Hindutva is the greatest threat for Dalits

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Hindutva is the greatest threat for Dalits

Rajesh Solanki
Fri, 12/14/2007

Rajesh Solanki, Convenor of the Jati Nirmulan Committee (‘Caste Annihilation Committee’) is a noted Dalit leader from Ahmedabad, Gujarat. In this interview he talks with Yoginder Sikand about the Dalit movement in Gujarat, Dalit-Muslim relations and the challenge of Hindutva fascism.

YS: How did you get involved in the Dalit movement?

RS: To be frank, there is not much of a Dalit movement in Gujarat today. It is still at a nascent stage, fractured into numerous small groups. My own involvement in Dalit socio-political activism began in 1985, when I resigned from my job in the Irrigation Department in the Gujarat Secretariat. This was at the height of the anti-reservation movement launched by the Savarna (‘upper’ caste) Hindus in the wake of the announcement of reservations in government services for the Backward Castes. Quitting my job, I got involved in efforts to mobilise Dalits for their rights, including Dalit reservations, which the ‘upper’ castes were trying to sabotage by spreading murder and mayhem. We set up the Jati Nirmulan Committee to defend reservation rights, but no Savarna so-called secular or progressive groups in Gujarat helped us even when we were arrested. The anti-reservation movement was then deliberately given a communal twist by the ‘upper’ castes, in the Congress and various Hindutva outfits, who succeeded in bringing the Dalits and Backward Castes to attack Muslims, leading to widespread massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. Hindutva elements, including RSS activists, were at the forefront of this movement, which made me realise that the single greatest threat facing the Dalits is the challenge of Hindutva, both the ‘hard’ Hindutva of the RSS and the so-called ‘soft’ Hindutva of the Congress. Hindutva-walas cannot stomach the idea of Dalits or Backward Castes refusing to remain slaves any more. In the past, under the Hindu rulers, Dalits were forced to carry pots tied below their necks so that their spittle would not fall on the ground. They had to carry brooms tied to their backs so that their footprints did not remain on the ground. And that hatred for us, that total opposition to our emancipation, still informs the Savarna ‘upper’ caste mind-set, by and large, in Gujarat today. This is why there are very few so-called secular and progressive Savarna intellectuals and activists in Gujarat who are working with the Dalits.

YS: In some other parts of India, Dalit groups are seeking to retrieve their own cultural traditions and heroes and de-Brahminising their histories in order to create a new counter-culture to critique and challenge Brahminism and Savarna Hindu hegemony. Is anything of this sort happening in Gujarat today?

RS: Gujarati Dalits have produced scores of saints and heroes who challenged Brahminism in their own ways and struggled for the rights of our people. But their memory has either been lost or else their traditions have been totally Brahminised. In some cases, Dalits themselves have willingly allowed this to happen in the illusion that this might help remove their stigma of being so-called low castes, because of which some of them wish to forget their own past. Brahminical elites, including Gandhians and other so-called lovers of the Dalits as well as RSS-walas, have also been complicit in this. They want us to forget our ancestors, our history of oppression at their hands and rebellion against them, and to identify ourselves as ‘Hindus’ in order to inflate ‘Hindu’ numbers and thereby further entrench the hegemony of the Savarna oppressors. So, what is happening with scores of Dalit heroes and saints today is that their histories are being totally re-written, being Brahminised out of all recognition and, consequently, drained of all radical potential of critiquing and challenging Brahminism.

Let me cite an instance of this. In Patan there is a lake, on the banks of which is a shrine dedicated to a Dalit hero called Maya. It is said that during the reign of Sidddharaj Jaysingh a severe famine struck Gujarat. The king called his royal astrologer, who must have been a Brahmin, who told him that it would rain only if the king arranged for a Dalit youth to be sacrificed to appease the gods. The king ordered that Maya should be killed. Maya agreed, because how could he, a hapless Dalit, defy the order of the king? At the same time, Maya laid down the condition that he would offer his life provided the king gave some freedom to the Dalits by ordering that some humiliating practices enforced on the Dalits by the Hindus, of tying a broom behind their backs and a pot around their necks, be stopped. The king agreed, and Maya was killed, and so, the story goes, it began to rain. You may say this is just a story, and it probably is, but the story itself is significant as it talks about Dalit resistance to Savarna Hindu oppression. For centuries the shrine of Maya has attracted thousands of Dalit, Tribal and Backward Caste pilgrims every year. The existence of an independent Dalit religious tradition cannot be stomached by the Savarnas. And especially if these Dalit shrines attract large numbers of pilgrims, who can be roped in as voters for Savarna parties, or if the shrines have incomes, because then Brahmin priests think it is their right to grab this money in the name of being spokesmen of the gods. And this is precisely what has happened to Maya’s shrine today. Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, went there and announced a massive amount of money for the shrine, which has actually meant nothing but its Hinduisation or Brahminisation. He also probably thought that by doing so he could try to convince the Dalits to vote for the BJP. But this sort of Hinduisation is not associated only with Hindutva outfits. Congress-walas and the Gandhians, upholders of so-called ‘soft Hindutva’, are equally complicit in this sort of thing.

This appropriation of our religious traditions, which otherwise could be fashioned into powerful tools for challenging Brahminism, is happening all over Gujarat today. In many cases this agenda is being aggressively promoted by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Since the mid-1980s the VHP has organised several conventions of Dalit sants or religious leaders, to Hinduise them and to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hatred. Take the case of the shrine of the Dalit saint Sant Sawaiya Nath of Jhanjharka, whose shrine is hugely popular among the Dalits of Gujarat. The Dalit priest (mahant) of the shrine was roped in by the BJP and his brother was given a BJP ticket to fight the elections. This was done deliberately to promote Dalit-Muslim conflict because that area has a sizeable Muslim population. Or take the example of the Dalit Kabirpanthis in Gujarat. Kabir, as you know, was a Sufi-Bhakti saint who did not believe in any one religion, who believed in just one formless God and who fiercely condemned the caste system. Yet, today, the Kabirpanthis in Gujarat, who are mostly Dalits, claim that they are Hindus and worship all sorts of Hindu gods and goddesses. There have been numerous other such cases like this.

Hinduisation of Dalits is taking other forms now in Gujarat, with the emergence of a new breed of Savarna so-called babas or godmen. Take the case of Pandurang Athavale, a Chitpavan Brahmin, who is very active in spreading Hinduism among the Tribals and Dalits of Gujarat. Basically, he appeals to them to forget their own religions and identify with Hinduism. He is giving them new, Sanskritic or Hindu names in order to facilitate their absorption into the Hindu fold. So, he’s renamed the Vaghris, a hunter caste, as Devipujaks or ‘worshippers of the Devi’, the fish-catching Macchwaras as Sagarputras (‘children of the sea’) and Dalits as Bhavputra or ‘children of the emotions’.

To co-opt the Dalits into the Hindu fold and to get them to rally behind the Hindutva agenda, Hindutva groups have started organising various programmes among Dalits in recent years. They regularly send out teams of so-called sadhus and sants to Dalit localities and Tribal areas to set up temples and organise kirtan and bhajan sabhas. The VHP regularly organises conventions to give awards to Dalit writers in order to co-opt potential critics of Brahminism. The VHP has now started organising mass marriages among Dalits, such as a recent one of the Bunkar community, where the VHP provided money, arranged forthe marriages to be held in a temple and called BJP and other local Hindutva leaders to be present on the occasion. Another cheap gimmick to Hinduise the Dalits and get them to vote for the BJP is the Kunwarbai nu Mameru scheme of the BJP government to provide mangalsutras to Dalit brides. We Dalits have never had this tradition of Mangal Sutra. It has been a Savarna practice that symbolises the slavery of the woman but it is being sought to be imposed on us now. Any sensible Dalit would refuse to avail of this scheme,which is named after Narsi Mehta, father of Kunwarbai, a poor Brahmin who was unskilled in any trade and so used to wander around singing. A concocted story has it that on the occasion of his daughter’s marriage Krishna appeared to Narsi Mehta in the guise of a certain Seth Sagalshah and gave money to him to have his daughter married off. Are Dalits beggars or poor, unskilled mendicants like Narsi Mehta that we should accept such worthless tokens from the BJP? Then, the BJP has launched another gimmicky scheme for Dalits, called the Satyawadi Raja Harishchandra Maranottar Sahay Yojana, through which the government pays a sum of 1500 rupees to a Dalit family to perform the last rites of a deceased member. According to a mythical story, Vishwamitra cursed the king Harishchandra, who became the servant of a Dom, a Dalit. When the Raja’s wife, Rani Satyavati, tried to perform the last rites of their dead son on the banks of the Ganga the king prevented her because he had no money to pay for the tax to the Dom. So, that’s how this programme gets its name, and the BJP thinks that through these sorts of cheap publicity stunts they can get our votes, Hinduise us and also deny us our rights and what is due to us, thinking that we will be pleased with such measly populist hand-outs.

YS: But hasn’t this effort to Hinduise the Dalits and to use them against Muslims been countered by the Dalits themselves or by other secular forces in Gujarat?

RS: As I said, there isn’t much of a Dalit movement in Gujarat. Gandhism and various Hindu religious groups did not allow the movement to take root here, and they have, to an extent, succeeded in co-opting the Dalits. There is also very little unity between the different Dalit castes, who practice discrimination and even untouchability among themselves, which is a major hurdle in the path of creating a powerful Dalit movement. Some Dalit castes, such as Valmikis, are so poor and so bereft of an educated leadership that they can easily be used by Hindutva outfits, who offer them bribes and alcohol and then instigate them to attack Muslims and let them loot their homes. Educated Dalits, many of them in various government jobs, take little interest in the issues of the wider Dalit community, the poorest of the poor. At most, they are interested only in defending their own privileges, focusing only on reservations. They are mainly power-hungry careerists who are dependent on the mercy and will of Savarna politicians and bureaucrats and are too afraid to speak out against them. Most of them are pro- establishment, even pro-BJP. In the villages, Dalits are too suppressed to assert their rights. If they do, they can even be killed. Another major challenge to the building up of a strong independent Dalit movement is, as I said, Hinduisation, which is seen by many Dalits as a means to seek to escape the stigma of being ‘low’ caste, although I am convinced that this really does not succeed in the long-term. Savarnas will tell you that you are a Hindu only in order to get your votes or to use you to attack Muslims, but when the moment you start demanding your rights you no longer remain a Hindu for them, but simply an ‘untouchable’. Many Dalits desperately want to ‘integrate’, to be accepted simply as human beings, but this isn’t possible through Hinduisation. Savarnas will never allow the Dalits to integrate as Hindus as equals. That goes directly against their own economic, social and political interests and, needless to say, against the very basis of the Brahminical or Hindu religion.

As for the Gukarati Savarna so-called intellectuals, who might have protested against the manipulation of Dalits by Hindutva forces, I think they are, by and large, bankrupt. By and large, with notable exceptions, they have taken no interest in our cause. Even the Gandhians are the same. In the mid-1980s, K.K.Shastri, president of the VHP, was made the President of the Gujarat Sahitya Academy, the top so-called intellectual and literary organisation in Gujarat, with the support of Savarna Gujarati Gandhians. And from the 1980s onwards, when Gujarat witnessed new waves of assaults on Dalits and Tribals, hardly any Savarna so-called intellectuals, including Ghandhians, protested.

YS: In the recent anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat, it is said that Dalits were deliberately used by Hindutva forces to attack Muslims. Is this a new development?

RS: I do not agree with the thesis that Dalits played a major role in killing Muslims in 2002. Large-scale massacres of Muslims happened mainly in ‘upper’ caste areas at the hands of goons hired by Hindutva groups. But yes, it is true that Savarna chauvinist forces thrive on pitting Dalits against Muslims so that the oppressed communities keep fighting among themselves and never get together to struggle jointly for their rights and challenge Savarna hegemony. The first time this strategy was used in Gujarat was in 1985 during the anti-reservation movement launched by the Savarnas, who, fearing that the Backward Castes would challenge their hegemony, deliberately turned the movement into an anti-Muslim one, pitting the Dalits and Backward Castes against the Muslims. Prior to this, in Ahmedabad there was a good political equation between Dalits and Muslims, because of which they were able to control key seats in the city’s municipality. To break this unity, which was a direct challenge to the Savarnas, Hindutva forces set off riots, instigating Dalits to attack Muslims, presenting themselves as saviours of the Dalits. This, in turn, led to growing ghettoisation of Muslims in Ahmedabad’s Walled City, which till then had a fairly mixed population largely of Dalits and Muslims, and the out-migration of many Dalit families. It also led to the rapid escalation of anti-Muslim sentiments among many Dalits, some of whom were also roped in by the Hindutva-walas to join fascist and lumpen outfits such as the Bajrang Dal.

YS: How do you see Dalit-Muslim relations now and historically in Gujarat?

RS: In Gujarat, and probably in most other parts of India, many Muslims are descendants of Dalit converts, and so our relations with them were good. Probably this is also because Islam is a more egalitarian religion. But the ‘upper’ caste/class Muslim minority, which continues to dominate Muslim public life and politics, has rarely, if ever, taken an interest in our plight. At the most, some of them may have talked about political alliances between Dalits and Muslims, but unless this translates into alliances at the social level, at the level of day-to-day existence, these political alliances cannot last. Further, as elsewhere in India, ‘upper’ caste/class Muslim elites prefer to work with Savarna-dominated political groups like the Congress. Even now, after the deadly anti-Muslim genocide in Gujarat, Muslim groups who are calling for inter-faith or inter-community dialogue are engaging, for the most part, not with Dalits but, instead, with so-called liberal Savarna religious leaders, who support, in their own ways, Savarna hegemony.

I admit that some Dalits as well as Tribals were indeed Involved in killing Muslims in the recent genocide, but it is important to note that they were used by Hindutva forces, which means that Dalits as such, as an entire community, are not a major obstacle to Dalit-Muslim unity. I think one major problem in this regard is the tendency on the part of Muslim elites who see us as ‘Hindus’ and their seeing all non-Muslims just as non-Muslims, not recognising the fact that we are separate from the Savarnas. This isn’t due to sheer ignorance. Rather, it also reflects the interests of the Muslim elites themselves, who see their interests as associated with those of the Savarna elites. If they were to start dialoguing with Dalits, then the ‘low’ castes among the Muslims would also need to be recognised as distinct identities, which would, of course, undermine the hegemony that the ‘upper’ caste/class Muslims wish to exercise and perpetuate within the broader Muslim community.

Another troubling issue is that Islamic groups and the maulvis see the whole issue in simple religious terms. Their approach to the Dalits is often motivated by a concern that they should convert to Islam. They are not particularly interested in our social and economic welfare actually. And this is reflected in the ways in which they approach the Dalits, as potential converts. Let me say that while I don’t deny the importance of religion, Dalits, as a whole, are not quite interested in religious fundamentalism, Muslim, Christian, Hindu or whatever. In the past, when Dalits were totally suppressed, many of them converted to Islam and Christianity for liberation, but today, with more spaces open to us, Dalits are definitely not attracted by Muslim orthodoxy, which is increasingly visible in Gujarat today, with even small girls being forced to veil in some places.

Further, Dalits and Muslims both somehow feel that the other is interested only in their own problems, not in the problems and issues of the other, which is why Dalit-Muslim unity is such a difficult proposition today. There are some groups that talk about such unity, but this takes the form of occasional meetings, not the form of a social movement or struggle. But I still believe in the need for such unity, which should be centred on common demands, common issues and the common oppression that they face from common oppressive forces.

In the early 1980s Dalits and Muslims in Gujarat had a fairly good relationship, which, as I said, was later destroyed by the machinations of the Savarna ruling class. At that time, in the wake of the first anti-reservation movement in 1981, launched by the Savarnas to oppose reservations for the Dalits and Tribals, the radical Dalit Panthers were quite strong in some parts of the state. They organised several joint meetings of Dalits, Muslims and Christians. At the call of the Dalit Panthers Dalits in many parts of Gujarat decided to boycott Holi and some Panther leaders even spoke about the need for Dalits to abandon Hinduism, as Dr. Ambedkar himself had. They talked of Dalit-Muslim unity, which was seen as a major a threat to Savarna hegemony. All this came as a warning to the RSS. They realised that if the Dalit Panthers were allowed to continue to attack the varna system and the caste-class system of oppression on which they thrive would collapse. It was because of this that Hindutva groups got a new lease of life and began actively working among the Dalits to Hinduise them, set them against Muslims and destroy the independent Dalit movement. This, and various other factors, led to the decline of the Dalit Panthers, with the movement being divided into several rival factions, each centred on a particular leader with affiliations to one or the other Savarna-dominated political party.

I am of the firm view that at the root of the so-called Hindu-Muslim conflict is the caste question. When V.P.Singh announced the partial implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, providing for reservations for Backward Castes in government services, the Hindutva-walas suddenly developed a great love for Rama and set out to destroy Mandal with Kamandal, mobilising the Hindus to destroy the Babri Masjid. The fear that the Backward Castes, along with the Dalits, would unite to challenge Savarna hegemony lay behind the movement to destroy the mosque. The same thing happened in Gujarat in 2002 and in this Hindutva groups were assisted by some unscrupulous elements who claim to be Dalit leaders. So, just after the genocide, Mayavati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who claims to be a radical Dalit, came to Gujarat and addressed a joint rally with fascist Hindutva leaders like Modi and Advani. Obviously, this had a terrible impact, and many Muslims were disillusioned with the talk of Dalit-Muslim unity.

YS: What role has your own organisation, the Jati Nirmulan Committee, played in promoting Dalit-Muslim relations?

RS: We have consistently opposed Hindutva and the efforts of the various Savarna political outfits, Congress as well as BJP, to set Dalits and Muslims against each other. We have staged demonstrations against the riots and have produced considerable literature, including numerous articles in our monthly magazine Dalit Adhikar, that stress the need for a broad unity between Dalits and Muslims, who are both largely oppressed communities, victims of Savarna hegemony. We were also involved in establishing the ADAM Itihas Parishad (‘The ADAM Historical Council’), whose name derives from A for Adivasis, D for Dalits and M for Muslims, to bring out literature and hold meetings on the role of these three communities in Indian history.

I still am hopeful that Dalit-Muslim relations in Gujarat can be strengthened. Together, they form a strong force which, if united, can carry on the struggle against Hindutva fascism, which is so deeply entrenched in Gujarat today. It isn’t, as some people claim, that all the Dalits have been swept into the Hindutva fold. Had the Dalits been totally Hinduised, the scale of the massacre of Muslims might have, I fear, been much larger. But this should not lull us into complacency because Hindutva outfits are working overtime to Hinduise the Dalits. I think now, after being used in the riots and seeing that they still remain as oppressed as before despite claiming to be Hindus, many Dalits are realising that Hindutva and the politics of Hindu fascism spell doom for them as well. They are beginning to realise that Hindutva is a fascist project that aims, essentially, to preserve and promote Savarna hegemony, which is based on the continued oppression of the oppressed castes. We recently published a Gujarati booklet called ‘Samajik Nyay, Bhagvo Nyay’ (‘Social Justice and Saffron Justice’), showing how in Hinduvta-ruled Gujarat Dalit rights are being cruelly trampled upon by the defenders of Hindutva Judging by the sale of the booklet in Dalit circles, I think many Dalits have realised the folly of Hindutva. The Hindutva-walas have coined the slogan ‘Bhagva Tale Sau Saman’ (‘Under the Saffron Flag All Are Equal’), but, as the book shows, this is complete nonsense, and under the ‘saffron flag’ Dalits continue to be treated as sub-humans, in line with the dictates of Manu, the father of Brahminism, whom the Hindutva-walas extol.

YS: Could you provide more concrete evidence to back this claim?

RS: Untouchability remains rampant in Gujarat. In most villages Dalits are forced to drink from separate wells. Most Dalits in the state are poverty-stricken. In the cities, they live in slums in the most pathetic conditions. The situation of the Valmiki sweepers is particularly terrible. They carry human excreta on their heads, clean clogged drains full of filth and suffer from diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis and serious heart problems. There have been 54 cases of Valmikis dying in drains being asphyxiated by poisonous gases in Gujarat between 1996 and 2003, but all the government has done is to give them some paltry sums of money. Does the BJP consider these Valmikis as Hindus only when it decides to author a state-sponsored genocide of Muslims?.

The oppression of the Dalits is even sanctioned by law. Thus, a government document, titled ‘Gujarat Village Panchayats Social Justice Committee Rules of 1995’ lays down that one of the functions of certain Dalit communities is, and I quote, ‘to ensure systematic disposal of carcasses and to provide means for the disposal of unclaimed corpses and carcasses and to define places for the purpose of disposal of unclaimed corpses and carcasses’! Why are these communities singled out for this? Isn’t this blatant discrimination? According to the document, the so-called ‘Social Justice Committee’ set up for this purpose in the villages comprises one member from the Valmiki caste, and four from various Dalit and Tribal castes, including one Dalit woman. In the name of ‘social justice’ the government is imposing Manu’s law on us. This is despite the fact that the Civil Rights Protection Act of 1995 declares this as an illegal enforcement of the illegal practice of untouchability. According to Section 7(a) of the Act, ‘The compelling of any person out of “untouchability” to do scavenging, sweeping, removing of carcasses, flaying of animals or removing [the] umbilical chord has been made punishable’. The Panchayat Rules of 1995 replaced an earlier 1975 legislation enacted by the Congress, and it shows that the meaning of social justice, as far as Dalits are concerned, has not changed from the ‘pseudo-secular’ rule of the Congress to the Hindu fascist rule of the BJP today.

Let me cite another example. Under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) of 1989, an officer not below the rank of Deputy SP should be appointed as an investigating officer in the case of offences registered under this Act. In June 2004, when a Dalit MLA from Jamnagar, Dinesh Parmar, raised this issue, Narendra Modi, the BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat, had the gumption to counter him and say that there is provision to appoint officers not above the rank of Deputy SP to inquire all cases booked under the Act! Now, this is factually incorrect and it would mean that such cases can be inquired by any ordinary policeman, such as a PSI or PI. In fact, in many atrocity cases under this Act the accused are acquitted even when they are convicted for murder and attempt to murder.

YS: What future do you see for the Dalit movement in Gujarat?

RS: Today, when caste oppression continues unabated, when Dalits are being thrown out of their jobs due to the wave of privitisation and so-called liberalization and the invasion by Western multinational corporations, which both the BJP and Congress strongly defend in order to further strengthen Savarna hegemony, Dalit militancy is a natural reaction. Class/caste contradictions are bound to get sharper. Hindutva forces will probably become even more aggressive in order to prevent the oppressed castes from resisting the growing oppression, and might seek to destroy their movement by seeking to pit them against Muslims and Christians. Given this, I think it is critical that Dalits in Gujarat should introspect now, strengthen the independent Dalit movement to prevent the Hindutva agenda from succeeding, and work to build alliances with Tribals, Backward Castes and with similarly oppressed sections among the Muslims, and also with those sections of the Left that recognise the specific issue of caste and the need for struggling against Brahminism. If we don’t do this, Dalits will get crushed under the steamroller of ‘globalisation’.

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