(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.
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.