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Why No Dalit Personal Law?

By Prabhat Sharan

25 April, 2010
The Verdict Weekly

Generations have grown up in the pale of society with their death cries disappearing in the dark penumbra of a moonless sky. Like disemboweled creatures, they have been shunned, exploited, discriminated, disparaged, despised and humiliated.

And for centuries their wails and howls have been mingling helplessly with the swirling dust motes inside their fusty and musty cracked thatched walls of huts dotting the fringes of towns and villages.

Call them Sudra, Chandala, Nisada, Antya, Bahya, Antyaynis, Harijan, Dalit or down-trodden. Call them by any name the fact is that people of these communities cut out like cancer by the Indian societal structures are yet to see the elusive white clear moonlight of justice bathing their lives.

The emancipation movement ignited two centuries ago has now become a wheel trapped in a morass, spinning and digging deeper, throwing out muck but not inching forward. The movement has reached an impasse and people continue to live and die in the void of dark shadows of the society.

Recently in a seminar “Modernity, Tradition and Resistance in South Asia,” organized by Mumbai University, during an informal talk, a radical sociologist, Dr. Neshat Quaiser from Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, raised a startling proposition and a query.

Dr. Quaiser’s proposition was that since Dalit community has always been outside the realm of Hindu fold and the Brahmanical structure, Dalits should have their own Personal Law since they have an independent identity. The very fact by allotted a lower order in the Brahmanical varna structure, Sudra had nothing to do with losing any kind of caste identity.

“Why till date has there been no demand for Dalit Personal Law? There are no two opinions over the fact that Dalit for ages have been exploited and oppressed by Hindu Brahmanical structures as well by the succeeding ruling class and communities- be it Muslims or Christians. They have been tortured by everyone, but surprisingly neither Dalit politicians, nor activists, nor intellectuals, nor intelligentsia class, from community, itself in recent times have ever bothered to raise the issue of Dalit Personal Law.

Dr.Quaiser’s argument is that since Dalit community is outside the realm of Hindu fold as they are not a part of the Hindu varna system, Dalit should have their own Personal Law and their emancipation, self-esteem and self-respect lies in asserting their independence away from the Hindu fold and not by tinkering or seeking social reforms by being inside the Hindu system.

Noted historian Ram Sharan Sharma, in his classic work “Sudras in Ancient India-A social history of the lower order down to circa.A.D.600,” tracing the exodus to the Indian sub-continent in pre-Vedic era states that early literature does not show that there was any class division as the society was still in the pastoral stage.

Similarly, sociologist Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya mentions, “The genuinely earlier portions of the RgVeda knew neither caste-distinction nor contempt for empirical knowledge and it’s functioning in different spheres of life. Far from being looked down upon that Tvastr, the craftsman, was raised to the status of a powerful deity. The making of the world was conceived in terms of wood craft, done as if by a carpenter’s or joiner’s skill. Subsequently, however, this attitude was not maintained which may be illustrated with reference to what happened to the fate of the Asvins, the master-physicians, whose position was lowered and right of drinking Soma in the assembly of gods denied. Material Sciences came to be known as avidya or false knowledge. ” (Indian Puberty Rites-pp75, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi-Second Revised Ed:1980.)

According to Sharma, “It appears just as the common European world ‘slave’ and Sanskrit ‘dasa’ were derived from the names of conquered peoples, so also the word Sudra was derived from a conquered tribe of that name. There is no doubt that Sudra existed as a tribe in the 4th century B.C, for Diodoros records the advance of Alexander against a tribe called Sodrai who occupied modern Sind. (Sudras in Ancient India-pp34, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Reprint :Delhi 2002.)

Sharma further points out that Sudras appear as a tribe in the earliest part of the Atharva Veda and “all these peoples seem to have been inhabitants of north-western India where in Mahabharata, the Sudra tribe is described as living with the Abhiras…the occurrence of the term Sudra in what is regarded as the earliest and the most characteristic part of the Atharva Veda should be understood not in the sense of varna, but in that of a tribe.” (ibid-pp36.)

In fact, Sharma points out that Sudras also had their own gods, some Aryans others non-Aryans. Thus, “Brahmanical statement in the stories of creation that Sudras did not have any gods does not represent the correct position…the Brahmanical legends show a deliberate attempt to deprive the Sudra of the right to worship and sacrifice which he formerly shared with his Aryan fellowmen, or enjoyed independently as a member of aboriginal tribes.” (Ibid-pp83)

Marxist philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya in “Lokayata-A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism,” quotes Manu the most vociferous anti-Sudra describing “Ganapati as the deity of the depressed class, the Sudra.” (Lokayata-pp131, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, Eighth Edition:2006.)

And this view of distancing Sudra tribe from the priestly class started emerging towards the end of Rg Vedic period when the pre-class society starting moving from pastoral society to agrarian society which required labourers.

The need of the labour led to spinning of religion and ideology so as to regularize the system of labour supply. “A clear line was drawn between mental and manual labour. The denial of Vedic education to the Sudra implied that he was condemned to physical labour…and this was justified on the basis of mythical origin from the feet of the creator. (Sudras in Ancient India-pp316.)

The Sudra community which had by then an amalgamation of several tribes also incorporated slaves or dasas. In, “Slavery in Ancient India,” Dev Raj Chanana delineates the emergence of the practice of untouchability after the inclusion of tribes like Chandala and slave or dasas, whereby ”the duty of a Sudra whether slave or not (he could be a free person,) to undertake all the dirty jobs that a slave had to do.” (Slavery in Ancient India-pp116 People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, Third Reprint:2008.)

Almost everybody then who was anti-Brahmin were, termed as Sudra. Thus Jains, Buddhists and Ajivkas all were termed- or in Brahmanical literature “condemned”- as Sudra. Buddhism which had the strongest influence was confined to artisan Sudra.

But almost all the reforming religious movements of Buddhism, Jainism, Saivism and Vaisnavism never questioned the Karma theory which acted as pivotal doctrine to the Brahmanical social stratification order.

The religious reforming movements merely contained social discontent and according to Sharma, “By promising religious equality in places of other forms of equality they helped to reconcile the lower orders to the existing social system. The spirit of protest against social inequities which marked these movements in earlier stages withered away in course of time and they identified themselves with the essentials of the varna organization.” (Sudras in Ancient India-pp326.)

The point here is not to carry out an in-depth research on the origins or the conditions that led to the emergence of the inhuman practices of the ruling societies in the Indian sub-continent, but to emphasize the fact that the communities tribals and non-tribals clubbed together and termed as Dalit, had nothing to do with the brahmanical societal code which have been deliberately imposed on them so as to gain a permanent servitude from them.

Ironically, the scenario has not changed much even today for these exploited and oppressed communities. To reduce it to one causative factor would be erroneous but then causes for any effect tend to be inter-connected, having a common string running across them.

According to Dalit activist and Ambedkarite, Rahul Gade, the sub-human condition and the dehumanization of millions of people living in broken crucibles with fractured lives and torn dreams of a simple life, is primarily due to the short-sighted political and economic gains of the Dalit political leaders, activists, intelligentsia and pro-Dalit Intellectuals who just want to work within the caste system and want to be a “part of the Hindu system itself.”

Gade holds Dalit elites responsible for the failure of emancipation movement, stating “it seems some elite Dalits in unwary upbeat mood perhaps for self-serving reason naively aim to reform the Hindu religion.”

Moreover, Gade further says Dalit intellectuals for some reason refuse to overcome the “Dalit obsession leading them to emphasize from every platform their Dalit identity in a negative way.” This negative and low-esteem emotive facet offers no solace to the oppressed community and in fact has only increased the distance between elites and the masses.

Social action theorist, Dr. Vivek P.S from Mumbai University’s Sociology Department also concedes the growing frustration of the masses vis-à-vis the elites. “Not all scholars but a section of intelligentsia and intellectuals deem it as a statement of style to keep on harping emotive aspects in every form of analysis of caste oppression.”

Dr. Vivek who had also spent several years organizing Safai Kamgar (Sweepers and Scavengers) in Mumbai points out that the refusal to consider the class-interest-analysis has also furthered their alienation from the masses. And being over-focussed on emotive aspects, they hardly bother about the economic interests and its ramifications while analysing any given issue pertaining to Dalits. Though not significant in numbers, the section is certainly powerful in Indian polity and research academia and they have become a kind of Dalit Brahmin looking down upon the oppressed masses- using their pain and sufferings for narrow gains.”

Grass-root Dalit activist and journalist, Raj Jagtap goes further in condemning not only Dalit political leaders but also intellectuals who parrot Dr. B.R.Ambedkar at the drop of hat. Dr. Ambedkar sincerely believed that in every country, “the intellectual class is the most influential class,” and thus Dalit intellectuals were expected “to carry the torch of liberty. But what is happening is totally different.”

“In my interaction I have found that like politicians a group of pro-Dalit and Dalit intellectuals have formed a coterie and behave like shopkeepers out to sell wares comprising pain, woes and tears. Though not all of them, but a majority of them want oppression to continue so that shops will keep on running… and that is one of the reasons that they want to remain in the Hindu fold, forgetting that Babasaheb (Dr.B.R.Ambedkar) had made it very clear that the object of emancipation movement had nothing to do with Hindu social reform. It is a sad thing to see a mad scramble is on to paint a bright future and ironically not many of them want the bright future to condense in the present,” Jagtap points out.

The point of this article is to rake up a healthy debate so that a path forward can be chalked out for the millions of oppressed toilers waiting for the elusive cool clear white light of justice and equality to erase the blisters scarring their lives.

Prabhat Sharan is a Senior Journalist with interest in social, working class, wild-life conservation, philosophical and literary studies. He can be contacted at sharanprabhat@gmail.com