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De-Brahminise The Dalit

By Prem Pati & Yoginder Sikand

22 February, 2005
Islamic Interfaith

Prem Pati used to teach Comparative Literature at Delhi Univerity. Author of several books on the Dalit movement and Ambedkar, he is presently involved with a number of Dalit groups. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he speaks about religion, Dalit liberation and Dalit-Muslim relations.

Q: How do you define the word 'Dalit'?

A: Some people restrict the use of the word 'Dalit' to refer only to the Scheduled Castes. But, in my opinion, the Dalits are all those who are oppressed, and these include the vast majority of the Other Backward Castes, the Adivasis, and the Muslims and Christians of non-'upper' caste origin.

Q: What do you feel is the role of religion in the Dalit liberation struggle?

A: That is a question about which I have thought a great deal. If you examine ancient Indian history and religion, you will find that the word 'Hindu dharma' is not used to describe what is today called 'Hinduism'. Instead, the word used is varnashrama dharma, which is the religion of caste. According to this religion, the dharma of each caste is different and consists essentially of one' caste duties. The dharma of the Dalits and Shudras is simply to serve as slaves of the 'upper' castes. The Arab and Persian Muslims used the term 'Hindu' to refer to those people living to the east of the Indus river. But very cleverly, from the nineteenth century onwards, the word 'Hindu' was adopted while the term varnashrama dharma was concealed, but an objective analysis tells us that what is called Hinduism today is simply another name for varnashrama dharma.

After reading the ancient Brahminic scriptures, I began studying Buddhism. From the Buddhist scriptures I discovered the real conditions of the Indian society of those days, which caused Lord Buddha such anguish because Brahmin hegemony was unchallenged and extreme. And from my reading of Buddhism I realised that the essence of Hindu dharma or the Brahminical dharma is the upholding of Brahminic hegemony come what may, and that the rest of the population must simply uphold the cause of Brahmin hegemony. I, for one, was convinced that I was certainly not cut out to serve the cause of Brahmin hegemony. Instead, I decided that I must devote my life to ensure its defeat.

That is what Ambedkar's mission was all about. His was a twin attack on capitalism, to replace it with socialism, and on Brahminism, to usher in social democracy.

Q: Do you think religious conversion is necessary for Dalit emancipation?

A: To begin with, you should be clear that when you speak of Dalit conversions, it is not that the Dalits are abandoning Hinduism for another religion. Actually, the Dalits are not Hindus and have never been Hindus, because as outcastes, they are outside the Hindu varna system.

I am convinced that as long as the Dalits remain even nominally Hindu, they cannot gain self-respect and sense of pride in who they are. But, on the other hand, the experience of Dalits who have converted to Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism has not been very happy. Brahminical culture has been able to spread its tentacles to infiltrate into these communities as well. Take the case of the Jatavs of Agra, who have converted to Buddhism. They still practice Hinduistic rituals and customs. There is no clean break-away from Brahminic customs and lifestyles after conversion to Buddhism. My own maternal uncle's family has converted to Christianity, but they, too, still follow Hinduistic practices. The only exception, to a considerable extent, is conversion .to Islam. I have been to Meenakshipuram, in Tamil Nadu, where in the early 1980s many Dalits, including some Dalit Christians, converted to Islam, seeing that as the only way to gain self-respect. In their case, there has been a clean break from Hinduistic practices, and they have adopted a completely new world-view that is uncontaminated by Brahminism. As I see it, only Islam has been able to give the Dalits a completely new world-view and identity. True, there is an element of caste in Indian Muslim society, which they have inherited from the Hindus. Although 'upper' caste Muslims may not be very sympathetic to the Dalit cause, it has been my consistent experience that ordinary Muslims are very close to the Dalits and are working shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the struggle against caste oppression. That is why we strongly advocate Dalit-Muslim unity. They have the same roots, they suffer the same sort of discrimination and oppression.

Q: So, what you are suggesting is that conversion to Islam can bring the Dalits some relief?

A: Yes, that has been our experience. I'll give you a very interesting example. A couple of years ago, the municipal corporation of a town in Uttar Pradesh decided to clear up a sweeper settlement to construct a park or a building in its place. The sweepers protested, but the municipal authorities did not budge. Then, in desperation, the sweepers announced that if they were forcibly expelled from their homes they would convert to Islam. That fell like a bomb-shell. Not only did the municipal authorities immediately shelve their plans, but Hindu organisations came rushing to offer the sweepers all kinds of material help!

Q: If conversion to Islam is such a viable option, why is it that very few Dalits are actually adopting Islam today?

A: There are several reasons for that. According to the law, which itself is very discriminatory, Dalit converts to Islam as well as Christianity cannot avail of the reservation and other facilities that are available to other Dalits. Then, there is also the fear that if they convert to Islam, they would be made the target of physical attack by Hindutva groups. It is very interesting to note in this context that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Munnani actually came on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the conversion of the Meenakshipuram Dalits to Islam. The Hindu Munnani was set up by the RSS only to ensure that the Dalits do not have the option to convert to Islam. No wonder, then, that in Tamil Nadu the Hindu Munnani is attacking not the Dalits but the Muslims.

Q: In the absence of conversion to Islam, what hope do you see for the Dallts?

A: Well, I would strongly urge de-Brahminisation or de-Sanskritisation of the Dalits, so as to liberate them from the trap in which 'upper' caste religious practices and beliefs have ensnared them. That is a difficult task, though, and it involves careful re-reading of our histories. We had our own religious traditions which have, over the centuries, been Brahminised, and these we must recapture. Take the case of the deity Parvattama, who is widely worshipped in that part of Andhra where I come from. She was actually a 'low' caste woman, who, it was believed, could cure small pox. After she died, the villagers converted her into a folk deity. And then what happened? One day, a Brahmin priest came to the village and told the villagers: "You fools, don't you know, Parvattama is an incarnation of the goddess Durga? You don't know how to worship her. I will teach you". So what did he do? He captured her shrine, built a grand Brahminical temple in its place and began raking in a lot of money. The same is the case with hundreds of other Dalit-Shudra deities all over the country. Take, for example, the case of Balaji, with whom the temple at Tirupati is associated. In my part of Andhra, Balaji is believed to have been a humble cowherd and his mother is said to have been a Muslim. But the Brahmin priests, seeing the popularity of the deity and the ample opportunity that his cult offered for earning easy money, declared: "Balaji is actually an avatar of Vishnu", and in this way managed to appoint themselves as priests of the cult. So, what we need to do is to rescue our deities and heroes from Brahmin control and restore them to our own people.











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