By Prem Pati
& Yoginder Sikand
22 February, 2005
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
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.