Saturday, 10 July 2010



[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 here speaks to Yoginder Sikand. Excerpts.]
Q: How did you develop an interest in the Dalit movement ?
A: I got interested in Ambedkar when I was reading widely about India when I was at the
university, and found his name in most books which I referred to. I however, had no
analysis to explain his rise. I have been supporting the African-American movement
since I was 14, so the comparable Indian movement was a natural subject for me.
Q: You have written a great deal on ‘Dalit Culture’. 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 India. Non-Dalits cannot write Dalit literature, but
they have a crucial role to play in facilitating its development. The social awakening
brought about by non-Dalit reformers in Maharashtra such as Ranade, Agarkar and
Bhandarkar did play a crucial role in the later rise of the Ambedkarite movement. A
group of Maharashtrian non-Dalits were the first to publish radical literature written
by Dalits. I therefore see the possibility of non-Dalits being facilitators to the Dalit
movement but not its guides or preachers. Non-Dalits cannot direct the Dalit
movement. When Gandhi announced that he was a “Harijan”, that ended forever the
possibility of his leadership of the Dalits.
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 France.
There are several training institutes for the Buddhist Sangha in Maharashtra, but I am
not sure if the Sangha is really necessary. What is required are more lay teachers
moving from one ‘Vihara’ or Dalit settlement to the other. 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 has been
neg-lected 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 theology’ is concerned, I do not think it has as yet emerged in
India and most certainly not in Hinduism. Instead, what has happened is that the
secular Indian intelligentsia have left the field of religion completely to the
conservatives and reactionaries. In such a situation, where is the possibility of
liberation theology emerging ?
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 people’s own versions of history or oral historytheir
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-Brahmmism.
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 Ravidas Temple at Ramakrishnapuram
in New Delhi recently. A picture of Ambedkar there is placed next to
one of Ravidas and this is an effective means to link the Ravidasis to the Ambedkarite
Movement. However, it is also a fact that the Bhakti and ‘Untouchable’ Saints had a
limited social programme, and the Dalit Cultural Movement needs to be aware of this.
Preaching the equality of all people in the eyes of God is not the same as actually
transforming society in the direction of social equality.
Q: Is it not the case that many Da-lits 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 Ambed-karism 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! 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 Varna system the Shudras are
considered to be menials, so attempting to revive this system would not change their
degraded status at all. ????

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