Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao
At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence; at other times, it had an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms. In any event, their relationship was understood in terms of a process of utilisation, says Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher. After the demise of Ambedkar, almost three generations of educated dalit-bahujans have shouldered the responsibility of educating the people on his ideas, organising, translating his ideas into action and agitating to translate his dreams into reality and to counter discrimination and violence.
These three concepts, no doubt provide the ground for the continuation of his ideology. All these three processes are supposed to go hand in hand to translate theory into practice and theorise the practice. Theory and practice reciprocate each other and in this process of reciprocation, the existing theory, when it gets translated into practice, faces new challenges in the form of unsuitability or newer understanding, rereading and interpretation. But it does not lose its basic premise. In fact, such a rereading and reinterpretation would become necessary as it is needed by the community and to counter anti-bahujan ideologies.
Ambedkarism is an umbrella inclusive theory that naturally has the capacity to accommodate every excluded individual, even some individuals, and groups with some different aims and objectives could locate themselves in the large frame of Ambedkarism. These possibilities of accommodation might create some frictions and tensions when the frame of ideologies expands but resolving these tensions becomes easy for the Ambedkarites as they are one of the most matured intellectuals among all castes and communities in the country. Therefore, for dalit-bahujans, consistent engagement with theories of their leaders, re-reading, re-interpreting them according to the changing times and contexts in the process of applying them is quite essential. One could even be critical of the ideologies if they are unsuitable to the context. Yet, such a criticism is not to create inter-subcaste enmity but to forge an essential unity that is needed to counter the fast-growing common enemy.
Dalits and the Present
Ambedkarism, as we all know, is a response to the dominant orthodox religious and social structure that has kept dalits outside everything that is supposed to be naturally available for them as citizens of the country. Therefore, the purpose of Ambedkarism is multifunctional. It exposes the civilisational inadequacies of Hinduism as a religion, its social customs and traditions as discriminative and its exploitative norms which were invented with the intention of keeping dalits down. It is a critique of social and cultural inequalities, it provides means and methods of countering Hinduism and its discriminative methods and it also provides enthusiasm and energy to fight against injustice and eventually establish a society in which everyone would be equal.
When Dr Ambedkar was formulating his ideology, drawing from Buddhism, rationalism, liberalism and so on, which were already available positive ideologies, to build an umbrella ideology, he was careful that he chose from those ideologies which emerged as a response to suitable situations. Situations may not be similar but the purpose of these positive ideologies is similar. They emerged to serve the larger purpose of creating modern societies where illogical religions and discriminative and undemocratic social norms would be subjected to serious critical analysis and eventually be rejected as unsuitable to the time and context. Ambedkar lived in modern times and his ideas were produced in modern times. His perspectives, views, solutions were against the ancient and medieval orthodoxy, for the promotion of a democratic liberal modern society of modern times and for the annihilation of the caste system.
Unlike Ambedkar, the upper caste social and religious spheres were not radical. They, in fact, have used the opportunity of reformation to save the religion. This minimal engagement was not because modernity was incapable of transforming the orthodox societies into modern democratic ones. But because elite upper caste socio-religious reformers of India have conspired to control modernity and its effects on Indian society in order to save Hinduism, and their own social positions. Therefore, Ambedkar during his times had faced lots of resistance and Ambedkarism’s performance in transforming dalits has been tightly controlled. It was limited to the removal or reformation of most inhuman and violent social customs under the pressure of entry of much more democratic liberal western culture. Caste system was not seen as a serious national problem by the nationalists till the second decade of the twentieth century.
It was under the pressure of anti-caste movements led by anti-caste crusaders emerging from the second half of 19th century, untouchability was taken up for reform by Gandhi and others in 1930s. Therefore, the fight against untouchability and its foundation of an unequal social hierarchy was left largely on the shoulders of the dalit leadership after Ambedkar. By the time, dalit leadership started articulating in 1930s, India was just passing through the age of reforms. It took another nearly 40 years, to make their voice heard louder. At the same time, modernity was being brought under criticism and post-modernism was becoming dominant. This means that the modernity which has the potential of demolishing the discriminative, exploitative and undemocratic religious and social superstructures was limited to repair certain areas. This has allowed the continuation of the social illogicality that has affected dalits more than anyone else.
Postmodernism’s rejection of modernism has offered the opportunity to every community and caste, in India, to reclaim and retrieve their history, culture, and ideology with their inherent old value and added new value (this newness was a result of reformation of orthodox religion and social customs). The ultra-right used this opportunity to revitalise the rejected orthodoxy through radicalisation of Hinduism as a political proposition if not as a proper religious and cultural proposition. Radical Hinduism of post-modern times is not real Hinduism. Yet it has been promoted as such, but it is more dangerous than the orthodox ideologies of the pre-modern times. It has become radical with intention of nationalising its culture and history.
For dalits, this re-coming of the Hindu radical right came in serious conflict with their Ambedkarite ideology. Educated and intellectual dalits who understood the notoriety of the orthodox Hinduism under which untouchability flourished, and who got excluded from the sphere of knowledge and economic resources, naturally got agitated when they witnessed its strong return. From the 1920s to 1950s, Ambedkar fought against these features and put restrictions on Hinduism’s socio-religious impositions in multiple ways through the constitution of India and other legal mechanisms. While these restrictions angered the custodians and followers of Hinduism, it provided some dignity and respect to dalits. When post-modernism became a reality, the angered orthodox Hindus put the criticism of modernity to proper usage and declared independence from the restrictions of modernity.
Dalits, on the other hand, started to feel that the re-coming of radical Hinduism would again take away the hard earned freedom, dignity, self-respect and rights but were determined to face the challenge. Therefore, despite knowing the fact that they are a minority and their reaction to radical Hindutva would cause pain and suffering, they still chose to invoke radical Ambedkarism to counter radical Hindutva. But this invocation is only limited to the conscious (intellectual, educated and activist) dalit. The mass innocent dalits in rural areas are not a part of it. Yet radical Hindutva does not limit its reaction just to the conscious dalits who are reacting to its re-coming. It is attacking the conscious dalits because they are opposing the nationalist version of hindutva and it is also punishing rural dalits for not sticking to the norms of the radical Hindutva.
The case of Rohith Vemula and the lynching of dalits in Una in Gujarat for involving in leather tanning occupation, the traditional occupation of dalits, are two perfect examples. These two cases should not be seen in isolation. They are part of the grand scheme of building the homogeneous (Hindu) India. In this process, the hindutva would work towards the elimination of the sub-narratives or force their assimilation. The recent attempt at Hinduisation of Ambedkar and dalits is part of this strategy. This is quite visible from recent attempts by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Maharashtra’s BJP state Government tried to score brownie points by buying the Ambedkar House in London and it has also convinced the central government to announce the construction of a memorial for Ambedkar near Chaityabhoomi, the original cremation site. The Organiser, the mouthpiece of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has published a special issue last year and called him the ‘unifier’ (of Hindus). The central government has introduced Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM), a digital cash transfer app and says it is in the memory of the Ambedkar; and Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah broke bread with dalits. These are all part of the assimilation.
If this assimilation is not happening and does not work, then simultaneously it implements the programme of deprivation through which it wishes to force them to agree to assimilation. This is done through the deprivation of funds for dalits’ welfare, restriction of space in higher education, criminalisation of conversions into other religions. Every minute assertion of dalits against domination and discrimination would attract ruthless punishment and symbols of assertion like statues of dalit leaders, songs of assertion would be attacked. So the visible strategy is that target the innocent, ignorant and vulnerable dalits by building the pro-Ambedkar rhetoric and by criminalisation of the conscious and assertive dalits. These two processes are simultaneously carried out, and we are witnessing the assimilation of the innocent, ignorant and vulnerable dalits and criminalisation of the conscious and assertive dalits, simultaneously. The former might offer some positive results to the radical-right but the latter would put up some serious resistance as anti-hinduisation is inbuilt in the conscious and assertive dalit. Yet there would be more troubles would be more to both groups of dalits in the times to come. As the radical-right keep gaining strength, it keeps testing the patience of dalits, especially assertive dalits. If they don’t yield, it will employ coercive methods to break them.
A network of dalit-bahujan politicians, intellectuals, students, writers, activists down to rural youth would contribute positively to build the stronger force needed to counter Hinduisation and criminalisation. The networking of dalit-bahujans as a larger force of assertion is quite essential. This network has two prime responsibilities: first, it invests its intelligence in theorisation of the experience of dalitbahujans, invents methods and means for promoting consciousness and second, it uses the developed network into a powerful tool for democratic action to fight for rights and to fight against discrimination and domination by bringing the larger dalit-bahujan masses into the network. The responsibility of networking falls on the shoulders of educated, dalit activist and intellectual groups or individuals. If necessary, they could take the assistance of non-dalit-bahujan groups if such support is genuine.
At the moment, there is a visible disconnection between the conscious dalit-bahujan and innocent mass dalit-bahujans. As long as the latter is outside the consciousness, the dalit bahujan movement would continue to suffer from the lack of the mass power needed to fight for justice. It is a universal fact that in a democracy, the involvement of people and participation would determine the success of people’s movements. Quite often, the dalit movement suffers from the lack of mass participation and remains limited to the intellectuals, activists, educators and students. This has to go beyond them. A network of dalit-bahujan social gropus connected to each other at individual and group level with organisations of their own or if possible evolving into single organisation for common interests to spread consciousness among each and every bahujan not just by disseminating information on discrimination and injustice but in one or the other way connecting every dalit-baujan to the network as a member, prompting all, down to the lowest of the organisation possible, to participate in democratic physical actions. If this networking becomes a reality, it offers required strength for the dalit bahujans as a pressure group in various ways. In the long run, such networking would serve larger political purposes too.
The networking is to be done by working out common ideology, interests, and issues among the dalit bahujans. Already existing international, national, state district level associations of students, writers, teachers, and employees are needed to build a single network, without losing the autonomy of every association. They could come together as such togetherness is quite natural to like-minded leaders and masses. There are isolated associations, at various levels, for defined purposes which have been in existence. Apart from the above said two main functions, this network could also perform functions such as saving dalit-bahujans from attacks, collection of information as evidence and dissemination of the same for building consciousness among dalits, bringing them into the democratic physical action when movements are launched to fight for justice, collection of data on daily problems and experience for dalit bahujan for theorisation and so on. If this is done, gang rapes of women, broad day-light lynchings, beating, canning, undressing, murders could be stopped.
Dalit-Bahujan Way of Life
On this 126 birthday of Ambedkar, it is fitting to propose a new way of life for dalit-bahujans in this country. Off late, the way of life has gained lots of currency in the public discourse with the coming of the radical-right into power. The intention of such discourse is to give new meaning to Hinduism as an all accepting democratic ideology and it also seeks to de-religionise Hindu religion. In this process, it tries to eliminate the difference between the way of life and religion. For my understanding, religion is not a way of life. Religion is rigid, organised and structured which does not allow any compromises in the execution of its obligations in the form of rituals, customs, and traditions. But a way of life is fluid, dynamic, democratic and constantly reforming according to the changing times and context. A cursory look at the history of dalits and religion would enlighten us on certain suggestions made by earlier leaders on the way of life for dalit-bahjuans.
Buddhism, as an egalitarian rational theology, was presented itself as a choice for dalits against vedic Brahmanism. But dalits could not take it as a choice. It became a more popular choice for people of South East Asia than in India. Christianity, though as organised, as structured and as rigid as Hinduism, through its humanism, inclusivity, democracy and being able to offer services to the outcasts has emerged as one of the best options among the existing religions for the dalits who have been kept out of spiritual, material and cultural entitlements and human dignity in the hindu society. In 20th century, Ambedkar, at least, at the individual level, did not see that equality and dignity are possible in hindu religion. Therefore, he not only suggested conversion of Hindu dalits into Buddhism but he also converted into Buddhism and expected the rest of the Hindu dalits to do the same. But it was not taken as a choice by a large number of dalit-bahujans. Contemporaries of Ambedkar, M.C. Rajah and Rettamallai Srinivasan, from Tamil Nadu, have suggested contrary to what Ambedkar had suggested. They argued that dalits needed to stay in Hinduism and fight for its reformation. Compared to conversion, it is quite a risky option as any attempt at reformation of hindu religion by the people who are supposed to be submissive would be seen as anti-hindu by the people who are custodians of Hinduism.
E.V.R. Ramasamy Naicker had suggested the rejection of God and religion and adoption of rationalism as the suitable way of life for non-brahmins (Dalit-Bahujans). It could have been taken as a proper choice. But it did not emerge as an option even for a minority among non-brahmans. It, instead of offering itself as a way of life, has become a political or social ideology for a minority in Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, Periyar’s rationalism could not travel beyond Tamil Nadu and failed to become a national philosophy of all dalit-bahujans. Ironically, in its own birthplace, its popularity is quite minimal and it is dwindling in course of time. Not only now, at no point in time in history, from Charvakas down to Periyar, rationalism sounded as a national choice of way of life. It might not be a choice for the nation. But it could be a choice for those who have been going through humiliation and indignity under religion, especially dalits.
Not much has changed in the way religion treats dalits, even after 70 years of declaration of untuchability as an offense. Burning Dalits alive for entering into temples, honour killings, beatings if their shadow falls on others, depriving them of drinking water, building walls of untoucahbility, stripping them for not complying with the discriminative social norms, gang rapes and killings of dalit women, depriving them of taking part in festivities and cultural participation and the list goes on. All these listed here are not suitable practices to a 21st century democratic society. There is neither an iota of guilt nor remorse in committing such crimes among the perpetrators. Instead, such crime is, in reverse of time, acquiring unbelievable notoriety. Dalits still have to fight for religious equality. Moreover, they are the more vulnerable to the horrors, violence and sufferings of the religious customs and traditions. Therefore, an alternative way of life for dalit-bahujans as a middle path is needed to be invented. According to my understanding, dalit-bahujans who are the most vulnerable and helpless — neither can they reject religion nor can they reject God. At the same time, in meeting the obligations of imposed social norms based on religion and in claiming religious and spiritual equality, the dalit-bahuans have been going through serious problems; it is unfair to leave them to the horrors of socio-religious norms. Therefore, a middle path which may be called semi-religious or semi-rational way of life could be worked out. This, is neither a complete rejection of religion/God nor completely rational. It is mix of the both.
It looks like to me both are needed for dalits, as long as they are in the vulnerable position. Though rationalism and religion are contradictory to each other and a way of life cannot be a mix of both, its possibility is needed to be worked out as a compromise between both, if both have positives role to play. A large number of dalits are always in distress, helpless and socially positioned on the lowest step of the hierarchy. They are deprived of economic resources and all access to higher education which provides needed relief from indignity and humiliation is still controlled and monopolised. Even after nearly a century of anti-caste and religion reforms, dalit-bahujans are not able to see the incompatibility of Ramasamy Naicker and Rama, Phule and Paramshiva and Ambedkar and Anjaneya. This inability that is the by-product of helplessness and distress.
It is not limited to poor helpless dalit-bahujan masses. It, unfortunately, is also the case with many educated and activist dalit-bahujans. Therefore, complete rejection of religion and God, in a single stroke, as Periyar tried, may not work. But it might be possible to change minds towards rationalism in the long course of time with sustained efforts of conscious dalit bahujans. Till then, this combination i.e. religion as a so-called stress buster and rationalism as rationaliser of the social behaviour and promoter of economic discipline might work for dalit-bahujans. If in the course of experimentation, dalit-bahujans realise that the latter is enough to deal with practical problems, the former will die a natural death among them. If the rationalisation of social and economic behaviour, which are interlinked with each other, is achieved these two processes could transform the dalit-bahujans into an exemplary society.
Social rationalism eliminates both the social and religious irrationality in their life. It de-links the dalit-bahujans from becoming the victims of the inbuilt social irrationality. This would result in gender equality, reducing suffering of dalit-bahujan women who have to adhere to unjustified and discriminative socio-religious rituals, and could provide social independence. The economic discipline, which is quite essential given the economic position of dalit-bahujans, could result in rationalisation of spending. It would help reduce the costs of festivities and fun. For examples, a hindu-dalit-bahujan has to perform a countless number of religious and social obligations as a follower of the religion. If a dalit-bahujan is made to understand the non-essentiality of such ritualistic religious and social obligations, it would result in saving a decent part of their incomes that could be used for more essential areas such as education, housing, and health. Therefore, in this middle path, religion/God would only have cursory existence. It is social rationalism and economic discipline which would become dominant features of Dalit-Bahujans.
Dr. Y. Srinivasa Rao teaches history at Bharathidasan University, Thiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu.