In capitalism, you can buy a Merc and hire a Brahmin driver

 

Arati R Jerath

The launch of the first Dalit venture capital fund was a red-letter day for Dalit entrepreneurs. But can the rise of a handful of Dalit billionaires empower a historically oppressed and exploited community? Dalit intellectual and writer Chandra Bhan Prasad believes it can. Defending the market as a liberating force, he tells Arati R Jerath that despite its drawbacks, capitalism, not quotas, is the way to go.

Black capitalism in the US is the inspiration for Dalit capitalism. But statistics show that African-Americans continue to languish behind on all socio-economic indicators. So how will Dalit capitalism benefit Dalits?

Black capitalism has brought visibility with recognition to the Blacks. If you compare their situation today with their immediate past, there is a landmark change. In absolute terms of course they remain unequal to the Whites. In India, capitalism is emancipatory because in capitalism, nothing is fixed by birth. The only permanent thing is competition and a Dalit has the opportunity to move ahead through competition. In the caste order, you cannot buy Brahmin status. In capitalism, you can buy a Mercedes and hire a Brahmin driver. That's the difference capitalism is making.

But you will agree that capitalism introduces a different set of inequities. And Dalits are the worst sufferers because they are still at the bottom of the ladder.

Capitalism may have class-based problems but these are radically different from caste-based problems. A caste-based system is a system of humiliation. In capitalism, there is poverty of course but that is universal to everyone regardless of his birth. Anyone who is lazy, who doesn't want to compete, will face the problem of poverty but minus the humiliation.

What do you hope to achieve through this Dalit venture capital fund? Will it give Dalits jobs, business opportunities, social mobility?

The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) has floated the fund to produce 100 Dalit billionaires. That will send a powerful message to Dalits that they can succeed. DICCI president Milind Kamble's philosophy is to fight caste with capital. There have been many movements historically to replace the caste system but we had nothing to replace it with. Now capitalism has come and material markers have replaced social markers. Dalits need to know that in this phase of history, only their work matters , not their birth. We do not see capitalism as merely a system of economic transaction. It is also a social order. The market doesn't care about social groups. It only recognizes individuals who have surpluses in their pockets. And that is good for Dalits because the market will not reject a Dalit simply because he is a Dalit.

The market can be cruel too. It makes no allowances for those who are weak and vulnerable as most Dalits still are.

There cannot be anything more liberating than the market if you compare market with caste. If somebody has faced the cruelty of caste, the cruelty of the market can be enjoyed in fact. In the old order, you worked without rewards. Now I can work hard and reap the benefits.

Aren't you depending too much on symbolism? Mayawati is a symbol of political success. A billionaire is a symbol of economic success. Surely Dalits need more than symbols.

In no society can all members become billionaires. We are saying that Dalit billionaires will lead the charge of emancipation. This is the beginning of a new era for Dalits, in which with very little education, they can be driving a BMW. Otherwise they will be doomed to compete for a few government jobs through reservations.

Are you saying that we should do away with reservations and welfare schemes for Dalits?

I am not saying that we should abandon state benefits. A section of Dalits needs help from the government. But we are saying that this is no enough. In the US, the idea of Black capitalism and affirmative action came together. And capitalist welfarism is much better than socialist welfarism because a socialist state has no surplus to distribute where as a capitalist system does.

It seems more like you are trying to prove something to the upper castes and upper classes.

We want to send a message to all that Dalits are not only takers. They are also givers. It is important to change the image of Dalits and show that they can dream beyond a BPL card and reservations. Those who belong to the poverty school think they are losing Dalits if they see a Dalit capitalist. An ideal Dalit for them is one who is dark-skinned, bare chested, carrying a farm tool, sweating profusely under a hot sun, sweating profusely. It's a shock for them to see a Dalit walking into a boardroom.

[Courtesy: TOI, July 21, 2013]