In October 1956, sixty years ago, Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. Does the Dalit experience surpass religion? Or can it be articulated through it? Does it only divide or also offer grounds for introspection? We invited four prominent Dalits—a Hindu, an Ambedkarite Buddhist, a Christian, a leftist—to address this complex set of questions. They were Sanjay Paswan, head of the BJP’s Scheduled Caste Morcha, IAS officer Raja Sekhar Vundru, Supreme Court lawyer Franklin Caesar Thomas, and the youngest, Rama Naga, a PhD scholar at JNU, New Delhi. Uttam Sengupta and Sunil Menon were the moderators.
OUTLOOK: Exactly 100 years ago, in 1916, Dr B.R. Ambedkar presented his paper on castes in India at a seminar in Columbia University, New York. The last century saw Gandhi and Ambedkar, and both had distinct views on the Dalit identity. Our aim at this dialogue is to look ahead and anticipate, if possible, the churning Dalit identity may undergo in the next few decades, if not the next century. Will Dalits remain within the fold of Hinduism and change the religion? Will they embrace Buddhism or Christianity, or are they going to take a ‘Left’ turn and prefer to be identified as atheists ?
Sanjay Paswan: When we speak of a Dalit identity, it is important to understand what a Dalit is looking for. He is, of course, looking for respect, dignity, equality, pride and recognition. But to relate it to some kind of rebellion or disenchantment with the existing order would be misplaced. There is an element of ‘me too’ that you will have to appreciate. Mind you, we are talking about third-generation Dalits. My grandfather was a labourer, my father became a junior engineer and I worked as a probationary officer in a bank before gravitating to academics and becoming a professor. We want to be heard…in the party, on the campus, everywhere, Dalits would like to be heard and taken seriously.
OUTLOOK: Do you see any difference between now and the previous century?
SP: When the first railway track was laid in India and the first train chugged out, Karl Marx declared that the railways would put an end to untouchability in India. Initially, Dalits would not be allowed to sit together or eat together with others. The way I look at it, untouchability while sitting and eating has largely disappeared. What needs to be addressed now is untouchability in ‘meeting’ and ‘witting’—what I mean is meetings in the boardroom and making use of the Dalits’ wit and skills.
Rama Naga: I am sorry but I do not see any radical change as far as Dalits are concerned. Atrocities and exploitation have intensified. This could be due to the growing assertiveness of Dalits, but then Dalits were vocal in the last century also and I believe this assertiveness will grow further in the 21st century.
OUTLOOK: But isn’t there a qualitative change? Earlier, the violence against Dalits was a kind of static, feudal violence. Now it may actually be a reaction to Dalit mobility, a sign that things are changing on the ground?
RN: Changes are meaningless until Dalits secure equality of opportunity, dignity and liberty to pursue any means of livelihood. Earlier, Dalits were denied their right to education and prevented from pursuing the vocation or profession of their choice. To a great extent, they are still denied that.
Raja Sekhar Vundru: When we look at the last 100 years, it’s clear that one man made all the difference and that’s Dr Ambedkar. The future of Dalit identity is also irrevocably linked to him and based on Ambedkarite ideology. That is because consistently Ambedkar has been the only emancipatory factor. Dalits, as Ambedkar had said, have no future within Hinduism and will have to come out of its fold. That was the last call of Ambedkar, that Dalits should embrace Buddhism. Dalits recognise it and their religious identity will increasingly move away from Hinduism and move towards Buddhism.
SP: There are sensible Hindus, sensitive Hindus and also sensuous Hindus. Dalits are the sensitive Hindus, people who attack them are the sensuous Hindus, and the Hindu organisations are the sensible Hindus. Hinduism has survived because of Dalits, not because of Brahmins and Banias. Dalits own Hinduism. Dr Ambedkar, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Kanshi Ram and Dr K.R. Narayanan have all been Hindus and also Dalit icons. It is futile, I believe, for Dalits to search for a different identity.
OUTLOOK: But an increasing number of Dalit writers and activists say that calling them Hindus is like abusing them. Atrocities committed on Dalits by elite caste Hindus is at an all-time high. So why would Dalits remain in the Hindu fold?
SP: I believe the situation is dynamic and changing very fast. Earlier, Dalits were oppressed by, as you said, the elite castes. Now, that has stopped and the violence is perpetrated more by the intermediate castes and the OBCs. Earlier, the issue was entry into temples. Now, the issue is Dalits’ presence and say in temple trusts. Earlier, the issue was Dalits’ entry into schools, but now it is Dalits’ representation in managing bodies. Even Ambedkar took a long time to embrace Buddhism. In fact, he remained a Buddhist for barely 40 days before his death. After he converted, he also faced opposition in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He may even have regretted it.
RSV: It is true that Dr Ambedkar lived for only a short while after his conversion. But he never regretted his decision to convert. Yes, he took a long time to study all the different religions and eventually settled on Buddhism. He himself has explained that one of the reasons he embraced Buddhism was because it was a religion “of my own country”. I also disagree with Dr Paswan when he says that Dr Ambedkar faced opposition in Uttar Pradesh following his conversion. People were, in fact, so impatient that they did not wait till November 14 before getting converted. Many of my own relatives are from Uttar Pradesh and I can cite their own experience as examples.
OUTLOOK: Just this March, there was a mass conversion to Buddhism in Agra, apparently the biggest since Ambedkar.
SP: That is because Dalits want to irritate the Hindus. Buddhism is an irritant. Conversion to Christianity and Islam takes place quietly and nobody pays much attention. But conversion to Buddhism is always a high-profile, high-decibel event. It is also a soft destination, Buddhism being an offshoot of Hinduism. It could also be a bargaining tool and Dalits may seamlessly move back into Hinduism whenever they like.
Franklin Caesar Thomas: Allow me to provide the Dalit Christian perspective. I believe that nothing happened (to change the lot of Dalits) in the last 100 years and nothing will happen in the next 100 years unless we get rid of caste. Yes, there are Scheduled Caste reservations, representatives in assemblies and Parliament and so on, but they are stooges of casteist politicians. A friend of mine, an IAS officer and a Dalit, was recently assaulted by a subordinate. He would not have dared to do this if the officer had belonged to a privileged caste. My own experience is that when we were campaigning in favour of the Scheduled Caste (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the opposition came more from these sections.
OUTLOOK: You are suggesting that politics let down the Dalits?
FCT: Both the executive and the judiciary have let down Dalits. The conviction rate in high courts in cases related to atrocities on Dalits is just four per cent. In the Supreme Court, the percentage is zero. As much as Rs 60,000 crore is provided under the special component plan for Scheduled Castes. This entire money is looted, with no lists of beneficiaries made public and no transparent auditing. Atrocities have continued and Dalits have been massacred in various places, but the judiciary and the executive have colluded to let off the perpetrators.
OUTLOOK: Do you see this only as institutional failure or something more specific to the enforced privation of Dalits? Is religion part of it?
FCT: I would argue that social exclusion and racial discrimination have nothing to do with religion. Black American Christians in the United States or Dalit Muslims in Pakistan are not discriminated against because of their religion. The aborigines in New Zealand, Gypsies and immigrants in Europe or the hafus or Burakumins in Japan are similarly discriminated against because of the hierarchical social orders.
OUTLOOK: Why do Dalits then convert to Christianity?
FCT: Very few get converted to Christianity. Look at the census data. The percentage of Christians has always hovered between 2.3 and 2.6 during the last 70 years. The British ruled over India for a century or more and, if they wanted, they could have converted a lot more people. In fact, the few Dalits who do get converted to Christianity generally go back to Hinduism because while the Indian Constitution classifies Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs as minority groups, the government and the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) treat Buddhism and Sikhism as offshoots of Hinduism.
OUTLOOK: But could it be because even Christianity has not been able to ensure equality to Dalits? Isn’t that the reason why Dalit Churches have come up? Dalits are allowed to enter several churches only through the back door...
"Hinduism is better than Christianity on caste. In south India, Dalits Christians can’t use common burial grounds. "
Franklin C. Thomas, Supreme Court lawyer
FCT: I have to admit that Hinduism is far better than Christianity in India as far as caste is concerned. In the rural areas of south India, Dalit Christians are not allowed to use the common burial ground. There is discrimination in communion and in the sanctum sanctorum. I am the grandson of a butcher and, back home, I would often be prevented from entering a grocery shop only because of my Dalit identity. We certainly have to set our own house in order first. But my grouse is that taking advantage of Dr Ambedkar’s assertion of Buddhism as an offshoot of Hinduism, both Dalit Buddhists and Dalit Sikhs are included in the list of Scheduled Castes, but not Christians and Muslims.
RSV: I must make it clear that I am against categorisation of people as so-called Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims for claiming Scheduled Caste status and certificates. Dr Ambedkar did not approve of it. He did not even mention it. In fact, he extensively wrote about the condition of Dalits following their conversion into other faiths.
FCT: But I have documentary proof that Dr Ambedkar himself recommended that the Scheduled Caste status be accorded to Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam. I have submitted the document to the Supreme Court where my petition is pending.
RSV: When the first Scheduled Caste order was issued under the Government of India Act, 1935, Dr Ambedkar himself drafted and designed it. When the next order came out in 1950, he was the country’s law minister. It was the Sachar Committee that gave credence to this idea of including Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the list of Scheduled Castes. The greatest disservice to the Dalits has been done by this Sachar Committee report and I consider it an anti-Dalit report.
OUTLOOK: But if ‘Dalit’ is defined in terms of everyday or historical experience of ‘unclean’ work, why include Dalit Buddhists and Sikhs in the SC list, but not Dalit Christians and Muslims?
RSV: That is because Muslims and Christians doing ‘unclean’ work are already included in the OBC list. They already have reservation in the civil services and educational institutions. They can get into IITs and IIMs through the reserved quota. What they are eyeing are the Scheduled Caste seats reserved in legislatures. The minute the Supreme Court allows the petition, they are going to start contesting from SC reserved seats for state assemblies and Parliament.
Ambedkar with Dalit women, ahead of the 1942 Nagpur national convention of Dalits
OUTLOOK: But that still does not explain why, say, a Dalit Sikh is included in the SC list, but not a Dalit Muslim or Christian?
RSV: When Dr Ambedkar was sitting on a committee looking at how to integrate different sections into the mainstream of society, the Akali Dal put conditions and asked for Dalit Sikhs to be included in the SC list. Dr Ambedkar accepted this, but he himself took to Buddhism.
FCT: I have documents from 1938 to prove that Ambedkar favoured extension of the SC status to Dalit Christians and Muslims, and have submitted those to the Supreme Court.
OUTLOOK: Sometimes one sees an ethnic justification for Buddhism—a vulgar Ambedkarism, so to speak, which says Dalits were once the ruling castes. Rather than annihilate caste, it almost brings in race.
RSV: No, no, there is no racial link to untouchables. Dr Ambedkar, in fact, discarded even the Aryan theory. He believed untouchables were from the same stock as other Hindus. My wife is a Punjabi, and she does not look different from other Punjabis. Nor would I look different from others in Andhra Pradesh. What Dr Ambedkar had stated was that when Buddhism was on the wane, some Buddhists were pushed out of the villages and forced to engage in so-called unclean occupations.
OUTLOOK: Dalits also had the option of plumbing for atheism, to embrace the Left. Poor and oppressed, they should have been the natural constituency of the Left. Has the Left’s reluctance to acknowledge caste and its overemphasis on ‘class’ prevented it from cutting any ice among Dalits?
RN: It’s like an abusive marriage in which the husband beats the wife. But the wife refuses to walk out because she believes it is the husband’s right to beat her! That is how Hinduism functions and that is why Dr Ambedkar abandoned Hinduism. The Shudras and the untouchables are told that their standing in society is pre-ordained and if they behave during this birth, they might get reborn in a higher caste in their next birth. The deprived and the marginalised are cornered in this hierarchical society and find it difficult to break the shackles of cultural and religious domination.
FCT: Karl Marx had admitted that in a country where cows and monkeys were worshipped, brotherhood of mankind would be difficult to achieve. And the reason Communists failed is because their leadership is from elite castes.
OUTLOOK: (To RN) Rohith Vemula, who has become a rallying point for Dalits after his suicide, did move away from the Left and join a more directly Ambedkarite line. In the last election at JNU, one saw the Left come together and use an Ambedkarite vocabulary for the first time. But then, the cleavage shows up again with BAPSA moving away. How do you still manage to find value in a Left position?
RN: We recognise the need for unity of the oppressed under whichever colour of the flag they may wage their struggle. In Bihar it could be red, in Gujarat it could be blue. One may hear ‘Lal Salaam’ in one place and ‘Jai Bhim’ in another. The goal of both are often the same. As for Rohith Vemula, he himself has written extensively on how his life had been reduced to a number and his Dalit identity. In his Facebook posts, he voiced his anguish against Manuvaad and told friends that he had gone to Niyamgiri in Orissa to see the struggle there. I don’t see any conflict with the Left in what he was fighting against.
FCT: Look, I have researched the subject of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims for three years and collected 10,000 documents. The first Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar and the second headed by B.P. Mandal were both in favour of extending the SC status to them. The P.V. Narasimha Rao government even brought a Bill in Parliament to implement it. Unfortunately, it was never passed. In 1969, a parliamentary committee expressed a similar opinion and the Ranganath Mishra Commission recommended religion should be delinked from caste. You can change your religion, but not your caste.
OUTLOOK: So there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether Dalits will remain in the Hindu fold…
"There should be a white paper on what Dalits have gained and what they have lost in the past seven decades.”
Sanjay Paswan, Scheduled Caste Morcha, BJP
SP: A bigger fight awaits us. How long will we fight the same, old battles against caste, Manuvaad, Brahmin hegemony, etc? How long shall we depend on old, tired slogans? Yes, caste is a reality and casteism can get brutal at times. Yes, atrocities are taking place. There are divisions and distortions and there must be campaigns and agitations for rights, for dignity, for livelihood. But how long are we going to cite Periyar? We are needed for nation-building. Dalits have the ability to contribute and they must have the opportunity to do so.
OUTLOOK: You are saying that Dalits should stop fighting and help in development efforts…
SP: Development with justice. But how long are we going to keep blaming others? What happened at Una is to be condemned. Whoever was responsible, BJP or the RSS or others, need to be condemned. But Dalits must stop blaming and start claiming also.
RSV: The Dalit movement has gathered such momentum that it can only be described as a juggernaut. Ambedkar’s caravan is moving at full pace and all other identities are getting subsumed by the Ambedkarite ideology. In the new age of communication, technology and social media, it is spreading even faster. I have no doubt that Dalits will eventually move far away from Hinduism.
OUTLOOK: Is Buddhism, as Sanjay Paswan said, a soft option, an offshoot of Hinduism?
RSV: Don’t forget every convert to Buddhism takes 22 vows, which are so revolutionary that there can be no place for slavery.
SP: Nobody can negate Ambedkar. But Dalits should move forward with the legacy of all the four icons, namely, Ambedkar, Jagjivan Ram, Kanshi Ram and K.R. Narayanan. Reservation is a contentious issue. Marathas, Jats and even Patels are now seeking reservation. I strongly feel there should be a white paper on what Dalits have gained and what they have lost during the past seven decades.