Interview with V.T. Rajshekar, editor, Dalit Voice

 by Professor Yoginder Singh Sikand,


                       Centre for Studies on Indian Muslims,

                       Hamdard University,

                       New Delhi

V.T. Rajshekar is the editor of the Bangalore-based English
fortnightly Dalit Voice.  Here Yoginder Sikand discusses
various aspects of the Dalit movement.]

Q:  You have been arguing that the Dalit movement should aim at the
strengthening of caste identities, instead of the abolition of caste,
in order to do away with caste oppression. Can you explain what
exactly you mean by this?

A: I have not propounded a new thesis. This argument is based on my
understanding of caste dynamics in India. Each caste or jati is an
identity by itself, and I believe that unless caste identities are
strengthened, caste oppression cannot be effectively challenged. Now,
the `upper' caste Brahminical elites argue that we are
promoting `casteism' by stressing our own caste identities. They
sometimes say that caste should be abolished, but of course they are
not sincere about this. They want to preserve their own caste
identities and their own hegemony, while demanding that the `lower'
castes, who form the vast majority of the Indian population, should
forget their identities. They want us to submerge ourselves into the
so-called `Hindu' community, of which they presume to be the natural
leaders and spokesmen. In this way, by Hinduising the Dalits they
want to preserve their hegemony, which they see being increasingly
challenged by radical Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes, who refuse
to be considered as Hindus. In actual fact, we are not Hindus at all,
so why should we forget our identities and choose to be identified
as `Hindus'?

Look at the Afro-Americans in America. They are challenging white
hegemony, not by denying their blackness, but precisely by stressing
it, by cultivating pride in being black. This is also what we in the
Dalit movement in India are trying to do. We need to strengthen our
own caste identities in order to counter casteism or caste
oppression. We have to take pride in being Dalits. We have to proudly
say that we are Chamars, Malas, Yadavs or whatever. We have to
recover our own histories, our own stories of struggling against
Brahminical oppression, our memories of our own historical
contributions. That's what Mayavati seeks to do, for instance, when
she begins her speeches at rallies with the slogan: `Mai Chamari
, Mai Tumhari Hoon' (`I am a Chamar and I am yours').

Any community which forgets its past, its identity, is doomed to
slavery. This is exactly what the Brahminical elites want when they
say that Dalits should cease to identify as Dalits, and should,
instead, consider themselves simply as `Hindus'. They want the Dalits
to hate themselves, which is what all the Brahminical scriptures
teach, so that we can never take pride in our identities and thereby
challenge Brahminical oppression.

Q: But wouldn't the strengthening of the identity of each Dalit jati
lead to a weakening of the Dalit movement as a whole?

A: Not really. To the contrary, it would help cement inter-caste
unity among the Dalits in the long run. You see, the Dalits are not a
single category. There are hundreds of different Dalit castes, each
with its own history, their own identity. At the village level no one
identifies himself or herself as a Dalit. Rather, he or she would say
that she is a Mala, a Madiga, a Chamar, a Ravidasi or whatever. So,
there is really no such thing as a Dalit identity in that sense, and
so it is wrong to think that strengthening the identity of each Dalit
jati would lead to a fracturing of an overall Dalit identity.

My argument is that unless each jati among the Dalits gets its due
share in accordance with its population, the Dalit movement will not
be able to manage the question of inter-jati relations among the
Dalits as a whole. It's like a wheel with many cogs and links, and
unless each cog and link is well oiled, the wheel itself will not be
able to move. My thesis has been opposed by some Dalits, who accuse
me of trying to divide the Dalit movement. But such opposition
generally comes from people who belong to those Dalit castes who have
gained much more than other Dalit castes from reservations in
government services for the Dalits, and who use this argument of a
single, homogenous Dalit identity to deny such benefits to other,
weaker Dalit groups. Thus, for instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the Malas
gained much more than the Madigas from reservations for Dalits. The
Madigas rightly saw that the Malas were using the cover of a unified
Dalit identity to garner these benefits for themselves. We in `Dalit
Voice' supported the demand of the Madigas, for which we had to face
considerable opposition from the Mala elites. So, as I see it, the
stressing of jati identities works particularly in favour of the
smaller and weaker Dalit jatis.

Q: Some people might argue that reinforcing jati identities of the
Dalits, as you propose, would only further reinforce the structures
of caste oppression and hierarchy. How do you look at this argument?

A: When I say that we must strengthen our caste identities, I don't
say we should do it simply for its own sake, but, rather, in order to
challenge caste oppression. Jatis form the bedrock of Indian society
and cannot be done away with. So, recognizing this basic sociological
fact, what I say is that while each jati must preserve its own
identity, the basic principle that governs inter-caste relations must
be overturned. In Hinduism, which is simply another name for caste
oppression, relations between the different jatis are governed on the
basis of the principle of social hierarchy, with the Brahmins at the
top and the Dalits at the bottom. What we say is that this hierarchy
must be torn down, and that the relations between the different jatis
should be on the basis of egalitarianism. All jatis should be
considered equal, and each should have its share of power and wealth
on the basis of its numerical strength. So, the Brahmins, who form
just 3 % of India's population, should have 3% of its resources,
while the so-called `lower' castes, who form almost 80% of the
population, should control 80% of the resources. But, today you have
a situation where the Brahmins and other `upper' castes control well
over 80% of the country's resources, and this is sanctified by the
Hindu religion! That is why we say that Hinduism or Brahminism is a
form of sanctified racism.

Q: Some might argue that strengthening jati identities might result
simply in the creation of new Dalit elites who claim to speak on
behalf of their jatis, with the conditions of the oppressed among the
Dalits remaining unchanged. How would you react to this argument?

A: It is true that within each Dalit caste, particularly among the
numerically larger and politically more influential castes such as
the Chamars in north India, you do have the emergence of a small
elite class. Now, the problem of class differences and exploitation
within the Dalits, or for instance, the question of gender oppression
among the Dalits, is a very real one. But our argument is that we
need to focus all our attention on tackling what we call
the `principal contradiction'—which is Brahminical hegemony and
oppression. Once that issue is successfully tackled we can address
what we see as `minor contradictions', such as class divisions or
gender oppression within the Dalit fold.

Q: What implications does your theory of caste identity have for
Dalit politics?

A: I believe that the strengthening of Dalit identities is crucial in
order for the Dalits to capture political power. If you see the
results of the recent elections, for instance, the defeat of the BJP
owes, to a large extent, to the mobilization of Dalit caste identity
in opposition to Hindutva, which the Dalits are increasingly
realizing is nothing else but Brahminical fascism. Dalits and
Backward Castes now feel that they must have their own political
parties, for the other parties, whether the Congress, the BJP or the
Communists, are all controlled by the `upper' caste Hindu minority.
And in order for Dalit-Bahujan political assertion to be strengthened
it is imperative that we stress our own jati identities.

Q: You have also been arguing that religious conversion is a must for
the Dalits in order to challenge Brahminical oppression. At the same
time you admit that caste identities remain intact even after Dalits
convert to other religions. What then is the role or meaning of

A: Religious conversion remains a potent weapon to challenge `upper'
caste oppression. This is what the unchallenged leader of the Dalit
revolution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, himself insisted. He argued, and
correctly so, that conversion to any egalitarian religion was
indispensable for Dalit liberation, for Hinduism, which is based on
the caste system, cannot give them equality and self-respect.
Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism with several thousands of his
followers. But Buddhism is just one alternative for the Dalits. For
any disease you have a variety of cures. Likewise, to cure the
disease of casteism, Dalits can try out various religious
alternatives, such as Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism or Christianity,
depending on local conditions.

Q: But what about the stigma of caste that continues to remain with
the converts even after their conversion to non-Hindu religions?

A: Caste is an identity like a tribal or ethnic identity, and so
naturally it remains even after conversion. My point is not that
one's caste identity does or should disappear after conversion. That
is quite impossible. It is also true that caste discrimination
continues even after conversion. However, it is important to note
that the severity of caste discrimination is considerably much less
in the case of Christians and Muslims, because their religions,
unlike Hinduism, do not sanction caste, and are fiercely egalitarian
in their social ethics. This is why for more than a thousand years
Dalits have been converting to Islam and Christianity in search of
self-respect and a better social status. This explains why the vast
majority of Muslims and Christians in India are descended from Dalit
and other `low' caste converts. Some of the most radical challenges
to caste oppression have come from Dalit converts.

Q: You stress the need for Dalit-Muslim unity, but, as the recent
events in Gujarat so tragically illustrate, this project is yet to
take off. How do you look at the issue in the light of the Gujarat
pogroms in which Dalits were used to attack and kill Muslims on a
massive scale?

A: I believe that the torching of the train carriage in Godhra might
well have been the handiwork of Hindutva fascists themselves, as some
newspaper reports have argued.  They used this event as an excuse to
unleash a terrible massacre of Muslims all over Gujarat. For this
purpose they employed the Dalits and Tribals, as they have been
repeatedly been doing in several other pogroms euphemistically termed
as `communal riots'. They succeeded in using the Dalits and Tribals
because of years of propaganda work among them, trying to Hinduise
them and instilling in them a fierce hatred of Muslims. In this way,
the `upper' caste elites sought to set their own major enemies—the
Dalits and the Muslims—against each other.

Now, despite this, or, you could say, precisely because of this, we
insist on the need for Dalit-Muslim unity. Hindutva, or Brahminical
fascism, is aimed at the enslavement not only of the Muslims and
Christians, but also of the Dalits, Backward Castes and Tribals-in
short of all peoples other than the `upper' caste Hindus. That is why
we strongly urge that we must all unite against `upper' caste rule.

Q: How have Muslim leaders responded to your proposal for Dalit-
Muslim unity?

Dalit-Muslim unity is warmly welcomed by the Muslim masses, who
are mostly of Dalit origin themselves. However, the Muslim elites,
especially from the north Indian `cow-belt', are quite opposed to
this. They see this as a major threat to their own claims to lead the
community. So, they pay lip sympathy to our demand for Dalit-Muslim
unity, but when it comes to political choices, they often join hands
with the Congress or the BJP or other such `upper' caste Hindu-led
parties simply in order to suit their own vested interests. Take the
case of the self-styled Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid. He
initially supported the Congress, but just before the recent
elections he declared his support for the BJP and appealed to Muslims
for vote for it. However, the Muslim masses are now increasingly
politically aware and conscious, which explains why in the Jama
Masjid area most Muslims voted for the Congress, instead of the BJP,
despite the Imam's support for the latter. As I see it, the Muslim
masses are growing increasingly disillusioned with the politics of
the Muslim elites, and sooner or later they will realize the need to
dump them and join hands with other oppressed groups such as the
Dalits, Backward Castes and Tribals.

: In this regard, how do you see the role of sections of the `ulama
and of certain Islamic groups that are hostile to Dalit-Muslim unity,
and who seem to imagine all non-Muslims, Dalits included, as being by
definition, what they call `enemies of Islam'?

A: Yes, some sections of the `ulama do probably feel this way,
although they have never said this to me directly. I would agree with
you when you say that this is a major obstacle in the path of
building unity between Dalits and the Muslim masses. Personally, I
feel this is a distorted understanding of Islam, for my own reading
of the Qur'an tells me that Islam insists on the need for Muslims to
struggle for the liberation of all oppressed peoples, irrespective of
their religion. I feel that the sort of exclusivist interpretations
of Islam that you have mentioned are voiced particularly by
organizations that are heavily dependent on Saudi funds. The Saudis
have a vested interest in promoting such a distorted understanding of
Islam. But today the oppressive Saudi rulers, who have been able to
survive all these years only because of their close ties with western
imperialists, are themselves under grave threat, and I think it won't
be long before they are overthrown by internal opponents.

To come back to your point about such exclusivist understandings of
Islam that stand in the way of unity between Dalits and the Muslim
masses, I must say that Muslim leaders, including the `ulama of the
madrasas, have only a very superficial understanding of caste,
Brahminism and Indian social history. That's why they do not properly
appreciate the need for Dalit-Muslim unity. That explains why when we
talk about the need for oppressed Muslims to challenge the hegemony
of elite Muslims we are dubbed by some elite Muslims as agents
working to divide the Muslims from within! That is the same argument
used by Hindutva-walas, who accuse us of dividing the Hindus on the
basis of caste. So, on the whole, I would say that when elite Muslims
speak about the need for Dalit-Muslim unity very often they are
hardly serious about it. They are not willing to critique caste
oppression within the Muslim fold, to interrogate the notion of
the `ummah' as a seamless monolith, and to recognize the existence of
caste, class and gender oppression within the larger Muslim community

Date:  Thursday June 24, 2004 




Article published in The Asianists' ASIA Edited by T. Wignesan Centre de Recherches sur les Etudes Asiatiques Paris France



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