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"Let The Hindus Also Do
Missionary Work"

By Kancha Ilaiah & Yoginder Sikand

31 August, 2008

Kancha Ilaiah, Professor of Political Science at Osmania University, Hyderabad, is a leading ideologue of the Dalit-Bahujan movement. He is a prolific writer, and among his best known works are ‘Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Critique of Hindutva From a Dalit-Bahujan Perspective’, ‘God as a Political Philosopher: The Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism’ and ‘Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism’. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about his work and reflects on the role of religion in the Dalit-Bahujan struggle.

Q: All of your major works deal with the Dalit-Bahujans, but they are in English, a language that few Dalit-Bahujans can read. So, then, whom do you write for?

A: My English works are, of course, addressed primarily to a middle-class readership, but I also write for several Telugu papers. My works have also been translated into several Indian languages. ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’, for instance, has come out in Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada and Marathi.

Q: What about Urdu? Do Muslim papers also publish you? After all, most Indian Muslims are descendants of oppressed caste converts and count among the Dalit-Bahujans.

A: Some of my articles have been published in Urdu newspapers, but no one has yet taken any initiative to translate my books into Urdu. Perhaps that is because of some sort of resistance that I perceive among many Muslims to certain critical ideas and social issues. That, in turn, has probably to do with the fact that while Muslims were once carriers of an evangelical ideology, today that evangelical spirit, of seeking to reach out to oppressed communities, to the oppressed castes, is now almost lost. We in the Dalit-Bahujan movement have been shouting hoarse for Muslim-Dalit-Bahujan unity for the last thirty or forty years, but the elite Muslim leadership does not take this seriously. Instead of joining hands with us, they want to dialogue with ‘upper’ caste Hindu-led parties—the Congress and the Left—and even with various Shankaracharyas! They aren’t even very concerned about their own fellow Muslims who live in the ghettos and slums, most of who are descendants of Dalit-Bahujan converts.

I, for one, am all for Muslims to take to missionary work among the Dalit-Bahujans in a major way. In that way, they would revive the tradition of the Sufis of the past, who reached out to the oppressed caste victims of Hinduism, and won their hearts and their allegiance with their love and message of equality and liberated them. Islam became attractive to the labouring castes of India when the Sufis went and lived among them, ate with them, spoke their languages. They invited them inside their mosques and Sufi hospices, and allowed them to touch the Quran. Imagine what a revolution this was for the oppressed castes, who were forbidden by the Brahmins, on pain of death, from entering temples, forbidden even from so much as listening to, leave alone touching, the Vedas! Only when that evangelical spirit of the past is revived can the critical ideas of the sort that I am seeking to advance on issues related to caste and Brahminism win serious attention in Muslim circles.

Further, interacting with and living with the Dalit-Bahujans in this manner can help bring Muslims out of the ghettoes into which they have been forced. They would solidify fraternal bonds with the Dalit-Bahujans and this can go a long way in curbing anti-Muslim violence, where, routinely, Dalit-Bahujans are instigated by the oppressor castes into attacking hapless Muslims.

Let me elaborate on this. I am not a Muslim, but I have read about Islam. The Quran exhorts Muslims to tell others about their socially liberating faith, and also to practically exert themselves in seeking to liberate them from oppression. In the Indian context, this means that Muslims must take this task earnestly in reaching out to the oppressed castes, the Dalit-Bahujans, who are victims of Hinduism, which is another name for Brahminism or what I call spiritual fascism. They must present before them genuine Islamic spiritual democracy as an alternative, as a source of liberation.

Q: Isn’t that what Babasaheb Ambedkar also said, about how every socio-political revolution of the oppressed castes in India was preceded by a spiritual revolution?

A: Exactly. And this has been the case not just in India. The black struggle for liberation in America started in the black churches and in the mosques. There are four major spiritual cultures in the world today: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. The first three are what I call democratic spiritual cultures. They preach the fundamental equality of all believers. Hinduism is what I call spiritual fascism, for caste, caste oppression and caste-based inequality is ingrained in it. All the Brahminical Hindu scriptures champion caste. And Hindu spiritual fascism leads to political fascism as well. So, obviously, the complete liberation for the Dalit-Bahujans must start with renunciation of Hinduism that has kept them as slaves for centuries and accepting one of the three democratic spiritual cultures, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. And this is precisely what is happening in India today. I regard this as a very welcome development, which needs to be speeded up. I personally don’t describe myself as a secularist. I am a spiritual democrat, and I realise that my people, the Dalit-Bahujans of this country, are also desperately in search of spiritual democracy, which cannot be found in Hinduism, which is its complete opposite.

So, conversion to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism is a must for our people. Let these three religions and their followers work among our people in a democratic manner. There are some possibilities of resuscitating egalitarian trends in Dalit-Bahujan religious traditions, but this project has its limits. In today’s globalised world why should our people stop at our local Pocchamma or Elamma or other such village goddesses? In their search for empowerment and liberation they must join one of the three global spiritual cultures. 800 million Dalit-Bahujans are ready to hear the word of God as the democratic spiritual traditions understand it. They have been kept ignorant of spiritual democracy for over three thousand years.

Q: But what about Hindu missionary work? Surely that is also happening, and vast numbers of Dalits and Adivasis are rapidly being Hinduised.

A: Let our people choose whichever religion they want. Let the Hindus also engage in missionary work. But, increasingly, Dalit-Bahujans will realise the truth, that all the major Brahminical Hindu scriptures are all predicated on caste and sanctify caste-based oppression. The Rig Veda says that Brahmins were created from Manu’s mouth, and the Shudras from his feet. Thankfully and luckily, the Dalits were not created from this Manu at all! The Gita also champions caste. The Ramayana says that Ram killed the Shudra Shambhukh. The same is true for the other Brahminical scriptures. There is simply no way to reform Hinduism to remove caste. I am sure as awareness of this spreads among our people they will begin to reflect and will protest. That is already happening today, although the media prefers to remain silent on it. Conscious Dalits, followers of Navayana Ambedkarite Buddhism, are fighting Hindu spiritual fascism in an open ideological battle.

Q: But is mere conversion enough?

A: It depends on what one means by conversion. Conversion of self-identities and cultures through religious conversion is a major step, but this is must be accompanied by conversion of oppressive social structures through peoples’ struggles. Preaching is just part of the process. It also involves living with, empathising with and struggling along with the Dalit-Bahujans for liberation and emancipation from Brahminism.

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