Dalit intelligentsia must act responsibly

by Chandrabhan Prasad

During my last visit to Hyderabad, a young Dalit got rather upset with my view that the British rule had helped emancipate the community. So passionate was he that he wouldn't even listen to Karl Marx's views about the positive impact of British rule in India.  Ultimately, when I presented him with details of how the British fought a long drawn out battle with the Varnas to win Dalits their right to education over the second half of the 19th Century, he relented a little.

The young man was a radical Leftist and hence walked the Leninist line, where colonialism is seen as the fundamental reason for all erstwhile colonies. Needless to say, his young Dalit mind had no idea that the Leftist line is quite in tune with the nationalist Varna line on the role of British imperialism in India. He didn't ever consider the fact that "anti-colonialism" is not part of the Dalits' intellectual tradition.

I was stunned the other day when I heard a Dalit argue passionately against the WTO meet at Doha. He thought Indian kisans would be the first to perish, because foodgrain would now be available at cheaper rates. I told him the kisans must perish, that that was our long cherished dream! These kisans own land in excess of ceiling legislation, produce surplus grain and take truckloads of it to the mandis. These kisans rape Dalit women, commit atrocities against the men, do not pay minimum wages and practise their doctrine of ultra-varnaism. I presented him with figures to show that of all Dalit landholdings, only 0.7 per cent (SC) and 2.80 per cent (ST) fell in the large categories and, therefore, what difference would a new WTO round make to a large majority of the Dalit masses, who were either small peasants or landless agricultural labourers? "If a few Dalits, who produce surplus grain, perish along with the main oppressors, we must still celebrate," I insisted. My nice Dalit friend probably had no idea that what he was saying was not an original Dalit perception, his own thinking had been shaped by the domesticated Left and the Social Justicists, who have a sizeable presence in the media and clout in Indian polity - and who have always stood by the land-owning communities.

And the recent dramatics in Delhi over Dalit conversions to Buddhism? While no educated and sensible Dalit would like to be called a Hindu, a section of the Dalit intelligentsia has completely mistaken the issue and made a mockery of Dalit activism. What is the "heart", "soul" and "body" of Hinduism? Unless we understand that, any discourse to do with conversion will be futile.

As a matter of fact, there is no Varna or Caste in the traditional Chaturvarna order without a well defined occupational identity - and there is no occupation with a well defined Varna-Caste identity. No Hindu text, we know, contains the term "Hindu" - but what was the term for "religion" which "Hinduism" replaced? Wasn't it Varna-Shram Dharma? And how was the term defined? Wasn't it a four-fold Ashram Jeevan Paddhati code for the individual and a four-fold Chaturvarna code for society. What was considered a sacrilege? "If one didn't observe the Ashram-Jeevan Paddhati, one was called a-dharmi. If one broke the occupational code, then, too, he was called a-dharmi. If one married outside his Varna/Caste, then also he was called a-dharmi. Eklavya in the Mahabharata was not admitted into Dronacharya's academy because that would have meant defiance of the occupational code. And Rishi Shambuk in the Ramayana was punished because his act of tapasya went against the same code.

In modern times, only those Dalits who have defied the occupational code, find themselves in a relatively better position. The day a Dalit becomes a teacher or a babu, he becomes a non-Hindu, although he still requires an alternate religious order. Dr Ambedkar had shown the way by embracing Buddhism. But those Dalits who remained with Varna/Caste-defined occupations, even after having converted, continue to be known by their earlier "religious" identities. That has been our experience with Islam, Sikkhism, Christianity and later, Buddhism.

Dr Ambedkar's act of October 14, 1956, in Nagpur, was his last one but not his final. Before that, he had fought for the Dalits' educational, economic, social and political rights. The Dalits who gathered in Delhi last week, thought October 14 was Ambedkar's last act and hence, all that he did before stood nullified. Isn't that the very height of stupidity, on the part of this brand of Dalits, who seem to be bothered in the least about the large majority of Dalits languishing in the Varna/Caste-imposed occupational categories? So intellectually lost have they become that they're not even prepared to consider their own experiences. Did they first become Buddhists? Did education and jobs follow later or was it the other way around? The world is changing fast but leaving Dalits untouched! The new Dalits must think and act responsibly, lest our large majority just languishes behind.

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