By V.T Rajshekar
& Yoginder Sikand
14 February, 2005
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
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?
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
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
VT Rajshekar can
be contacted on email@example.com