V.T.Rajshekar is the editor of the Bangalore-based English fortnightly ‘Dalit Voice’. Here he speaks to Yoginder Sikand on various aspects of the Dalit movement and about Dalit-Muslim Relations.
Q: You have been arguing that the Dalit movement should aim at the strengthening of caste identities, instead of the abolition of caste, in order to do away with caste oppression. Can you explain what exactly you mean by this?
A: I have not propounded a new thesis. This argument is based on my understanding of caste dynamics in India. Each caste or jati is an identity by itself, and I believe that unless caste identities are strengthened, caste oppression cannot be effectively challenged. Now, the ‘upper’ caste Brahminical elites argue that we are promoting ‘casteism’ by stressing our own caste identities. They sometimes say that caste should be abolished, but of course they are not sincere about this. They want to preserve their own caste identities and their own hegemony, while demanding that the ‘lower’ castes, who form the vast majority of the Indian population, should forget their identities. They want us to submerge ourselves into the so-called ‘Hindu’ community, of which they presume to be the natural leaders and spokesmen. In this way, by Hinduising the Dalits they want to preserve their hegemony, which they see being increasingly challenged by radical Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes, who refuse to be considered as Hindus. In actual fact, we are not Hindus at all, so why should we forget our identities and choose to be identified as ‘Hindus’?
Look at the Afro-Americans in America. They are challenging white hegemony, not by denying their blackness, but precisely by stressing it, by cultivating pride in being black. This is also what we in the Dalit movement in India are trying to do. We need to strengthen our own caste identities in order to counter casteism or caste oppression. We have to take pride in being Dalits. We have to proudly say that we are Chamars, Malas, Yadavs or whatever. We have to recover our own histories, our own stories of struggling against Brahminical oppression, our memories of our own historical contributions. That’s what Mayavati seeks to do, for instance, when she begins her speeches at rallies with the slogan: ‘Mai Chamari Hoon, Mai Tumhari Hoon’ (‘I am a Chamar and I am yours’).
Any community which forgets its past, its identity, is doomed to slavery. This is exactly what the Brahminical elites want when they say that Dalits should cease to identify as Dalits, and should, instead, consider themselves simply as ‘Hindus’. They want the Dalits to hate themselves, which is what all the Brahminical scriptures teach, so that we can never take pride in our identities and thereby challenge Brahminical oppression.
Q: But wouldn’t the strengthening of the identity of each Dalit jati lead to a weakening of the Dalit movement as a whole?
A: Not really. To the contrary, it would help cement inter-caste unity among the Dalits in the long run. You see, the Dalits are not a single category. There are hundreds of different Dalit castes, each with its own history, their own identity. At the village level no one identifies himself or herself as a Dalit. Rather, he or she would say that she is a Mala, a Madiga, a Chamar, a Ravidasi or whatever. So, there is really no such thing as a Dalit identity in that sense, and so it is wrong to think that strengthening the identity of each Dalit jati would lead to a fracturing of an overall Dalit identity.
My argument is that unless each jati among the Dalits gets its due share in accordance with its population, the Dalit movement will not be able to manage the question of inter-jati relations among the Dalits as a whole. It’s like a wheel with many cogs and links, and unless each cog and link is well oiled, the wheel itself will not be able to move. My thesis has been opposed by some Dalits, who accuse me of trying to divide the Dalit movement. But such opposition generally comes from people who belong to those Dalit castes who have gained much more than other Dalit castes from reservations in government services for the Dalits, and who use this argument of a single, homogenous Dalit identity to deny such benefits to other, weaker Dalit groups. Thus, for instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the Malas gained much more than the Madigas from reservations for Dalits. The Madigas rightly saw that the Malas were using the cover of a unified Dalit identity to garner these benefits for themselves. We in ‘Dalit Voice’ supported the demand of the Madigas, for which we had to face considerable opposition from the Mala elites. So, as I see it, the stressing of jati identities works particularly in favour of the smaller and weaker Dalit jatis.
Q: Some people might argue that reinforcing jati identities of the Dalits, as you propose, would only further reinforce the structures of caste oppression and hierarchy. How do you look at this argument?
A: When I say that we must strengthen our caste identities, I don’t say we should do it simply for its own sake, but, rather, in order to challenge caste oppression. Jatis form the bedrock of Indian society and cannot be done away with. So, recognizing this basic sociological fact, what I say is that while each jati must preserve its own identity, the basic principle that governs inter-caste relations must be overturned. In Hinduism, which is simply another name for caste oppression, relations between the different jatis are governed on the basis of the principle of social hierarchy, with the Brahmins at the top and the Dalits at the bottom. What we say is that this hierarchy must be torn down, and that the relations between the different jatis should be on the basis of egalitarianism. All jatis should be considered equal, and each should have its share of power and wealth on the basis of its numerical strength. So, the Brahmins, who form just 3 % of India’s population, should have 3% of its resources, while the so-called ‘lower’ castes, who form almost 80% of the population, should control 80% of the resources. But, today you have a situation where the Brahmins and other ‘upper’ castes control well over 80% of the country’s resources, and this is sanctified by the Hindu religion! That is why we say that Hinduism or Brahminism is a form of sanctified racism.
Q: Some might argue that strengthening jati identities might result simply in the creation of new Dalit elites who claim to speak on behalf of their jatis, with the conditions of the oppressed among the Dalits remaining unchanged. How would you react to this argument?
A: It is true that within each Dalit caste, particularly among the numerically larger and politically more influential castes such as the Chamars in north India, you do have the emergence of a small elite class. Now, the problem of class differences and exploitation within the Dalits, or for instance, the question of gender oppression among the Dalits, is a very real one. But our argument is that we need to focus all our attention on tackling what we call the ‘principal contradiction’-which is Brahminical hegemony and oppression. Once that issue is successfully tackled we can address what we see as ‘minor contradictions’, such as class divisions or gender oppression within the Dalit fold.
Q: What implications does your theory of caste identity have for Dalit politics?
A: I believe that the strengthening of Dalit identities is crucial in order for the Dalits to capture political power. If you see the results of the recent elections, for instance, the defeat of the BJP owes, to a large extent, to the mobilization of Dalit caste identity in opposition to Hindutva, which the Dalits are increasingly realizing is nothing else but Brahminical fascism. Dalits and Backward Castes now feel that they must have their own political parties, for the other parties, whether the Congress, the BJP or the Communists, are all controlled by the ‘upper’ caste Hindu minority. And in order for Dalit-Bahujan political assertion to be strengthened it is imperative that we stress our own jati identities.
Q: You have also been arguing that religious conversion is a must for the Dalits in order to challenge Brahminical oppression. At the same time you admit that caste identities remain intact even after Dalits convert to other religions. What then is the role or meaning of conversion?
A: Religious conversion remains a potent weapon to challenge ‘upper’ caste oppression. This is what the unchallenged leader of the Dalit revolution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, himself insisted. He argued, and correctly so, that conversion to any egalitarian religion was indispensable for Dalit liberation, for Hinduism, which is based on the caste system, cannot give them equality and self-respect. Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism with several thousands of his followers. But Buddhism is just one alternative for the Dalits. For any disease you have a variety of cures. Likewise, to cure the disease of casteism, Dalits can try out various religious alternatives, such as Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism or Christianity, depending on local conditions.
Q: But what about the stigma of caste that continues to remain with the converts even after their conversion to non-Hindu religions?
A: Caste is an identity like a tribal or ethnic identity, and so naturally it remains even after conversion. My point is not that one’s caste identity does or should disappear after conversion. That is quite impossible. It is also true that caste discrimination continues even after conversion. However, it is important to note that the severity of caste discrimination is considerably much less in the case of Christians and Muslims, because their religions, unlike Hinduism, do not sanction caste, and are fiercely egalitarian in their social ethics. This is why for more than a thousand years Dalits have been converting to Islam and Christianity in search of self-respect and a better social status. This explains why the vast majority of Muslims and Christians in India are descended from Dalit and other ‘low’ caste converts. Some of the most radical challenges to caste oppression have come from Dalit converts.
Q: You stress the need for Dalit-Muslim unity, but, as the recent events in Gujarat so tragically illustrate, this project is yet to take off. How do you look at the issue in the light of the Gujarat pogroms in which Dalits were used to attack and kill Muslims on a massive scale?
A: I believe that the torching of the train carriage in Godhra might well have been the handiwork of Hindutva fascists themselves, as some newspaper reports have argued. They used this event as an excuse to unleash a terrible massacre of Muslims all over Gujarat. For this purpose they employed the Dalits and Tribals, as they have been repeatedly been doing in several other pogroms euphemistically termed as ‘communal riots’. They succeeded in using the Dalits and Tribals because of years of propaganda work among them, trying to Hinduise them and instilling in them a fierce hatred of Muslims. In this way, the ‘upper’ caste elites sought to set their own major enemies-the Dalits and the Muslims-against each other.
Now, despite this, or, you could say, precisely because of this, we insist on the need for Dalit-Muslim unity. Hindutva, or Brahminical fascism, is aimed at the enslavement not only of the Muslims and Christians, but also of the Dalits, Backward Castes and Tribals-in short of all peoples other than the ‘upper’ caste Hindus. That is why we strongly urge that we must all unite against ‘upper’ caste rule.
Q: How have Muslim leaders responded to your proposal for Dalit-Muslim unity?
A: Dalit-Muslim unity is warmly welcomed by the Muslim masses, who are mostly of Dalit origin themselves. However, the Muslim elites, especially from the north Indian ‘cow-belt’, are quite opposed to this. They see this as a major threat to their own claims to lead the community. So, they pay lip sympathy to our demand for Dalit-Muslim unity, but when it comes to political choices, they often join hands with the Congress or the BJP or other such ‘upper’ caste Hindu-led parties simply in order to suit their own vested interests. Take the case of the self-styled Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid. He initially supported the Congress, but just before the recent elections he declared his support for the BJP and appealed to Muslims for vote for it. However, the Muslim masses are now increasingly politically aware and conscious, which explains why in the Jama Masjid area most Muslims voted for the Congress, instead of the BJP, despite the Imam’s support for the latter. As I see it, the Muslim masses are growing increasingly disillusioned with the politics of the Muslim elites, and sooner or later they will realize the need to dump them and join hands with other oppressed groups such as the Dalits, Backward Castes and Tribals.
Q: In this regard, how do you see the role of sections of the ‘ulama and of certain Islamic groups that are hostile to Dalit-Muslim unity, and who seem to imagine all non-Muslims, Dalits included, as being by definition, what they call ‘enemies of Islam’?
A: Yes, some sections of the ‘ulama do probably feel this way, although they have never said this to me directly. I would agree with you when you say that this is a major obstacle in the path of building unity between Dalits and the Muslim masses. Personally, I feel this is a distorted understanding of Islam, for my own reading of the Qur’an tells me that Islam insists on the need for Muslims to struggle for the liberation of all oppressed peoples, irrespective of their religion. I feel that the sort of exclusivist interpretations of Islam that you have mentioned are voiced particularly by organizations that are heavily dependent on Saudi funds. The Saudis have a vested interest in promoting such a distorted understanding of Islam. But today the oppressive Saudi rulers, who have been able to survive all these years only because of their close ties with western imperialists, are themselves under grave threat, and I think it won’t be long before they are overthrown by internal opponents.
To come back to your point about such exclusivist understandings of Islam that stand in the way of unity between Dalits and the Muslim masses, I must say that Muslim leaders, including the ‘ulama of the madrasas, have only a very superficial understanding of caste, Brahminism and Indian social history. That’s why they do not properly appreciate the need for Dalit-Muslim unity. That explains why when we talk about the need for oppressed Muslims to challenge the hegemony of elite Muslims we are dubbed by some elite Muslims as agents working to divide the Muslims from within! That is the same argument used by Hindutva-walas, who accuse us of dividing the Hindus on the basis of caste. So, on the whole, I would say that when elite Muslims speak about the need for Dalit-Muslim unity very often they are hardly serious about it. They are not willing to critique caste oppression within the Muslim fold, to interrogate the notion of the ‘ummah’ as a seamless monolith, and to recognize the existence of caste, class and gender oppression within the larger Muslim community itself.