Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Zelliot, Dr. Eleanor - Interview on Dalit Liberation, Hindutva Fascism and Cultural Revolution

Zelliot, Dr. Eleanor - Interview on Dalit Liberation, Hindutva Fascism and Cultural Revolution
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 India when I was at the university, and found his name in most books which I referred to. I however, had no analyze 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 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 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 1 am not sure if the Sangha is really necessary. What is required are more lay teachers moving from one Viharaђ 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 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 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 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 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 ב 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 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 Varna system the Shudras are considered to be menials, so attempting to revive this system would not change their degraded status at all.

Unpublished Preface to Buddha and His Dhamma: A Book by Dr. Ambedkar

Unpublished Preface to Buddha and His Dhamma: A Book by Dr. Ambedkar

A question is always asked to me how I happen to take such high degree of education. Another question is being asked why I am inclined towards Buddhism. These questions have been asked because I was born in the community known as the ‘Untouchables.’ This preface is not the place for answering the first question. But this preface may be the place for answering the second question. This conviction has grown in me after thirty years of close study of all religions.
How I was led to study Buddhism is another story. It may be interesting for the readers to know. This is how it happened.
My father was a military officer but at the same time a very religious person. He brought me up under a strict discipline. From my early age I found certain contradictions in my father’s religious way of life. He was a Kabirpanthi though his was a Ramanandi.  As such he did not believe in Murti Puja (Idol Worship) and he performed Ganapati Puja  of course for our sake but I did not like it. He read the books of Ramayna and Mahabharta to my sister and other persons who assembled at my father’s house to hear the Katha. This went on for a long number of years.
The year I passed the English Fourth Examination community people wanted to celebrate the occasion by holding a public meeting to congratulate me. Compared to the state of education in other communities this was hardly an occasion for celebration. But it was felt by the organisers that as I was the first boy in my community to reach this stage. They thought I had reached a great height. They went to my father to ask for his permission. My father flatly refused saying such a thing would inflate the boy. After all he has only passed the examination and nothing more. Those who wanted to celebrate the occasion were disappointed. They went to Dada Keluskar,  a personal friend of my father and asked him to intervene. He agreed. After a little argumentation my father yielded and the meeting was held. Dada Keluskae presided. He was a literary person of his time. At the end of his address he gave me as gift a copy of his book on the life of the Buddha which he had written for the Baroda Sayajirao Oriental Series. I read the book with great interest and was greatly impressed and moved by it.
 I began to ask why my father did not introduce us  to Buddhist literature. After this I was determined to ask my father this question. One day I asked my father why he insisted upon our reading the Mahabharta and Ramayana which recounted the greatness of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas and repeated the stories of the degradation of the Shudras and the Untouchables. My father did not like the question.  He merely said, “You must not ask such silly questions. You are only a boy; you must do as you are told.”
My father was a Roman Patriarch and exercised most extensive Patria Protestas over his children. I alone could take a little liberty with him and that was because my mother had died in my childhood leaving me to the care of my aunty. So after some time I asked again the same question. This time my father had evidently prepared for the reply. He said, “The reason why I ask you to read the Ramayana and Mahabharta is this. We belong to the Untouchables and you are likely to develop an inferiority complex which is natural. The value of Ramayana and Mahabharta lies in removing this inferiority complex. See Drona and Karna. They were small men but to what heights they rose?  Look at Valmiki. He was a Koli. But he became the author of Ramayana. It is for removing this inferiority complex that I ask you to read the Mahabharta and Ramayana.”  I could see that there was some force in my father’s arguments. But I was not satisfied. I told my father that I did not like any of the figures in Mahabharta. I said,“I do not like Bhishma and Drona nor  Krishna. Bhishma and Drona were hypocrites. They said one thing and did quite the other thing. Krishna believed in frauds. Equal dislike I have for Vali-Sugriva episode and his (Rama’s) beastly behaviour towards Sita,” My father was silent and made no reply. He knew that there was revolt.
This is how I turned to the Buddha with the help of the book given to me by Dada Keluskar. It was not with an empty mind that I went to the Buddha at that early age. I had a background and in reading the Buddhist Lore I could always compare and contrast. This is the origin of my interest in the Buddha and his Dhamma.
The urge to write this book has a different origin. In 1951 the Editor of the Mahabodhi Society’s Journal of Calcutta asked me to write an article for the Vaishakha Number. In that article I argued that the Buddha’s Religion was the only religion which a society awakened by science could accept without which it would perish. I also mentioned that for the modern world Buddhism makes slow advance due to the fact that its literature is so vast that no one can read the whole of it. That it has no such thing as a Bible, as the Christians have  is  its greatest handicap. On the publication of this article I received many calls written and oral to write such a book. It is in response to these calls that I have undertaken the task.
To disarm all criticism I would like to make it clear that I claim no originality for the book. It is a compilation and assembly plant.  The material has been gathered from various books. I would particularly mention Ashavaghosha’s “Buddhacharita.” whose poetry no one can excel. In the narrative of certain events I have borrowed his language.
The only originality that I can claim in the order of presentation of the topics in which I have tried to introduce is  simplicity and clarity. There are certain matters which give headache to the students of Buddhism I have dealt with them in the introduction.
It remains for me to express my gratitude to those who have been helpful to me.  I am very grateful to Mr. Nanak Chand Rattu of village Sakrauli and Mr. Parksh Chand of village Nagla Khurd in the district of Hoshiarpur (Punjab) for the burden they have taken upon themselves to type the manuscript. They have done it several times. Shri Nanak Chand Rattu took the special pain and put in very hard labour in accomplishing this great task. He did the whole work of typing etc. Very willingly and without caring for his health and Mr. Parkash Chand did their job as a token of their greatest love and affection towards me. Their labour can hardly be repaid. I am very much grateful to them.
When I took upon the task of composing this book I was ill and am still ill. During these five years there were many ups and downs in my health. At some stages my condition had become so critical that doctors talked of me as a dying flame. The successful rekindling of the dying flame is due to the medical skill of my wife and Dr. Malvankar, the physician who has been attending till I completed the work. I am also thankful to Mr. M.B. Chitnis, who took special interest in correcting proof and to go through the whole book.
I may mention that this is one of the three books which will form a set for the proper understanding of Buddhism. The other two books are – (i) Buddha and Karl Marx and (ii) Revolution and Counter Revolution in Ancient India. They are written out in parts. I hope to publish them soon.
B.R. Ambedkar
5th December, 1956.