The Deafening Silence of Dalits in Punjab

One of the striking aspects of Punjab politics is the near absence of caste as a major factor during elections. It is not that the factor is wholly absent, but in contrast to even its neighboring states like Haryana and Rajasthan, it is much less in evidence, to say nothing about states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra or Tamil Nadu, where caste is most visibly present, politically and otherwise.It would seem that this apparent non- chalance about caste in the state is because of the influence of a ‘casteless’ Sikh religion. Sikhism was certainly a most strident attack on casteism in the medieval period. The Guru Granth Sahib, for example, contains the writings by many saints including Guru Ravidas, a chamar. Guru Nanak also initiated the practice of langar- collective feasts where people from various dined together and thus helped blunt caste antagonism.The last guru, Gobind Singh initiated baptism and gave the new adherents the common suffix of Singh/ Kaur, further dealing a blow to identification by caste name. Guru Nanak, like most Sufi/ Bhakti saints, makes no reference to the Gita, that many consider upholds the caste system. So different is the treatment of caste from mainstream Hinduism that Dr. BR Ambedkar seriously contemplated conversion to Sikhism much before he decided in favour of Buddhism. It is not certain why he changed his decision, but one of the conjectures is that the (upper caste) Sikh theologians were appalled at the thought of millions of converted Dalit Sikhs taking over their religious institutions and thus changing the power equations.Like any other conjecture, this may or may not be true. But the main idea certainly deserves a discussion. After Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s consolidation of the twelve warring misls in early 19th century, it is a fact that the jats more or less controlled both the political and in the last half century also the religious institutions (via the SGPC).

But the roots of the caste consolidation within Sikhism go further back- to the time of the gurus. This needs to be understood well so that one does not make the same mistake as three Sikh organisations recently did, when they termed the vision of the Sikh gurus as the creation of a casteless society:

Three organizations also want to make use services the sants and dera heads to ensure assimilation of Dalits in rural areas in the mainstream. At many places, Dalits are denied entry into gurdwaras and also denied access to Guru Granth Sahib for religious ceremonies, including marriage and antim ardas. This problem has been creating rift among rural Sikh masses and need to be stopped as the Sikh Gurus were for a caste less and classless society. (news report ) (Link via Surinder S. Jodhka’s article in Seminar January 2008: Of Babas and Deras)

The claim of Sikhism as a ‘caste less’ religion needs to be critically examined. Historian JS Grewal has pointed out, for example, that “Guru Nanak does not conceive of equality in social and economic terms.” (quoted in Scheduled Castes in the Sikh Community by Harish K. Puri). Guru Nanak’s rejection of caste was thus mainly in religious terms.

The Sikh gurus’ attack on caste ism, though admirable by medieval standards, did not go far enough, and was a far cry from modern sensitivities towards caste.

For example, till the SGPC was formed, the Sikh religious institutions were by and large controlled by the Khatri castes (the mahants). Much before that, the Sikh gurus, including Nanak had ensured that the guru- ship remained within the hands of the Khatris. No doubt it was a great achievement for the first four gurus to pass on the gaddi outside their family- something that is difficult to even conceive today with politicians and film actors passing on the baton to the next generation within their family. The trend changed significantly after the fifth guru who switched to the practice of retaining the guru- ship within the family.

However, even the first four gurus including the greatest of them all- Nanak, ensured that the guru ship remained within their own caste. All marriages in the guru families were within the Khatri sub- castes. A major, if not the determining aspect of the caste system- endogamy, therefore was retained in Sikh practice.

Even contemporary Sikhs have not taken any major reforms for eliminating the caste system. There have been probably more marriages between Hindus and Sikhs within the same caste than within Sikhs across the castes- this is likely to be true about the Khatris and the Dalit Sikhs/ Hindus, two castes that overlap between the two major religious communities in the state.

Caste distinctions are relatively stronger in rural Punjab. With the economic rise of some sections of Dalits, there has been a spate of separate Dalit gurudwaras in the state. In urban areas probably the distinction is less antagonistic, though not absent. In some places like Jalandhar, for example, the leather trade and production of leather related sports goods for a long time ensured that it was possible for at least some sections of Dalits to wade themselves out of extreme poverty and concentrate on economic development.

However, it is a different story in the rural areas where majority of the landless and agricultural workers are Dalits. The only Dalit leader in the state Communist Party of India in the past many decades was the one heading the agricultural workers front. Indeed, most Communist leaders in the state have and continue to come from among the Jats and Khatris with perhaps the sole exception of Mangat Ram Pasla who was shunted out of the CPI(M) few years ago (he is not a dalit, but a nai, a backward caste). Most of the key Akalis are Jat Sikhs. Relatively the Congress party has offerred slightly more space to backward caste and dalit Sikhs- like Giani Zail Singh (a tarkhan, a relatively backward caste) and Buta Singh, a Dalit Sikh. A majority of the SGPC members are Jats.

Given the continuing presence of caste antagonism, it is indeed quite spectacular that caste remains not only relatively subdued during election time, but is also not very powerfully expressed in other areas. For example, though there was a strong literary movement in Punjabi between the 1950s- 70s, there has been an absence of an identifiable Dalit literary stream in Punjabi. There have been, indeed, poets from a Dalit background- Lal Singh Dil and Sant Ram Udasi come immediately to mind, but both identified themselves with the jujharu or the naxalite influenced movement rather than as dalits (though they are contemporary with the Dalit Panthers movement in Marathi literature.)

The Bahujan Samaj Party, whose founder Kanshi Ram, incidentally was a Dalit Sikh, has made little headway in the state. One tactical mistake that the BSP made was to ally with the Jat dominated Akali party, the party of their immediate oppressor, during the late 1990s. Its electoral debacle and the subsequent disillusionment among its cadres has ensured that it remains a marginal political force in the state, though of late it has gained ground in terms of percentage of votes polled.

Many dalits from various parties including the communist and the Congress parties who joined the BSP have returned to their original ones or have at least left the BSP- disillusioned with its culture and factionalism though, happily, some have come back with renewed assertion as dalits.

The Dalit question has recently come into limelight in context of the controversy around the burgeoning deras and baba cults in the state. As Surinder Jodhka cautions in the article quoted above, though these deras are certainly manifestation of a pluralistic culture in the state and attract many dalits, it is too optimistic to see them as places of dalit assertion. One of the footnotes in his article highlighting the contradiction between the interest of the deras and the dalits is quite illuminating:

The following statement of my taxi driver who took me to visit some deras in the Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts of Punjab is instructive. ‘I am a Scheduled Caste fellow. I do not own any land. Most of our people own no land. Everyone should have some land. If not more, at least two acres for each family. It would give people a sense of security and dignity. Look at these deras. They own so much land; some even more than a thousand acres. There should be some law to limit the amount of land that a baba keeps and the rest should be distributed among people like us.’My driver Buta Singh did not mean any disrespect to the babas. He not only paid obeisance to all the deras we visited, but was upset that I did not show sufficient reverence for the babas we visited. He firmly believed in their supernatural powers and ability to do good.
Whether because of super natural reasons or otherwise, there is certainly no identifiable dalit assertion in the state, politically or otherwise. Most of the attention to their identity has been highlighted by academicians and journalists. There seems to be neither a political, literary or any other manifestation of their assertion in the state despite having the highest proportion of scheduled castes in the country (almost 30% of the state’s total population.)There is a deafening silence on part of dalits in Punjab. One wonders why, and for how long.


(1) It needs to be remembered that Brahmins in the state are not the dominant caste, a role usurped by the jats in rural areas and the khatris in urban areas. In this, the state does not adhere to the pattern in many other regions in the country.

(2) Sikhs in Punjab constitute aout 63% of the population. About 30% of the population is classified as Dalits (mainly scheduled castes, there are no scheduled tribes in Punjab.) About 80% of the Dalits live in rural areas. The share of Sikhs in rural areas is 73%, implying that Punjab villages are predominantly Sikh and Dalit. (All statistics from Harish Puri’s article linked in “Related Articles”.) The Dalits also have one of the lowest percentage of land holdings,a measly 2.34% (Quoted in Ronki Ram, article linked in “Related Articles”.)

Related Posts:
Dalits and the Left: A Troubled Relationship
Wadali Brothers: Sufism and Dalit Emancipation
Imagining Punjab in the Age of Globalization
Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism
Significance of being Kanshi Ram: An Obituary

Related articles (.pdf files):

Scheduled Castes in Sikh Community by Harish K Puri
Punjab Census- Scheduled Caste Data by Surinder S. Jodhka
Of Deras and Babas b Surinder S. Jodhka

Myth of Casteless Sikh Society by Ronki Ram

Caste and Religion in Punjab by Meeta and Rajiv Lochan
Dera Sacha Sauda by Lionel Baxas
Split Dalit Votes- Punjab Elections 2004 by (unsigned in EPW)

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Is there a Dalit Sensibility?

Rama Rao VVB explains why a Dalit sensibility is different, in this issue of Muse India that focusses on Manipuri poetry and Dalit poetry in Telugu.

Is Dalit sensibility different? Isn’t all sensibility the same?

My answer is ‘yes’ for the first question and ‘no’ for the second. Sensibility, among other things, is a product basically of upbringing – dependent on environment and capacity to feel – dependent on exposure and social intercourse. Having answered the basic questions, I come to my own exposure to the genre – yes, genre for it is rightly claimed and rightly acceded, thanks to democratization of at least freedom of poetic expression – of dalit poetry in Telugu with authentic dalit sensibility. Though I cannot write dalit poetry authentically, I can certainly empathize with that as one of the many kinds of poetry and write about it too.

The point worth noting is that dalit poetry or dalit literature does not remain only as the expression of a community or a section for long. With their aspirations and their imaginative fervour and sensibility, they show the tendency of merging into the main stream enriching poetry in a sublime sense.

Purushotham K provides a comprehensive overview of contemporary Telugu Dalit poetry and the diversity within it.

One of the problems of the Dalit thought has been to fight the enemy within resolving the conflict between the caste and class. When it comes to the question of Dalit liberation, certain poets believe in class. For instance, balladeer Gaddar, whose songs and ballets inspired thousands of Dalits, is uncompromising about the class based solution: ‘Having been scorched again and again / Turned into an atom bomb / Having become an atom bomb, / We detonate to reform society in exploitation / We will build another world that would / Treat humans as the humans.’ Another revolutionary poet, Salandhra puts it: ‘What if I am called by whatever name / When I become a drop of tear / Blossomed in the eye of a comrade / When I imagine the goals of the martyrs in my wounds.’

The revolutionary Dalit poets valorize the fighting spirit, sacrifices and immortality of Dalit activists who lose their lives working in the cadre of the underground Left. Contrarily, the Dalit activists question the class based violent struggles in which it is the Dalits who are used as the pawns. U Sambasivarao, a noted activist/writer would question: ‘Those that hack my throat haunting us / Are certainly my tormentors / They keep professing us to / Join the class war / As all the labourers are of one class / They give up Dalitism of uprisings / We may be poor devoid of food / But we are rich by caste.’ Several other Dalit poets denounce that revolution is not a panacea of solution to the Dalit problems. Thinkers like Sivasagar, intellectuals like Kancha Ilaiah and Chandrabhan Prasad would argue that the Dalit problem need Dalit solutions as Shikhamani would satirize the class poetically: ‘I who sang heartfully / The heroic death of revolutionary warriors / Couldn’t be moved by / The mercilessly chopped bodies inflated / Having been stuffed into gunny bags and / Trampled into marshland.’ J. Goutam would critique the class based solution: ‘Sacrifices! Heroic march-pasts! The prisons of the State / Glue them all on the face of this fellow / Let’s surge ahead / ‘Let hundred flowers blossom, and / A thousand thoughts contend’ / Hail Marx, hail Mao and Lenin / Beware of Maoism’.

There is a good selection of translations of poems in the same issue.

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“Perhaps This was not Barbarity”

Santokh Singh Dhir, now 88, is one of the veterans of progressive Punjabi literature and the only one of his generation to have earned a living solely from his writings. Best known for his short stories, he has nevertheless published a number of collections of poetry.

While it is too early to speak of a current of Dalit literature in Punjabi– it remains on the margins of Dalit literature in India, the writers of the progressive movement like Dhir and others have articulated similar concerns in their writings over the years.

This is what Ashwini Kumar Mishra, author of the paper Voice of the Dalit in South Asian Literature (pdf!) has to say on the subject:

(the violence during the partition of the Punjab in 1947) was bound to have its impact on Punjabi literature for rooting to the cause of dalits. Kulwant Singh Virk had no time to depict lalit (beauty) in the face of a tortured life experienced by a sikh lady who like a dalit had to stay back in Pakistan thus embracing Islamism (sic). She was cut off from her relatives including family members and all that she could dream of was to unite with her sister in India. Amrita Pritam characteristically delineated such pathos in her story “Pinjar (The Skeleton) and novel ‘Dr. Dev’. Prof. Mohan Singh mirrored oppression in his poems and other poets like Bawa Balwant, Piara Singh Sehrai, Santokh Singh Dhir fell into the line to borrow their poetry themes from the sufferings of dalit community… In later years Amarjit Chandan, Amitoj came forward to sing the glory of peasants and workers in their poster poems. In fiction, Gurdial Singh celebrated the cause of the socially oppressed. His novel Paras hardly bothers for any kind of off beat utterances through magic realism but goes down to smell the earth and its subtle collective foundations.

S.L Virdi has rightfully emphasised on this form in a special issue of Punjab Dalit Literature “Yudharat Aam Admi”. Gyana Singh Bal has questioned the veracity of Adi Shankaracharya’s ‘Adwaitbad and denounces the same blatantly as an unrealistic contrivances of human mood.

I had the privilege of translating some of Dhir’s poems in my first year in college, and  even having some of them published in the Chandigarh edition of Indian Express and The Tribune. Despairing at the remote possibility of seeing the English translations of his poems published in his lifetime, Dhir gave me the manuscript a few years ago when I last met him. This poem, and few others that this blog will occasionally carry in future, are from that manuscript.

Perhaps This was not Barbarity

(A Harijan woman, Pritam Kaur, who was murdered by pushing a 22 inch stick into her private part. She was a volunteer (sewadarni) in a gurudwara in Hoshiarpur district)

Perhaps this was not barbarity
Only a common place affair

Had it been barbarity
Some Rama’s fire- arrow
Would have pierced and killed
The demon king
The city of Lanka would have burnt
And tethered
In the flowery flames of fire

Had it been barbarity
The Kurukshetra of Mahabharata would have danced
For ages the soil would have been crimson
And scarlet flames would have engulfed the skies

Perhaps this was not barbarity
Only a common place affair

(July 25, 1978)
[translated by readerswords]

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“Educating” Caste

Harsh Mander, one of the rare bureaucrats who have acted with conscience and who resigned from the Indian Administrative Services in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, writes on caste discrimination in schools and how traditional behavioural patterns are re- created in what are supposed to be modern institutions.

In a dilapidated slum shanty near the banks of the Ganga in Patna is settled a group of families whose profession is to clean dry toilets with their bare hands, and to carry human waste on their heads to throw into the forgiving waters of the mighty river. I found that not a single child studied in the government school, which, as it happened, was located literally just across the road from the scavenger colony. It took a while to coax from the guardians the reason for their steady resolve to keep their children away from school. It transpired that they had indeed sent their children to the school initially. It is a custom in many government schools for the teacher to send children on errands. The upper-caste children were assigned tasks such as to fetch tea. The children from the scavenger colony were asked to wash the toilets, or to clean up after a dog had soiled the school premises. The children could not bear the shame, and refused to return to the school…

Children in rural India, and even parts of the cities, learn early the rules of caste, which survive unremittingly through their lifetimes, even as their country races into the 21st century. A survey of practices of untouchability undertaken in 565 villages in 11 major states of India reveals shockingly that in as many as 38 per cent government schools, dalit children are made to sit separately while eating. In 20 per cent schools, dalit children are not even permitted to drink water from the same source…

Caste discrimination in mid-day meals is seen in various ways. The first is defiance of the Supreme Court orders to appoint cooks from dalit backgrounds. In states like Tamil Nadu only 14 per cent of the cooks are dalit. In many places where, although, dalit cooks have been appointed, upper-caste parents retaliated by not allowing their children to eat the meal, threatening to withdraw, putting pressure to replace the cook with an upper-caste cook and so on…

Almost 27.6 per cent dalits are prevented from entering police stations and 25.7 from ration shops; 33 per cent public health workers refuse to visit dalit homes, and 23.5 per cent dalits still do not get letters delivered to their homes. Segregated seating for dalits was found in 30.8 per cent self-help groups and cooperatives, and 29.6 per cent panchayat offices. In 14.4 per cent villages, dalits were not permitted to enter the panchayat building. They were denied access to polling booths, or forced to form separate lines in 12 per cent of the villages surveyed. Despite being charged with a constitutional mandate to promote social justice, local institutions of the Indian State facilitate untouchability.

Dalit settlements are often segregated from the main village, and these traditions are reproduced even by the government, when building Indira Awaas housing colonies for dalits or by NGOs, post-2001 earthquake reconstruction in Gujarat. In nearly half the surveyed villages (48.4 per cent), dalits were denied access to water sources. In over a third (35.8 per cent), dalits were denied entry into village shops. They had to wait some distance from the shop, the shopkeepers kept the goods they bought on the ground, and accepted their money similarly without direct contact. In teashops, in about one-third of the villages, dalits were denied seating and had to use separate cups.

In more than 47 per cent villages, bans operated on wedding processions on public (arrogated as upper-caste) roads. In 10 to 20 per cent villages, dalits were not allowed to wear clean or bright clothes or sunglasses. They could not ride their bicycles, unfurl their umbrellas, wear chappals on public roads, smoke or even stand without head bowed.

We found that restrictions on entry by dalits into Hindu temples were as high as an average of 64 per cent in 11 states, ranging from 47 per cent in UP to 94 per cent in Karnataka. Such restrictions endured even after conversion of dalits to egalitarian faiths. As many as 41 of the 51 villages surveyed in Punjab reported separate gurudwaras for dalit Sikhs, and even where dalits worshipped in gurudwaras frequented by upper caste jats, they were served in separate lines at the langar, and were not permitted to prepare or serve the sacred food. In Maharashtra, despite mass conversions of Mahars to Buddhism, dalits were denied temple entry in 51 per cent villages. Reports from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh chronicled divisions in the church between dalit converts and others, even discrimination against ordained dalit priests…

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The Die is Caste

The Little Magazine has its recent issue on the theme: “Reservation: Die is Caste“. Below are two extracts, the first is a short story by Rajendra Yadav translated from Hindi.Two in the next world

Brothers, I have found ease in the next world. Let’s set aside the complicated question of whether this is heaven or hell. Suffice it to say that the doctors bought me my ticket from the hell of this world to that of the next.

It happened like this — I was scheduled to undergo a complicated operation. A government surgeon would handle it. But I learned that he was from the reserved quota. In other words, there was no question of him being either capable or skilled. I sought the protection of a young, presentable and clever doctor in a famous nursing home. The fees and other charges took the starch out of me. But my family decided to gamble on it. If my life could be saved, they reasoned, I would get it all back. But I died on the operating table. Just bad luck, I suppose…

Now, in the next world, I have learned that the young doctor had made his way through the medical course by greasing palms with lakhs in cash and grabbing the feet of ministers and officers. And the day he graduated, he had collected a dowry worth crores and set up this nursing home overnight. Who knows where he had found the twenty-odd doctors who manned it. He must have recruited them in the hope that they would not be like him.

The doctor’s young wife had committed suicide because she could not extract enough from her parents to meet her husband’s needs. The day the doctor operated on me, he also made an alliance with a highly placed and prosperous family for his second marriage. And yes, the drugs which he had prescribed for me were fake. They were from a chemist’s shop conveniently located in the nursing home, established so that patients would not have to rush hither and thither to get their medication. So you see, I was fated to die.

Anyway, I’m fine here now. I think I’ll look for the doctor’s first wife and strike up a friendship with her. Poor dear, she must be somewhere hereabouts.

Translated from the Hindi story ‘Do Divangat’ (2006) by Pratik Kanjilal

Following is the poem What would you do? by the leading Dalit writer Omprakash Valmiki.

What would you do?

If you

Are thrown out of your village

Cannot draw water from the well

Are abused

In the screaming, echoing afternoon

Told to break stones

In place of real work

Are given leavings to eat

What would you do?

If you

Are told to drag away

Animal carcasses


Carry away the filth

Of a whole family

Given hand-me-downs to wear

What would you do?

If you

Are kept far from books

Far from the threshold

Of the temple of learning

If you are hung up like Jesus

On a blackened wall

In the light of an oil-lamp

What would you do?

If you

Have to live

In a hut of mud and straw

Which can be flattened by a breath

Or swept away in a night of rain

If you are told to sleep

In knee-deep water

What would you do?

If you

Have to swim against the current

To open the doors of pain

And do battle with hunger

Send your newlywed women

To the landlord’s mansion

On the first night

What would you do?

If you

Are denied in your own land

Made slave labour

Stripped of your rights

Your civilisation burned away

The pages of your glorious history

Torn to shreds

And thrown away

What would you do?

If you

Cannot vote

Are beaten bloody

Beaten in the name of democracy

And at every step reminded of

How insignificant your race is

If your life stinks

If your hands are raw

And yet they tell you

Dig canals, dig drains

What would you do?

If you

Are insulted in public

Your property is snatched away

In the name of religion

Your women told

To become devdasis

And made prostitutes

What would you do?

Your fair complexion

Would be burned black

Your eyes would be dry, dead

You could not write on paper

Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram.

Descendant of the gods, you

Would be lame, a cripple

If you had to live thus for ages

Like me

What would you do?

Translated from the Hindi by Pratik Kanjilal

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Dalits and Hindutva

At EPW Pralay Kanungo reviews Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis edited by Anand Teltumbde.

Gopal Guru makes an insightful observation on Hindutva’s penetration into the dalit bastion. As Guru explains, the public sector not only provided material security to many dalits, but also gave them psychological confidence to resist upper caste domination; with its dismantling, employment is rapidly shrinking and the expanding private sector is unwilling to open its doors to them. Hence, they fall back upon Hindutva primarily for material gains. However, their material objective is very much intertwined with a cultural quest as well. When dalit youths take part in Hindu religious festivals it is not just for a little pocket money, but also for glamour, public visibility, and some kind of cultural satisfaction. The glamour of Hindutva’s culture industry with electronic and digital spectacle overshadows the philosophical, rational and moral rigour of Ambedkarism.Hindutva’s cultural domination gets further reinforced as globalisation fails to provide any meaningful cultural alternative to the dalit youths, thereby compelling them to go for “subsidised satisfaction”. Hence, they fall prey to the promising cultural universe of Hindutva, which is more of a pragmatic choice rather than a substantive one. Hindutva conveniently transmutes the caste into the communal category where dalits become Hindus, forgetting their caste antagonism and adversarial identities.

In the context of Mayawati’s so- called “social engineering” (when it is little more than political opportunism), the following observation by Suhas Paliskar is relevant.

Palsikar concludes that in Maharashtra due to the political and ideological weakness of dalit politics Hindutva has made inroads into the space once occupied by the progressive forces. He rightly suggests that the issue of dalit-Hindutva alliance needs to be examined beyond the realm of electoral politics; it involves larger questions of hegemony and fascism which threaten to obliterate democracy and justice. Dalit politics in Maharashtra might have failed to checkmate Hindutva, but unlike Uttar Pradesh it certainly did not become Hindutva’s partner. Gatade accuses the BSP for subverting the dalit agenda by making an alliance with Hindutva purely for the sake of political power. Analysing the three spells of cohabitation that Mayawati had with the BJP, Gatade argues that Mayawati, who was firm and confident to start with, finally gave in to the communal politics of the Sangh parivar. The worst happened when she gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi and even campaigned for him in the Gujarat elections. Ramesh Kamble mentions that reckless pursuit of political power ironically compelled her to ally with the very Hindu upper caste forces whose hegemony the BSP wanted to demolish.

A Romantic Among the Bhils

An IITian’s Success Story among the Poorest in India

Rahul Banerjee did not make his millions in the Silicon Valley. In fact, he has never been to the Silicon Valley. He hasn’t made his millions either.

Instead he has written a book- and the book has not found a publisher. So he did not make his millions this way either.

But Rahul Banerjee found a wealth of experience and inner satisfaction of having spent a life among the poorest of the poor in the country. He represents that diminishing tribe of middle- class young men and women fired with an empathy for the downtrodden, forsake what could have been more comfortable lives, to work for, and with what Dostoevsky’s called the ‘insulted and the humiliated’.

A life- long activist among the Adivasis in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul was at one time associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, among others.

Recovery of the Lost Tongue is Rahul Banerjee’s mid- life autobiographical reflection on his life spent working with and organizing the adivasis in Madhya Pradesh. It is written in the manner of a well read and well- engaged activist, his range of reading is mind boggling, and his experiences as a foot- soldier organizer among the people he chose to work with, fascinating.

But the most exhilarating aspect of the book is is the harmony between thought and action, a constant dialectic between theory and action. Small is the tribe of such people, and fewer still are those who have documented their experience and engagement with some of the poorest of the poor in the country.

The result of this dynamic praxis is very evident in every chapter of the book, with its insights into the life of the poorest- adivasis, women and the Dalits. There are occasional flashes of flamboyance (Love is all you need) and humour. Some of the chapters are treatises in themselves, and each could spawn a book by itself.

What remains in the mind at the end is the constant effervescence of ideas and wisdom gleaned over a quarter of a century.

The themes that the book deals with are the author’s own urge that led him to give up a what could have been a comfortable middle class existence after he completed his engineering from IIT, Kharagpur in 1983 (A Mission Found ), his discovery of the life and struggles of the adivasis, his romance with his future wife and via her insights into Dalit life, the double exploitation of adivasi and Dalit women and the travails of organizing the poorest of the poor.

Some of the chapters written with an exceptional sense of adventure are those about the involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and its sad marginalization that continues (Reliving the Myth of Sisyphus). On Aruna Roy’s struggle for the RTI, he observes:


Unlike Medha who has directly challenged the state to repeal unjust laws and policies and implement fully its just laws, Aruna has remained content with coaxing it to just formulating good laws and implementing them in fits and starts and so has tasted a little more success. When the National Advisory Council was formed under the chairpersonship of the President of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi to act as a super think tank for the Congress led coalition government at the centre in 2004, Aruna was chosen to be a member of this powerful body. She used this opportunity to make two very good interventions resulting in the passage of the Right to Information Act 2005 and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005. (Casting Pearls Before Swine)

Parallel to this is his ideological evolution- from Marxism to interactions with Lohiate socialists and to the advocation of what he calls anarcho- environmentalism. One can differ with him on these, indeed as I do, but what is unquestionable is his extreme sincerity to the ideas that he has believed in at various times during the last quarter of a century and the ‘confident restlessness’ that the poet of the reawakening of Asia, Mohammad Iqbal spoke of.


In a very perceptive chapter Reliving the Myth of Siyphus, he analyses the objective conditions that requires Gandhiji’s techniques of Satyagraha to succeed:

What price satyagraha then as an action strategy for bringing the modern state to heel. Satyagraha has some chance of succeeding in crunch situations only when those practising it are in very large numbers and so convinced about their cause and the philosophy of Gandhism as to be able to exert moral pressure and bring about a change of heart in the oppressor. The Gandhian philosophy relies heavily on Hindu ascetism and mysticism as we have seen, and is far removed from the lives of common everyday people and even more so from that of the Bhil adivasis. Arundhati Roy, who has pitched in lyrically in support of hedonism in her Booker Prize winning novel “The God of Small Things” (Roy, 1998), has admitted in the monograph ‘Greater Common Good’ that the theory and practice of Gandhism requires a very strong moral fibre, especially when it comes to renouncing sex and shopping, which most ordinary mortals cannot do without

Sisyphus was such a daredevil that on one occasion he even kidnapped the God of Death and kept him chained in his palace. Pluto had to send the God of War to free him. We in the environmental mass movements in India too have been trying to chain the God of Ecological Death and like Pluto the high priests of the God of Modern Development have continually sent their God of War to stymie us. It looks as if we are similarly doomed to eternally rolling the rock of mass mobilisation up against the mountain of state obduracy only to see it go crashing down time and again. What can be more punishing than such futile and hopeless labour? But according to the French philosopher, author and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, Sisyphus is in fact at his glorious best when he is back at the foot of the mountain because then he is not bemoaning his fate but pondering over its inevitability given his rebelliousness against the Gods).

He considers the environmental challenge- to which even the adivasis have now fallen prey- to the “prisoners’ paradox” in which both the beneficiaries and the victims try to outdo each other devouring up increasingly scarce resource of Mother earth.

The adivasi mass organisations reviewing the situation found that the only way in which things could be improved was for the government to take action under the various laws at its disposal against the sahukars. Since this was unlikely given the political power of the sahukars plans were finalised for launching a mass action programme pressing for punitive action against them. This campaign was to piggy-back on the other ongoing campaigns for access to and control over the main natural resources of forests and water that were already underway. Given the persistent drought conditions the pressure on these resources had increased and so had the confrontation with the agencies of the state regarding their proper utilisation. In the Udainagar area the Gram Sabhas stopped the logging of timber by the Forest Department saying that if the government could not find resources to provide them with relief works to tide them over their livelihood crisis then it had no right to take resources out of the area to finance its other activities.

This decision of the Sangathan brought it into direct conflict with the deep-rooted resource extractive character not only of the Indian state but also of global capital. The state through the forest department has continually tried to increase the extraction from forests and the first major new initiative in the post independence era was the setting up of the MP Forest Development Corporation in 1975 to encourage industrial forestry, which would yield high returns in a short time, both in terms of timber output and revenue. But whereas bamboo was supplied to industry by the Corporation at 54 paise per 4 meters of bamboo the rate for the villagers was Rs 2. (Sundar et al, 2001). After this at the behest of the World Bank a social forestry programme was then implemented between 1981 and 1985 but this too was unsuccessful in meeting people’s needs for fuel wood and fodder because of the lack of sincerity on the part of the forest department. (Cry, My Beloved Mehendikhera)

The Myth of SisyphusHow mammoth and pointlessly excruciating the task is, is expressed in some of the more cynical chapters like The Exasperating Anarchist and increasingly becomes shrill towards the later chapters. The author has made repeated references to the myth of Sisyphus- made memorable by the Albert Camus, though at places, the experiences of the writer in fighting for justice for the adivasis recall to mind Kafka’s Joseph K- in the novel The Trial.

Two of the most passionately written chapters are Time for a Sabbatical and The Treasure of Terra Madre. The former is based on the experience of his wife, Subhadra, who coming from a Dalit family found the distance learning course from Indira Gandhi University to be a challenge. The author’s own attempts to get access to get data under the Right to Information Act from a university whose professed goal is ‘knowledge … dissemination through sustainable open and distance learning systems seamlessly accessible to all’. Instead, he discovers that:.

A total of 35,844 students enrolled in 2002 of whom 63.4 % were females and 36.6% were males. The Scheduled Castes constituted only 6.2 % whereas their percentage in the population as a whole is 15%. Their female to male ratio was about the same as that for the total students enrolled. The Scheduled Tribes constituted 5.9 % whereas their proportion in the population as a whole is 7%….

The most striking feature of the results is that of the considerably fewer number of female students passing as compared to male students. Thus in 1996 even though females constituted 67.1% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 29.5%. Similarly in 2002 while females constituted 63.4% of those enrolling their proportion in those passing out was just 31.6%.

Despite the harsh experiences, the author concludes with the following words in the last chapter The Obsolescence of the Art of Daydreaming:

Given the likes of the World Bank the task of recovering lost tongues is always fraught with a danger that is quaintly termed by Bengalis as the cool wind from the River Ganges blowing on one’s back. Whenever a mass movement reaches its peak there are a lot of people lending their active support to it. However, as state repression gradually intensifies, most of the supporters melt away preferring to watch birds instead. So the cool wind from the Ganges, which earlier had been kept at bay by their once numerous supporters, begins to uncomfortably caress the backs of the activist leaders and deters them from fighting on! That is why the shining example of the practical naturalist Ambedkar should act like a beacon for all those committed to freeing the human race from the destructive myth of modern industrial development. This “Mook Nayak”, or heroic leader of the dumb, right up to the day of his death single-mindedly pursued the goal of recovering the lost tongue for the dalits regardless of the support he may be getting. Like for him our battle cry should be “The battle to me is a matter of joy, for ours is not a battle for wealth or power, it is a battle for freedom.”

Rahul Banerjee has not been able to give back the tongue to the adivasis. But he has learnt their language and spoken for them. And in the process, has etched the ideas and struggles that have defined the sensitivities of our age.

One hopes that he continues to carry forward as a crusading public intellectual of the other India.

(This post appeared earlier last week at How the Other Half Lives.)

Image Acknowledgments : Rahul Banejee’s picture, Sisyphus

Above all, thanks to Rama for the link to Rahul’s book.

The Lessons from Khairlanji

Anand Teltumbde has an very insightful article in the Economic and Political Weekly on the context and aftermath of the ghastly Kharilanji incident on 15 October 2006. The full article is available at the EPW site in pdf format. Some extracts:

There is a discernible increase in the intensity of atrocities in recent years, which may be explained to some extent by their being committed by a collective. The cruelty displayed in certain recent caste atrocities defies human imagination. The details of the torture inflicted on the Bhotmanges in Khairlanji cannot be believed to be an act of human beings – a mother and daughter being paraded naked to the village centre, the genitals of the boys being crushed with stones, the two women being gang raped to death and the corpses being callously thrown into the canal.

The insidious role the police played in the making of Khairlanji and then suppressing it is quite representative of caste crimes anywhere. Khairlanji is a village of 800 people in which just three households are of neo-Buddhists (dalits) and seven households are of gonds (tribals), who in Vidarbha more or less identify with the caste Hindus, the balance population belonging to the kunabi, kalar, teli, lodhi, dhivar, vadhai and other jatis, which fall under the other backward classes (OBC) category, but serve as upper caste vis-a-vis dalits in a village setting. In such circumstances, dalits will never come out in open conflict with caste Hindus unless there is a grave enough reason. The land dispute that triggered a saga of the Bhotmanges getting ostracised was not unknown to the local police.

Although it would send shivers down the spine at the thought that such a ghastly incident could have been buried in the files of an obscure police station, this is precisely what was initially planned. On hindsight, it might appear foolish on the part of the schemers to have imagined that they would be able to cover up the incident, but the very fact that they tried suggests that this was not entirely out of the realm of possibility. The public uproar over the incident broke out a full month after the incident, during which it was as good as buried. If even Bhaiyalal Bhotmange’s first information report (FIR) led to the arrests of some people (not the real culprits, he kept on shouting until end-November) in Khairlanji, as it actually happened, who would have followed the case, what would have happened in absence of any evidence or any witnesses? Khairlanji, with all its bestiality and gore would have been covered up and forgotten. Nobody would have known about it. Even now that it has got so much publicity, one cannot be sure that the real criminals would ever be punished. If the Ramabai Nagar case in the heart of Mumbai could frustrate dalits, who could be sure of conviction in remote Khairlanji?

What followed Khairlanji was equally grave. As the information on the gruesome murders began leaking out of the factfinding reports and spreading around, it created revulsion among certain sections of the dalit community. The first reaction was to come out in protest on to the streets; a women’s organisation, the Rashtriya Sambuddha Mahila Sanghtana in Bhandara, took out a massive rally on November 1. This rally provided inspiration to others to organise protests in various towns and cities. Soon, the entire Vidarbha region reverberated with protests. It is notable that almost everywhere dalit women had taken a lead.

At the rally in Nagpur, one of the first in a series of protest actions, people expressed their anger by blocking traffic and shouting anti-government slogans, nothing

abnormal, given the context of Khairlanji. However, the home minister of Maharashtra issued a statement on camera that the government suspected Naxalites were behind these protests. Later he publicly retracted the statement, as it led to an uproar among dalits. However, the Nagpur police fully capitalised on it to unleash severe repression on the dalit masses. The brutal lathi charges on protesting dalits, the arrests that followed these protests, the showering of filthy casteist abuses, the humiliations heaped on people in police custody as though they were hardened criminals, and police vehemence in opposing their bail applications, were reflective of a deep anti-dalit bias and intolerance of dalit assertion of their democratic rights.

Beyond the empirical analysis that Anand makes aboves, it is the latter part of the article that holds some very insightful theoretical analysis.

Why, even in the wake of Khairlanji, there were a spate of atrocities in Maharashtra itself, which significantly included the brutal cutting into pieces of a dalit farm labourer in Jahangir Moha village of Beed district of Marathwada in November or the killing of a youth belonging to the matang caste in Umarga Narangwadi in October. But both these atrocities did not create even a ripple among dalits. Outrage over Ambedkar statues however is legion; recall, for instance, the Ramabai Nagar incident that took toll of 10 lives in police firing and self-killing in protest of a revolutionary dalit poet, Vilas Ghogre. It seems that dalits are more concerned with symbolic identity issues than with what happens to the living members of their community. On the positive side, the Ambedkar statue symbolises the loftiest legacy of dalit struggle, which should inspire generations of dalits to take this struggle further, but on the negative side, Ambedkar could become just a god head, like that of erstwhile vithoba or mhasoba, that could enslave their spirits. Considering the state of dalit masses, the latter is more likely to happen. None other than the ruling classes understood this and decided to promote it; the more the creed of the Ambedkar statue takes root, the more would Ambedkar’s ideals be rooted out.

The sensitivity towards dignity, symbolised by the Ambedekar statue, is only justified if it is associated with a similar concern for the plight of living people. While the inversion may be explained to a large extent by the historical alienation of the dalit movement from social movements inspired by the philosophy of historical materialism, it is time for dalits to realise that this reactionary disorientation has already done a great damage to their collective well-being.

Some of the obvious myths that get exploded are the myth that economic development does away with caste, the myth of Maharashtra as a progressive state, the myth that there exists a significant progressive section of non-dalits that is against the caste system, the myth that dalits placed in the bureaucracy can orient the administration to do justice to dalits, and finally the mythology of bahujanwad developed by the late Kanshiram and followed by others. Many intellectuals hold the notion that economic development will eradicate castes.

There is an associated myth about Maharashtra that it is a progressive state. This myth is built upon and related to its economic development, particularly around the Mumbai-Pune region, which significantly elevates the economic position of the state relative to the other states. Another factor that contributes to this myth is the origin of the non-brahmin and dalit movements in the state by Jotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar respectively. The empirical reality however is quite contrary. Maharashtra is as casteist as any other state. Maharashtra has an inglorious track record of heinous atrocities perpetrated on dalits.

It is a popular myth that there exists a significant progressive section of non-dalits that is against castes. There indeed is a large section of people who hold progressive ideas on many other social issues, such as communalism, gender discrimination, general exploitation of labour and the peasantry, and so on. However, when it comes to caste, they conveniently leave it for dalits to deal with. When Khairlanji protests broke out, they should have come forward to express their support to dalits. After all, it was apolitical and organised by people who in some way shared their progressivism. Why then were they not there? Why do the people who take up the cause of the communal oppression of Muslims so enthusiastically not moved on the issue of caste oppression? Why the people who are genuinely concerned to save Afzal Guru do not show any sensitivity to the pervasive injustice being done to dalits? Why is the opposition to caste bracketed with casteism? It appears, progressivism does not necessarily mean anti-casteism in India. Even the communist parties, who claim to have changed their stand on caste issues, do not think that they ought to go beyond tokenism. Why did they not mobilise their cadres to protest against Khairlanji? Progressivism in this country does seem to include the dispelling of caste consciousness.

Importantly, Khairlanji also blasts the myth that if dalit individuals are placed in the bureaucratic structure, the latter becomes more congenial to dalits. This myth informs a large part of the argument for reservations. As discussed, Khairlanji best exemplifies the complicity of the state machinery in the perpetration of caste atrocities, and interestingly, even when this machinery is largely manned by the people of the dalit community. The superintendent of police, Bhandara, the deputy superintendent of police, the PSI of Andhalgaon police station, a constable under him, the doctor who performed the post-mortems, the district civil surgeon who permitted the doctor to go ahead with the post-mortems without a lady doctor, the public prosecutor who advised against the application of the PoA Act to the earlier cases which were essentially caste-based, the nodal officer at the apex level who is entrusted with the responsibility of reviewing the state of crimes against SCs and STs in accordance with the PoA Act, were all dalits and belonging to the same sub-castes as that of the Bhotmanges.

And the final paragraph is extremely meaningful:

Above all, Khairlanji explodes a mythology, that of bahujanwad, developed and practised by the late Kanshiram with a reasonable level of success. Dalit politicians such as Prakash Ambedkar, Udit Raj, and many others, but without acknowledging his debt, are following bahujanwad. Bahujanwad is basically an expedient strategy of the lower castes to succeed in electoral politics, not very dissimilar to creating a maratha like middle caste identity as successfully done by Sharad Pawar or Mulayam Singh. It assumes that all the lower shudra castes and dalits can come together and create a formidable constituency to bid for power. Indeed, purely from the standpoint of their material status, all these castes are placed similarly and there is no doubt that they should come together. But when bahujanwad aspires to unite them on the basis of caste identities, it misses one point, namely, the fundamental break that divides them into caste and non-castes, varna and savarnas, unlike the maratha or any other caste identities, which fall on one side of the continuum. This divide can only be crossed if one transcends it with an entirely different approach, the class approach that emphasises their similarities. Khairlanji, and for that matter every caste atrocity, confused the bahujanwad because these atrocities are invariably committed by the so-called OBCs.

Gujarat: Thoughts on the Threat from Hindutva and Islam

(This post appeared at earlier this week as part of the series on Remembering Gujarat on the 5th anniversary of the Godhra incident and the Gujarat pogrom. My thanks to Mohib and the other folks there for inviting.)

Aiti maar payi karlande tain ko dardu na ayiya
(Such terrible orgies were wrought on us, O Lord
And you felt no pity, and no pain for us)
– Guru Nanak


In what is probably the first serious study and theorization of communalism in India, historian Bipan Chandra had pointed out in The Rise of Communalism in Modern India, that communalism is a modern phenomenon that arose when politics became mass politics- “communal” riots as we know them today started in the 1890s.

The second aspect that he pointed out and has been contested later by others, is that communalism is primarily an ideology, an ideology whose nearest historical precedent is that of fascism- and it was none other than the now beleaguered but one time hero of Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru who had pithily pointed out that if fascism will arrive in India, it will arrive in the form of majoritarian (Hindu) communalism.

Whatever be the exigencies of Nehru’s detractors, he has been proved right. Above all, in Gujarat in February- March of 2002, where the State itself turned against its own people and not just that, the government was returned to power by the people of Gujarat in the elections held in December 2002. As if to complete the irony, the elections were fought by the Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party in the name of “Gujarat’s Asmita” or Gujarat’s Pride.

The Indian National Congress, both in Gujarat as well as in neighboring states has been trying to play the “soft” Hindutva card, it was indeed the single minded doggedness of Mrs Sonia Gandhi who led from the front in countering the Bharatiya Janata Party’s communal venom that has provided a counter to Hindutva at the level of national politics, though the elections that led to the comeback for the INC led UPA were won not on the basis of the secularism but because of mass disenchantment with the uneven “benefits” of neo- liberalism.

Which is what, in my opinion, is the hard fact that liberals and the left have to confront with. For long have we believed, like Nehru himself, that economic development will lead to the elimination of casteism and communalism. Gujarat has shown quite the opposite. A society can continue to develop economically, but instead of eliminating casteism and communalism, it can actually exacerbate it.

The second aspect that Gujarat underlines is more frightening, and something that liberals and the left find it very difficult to accept- the idea that ghettoizastion or segregation of “Muslim” and “Hindu” communities is probably better than mixed neighbourhoods, less impact was felt in those areas in Gujarat where such intermixing did not happen. Eric Hobsbawm, in a different context, has eerily pointed out that ethnic cleansing can actually solve problems. To the further consternation of the liberals, Gujarat may actually prove this for India.

A third citadel of liberal belief that the Gujarat pogrom has attacked is that whatever be the case, the processes of secularization hold out hope- after all, it is pointed out, that rail travel did much more to reduce casteism than any ideological campaign. Again, Gujarat may prove the opposite.

Having listed some of the threats posed by Hindutva- and validated in its Gujarat laboratory,let me pose a different question: what is the nature of the threat from Islam that seems to galvanize Hindutva folks into such ghastly mayhem demonstrated in February 2002?

To answer this, one has to keep in mind the backdrop to the anti- Muslim campaign of the Hindutva outfits that has gained much momentum since the 1980s. There is an overall crisis in society, and as often is the case, a movement forward is often accompanied by a need to borrow masks and symbols from the past- in this case, the perceived past and contemporary threat from Islam to Hindu society.

This crisis is manifested in a further exacerbation of caste conflict in various parts- and Islam has a very significant role to play in this. It was, after all, the Meenakshipuram conversions in 1981, when an entire Dalit village converted to Islam, that led to the formation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its various yatras (one of them flagged off by Mrs Indira Gandhi herself, in her shift to Center- Right politics after 1980).

Note also a point that Tapan Basu et al make in their tract Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags:

The centrality of Maharashtra in the formation of the ideology and organization of Hindutva in the mid -1920’s might appear rather surprising, as Muslims were a small minority and hardly active, and there had been no major riots in the region during the early 1920’8. But Maharashtra had witnessed a powerful anti -Brahmin movement of backward castes from the 1870:8 onwards when Jyotiba Phule had founded his Satyashodhak Samaj.

It was Islam, lest it not been forgotten, that woke up Indian society from its deep slumber in the early part of the last millennium- it brought the message of equality that the caste system denied, and continues to deny. It may seem incongruous today, but note what M.N Roy in his small but illuminating book The Historical role of Islam had observed:

… To the above highly illuminating statement, it may only be added that the rise of reformers like Kabir, Nanak, Tukaram, Chaitanya, etc. who evidenced a popular revolt against Brahmanical orthodoxy, was to a great extent promoted by the social ecects of Mohammedan conquest.In view of this realistic reading of history, Hindu superciliousness towards the religion and culture of the Muslims is absurd. It insults history and injures the political future of our country. Learning from the Muslims, Europe became the leader of modem civilization. Even to-day, her best sons are not ashamed of the past indebtedness. Unfortunately, India could not be fully benefited by the heritage of Islamic culture, because she did not deserve the distinction.

The attack on Islam and Muslims in India has deepened with a simultaneous crisis in the Muslim world and its supposed confrontation with the West and has confused the issue.

The crisis in India is not that of Islam, but of Indian society- Hindu society if you like. To see the “threat from Islam” in the same light as the West’s own conflict in the middle east leads to an obfuscation of the issue. The “threat from Islam” in India is more in the sense of Roy’s warning of ignoring Islam.

In the words of a contemporary Dalit writer:

The Hindutva maniacs believe that they publicly reserve the rights to call any Muslim a militant and every madarsa a Jehadi terror factory. The Parivar preaches: Hindu fundamentalism is patriotism. But, Muslim fundamentalism is terrorism. And they relentlessly work towards their fanatic goals, trying to turn the best of us into brutes. … We need to fight because the end of Islam in India represents the end of equality.

Gujarati Dalit Literature

Muse India has a special 2nd anniversary issue (Jan- Feb 07) with a focus on Gujarati Dalit literature. An excerpt from the overview by Vankar G.K.

It is difficult to say when first Gujarati Dalit writing came into existence. But undoubtedly the publication of Aakrosh, a poetry journal of Dalit Panthers, on 14th April, 1978, was an important milestone. The anti-reservation agitations in Gujarat in 1981 and 1985 generated intense awareness about dalit rights and led to a surge of creative output of dalit literature. Within almost three decades Dalit literature in Gujarati has established itself firmly as a genre which cannot be ignored.

…Usually Dalit poetry is not written in meters; the most important conditions are authentic experience, commitment to dalit fraternity and social justice, vehement opposition of decayed social order and oppression in name of religion.

A poem from the selection:

The stink of the Hellpit by Jayant Parmar (trans by Vankar V.G.)

The stink of the hellpit
Dogs me
to my school
Below the sun umbrella
It would descend
In the hellpit.

She would
The animal skin
In salt and water
And cleanse it with her dead feet
As a reward
She would bring
For me
A piece of meat.

Even today
When I shine my shoes
With cherry blossom
In its shining
I see my mother’s face.

The stink of hellpit
Dogs me
to my office.

Related post: Tamil Dalit Literature

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Martin Luther King: “I am an Untouchable”

As chance would have it, when I picked up the autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography I Have a Dream at a bookstore yesterday, it opened on Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, which is about his visit to India in 1959.

Reading on, I was struck by Dr. King’s experiences during this historic visit. admittedly, till this instant, I was not aware that he had ever visited India.

In fact, he was in India for one full month, which is a reasonably long duration.

His observations during the visit are striking, and speak of both the respect that he had for Mahatma Gandhi as well the sheer idealism that he seems to have experienced- in fact so surreal that it is almost suspicious.

We were looked upon as brothers, with the color of our skins as something of an asset. But the strongest bond of fraternity was the common cause of minority and, colonial peoples in America, Africa, and Asia struggling to throw off racism and imperialism.

We had the opportunity to share our views with thousands of Indian people through endless conversations and numerous discussion sessions. I spoke before university groups and public meetings all over India. Because of the keen interest that the Indian people have in the race problem these meetings were usually packed.

This is in stark contrast to what most Africans or African- Americans would experience today and one wonders what Dr King would have written if he visited India today.

But what is most touching is the following anecdote that he recalls from a visit to a school for the (then so called) “untouchables” (now called the Dalits).


I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables ….

The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, “Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

And for a moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable ….

I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attending inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities.

And I said to myself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”

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The Left, Caste and Dalits: A Troubled Relationship

(This post appeared at Jack Stephen’s blog, The Mustard Seed. My thanks to Jack for having invited me for writing the post).

The Indian Left has had a troubled association with the caste question.

The major reason, in case of the Left has been the over arching importance that Marxism has attached to class and class conciousness. This has been true of the Marxist Left which includes the original and later CPI, the CPM and even most of the Maoist formations. The socialist parties, specially under Ram Manohar Lohia and to a lesser extent Acharya Narendra Dev acknowledged the issue of caste since the fifties though from the backward caste, and not a Dalit perspective.

This post, however, focuses on the relationship between the Marxist Left and Dalit politics.

The class based approach of the Marxist Left gave little importance to caste, and even saw it as an impediment for growth of class consciousness. It’s mass fronts consisted of the trade unions, the peasant associations, landless agricultural workers. Outside these class based fronts were those for women, students and the cultural wing (the famous Indian People’s Theater Association).

No scope was seen for a Dalit or any other caste based association. In fact, when the DS4 of Kanshi Ram began to grow in the 1980s, it was seen, even by those cadres in the existing communist parties who came from a Dalit background, as reactionary and dangerous- since these threatened to break the unity of the class based fronts along casteist lines. At no time, till the Mandal Commission forced it to take a firm stand, did the Indian Left see centrality of the caste question in India.

Within the CPI and the CPM, the leadership has been, even till recently, primarily drawn from the Brahmins or the local dominant castes, with very few exceptions. Neither have these parties made any conscious attempt to bring cadre from the Dalit strata into leadership positions. Instead, they have recreated in their internal structures the imbalances of society.

This is not to deny the fact that they have also been relatively less susceptible to casteism, and many among their cadre continue to be within these parties because of the relative absence of casteism within these parties in comparison with others. This is especially so where Dalit movement has been weak or non- existent.

In comparison with some other countries, the Indian communists’ participation and acceptance of parliamentary politics has been long and unquestionable. However the stress of political action also blunted the social and mass based actions that these parties should have been involved in.

This came out very clearly when, after the CPI(M) Congress in 1998, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the then party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus:

“There has been no social reform movement in the state”.

This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

Another reason of this dichotomy between the Left and the Dalit movement has been that Dr. Ambedkar, by far the most towering leader of the Dalit movement if not its only one till the rise of Kanshi Ram, had been an opponent of Marxism. His focus remained the social upliftment of the Dalits and as a politician his sensibilities honed in English liberalism restricted his view. W.N. Kuber puts it thus:

In 1937, (Ambedkar) founded the Independent Labour Party, for sometime joined hands with the communists in the labor field but did not take consistent attitude and fight class battles. Though his community was downtrodden and landless and mostly wage- earners, still he could not make them class- conscious, because of the weakness in his inherent thinking. After the Poona Pact he tried to lead the working class, but failed and left the field forever, and chose to become the leader of his community.

(source: Ambedkar: A Critical Study by W.N. Kuber, 1973. Page 304)

His insistence on Buddhism as an alternative to Marxism also did not help to build bridges.

Buddhistic countries that have gone over to communism do not understand what communism is. Communism of the Russian type aims at bringing it about by a bloody revolution. The Buddhist communism brings it about by a bloodless revolution. The South East Asians should give a political form to Buddha’s teaching…. Poverty cannot be an excuse for sacrificing human freedom.

(Source: Ambedkar, Life and Mission, page 487, quoted in Kuber).

To the over arching importance that Dr. Ambedkar gave to conversion as a salvation for the Dalits (then called the Depressed Classes), the scholarly CPI leader Hiren Mukerjee commented:

But merely by changing one’s religion, one cannot bring a solution, particularly to the kind of problem that we have in our country. That is why I say the conversion to Buddhism was a gesture, a moral gesture, with certain conceptual connotations of its own. Buddhism is a magnificent religion, but somehow it was eased out of India. If by some miracle, Buddhism is brought back again, well and good. But things do not happen in real life like that.

(source: Hiren Mukerjee: Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Extirpation of Untouchability, page 46, quoted in Kuber)

If the Left parties are more sensitive to the caste question in recent years, it is because of the battle lines that were drawn in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission and also because of the political base that caste based parties, especially the Bahujan Samaj Party have been to create for themselves. While these made a dent in the following of all existing parties, the ones specially impacted were the Congress and the Left.

The second reason is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as one of the more oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness.

This has now changed, and rightly so. The communists and the Dalit movement share a complementary role. While the Dalit movement has articulated the social and political aspirations of the oppressed community, it has lacked a firm economic program, with the result that once power is gained (in Uttar Pradesh, for example), the lack of a class based theoretical perspective restricts it to either parliamentary politics or the perspective, often narrow, of a single leader. A Marxist understanding and placing the Dalit movement within a larger national and world wide struggle for emancipation complements this social and political approach.

It is not that this has not been attempted, it was there during the brief existence of the Dalit Panthers Movement in the 1970s before its disintegration. It was also there in the approach of Sharad Patil who broke away from the CPM to form the Satyashodak Communist Party in Maharastra in the 1980s.

Given the ossification in the dominant Left, however, this dialogue will have to be initiated by the cadre of the Dalit movement and independent Marxists.

(This post owes much to Raghbir Singh, with whom I’ve had numerous discussions on the topic. He had first “warned” me about the “threat” from DS4 way back in 1987. Needless to say, we have both substantially revised our understanding since then.)

Sewer Divers of Mumbai, Dalits and Technology

Technology is rarely seen as liberating for Dalits, most discussions are around social distinctions, and of late, around reservations and violence against Dalits.

Mulk Raj Anand, in his novel ‘Untouchable’ written in 1935 had opined the use of technology- like the usage of water closets and a drainage system to do away with many of the jobs that Dalits do. 70 years on, the situation has not changed dramatically.

While people will discuss about the 100 dollar laptop, no one will talk about simple technologies that impact those doing the most unproductive, if not filthy jobs.

It was this post by KA Muston writing at Daily Kos that led me to this observation- looking at technology from the point of view of the Dalit is something that is matter of fact for an American, not so for those writing on Dalits in India, from whatever perspective.

Each year about one hundred Dalit men across India die from breathing methane or drowning in filthy water. (There are no figures collected on the Dalit women who empty the thousands of village cesspits.) Worse, there is no count of the workers who die from respiratory diseases, urinary tract, skin and eye infections, gastrointestinal ailments and lung cancer. Fewer than 14% of them live to the age of 50. What a backward people the Indian people are. George Bush is right. We have a moral responsibility to deliver these people out of ignorance and into the enlightened path of democracy.

When they first built the London sewer (in the 1860’s) large metal balls just a few millimeters narrower than the diameter of the sewers were periodically fed through the brick tubes, driven by water current and driving all blockages before them. These balls are still used to maintain the sewers in London and Paris. Why couldn’t the people of New Deli (sic) (now Mumbai) have come up with a similar system? The answer is that in India people have always been cheaper than technology.

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Wadali Brothers: Sufism as Emancipation

Noted Sufi singer brothers Puran Chand Wadali and Pyare Lal Wadali and three members of their troupe were injured when their Tavera vehicle collided with a stationary truck on the Amritsar- Jalandhar road in the wee hours today.

While Puran Chand Wadali got internal injuries, his younger brother Pyare Lal was stated to be serious.

As I read this chilling piece of belated news (via Sufinews), I was reminded of the many performances by the Wadali brothers that I have had the privilege to attend.

The Wadali Brothers are a 5th generation Sufi singers from the village called Guru ki Wadali in Amritsar district.

I first heard them sometime in the early nineties. We sat on rugs on the floor in a DAV college auditorium, as mists swirled in the wintry evening outside. The auditorium was not exactly overflowing with students.

This was to change later, when I heard them next, the show was in the city’s biggest theater and it was packed to capacity.

But in both cases, one was struck by the electrifying quality of their singing. It was not just the sheer quality of their deep throated rendition, but also the selection of the qalam. They sang not only much from the doyen of the Punjabi Sufi poets, Baba Bulle Shah but also one could not but help noticing that their compositions combined poetry from various Sufi poets.

Some of the most radical snippets were taken from various sources to deliver a performance that not only mesmerized with its musicality but also delivered a strong message of emancipation. The verses were from Bulle Shah, Baba Farid, Amir Khusro and Sant Kabir as well as Shah Hussain, Ghulam Farid and other Punjabi Sufi poets.

This is one aspect of their singing that renditions available in cassettes, CDs and also online do not seem to contain.

Only in this rendition of the Jugni does this aspect come forth to some extent. The Jugni had been, for many years, trivialized to some extent. The Wadali Brothers’ version of Jugni that I heard in a live performance had elegantly combined some very powerful snippets from Kabir and Bulle Shah, both of whom have written very critically about institutionalized religion. Bulle Shah, for example says:

dharamsal vich dharvi rahinde, thakur dware thug
vich maseet kusatti rahinde, aashik rahin alag

(In temples reside the ruffians, in gurudwaras, the thugs
In mosques reside the liars, the true lovers (of the Divine), stay aloof from all these.)

If I am not mistaken, the Wadali brothers come from among the Dalits for whom Sufism has a strong appeal with its message of emancipation.

The elder of the two, Puran Chand Wadali spent 25 years wrestling in an akhara before becoming a full time musician. They describe their initial experience in performing at the Harballah Sangeet Sammelan thus:

Our admirers in the village told us of the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar. Ready to perform, we headed for the concert, where we were disallowed entry due to our appearance. We did not even remotely look like musicians, what with my handlebar moustache and all. We were attired in chadar kurta and had no airs around us.

Incidentally, though they had been singing for a quarter of a century, their first cassette was released only in 2000. Their popularity was to soar quickly, as CDs by TIMES and others were released subsequently.

They went on to sing Amrita Pritam’s poem Aj aakhan Waris Shah nu in the film Pinjar.

A very comprehensive collection at Musicindiaonline.
The Apnaorg site also has a good selection of some of their recordings.

Image Acknowledgment

The Rage against the Dalit Rage

In 1990, as the Mandal Comission Report (MCR) implementation was announced, I instinctively opposed it. Nurtured in the ideas of classical Marxism, I believed that caste consciousness was something that impeded the formation of class consciousness and hence the formation of a socialist/ revolutionary outlook.

My thought conformed, too, to the widely prevalent notions of the Nehruvian approach to the caste question- a belief that caste discrimination was a subjective issue, not an objective one (that is, mainly a question of consciousness and not based on reality.) Education was a major means of eliminating caste prejudice, while economic development would do away with the economic or objective basis of caste.

I even started writing an article on opposing the Mandal Commision Report.

Two things, however, changed my attitude towards the question of reservations but more particularly towards the caste question. By the time, I finished writing the article, I was supporting the MCR.

One was the hordes of “educated” upper caste young boys and girls coming out on the street and using the most offensive language against reservations and the beneficiaries. It destroyed my faith in the notion that mere education would eliminate caste discrimination. This was not the path that one had expected educated young people to take: strikes in colleges, bandhs, stopping of trains, burning of vehicles, self- immolation and slurs on our classmates who were believed to have benefited from reservations.

I also saw the silent anger that my Dalit classmates endured in the face of such humiliation. One of them remained inside his hostel for weeks, and rarely ventured out of his room. When I went to see him, I found a massive pencil sketch on the wall of his tiny hostel room: of people standing with their fists raised, of eyes that spoke of silent, simmering anger and my friend himself in a state of psychological collapse.

These incidents and observations led me to support both reservations and the struggle of the suppressed castes, the only bone of contention with my Marxist teacher.

I am reminded of this today when I read on various blogs people getting appalled at the riots in Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra. I too dislike the burning of the trains and destruction of public property.

No one likes such violence on the streets of any town or city in the country

But I do not find myself raging against expression of this anger. The violence is bad, but it is the violence of the poor, of people who continue to be discriminated against- the riots come in the wake of a court order barring Dalits to enter a temple in Orissa. They also come in the backdrop of the Khairlanji incident and the recent commemoration of Dr. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.

Once again, it is the rage against the Dalit rage that makes me side with those who are at the receiving end of society. There are dozens of blog posts expressing anger against the riots, very few that introspect or distinguish between the violence of the powerful and the violence of the dispossessed.

The Dalit rage expressed in violence in Maharashtra is not just violence, it is the violence of the poor, the last resort of a silent, oppressed people.

All violence is not just violence.

Imagining Punjab in the Age of Globalization

(a) Sikh Women grinding grain, 1945 (b) A gurudwara of Dalit Sikhs, 2004 (c) A modern agro industry

Guest post by Surinder S. Jodhka

Regions and regional identities are inherently fluid categories, constantly changing and being constructed by the people in given social, political and historical contexts.

The history of Punjab or Punjabiyat during the 20th century offers a good example of such a process. Though the Indian Punjab was reorganized as a separate state of independent India on the basis of language, it is often seen as a land of the Sikhs, despite the fact that Hindus and Muslims were in larger numbers in the region.

While dominant Hindu elites geared towards de- regionalizing themselves and claim opportunities opened up by the new nation, the Muslims elites of Western Punjab veered towards Urdu and legitimizing their dominance over the new nation- state of Pakistan.

Post- independence, Punjab also came to be identified as mainly a state with prosperous agriculture, the success of the agriculture also consolidated the position of the land owning classes/castes, the Jutt Sikhs.

The success of canal colonies in West Punjab had motivated the British colonial rulers to lay an extensive network of canals in the region. The Bhakra Nangal dam, one of the first major irrigation projects launched by the government of independent India, was also located in Punjab.

The Jutt Sikhs were also the ones who constituted the armies of the British Raj, and were the pioneers of the migration to Western countries a century ago.

Apart from the long tradition of migrations and global contact, the Indian Punjab also had a vibrant urban economy. Until recently the industrial growth rate of Punjab was higher than the average for India. Punjab continues to be among the more urbanized states of India and ranked fourth in terms of the proportion of urban population among the major states of the country during the 2001 Census. Against the national average of less than 28 per cent, the urban population of Punjab in 2001 was 34 per cent.

Of all the states of India, Punjab’s growth rate in agriculture was the highest from the 1960s to the middle of 1980s. The annual rate of increase in production of food grains during the period 1961-62 to 1985-86 for the state was more than double the figure for the country as a whole.

While Punjab had 17,459 tractors per hundred thousand holdings, the all India figure was only 714. The same holds true for most other such indicators. These achievements have also been widely recognized.

At the sociological and political level, this growth of rural capitalism during the 1960s and 1970s imparted a new sense of confidence and visibility to the agrarian castes in different parts of India. Institutionalization of electoral democracy helped them dislodge the so-called upper caste elites from the regional and national political arena.

In the case of Punjab, the landowning Jutts had already been the ruling elite of the region. The success of green revolution and institutionalization of democracy helped them further consolidate their position. Even Sikh religious institutions came under their sway.

The triumph of agrarianism and the rise of the dominant caste farmers in the 1970s also set in motion a phase of populist politics at the regional and national levels in India. The newly emergent agrarian elite not only spoke for their own caste or class but on behalf of the entire village and the region. Their identification was not just political or interest-based and sectarian, as they saw themselves representing everyone, encompassing all conflicts and differences of caste, class or communities.

The rise of the Khalistan movement, a secessionist demand by a section of the Sikh community during the early 1980s, was a somewhat unexpected development since apart from its economic success, socially and politically too the border-state of Punjab had been a well-integrated part of India, having been at the forefront of the national freedom movement.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the rise of a secessionist movement in the state was for many a puzzle.

Contrary to much of the academic speculation that employed every known school of thought- from modernization theory to psychoanalysis, after some fifteen years of violence and bloodshed, Sikh militancy began to decline.

By the mid 1990s, the Khalistan movement was virtually over without having achieved anything in political terms. The end of the Khalistan movement, however, did not mean an end of ‘crises’ for Punjab. It was now the turn of economics and agriculture.

The green revolution had already begun to lose its charm by the early 1980s. Several scholars had in fact attributed the rise of militancy directly to the crisis of Punjab agriculture. By the early 1990s, there were clear signs of economic stagnation. Unlike some other parts of India, Punjab had lost out on the opportunities opened-up by the ‘new economy’ and investments of foreign capital that had begun to come to India with the introduction of economic liberaliztion.

The discourse of crisis found more ammunition during the post-reforms period when Punjab and some other parts of India saw a sudden spurt in the incidence of suicides by cultivating farmers.

By the turn of the century, agriculture in Punjab had lost nearly all its sheen, the emblematic Punjabi farmer seen nowhere in the new imageries of a globalizing India.

The changes that came about in the countryside with the success of the green revolution also produced a new class of rural rich who had experienced economic mobility through their active involvement with the larger capitalist market.

The new technology gave them tractors, took them to the mandi towns and integrated them with the market for buying not only fertilizers and pesticides but also white goods and an urban lifestyle.

Most agricultural households in Punjab today have become or are trying to become pluri-active, ‘standing between farming and other activities whether as seasonal labourers or small-scale entrepreneurs in the local economy… Agriculture and farming is no more an all-encompassing way of life and identity.’

The available official data on employment patterns in Punjab has begun to reflect this quite clearly. For example, the proportion of cultivators in the total number of main workers in Punjab declined from 46.56 in 1971 to 31.44 in 1991, and further to 22.60 by 2001. While the share of cultivators has been consistently falling, that of the agricultural labourers had been rising until the 1991 Census. However, over the last decade, viz. from 1991 to 2001, even their proportion declined significantly, from 23.82 to 16.30. In other words, though two-third of Punjab’s population still lives in rural areas, only around 39% of the main workers in the state are directly employed in agriculture. The comparable figure for the country as a whole is still above 58%.

The trend of moving out of agriculture is perhaps not confined to any specific class or category. While marginal and small cultivators seem to be moving out of agriculture, the bigger farmer is moving out of the village itself. The big farmers of Punjab invariably have a part of their family living in the town. Their children go to urban schools/colleges, and they invest their surplus in non-agricultural activities.

The rural social structure has also undergone a near complete transformation over the last three or four decades.

Over the last twenty years or so a large proportion of dalits in Punjab have consciously dissociated themselves from their traditional occupations as also distanced from everyday engagement with the agrarian economy and even investing in building their own cultural resources in the village, in gurudwaras and dharamshalas.

The growing autonomy of the dalits from the ‘traditional’ rural economy and structures of patronage and loyalty has created a rather piquant situation in the countryside with potentially far-reaching political implications.

In the emerging scenario, local dalits have begun to assert for equal rights and a share from the resources that belong commonly to the village and had so far been in the exclusive control of the locally dominant caste groups or individual households.

Seen purely through economic data, Indian Punjab continues to be an agriculturally developed region of the country, producing much more than what it requires for its own consumption. Even though occupying merely 1.53% of the total land area of India, Punjab farmers produce nearly 13% of the total food grains (22.6% of wheat and 10.8% of rice) of the country.

Interestingly, in terms of objective indicators, Punjab has been a ‘progressive’ state otherwise also. For example, in terms of the Human Development Index, Punjab is second only to Kerala.

The growth rates of Punjab – agriculture or industry – are no longer negative. Notwithstanding the frequent reports of corruption and scandals, the urban centres of Punjab seem to be picking-up in terms of growth of infrastructure and real-estate.

However, the Indian Punjab today needs to be re-imagined in more than economic terms alone. The canvas of its change is much larger and broader.

Given that Punjab has a large proportion of Scheduled Caste population, the newly acquired agency among the dalits can also have serious implications for regional politics.

The earlier hegemony of the rural Jutt culture is fast disintegrating and this will change the manner in which the larger interests of Punjab are articulated politically.

Globally, the Punjabi/ Sikh diaspora has been investing in building its cultural resources and participating in local political processes, getting elected to local and national political bodies, more than any other component of the Indian diaspora.

At home, the fast changing geopolitics of the world during the opening decade of the 21st century has important implications for the Punjabs and their futures.

Though the hostile visa regimes of India and Pakistan continue to be an obstacle, traffic of common citizens across the Indo-Pak border has been steadily increasing. The opening up the border between Indian and Pakistan has produced a sense of excitement and opened a window of hope for all shades and sections of Punjabis .

What implications would these new processes have for the manner in which we have imagined Punjab and Punjabiyat – within the national and global contexts? Will the processes of globalization and the new technologies enable the two Punjabs to rediscover their common cultural heritage? How would a loosening of the border and opening of trade routes influence the economies of the two Punjabs? Would the decline of agriculture and rapid urbanization of the state develop a new middle class imagery of the state?

Though it is not easy to answer these questions, some of these processes are sure to bring positive and enriching outcomes.

Surinder S Jodhka is Professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has done pioneering work on Dalits in Punjab and authored a number of works on the subject.

This guest post is further elaborated in ‘The Problem’ statement in this month’s edition of The Seminar magazine Reimagining Punjabwhich he has edited. (online next month)

Image acknowledgements:

Comrade Sunil Janah’s Site
Punjab govt Official Site
The Hindu

Hooray ! Dalits have progressed !

(Click on image to enlarge)
Update: Though this post is labelled under ‘Humour’, let it not distract the very serious issue at hand.

Siddharta Varadrajan remarks in The Hindu:

Based on the data leaked so far, it is evident there are entry barriers Muslims — who account for 17 per cent of India’s population — are unable to cross in virtually all walks of life. From the administration and the police to the judiciary and the private sector, the invisible hands of prejudice, economic and educational inequality seem to have frozen the `quota’ for Muslims at three to five per cent. Thanks to a hysterical campaign run by the Bharatiya Janata Party and some media houses, the Sachar committee was denied data on the presence of Muslims in the armed forces. But even there it is apparent that the three per cent formula applies.

This gross under-presence of Muslims in virtually every sector is presaged by substantial inequalities in education. Muslim enrolment and retention rates at the primary and secondary levels are lower than the national average and this further magnifies existing inequalities at the college level as well as in the labour market. For virtually every socio-economic marker of well being, the Muslim is well below the national norm — not to speak of the level commensurate with her or his share of the national population — and the evidence suggests these inequalities are not decreasing over time.

This bleak statistical picture is rendered drearier still by new trends visible in many cities. Muslims, for example, find it extremely difficult to rent and buy property outside of “Muslim areas” in some metros.

Thanks to Krish for the link to Siddharta Varadrajan’s article.

Image Source: The Tribune

Dr. Ambedkar and Sikhism

Kanshi Ram’s last rites were performed last week as per Buddhist rites. His family has apparently not approved of this. What is interesting in this episode is that Kanshi Ram was born in a Sikh family, and as far as I can recollect, he hasn’t ever said anything on the issue of Dalits and Sikhism- whose tenets deny casteism. Nor did he convert to Buddhism.

Kanshi Ram’s family said they suspected foul play in Kanshi Ram’s death and would file a case against Mayawati. They sought a probe into the circumstances leading to Kanshi Ram’s death and objected to the last rites being performed according to Buddhist traditions.

(news report)

However, there is more to the relationship between Dalits and Sikhism. The founder of the Dalit movement Dr. Ambedkar had once himself seriously considered conversion to Sikhism at one point. His interest then waned, though the reasons are not known, and he finally converted to Buddhism with half a million of his followers.


By 1935, Dr. BR Ambedkar’ s disgust with Hinduism and its caste system was complete. His patience at reforming Hinduism from within by securing for the untouchable castes the right to drinking water from public places, using metal utencils and receive education, was wearing thin. Earlier in 1929, he had advised his followers to embrace any religion that would give them respectability. Following this advice, some of his followers took to Islam.

Referring to his own personal decision in the matter, Ambedkar said that unfortunately for him, he was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond his power to prevent that, but he declared that it was within his power to refuse to live under humiliating and ignoble conditions.

“ I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu”, he thundered.

He called for an end to the decade long struggles he had led for temple entry and which was brutally opposed by caste Hindus. Ambedkar’s call to the Untouchables to stop frittering away their energies over fruitless attempts and to devote themselves to carve out an honorable alternative for themselves shocked the nation, especially the caste Hindus.

As to conversion, he said it will be done in five years and he would reconsider his decision if caste Hindus assured him by positive results. He added that he wanted to absorb his community into some powerful community and was thinking of embracing Sikhism.

On April 13-14 1936, Dr. Ambedkar addressed the Sikh Mission Conference at Amritsar. He had earlier indicated that this would be his last speech he would deliver as a Hindu. The main feature of the conference, however, turned out to be the conversion of five prominent Depressed Class leaders of the Thiyya community of Kerala headed by Dr. Kuttir and 50 others from UP and Central Provinces to Sikhism.

In May 1936, he called a conference of the Mahar community to which he belonged, and his abominations and the condemnation of Hinduism was biting, coarse and yet smashing and dissecting. He ended his speech with a quotation from the lips of the dying Buddha- he asked his people to seek refuge in Buddhism. This quotation from the Buddha led to speculations that Bhimrao was veering towards Buddhism. He himself, however, avoided a straight answer. A few days before, however, he had sent his son and nephew to Harminder Sahib as a gesture of goodwill towards Sikhism. They stayed there for over one and half months.

By June of that year, Ambedkar after consulting his colleagues decided to embrace Sikhism- his friends and colleagues felt that he should seek the support of the Hindu Mahasabha leaders in their conversion to Sikhism, for the Mahasabha leaders believed that Sikhism was not an alien religion. It was an offspring of Hinduism and therefore the Sikhs and Hindus were allowed to intermarry and the Sikhs were allowed to be members of the Mahasabha. In his proposal, Dr. Moonje agreed to the inclusion of these neo- Sikhs in the list of Scheduled Classes and enjoy the benefits under the Poona Pact, if Ambedkar preferred to embrace Sikhism in preference to Islam and Christianity and that he agreed to counteract the Muslim movement to draw the Depressed Classes into the Islamic fold.

Ambedkar said that he preferred to embrace Sikhism which offered less than social, political and economic power than Islam and less material attractions than Christianity (western nations). He favoured Sikhism in the “interests of Hindus”.

Dr. Moonje and Dr. Kurtakoti (the Shankracharya) in giving their blessings obvioulsy chose the “least evil”. In choosing thus, they also showed their belief that Sikhism is another branch of Hinduism and that it owed the same culture and principles.

Gandhi voiced concern over the proposed conversion, but Ambedkar continued to increase his contacts with the Sikh Mission. There was even a proposal to start a college in Bombay for the proposed neo- Sikhs. 13 of his followers who were asked to study the Sikh religion at Amritsar actually converted to Sikhism and returned to Bombay, where, writes Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer, they were coldly received as they had only been asked by Ambedkar to study and not to convert.

Soon, Bhimrao went on a tour of Europe. It seems after returning in 1937 his love for Sikhism had evaporated. He continued to talk of his proposed conversion though, and in 1955 along with half a million adherents went over to Buddhism.

(Much of the above I had written in 1997, and as far as I recollect is mainly based on the notes I took from the wonderful biography of Dr. Ambedkar written by Dhananjay Keer.)

Update: The Story of Kerala’s first Sikh Convert
(Thanks to Bajinder for pulling the story out of his archives)

a story by Ramesh Babu
in hindustan times(cannot get exact date)

Nintyone-year old Sardar Bhupinder Singh from Kadakarapally is the only living Malayalee Sikh in Kerala. People call him “Sikh Chettan”, that is, elder brother.

On Baisakhi day in 1936, fed up of caste barriers, Bhaskaran embraced Sikhism and became Bhupinder Singh. he was not alone. Around 300 families, mostly from backward castes, converted at that time.

There is a historical background to this conversion. During Vaikkom Satyagraha in 1922, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, a few Akalis came to Vaikkom to make langar for satyagrahis. After successful completion of satyagraha and the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Akalis stayed back. Some youth were attracted by the discliplined life and joined Sikhism.

Bhupinder has a different story to tell: “After Vaikkom Satyagraha, backward castes basked in a renewed vigour. At that time, Ambedkar exhorted people that if you don’t get self-respect and dignity in your own religion, you should get out of it. This prompted many of us to join Sikhism.

Initially it was tough. “My father was liberal enough but his brother opposed my conversion tooth and nail. But I stuck to my belief.”

After becoming a Sikh, Bhupinder went to Gujaranwallah and Lahore for theological studies. He worked some time in Khalsa College. But the returns were inadequate. So he joined the British Royal Army as a technician in 1940. He retired in 1968 as Subedar.

Though he married a Sikh, his daughters and sons are Hindus and married under Hindu Ezhava customs. “When the community shrank we found it very difficult to find matches. So none of us insisted the second generation to follow our example. Many families later re-converted to Hinduism. It is one of the reasons for our decline in Kerala.”

Bhupinder complains that when numbers became dwindled, the Sikh Committee stopped showing any interest in them.

Every Sunday Bhupinder visits the only gurdwara in the State of Elamakkara in Kochi. Recently the Kochi Gurdwara Committee honoured him with a saropa.

The nonagenarian always keeps a low profile. “Once S S Barnala came here. He was eager to know more about Malayalee Sikhs. He asked me so many things and wanted me to write a book, but I politely refused.:

Leading a solitary life after his wife’s death, Sardar Bhupinder has only one wish: “Till thee last breath I want to be a true follower of the Panth.”

Picture Acknowledgement

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The Signifinace of being Kanshi Ram: An Obituary

Kanshi Ram (1934-2006): There is more to his legacy than meets the eye

It is not difficult to downplay the role of Kanshi Ram- he inspired little intellectual appeal, he has left no worthwhile writings on the cause that he is linked with and his political legacy consists of a one- woman dominated Bahujan Samaj Party that is as opportunist and as mired in corruption as any other political party.

Unlike Dr. Ambedkar, with whom he stands in poor contrast, he did not convert to Buddhism or give any other broad direction to his followers. Unlike Jotiba Phule he did not argue for social reform or made any case to further it. Unlike Periyar, he did not stand for Rationalism and launch an attack on the religious basis of caste based oppression.

Instead he directed all his energies to launch a monotone assault on political power and create political mobilisation among the Dalits and others under the broader sweep of what he called, after Jotiba Phule, the “Bahujan Samaj”, bothering himself little with more onerous and long term endeavours of social reform.

Yet, Kanshi Ram is significant for a number of reasons and one has to acknowledge the singular, if not stellar role that he played in the Indian political stage in general and Dalit politics in particular.

From a little known outfit called DS4, he created a political party that rose to rule the most populous state of India- Uttar Pradesh, a state that determined the power equations in the Centre- every Indian Prime Minister who has lasted a 5 year term has come from Uttar Pradesh- and has been a Brahmin, one may add (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee).

It would be difficult to ascertain whether Kanshi Ram came in at the right moment when identity based politics was asserting itself, or whether he helped to create that politics.

If it is former, then one has to credit him with having done the ground work and be prepared to seize that opportunity when it arrived. If it is the latter, then he needs to be understood better and not contrased with Dr. Ambedkar or Periyar.

For one, Kanshi Ram created, for the first time in history, a resurgence of the Dalit community in those states where little or no reform movements have taken place.

In the North, the state of Punjab, where incidentally he was born in a Sikh family, had the reform movements in Sikhism as well as the Arya Samaj, besides the Sufi influence. On the Eastern side, Bengal had Brahmo Samaj, in South, in Tamil Nadu, the Self Respect Movement and in Maharashta on the West, the non- Brahmin movement under Jotiba Phule and later Dr Ambedkar.

It is central India, the so- called Hindi heartland or also, more derisively, the BIMARU states that did not undergo a social reform movement within Hinduism. In most of those places social reform movements evolved into radical political movements- Communist in some places but also the Justice Party (and later the Dravida Kahzagam) in Tamil Nadu and the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra.

Kanshi Ram bypassed the social reform thus catapulting political assertion in the Hindi heartland.

Some may aver that this short cut is fraught with danger- it is hoisted on a fragile base and is the reason why the Bahujan Samaj Party has degenerated so quickly.

To do so would be to ignore the mammoth task that lies in the Hindi heartland states. The upper caste population is relatively large, and has never tried to reform itself in a major way. There has been an absence of any efforts to democratise education. Notably Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have historically been politically volatile and provided the fulcrum on which the Indian National Freedom movement hinged and where it became a truly mass movement.

Kanshi Ram merely extended that political mobilisation to the Dalits specially in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

In doing so, did he put the cart before the horse?

There is little reason to think so.

For one, there really was neither a cart nor a horse in the Hindi heartland before the BSP stepped in.

For another, any emancipation movement needs not only the dreamers and theorists but also the organisers and the builders. Marx needed a Lenin to make the world even aware of his writings.

Kanshi Ram was no Lenin. His legacy is flawed in many ways and fraught with dangers, indeed its fragility became evident within his own lifetime.

But it also has ensured that the word Dalit has become part of the vocabulary in some of the most socially regressive areas in the country. It poses one of the few ideological challenges to Hindutva and one of the ways that emancipation of bulk of Indians can be attempted.

Kanshi Ram’s BSP has taken Ambedkar from Maharashtra to all over the country and specially where it is needed more. Nearly every party- from the Congress to the BJP to the communists today carry a picture of Ambedkar in their posters and hoardings.

It has cast the net of possibilities of Dalit resurgence, wider.

It is for that reason alone that it would be an exercise in deception to overlook the importance and significance of being Kanshi Ram.

Related Post: Biography of a Poor Dalit Family

Picture Courtesy:

Update: A comprehensive collection of links on Kanshi Ram ‘saheb’s passing away. Harish Khare’s somewhat tangential take on the debt that we owe to Kanshi Ram (Link via Great Indian Mutiny)

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Tamil Dalit Poetry

The State of Tamil Nadu in South India is ubiquitous in many ways- perhaps the most important being that in the 1920s it gave rise to a powerful non- Brahmin movement called the Self- Respect Movement led by social reformer Periyar. It later led to the formation of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) party.

Tamil Nadu politics is today dominated by two Dravidian parties- the DMK that morphed out of the DK and its off- shoot, the AIADMK, the former led by Karunanidhi and his family, the latter, by the temperamental Jayalalitha.

Periyar’s social reform movement was largely rationalist and is perhaps without parallel in its expanse and intensity. Periyar’s oft- quoted statement is:

“He who created god was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian.”

Unlike elsewhere in India, Tamil social structure is not in the form of a pyramid- instead it has a caste system with a very small Brahmin (less than 2%) population, a large chunk of the backward castes and a substantial Dalit population (about 20% of the total state population) – the “other upper castes” like the Kshatriyas are absent. 90% of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu own no land.

Tamil politics is dominated by some of the backward castes many of which are no longer “backward” in most ways. Periyar’s movement produced a powerful assertion of the Tamil backward castes but left little or no space for the Dalits.

Even serious Dalit literature arrived only in the early 1990s.

But it is in this state that the Dalit intelligentsia can emerge as a powerful voice. Over the years, a literacy culture has taken strong roots in the state- literacy is far higher than in all states except Kerala. There is also an immediate tradition of protest and assertion albeit of the backward castes.

The fervour, the controlled but intense anger and the intellectual restlessness to understand society in order to change it among some of the young Dalit professionals and students in the state is like the one that one earlier used to observe only among the Marxist inclined youth in the sixties and seventies.

The Sep- Oct issue of Muse India, edited by the young and talented Meena Kandasamy, containing a selection of some of the Dalit poetry emerging out of Tamil Nadu offers a poignant window into these undercurrents of protest.

Rajkumar ND in the poem ‘A Wish’ gives an inkling of the mood:

He who desires peace
Under oppression
Is a fraud.

It is human tendency to disturb
And attain clarity in the fight
For liberation.

In “Infection“, Devadevan sarcastically comments on the sacred thread that is the privilege only of the Brahmin men:

The chief doctor came,
Examined my friend
And raised his head.
In the direction of the ears
That were throbbing with worry
And concern and questions
He bent his head
And from his white-gloved hand
Held a dirty sacred thread
And said,
“This could have caused
The infection.”

There are 15 poems in this issue of the magazine, most of them translated by Meena Kandasamy who also provides a short and cogent backgroud to the emergence of Dalit literature in Tamil Nadu.

Like all other Dalit literature, Tamil Dalit literature too has an excess of autobiographies. Critics condemn these literatures of lament, but they too have a central place within the creative core. Tamil Dalit literature is characterized by the call for self-identity and assertion. It tramples all conventions with its intensely personal expression; is concerned with the life of the subaltern, and deals out a stark brutality. This literature should be viewed not as a literature of vengeance or a literature of hatred, but a literature of freedom and greatness.

Link to Muse via Whitejasmine

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