Significantly, everyone in the past who has had any spiritual sensitivity realised that the perpetuation of the degradation of Dalits, legitimised through the caste system, was a blemish on those who claim the Vedic vision of life. Nanak, Kabir, Buddha, Mahavir, Dayanand, Vivekanand, Gandhi and Ambedkar, each had his own distinctive vision. But all of them shared the conviction that unless Dalits were liberated, Indian society could not be truly itself. It is an astonishing reality that despite the admirable work of these great reformers, no dent could be made on the caste system.
There are encouraging signs that the Dalits are running out of patience. In this they cannot be blamed. They have waited long enough; if anything, they have waited too long. It is the bigoted resistance from the keepers of upper caste power to religious reform and social justice that forced a social prophet like Ambedkar to conclude that Dalits had no hope for rehabilitation within the Hindi fold. This led him to convert, along with 3,00,000 of his followers, to Buddhism. The background to the Tamil Nadu anti-conversion ordinance is clearly mounting unrest in the lower castes.
Those familiar with the Dalit predicament cannot pretend to be surprised by this. Poverty is endemic to their way of life. They are largely illiterate, unemployed, exploited. They are not perceived as human beings. To make matters worse, they rarely get justice. Given this reality, it is only a matter of time before their frustration and resentment reach explosive proportions.
Indeed, as far as the Dalits are concerned, their plight is like that of a man inside a house on fire. Either someone must put out the fire or he must be allowed to escape. Unfortunately, so far the only option before them was to flee from the Hindu fold. Hence conversions to Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity continue to happen. At the same time, the volume of these conversions is strangely negligible as demographic data prove.
Given the plight of Dalits, there should have been a massive exodus — but for the fact that they know that the promise of equality and empowerment held out by these religious systems remains unfulfilled because even within these supposedly egalitarian, caste-free faiths, Dalits are never accepted as equals. All religious communities are infected by the scandal of caste. It is dishonest on the part of anyone to hold out the carrot of conversion to the Dalit without purging his own faith of caste practices. Thanks to the barely masked hypocrisy and commercial undertones of conversions, Dalits remain Dalits even after they’ve left the fold. This is the fraud inherent in conversion.
But this should not breed complacency in those who cherish the Vedic faith. The fact that other religions too are caste-ridden does not justify its perpetuation in the Hindu fold. Hindus invented the system, they must dismantle it first. The cheap and dishonest alternative is to push through laws or executive measures to prevent conversion. The only valid way forward is to offer to the victims of caste oppression a new hope. That alternative is available in the form of the Arya Samaj.
Swami Dayanand’s concern for Dalits exceeded that of Gandhi’s by far. While Gandhi simply sought to use a plaster to cover the socio-economic wounds of Dalits, Dayanand went all out to bring about their social and religious transformation. The Arya Samaj was not envisaged as a religion, but as a spiritual and liberating movement. Those who embraced it were to be totally freed from their caste antecedents and made new entities as Aryas. This was based on Dayanand’s insight that the caste system was a post-Vaidic aberration and a blot on the spiritual greatness of the Vedic vision.
But the Arya Samaj movement has not been able to fulfill its spiritual mission with the required commitment. Its liberative agenda has been diluted by a spirit of compromise with the caste agenda. Caste interests have infiltrated it. So when the Dalits look around for alternatives, they see no difference between what the upper caste practices and the Arya Samaj offers.
This needs to change. From a realistic perspective, the Arya Samaj is the best bet for Dalits today. As for the Samaj itself, this needs to be seen not as a means for swelling its ranks but as a historic challenge that it is so eminently suited and specially mandated to address.