What we can take from his life is how to pitch inequality on the moral plane— how to make it a moral question that will evoke reflection among the powerful. It is not easy but in our lifetime, the moral compass has shown results.”
He invited his jailor when he took oath as president
Poet and Dalit ideologue Siddalingaiah told Talk Mandela had always been an inspiration to the Dalit movement in India and Karnataka. He explained: “We should learn from him his spirit of forgiveness. There is no sense of revenge in him after a life of humiliation by the whites. Anyone after 27 years of incarceration would have felt revenge, but he has not felt that way. It was astounding to hear Mandela invite his jailor when he took oath as President of South Africa. In power, he could have gone any length, but he only forgave and embraced.
This is the biggest lesson and inspiration for the Dalit movement. It may take a longer time for the Dalit movement to forgive, but that is the path ahead. Mandela, his life, struggle and reconciliation should be the model for the Dalit movement.” Dalits, says Siddalingaiah, should imbibe the liberal humanist approach of Mandela and shun all notions of revenge and retribution. “But when Dalits dig into their history, anger and retribution are the first feelings they experience. I understand that.
When Mandela has overcome it. That’s what we should learn.” Siddalingaiah, whose autobiography Ooru Keri is studied in universities across India and abroad, says: “Dalits should embrace the exploited from all classes and castes as one. The weak among the powerful castes are also Dalits. When Dalits take this generous view, the movement becomes morally persuasive. When you embrace all people, you raise the moral pitch. We need to turn the Dalit movement into a moral movement like Mandela did with race.” Siddalingaiah feels globalisation has created more poor people in the urban areas, while the villages are already full of the socially and economically weak. The Dalit movement has to bring both the urban and rural weak together in articulating exploitation in this era. Siddalingaiah, who served as a member of the legislative council for two terms, has read Mandela’s autobiography, Walk to Freedom, and seen films on him.
He has also seen him dance with his near and dear ones on TV. “Mandela loves life. That’s why he can dance even after a life of burden. Anybody else would have cracked, broken down and given up. Not Mandela. I want my friends to do the same. A man with zest for life after an experience of subjugation is not easy to come by.” Mandela loved Gandhi, took a lot from him, but was perhaps more Leftleaning than Gandhi, feels Siddalingaiah. He explains: “He respected Gandhi and was influenced by him, but he seemed more open to the question of class struggle, which brings him closer to the Left. Dalits have respected Gandhi and understood the importance of Gandhian means, but the younger Dalits seem closer to Mandela—they see the need for struggle and agitation like Mandela did.
But Mandela was truly gracious in that he could sense insecurities, dilemmas and anxieties among the powerful and he understood the context from which the powerful did what they did. This is what the younger Dalit movement has to take from Mandela—look at the context from within which the powerful are coming, their structure and concerns and where the power and exploitation is coming from. That makes the movement powerfully moral.” Between race and caste, Siddalingaiah feels caste is more cruel and oppressive. “Caste and untouchability are worse than colour discrimination. A white may employ a black only as a cook, but he still lets him work within his precincts, but an upper caste man will never allow a Dalit into the house, let alone cook, and never to the sanctum sanctorum.
Vivekananda has said India’s dharma lies in its kitchen vessels. That does not happen with race. If you are black, you become a servant all right, but you at least work in the close vicinity of the supervisor. Blacks have managed to become great musicians, sportspeople, poets and even educationists. Dalits, and many sections of Indians for that matter, have never been able to match the blacks. Within the oppressive structure, there seems some space for the blacks to rise, but none for the Dalits, and the oppressed among the dominant sections.” Why is this so? “The answer lies in caste. Caste has subjugated the mind and personality in subtle and direct ways.
Caste operates through the conscious, sub-conscious and the unconscious. Caste consciousness traps. Caste has trapped the mind and consciousness the way race hasn’t.” A telling example of this trap, Siddalingaiah, explains lies in the way Dalits handle themselves in urban India. “Many Dalits are forced to lie about their caste to get houses on rent. They lie they are upper caste and give themselves a different name to get a house. Once, when I went to a friend’s house, he told me not to speak words like Dalit and oppression loudly as the owner would overhear us and ask him to vacate.
An entire class of Dalits has lied its way to the formation of a middle class to survive in urban India. You can imagine the anxiety and distress they suffer about their identity. With race, you cannot lie about your colour. The colour is there to be seen. Caste therefore is immensely more complex than race, though many experiences are similar. Our liberation can take many lessons from the way blacks liberated themselves to become great musicians and writers while remaining black.” Caste, in Siddalingaiah’s view, has stunted the Dalit mind in urban India. “The way race stunted the blacks, caste has stunted the Dalits. But the way blacks raised their consciousness, Dalits should, too.”