Friday, 26 August 2011
Monday, 22 August 2011
Monday, 15 August 2011
The following is the text of a speech delivered by the author at the Babasaheb Ambedkar Institute of Research and Training, Bombay, 1979.—Editor
I am happy and honoured to be here on the auspicious occasion of the birthday of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Babasaheb Ambedkar was one of the great Sons of India, a giant among the great men produced by the Indian nationalist movement if I may use the term in its broadest sense.
If Mahatma Gandhi gave to the nationalist movement a mass dimension and a moral purpose and Jawaha Lal Nehru an economic and socialist dimension, Dr B.R. Ambedkar gave it a profound social content and a challenging social-democratic goal. His whole life was a ceaseless struggle for the attainment of this social objective, the scope of which was not confined to the Scheduled Castes but encompassed the urges and aspirations of the vast millions of the underprivileged in our country. Future generations in India, which, I hope, will be free from the curse of the caste system and the refined as well as crude remnants of untouchability, will be grateful to Dr Ambedkar for having launched a movement of social revolution, the success of which is indispensable for cleansing Indian society, for unifying the Indian nation and for building a genuine and enduring democratic system in our country.
While Dr Ambedkar will be remembered in history for his many-splendored personality and his many-sided contributions, as a jurist and Constitution-maker, as a thinker, writer and debater, as a great political organiser and a charismatic leader, he will be remembered most of all as a great and compassionate social rebel, a militant reformer and a liberator of the downtrodden masses of the subcontinent.
It should be a great honour for any institution, particularly for an educational institution; to be named after him because Ambedkar was one of the most educated Indians of our time. To name an educational institution after Dr Ambedkar is an honour done not so much to Ambedkar but to the institution. Any educational institution would be the richer with his name and the poorer without ‘it, for Ambedkar was one of the most brilliant intellectuals not only of Maharashtra but of India and the world. I must, therefore, congratulate those who have decided to establish this Institute of Research and Training in the memory of Dr Ambedkar.
SINCE the glorious days of Gautama, the Buddha, India has seen the emergence of many great men and many religious and social movements dedicated to the reform of Hindu religion and society. ‘But it was Dr Ambedkar, following the Protestantism of the Buddha, who presented a systematic and fundamental challenge to the fundamental basis of the Hindu social structure, the caste system.
The evil of untouchability has been under constant attack by Hindu reformers throughout the dark centuries of Indian social history. But very few had understood the fact that untouchability was the ultimate social projection of the caste system, a dark and hideous shadow cast by it on the social order as a whole, and not just an ugly excrescence on Hindu society which could be cut off while preserving the Varna system intact. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who was the greatest champion of the untouchables and who once declared with passionate sincerity that “untouchability must die if Hinduism is to live, and if untouchability is to live Hinduism has to die”, had not grasped the integral connection between caste and untouchability. If Plato’s Republic was founded on the murky basis of slavery, the Hindu society was erected on the foundation of untouchability which was, for all practical purposes, slavery plus religious degradation.
Jawahar Lal Nehru with his socialist ideals and tools of Marxist analysis had realised that caste in India stood in the way of modernization, socialism and democracy and had ceaselessly attacked casteism and tribalism, which prevailed in Indian society. But he could not fully appreciate the social chemistry of the caste system and the massiveness and tenaciousness of the barriers erected by it against the realisation of the social, political and economic ideals for which he was striving. Pleading for the eradication of poverty and the building of socialism in India, Nehru once remarked that “in a poor country all you can get is a poverty-stricken socialism”. That was the pungent statement of an economic truth. I should like to add a social truth to it and say that in a caste-ridden society all you can get is a caste-ridden democracy or a caste-ridden socialism or a caste-ridden communism. I wonder if even our Marxist ‘revolutionaries have succeeded in understanding and integrating the overriding fact of caste in Indian life into their social and political theories and practices.
It is well-nigh impossible to’ ensure the unity and stability and progress of our great and complex country unless we grapple with and solve the immense and tenacious problem of caste with its innumerable brood of sub-castes and its common pool of exploitation in the form of the depressed classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Whatever be the name—Harijans or Dalits—the reality is the same for all and reeks of the foul smell of oppression and exploitation.
Dr Ambedkar, in one of his speeches in the Constituent Assembly, referred to the contradiction between the democracy enshrined in the Constitution and the social and economic inequalities prevailing in our society, and said with characteristic asperity that unless these contradictions were resolved democracy in India will be like a palace built on cow-dung. The foundation may be sacred but feeble and shaky. I would assert that to try to establish democracy or socialism in our country in the real sense without attacking the caste system is to pursue a chimera.
IT is necessary to delve a little more deeply into the caste system in order to understand the current social tensions. I should call it the current crisis, in our country. Dr Ambedkar described the caste system as “an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”. What the social strategists of the Hindu religion did was not merely to divide society into four castes but put them one below the other with proliferating sub-castes and a vast common pool of untouchables at the very bottom. The metaphysical concept of the caste as an interdependent social organism with equality for all its components had never corresponded to any sort of reality. Indeed what the Hindu social strategists did was to arrange them one below the other in some sort of intricate balance and counterpoise, every caste owing loyalties and services to the caste above it, and commanding loyalties and services from the castes below it, and with a vast pool of untouchables for common exploitation by all.
What is remarkable about this descending stratification is that every caste, even the intermediate, the lower and the untouchable caste, was and is still provided with a sphere as it were of domination and exploitation of its own, however small the sphere might be. Almost every group had and has someone below it to lord it over and look down upon, thereby deriving some psychological as well as economic benefits to compensate for the kicks imparted to it from above. Metaphysically, justification for the miserable lot of the untouchables was given by the theory of karma and reincarnation, while the same fascinating theory gave them a flickering hope for the distant and unknown future in the cycle of births and deaths. Even the untouchables have divisions and gradations among them. But for this intricate balancing of privileges and satisfactions it is doubtful whether the caste system would have survived so long.
It is the same balance and counterpoise in the Hindu social order that has prevented the emergence of social and political movements directed against the glaring inequalities and injustices of the system on all-India scale and strength. Added to this are the regional and linguistic differences existing in our country if inequalities and injustices are the cause of protest and reform movements, we have had enough of it in India. And if poverty is the food of revolution, we have had an excess of it. Therefore, lithe people, political parties and the government are interested in the progress of our country, they should direct attention to the massive and complex web of the caste system which is splitting and containing in its meshes all reformist and revolutionary forces and paralyzing all constructive policies and actions for the uplifting of the people ‘and the restructuring of society. It is possible that in the past the caste system helped Hindu society to survive the onslaught of outside forces, but today and tomorrow it is going to be a disintegrating and destructive force in our society.
While caste is the fundamental framework and the root cause of the condition of the Dalits, as they are called today, the major fact is that it is not a separate problem but an important aspect of the general and gigantic problem of the broad masses of India. In cold reality, the Scheduled Castes are the tillers and the toilers of the land, a substantial part of our rural and urban proletariat and the most exploited and oppressed section of a larger community of the underprivileged. The task of the Scheduled Caste leadership and the leadership of the various political parties in India is to bring them into the mainstream of our social organisational and political parties and not to treat them in separate and self-contained organisations except in regard to those questions which are peculiar, specific and geographically local for them. There could be local and provincial organisations. There could be organisations and unions based on agricultural workers, sweepers, scavengers, barbers, washer-men, blacksmiths, etc., which could then form a federation of professional, labour or craft unions on an all-India level.
We will have to pursue our distinctive objectives within the general all-India organisations. This pattern could be extended on the political level to a united front type of organisation. We should be prepared to align ourselves intelligently and discriminatingly with political groups and parties whose policies will promote the aims and objectives the Scheduled Castes have in mind. Advancement in education, reservation of positions in government service, representation in Parliament, legislatures and in professions and industries are the major concerns of the advanced section of the Scheduled Castes. What Dr Ambedkar called control of the supreme executive and legislative power in the state is most important.
THIRTY years after independence, upliftment of the general condition of the people and the restructuring of the social order has become an urgent necessity. Our economic bargaining power has to be organised and strengthened. Our voting power, which is considerable and decisive in the multiparty coalition phase of India’s present political set-up, will have to be organised and coordinated purposefully in order to enable the Scheduled Castes, along with the underprivileged majority in this country, to make an impact on the power structure as a whole.
We have seen that organised demands and agitations for the elementary rights of the Scheduled Castes have resulted in violent reactions from the upper castes. There are growing tensions between the Harijans or Dalits and the newly rising ‘backward’ land-owning castes as in Bihar, Marathawada, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and in several other isolated parts of this country. These tensions are often not with the higher castes but with the backward castes, precisely because it is the kulak and the petty bourgeois interests of the intermediate and lower castes which have come into clash with the emerging demands and expectations of the Scheduled Castes.
What is disturbing about this new phenomenon is that the upper castes and upcoming backward castes are resorting to leonine violence in order to terrorise the Harijans and to prevent them from asserting their rights granted by the Constitution and by the laws of the land. It is a kind of pre-emptive violence or counter-revolutionary terror. The government and the people as a whole have not yet found a way of protecting the Scheduled Castes and safeguarding their lives, homes and interests in such situations. One thing is certain: unless an effective method is devised to deal with such situations, Indian society and nation will move into a dangerous phase of revolutionary action and violence, much against the will and policies of everyone concerned.
The caste Hindus should examine carefully what is happening today in South Africa where the policy of apartheid sustained by the state and for long openly supported by the great powers is threatening to blow up in the face of the ruling minority. Only a policy of immediate and positive protection of the victims of such violence by the state and by the enlightened sections of caste Hindus can prevent a major crisis. Of course the Scheduled Castes will have to organise themselves in the areas affected and in adjacent and other areas of the country as a whole and provide organised support and assistance to meet this growing menace. What is surprising is that the conscience of our society and our nation has not yet been aroused by this new phenomenon of caste terror.
Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru—all had believed that India’s social and economic problems, including those of the Scheduled Castes, could be solved through peaceful and democratic means. Gandhiji had launched a massive social movement to bring about reform through moral conversion. He made caste Hindus feel ashamed of untouchability and of the social and economic exploitation of the Harijans. While this movement did not attack the root causes or solve the problems, it created a new temper and climate of social opinion which helped in the alleviation of the ills and paved the way for important legislations and executive actions by the government. Jawahar Lal Nehru helped by this atmosphere and by the movement of Dr Ambedkar, ushered in an era of the legislative state for the first time in India. Hitherto, India has had mainly social reform movements to tackle social problems. By the establishment of the legislative state, a new and powerful instrument has been created for changing and restructuring Indian society. However, India’s new legislative state has not yet found it possible to inaugurate land reform measures radical enough to affect even marginally the Problems of the every small land holders and the landless labourers who mostly belong to the Scheduled Castes.
As regards executive and administrative action, it lags far behind legislation. For example, a recent study called “Dalits” by Govind Gare and Shiribha Limaye of 206 villages in Maharashtra showed that 90 per cent of Dalits lived outside their respective villages, only in 47 villages were they allowed to draw water from public wells, only in 52 villages were they allowed to enter temples, only in 72 villages would the barbers shave them, only in 75 gram panchayats and in 71 cooperatives were they represented. This is indeed a most depressing state of affairs. Unless the administrative personnel are re-educated in their social outlook and unless a substantial number of Dalits are inducted into various levels of administration, including the police and the army, laws will remain dead laws and protection to the Dalits will be denied in practice. Thus we come back to the relevance of Ambedkar’s stand on reservation in public services as an essential factor in promoting the interests and protecting the rights of the Scheduled Castes, though by itself it will not be effective enough.
I believe that the problems we are facing today are so great in their magnitude and so explosive in their nature that it is necessary to combine all the three approaches of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar in order to tackle them successfully. The Central and State Governments must boldly launch reforms covering landownership, consolidation of holdings, cooperative agriculture, rights of the tiller, minimum wages for landless labourers, etc., plugging the innumerable holes in existing laws, accompanied by administrative reorganisation and induction of appropriate personnel for the implementation of reform and the protection of the Scheduled Castes in the villages of India.
At the same time there must arise mass social movements among the caste Hindus and self-help movements among the Scheduled Castes. The crucial thing will be social, economic and political organisation and action by the Scheduled Castes themselves in order to energise all the rest. A method will have to be found for all India organisations embracing all or the majority of the underprivileged whether they have been victims of untouchability or not. Only through an all-India level organisation could the voting power of the 130 odd millions of Scheduled Castes be utilised effectively to determine the fate of the governments in the States and the Centre.
I said earlier that Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru were in favour of peaceful methods in solving the problems of the Harijans. It is interesting that Ambedkar once explained that unlike Karl Marx, the Buddha advocated persuasion, moral teaching and love for realising economic and social goals, and he asserted that the Buddha’s method was “the safest and the soundest”. Here he is nearer to Gandhi and to Nehru, notwithstanding his well-known differences with them. But ultimately, whatever be one’s belief and wishes, whether violence will be resorted to or not will depend on actual conditions in society and the channels of peaceful change available in society to problems that have piled up from the past and cannot wait for solutions indefinitely. Above all, it will depend on whether there will be pre-emptive or counter-revolutionary violence on the part of the haves and the privileged against the have-nots.
Mao Zedong once said: “Proper limits have to be exceeded to right a wrong, or else the wrong cannot be righted”. To prove this thesis he explained that to straighten a bent bamboo stick “you must have to bend it too far to the other side several times”. In India, where we have the heritage of the Buddha, Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Ambedkar and many other great men, it might not be unavoidable to bend the bamboo stick too far or to break it in order to right the wrongs of our society. But that can be achieved only if the upper castes, the Scheduled Castes and the government, indeed the entire organised will and force of society, is brought to bear upon the problem at the right time in coordinated action. Dr Ambedkar would have probably agreed that it was possible even though he had utter distrust and incandescent hatred of those who devised the caste system and untouchability.
One cannot forget the fact that behind his role as a rebel and a revolutionary against the social system of the Hindus there was in Dr Ambedkar the throbbing heart of an Indian nationalist dedicated to freedom, democracy and unity of the country. As early as 1930, Ambedkar had said:
To say that this country is divided by castes end creeds, and that it cannot be one united self-governing community unless adequate safeguards for protection of minorities are made a part of the Constitution, is a position to which there can be no objection. But the minorities must bear in mind that although we are today riven by sects and atomized by caste, our idea is a united India. That being so, it follows that every minority in formulating the safeguards it needs must take care that they will not be incompatible with the realisation of that ideal.
That was the vision of a noble mind, which, even in the heat of hatred and struggle against oppression .by the majority community, could respond to the beckoning call of Indian unity. The question is whether the majority community has even today the same breadth of vision, generosity and practical wisdom to realise that the unity, stability and progress of India is contingent upon a radical and urgent solution to the problems of the deprived masses of India, especially of the 130 million who are called the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
Courtesy: Mainstream, August 8, 1992
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Mumbai-based Anand Teltumbde is a leading scholar-activist, who has written extensively on issues related to caste, class, imperialism and ‘globalization’. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he reflects on the Dalit movement in the era of ‘globalization’.
Q: You have written extensively on what you regard as the crises facing Dalits and the Dalit movement in contemporary India, seeking to articulate a caste-class analysis of Indian society. One of your major focuses has been the challenges Hindutva poses to the Dalits. You regard Hindutva as extremely inimical to Dalit interests and their struggle against ‘upper’ caste/class hegemony. Given, as you have written, Hindutva groups have made deep inroads among Dalits, how do you feel a progressive counter-cultural alternative can be presented to and popularized among Dalits in order to counter the attraction that Hindutva seems to offer them?
A: While Hindutva is a form of Brahminism and is definitely geared to suppressing the Dalits and serving the interests of the ‘upper’ caste/class elites, one should be clear that Hindutva is not entirely a cultural phenomenon. It is more of a political phenomenon. So, challenging Hindutva cannot be limited only to articulating a counter-cultural alternative, as some have sought to do in the name of Dalit identity-politics. Rather, Hindutva needs to be challenged politically.
As regards a counter-culture to Hinduism from the Dalit perspective, I am not sure if we have the resources for this or if sufficient attention has been paid to how to popularize this alternative given the immense hold of the Hindu framework. We may say, and rightly so, that the conflict between Brahminism and Shraminism, as represented by Jainism and Buddhism, has been present throughout Indian history. On this basis, we may invoke the Shramanic tradition to critique Brahminism. However, we also have to admit that despite the immense popularity of the Shramanic traditions for over 10 centuries, the Brahmanic castes have survived; nay they have thrived. How does one explain it? These religions—particularly Buddhism—did offer alternatives to Brahminism at the philosophical level but, despite this, caste as a social reality did not vanish. I think the same can be said of the conversion of Dalits to other religions as a means for liberation from caste oppression. Dalits have converted to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism to escape caste bondage of Hinduism but this did not make much difference to their lives. Caste has rather infected these seemingly egalitarian religions, keeping its Dalits at the lowest rungs. In objective terms, not much is changed for the converts. While they continue to remain Dalits for others, among themselves they appear to follow the same cultural paradigm laid out by the Hindu framework, albeit with cosmetic changes. Babasaheb Ambedkar did expect a new cultural paradigm for the Dalits based on scientific rationality, but it remained an unfulfilled dream like many others. That is perhaps why many Dalits in Maharahstra have, unfortunately, not been averse to joining hands with Hindutva forces. Even many well educated Dalits with some social recognition did not see anything wrong in jumping onto the RSS’s Samarasata platform which talked of the ‘unity’ or ‘assimilation’ of castes. Politically, Ambedkarite Dalits have been joining the Hindutva forces with impunity. The current alliance between Ramdas Athwale’s RPI and the Shivsena-BJP combine under the guise of Bhimshakti+Shivshakti is a case in point. The fact that there is not much opposition to such ideas and actions bespeaks volumes about alternative culture. So, I would say, the hegemonic influence of the Hindu or Brahminical worldview still remains, and Dalits, as a whole, continue to operate within that cultural framework.
Q: If that is the case, then what is the alternative in terms of a counter-cultural challenge to Hindutva?
A: I think the alternate is only possible from the Left—not the parliamentary Left that still appears to cling to the idea, notwithstanding their wordy acrobatics, that religion and caste are simply ‘superstructural’ issues or of little or no importance, but a Left that is rooted in Indian social realities and recognizes the salience of these issues. Fortunately, some sections of the radical Left is developing such an understanding organically. If Dalits also review their journey so far objectively, I am sure they also will reach similar radical understanding. That said, I do not negate the importance of culture in both perpetuating as well as challenging an oppressive system, but, at the same time, I disagree with some Dalit ideologues who insist that cultural revolution must necessarily precede political revolution. The two must go together, working in a dialectical fashion. Alternate cultures do not develop in vacuum, just by wishing for them. They are born in the process of peoples’ struggles over the material issues of their living—essentially politico-economic struggles. I am sure the counter-cultural to Hindutva will also emerge from these sorts of mass-based struggles. I don’t see it as a question of one preceding the other in time in a mechanical way.
Q: Some analysts argue that focusing mainly on the issue of reservations and critiquing Brahminism, which, of course are necessary, sections of the Dalit movement have ignored the material issues and concerns of the Dalit poor. Do you share that analysis?
A: There is considerable truth in that assertion. By and large, the Dalit movement has been led and controlled by urban-based petty bourgeoise Dalits, and has tended to neglect Dalits living in villages. If you consider the demographic profile of Dalits, you will find that Dalits are predominantly rural people; some 89 percent of them still live in villages. More than half of them are landless, 26 percent are marginal farmers and the rest are artisans. Of the 11 percent urban Dalits, a vast majority lives in urban slums and work preponderantly in the informal sector. Over the last six decades, a small layer—certainly not exceeding 10 percent of the total—has emerged out of them who could be considered as ‘arrived’, thanks to reservations, political nexus and their enterprise. This small layer, however, has effectively hijacked the agenda of the majority of the Dalits and revolved it around the single issue of reservation. It reflects the urban- and class-bias of the Dalit movement that has persistently ignored the issues of rural Dalits. Reservations did have a utility for the first generation of Dalits but thereafter it increasingly became the monopoly of those who have come up, leaving the really needy out of its reach. It is a widely acknowledged fact that the caste issue is entangled with the skewed distribution of land or the high incidence of landlessness of Dalits. Even Babasaheb Ambedkar, towards the end of his life, had realized this fact and influenced some of his followers to take up the first land struggle in Marathwada. Thereafter, Dadasaheb Gaikwad, who was his close confidant and perhaps real political heir, had led a countrywide struggle for land. But, thereafter, we never hear of the land issue being raised within and by the Dalit movement. Lack of land, quality education, non-farm employment, proper housing and sanitation are the material issues that have historically been related to Dalit deprivation, and these have only been aggravated by the elitist ‘globalization’ over the last two decades. There is not a slightest reflection of these issues in the dominant Dalit discourse. Surprisingly, when reservations have effectively ended—statistically, from 1997 onwards the total employment in the public domain has been consistently decreasing—they shout louder about it.
So, yes, I sincerely think in the post-Ambedkar phase, the Dalit movement, driven by small elite among the Dalits, has completely ignored the material issues of most Dalits.
Q: But now that government jobs are rapidly shrinking in the wake of privatization and ‘globalisation’, which means that jobs for Dalits in the public sector are even more limited than they hitherto were, do you see a shift in the focus of the Dalit movement? Given that ‘globalisation’ and privatization are hitting the poorest of the poor, particularly Dalits, the most, is the Dalit movement responding by widening its concerns and addressing the challenges posed by globalization, thus moving out of what you consider as its major concern with reservations?
A: I do not see a major shift happening, barring the fact that Dalit groups are now demanding reservations in the private sector and curiously campaigning about ‘Dalit Capitalism’. This, once again, illustrates their elite, urban focus. I do not see them interrogating ‘globalisation’ and mobilizing Dalits against the havoc that is causing to the poor, leading to mass pauperization and rapidly widening social-economic inequalities. Statistics reveals that the incidence of landlessness has been increasing among Dalits during the last two decades of globalization. But, they are oblivious of these facts. The question of land, or the issue of landless Dalits and their forced displacement by mega-projects, has been a virtual taboo in Dalit movement because most Dalit ‘leaders’ think it is a ‘communist’ issue. They have been programmed into believing that communists are their enemies! They have been fed on lies, by many Dalit intellectuals and leaders, that Babasaheb Ambedkar was viscerally opposed to communism as such—although it is well-known that Babsaheb did see the importance of land issue and was a confirmed socialist, as is evident from his monumental book States and Minorities. They have systematically constructed an Ambedkar icon sans the radicalism of Ambedkar, with superfluous embellishments of Ambedkar ideology, projected it as a virtual god-like figure to the Dalit masses, and invoking it in support of whatever they do. This icon is used and duly supported by the ruling classes to build a kind of ‘bhakti’ cult in the Dalit masses. Now, it is absolutely clear that Babsaheb hated the ‘bhakti’ cult around him and explicitly said that that he did not want bhaktas but sincere followers. This cult facilitated ‘brokers’ among Dalits to sell their wares in his name, and the Dalit masses simply bought their wares. This is the unfortunate paradigm that has degenerated the Dalit movement and has effectively thwarted sincere elements from coming up. It is entirely because of this that there seems to be little or no effort to re-read or contextualize Babasaheb’s thoughts in the contemporary context, including on issues related to class-based deprivation. At a time when the Indian state, Hindutva forces and the forces of imperialism are playing such havoc with the livelihoods of millions of Dalits, whose conditions are rapidly going from bad to worse, I see few Dalit groups taking these crucial economic issues seriously. Instead, they remain fixated on reservations—because this is a convenient populist slogan—and on invoking the name of Babasaheb while refusing to re-read him in the context of the contemporary situation of caste/class deprivation.
Babasaheb Ambedkar said that he was against Brahmanism and not Brahmans, and even explained that Brahmanism could be found in any caste, including Dalits. Dalits have conveniently forgotten this essence and picked up the superficial. Today, the situation is such that groups whom they include in their Bahujans, the superset of Dalits, are the real perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits. They are the real baton holders of Brahmanism in villages. But this sort of political-economic analyses just do not appeal to Dalits, who are enamoured with identitarian discourse. To oppose Brahmanism is to be anti-caste; but to hate Brahmans is casteist. Paradoxically, swearing by Ambedkar, many Dalits today unconsciously reflect casteist behavior, and thus act against Ambedkar.
That said, we must remember that the anti-materialist outlook of Dalits is actually born out of their encounter with the Left movement, which refused to acknowledge caste question as something basic to the class struggle in India. Babasaheb Ambedkar was no Marxist. He had genuine problems with Marxism but at the same time he ardently believed in socialism of the Fabian kind. This was a good enough basis for working together with the Left and enriching the strategy for class struggle in the concrete situation obtaining in this country. But the Left continued undermining Dalit movement and, in the process, completely alienated it. The onus thus squarely lies with the Left for the fact that today we are faced with the divergent, almost antagonistic, movements of the proletariat, bogged down with an idiotic duality of class and class.
The Left movement needs to rethink its perspective on the Dalit question. There is an urgent need for a dialogue between the Dalit movement and the Left, so that they can learn from each other and cross-fertilise each other. This will certainly help the Dalit movement in responding in a more appropriate manner to the changing nature of caste and helping it realize the importance of class issues and the need for class-based mobilization as well. I am uncomfortable with Dalit identity politics which only make the Dalit movement more sectarian and lead it away from the material problems, as experience shows. Caste as essentially a divisive category cannot viably serve even identity politics, not to speak of the goal of annihilation of caste. I am surprised that this basic understanding is yet to dawn on our social scientists as well as activists.
Q: How do you assess the role of the Dalit media in raising and communicating these issues which you feel Dalit groups have failed to take up?
A: There is not much of a Dalit media actually. There are several small magazines and periodicals run by Dalits all over the country. Some of them do raise valid issues faced by Dalits, but many others are simply tails of this or that political group. This connection may not be always visible but it does exist in terms of direct or indirect support coming from these sources. During the last decades, a curious development took place in Maharashtra in this regard. Some Dalits started daily papers, one after another. Today, there are at least half a dozen full-sheet daily papers run by Dalits in Maharashtra. They do satisfy rhetorical need of having our own media. One does not know how their economics is managed, however, given that newspapers basically run on advertisement revenue, which is largely absent in their case. The content analysis of these newspapers does not indicate that they have significantly contributed raising the live questions of Dalits or catalysed any movement around it. They just meet the identitarian need of having ‘our’ own media.
I do not know whether a media owned and operated by Dalits could really be called a ‘Dalit media’. Most of Dalit papers reflect the concerns and interests of their readership—the ‘reservationist’ middle-class—and that is why they deal mainly with religio-cultural issues, besides, of course, reservations. They pay little attention to the issues of rural Dalits. Many of them are averse to taking up economic issues or to considering the need for a contextually-rooted class-cum-caste analysis of Indian society. Basically premised on the identity of Dalits, they often ignore other issues.
The media reflects to some degree the state of our intellectual activism. The tragedy is that we have few organic intellectuals who can articulate the concerns and interests of the Dalit masses. Instead, we have a whole lot of cut-and-paste intellectuals whose only task, it seems, is to rehash what others have written before them, refusing to engage in any creative intellectual work. The Dalit media eventually mirrors it.
Q: In recent decades, a number of NGOs have taken up Dalit issues and concerns, and Dalits are one of their major ‘target’ groups. How do you see the impact of this NGO-isation process on the Dalit movement in terms of highlighting Dalit issues and empowering the Dalits?
A: In terms of highlighting, and even internationalizing, Dalit issues, I think many NGOs have played an important role. Even documenting Dalit problems and issues I think is a major contribution, giving that little of this sort was being done by others. But, beyond that, especially in political terms, I think that, barring some cases, the role of NGOs has been problematic. At a fundamental level, NGOs depend upon donors, and, according to the dictum “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, they have to eventually confirm to the agenda of their donors. And the fact of the matter is that NGOs have been deliberately promoted as a vehicle of ‘globalization’ in the context of the declining role of the state in the social sector. Naturally, then, NGOs work, by and large, to depoliticize radical people’s movements. They work in a fragmentary manner, taking up discrete issues, and this promotes fragmentary consciousness in people around them, which is what neo-liberalism wants. By remaining confined to funded projects, they inherently lack a macro political-economic perspective, which again serves the interest of global capital. Moreover, they also attract youths who might otherwise have gone into people’s movements or radical politics, by providing them salaries and job security, and in this way also work as agents of depoliticisation. You are right in terming this the NGO-ization of the Dalit movement. Before the Dalit movement could introspect on its degeneration, the influx of NGOs complicated the matters and made any such review extremely difficult.
Q: In your writings, you argue that ‘globalisation’ spells doom for Dalits. In this context, how do you see the argument, made by a group of Dalit ‘intellectuals’, who have been much-highlighted in the ‘mainstream’ media, of the need for the state and multi-national corporations to promote what they term ‘Dalit Capitalism’?
A: I think this argument is completely fallacious and dangerous. It buys into the imperialist logic, and is geared to serving the interests of foreign capital and the Indian ruling classes, who are well aware of the pauperisation of the Dalits and their mounting opposition to the system that is destroying their already shattered lives in the name of ‘development’. This slogan of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ is being actually sponsored by some Western organizations linked to global capital. There is not much of guess work needed to see who the sponsors and supporters of this idea are. As a matter of fact, the idea has been floated by a bunch of individuals who are projecting some Dalit entreprenneurs as though they were the new breed produced by globalization. And this is being propped up by the ‘mainstream’ media, which is otherwise shy of touching anything Dalit. The Economic Times has published a series of features on it, and the rank neo-liberalist Swaminathan Ankalesvaria Aiyer wrote several pieces extolling the idea. As for the Indian state, the Planning Commission, which otherwise refuses to move on the continued stealing of special component monies meant for Dalits, has been enthusiastically considering how to channel the public funds to these Dalit capitalists. It is a pity that Dalits do not see through the game and, instead, are getting enamoured with the idea because of their identitarian fixation.
I do not think there is anything intellectually appealing about the notion of ‘Dalit Capitalism’. I would rather say that this notion is itself a contradiction in terms and smacks of ignorance of both Dalits as well as Capitalism. The Dalit entrepreneur is not a new species. Dalits have historically been entrepreneurs, grabbing whatever opportunities that came their way and made progress. Rich Dalits are also not a new phenomenon. There have been many rich Dalit individuals since colonial times. So, to claim that Dalits have only started progressed now as a result of supposedly benefitting from ‘globalization’ is simple and pure falsehood. To impute the progress that a small number of Dalits have made in recent years to ‘Dalit Capitalism’ suggests is fallacious. Although, knowing the systemic character of capitalism, I would never be the votary of capitalism, I am not so dogmatic as to discard it either merely for ideological reasons. After all, there is a dialectics that will determine the time of its death. I do not have any quarrel, therefore, about Dalits becoming big capitalists and amassing their billions. But what irks me is this motivated attempt by the proponents of the notion of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ to create a patently false impression that Dalits have benefitted by ‘globalization’, that Dalits have now ‘arrived’, that Dalits have abandoned socialism and have embraced capitalism. The vast majority of Dalits still live in horrendous conditions in villages and urban slums as the wretched of the earth, and their conditions are, as I said earlier, going from bad to worse, rather than improving, as a result of the ravages of capitalism and ‘globalization’. The relative distance between Dalits and others on most developmental dimensions was reducing until the 1990s but the recent trends clearly show that the gaps are widening. By WHO standards of body-mass index, Dalits would be famine-stricken community. To speak about such people in terms of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ is nothing but an unpardonable cruel joke.