Friday, 25 December 2009
By Ashok Yadav
23 December, 2009
Bhagat Singh finds a place not only among India’s but world’s greatest revolutionaries. His life, work, struggle and the way he kissed and embraced death bring him in league of world’s great revolutionaries such as Socrates, Bruno, Joan of Arc, Che Guevara etc. His martyrdom will continue to inspire many generations of revolutionaries to sacrifice their lives in defence of truth, justice and freedom. He was a rare thinker. The mastery he could acquire in the art and science of revolution even at a tender age of twenty three when he died is very rare. We still feel the loss that our country suffered on his untimely death. It was not for nothing that the British imperialists hanged him and the future rulers of India preferred to remain silent on his death sentence.
We are well aware of Bhagat Singh’s thoughts on topics such as socialism, revolution, India’s independence, working class movements, religion, god etc. His life and death centred around these concerns. We are generally not aware of his take on caste system as he has not written much on this. It may be due to the fact that he was a Sikh where caste based differentiation and discrimination is not as acute as among the Hindus.
Yet his article ‘Achoot Samasya’ (The Untouchability Problem) is very important because we get glimpses of his revolutionary thoughts on this basic problem of Indian society. Now when in the post-mandal phase caste and dalit questions have acquired paramount importance in socio-political discourse it has become relevant to understand his thoughts on this question.
Bhagat Singh wrote this article in the month of June, 1928 as the volume of his collected works indicates. Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar had already made history by burning ‘Manusmriti’ with his followers on December 25, 1927. On March 20, 1927 Baha Saheb with his followers had touched water of Mahad pond which was hitherto not accessible to the achoots (untouchables). Baba Saheb with his followers had been demanding right of separate electorates from the British government. The year also witnessed the publication of Katherine Mayo’s ‘Mother India’ and furore over the content of the book. Mahatma Gandhi dubbed the book as a gutter inspector’s report. The evils of Indian particularly Hindu society were most nakedly, mercilessly and authentically exposed in the book. The moral hypocrisy, insincerity and hollowness of the elites of Hindu society on the question of eradicating social evils were brought forth before the world. In his article ‘Achoot Samasya’ Bhagat Singh has quoted a speech of Noor Mohammad, a legislature in the then Bombay council, which also finds a place in ‘Mother India’. Not only this Bhagat Singh also quotes Mayo: ‘Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow’. Thus three major events of 1927 viz. Mahad Satyagrah, burning of Manusmriti and publication of ‘Mother India’ had brought the social question onto the surface of the national movement with a vengeance.
In a speech in Bombay council in 1926 Noor Mohammad had demolished the Congress demand for political rights from the British government. He famously spoke, “If the Hindu society refuses to allow other human beings, fellow creatures so that to attend public schools and if...the president of local boards representing so many lakhs of people in this house refuses to allow his fellows and brothers the elementary human rights of having water to drink, what right have they to ask for more rights from the bureaucracy? Before we accuse people coming from other lands, we should see how we ourselves behave towards our own people.....How can we ask for greater political rights when we ourselves deny elementary rights of human beings.” Bhagat Singh quotes Noor Mohammad in original English and then translates it in vernacular. He is not content with just quoting Noor Mohammad. He whole heartedly supports the stand of Noor Mohammad, “What he says is fully justified, but as he is a Muslim, he will be accused of pitching for conversion of untouchable Hindus in Islam.” He then supports religious conversion, “If you treat him worse than animals, they will convert to other religions, where they will get more human rights and will be treated like human beings. Then your lament that the Muslim and the Christian are harming Hindu fold will be futile.” In all these quotes Bhagat Singh’s thoughts are strikingly similar to those of Dr Ambedkar. Yet one thing is remarkable that by 1928 when Bhagat Singh penned this article Dr Ambedkar had not yet declared his intention to leave Hindu fold and to embrace other religion. The thoughts of Bhagat Singh on religious conversions have become even more relevant particularly in the backdrop of the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s advocacy of national debate on religious conversion after gruesome killings of Graham Staines and his two children. Till now they have been challenged by Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts. Bhagat Singh’s thoughts too are confronting them.
Bhagat Singh recognised that the caste system basically promotes contemptuous feelings for labour and, therefore, has blocked India’s rise. He writes in most simple words, “.....Disrespect for even urgent types of work grew among the people. We scorn the Julahas. Even weavers are treated as untouchables. This has retarded our development.” Obviously Bhagat Singh links development to the social justice unlike the today’s model of development where economic development has been completely delinked from social justice.
Bhagat Singh supported the untouchables’ (‘dalits’ in today’s parlance) demands for separate electorate system. On this point also he is standing in league with Dr Ambedkar. On March 23, 1931 Bhagat Singh was hanged along with his two comrades. Had he been alive he would have supported Dr Ambedkar in his battle with Mahatma Gandhi over separate electorate system in 1932. He is unmistakable on this count, “We do understand that their organising themselves separately and, being equivalent to the Muslim in population, demanding equivalent rights, are welcome indications. Either do away with caste based discriminations or bestow separate rights to them. Councils and assemblies must strive to give them equal rights to avail facilities of schools and colleges, wells and roads. It should not be lip service but they themselves should lead them to public facilities. They should ensure admission of their children in schools. But the moot question is, in an assembly where in the name of religion people raise hue and cry over a legislative bill to curb child marriage, how can they dare to embrace the untouchables. It is, therefore, necessary that they should have their own representatives so that they are able to secure more rights for themselves.” It is noteworthy that Dr Amedkar had crystallised the demand for separate electorate for dalits only by first round table conference in 1930. But other dalit protagonists had been demanding separate electorate for themselves. By supporting separate electorate for dalits Bhagat Singh stands in opposition to the social imperialists and wins everlasting love, respect and confidence of the dalits. Gandhiji too opposed practices of untouchability prevalent in the society but he was dead against bestowing rights of separate electorate system to the dalits. By supporting dalits’ demand for rights of separate electorate system he proved that he was their true friend. As Kanshiram has contended in his famous polemic ‘The Age of Stooges’, the Poona Pact that denied rights of separate electorate system to the dalits became the chief tool to prevent the emergence of independent leadership from among the dalits. To repeal Poona Pact and win right of separate electorate system for themselves is still occupying a place of prominence in the Dalit agenda and therefore Bhagat Singh is still relevant for Dalit politics.
The militant Bhagat Singh suddenly turns bitter in his article and says, “Laton Ke Bhoot Baton Se Nahi Bhagte” i.e. “Those fit to be thrashed cannot be dismissed by words.” He goes on,” Unite, be self dependent and then challenge the whole of society. Then you will see no one will dare to deny you your rights. Don’t allow others to deceive you. Don’t expect anything from others.” But before this he arouses pride in dalits , “ The so called untouchables, the true servicemen and brothers of the people, rise. Know your history. None but you were the muscle of the army of Guru Govind Singh. It was on your strength that Shivaji could do what he did and for which Shivaji is still alive in history. Your sacrifices have been inscribed in golden letters.” Then he quotes Mayo, “Those who would be free must themselves strike the blow.”
In this article Bhagat Singh puts forward an important formulation which still holds great importance for dalit politics. He warns dalits against bureaucracy, “Don’t get trapped by bureaucracy. They are not willing to reach you help. Rather they are in look out how to make you pawns of their designs. This capitalistic bureaucracy is the real cause of your poverty and slavery. Never make an alliance with it. Beware of their machinations. Then everything will be set aright..” This is very important as Bhagat Singh does not blame directly the British regime for their miseries. Instead he takes an indirect route to blame capitalistic bureaucracy. He does not even name it “British bureaucracy.” So far as Bhagat Singh desists from directly blaming the British regime he is in conformity with Dr Ambedkar who too did not blame the Britishers directly for the ills of the dalit. However if we watch the scenario of dalit politics today the words of Bhagat Singh appear prophetic. The biggest faultline of dalit politics today is that it is heavily dependent on bureaucracy in two ways. First, it takes guidance from dalit bureaucracy so far as fixing the agenda of dalit politics is concerned. Second, dalit politics when it comes in power like Mayawati has done in UP again depends entirely on bureaucracy for preparation as well as for implementation of government welfare measures. All talks are centred on how to increase dalit participation in state apparatuses. Dalit as well as other political parties professing their agenda of social justice are in the habit of talking about that when they come in power they are helpless in reaching government welfare measures to the targeted population because of low representation of SC/ST/OBC in bureaucracy. They are unable to understand that so far as Brahminic system continues there will perhaps not come the day when bureaucracy will have sufficient SC/ST/OBC representation. It is the bureaucracy that supports Brahminism and SC/ST/OBC bureaucrats are compelled to make compromises in order to survive in the Brahminic bureaucracy. No system has ever been changed by people who became part and parcel of that system. Despite sixty years of SC/ST and fifteen years of OBC reservation in central services their percentage has remained abysmally low in elite services of IAS, IPS, IRS etc. The Hindustan Times, dated December 21, 2009 carries a news item based on figures provided by Minister of State for Personnel that states that of 88 Secretary level officers in Government of India there is no dalit, of 66 Additional Secretaries only one is dalit, of 249 Joint Secretaries only 13 are dalits and of 471 directors only 31 are dalits. So it is essential that besides doing everything to widen the scope of reservation so as to increase SC/ST/OBC representation in bureaucracy our attention should also move towards how to restructure the administrative system so as to decentralise and democratise it. Though SC/ST/OBC participation in bureaucracy has not reached to the desired level, we have seen substantial increase in dalit bahujan legislators and people’s representatives in parliament, state assemblies and local government bodies. In a true and effective democratic set up, elected representatives are everywhere entrusted and delegated the powers of executives to oversee and supervise the implementation of governmental projects as well as maintenance of law and order. In our country in order to vest power in the Brahminic bureaucracy the MLAs and MPs have been reduced to mere ceremonial figures having no authority in his or her constituency. An MLA or MP is a helpless onlooker of excesses of a police and administrative officer in his or her constituency. All powers are concentrated in DMs, SPs and then in the Chief Minister of the province. It is not without reason that it is commonly commented that the administrative system of the country is run by DM (District Magistrate), CM (Chief Minister) and PM (Prime Minister). Such centralised administrative system can never provide relief, welfare and succour to the poor and hapless citizens of the country of whom the overwhelming majority are dalit bahujans. So the best course of action for the sake of democracy and dalit bahujan empowerment at grass root level will be to take away to the maximum possible extent the administrative powers from bureaucracy and devolve them to the elected people’s representatives. In such a backdrop the observation and warning of Bhagat Singh to the dalits to beware of capitalistic bureaucracy assumes significance. Unfortunately, the dalit discourse spends all its energy in targeting Hindu religion to such an extent that other pressing issues remain neglected. Capitalistic bureaucracy is one such issue that has seldom been taken up by dalit intellectuals in their discourse. State question has an important place in strategy and tactics of any democratic movement.
By the end of the article Bhagat Singh provides another important formulation. He writes, “You are the real proletariat...get organised.” This is a great lesson to the Indian left who has never taken into account the social question in determining the class who would provide vanguard sections of revolution. The dalits are economically and socially the most oppressed sections of Indian society. Hence Bhagat Singh takes the position that they are the real proletariats.
In Indian society the location of a person in the caste system determines his consciousness. Capitalism in India is not more than one hundred fifty or two hundreds old but caste system dates back to ancient times. So the social-political consciousness arising out of hundreds of years old caste system is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Improvement in economic conditions of life may dampen revolutionary fervour of an upper caste proletariat but may fuel social consciousness of a dalit proletariat. Improved economic conditions of life may provide him the leisure in life giving him the opportunity and occasion to study the history of oppression, subjugation and discrimination faced by his ancestors. So the economic criteria alone cannot help a theorist of social revolution to determine which class is the real proletariat in the concrete social conditions of Indian society. By taking into account the social as well as economic conditions of life Bhagat Singh reaches at the conclusion that the dalits are the real proletariat of this land.
Bhagat Singh concludes the article, “Bring revolution through social movements and then be prepared for political and economic revolutions.” This is yet another important formulation of Bhagat Singh. Right from Jotiba Phule to Dr Ambedkar all have stressed upon the importance of social revolution in bringing about the final revolutions in political and economic sectors. Bhagat Singh who otherwise devoted major part of his short life for socialism and national liberation did not digress much from India’s great social revolutionaries in prescribing the trajectory of revolution. Bhagat Singh had started off his revolutionary life by making national liberation from subjugation of British rule the sole preoccupation. In a very short span of time he had realised that the ground for political-economic revolution in India cannot be prepared unless social revolution is effected. This was a great and stirring journey of Bhagat Singh in the realm of philosophy.
(Note: All the quotations of Bhagat Singh from the article have been translated in English by this writer from the Hindi version. The article in question has been taken from Bhagat Singh’s collected works published by Rajkamal Prakashan)
Thursday, 24 December 2009
By Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
In 1935 at Nasik district, Maharashtra , Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar had declared his firm resolve to change his religion. He had declared that he was born as a Hindu but will not die as Hindu. About a year later, a massive Mahar conference was held on May 30 and 31, 1936, in Mumbai, to access the impact of that declaration on Mahar masses. In his address to the conference, Dr.Ambedkar expressed his views on conversion in an elaborate, well- prepared and written speech in Marathi. Here is an English translation of that speech by Mr.Vasant Moon, OSD to the committee of Govt. of Maharashtra for publication of Writings & speeches of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar
There are two aspects of conversion; social as well as religious; material as well as spiritual. Whatever may be the aspect, or line of thinking, it is necessary to understand the beginning, the nature of Untouchability and how it is practiced. Without this understanding, you will not be able to realize the real meaning underlying my declaration of conversion. In order to have a clear understanding of untouchability and its practice in real life, I want you to recall the stories of the atrocities perpetrated against you. But very few of you might have realized as to why all this happens! What is at the root cause of their tyranny? To me it is very necessary, that we understand it.
This is not a feud between rival men. The problem of untouchability is a matter of class struggle. It is the struggle between caste Hindus and the Untouchables. That is not a matter of doing injustice against one man. This is a matter of injustice being done by one class against another. This "class struggle" has a relation with the social status. This struggle indicates, how one class should keep its relation with another class. This struggle starts as soon as you start claiming equal treatment with others...
Conversion not for slaves
The reason for their anger is very simple. Your behaving on par with them insults them. The untouchability is not a short or temporary feature; it is a permanent one .To put it straight, it can be said that the struggle between the Hindus and the Untouchables is a permanent phenomena. It is eternal, because the religion which has placed you at the lowest level of the society is itself eternal, according to the belief of the Hindu caste people. No change, according to time and circumstances is possible. You are at the lowest rung of the ladder today. You shall remain lowest forever. This means the struggle between Hindus and Untouchables shall continue forever. How will you survive through this struggle is the main question. And unless you think over it, there is no way out. Those who desire to live in obedience to the dictates of the Hindus, those who wish to remain their slaves, they do not need to think over this problem. But those who wish to live a life of self-respect, and equality, will have to think over this. How should we survive through this struggle? For me, it is not difficult to answer this question. Those who have assembled here will have to agree that in any struggle one who holds strength becomes the victor. One, who has no strength, need not expect success. This has been proved by experience, and I do not need to cite illustration to prove it.
Three types of Strength
The question that follows, which you must now consider, is whether you have enough strength to survive through this struggle? Three types of strength are known to man: (i) Manpower, (ii) Finance and (iii) Mental Strength. Which of these, you think that you possess? So far as manpower is concerned, it is clear, that you are in a minority. In Mumbai Presidency, the untouchables are only one-eighth of the total population. That too unorganized. The castes within themselves do not allow them to organize. They are not even compact. They are scattered through the villages. Under these circumstances, this small population is of no use as a fighting force to the untouchables at their critical moments. Financial strength is also just the same. It is an undisputed fact that you at least have a little bit of manpower, but finances you have none. You have no trade, no business, no service, no land. The piece of bread thrown out by the higher castes, are your means of livelihood. You have no food, no clothes. What financial strength can you have? You have no capacity to get redress from the law courts. Thousands of untouchables tolerate insult, tyranny and oppression at the hands of Hindus without a sigh of complaint, because they have no capacity to bear the expenses of the courts. As regards mental strength, the condition is still worst. The tolerance of insults and tyranny without grudge and complaint has killed the sense of retort and revolt. Confidence, vigour and ambition have been completely vanished from you. All of you have been become helpless, unenergetic and pale. Everywhere, there is an atmosphere of defeatism and pessimism. Even the slight idea, that you can do something does not enter your mind.
If, whatever I have described above is correct then you will have to agree with the conclusion that follows. The conclusion is, if you depend only upon your own strength, you will never be able to face the tyranny of the Hindus. I have no doubt that you are oppressed because you have no strength. It is not that you alone are in minority. The Muslims are equally small in number. Like Mahar- Mangs, they too have few houses in the village. But no one dares to trouble the Muslims while you are always a victim of tyranny. Why is this so? Though there may be two houses of Muslims in the village, nobody dares to harm them, while the whole village practices tyranny against you though you have ten houses. Why does this happen? This is a very pertinent question and you will have to find out a suitable answer to this. In my opinion, there is only one answer to this question. The Hindus realize that the strength of the whole of the Muslim population in India stands behind those two houses of Muslims living in a village and, therefore, they do not dare to touch them. Those two houses also enjoy free and fearless life because they are aware that if any Hindu commits aggression against them, the whole Muslim community from Punjab to Madras will rush to their protection at any cost. On the other hand, the Hindus are sure that none will come to your rescue, nobody will help you, no financial help will reach you. Tahsildar and police belong to caste Hindus and in case of disputes between Hindus and Untouchables, they are more faithful to their caste than to their duty. The Hindus practice injustice and tyranny against you only because you are helpless.
From the above discussion, two facts are very clear. Firstly, you can not face tyranny without strength. And secondly, you do not possess enough strength to face the tyranny. With these two conclusions, a third one automatically follows. That is, the strength required to face this tyranny needs to be secured from outside. How are you to gain this strength is really an important question? And you will have to think over this with an unbiased mind.
From this, you will realize one thing, that unless you establish close relations with some other society, unless you join some other religion, you cannot get the strength from outside. It clearly means, you must leave your present religion and assimilate yourselves with some other society. Without that, you cannot gain the strength of that society. So long as you do not have strength, you and your future generations will have to lead your lives in the same pitiable condition.
Spiritual Aspect of Conversion
Uptil now, we have discussed why conversion is necessary for material gains. Now, I propose to put forth my thoughts as to why conversion is as much necessary for spiritual wellbeing. What is Religion? Why is it necessary? ... 'That which govern people is religion'. That is the true definition of Religion. There is no place for an individual in Hindu society. The Hindu religion is constituted on a class-concept. Hindu religion does not teach how an individual should behave with another individual. A religion, which does not recognize the individual, is not personally acceptable to me.
Three factors are required for the uplift of an individual. They are: Sympathy, Equality and Liberty . Can you say by experience that any of these factors exist for you in Hinduism?
No Equality in Hinduism
Such a living example of inequality is not to be found anywhere in the world. Not at anytime in the history of mankind can we find such inequality, which is more intense than untouchability. .. I think, you have been thrust into this condition because you have continued to be Hindus. Those of you who have become Muslims, are treated by the Hindus neither as Untouchables nor as unequals. The same can be said of those who have become Christians.. .
That God is all pervading is a principle of science and not of religion, because religion has a direct relation with the behaviour of man. Hindus can be ranked among those cruel people whose utterances and acts are two poles apart. They have this Ram on their tongues and a knife under their armpits. They speak like saints but act like butchers...
Thus we are not low in the eyes of the Hindus alone, but we are the lowest in the whole of India , because of the treatment given to us by the Hindus.
If you have to get rid of this same shameful condition, if you have to cleanse this filth and make use of this precious life; there is only one way and that is to throw off the shackles of Hindu religion and the Hindu society in which you are bound.
The taste of a thing can be changed. But the poison cannot be made amrit. To talk of annihilating castes is like talking of changing the poison into amrit. In short, so long as we remain in a religion, which teaches a man to treat another man like a leper, the sense of discrimination on account of caste, which is deeply rooted in our minds, can not go. For annihilating caste and untouchables, change of religion is the only antidote.
Untouchables are not Hindus
What is there in conversion, which can be called novel? Really speaking what sort of social relations have you with the caste Hindus at present? You are as separate from the Hindus as Muslims and Christians are. So is their relation with you. Your society and that of the Hindus are two distinct groups. By conversion, nobody can say or feel that one society has been split up. You will remain as separate from the Hindus as you are today. Nothing new will happen on account of this conversion. If this is true, then why should people be afraid of conversion? At least, I do not find any reason for such a fear...
Revolution - Not Reform
Changing a religion is like changing a name. Change of religion followed by the change of name will be more beneficial to you. To call oneself a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist or a Sikh is not merely a change of religion but also a change of name.. Since the beginning of this movement of conversion, various people have raised various objections to it. Let us now examine the truth, if any, in such objections.. .
A congenital idiot alone will say that one has to adhere to one's religion because it is that of our ancestors. No sane man will accept such a proposition. Those who advocate such an argument, seem not to have read the history at all. The ancient Aryan religion was called Vedic religion. It has three distinct characteristic (features). Beef-eating, drinking and merry-making was part of the religion of the day. Thousands of people followed it in India and even now some people dream of going back to it. If the ancient religion alone is to be adhered to why did the people of India leave Hinduism and accept Buddhism? Why did they divorce themselves from the Vedic religion?... Thus this Hindu religion is not the religion of our ancestors, but it was a slavery forced upon them...
To reform the Hindu society is neither our aim nor our field of action. Our aim is to gain freedom. We have nothing to do with anything else.
If we can gain freedom by conversion, why should we shoulder the responsibility of reforming the Hindu religion? And why should we sacrifice our strength and property for that? None should misunderstand the object of our movement as being Hindu social reform. The object of our movement is to achieve social freedom for the untouchables. It is equally true that this freedom cannot be secured without conversion.
Caste can't be destroyed
I do accept that the untouchables need equality as well. And to secure equality is also one of our objectives. But nobody can say that this equality can be achieved only by remaining as Hindu and not otherwise. There are two ways of achieving equality. One, by remaining in the Hindu fold and another by leaving it by conversion. If equality is to be achieved by remaining in the Hindu fold, mere removal of the sense of being a touchable or an untouchable will not serve the purpose. Equality can be achieved only when inter-caste dinners and marriages take place. This means that the Chaturvarnya must be abolished and the Brahminic religion must be uprooted. Is it possible? And if not, will it be wise to expect equality of treatment by remaining in the Hindu religion? And can you be successful in your efforts to bring equality? Of course not. The path of conversion is far simpler than this. The Hindu society does not give equality of treatment, but the same is easily achieved by conversion. If this is true, then why should you not adopt this simple path of conversion?
Conversion is a simplest path
According to me, this conversion of religion will bring happiness to both the Untouchables as well as the Hindus. So long as you remain Hindus, you will have to struggle for social intercourse, for food and water, and for inter-caste marriages. And so long as this quarrel continues, relations between you and the Hindus will be of perpetual enemies. By conversion, the roots of all the quarrels will vanish... thus by conversion, if equality of treatment can be achieved and the affinity between the Hindus and the Untouchables can be brought about then why should the Untouchables not adopt the simple and happy path of securing equality? Looking at this problem through this angle, it will be seen that this path of conversion is the only right path of freedom, which ultimately leads to equality. It is neither cowardice nor escapism.
Although the castes exist in Muslims and the Christians alike, it will be meanness to liken it to that of the Hindus. There is a great distinction between the caste-system of the Hindus and that of the Muslims and Christians. Firstly, it must be noted that though the castes exist amongst the Christians and the Muslims, it is not the chief characteristic of their body social.
There is one more difference between the caste system of the Hindus and that of the Muslims and Christians. The caste system in the Hindus has the foundation of religion. The castes in other religions have no sanction in their religion ...Hindus cannot destroy their castes without destroying their religion. Muslims and Christians need not destroy their religions for eradication of their castes. Rather their religion will support such movements to a great extent.
Conversion alone liberates us
I am simply surprised by the question, which some Hindus ask us as to what can be achieved by conversion alone? Most of the present day Sikhs, Muslims and Christians were formerly Hindus, majority of them being from the Shudras and Untouchables. Do these critics mean to say that those, who left the Hindu fold and embraced Sikhism or Christianity, have made no progress at all? And if this is not true, and if it is admitted that the conversion has brought a distinct improvement in their condition, then to say that the untouchables will not be benefited by conversion, carries no meaning...
After giving deep thought to the problem, everybody will have to admit that conversion is necessary to the Untouchables as self-government is to India . The ultimate object of both is the same. There is not the slightest difference in their ultimate goal. This ultimate aim is to attain freedom. And if the freedom is necessary for the life of mankind, conversion of Untouchables which brings them complete freedom cannot be called worthless by any stretch of imagination. ..
Economic Progress or Social Changes?
I think it necessary here to discuss the question as to what should be initiated first, whether economic progress or conversion? I do not agree with the view that economic progress should precede...
Untouchability is a permanent handicap on your path of progress. And unless you remove it, your path cannot be safe. Without conversion, this hurdle cannot be removed...
So, if you sincerely desire that your qualifications should be valued, your education should be of some use to you, you must throw away the shackles of untouchability, which means that you must change your religion...
However, for those who need this Mahar Watan, I can assure them that their Mahar Watan will not be jeopardized by their conversion. In this regard, the Act of 1850 can be referred. Under the provisions of this Act, no rights of person or his successors with respect to his property are affected by virtue of his conversion.. .
A second doubt is about political rights. Some people express fear as to what will happen to our political safeguards if we convert...
But I feel, it is not proper to depend solely on political rights. These political safeguards are not granted on the condition that they shall be ever lasting. They are bound to cease sometime. According to the communal Award of the British Government, our political safeguards were limited for 20 years. Although no such limitation has been fixed by the Poona Pact, nobody can say that they are everlasting. Those, who depend upon the political safeguards, must think as to what will happen after these safeguards are withdrawn on the day on which our rights cease to exist. We will have to depend on our social strength. I have already told you that this social strength is wanting in us. So also I have proved in the beginning that this strength cannot be achieved without conversion.. .
Under these circumstances, one must think of what is permanently beneficial.
In my opinion, conversion is the only way to eternal bliss. Nobody should hesitate even if the political rights are required to be sacrificed for this purpose. Conversion brings no harm to the political safeguards. I do not understand why the political safeguards should at all be jeopardized by conversion. Wherever you may go, your political rights and safeguards will accompany you. I have no doubt about it.
If you become Muslims, you will get the political rights as Muslims. If you become Christians, you will get the political rights as Christians, if you become Sikhs, you will have your political rights as Sikhs. In short, our political rights will accompany us.
So nobody should be afraid of it. On the other hand, if we remain Hindus and do not convert, will our rights be safe? You must think carefully on this. Suppose the Hindus pass a law whereby the untouchability is prohibited and its practice is made punishable, then they may ask you, 'We have abolished untouchability by law and you are no longer untouchables. ..
Looking through this perspective, conversion becomes a path for strengthening the political safeguards rather than becoming a hindrance. If you remain Hindus, you are sure to lose your political safeguards. If you want to save them, leave this religion. The political safeguards will be permanent only by conversion.
The Hindu religion does not appeal to my conscience. It does not appeal to my self-respect. However, your conversion will be for material as well as for spiritual gains. Some persons mock and laugh at the idea of conversion for material gains. I do not feel hesitant in calling such persons as stupid.
Conversion brings Happiness
I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion. To get human treatment, convert yourselves.
CONVERT -For getting organized.
CONVERT -For becoming strong.
CONVERT -For securing equality.
CONVERT -For getting liberty.
CONVERT -For that your domestic life may be happy.
I consider him as leader who without fear or favour tells the people what is good and what is bad for them. It is my duty to tell you, what is good for you, even if you don't like it, I must do my duty. And now I have done it.
It is now for you to decide and discharge your responsibility.
Courtesy: Countercurrents. org
Saturday, 7 November 2009
This long, informative and well-researched article analyzes the caste structure among Sikhs in Punjab and attempts by the Sikh Dalits to address caste oppression.
The Dera Sachkhand Ballan is one of the most important Guru Ravi Das Deras in Punjab today. Ravi Das was a 15th century saint of the Chamar caste whose message is constructed by his contemporary followers in a modern language that foregrounds questions of caste oppression and the fight against the prevailing structures of authority and the Brahmanical moral order. In his piece here, Surinder gives us a historical background to the emergence of this movement, and brings us to the point of the 1990s, when the “diasporic energy” of Ravi Dasis who had emigrated to the UK and Europe, gave a boost to the movement both at home as well as in the diaspora, where Ravi Dasis had found things to be no different. In the alien context, with no systemic justification for caste ideology, the Punjabi Dalits did not expect to be reminded of their “low” status in the caste hierarchy, says Surinder, but facing systematic discrimination from wealthy Jat Sikhs, were forced to set up their own autonomous organizations and their own gurudwaras.
The anger we see on the streets of Punjab today is no irrational madness. It is very much a modern political intervention against systematic discrimination.
Caste has often been viewed as a pan-Indian reality with a common hierarchical ordering structured around the idea of varna system. While this, to some extent, is true it tends to over-simplify things. The concrete empirical realities of caste vary significantly across regions, shaped by the local historical specificities and material conditions.
Of all the states of the Indian union, Punjab has the highest proportion of Scheduled Castes (SC) population. Against the national average of around 16 percent, Punjab, according to the 2001 Census, had nearly 29 percent of its population listed as SC. The SC population in Punjab has also been growing at a rate much higher than rest of the state population. In 1971 the proportion of SC population in the state was 24.7 percent. It went up to 26.9 percent in 1981 and further to 28.3 percent in 1991. However, in the following decade it grew at slower rate, adding only around 0.6 decimal points to the proportion of SC population of the state. Another interesting feature of the SC population of the state is that its concentration is much higher in some pockets/ districts of the state. In the prosperous Doaba sub-region, for example, their population is over 35 percent, much larger than the state average. In the district of Nawanshahr in Doaba region, the SC population during 2001 Census was 40.46 percent.
The religious demography of Punjab has always been very different from the country as a whole. Majority of its population (nearly 60 percent) identifies with Sikhism, a religion that theologically decries caste. Prior to the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947, more than half of the Punjab identifies with Islam, which similarly decries caste. However, caste based divisions and differences have been quite prominent in the region. Nearly one-fourth of its population has been treated as “out-caste” by the historically dominant sections of the Punjabi society. Caste was not simply an ideological reality. It also shaped land relations and conditioned entitlements and rights of communities. Dalits were invariably among the most deprived, materially, and excluded, socially and culturally.
Beginning with early twentieth century, the Punjab, particularly the eastern, or the Indian Punjab, has also been a witness to active Dalit politics. The trajectory of Dalit politics in Punjab can be located in the changing socio-economic and political scenario of the region after the establishment of colonial rule at the middle of nineteenth century. Though the British colonial rule came to Punjab late, its influence on the ground grew quite rapidly. They developed canal colonies which helped in growth of agriculture in the region. The British rule also led to the development of urban centres. Jallandhar was one such town which experienced significant growth during the period after it was chosen for setting-up of a military cantonment for recruiting soldiers from the region. Colonial army provided new opportunities of employment to the children of Punjabi peasants and also opened-up avenues for social mobility for a section of local Dalits, particularly the Chamars who worked with leather.
The cantonment raised demand for leather goods, particularly the boots and shoes for the British army. As elsewhere in the subcontinent, much of the leather trade in the region was controlled by Muslim traders. However, at the local or village level, it was the “untouchable” Chamars who supplied the raw animal skin. Some enterprising members of the caste also tried to move to the towns. Some of them were quick to exploit the new opportunities being offered to them by the changing world. Not only did they move out of the village but also ventured long distance travel to other parts of the subcontinent and abroad, to the United States, Canada and England. The social and economic mobility that some individual untouchables experienced during this period prepared grounds for political mobilizations of Dalits in the region.
The introduction of representational politics by the colonial rulers also produced a new grammar of communities in India. The colonial administrative structure deployed new categories of social aggregation and classification. The British thought of their populace in terms of religious communities and looked at them accordingly in the process of governance. They ‘encouraged the members of each community to present their case in communitarian terms’ (Grewal 1989). As is well known to the students of Indian history, the colonial Census and classifications of population into categories that made sense to the alien rulers played a critical role in converting the fuzzy boundaries of difference into well-defined communities (Cohn 1996; Dirks 2001; Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993). Though the British came to Punjab only around the middle of 19th century, this process of new identity formations and restructuring of communities became pronounced in the region fairly early through social reform movements among the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims (Fox 1985; Oberoi 1994).
The anxiety about numbers among the neo-religious elite of the Hindus and Sikhs also had important implications for the Punjabi Dalits. Through the newly launched social reform movements, the Hindu and Sikh leaders began to work with Dalits. The Arya Samaj in Punjab started shudhi movement wherein they encouraged the “untouchables” to “purify” themselves and become part of the mainstream Hinduism. They also encouraged them to send their children to schools being run by the Samaj. Similarly, the Sikh reformers began to decry caste publicly and it was mainly through a claim to castelessness that they argued for distinctiveness of Sikhs from the Hindus (see Jodhka 2000).
It was in this context that the Ad Dharm movement emerged in Punjab. Though the idea had already begun to take shape during the early 1920s, it took off only with the arrival of Mangoo Ram on the scene. Mangoo Ram was the son of an enterprising Chamar of village Muggowal of the Hoshiarpur district of Doaba sub-region of Punjab. As was the case with Dalits in rural Punjab during the early 19th century his family had to bear the stigma of untouchability and social exclusion. However, his father was an enterprising person and had been able to make some money through leather trade.
Like some others of his caste community, Mangoo Ram acquired secular education in a school being run by the Arya Samaj. Migration to the West had already begun to be seen in the Doaba sub-region of Punjab as a desirable source of social and cultural mobility. His father mobilized some money and sent him to the United States for better paying work. While in California, he was influenced by left-wing ideas of his contemporaries from Punjab and got involved with the Gadar movement. However, he came back to Punjab in 1925 with the motivation of working with his own people. On returning home, he set up a school for lower-caste children with the help of the Arya Samaj, but very soon he distanced himself from the Samaj and joined hands with some other members of his community who were trying to initiate an autonomous identity movement among the local Dalits (for details see Juergensmeyer 1988).
The Ad Dharm movement saw itself as a religious movement. Its proponents advocated that the ‘untouchables’ were a separate qaum, a distinct religious community similar to the Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, and should be treated as such by the rulers. Invoking the then popular ‘racial-origin’ theories of caste, they argued that Ad Dharam has always been the religion of the Dalits and that the qaum had existed from time immemorial (ibid: 45). Despite stiff opposition from the local Hindu leadership, the colonial Census of 1931 listed the Ad Dharmis as a separate religious community. In the very first conference of the organization, they declared:
“We are not Hindus. We strongly request the government not to list us as such in the census. Our faith is not Hindu but Ad Dharm. We are not a part of Hinduism, and Hindus are not a part of us.” (cited in ibid: 74).
The emphasis on Ad Dharam being a separate region, a qaum, was to undermine the identity of caste. As a separate qaum, Ad Dharmis were equal to other qaums recognized by the colonial state, the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Mangoo Ram also expected to bring other “untouchable” communities into the fold of Ad Dharm and emerge as a viable community at the regional level.
A total of 418,789 persons reported themselves as Ad Dharmis in the 1931 Punjab census, almost equal to the Christian population of the province. They accounted for about 1.5 per cent of the total population of Punjab and around a tenth of the total low-caste population of the province. Nearly 80 per cent of the low castes of Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur districts reported themselves as Ad Dharmis (ibid: 77).
The Ad Dharam movement succeeded in mobilizing the Chamars of Doaba region and in instilling a new sense of confidence in them. The Ad Dharmis are today among the most prosperous and educated of the Dalit communities of the country.
However, despite its success, the movement could not maintain its momentum for very long and began to dissipate soon after its grand success in 1931. According to the popular understanding, the causes of the decline of Ad Dharam movement lay in its success. Its leaders joined mainstream politics. Manoo Ram himself, along with some of his close comrades, became members of the Punjab legislative assembly. The caste issue was gradually taken over by the emerging pan-Indian movement of the Dalits and it finally merged with it. The Ad Dharam Mandal began to see itself as a social and religious organization and in 1946 decided to change its name to the Ravi Das Mandal, ‘entrusting the political work to All India Scheduled Castes Federation in conformity with rest of India’ (see Juergensmeyer 1988:153).
From Ad Dharam to Ravi Dasi
A closer understanding of the Ad dharma case would require a critical look at the evolution of Indian state, and the manner in which it dealt with caste and religion. The beginning of decline of Ad Dharam movement can perhaps be located in the famous Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar and the formation of Scheduled List in Government of India Act 1935. The clubbing of Scheduled Castes with the Hindus left no choice for the Ad Dharam Movement in Punjab but to accept the nationalist and official mode of classification. They had to either forgo the benefits of “reservations” or claim a separate religious identity. Given the socio-economic status of the community at that time they chose the former and reconciled to a softer approach to the latter. As a senior Dalit activist explained to us:
Ad Dharam lost its meaning after we got eight seats reserved for us when the elections were first held in the province. Our candidates won from seven of the eight seats. Mangoo Ram too was elected to the Assembly during the next election in the year 1945-46.
Another activist put it more emphatically
“In 1931 we were recognised a separate religion by the colonial Census but Act of 1935 we became one of the Scheduled Castes, among others in the same category. Communal Award had recognized our autonomy, which had to be surrendered by B.R. Ambedkar under the Poona Pact. Under the Poona Pact we were given reservations but only if accepted to be part of the Hindu religion. …..However, even though we legally became a part of Hinduism, it did not stop discrimination against us. Even now it continues though it is less pronounced and more subtle… ” (R.L Jassi).
Though most of our Dalit respondents remembered Ad Dharam movement with a sense of pride and some of them also felt bad about its decline, we did not observe any kind of strong feeling for the movement or resentment among the Ad Dharamis at being clubbed with the Hindu religion. Neither could we locate any writings by its erstwhile leaders expressing distress/ anger at its decline or attributing it to conspiracies. The Ad Dharam movement and its leaders were perhaps also swayed by the mainstream or dominant politics of time, i.e. freedom movement its hegemonic influence. As one of our respondent, who us currently president of the Ravi Das Trust, said to us:
“…at one time Ad Dharam movement was very popular in Punjab. However, slowly, with growing influence of Congress politics, its leaders started leaving. Master Balwanta Sing was the first to leave Ad Dharam Mandal. He joined the Congress Party. Similarly some other leaders also left the movement to become part of the mainstream national politics. Eventually even Mangoo Ram joined the Congress Party. The movement was over”. (Heer)
Those with more radical views on the Dalit question were swayed by B.R. Ambedkar and joined the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Schedule Caste Federation, both setup by B.R. Ambedkar. Some of them eventually turned to Buddhism for spiritual autonomy and religious identity. Equally important is perhaps the fact that though Ad Dharam articulated itself as a religious identity and demanded official recognition as a religious movement, it was essentially a political movement. As a prominent member of the community told us during an interview: “It had no holy book or scripture of its own, it had no rituals of its own, it had no places pilgrimage, in sacred symbols…. How could it have survived as a religion?” (L.R. Bali).
While the identity of Ad Dharmi simply became a designation of a Hindu caste group for official classification, the Chamars of Doaba did not really go back to Hinduism. They began to develop their autonomous religious resources under the identity Ravi Dasis.
As mentioned it was, in fact, during the Ad Dharam movement that identity the Ravi Dasi identity had begun to take shape. Leaders of the movement also saw Ravi Dassi identity as their own resource. Long after dissolving the Ad Dharam Mandal and having been in retirement for many years, Mangoo Ram summed-up the achievement of Ad Dharam Movement in an interview with Mark Juergensmeyer in 1971 where his focus is more on having given the local Dalits a new community and religious identity than their political empowerment: We helped give them a better life and made them into a qaum. We gave them gurus to believe in and something to hope for (as in Juergensmeyer 1988:155 emphasis added).
After having changed its name to Ravi Das Mandal in 1946, the movement activists shifted their focus to social and religious matters. They had realized long ago that in order to consolidate themselves as a separate qaum, they needed a religious system of their own, which was different from the Hindus and Sikhs. However, in order to do that they chose a caste-based religious identity:
Chamar = Ad Dharmi = Ravi Dasi.
Even though during its early days the Ad Dharam movement had aspired to bring all the “ex-untouchable” communities together into the new faith, their appeal had remained confined mostly to the Chamars of Doaba. After its listing as one of the Scheduled Castes in the Scheduled List, it became obvious and official that Ad Dharmis were a section of the Chamars. Guru Ravi Das appeared to be an obvious choice for the Ad Dharmis as a religious symbol for the community. Though he was born in Uttar Pradesh, he belonged to the Chamar caste. The fact that his writings were included in the Sikh Holy book, Adi Granth, which had been compiled in Punjab and was written in the local language, made Ravi Das even more effective and acceptable4.
While it is true that the Ad Dharam movement played a very important role in developing an autonomous political identity and consciousness among the Chamar Dalits of Punjab and its renaming itself as a religious body, Ravi Das Mandal in 1946, was an important turning point in the history of Dalit movements of Punjab, the Ravi Dasi religious had already begun to take shape, independently of the Ad Dharam movement in the region. In fact, some of the Ravi Dasi deras had, in fact, played an active role in the late 1920 when Mangoo Ram was campaigning for separate religious status for Ad Dharamis. Mangoo Ram often visited the Ravi Dasi Deras during his campaign. It was a leader of a Ravi Dasi Dera who offered him a glass of fruit juice when he broke his fast unto death kept in support of B.R. Ambedkar’s struggle against Gandhi on the question of the so-called Communal Award in 1932 (Juergensmeyer 1988:85).
Interestingly, even when the community reconciled itself to the idea of being clubbed with Hindu Scheduled Castes for census enumerations, the identity of being Ad Dharmis continued to be important with them. As many as 14.9 percent (532129) of the 70,28,723 Scheduled Castes of Punjab were listed as Ad Dharmis in the 2001 Census, substantially more than those registered themselves as belonging to the Ad Dharmi qaum in 1931. In religious terms, as many as 59.9 percent of the Punjab Scheduled Castes enumerated themselves as Sikhs and 39.6 percent Hindus. The 0.5 percent declared their religion Buddhism.
However, notwithstanding this official classification of all SCs into the mainstream religions of the region, everyday religious life of the Punjab Dalits is marked by enormous diversity and plurality. Apart from the popular syncretic religious traditions that have been in existence for a long time in the region, Dalits of Punjab, and elsewhere in India, have also developed urge for autonomous faith identities, particularly of getting out of Hinduism. They view Hinduism as the source of their humiliating social position in the caste system. This urge became much stronger with the emergence of a nascent educated middle class among them during the later phase of British colonial rule. The Ad Dharam movement of 1920s (discussed above) was a clear example of this.
Historically Dalits have chosen two different paths to this moving away from Hindusim. First of these was conversion to other religions such as Christianity, Islam or Sikhism, which do not support caste based inequalities and divisions. The second path has been to look for indigenous traditions of egalitarian faith traditions that emerged in opposition to the system of caste hierarchy. The two stories of Dalit religious movements, viz. Buddhism and Ravi Dasi movement, subject of this study could be seen as examples of the second path.
Guru Ravi Das: Ravi Das was born sometime in 1450 A.D. in the north Indian town of Banaras in the present day Uttar Pradesh in an “untouchable” caste, the Chamars (traditionally identified with leather work) and died in 1520 (Omvedt 2008:7). Like many of his contemporaries, he travelled extensively and had religious dialogues with saint poets in different parts of the north India, which included Kabir and Nanak. His claims to religious authority were obviously challenged by the local Brahmins but every time they complained against his “sacrilegious behaviour” to the local rulers, Ravi Das was able to convince the political authorities of his genuine “spiritual powers” through various miraculous acts. He is believed to have also visited Punjab region and met with Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, at least thrice. He also gave most of his writings to Guru Nanak, which were eventually included in the Sikh holy book Guru Granth .
Though historians of Indian religion club tend to club Ravi Das with Bhakti movement, a pan Indian devotional cult, his ideas appear to be quite radical. He built his own utopia, a vision of an alternative society, articulated in his hymn “Begumpura”, a city without sorrows, ‘where there will no distress, no tax, no restriction from going and coming, no fear’. It is worth presenting the English translation of the poem:
“The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
They call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, nor own property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror or torture.
Oh my brother, I have come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
where none are third or second- all are one;
Its food and drink are famous, and those who live there
dwell in satisfaction and in wealth.
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled places unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends. ”
(Hawley and Juergensmeyer, 32)
As is evident from the poem he is not simply talking about his love for God and his limitless devotion. His utopia is quite “this worldly”, aspiring for a life without pain and not emphasising on “other worldly” peace of moksha. Equally important is the fact that his message is constructed by his contemporary followers in quite a modernist language where question of caste oppression and his fight against the prevailing structures of authority and Brahmanical moral order is fore-grounded. Writing on the social milieu in which he was born, his biographer Sat Pal Jassi writes:
Since the advent of Vedic Age, caste system and untouchability have been prevalent in India. In passage of time, the socio-religious inhibitions became more strict and cruel. The untouchables were given an ignoble place. They were debarred from acquiring knowledge, own property and worship of God…. These conditions prevailed in India for more than 3000 years (Jassi 2001:24).
It was in this “degenerated environment” that Ravidas was born. What did he preach and propagate? Jassi continues: “He was protagonist of equality, oneness of God, human rights and universal brotherhood….He was a suave socio-religious reformer, a thinker, a theosophist, a humanist, a poet, a traveller, a pacifist and above a towering spiritual figure… He was pioneer of socialistic thought and strengthened noble values” (ibid 25).
Ravi Das’s utopia was also significantly different from some of the later writings on “a desirable India” produced by people like Mahatma Gandhi. As Gail Omvedt rightly comments, Ravi Das: ….was the first to formulate an Indian version of utopia in his song “Begumpura”. Begumpura, the ‘city without sorrow’, is a casteless, classless society; a modern society, one without a mention of temples; an urban society as contrasted with Gandhi’s village utopia of Ram Rajya…. (Omvedt 208:7).
Though born in a Dalit family, Ravi Das indeed became a part of the larger movement of protest against the Brahmanical control over social and religious life of the people and was accepted as a leader across the entire region. His identification with Guru Nanak, who was from an upper caste, clearly proves this point. As mentioned above, Guru Nanak added 40 of his hymns and one couplet into his collection of important writings of the times, which were eventually compiled into Adi Granth by the fifth Sikh Guru. It is perhaps this connection with Guru Nanak and Sikhism that explains the emergence of major centre of Ravi Das in Punjab, and not in Uttar Pradesh, where he was born.
Ravi Dasis Today
Though the message of Ravi Das had been integrated into the Sikh holy book and was routinely read and sung at the Sikh Gurudwaras as part of gurbani (religious singing), it was only in early years of the twentieth century that separate Ravi Dasi Deras began to emerge in Punjab. The reason for this sudden mushrooming of Ravi Dasi Deras can perhaps be found in the growing prosperity of Chamars in the region after the British set-up cantonment in Jallandhar (see above). Reform movements among the major religious communities of the, the Muslims, Hindus and the Sikhs would have also played a role in opening-up of opportunities for secular education among them.
Perhaps the most important of the Guru Ravi Das Deras in Punjab today is the Dera located in village Ballan, around 10 kilometers from the town of Jallandhar. It is locally known as Dera Sach Khand Ballan. Though the Dera was set-up by Sant Pipal Dass sometime during the early twentieth century5, it is identified more with his son, Sant Sarwan Dass. In fact, among its followers, it is also known as Dera Sant Sarwan Dass, As per the popular myth narrated to us by various respondents during the field work, which also found in published leaflets, history of the Dera goes like this:
Sant Sarwan Dass was born in a village called Gill Patti in Bhatinda district of Punjab. He lost his mother when he was five years old. To help his son overcome the loss, his father, Pipal Dass, decided to travel with him. After visiting a few places, they came to village Ballan. Elder brother of Sarwan Das, had earlier lived in the same village. On the outskirts of the village Ballan, they found a Pipal tree that was completely dry and dead. However, when Pipal Dass watered the tree, life returned to it and its leaves turned green. This, for him, was an indication of the place being spiritually blessed. The tree also made the child Sarwan Das happy. The father and son decided to build a hut close to the tree and began to live there. After the death of his father in 1928, Sant Sarwan Dass expanded his activities. He opened a school and started teaching Gurumukhi and the message of Guru Granth to young children. He also persuaded his followers to send their children to the school. “Parents who did not educate their children were their enemies”, he used to tell to his followers.
Impressed with the work Sant Sarwan Dass was doing in the village, a local landlord gifted him one canal of land close to the hut, where the Dera building was eventually constructed. Sarwan Dass remained head of the Dera from October 11, 1928 until he died in June 1972. He was followed by Sant Hari Dass and Sant Garib Dass. The Dera is currently headed by Sant Niranjan Dass.
Though the Dera Ballan is a religious centre with a focus on preaching universalistic values and spirituality, it actively identifies itself with the local Dalit issues and Dalit politics. Not only do they foreground Ravi Dass’s message of building a caste less society, they have also been actively identified with Dalit activism. Sant Sarwan Dass kept in active touch with Mangoo Ram during the Ad Dharam movement and Mangoo Ram too visited the Dera to communicate his message to Dalit masses of the region. When Mangoo Ram ended his fast-unto-death in 1932, which he had kept in support of B.R. Ambedkar’s position on Poona Pact and against Gandhi’s fast on the Communal Award, it was Sant Sarwan Dass who offered him a glass of fruit juice6. During one of his visit to Delhi, he also met B.R. Ambedkar, who “showed great respect to Sant Sarwan Dass Ji”. Sant Sarwan Dass also wrote a letter to Ambedkar in which he described him as “a great son of community”
In the emerging national context, Dalit political leadership had begun to connect itself across regions. This ambition was not confined to Dalit political activists but could be also seen in efforts of religious gurus like Sant Sarwan Dass.
The message of Ravi Dass had reached the Punjabi Dalits primarily through the Sikh Holy Scripture, Guru Granth. However, the religious institutions of Sikhism were mostly controlled by “upper castes” among them . The continued presence of caste differences and hierarchy in the region made Sant Sarwan Das look for internal resources, within the caste community, for further expansion of the Dera activities. Ravi Dass was the obvious symbol for the Chamar Dalits for building a community of believers.
Having established a separate religious centre in Punjab he decided to travel to Banaras in 1950, hoping to visit the shrine at the birth place of his Guru, Guru Ravi Das. However, to his surprise and disappointment, he could not find any shrine or place in his name. Nothing existed in the name Guru Ravidas in the holy city of Banaras. He took upon himself the task of building a temple in the name of Ravi Das in the city. With the help of his followers at the Dera Ballan, he purchased a piece of land on the outskirt of Banaras where on the 16th of June 1965 he himself laid the foundation stone of the Ravi Das temple. The first phase of this temple was completed in the year 1972.
Though the leaders were excited about building Ravi Das temple in Banaras, the disciples, who are mostly from Punjab, were apprehensive. How are we going to visit Banaras? “When the subject came-up for discussion with the Sant Sarwan Das Ji, he said we will hire a special train which will go all the way from Jallandhar to Banaras once every year, at the time of the birth anniversary of Ravi Dass. This train will be called Begampura Express” (in notes source?).
Dera Ballan has continued to be an important centre of Dalit political activity in Punjab. Leaders, writers and intellectuals of the community often meet at the Dera and discuss emerging political and cultural challenges before the community of Ravi Dasis. Kanshi Ram, another leader of Dalits of north India, who belonged to Punjab and was born in a Ravi Dasi family was a frequent visitor to the Dera. He did so not only to pay his respect to the Dera Chief but also to discuss the strategies with other leaders of the community for making Dalit politics more effective.
Diaspora Effect: The second, and perhaps more important and interesting phase in the history of Ravi Das movement in Punjab begins during the 1990s, with the phase of globalization.
Along with other Punjabis, a large number of Chamars of the Doaba region had migrated to the countries of the Western hemisphere during the 1950s and 1960s. Though there are no exact figures available but quoting the Indian consular office, Juergenmeyer claims that in the United Kingdom ‘percentage of Scheduled Castes within the total Punjabi community was as high as 10 percent. The rest were largely Jat Sikhs’ (Juergenmeyer 1988: 246).
In the alien context, with no systemic justification for caste ideology, the Punjabi Dalits did not expect to be reminded of their “low” status in the caste hierarchy. While they did not have any such problem at the work place and in the urban public sphere in UK, they often experienced caste prejudice when they tried to be part of the local Punjabi community in the diaspora. Juergensmeyer sums this up quite well in the following words:
The Chamars, who came to Britain expecting to find life different, take offence at the upper caste Sikhs’ attitude towards them. They earn as much as the Jat Sikhs, sometimes more, and occasionally find themselves placed by the British in command over them – a Chamar foreman superintending a Jat Sikh work crew – much to the displeasure of the latter….. The Scheduled Castes can afford to act more bravely in Britain since they have now entered a new context for competing with the Jat Sikhs. In the Punjab the cards were stacked against them, but in Britain they have a fresh start, and the ideology of Ad Dharm has prepared them to take advantage of it. (Juergenmeyer 1988: 247-8).
The migrant Dalits felt this bias in the Gurudwaras which were mostly controlled by the Jats and other upper caste Sikhs. Given their numbers and the position in local economy the Dalits did not find it difficult to assert for equal status and dignity. They began to set-up their own autonomous associations in the name of Guru Ravi Das. The first two to come-up were in Britain, in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, in 1956 (ibid 248). While initially, over the first 20 or 25 years of their migration, they simply built their own community organization and separate Gurudwaras wherever they could, over the years they also began to influence the “home-land”. The growing availability of new communication channels such as internet and satellite television during the early 1990s made it easier for them to renew active relationship with Punjab and the Ravi Dasi community at home. By the early 1990s, the diaspora Dalits had also experienced considerable economic mobility, which made it easier for them to travel home and they began to do so more frequently. When they came to visit home, they brought money with them for the religious Deras and this new money and diasporic energy played a very important role in further growth of the movement. This was summed-up well by a Dalit businessman who has been involved with mobilizing the Ravi Dasi sants into a pan-Indian association.
It is the brethren from the West who first understood the value of our Deras and the need to strengthen them. They gave huge donations when they came to pay a visit. The number of visitors from abroad and frequency of their visits also increased during the 1990s. They invited the local Sants to their countries. All this gave a boost to the Ravi Dasi movement.
Over the last 15 years or so, the Dera at Ballan has expanded significantly. A new building was inaugurated in the year 2007 where nearly twenty thousand people could be accommodated to listen to the teachings of Guru Ravidas. It has a langar hall where two thousand people can eat together. Among other things, this Hall has the technology for live telecast and recording of VCDs. In collaboration with Jallandhar channel of Doordarshan (an Indian television channel run by the Government of India) it telecasts a programme called ‘Amrit Bani’ every Friday and Saturday morning
Not only has Dera Ballan expanded, over the years, Deras, Gurudwaras and temples on the name Guru Ravi Das have flourished in Punjab, particularly in Doaba region where Ad Dharmis and Chamars have been numerically predominant among the Dalits. We were told that there are some 6 or 7 major Sants who can be considered as leaders of the community and more than 250 Deras/Gurudwaras in the name of Guru Ravi Das in the state of Punjab. Some of these Deras have become quite affluent and influential. However, they are all patronised exclusively by the local Chamars and Dharmis
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
Navi Pillay, the South African judge who became the United Nations high commissioner for human rights last year, is moving to the forefront of a campaign to free more than 250 million people from the indignities and horrors of caste discrimination. No previous commissioner has dared to openly take on this pernicious system, the majority of whose miserable victims live in India.
"This is the year 2009, and people have been talking about caste oppression for more than a hundred years," Pillay says. "It's time to move on this issue."
For Pillay, who is of Indian descent, the subject of caste has been hidden too long by obfuscation on the part of governments, not only in India, that have successfully argued in UN conferences that existing international conventions against human rights abuses do not apply. Caste did not figure in the official conclusions of a conference on racism and other forms of intolerance in Durban in 2001, after intense lobbying by India, and remained on the periphery of a review of that conference earlier this year.
That being the case, Pillay said in an interview in her New York office on a visit from her headquarters in Geneva, there may well have to be a new international convention written to apply directly to caste.
The campaign is gathering momentum among a wide range of global nongovernmental organizations, religious groups and, lately, a few governments working from a draft document on eliminating discrimination based on work or descent--in other words, being born into predestined deprivation, assigned to the most menial of jobs and segregated socially from the better born.
Pillay would like to see this draft endorsed by the member nations of the Human Rights Council and by all governments, many of which are in denial over the harmful effects of the caste system.
She relayed a story about a group of women who came to her in Geneva recently with a brick from a latrine they had torn down in protest against being forced to carry away human excrement in their bare hands. They wanted to make the point that despite India's frequent assertions that "untouchables," who call themselves Dalits ("broken people"), were no longer condemned by birth to do this job, there were still tens of thousands of such latrines in the country, and the filthy, soul-destroying work continues.
"They have good laws in India, and they have media; they have well developed civil society organizations," Pillay said. "So how come there is no implementation of these good laws, these good intentions?" Discrimination by caste is unconstitutional in India, which also has affirmative action programs for Dalits and others at the bottom of society. Dalits have risen to high office through politics, though even democracy has not helped most of them.
It was, ironically, Nepal that broke ranks with India in September and publicly joined the campaign against caste discrimination. Nepal, a majority Hindu nation like India, is home to 4.5 million Dalits, according to the Feminist Dalit Organization of Nepal. Women among the Dalits everywhere are especially vulnerable to victimization of all kinds, most often sexual abuse.
Women of lowly birth are also sometimes accused of witchcraft, and not only in Asia. Pillay said that in a country in Africa girls and women have been jailed, and officials say they cannot release them or they would be killed. Recently in India's Jharkhand state, village women, apparently Muslims who were labeled witches by accusers, were beaten, stripped naked and forced to eat excrement, the BBC reported.
The Times of India described Nepal's unanticipated decision to align with the campaign against caste discrimination as an "embarrassment" to India, saying that it contradicts India's "stated aversion to the internationalization of the caste problem." The newspaper noted that Sweden then piled on an endorsement from the European Union, "adding to India's discomfiture."
The influence of the Hindu caste system has seeped across other borders in South Asia, into Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, sometimes affecting even Muslims based on their birth or ancestry. Converts to Christianity or Buddhism who flee Hinduism to escape caste often remain branded for life nonetheless.
Dalits, regarded widely as unclean or polluted, can, and have, faced death at the hands of upper caste people for infractions such as taking water from a forbidden well or entering a Brahmin temple. There have been lynchings for intermarriage with higher castes. In some places, particularly in north India, Dalits vote at segregated polling stations. At roadside cafes they often get separate utensils, if they are served at all.
It need not be that way, Pillay, 68, notes from her own experience. Indians in South Africa, a minority in a suppressed black majority under apartheid, soon abandoned caste consciousness, she said. "I know that in the early days they did practice that, because my parents told us," she said. "I think it would be my grandparents' generation. But it broke down by force of social pressures."
As high commissioner for human rights, Pillay takes a broad view of her responsibilities, and that applies to causes she is willing to take up as well as to her definition of human rights. She focuses not only on political or civil rights but also societal shortcomings and abuses. On caste, she said she looks for other forms of similar discrimination globally, anywhere people are held in forms of slavery based on birth, for example, or are relegated to second-class citizenship for other reasons.
"What alerted me to it is that a Bolivian woman minister who addressed the Durban review conference spoke about slavery in Bolivia and described the conditions. In Mauritania [there is] slavery as well."
Pillay has also made three public speeches on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and produced a video on the subject to encourage governments to frame a declaration on LGBT rights.
When we spoke, Pillay had just come from a UN panel where victims of human trafficking presented powerful testimonies. She was struck by a fact thrown out by the panel's moderator: that there are more people being trafficked today than in the entire historical slave trade.
Caste and new forms of slavery are not unrelated, she argued in a recent op-ed article for the Huffington Post, where she wrote that landlessness, debt bondage and labor bondage, involving millions of young children, are the lot of the lowest castes.
"As high commissioner I promised to be evenhanded and raise all issues affecting all human beings," Pillay said. "I can't flow with the political concerns of anyone who doesn't want one or another issue addressed because it embarrasses them or because they are dealing with it in their own way."
Caste is now on notice: the UN has failed, she said, to educate people and change mindsets to combat the taint of caste. "How long is the cycle going to go on where those who can do something about it say, We can't, because it's the people, it's their tradition; we have to go slowly.
"Slavery and apartheid could be removed, so now [caste] can be removed through an international expression of outrage."
Monday, 31 August 2009
By Yoginder Sikand
Dr. Eleanor Zelliot, a leading American Scholar, has done pioneering work through her studies of various aspects of the Dalit liberation movement, about which she speaks here to Yoginder Sikand.
Q: How did you develop an interest in the Dalit movement?
A: I got interested in Ambedkar when I was reading widely about
Q: You have written a great deal on Dalit Cultures. How would you define that term ?
A: Every act, including a poem, song, object or design that a person who defines himself or herself as a Dalit does or creates act of creation arising out of the fact of the consciousness of one’s being a Dalit is a part of Dalit Culture.
Q. Can non-Dalits play any role in developing Dalit Culture ?
A. A white man cannot write Black literature, though he can write wonderfully well about Black society.
John Griffin, a white American sociologist, painted himself black, lived in a black ghetto for two months, and then wrote a book which be claimed faithfully represented an insider’s view of Black society in America.
But the blacks asserted that despite this attempt at identifying with them, he was unable to fully capture the story of their plight.
The same is true for the Dalits in
Q. Do you see the possibility of a radical liberation theology on Latin American lines emerging in Ambedkarite Buddhism today?
A. To a great extent, conversion to Buddhism has meant psychological liberation to many Dalits. The Dalits today appear to be moving towards a socially more engaged Buddhism, but not really in the direction of liberation theology. This is akin to the recent developments in Thai and Vietnamese Buddhism. The Dalits could learn a lot from the efforts of people like the Vietnamese scholar Thich Nat Than who teaches “Buddhism and Social Action” in
There are several training institutes for the Buddhist Sangha in
There is also a pressing need to develop Buddhist cultural activities to transmit the message of social emancipation through dramas, folk songs etc. The cultural side of Buddhism bas been neglected by the Sangha. Buddhism appeals directly to the intellectual, but for the masses one requires more colour, more activity.
Q: But are these efforts radical enough or are they at best reformist?
A: I am not quite sure what the term “Revolution” really means today. Marxists in many countries, while not ignoring macro-level issues, are thinking in terms of local problems, grassroots level organizations and decentralized leadership. And as far as liberation theologyђ is concerned, I do not think it has as yet emerged in
Q. Is it possible to creatively draw upon the epics, legends and collective memory of the Dalits and other oppressed groups to assist in their mobilization for social emancipation?
A. Such a venture would work wonders for arousing the awareness of the Dalits. Much work has to be done to collect the peoples own versions of history or oral history their stories and songs of defiance of caste oppression, etc. These can then be used by activists in the field in a creative way. For instance, the stories of Eklavya, Shambhukh and the ballads of the Dusadhs of Bihar that an associate of mine has collected, could be used as crucial images in the creation of a positive Dalit culture. Dalit culture and the Dalit movement cannot be built on the mere negative platform of anti-Brahminism. The infusing of Dalit culture with the images of the long-forgotten Dalit heroes and heroines would serve as a positive foundation of the Dalit cultural movement.
Q: Would the Ambedkarite Dalit cultural movement that you talk about be able to unite the various Dalit castes?
A: I feel that Ambedkarites ought to make efforts to link their movement to the local folk heroes and anti-caste charismatic leaders of the various Dalit castes so that its appeal could be much wider. I saw a good instance of this at the
Q: Is it not the case that many Dalits today have almost turned Ambedkar into another divine prophet and thereby refuse to critically evaluate or re-interpret Ambedkarism?
A: It is true that many Dalit Buddhists are not going beyond Ambedkar. In the minds of these Dalits, Ambedkar was the one who gave them self-respect, and so they feel the same way about him as many Indians feel about their “Gurus”. As regards the need to creatively reinterpret Ambedkarism today, some Dalits do not seem to agree and they appear to be arguing that if Marxism was in existence for 150 years but Marx was not capable of being critically evaluated until only some years ago, a somewhat similar logic operates in their strict adherence to the views articulated by Ambedkar.
Q: Do you sense any danger to the Dalit Movement as the result of the growing threat of Brahminical Hindu chauvinism?
A: The RSS is trying to co-opt Ambedkar. They even go to the extent of claiming that Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, and Ambedkar had similar aims! (Laughs)...If the RSS are genuinely admirers of Ambedkar they ought to denounce caste and convert to Buddhism as Ambedkar did! It is simply impossible to go back to the Varna System as many Hindu revivalists argue. In today’s context only the Brahmin Varna has any meaning and sociological relevance. Even in the
These days so much talk about Jinnah, that too from different camps. His specter haunts the saffron party. What is the place of Jinnah in Indian politics? Please read the following text taken from a famous speech delivered by B.R.Ambedkar.
Who are the present-day politicians with whom Ranade is to be compared? Ranade was a great politician of his day. He must therefore be compared with the greatest of today. We have on the horizon of India two Great Men, so big that they could be identified without being named—Gandhi and Jinnah. What sort of a history they will make may be a matter for posterity to tell. For us it is enough that they do indisputably make headlines for the Press. They hold leading strings. One leads the Hindus, the other leads the Muslims. They are the idols and heroes of the hour. I propose to compare them with Ranade. How do they compare with Ranade? It is necessary to make some observations upon their temperaments and methods, with which they have now familiarized us. I can give only my impressions of them, for what they are worth.
The first thing that strikes me is that it would be difficult to find two persons who would rival them for their colossal egotism, to whom personal ascendancy is everything and the cause of the country a mere counter on the table. They have made Indian politics a matter of personal feud. Consequences have no terror for them; indeed they do not occur to them until they happen. When they do happen they either forget the cause, or if they remember it, they overlook it with a complacency which saves them from any remorse. They choose to stand on a pedestal of splendid isolation. They wall themselves off from their equals. They prefer to open themselves to their inferiors. They are very unhappy at and impatient of criticism, but are very happy to be fawned upon by flunkeys. Both have developed a wonderful stagecraft, and arrange things in such a way that they are always in the limelight wherever they go.
Each of course claims to be supreme. If supremacy was their only claim, it would be a small wonder. In addition to supremacy each claims infallibility for himself. Pius IX, during whose sacred regime as Pope the issue of infallibility was raging, said— "Before I was Pope I believed in Papal infallibility, now I feel it." This is exactly the attitude of the two leaders whom Providence—may I say, in his unguarded moments—has appointed to lead us. This feeling of supremacy and infallibility is strengthened by the Press. One cannot help saying that. The language used by Gardiner to describe the Northcliffe brand of journalism, in my opinion, quite appropriately describes the present state of journalism in India.
Journalism in India was once a profession. It has now become a trade. It has no more moral function than the manufacture of soap. It does not regard itself as the responsible adviser of the Public. To give the news uncoloured by any motive, to present a certain view of public policy which it believes to be for the good of the community, to correct and chastise without fear all those, no matter how high, who have chosen a wrong or a barren path, is not regarded by journalism in India its first or foremost duty. To accept a hero and worship him has become its principal duty. Under it, news gives place to sensation, reasoned opinion to unreasoning passion, appeal to the minds of responsible people to appeal to the emotions of the irresponsible. Lord Salisbury spoke of the Northcliffe journalism as written by office-boys for office-boys. Indian journalism is all that plus something more. It is written by drum-boys to glorify their heroes. Never has the interest of country been sacrificed so senselessly for the propagation of hero-worship. Never has hero-worship become so blind as we see it in India today. There are, I am glad to say, honourable exceptions. But they are too few, and their voice is never heard.
Entrenched behind the plaudits of the Press, the spirit of domination exhibited by these two Great Men has transgressed all limits. By their domination they have demoralised their followers and demoralized politics. By their domination they have made half their followers fools and the other half hypocrites. In establishing their supremacy they have taken the aid of "big business" and money magnates. For the first time in our country, money is taking the field as an organised power. The questions which President Roosevelt propounded for [the] American Public to consider will arise here, if they have not already arisen: Who shall rule—wealth, or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate Capital? For the present, Indian politics, at any rate the Hindu part of it, instead of being spiritualised has become grossly commercialised, so much so that it has become a byword for corruption. Many men of culture are refusing to concern themselves in this cesspool. Politics has become a kind of sewage system, intolerably unsavoury and unsanitary. To become a politician is like going to work in the drain.
Politics in the hands of these two Great Men have become a competition in extravaganza. If Mr. Gandhi is known as Mahatma, Mr. Jinnah must be known as Qaid-i-Azim. If Gandhi has the Congress, Mr. Jinnah must have the Muslim League. If the Congress has a Working Committee and the All-India Congress Committee, the Muslim League must have its Working Committee and its Council. The session of the Congress must be followed by a session of the League. If the Congress issues a statement, the League must also follow suit. If the Congress passes a Resolution of 17,000 words, the Muslim League's Resolution must exceed it by at least a thousand words. If the Congress President has a Press Conference, the Muslim League President must have his. If the Congress must address an: appeal to the United Nations, the Muslim League must not allow itself to be outbidden.
When is all this to end? When is there to be a settlement? There are no near prospects. They will not meet, except on preposterous conditions. Jinnah insists that Gandhi should admit that he is a Hindu. Gandhi insists that Jinnah should admit that he is one of the leaders of the Muslims. Never has there been such a deplorable state of bankruptcy of statesmanship as one sees in these two leaders of India. They are making long and interminable speeches, like lawyers whose trade it is to contest everything, concede nothing, and talk by the hour. Suggest anything by way of solution for the deadlock to either of them, and it is met by an everlasting "Nay." Neither will consider a solution of the problems which is not eternal. Between them Indian politics has become "frozen," to use a well-known Banking phrase, and no political action is possible.
How does Ranade strike [us], as compared to these two? I have no personal impression to give. But reading what others have said, I think I can say what he must have been like. He had not a tinge of egotism in him. His intellectual attainments could have justified any amount of pride, nay even insolence. But he was the most modest of men. Serious youths were captivated by his learning and geniality. Many, feeling completely under his sway, responded to his ennobling influence, and moulded their whole lives with the passionate reverence for their adored master. He refused to be satisfied with the praises of fools, and was never afraid of moving in the company of equals and of the give and take it involves. He never claimed to be a mystic relying on the inner voice. He was a rationalist, prepared to have his views tested in the light of reason and experience. His greatness was natural. He needed no aid of the stage, nor the technique of an assumed eccentricity, nor the means of a subsidized press.
As I said, Ranade was principally a Social Reformer. He was not a politician in the sense of one who trades in politics. But he has played an important part in the political advancement of India. To some of the politicians he acted as the teacher who secured such signal successes, and who dazzled their critics by their brilliance. To some he acted as the guide, but to all he acted as the philosopher.
What was the political philosophy of Ranade? It may be summed up in three propositions :
(1) We must not set up as our ideal something which is purely imaginary. An ideal must be such that it must carry the assurance that it is a practicable one.
(2) In politics, sentiment and temperament of the people are more important than intellect and theory. This is particularly so in the matter of framing a Constitution. A Constitution is as much a matter of taste as clothes are. Both must fit, both must please.
(3) In political negotiations, the rule must be what is possible. That does not mean that we should be content with what is offered. No. It means that you must not refuse what is offered when you know that your sanctions are inadequate to compel your opponent to concede more.
These are the three main doctrines of Ranade's political philosophy. It would be quite easy to illustrate them by appropriate quotations from his writings and his speeches. There is no time for that, nor is there any necessity, for they must be clear to every student of Ranade's speeches and writings.
Who could quarrel with Ranade on these three propositions, and if there be one, on which? On the first only a visionary will quarrel. We need not take any notice of him. The second proposition is so evident that we could only ignore it at our peril. The third proposition is something on which a difference of opinion is possible. Indeed it is this which divided the Liberals from the Congressmen. I am not a liberal, but I am sure the view Ranade held was the right one. There can be no compromise on principle, and there should not be. But once the principle is agreed upon, there can be no objection to realize it by instalments. Graduation in politics is inevitable, and when the principle is accepted it is not harmful and indeed it may in certain circumstances be quite advantageous.
On this third proposition there was really no difference between him and Tilak, except this: Tilak would have the possible maximised by the application of sanctions; Ranade would look askance at sanctions. This is all. On the rest they were agreed. The absence of sanctions in Ranade's political philosophy need not detract much from its worth. We all know what sanctions are available to us. We have tried all, old as well as new, with what effect I need not stop to describe.
(PART OF THE ADDRESS DELIVERED ON THE 101ST BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION OF MAHADEV GOVIND RANADE HELD ON THE 18TH JANUARY 1943 IN THE GOKHALE MEMORIAL HALL, POONA )
Ravikumar, the dalit theoretician, posted this on facebook.
Khalid Anis Ansari