By Dr. Kancha Ilaiah
24 October, 2008
Speech delivered on the occasion of presentation of ‘LISA Book Award – 2008 for ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ on 17 July, 2008, in Betty Boothrord Room at Portcullis House, Westminster, London
At the outset let me thank the London Institute of South Asia (LISA) for choosing my book “Why I am Not A Hindu” for this prestigious award. This award has come at a time when I was going through a crisis of confidence. I have begun to think, of late, whether the Dalitbahujan people, for the sake of whose transformation I have been writing and fighting, would ever use the material I and others write and are writing, to change their status and position in India and in the world. As a person who constantly keeps working towards, what I call, Thought Reform, in a country where the thought process of the people I write for and work for, has never been recognized, I began to become rather nervous. When I wrote, “Why I am Not A Hindu” I thought my own life would be in danger and more so that of the future of the book I laboured so much for. But the Dalitbahujan mass movements that continued to build sustained both the book and my spirits. Its global recognition as a representative text of Dalitbahujan philosophical, ideological and political engagements has provided some solace and this award has initiated yet another round of discussion around the book. However, what is deeply troubling is the slow pace of change in my own country. I hope after getting this award from such a prestigious institute located at the centre of global knowledge—London—more people would read the book and work out and help us in building a global strategy to abolish caste and Untouchability in India in particular and South Asia in general.
“Why I am Not a Hindu” has emerged out of the struggle of Dalitbahujan intellectuals to search for a language that constructs their self in their own image. It is a text that tries to encapsulate the undercurrents of their thought processes that are synthesized in their day-to-day struggles. It has also shown that there is enormous potential for building a new and authentic socio-political thought from day-to-day life discourses and work ethics of Dalitbahujan. For a people who had no identity of their own for centuries, the struggle for identity becomes central in the realms of both thought and action. This is a historical process that remained invisible for centuries. Their actions for identity were met with violence and counter violence. Blood was spilt but most of it was of Dalitbahujan. Brahminic ideological forces deployed several mechanisms of violence—spiritual, social and political—to keep the Dalitbahujan under control or under their hegemony. Brahminic hegemony was so encompassing that the Dalitbahujan had no historical agencies to liberate them for a long time
One of the historical agencies that works in the process of enslaved peoples’ liberation, is the written text that reflects their own strength and in their own image. In the socio-economic and political structure of caste, the image of a productive social mass is presented in the manner that the hegemonic forces want to present. Historical Brahminical texts crippled the Dalitbahujan mass life and their struggles. Identity does not form in the realm of politics as authentically as it does in the spiritual realm. Identity is more a spiritual entity than a socio-political entity. It is from the spiritual realm that a given society formulates its social structures. Hinduism as a religion assigned a heightened identity to certain castes, and at the same time it disfigured the identities of many castes and communities. Of course, it erased all forms of identity in the case of many untouchable castes and communities. Caste is not like race where different identities remain in their own spheres. White hegemony did not erase Black identity in such an unidentifiable manner.
In the caste system, identity is not only an unknown quantity for several communities but is unknowable too. The notion of human Untouchability came into operation to make the notion of identity unknowable to them. `You are untouchable because you are unknowable.’ The spiritual operationalization of unknowability keeps a large human mass, which does not have its own historical struggle textualized. Dalitbahujan were kept out of textual discourse through the means of spiritual violence. Human identity should be part of human organic existence. Since your form is identified with your name, both form and name should be organically interactive and co-existing. Brahmanism cut this existential relationship between form and name of all productive castes. The instrument of caste was deployed to cut the historical umbilical cord between the Dalitbahujan human being and his/her identity.
Thinkers who came before me –Gautham Buddha, Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar and in my contemporary times, V.T.Rajsekhar, –built textual knowledge that began to work as a liberative agency of the Dalitbahujan. While the political cutting edge of Buddha was taken away when he became a prophetic builder of the most earliest organized religion of the world—Buddhism- Ambedkar brought back that political edge with his political writings, as also by getting baptized into that religion he created a new chapter in its life, Navayana Buddhism. Since Hinduism constructed caste to keep the toiling masses within its fold, without any spiritual rights, and without identity of their own spiritual agency, the death of Hinduism and total liberation of Dalitbahujan masses are interlinked. In other words, the Dalitbahujan mass is bounded by Hindu spiritual straps and can never use that religion as their own agency of identity and as an institution that provides self-respect in their living life. Nor can they use it as an institution that can develop any hope of reaching heaven after the end of that life. Caste as an institution can give only transitional identity for people whereas religion gives them long-standing and sustainable identity. Hence Ambedkar realized his ultimate identity in Buddhism. Phule was inclined to become a Christian but did not do so; rather he tried to work out his own religion called Sarvajanic Satya Dharm. Periyar chose Atheism as the democratic alternative to religious identity and VTR has gone in the direction of Ambedkar. I stand at the crossroads of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism as I was not born into any one of them.
Ambedkar said that “though I was born a Hindu I would not die as a Hindu”. This was a puzzling statement to have come from a man who was born in an untouchable family. In my case, though I was born in a Sudra shepherd family, I proved in “Why I am Not a Hindu” that I was not born a Hindu at all. The claims of Hindu or Hindutva forces that I too am a Hindu is to contain my transitional identity formation in terms of caste, at least. In the reservation discourse my identifiable caste existence is abused as meritless and in their throat-cutting battle against Muslims and Christians, Hindus claim that I am a Hindu to be a mere muscle man to cut the throats of Muslims or Christians. I nailed that claims by writing “Why I am Not a Hindu”. While Ambedkar told the Dalits that though you are Hindus you should not remain in its fold I stated, in clear terms, through this book, that not only Dalits, Adivasis and even OBCs have nothing to do with Hinduism and were never born as Hindus. I also established in my book, Buffalo Nationalism—A Critique of Spiritual Fascism, that Hinduism, as a religion is spiritual fascism whereas Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are spiritual democracies. Any Dalitbahujan attempt to choose a spiritual democratic religion and embracing that religion does not come under the category of conversion but is a fresh baptism of ones own. The Dalitbahujan masses, in an age of cultural globalization, are standing at the crossroads of four globally known religions–Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Even by mistake if one enters into the spiritual fascist road of Hinduism he/she cannot only not lose the caste identity that he/she is living in, nor does he/she get liberated from the clutches of the Brahminical forces who control that religion.
If they choose any one of the spiritual democratic roads available in front of them they can leave the caste identity of a localized nature and enter into a universal identity of their own as equals with others who already exist in those systems. This option to choose is available to me and also to all my Dalitbahujan brothers and sisters. For 750 million Indians this option is just there in front them.
Should we all follow Ambedkar and VTR and become Buddhists? How does modern Buddhism—even Navayana Buddhism—negotiate with science? Does it also develop the inner strength to destroy caste within its fold? Did post-Ambedkarite Buddhism develop the strength of encountering Hinduism that did not have such a strength hence got wiped out in the bloody campaigns that Hindu Brahmanism conducted in the ancient and medieval times? Before Ambedkar revived it in 1956 it was almost a non-existing religion. But even now its primitive monkish-ness, Poly language centred existence and its inability to modernize itself along with modernist social-capitalism does not show enough potential to liberate us from all forms of oppressed existence.
We have had a long interaction with Islam ever since it took its shape in the Arabic world. Our interaction with it become more intimate after Babar entered our land and captured political power. Particularly after Sufi saints campaigned about the liberative potential of Allah, Mohammed and the Qu’ran, millions of Dalitbahujan masses embraced it and three Islamic nations emerged from out of the Hindu subcontinent—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Caste oppression and identity, to a large extent, got erased there and all people acquired the right to religious equality. The Brahminic forces from those regions migrated to what is now known as the Hindu mainland. While we know that Hinduism is almost on the verge of collapse in Nepal and is in a deeper crisis in India, yet Islam is not attracting the Dalitbahujan mass because the peoples’ life in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh has not become modernist. Modernity, in my view, is not merely political, but also spiritual. For Dalitbahujans who suffered for centuries because of the total lack of reformative energy the slow and halting reformative energy of Islam of that region does not seem to be a very attractive alternative. Even in a spiritual democracy people do not want to be poor, hungry and illiterate. I leave it to Islamic scholars to examine why Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are unable to negotiate with democracy, capitalism and modernity.
The third alternative is Christianity. Christianity has a long history of its own in the Indian subcontinent. South Indian Christianity from the days of St. Thomas did not have the abolition of caste on its agenda. Though it struck roots in South India slowly, it became mainly an agency of the upper castes. Till the other day when Dalits who embraced Christianity began to question the caste oppression of South Indian upper caste Christians, it operated as a Brahmanism of Christian mode. The anti-caste struggle in the South Indian churches has its implications for the future. However, the practice of caste and Untouchability has given enough scope for Hindutva forces that caste is of Indian blood but not of spiritual life, in other words not merely Hindu.
Nevertheless the North Eastern experiment of de-tribalizing the tribals, modernizing them through Christian spiritual means with an added dimension of educating them through the medium of English language has set another kind of spiritual liberation in motion. This model is attracting a lot of tribes in other regions. Their identities are transcending from a particular tribe to religion bypassing the caste system. As a student of spiritual, social and political systems, I want to study these processes for some more years. The destiny of no individual or community can be discerned so easily. It does not locate itself in one realm of thought and action, but needs to work in multiple spheres. The political destiny of the Dalitbahujan, in my view, depends on the direction of spiritual destiny. It is more true in the course of liberation of Dalitbahujan who suffered all forms of oppression for so long.
Once again I thank LISA for giving me this award and opportunity to speak to you all to day.