Monday, 30 June 2008

Interview: Bhagwan Das on Dalit Religious Traditions and the Hindutva Challenge

Interview: Bhagwan Das on Dalit Religious Traditions and the Hindutva Challenge
Yoginder Sikand
Mon Feb 21 08:40:04 CST 2005
Bhagwan Das is a Delhi-based Dalit lawyer. Author of numerous books on Dalit history and Ambedkarism, he is associated with several Dalit organisations. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he speaks about the religious traditions of the sweeper community to which he belongs and about the challenges to the Dalit movement from Hindutva, which he identifies as the contemporary face of Brahminism.

Q: How did you get involved in the Dalit movement?

A: I was born in an Untouchable family in Himachal Pradesh. My father used to work as a sweeper in a post office. My mother was also from a sweeper family, but one which was semi-Muslim. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Ambedkar on several occasions. I first met him in Bombay in 1943. After I joined the Air Force and got a posting in Bombay, I would regularly go to his house to meet him, three times a week. I would do the paper work that he would give me-making clippings from newspapers, typing, procuring information that he required from different offices and so on. So, that is how I began getting involved in the Dalit struggle. When Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956, I followed in his footsteps and in 1957 and embraced Buddhism along with my family.

Q: Why did Dr. Ambedkar convert to Buddhism?

A: The Dalits have never been Hindus, because, being outcastes, they are outside the four-fold Hindu caste system. Buddhism, according to Dr. Ambedkar, was the original religion of the Dalits. It is a religion of freedom and liberation. Dr. Ambedkar believed, and rightly so, that all major social and political revolutions have been preceded by cultural and religious revolutions, and so for the Dalit struggle conversion was a fundamental necessity.

We Dalits have never been Hindus. Actually, we had our own religious systems quite distinct from Brahminical beliefs and practices. Take the case of my own community, the sweepers (Bhangis). Their status was ambiguous. They were neither Hindus nor Muslims. It was difficult to place us anywhere because we did not worship any Hindu gods and nor did we go to mosques to pray. We had our own folk heroes whom we worshipped, but this tradition is now fast being forgotten, because Hindu organisations are desperately trying to Hinduise us. We sweepers had our own patron saint called Lal Beg. Later, the Arya Samajists tried to convert us into Hindus by claiming that we were descendants of Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, but I, for one, never accepted this myth.
Q: Who was Lal Beg?
A: Some say that Lal Beg was actually Lal Bhikku, who could have been a Buddhist saint. If you read the prayers of the sweeper community of northern India which are dedicated to Lal Beg you get a very interesting picture. These prayers are called Kursi Namas. They were collected together by Youngson and published in The Indian Antiquaries. They read like the first book of the Genesis in the Old Testament, tracing the lineage of our heroes. The Kursi Namas very clearly tell us that the sweepers are neither Hindus nor Muslims. There is no mention of any Hindu gods like Rama or Krishna in them. But, very interestingly, the Kursi Namas all begin with the Qur’anic invocation Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim (‘In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate’), which is the standard Islamic form with which every verse of the Qur’an but one begins. And, they all end with the cry, which again is very Islamic, of ‘Bolo Momino Vohi Ek Hai!’ [Say, O believers, that He alone is
the One True Being!].

Now, at several places in the Kursi Namas, the names Lal Beg and Bala Shah are used interchangeably. Bala Shah was a leading Punjabi Sufi saint. The Punjabi Sufi Waris Shah writes in his Heer, which is really an encyclopedia of the Punjab of his times, that Bala Shah was the Pir or Sufi preceptor of two so-called low castes, the sweepers or Chuhras and the Pasis [Bala Pir Ai Churiyan Pasiyan Da].

Q: Are the sweepers still aware of this tradition?

A: Unfortunately, very few are, and this tradition is fast disappearing. One reason is because Hindu organisations have been sparing no effort to absorb the sweepers into the Hindu fold so as to increase Hindu numbers. They were afraid that otherwise the sweepers would all convert to Christianity, a process that began in 1873 and continued right until 1931. So, they used all means to prevent the conversion of the sweepers. As part of this broader agenda, they started selling the story that the sweepers are actually Valmikis, descendants of Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana. In order to convince the sweepers of their claims, they argued that Bala Shah, the other name for Lal Beg, was actually just a corrupted form of the name Valmiki.

O: But how could that be, considering that in the Ramayana Valmiki legitimises the caste system? He tells us that Rama beheaded the Shudra Shambukh simply because he was meditating in order to ascend to the heavens in his physical body?

A: Exactly, so it is just a myth. The problem with this so-called Valmiki connection is: which Valmiki are they talking about? The Brahminical Valmiki who is a Brahmin and claims to be the tenth son of Varuna? Or the Valmiki mentioned in the Puranas as a dacoit? The Valmiki who wrote the Ramayana champions the caste system, so how could he have been a sweeper? He was actually a Brahmin. The problem with the alleged connection between this Valmiki and the sweepers is that at least when the Chamars claim Ravidas there's a link between the two, and so is the case with the claims of the Julahas and Bunkars [weavers] vis-a-vis Kabir, but there is absolutely nothing to link the Valmiki of the Ramayana with the sweepers.

Q: Has the attempted Sanskritisation of the sweepers by taking recourse to this mythical connection between them and Valmiki actually succeeded in improving their social status?

A: No, not at all. I would not call this process Sanskritisation. Rather, it was a cheap imitation of certain Brahminical customs and rituals. Sanskritisation does not result in any social mobility for the sweepers. The trouble with caste is that if you try to throw it out from the front door, it creeps back again through the window or the back door. This has been the fate of conversion movements among the Dalits to Christianity, Sikhism and Islam as well, although these religions, in theory, are egalitarian, unlike Hinduism. As I see it, what is called Sanskritisation may result in some superficial changes of customs and names, but it does not result in any change in the attitudes of the so-called ‘upper’ castes towards the Dalits. That has been the experience of the sweepers who now claim to be Valmikis. So, if a sweeper begins to call himself a Valmiki or a Chamar a Ravidasi or Ad-Dharmi or a carpenter a Vishwakarma, this makes no fundamental change in the attitudes of the Hindus towards them.

Q: What implications do you see Sanskritisation having for the Dalit liberation struggle?

A: Sanskritisation, to my mind, is simply another name for conversion of the Dalits to Hinduism, or, to be more precise, Brahminism, It has had a very negative impact on the Dalit quest for liberation. It further divides the Dalits. Take the case of the Chamars, the most populous caste in north India. Because of the process of what you call Sanskritisation, they are now divided into 62 sub-castes, none of which intermarries with the others. In Uttar Pradesh, the sweepers are divided into several endogamous groups, And, besides this, Sanskritisation really does not result in any change in the attitudes of those who have been practicing untouchability towards them for centuries. Shapes may change, forms may change, but the deep-rooted hatred remains.

As I see it, the Hinduisation of the Dalits makes the process of Dalit assertion much more difficult, because the more Hinduised Dalit castes begin to hate their own people who are less Hinduised. Now, if you ask a Valmiki man to marry a Dhanuk or Bansphod woman, he would refuse, because the Dhanuks and Bansphods are much less Hinduised than the Valmikis.

Q: What implications does the Hindutva agenda have for the Dalit communities and their struggle for liberation?

A: In my opinion, the Hindutva organisations would like to bring the Dalits, who are actually not Hindus, into the Hindu fold and leave them there, at the bottom of the heap. Now, that is also what Gandhi attempted to do. He used to tell the Dalits that God had created them simply to serve the so-called upper castes and that they should carry on with their caste occupations in the hope that in their next life they would be born in a higher caste. That is also what the Hindutva project is all about. So, from the Dalit point of view, the rise of Hindutva is a very dangerous development. If you are really serious about bringing about a fundamental structural change, and not simply cosmetic change, in this caste-ridden society whose roots are in religion, you have to strike at both the caste system as well as the religious ideology that gives it legitimacy. But this the Hindutva organisations cannot and will not do.

Q: In an ideal Hindutva set-up, what would be the status of the Dalits?

A: In the Hindutva scheme of things, the ideal, so-called 'Golden Age' which they want to drag us back to is the age of the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Gita, the Manusmriti. What was the position of the Dalits and Shudras then? We were treated worse than slaves, and this was given religious sanction by these Brahminical scriptures that the Hindutvawadis champion. So, it may have certainly been a 'Golden Age' for them, but it was beyond doubt the darkest period in history for us Dalits. As I see it, the Hindutva organisations all aim at enforcing the varna system in some form or the other, and this has the most dangerous implications for us. I was recently reading a book by Golwalkar, one-time supremo of the RSS, where he says that the caste system did no harm at all. That glorification of caste may be good from their point of view, but not for us, certainly. To my mind, the rise of Hindutva is actually a product of growing Dalit consciousness, and as the Dalits has now begun struggling for their rights the Brahminical establishment, represented by Hindutva groups, are seeking to scuttle the Dalit liberation quest by diverting the Dalits to fight with other groups like the Muslims and the Christians.

Q: What do you think is the role of religion in the broader Dalit struggle?

A: I personally feel that there are three institutions that are necessary for the proper functioning of a society. Firstly, the institution of marriage. Secondly, the institution of government. And thirdly, the institution of religion which gives people a moral code to live by and binds them together. This question agitated the mind of Dr .Ambedkar when he was considering severing his ties with Hinduism, with which the Dalits have only very nominally been attached historically. So, he gave us a new interpretation of Buddhism which resembles in many respects the liberation theology of the South American Catholics. The starting point in his religious quest was: What is the role of religion in society? He stressed that religion is a good nurse but can be a bad mistress, because the institution of religion has historically played both a constructive as well as a very destructive role.

Q: But many Mahayanist and Theravadin Buddhists claim that Ambedkar's interpretation of Buddhism is not in accordance with fundamental Buddhist teachings.

A: It is true that Dr .Ambedkar’s interpretation of the Buddhist dhamma differs in several important respects from both the Mahayana and the Theravada, but then right from the early Buddhist period, from soon after the death of the Buddha, Buddhism has been characterized by a tremendous internal diversity. In Japan, for instance, there are some 1260 different Buddhist sects.

Q: What do you feel about the emergence of what is called Dalit Christian theology?

A: Dalit Christian theology emerged in the last one decade, primarily as a response to the growing assertion of the Dalits. My own personal feeling is that it is being used as a means of self-defence by Dalits within the Church to challenge the ‘upper’ caste hegemony in the Church structures and hierarchies. I don't see Dalit Christian theology as having had any noticeable impact on the non-Christian Dalits, however. In fact, many among the latter are quite suspicious of the aims of the Church now that it has suddenly begun to present itself as the champion of the Dalits. I feel that the Church authorities are now greatly alarmed as the number of Christians is going down, as several Dalit Christians are leaving the Church to avail of reservation benefits, which, according to the law, are not available to Christian Dalits. So, maybe Dalit Christian theology is also a means to stem that tide.

Q: So, would you say that the trend among the Dalits today is towards conversion to Buddhism rather than to Christianity?

A: Yes, at least that is how I see it. Buddhism gives them a sense of pride and identity and connects them to a glorious chapter in their own history. But the Buddhist conversion movement is not proceeding as rapidly as we would have liked it to. One reason is that very little attention has been paid to the proper training of bhikkhus [Buddhist monks], although this is something that Ambedkar seriously urged. He said that we should have regular seminaries for training monks, just as the early Buddhists had, in the form of universities such as at Nalanda and Taxila. To begin with, we tried sending our monks to Thailand for training, but many of them went off to the West after completing their course, instead of coming back to India to serve here. So, this is a great problem for us. But we are now planning to set up a seminary for training bhikkhus in the Terai region in Uttar Pradesh, where they will be taught the Buddhist scriptures, the philosophy of Ambedkarism as well as Comparative religions.

Q: What has been the impact of the conversion to Buddhism on the Mahars of Maharashtra, the community to which Ambedkar belonged?

A: As I see it, their conversion has been largely limited to a change of rituals, and has not really made much of a difference in their social status. But because of their conversion many of them have given up drinking alcohol and worshipping Hindu gods like Rama and Krishna. In Maharashtra today, Buddhists are synonymous largely with Mahars, and so the attitudes of others towards them has not really changed, but at least conversion has given them a new sense of identity and self-respect.

Q: In your opinion, can conversion to Buddhism help the process of undermining the structures of caste?

A: That is what is happening today, although gradually. For instance, the Ambedkar Mission Society, with which I am associated, and whose members are all Buddhists, insists that at least one person in the family of all our members must marry outside his or her own caste. This is the only way to destroy the caste system. If Dalits from different castes begin to convert to Buddhism and start inter-marrying, the internal divisions that have historically worked to weaken the Dalits will gradually begin to disappear. Conversion to Buddhism, in my view, will help consolidate the Dalits into one community, giving them a sense of pride and a positive identity. If they do not convert, they will remain divided into several hundred caste groups and will not be able to assert themselves at all.

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