Chandra Bhan Prasad has come a long way from Bhadawn—what he calls a “sleepy village” in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh district. His father was a wrestler, and his uncles had fled to Rangoon in the early 1930s after beating up their landlords. His family built the first brick house among Dalits in the village. From being a believer in Naxalism, to disillusionment over Mandal in JNU, Prasad has embraced capitalism and is now mentor to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DICCI). In this interview to S. Anand, he says his commitment to Ambedkarism is unwavering still.
You’re just back from the DICCI Trade Fair. How did it go...what did it achieve?
The three-day event in Bombay was festive, and it mirrored a new Dalit narrative. Certainly, these trade fairs give a chance for Dalits to display their entrepreneurial aptitude, their genius and successes. That this is needed, for a section of us, despite our good intentions, tends to suggest the Dalits are so oppressed that unless they are offered a helping hand they can’t really move, let alone race ahead in this competitive world. Tiny, though not representative of larger Dalit realities, these entrepreneurs hold the promise that Dalits too can scale Himalayan heights despite sub-zero level social hostilities. A first-generation Ahmadabad-based Dalit manufactures dry compressors, and competes in global tendering processes; a Dalit vendor to ISRO had a hand in Mangalyaan launch glory. Another first-time entrepreneur with roots in UP now has offices in Moscow, London, Dubai and Bombay, and has four Mercedes in his garage. A Chandigarh Dalit businessman rides a Bentley. A Haryana-based one manufactures hoist cranes, each 125 metric tonnes. A Bombay Dalit employs 4,000 workers, including 152 engineers; a Kerala Dalit manufactures accessories for drones. An Ahmedabad-based one paid Rs 32 crore in taxes lastyear—the list keeps expanding. Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania is studying a thousand DICCI members, almost all post-1990 products, and suggests their combined turnover crosses Rs 150 billon in 2015. In my estimate, Dalit entrepreneurs may be paying more in taxes to the state than total state spending on Dalit welfare. And I can tell you that for half their lives, most Dalit entrepreneurs have had their stomachs only half-filled.
You began as a CPI-ML activist, inspired by your Brahmin teacher. From there to becoming an advocate of a Dalit share in capitalism, tell us about your journey.
I began with AISF, and was elected president of my college students’ union in 1977. I switched sides and joined the Naxals in 1978. I enrolled in JNU in 1980, and got rusticated in 1983 for participating in the students’ uprising. I worked as a full-time revolutionary during 1983-87. My Naxal days, in fact, set me on this road to capitalism. In the 1970s and ’80s, I wandered the villages in east and central UP, and saw Dalits battle for dignity, against hunger, besides battling caste-ordained cruelties.
During those very times, I saw two sets of Dalits declare their freedom from landlords. One, armed with education and degrees, accessed the rights our philosopher of happiness Dr Ambedkar ensured for us; they landed government jobs. The other set were unlettered. They were thrown out of schools, fled to the cities, and found solace in factories the capitalists were creating.
“After my time in JNU, I worked as a full-time revolutionary during 1983-87. My Naxal days, in fact, set me on this road to capitalism.”
While I roamed the northern countryside cursing the system, aiming to replicate Mao’s revolution, I had, at the same time, developed respect for the shade the factories in the cities provided; these were the rehabilitation centres Dalit youth sought when they stole away to their freedom by betraying their landlords. I kept these thoughts to myself. I wasn’t honest enough then to speak this truth—that Indian capitalists were dismantling feudalism in their own way, even if unintentionally. Praising capitalists those days was a crime of sorts.
Capitalism as a socio-economic order got legitimised in India with the economic liberalisation. Between 1990 and 2007, India witnessed its greatest revolution. It was mostly bloodless, and happened without making a statement. No one noticed that the bullock carts had largely disappeared. Devesh Kapur’s study of 20,000 Dalit households in 291 villages in eastern and western UP found Dalit youth fled from poorly paid farm labour, sneaked into cities, causing a massive labour shortage in the countryside. Like Ambedkar said, villages are dens of ignorance and oppression. The plough and cart system that ensured serfdom collapsed. Do remember that European serfdom ended due to labour shortage, caused by Black Death, and the subsequent rise of capitalism. Why should we be happy about this? I reckon caste and capitalism can’t coexist. Dalit capitalism will soon turn the caste order into a Purana Qila—a relic of sorts.
When did you begin to read and engage with Ambedkar’s writings?
After rejoining JNU in 1987...Marx and Mao failed me. By 1990, Mandal made all the difference. It unsettled me to see elite caste students abusing the very policy of reservations that had enabled me to infiltrate a great institution like JNU. But I was also pained that OBCs cited the suffering of Dalits to justify their need for reservation. I left JNU in 1991 abandoning my PhD, which was on China. I then joined Ambedkarite mainstream, and have not looked back.
Ambedkar Jayanti being celebrated in New Delhi
You wrote in one of your early columns about Ambedkar’s tract States and Minorities that advocates state socialism. How do you reconcile your advocacy of Dalit capitalism with that?
State and Minorities, written in 1946, is negated by Ambedkar’s manifesto of half a decade later, 1951-52. Ambedkar’s writings in Volume 17, Part I, was published only in 2003. Here, we have his Scheduled Castes Federation’s manifesto meant for the first parliamentary elections in 1952. The context is important: the second half of the 20th century; the Chinese revolution had occurred in 1949. Half the world had turned red. Capitalism and imperialism were targets of all the people seeking justice and change. Going against the ideological fashion, Dr Ambedkar in his manifesto declares: “The policy of the Party is not tied to any particular dogma or ideology such as communism, or socialism, Gandhism, or any other ism.” The manifesto promises to replace small holdings with large, and to mechanise farming. Further, the manifesto insists, “Where national undertaking of an industry is possible and essential, the Scheduled Castes Federation will support national undertaking. Where private enterprise is possible and national undertaking not essential, private enterprise will be allowed.” Needless to add, Dr Ambedkar preferred friendship with the US over China. “Why should India fight China’s case in the UN Permanent Security Council,” he had warned the Indian leadership. The manifesto also saw population explosion as a big problem. Now draw your own conclusions about what kind of economic order he preferred. After reading this 1952 manifesto, I corrected myself. But unfortunately our intellectuals and leaders are still tied to the 1940s state-socialism idea.
Does not the need for the existence of a body like DICCI itself seem segregationist, like say the SC/ST cell of a mainstream political party?
Was the Dalit Panthers segregationist? Was Kanshi Ram’s DS4 segregationist, was the National Negro Business Council of 1900 segregationist? Was the slogan Black capitalism segregationist? The Dalit Chamber of Commerce, like these entities, is an assertion aimed at ending segregation.
You were part of a study led by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania which found Dalits living in concrete homes, not huts made from mud and straw, had jumped from 18 per cent to 64 per cent between 1990 and 2007 in one north Indian district. You say this is because of economic reforms, and therefore free market is good for Dalits. You have even said caste is losing its grip. Yet there’s manifold increase in the number and intensity of atrocities. How do you reconcile both?
Not long ago, most Dalit families depended on landlords for their livelihoods. The latter needed just a few lathis to command an entire Dalit hamlet. Now, they need guns to command individual Dalits. Remember, lynching of Blacks began after the Emancipation Proclamation. Blacks were the property of White masters. Likewise pre-1990, most Dalits were the subjects and slaves of some landlord or the other.
“After rejoining JNU in 1987 Marx and Mao failed me. By 1990, Mandal made all the difference. It unsettled me to see elite caste students abusing the reservations.”
Economic liberalisation is democratising monopoly capitalism and the manufacturing sector. It introduced the new business practice of outsourcing. Earlier, both trucks and bikes were produced under one factory roof, end to end, under one ownership. Now, trucks and tractors or motorbikes have multiple vendors supplying various parts. Some of these vendors are Dalits. A flash strike by Dalit ancillary makers might halt production of trucks, bikes or cars.
The market is replacing social markers with material markers. You see, Dalits can’t buy social markers. They can buy material markers. That is why Shivaji’s social rank is still disputed though he was king. Yet, I have witnessed elite caste women opening beauty parlours and offering their services to Dalit women as well. I never thought a day would dawn when Dalits will be served by non-Dalits, purely for material gain. The market is a great social leveller.
Does economic success wash away caste? Even a person of Ambedkar’s stature faced discrimination. Does not caste stem from a deeply religious mindset?
In the US, racism weakened with the rise of Black capitalism. True, religion, in this case Hinduism, is the fountainhead of all social divisions, hatred, discrimination.
Today, Ambedkar seems to be an icon for student struggles in universities. More intellectuals—many non-Dalits—are now seen quoting him than ever before.
Dr Ambedkar’s second rise also coincides with the new economic order. Globalisation surely threatens only Manu’s social order. Post-1990, a great number of Hindus have begun betraying Hinduism: they are embracing civility and modernity, and are comfortable with Dalits rising. Like Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar symbolises this resistance against wrongs. In my view, the May 2014 verdict was Modi-entric, but the Sangh thinks it was an endorsement of its ideology. That’s why this unseemly hurry to bury all things that have done India good.
Ambedkar said there can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be. What do you think? And how does this impinge on the ‘Hinduism is good but Hindutva is bad’ line?
Hinduism as a matter of faith is a misfit in the times we live. Hinduism, in fact, is at war with humanism.
What do you make of Modi claiming he is a bhakt of Babasaheb? How different is the BJP/RSS really from the Congress in its attitude to Ambedkar and Dalits? Are they not two sides of the same coin?
The Congress and the BJP both give what Dalits don’t ask for and ignore what they really want. In its last days, the Congress government turned into BJP in its treatment of Dr Ambedkar. History will never forgive them for that. It’s so soothing to learn that as the nation’s prime minister Modi claims Ambedkar as his inspiration. I am thankful. But the Sangh is so rooted in caste and a past that can never really win. Its insistence on Bharat Mata and Vande Mataram, with saffron undermining both India and Jana Gana Mana will not work. The Sangh needs to delete caste and the past from its hard disk, and learn to love India and its many children. It must embrace Valentine’s Day and the Statue of Liberty as its new mascots, and not force us to walk the dinosaur’s path in this century.
How do you see the future?
In his time, Ambedkar was the only national leader who emphasised the importance of English—now which kind of schools do middle-class parents send their kids to? Ambedkar was the only leader who turned up in Parliament clad in a dapper suit and tie—what kind of clothes do middle-class kids today wear to school? He was the only Indian leader keen on the US as the strategic partner—which country do the youth prefer for higher education? He was the only leader who advocated mechanisation of agriculture—what are progressive farmers asking for today? Dr Ambedkar belongs to the 21st century; the 21st century belongs to Dalits. By Ambedkar’s 150th birth anniversary, caste might hopefully have been annihilated.
- Ambedkar’s Economics His initiative at the 7th session of Indian Labour Conference led to 8-hour workdays from 14.
- Money Rights He was also instrumental in the introduction of the Providend Fund Act and the Minimum Wages Act