U Sambasiva Rao’s death diagnosed as due to COVID-19 was untimely and was avoidable if proper timely medical attention was available to him. His death at this critical juncture is a loss which will be felt for a long time to come. We will miss a vigilant gaze and critical voice that we have accustomed to be alerted by over the years. My memories of U Sambasiva Rao’s (popularly known as USaa) go back to the early 1990s. It was a period which saw a renewed debate on caste question in the undivided Telugu state of Andhra Pradesh.
If the Karamchedu massacre of the Dalits in 1985 led to a political and social mobilization with an acute sensitivity to the caste question then Chundur in 1991 led to an enhanced engagement with caste in a theoretical and ideological sense from an anti-caste project point of view. Two important developments in the early 1990s deserve to be noted in
this respect. One, the emergence of Edureeta (meaning ‘Against the Tide’) as a
platform for a debate on the anti-caste project with U Sa and senior Left and Dalit activist KG Satyamurthi in the lead.
Two, the post-Chundur also saw an intellectual churning in the universities in Andhra Pradesh. Osmania University also witnessed an intense churning among the Left academics on the caste question shedding their reticence or rather indifference to this very crucial
The result of this was the founding of Satyashodhak as Centre for Social Research to research, analyse and debate the historical centrality of and contemporary dynamics of caste in the understanding of social transformation in India.
We, as Satyashodhak collective, sought to bring a political economy depth to the caste question which in the anti-caste discourse was overwhelmingly seen as a ritual hierarchical reality. As part of this we undertook study of changing caste-occupation- economic and social trajectories and new forms of social and economic marginalization and emergent structures of exclusion of the Shudra- ati-Shudra artisanal, service castes from the developmental process. This research pursued with a long duree focus and sharpened and
accelerated by the context of economic liberalization in the 1990s had a social, political and policy urgency.
This was also a period which saw a critical turn in the social sciences in India from being state-centric to a phase wherein a detailed attention to civil and subaltern society was found imperative. This was not a dominant trend but definitely emergence of a critical
tendency in this direction could be deciphered in the post-Emergency period. The immediate context for this shift obviously was the fact of the Emergency demolishing the innocence of the earlier decades of post-Independence existence wherein the faith in the state, constitutional morality and trust in democratic future were largely taken for granted. The result of this awareness could be seen in the shift in the social science research evident in the emergence of studies focusing on the new subaltern subjectivity figured out along caste, gender, Dalit, adivasi agency and critical attention to the effects of development evident in the increasing studies on marginalization, displacement, dispossession, ecological degradation, so on. U Sa and the Edureeta collective came into contact with the
Satyashodhak collective in the Osmania University at this historical juncture. What transformed this into a long term association and friendship was
i) the shared uneasiness with the traditional Left both ideologically and organizationally;
ii) the inadequacy of the received dominant frames of Marxism and characterization of Indian society and its transformative trajectory;
iii) new challenges posed by the neo-liberal project of globalization, liberalization and privatization pursued as the only alternative course available.
Needless to add, this uneasiness and inadequacy was felt at a theoretical level by the university scholars and rather intensely on the practical plane by the Edureeta group and articulated by U Sa with live experiential density brought us together. In a significant sense our friendship started with ideological precedence and preponderance blossomed very soon into personal one. Thus our journeys coincided and also got combined with the publication of the Satyashodhak manifesto in the Edureeta and it being debated for over a year and we regularly being invited to contribute to the journal on important issues.
Edureeta under USa’s editorship emerged as a platform open for new ideas known for being democratic in spirit and experimental in thinking. This was necessitated by the fact of new challenges posed by new identity social and cultural movements, increasing subaltern
Dalit-bahujan marginalization and exclusion and demands for the rearticulating of the federal question beginning with the postEmergency period and accelerated by the neo-liberal macro policy shift.
Edureeta played a pivotal role in identifying and encouraging debates on the issues of caste, class, patriarchy, gender, Nationality and regional questions which did not receive due attention they deserved either due to the theoretical and conceptual blindness in the dominant discourses or suffered neglect or ‘othered’ due to the political and organizational priorities of Left parties.
Interestingly, Edureeta also became a Telugu vernacular platform for bringing the thinkers otherwise considered to be irreconcilable and even non-negotiable – Marx and Phule, Ambedkar and Gramsci to reflect on the above questions seen as part of the larger project of caste annihilation.
The intellectual mood in this period saw a notable move in the direction of addressing and seeking to overcome what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls ‘translatability’ problem across the paradigms and perspectives. It is now an accepted view that there is
not only a possibility but in fact a historical necessity to build an inter-paradigm dialogue and flow of ideas, concepts and even logic of inquiry to enrich our understanding of contemporary India and influence the trajectory of social transformation. The history of ideas would tell us that social theories are contextspecific and therefore there is an imprint of time and place on them.
The truth claims of any social theory cannot be taken for granted and their scrutiny and reexamination is a continuous process. This applies to the caste question as well. The dynamic of caste is influenced and shaped by the process of modernity initiated by the colonial state and later pursued by the post-colonial state through its developmental
agenda and social engineering policies. Further under the impact of the regional trajectories of political economy of development, policy regimes and logic of electoral politics caste has metamorphosed into a new species that necessitates fresh theoretical reflections and explanations. The sociology of contemporary caste needs to pay close
attention to the disjunctions, discontinuities, shifts, regional variations and new paths in the physiognomy of caste. This complexity of caste poses a challenge to both practice and theory of transformative politics in India.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the Edureeta was fruitful in finding definitive answers to these questions but it was undoubtedly instrumental in articulating the questions and much more importantly bringing attention and centrality to them in the
intellectual and public discourse.
Like in all experiments both Satyashodhak collective and Edureeta have reached their closures by the mid-1990s and the members of the respective collective chalked out their own distinct paths. It is a question of historical judgment as to what their achievements or
failures have been. But definitely they can be said to have left their marks in their distinct spheres separately and perhaps even collectively. USa had a remarkable presence in this journey.
It is unfortunate that India lacks the tradition of self-critique: Critique understood here in the sense of (re-)evaluation of the pre-text, context and text of a collective activity. This absence of reflection and appraisal of where we started from, where we are and where we
intended to reach – the mapping of achievements, constraints, limitations, etc., pervades through almost every sphere of activity – intellectual, political, civil society, social movements, etc.
contrast, the West has demonstrated a strong historical tradition of every generation attempting an evaluation of such efforts – taking stock of things, so to say. For instance, leading historians like Perry Anderson, Eric Hobswam, literary theorists like Terry Eagleton have done commendable work in this respect.
I remember telling U Sa the necessity and usefulness of mapping the journey of Edureeta to record the intellectual register of what, when, where and how of the journal and its collective for both self-reflection and for future direction. Instead he brought out couple of compilations of selected articles from the journal. In my view, the critical mapping
of that journey is still a worthy exercise given the continual relevance of the issues flagged and addressed in its pages. Despite their parting ways, the members of the Edureeta collective and U Sa very notably proved to have transcended the narrow intellectual and political differences and sustain friendship. Given Edureeta’s criticality to U Sa’s intellectual and political development his long journey can be identified into three phases.
The post-Edureeta period in U Sa’s life represents both continuation and newness. If the relevance of anti-caste project and class, gender and nationality as important dimensions of it represent continuity then to translate that into practice both politically and organizationally could be seen as a new beginning.
Undaunted by setbacks, U Sa could be seen continuing his journey discovering new paths and seeking to invent new imaginaries. The founding of Maha Jana Front and starting of Desi Disa as a journal are two important steps that are demonstrative of his zeal to experiment and continue to struggle.
He believed in the centrality of a journal for the ideological counterhegemony that anti-caste struggle essentially has to be. He discussed the need of a theoretical journal and I had my own reservations on the possibility or rather feasibility of it. This is on account of the intellectual unpreparedness of our vernacular society to conduct a high quality discourse. The narrow and fast shrinking intellectual base in our society makes it a difficult task. This is demonstrated by the similar attempts on the part of the left journals
ending up as exercises in political journalism and news analysis. Secondly, the decline of quality education and the massive shift away from social sciences and humanities seen since the 1990s in AP has shrunken the readership capable of appreciating a high quality
discourse. Those who are equipped could and would obviously turn to journals available in English.
The world since the 1990s has increasingly seen the proliferation of visual media. The expansion of new media or so-called social media has prioritized visual over literary. Visual capitalism triumphing over print capitalism catalyzed by rapid and far-reaching changes in
communication technology marks the present phase of human history. This marks the dominance of visual over literary, preference for image over alphabet, preponderance of seeing/ viewing over reading. The middle class has clearly come under the grip of visual
consumerism. Perhaps as a realization of this ground reality U Sa turned Desi Disa into a Youtube channel.
What does U Sa’s life and practice signify that needs to be recaptured and remembered? Given his concern, angst, commitment and contribution to the alternative politics of subaltern Shudra-ati-Shudra justice and anti-caste project it is worth conceptualising the essential aspects of his vision and practice.
Firstly, the recognition of the importance of counter-hegemonic struggle as inevitable integral part of transformatory politics and the anti-caste being a central aspect of such a project. Its significance and urgency is now in times of the Hindutva felt much more widely. The refusal to recognize this by his earlier affiliations was the cause of his disenchantment with the traditional left. This is what characterized his practice since and after the Edureeta phase. The efforts with the Edureeta as the locus and later with Desi Desa as a platform are directed by the recognition of the importance of ideological struggle and a concerted effort at striving for a common ground for collective action.
Secondly, the vision that the anti-caste cannot be sectarian but has to be broad based. Given the breadth, duration and intensity, a concerted collective effort overcoming the differences of emphasis and primacies (e.g., caste first or class) is required to accomplish its finis. U Sa spared no effort and in fact showed tremendous initiative and displayed necessary flexibility to bring together people and organisations that actually are different and divided (ego dominating essence) by exploring the possibilities of cooperation and
collaboration thus aiming at unity with differences. His work with different progressive organizations (political, social, cultural, writers’) was guided by this broad democratic transformative vision. This was felt to be much more important and urgent in view of the prospective spread of the Hindutva forces in the southern states.
Thirdly, clarity on the anti-caste in India as a dynamic and multidimensional – along with caste, class, patriarchy, gender, religion, region being integral to – structure of dominance and exploitation as necessitating theoretical openness. Thus, the recognition of the necessity of focusing on the caste annihilation without losing sight of its interrelation with class. This when elevated to the theoretical level necessitated the exploration of resources belonging to apparently contradictory philosophical and ideological traditions. This obviously demanded rejection of predeterministic theoretical rigidity or closedness and invitation to experimentation opening the possibility of exploring apparently irreconcilable thinkers like Phule and Marx and Ambedkar and Gramsci to draw upon to reflect on our concerns. Fourthly, U Sa displayed a distinctly positive approach towards universities. Generally the left activists are known for an indifferent dispensation or disinterested attitude towards universities. This is due to a misplaced importance of and non-dialectical emphasis on practice which in reality is largely economistic and reductionistic apart from being non-reflective and repetitive.
U Sa demonstrated a nuanced recognition of the importance and role of university as a site of production of ideas and of intellectuals. Accordingly, missed no chance and in fact actively sought to create opportunities to interact and collaborate with the teachers and students in the universities. This is a demonstration of intuition of the dialectical unity of theory and practice. It is no exaggeration that U Sa’s life and practice stands as an example of the call to ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise’ in the struggle
for justice and anti-caste.
Department of Political Science