Chandra Bhan Prasad and Pushpendra Johar in a discussion: this is a part of the series of interviews, talks, articles that SAVARI and Round Table India are trying to put together to gather the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic.
This is the second part of the discussion; the first part is here.
Pushpendra: We saw those videos on our smart phones, on our laptops and you talked about your own uncles and father. You said they had to flee Burma in 1941 when the war (world war 2) was going on and the Axis powers were pushed back by the Chamar regiment. What do these emerging videos of thousands and thousands of labourers, workers evoke in you personally? Also, have things changed for the underclass?
CBP: My father..they were four brothers and two of them reached Burma in 1930 and both joined railways as labourers. My father joined them in 1939, just before the beginning of the war. And when the Japanese army supported by Hitler entered Burma, the Government of India announced that those migrant workers should now go back to their homes because enemy forces might take over Burma. So my father, my two uncles, one aunty with her baby, they left Burma and reached my home in Azamgarh with so many stories..that they walked for so many miles, they took truck for some distance, they took train, they took bus, they took this and that.
At that time they would say that woh hamari sena ka hi hai. They had internalised the word harijan, they would say harijan sab ladne gaye hain udhar Japan ki sena se. We would just make fun of them that they are taking pride that something is going to happen and harijansena will defeat Japan. We were not taking them seriously. Any community takes pride in something and since we were not with them and they were the witnesses, they were also the victims. Sometimes they would be in tears. Only after coming to Delhi I realized this..
I was not taught anywhere that Britishers had immediately created a Chamar regiment. Somebody told the Britishers that the Chamars don’t have the right to use talwar (sword) and rifle by religion. If they are given talwar and rifles they would be great fighters; and Mahars had helped the British army defeat Peshwas. So Britishers took a risk and they formed the Chamar army and Chamar army defeated them in 20 days. Why should this not have been taught in my primary school? That Chamars, Harijans, you know, they were given lathis, they were given rifles and they chased Japanese army that was supported by Hitler, trained by generals of Hitler..and Chamars in this country did this great service and say, thank you brother Chamars. I should have been told this in my primary school so my guts would have gone higher. Why Bhima Koregaon battle is not taught in schools?
So that’s why I am saying should a religion construct an unequal caste order and practice untouchability for hundreds and hundreds of years without any revolt from within? You know, Vivekananda is considered as one of the greatest Indians of modern times. He spoke at the parliament of religions in 1883 I suppose, in Chicago. He gave two speeches and if you listen to the two speeches there is no mention of caste practices. Such a hell like system that was practised here in India in which lower castes were not even allowed to keep moustache and Vivekananda did not even mention any of it there. Instead he talked about his great pride in Hinduism that is full of love and compassion and he did not even name Buddha, that Buddha is ours. So there is something in the central nervous system of the caste Hindus. There is no other explanation as why untouchability and caste system have endured for so long and you can see it happening right now in Bombay, in Surat, people want the right to walk back to their homes. They are not even asking for trucks or luxury buses or luxury trains. They are asking for the right to walk back to their homes that are hundreds and thousands of kilometres away. If this is happening in front of our own eyes what could have happened 100-200 years ago?
Pushpendra: Can we think of any other country with such primitive practices..
CBP: I can’t think of any. I have so many black friends. They say blacks were not untouchables even during slavery. Blacks were not untouchables even when they were being shipped from Europe to America. On the ships during their journey black women would feed milk to white babies. There cannot be a bigger social crime than what caste and untouchability promote. Still there has been no history of revolt from within caste Hindus against this system. Whereas there is enough rich history of slave-owners rebelling against slavery in the USA, white men and women sacrificing their lives for the freedom of blacks, there is evidence. But there is no evidence even today about people with balconies doing something against the caste order. Who prevented them from doing that? So I am saying this is something deeply psychological and it will take time.
Pushpendra: I think this also has economic reasons. This is a way to keep an economically viable system (for caste Hindus) in place. If it was merely psychological there are therapies and medicines for its treatment, right?
Pushpendra: I think there are deep seated economic interests also..
CBP: You know, slavery was also driven by economic interests. So, if a Dalit is happy with 1 kg of grain a day and happy with the used clothes of the landlord for one thousand years why would they (upper castes) not prefer that kind of a system? That’s why I am saying that one of the ways for the Dalits to realize their power is through Dalit economy. The way blacks have used dollar as a force to reclaim their dignity..the more economically independent Dalits become the more caste system would decline and the day thousands and thousands, millions and millions of Dalits become employers of non-Dalits that will become Dalit therapy and it will take some time to treat caste Hindus that whatever they have been doing for thousands of years is wrong.
Pushpendra: Mr Prasad, in such times when the actual nature of the Indian market structure, the business industry is becoming bare even to the most ignorant-acting society members…administrative orders/directives from the government which were popularised and hailed by various progressive-labelled journalists, that were saying employers must pay daily wages to their workers surfaced. Now where there is no permanent employee, what does this mean? And as you rightly asked, who permanently employs the tea vendor, who employs the cobbler, who employs the mason?
CBP: See, the way the middle class, the way the government thinks that a house in India means a house that has balconies and fridges and airconditioners, the same way it must have been implied by somebody about people who work. Once again, I say this is deeply psychological that a house in India would mean that the house has a balcony, an airconditioner and a fridge. Likewise, a worker has an employer. There are labourers who stand every day in my locality and they are picked up by Mr a, b, c for repairs and all that. They are not employed by anybody. Cobbler is not employed by anybody, ice-cream seller is not employed by anybody, fruit seller is not employed by anybody. So who is going to pay them daily wages? I am not saying all of this is very well planned. It is this understanding that a wage-earner is employed by somebody and a house by definition will have balconies and airconditioners and fridges. It is the extension of that same mindset.
Pushpendra: But do you think governments don’t know that?
CBP: Whether government knows it or not, that is the mindset of the kind of people who are ruling this country. With that mindset they pass such orders. That India is like this. Vandemataram is India’s soul. Our privilege is god given. Those are the kind of things they think, for example: do not fear the disease as much as the doctor who is a Dalit. That Dalits with 10% marks will become doctors. Their children have been trained in believing that. The government and the administration have that thing in their minds: the labourers are (permanently) employed by somebody.
Pushpendra: The government has the most amount of data on the people. They know there are so many daily wage earners who do not get employed as such. It is all very unorganized. Do you think this kind of a government order which says that employers have to pay their employees, is a deliberate thing, just to wash their hands off things?
CBP: No, it may not be deliberate. It may be the actual state of their mind that when he says bhaiyo aur beheno he means bhai aur behen who have flats, balconies, who have family business, who have cars, who have everything. Others don’t exist, they are not bhaiyo aur beheno.
Pushpendra: Why is there no critical discussion on the class-caste identities of the carriers of the disease (Covid19) into India? Why is that absent?
CBP: It’s like a gupt beemari, you see the boards here and there – gupt ilaaj yahan karaye. One of the greatest weaknesses of the caste Hindu society is that it never celebrates self-criticism. It is so easy to find out the caste of the people who came from China and Europe and America. It is so easy. You can just do it in a day. 80% can be found out by their surnames. Rest you call their parents. So when they know that they are the ones who brought the disease but would not accept it, that’s the reason nowhere in the world caste Hindus are seen as people with some moral standards. People just make fun of Indians abroad, those who know about India, particularly academia. They know that these people hide their reality.
Pushpendra: On one hand they are bringing people in airplanes from different countries in such a dignified manner, on the other hand they are making people sit in hordes and spraying them with chemicals and disinfectants. How do we make sense of it in current times?
CBP: Because, those who talk of merit send their kids abroad for higher education to the greatest educational institutions in the USA and some of them fail. The Reliance (group) younger brother failed and he was made the CEO. So when they know that the guys who are stuck in Sydney and elsewhere are our guys, our children, our daughters, sons, brothers, uncles and we have to bring them back with dignity and these people without balconies and without airconditioners have to listen to us. They can’t flee, even walk on the streets, they are suspected of carrying disease. So it is they and it is we.
Pushpendra: One sees a lot of videos and images on social media with people distributing groceries and clicking selfies and making videos of food being given to poor people. Where do you locate this performance and marketing of philanthropy, which you also called caste Hindu philanthropy, in the current processes?
CBP: I think it was in the year..maybe 2015, I wrote an article in Navbharat Times, a Hindi daily, about a Thakur hamlet in Uttar Pradesh. Me and D. Shyam Babu, he is my Dalit colleague and a scholar. We were studying two villages in UP, two Thakur villages and we had a set of questions for them: that what is it they have lost post independence, post constitution (coming into being)?
One of the questions was: Did Dalits carry leftover food from your house a day after the weddings in 1947? The answer would be yes! Do Dalits carry leftover food from your house a day after the wedding today? The answer would be no! And when you talk to them they become very nostalgic, you know Mr Prasad we used to give them free food, women used to come and collect leftover food every morning, we used to make sure that if there were total 500 guests and there are 200 Dalits in the village, we would cook food for 200 more people and that would be the leftover food next morning so that the praja comes and collects this food.
So their children have that thing in their minds that I’d like to be seen as a food giver, I need to be seen as a food giver and people should stand with their folded hands while landlords give them food. So this was how they were, that we feed people and ye hamari praja hai. We studied a village where we asked a 15 year old upper caste boy: beta ye batao ki..humne suna hai ki aapke paas aam ke bagh the? He said, Yes yes uncle, aam ke bagh the. We asked, Kidhar? He replied, Hamare aam ke bagh toh is side the aur 5-6 mango trees us side the.
Then we asked a Dalit boy of the same and the same village: beta idhar aao, tumhare gaon mein aam ke bagh the? He said, Pata nahin, humein toh nahin maloom, hamare papa ko maloom hoga. So how come a 15 year old boy of a village does not have any memory of mango orchards standing in his village at some point of time and how come an upper caste boy can exactly locate the place where the mango orchards stood whereas he has not seen them? So he was told by his parents and grandparents that this is where the trees were and now they are nowhere. Dalit parents have not told their kids that they did not have the mango orchards because they did not have mango orchards. Likewise, the present generation of caste Hindus live in a state of loss that they have lost something. So while giving food, some people are taking selfies and that is how they earn back a few moments of the past. That’s what I would say; otherwise there is no other reason that can explain this.
Pushpendra: It is like reliving memories.
CBP: Yes reliving memories. You go to any upper caste hamlet and ask: achcha woh jo paanch ghar hain who kiske the? They’ll say, Woh toh hamare uncle ke the. This hamlet was mine, this Chamar basti was mine, this Pasi basti was mine. They still say this. And I am not talking about 90 year olds. 20 year old boys say: ye hamare the, woh hamare the, hamari praja, hamari praja. So when you have in your mind ‘this was my praja‘ then you’ll also have what praja meant.
Pushpendra: Mr Prasad, you are an insider to the business industry, you know its workings, you know how it functions, as an insider and also as somebody who has worked very hard and is constantly mobilising people. I see you uploading images of Dalit entrepreneurs around the country and which is really motivating for many, like capturing these historical developments. I want to ask you what is your suggestion for dalitbahujan masses who constitute the middle classes, who have had some education, who are in jobs, who have some regular source of income, as to how to deal with such a crisis of a kind we are seeing right now
CBP: Let me also address those who are going to listen to this conversation, I want to let them know that in the Indian industry Parsis are the only pro-nation good people who are ready to listen to Dalits, the Parsi industrialists. Caste Hindu industrialists will do everything under coercion, under (force of) law. On their own they are not going to do anything. Insofar as Dalit businesses are concerned, barring hospitals, I see most Dalit businesspersons with low level of education. They have worked with some industry as workers and labourers, they have come out of that industry, they have become supplier of something to the same industry and slowly they have grown.
They have passed stage 1 and they are able to buy cars worth 15-20 lakhs. They are not going beyond that because there is no branding of their products. So they remain vendors to somebody, some big industry. Our educated Dalits.. I know very well the maximum age limit for UPSC (Union Public Service Commission exam) is 32 years for general category and for scheduled castes/scheduled tribes it is 37 years. Till the age of 37 there are thousands and thousands of Dalit youth trying for that. Those who fail at UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) level go back to Uttar Pradesh, where the maximum age limit for Uttar Pradesh Civil Services is 45 years old. So in UPSC there will be 150 seats for scheduled castes and 75 seats for scheduled tribes. 1 or 2 may get into general seats. For 150 seats there are one hundred and thousand youth trying.
I would argue that Dalit youth should not make UPSC or a government job their first priority, their first try should be in enterprise. If they can fail 15 times in UPSC etc, trying for a government job… Second, Dalit middle class..we have calculated their income. The income of Dalit officers and staff..they number 30 lakhs. Their combined income per year is 50 billion US dollars. And I repeat Dalit middle class working in government offices makes 50 billion dollars an year. There are 76 countries in the world whose GDP is below 50 billion dollars. So Dalits have not been able to create Dalit economy. Dalit intellectuals have been able to create Dalit sahitya. There is Dalit sahitya in Marathi, Dalit sahitya in Gujarati, in Bengali, in Telugu, Tamil, Malyalam..everywhere. There are Dalit (political) parties in every state, there are Dalit social organizations in every state but why are there no Dalit banks, why are there are no Dalit brands?
If there are Dalit brands then the Dalit middle class can develop the culture of buying from Dalits, because we have been totally denied the right to accumulate wealth, denied the right to business. It is the right time that we start businesses and Dalits simply on their merit start buying goods from Dalits. Dalits who make jeans in Karol Bagh, make them for the best of brands in this country. Dalits who make shoes in Agra, they make shoes for international brands. Why can’t they have their own brands? Why can’t Dalit middle class go to the market and ask where are Dalit brands, where are Dalit made products? So I think, people of your generation..people of my generation only know protests, we have not been trained into branding, into making banks, into making a Dalit fund. People of your generation should start with creating Dalit economy the way Dalit intellectuals have created Dalit sahitya. I think Ambedkar would approve of this.
Pushpendra: I think he would have been very happy with your ideas.
CBP: Yeah. See, people ask us how long will the caste system continue? And I reply that it will last long like the old fort in Delhi, the caste order will remain there like that and sometimes it will need renovation and all. So what present BJP government is doing is trying to renovate the caste order that was falling apart. The best way to finish that completely is to create conditions where thousands and thousands, millions and millions of untouchables become employers of touchables. That will be possible only when Dalits build their economy.
I also want to mention the idea of Dalit power here. How do we understand Dalit Power is crucial. Power also comes from wealth and education. We reduced Dalit power to politics and bureaucracy alone.There are 9 lakh 26 thousand Dalit primary school teachers in India. When I say Dalit, it is only scheduled castes in India I am talking about. 9 lakh 26 thousand scheduled caste primary school teachers in India create wealth worth Rs 555 billion every year. Officers in higher companies, you can verify with your friends and relatives, Dalits in Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum, ONGC, Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) earn, on an average, 40 lakh rupees a year. So if they spend 1% of their earnings on a Dalit bank, we would have a Dalit bank worth a billion every year.
So people of your generation should ask those who have taken admission in schools free of fees, those who have availed scholarship facility, those who have used reservation to enter medical colleges and engineering colleges and JNU, the way I entered and those who have got jobs under quota, they should put 1% of their income into a Dalit bank and forget that they have ever given it. This Dalit bank or Dalit monetary fund or DMF will give strength to our Dalit youth. So instead of spending 15 years of their life writing an exam they should learn to try their hands at enterprise. This will be a tribute to Babasaheb that Dalits are now creating Dalit economy. That’s what they should do.
Pushpendra: Dear Mr Prasad it was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for the discussion.
Chandra Bhan Prasad is a prominent thinker, researcher, writer, and editor of Dalit Enterprise magazine.
Pushpendra Johar is an anthropologist and the editor of Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality.