Mumbai-based Anand Teltumbde is a leading scholar-activist, who has written extensively on issues related to caste, class, imperialism and ‘globalization’. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he reflects on the Dalit movement in the era of ‘globalization’.
[India Untouched : To those who claim there is no Castism in India! Research Documentary!]
Q: You have written extensively on what you regard as the crises facing Dalits and the Dalit movement in contemporary India, seeking to articulate a caste-class analysis of Indian society. One of your major focuses has been the challenges Hindutva poses to the Dalits. You regard Hindutva as extremely inimical to Dalit interests and their struggle against ‘upper’ caste/class hegemony. Given, as you have written, Hindutva groups have made deep inroads among Dalits, how do you feel a progressive counter-cultural alternative can be presented to and popularized among Dalits in order to counter the attraction that Hindutva seems to offer them?
A: While Hindutva is a form of Brahminism and is definitely geared to suppressing the Dalits and serving the interests of the ‘upper’ caste/class elites, one should be clear that Hindutva is not entirely a cultural phenomenon. It is more of a political phenomenon. So, challenging Hindutva cannot be limited only to articulating a counter-cultural alternative, as some have sought to do in the name of Dalit identity-politics. Rather, Hindutva needs to be challenged politically.
As regards a counter-culture to Hinduism from the Dalit perspective, I am not sure if we have the resources for this or if sufficient attention has been paid to how to popularize this alternative given the immense hold of the Hindu framework. We may say, and rightly so, that the conflict between Brahminism and Shraminism, as represented by Jainism and Buddhism, has been present throughout Indian history. On this basis, we may invoke the Shramanic tradition to critique Brahminism. However, we also have to admit that despite the immense popularity of the Shramanic traditions for over 10 centuries, the Brahmanic castes have survived; nay they have thrived. How does one explain it? These religions—particularly Buddhism—did offer alternatives to Brahminism at the philosophical level but, despite this, caste as a social reality did not vanish. I think the same can be said of the conversion of Dalits to other religions as a means for liberation from caste oppression. Dalits have converted to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism to escape caste bondage of Hinduism but this did not make much difference to their lives. Caste has rather infected these seemingly egalitarian religions, keeping its Dalits at the lowest rungs. In objective terms, not much is changed for the converts. While they continue to remain Dalits for others, among themselves they appear to follow the same cultural paradigm laid out by the Hindu framework, albeit with cosmetic changes. Babasaheb Ambedkar did expect a new cultural paradigm for the Dalits based on scientific rationality, but it remained an unfulfilled dream like many others. That is perhaps why many Dalits in Maharahstra have, unfortunately, not been averse to joining hands with Hindutva forces. Even many well educated Dalits with some social recognition did not see anything wrong in jumping onto the RSS’s Samarasata platform which talked of the ‘unity’ or ‘assimilation’ of castes. Politically, Ambedkarite Dalits have been joining the Hindutva forces with impunity. The current alliance between Ramdas Athwale’s RPI and the Shivsena-BJP combine under the guise of Bhimshakti+Shivshakti is a case in point. The fact that there is not much opposition to such ideas and actions bespeaks volumes about alternative culture. So, I would say, the hegemonic influence of the Hindu or Brahminical worldview still remains, and Dalits, as a whole, continue to operate within that cultural framework.
Q: If that is the case, then what is the alternative in terms of a counter-cultural challenge to Hindutva?
A: I think the alternate is only possible from the Left—not the parliamentary Left that still appears to cling to the idea, notwithstanding their wordy acrobatics, that religion and caste are simply ‘superstructural’ issues or of little or no importance, but a Left that is rooted in Indian social realities and recognizes the salience of these issues. Fortunately, some sections of the radical Left is developing such an understanding organically. If Dalits also review their journey so far objectively, I am sure they also will reach similar radical understanding. That said, I do not negate the importance of culture in both perpetuating as well as challenging an oppressive system, but, at the same time, I disagree with some Dalit ideologues who insist that cultural revolution must necessarily precede political revolution. The two must go together, working in a dialectical fashion. Alternate cultures do not develop in vacuum, just by wishing for them. They are born in the process of peoples’ struggles over the material issues of their living—essentially politico-economic struggles. I am sure the counter-cultural to Hindutva will also emerge from these sorts of mass-based struggles. I don’t see it as a question of one preceding the other in time in a mechanical way.
Q: Some analysts argue that focusing mainly on the issue of reservations and critiquing Brahminism, which, of course are necessary, sections of the Dalit movement have ignored the material issues and concerns of the Dalit poor. Do you share that analysis?
A: There is considerable truth in that assertion. By and large, the Dalit movement has been led and controlled by urban-based petty bourgeoise Dalits, and has tended to neglect Dalits living in villages. If you consider the demographic profile of Dalits, you will find that Dalits are predominantly rural people; some 89 percent of them still live in villages. More than half of them are landless, 26 percent are marginal farmers and the rest are artisans. Of the 11 percent urban Dalits, a vast majority lives in urban slums and work preponderantly in the informal sector. Over the last six decades, a small layer—certainly not exceeding 10 percent of the total—has emerged out of them who could be considered as ‘arrived’, thanks to reservations, political nexus and their enterprise. This small layer, however, has effectively hijacked the agenda of the majority of the Dalits and revolved it around the single issue of reservation. It reflects the urban- and class-bias of the Dalit movement that has persistently ignored the issues of rural Dalits. Reservations did have a utility for the first generation of Dalits but thereafter it increasingly became the monopoly of those who have come up, leaving the really needy out of its reach. It is a widely acknowledged fact that the caste issue is entangled with the skewed distribution of land or the high incidence of landlessness of Dalits. Even Babasaheb Ambedkar, towards the end of his life, had realized this fact and influenced some of his followers to take up the first land struggle in Marathwada. Thereafter, Dadasaheb Gaikwad, who was his close confidant and perhaps real political heir, had led a countrywide struggle for land. But, thereafter, we never hear of the land issue being raised within and by the Dalit movement. Lack of land, quality education, non-farm employment, proper housing and sanitation are the material issues that have historically been related to Dalit deprivation, and these have only been aggravated by the elitist ‘globalization’ over the last two decades. There is not a slightest reflection of these issues in the dominant Dalit discourse. Surprisingly, when reservations have effectively ended—statistically, from 1997 onwards the total employment in the public domain has been consistently decreasing—they shout louder about it.
So, yes, I sincerely think in the post-Ambedkar phase, the Dalit movement, driven by small elite among the Dalits, has completely ignored the material issues of most Dalits.
Q: But now that government jobs are rapidly shrinking in the wake of privatization and ‘globalisation’, which means that jobs for Dalits in the public sector are even more limited than they hitherto were, do you see a shift in the focus of the Dalit movement? Given that ‘globalisation’ and privatization are hitting the poorest of the poor, particularly Dalits, the most, is the Dalit movement responding by widening its concerns and addressing the challenges posed by globalization, thus moving out of what you consider as its major concern with reservations?
A: I do not see a major shift happening, barring the fact that Dalit groups are now demanding reservations in the private sector and curiously campaigning about ‘Dalit Capitalism’. This, once again, illustrates their elite, urban focus. I do not see them interrogating ‘globalisation’ and mobilizing Dalits against the havoc that is causing to the poor, leading to mass pauperization and rapidly widening social-economic inequalities. Statistics reveals that the incidence of landlessness has been increasing among Dalits during the last two decades of globalization. But, they are oblivious of these facts. The question of land, or the issue of landless Dalits and their forced displacement by mega-projects, has been a virtual taboo in Dalit movement because most Dalit ‘leaders’ think it is a ‘communist’ issue. They have been programmed into believing that communists are their enemies! They have been fed on lies, by many Dalit intellectuals and leaders, that Babasaheb Ambedkar was viscerally opposed to communism as such—although it is well-known that Babsaheb did see the importance of land issue and was a confirmed socialist, as is evident from his monumental book States and Minorities. They have systematically constructed an Ambedkar icon sans the radicalism of Ambedkar, with superfluous embellishments of Ambedkar ideology, projected it as a virtual god-like figure to the Dalit masses, and invoking it in support of whatever they do. This icon is used and duly supported by the ruling classes to build a kind of ‘bhakti’ cult in the Dalit masses. Now, it is absolutely clear that Babsaheb hated the ‘bhakti’ cult around him and explicitly said that that he did not want bhaktas but sincere followers. This cult facilitated ‘brokers’ among Dalits to sell their wares in his name, and the Dalit masses simply bought their wares. This is the unfortunate paradigm that has degenerated the Dalit movement and has effectively thwarted sincere elements from coming up. It is entirely because of this that there seems to be little or no effort to re-read or contextualize Babasaheb’s thoughts in the contemporary context, including on issues related to class-based deprivation. At a time when the Indian state, Hindutva forces and the forces of imperialism are playing such havoc with the livelihoods of millions of Dalits, whose conditions are rapidly going from bad to worse, I see few Dalit groups taking these crucial economic issues seriously. Instead, they remain fixated on reservations—because this is a convenient populist slogan—and on invoking the name of Babasaheb while refusing to re-read him in the context of the contemporary situation of caste/class deprivation.
Babasaheb Ambedkar said that he was against Brahmanism and not Brahmans, and even explained that Brahmanism could be found in any caste, including Dalits. Dalits have conveniently forgotten this essence and picked up the superficial. Today, the situation is such that groups whom they include in their Bahujans, the superset of Dalits, are the real perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits. They are the real baton holders of Brahmanism in villages. But this sort of political-economic analyses just do not appeal to Dalits, who are enamoured with identitarian discourse. To oppose Brahmanism is to be anti-caste; but to hate Brahmans is casteist. Paradoxically, swearing by Ambedkar, many Dalits today unconsciously reflect casteist behavior, and thus act against Ambedkar.
That said, we must remember that the anti-materialist outlook of Dalits is actually born out of their encounter with the Left movement, which refused to acknowledge caste question as something basic to the class struggle in India. Babasaheb Ambedkar was no Marxist. He had genuine problems with Marxism but at the same time he ardently believed in socialism of the Fabian kind. This was a good enough basis for working together with the Left and enriching the strategy for class struggle in the concrete situation obtaining in this country. But the Left continued undermining Dalit movement and, in the process, completely alienated it. The onus thus squarely lies with the Left for the fact that today we are faced with the divergent, almost antagonistic, movements of the proletariat, bogged down with an idiotic duality of class and class.
The Left movement needs to rethink its perspective on the Dalit question. There is an urgent need for a dialogue between the Dalit movement and the Left, so that they can learn from each other and cross-fertilise each other. This will certainly help the Dalit movement in responding in a more appropriate manner to the changing nature of caste and helping it realize the importance of class issues and the need for class-based mobilization as well. I am uncomfortable with Dalit identity politics which only make the Dalit movement more sectarian and lead it away from the material problems, as experience shows. Caste as essentially a divisive category cannot viably serve even identity politics, not to speak of the goal of annihilation of caste. I am surprised that this basic understanding is yet to dawn on our social scientists as well as activists.
Q: How do you assess the role of the Dalit media in raising and communicating these issues which you feel Dalit groups have failed to take up?
A: There is not much of a Dalit media actually. There are several small magazines and periodicals run by Dalits all over the country. Some of them do raise valid issues faced by Dalits, but many others are simply tails of this or that political group. This connection may not be always visible but it does exist in terms of direct or indirect support coming from these sources. During the last decades, a curious development took place in Maharashtra in this regard. Some Dalits started daily papers, one after another. Today, there are at least half a dozen full-sheet daily papers run by Dalits in Maharashtra. They do satisfy rhetorical need of having our own media. One does not know how their economics is managed, however, given that newspapers basically run on advertisement revenue, which is largely absent in their case. The content analysis of these newspapers does not indicate that they have significantly contributed raising the live questions of Dalits or catalysed any movement around it. They just meet the identitarian need of having ‘our’ own media.
I do not know whether a media owned and operated by Dalits could really be called a ‘Dalit media’. Most of Dalit papers reflect the concerns and interests of their readership—the ‘reservationist’ middle-class—and that is why they deal mainly with religio-cultural issues, besides, of course, reservations. They pay little attention to the issues of rural Dalits. Many of them are averse to taking up economic issues or to considering the need for a contextually-rooted class-cum-caste analysis of Indian society. Basically premised on the identity of Dalits, they often ignore other issues.
The media reflects to some degree the state of our intellectual activism. The tragedy is that we have few organic intellectuals who can articulate the concerns and interests of the Dalit masses. Instead, we have a whole lot of cut-and-paste intellectuals whose only task, it seems, is to rehash what others have written before them, refusing to engage in any creative intellectual work. The Dalit media eventually mirrors it.
Q: In recent decades, a number of NGOs have taken up Dalit issues and concerns, and Dalits are one of their major ‘target’ groups. How do you see the impact of this NGO-isation process on the Dalit movement in terms of highlighting Dalit issues and empowering the Dalits?
A: In terms of highlighting, and even internationalizing, Dalit issues, I think many NGOs have played an important role. Even documenting Dalit problems and issues I think is a major contribution, giving that little of this sort was being done by others. But, beyond that, especially in political terms, I think that, barring some cases, the role of NGOs has been problematic. At a fundamental level, NGOs depend upon donors, and, according to the dictum “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, they have to eventually confirm to the agenda of their donors. And the fact of the matter is that NGOs have been deliberately promoted as a vehicle of ‘globalization’ in the context of the declining role of the state in the social sector. Naturally, then, NGOs work, by and large, to depoliticize radical people’s movements. They work in a fragmentary manner, taking up discrete issues, and this promotes fragmentary consciousness in people around them, which is what neo-liberalism wants. By remaining confined to funded projects, they inherently lack a macro political-economic perspective, which again serves the interest of global capital. Moreover, they also attract youths who might otherwise have gone into people’s movements or radical politics, by providing them salaries and job security, and in this way also work as agents of depoliticisation. You are right in terming this the NGO-ization of the Dalit movement. Before the Dalit movement could introspect on its degeneration, the influx of NGOs complicated the matters and made any such review extremely difficult.
Q: In your writings, you argue that ‘globalisation’ spells doom for Dalits. In this context, how do you see the argument, made by a group of Dalit ‘intellectuals’, who have been much-highlighted in the ‘mainstream’ media, of the need for the state and multi-national corporations to promote what they term ‘Dalit Capitalism’?
A: I think this argument is completely fallacious and dangerous. It buys into the imperialist logic, and is geared to serving the interests of foreign capital and the Indian ruling classes, who are well aware of the pauperisation of the Dalits and their mounting opposition to the system that is destroying their already shattered lives in the name of ‘development’. This slogan of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ is being actually sponsored by some Western organizations linked to global capital. There is not much of guess work needed to see who the sponsors and supporters of this idea are. As a matter of fact, the idea has been floated by a bunch of individuals who are projecting some Dalit entreprenneurs as though they were the new breed produced by globalization. And this is being propped up by the ‘mainstream’ media, which is otherwise shy of touching anything Dalit. The Economic Times has published a series of features on it, and the rank neo-liberalist Swaminathan Ankalesvaria Aiyer wrote several pieces extolling the idea. As for the Indian state, the Planning Commission, which otherwise refuses to move on the continued stealing of special component monies meant for Dalits, has been enthusiastically considering how to channel the public funds to these Dalit capitalists. It is a pity that Dalits do not see through the game and, instead, are getting enamoured with the idea because of their identitarian fixation.
I do not think there is anything intellectually appealing about the notion of ‘Dalit Capitalism’. I would rather say that this notion is itself a contradiction in terms and smacks of ignorance of both Dalits as well as Capitalism. The Dalit entrepreneur is not a new species. Dalits have historically been entrepreneurs, grabbing whatever opportunities that came their way and made progress. Rich Dalits are also not a new phenomenon. There have been many rich Dalit individuals since colonial times. So, to claim that Dalits have only started progressed now as a result of supposedly benefitting from ‘globalization’ is simple and pure falsehood. To impute the progress that a small number of Dalits have made in recent years to ‘Dalit Capitalism’ suggests is fallacious. Although, knowing the systemic character of capitalism, I would never be the votary of capitalism, I am not so dogmatic as to discard it either merely for ideological reasons. After all, there is a dialectics that will determine the time of its death. I do not have any quarrel, therefore, about Dalits becoming big capitalists and amassing their billions. But what irks me is this motivated attempt by the proponents of the notion of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ to create a patently false impression that Dalits have benefitted by ‘globalization’, that Dalits have now ‘arrived’, that Dalits have abandoned socialism and have embraced capitalism. The vast majority of Dalits still live in horrendous conditions in villages and urban slums as the wretched of the earth, and their conditions are, as I said earlier, going from bad to worse, rather than improving, as a result of the ravages of capitalism and ‘globalization’. The relative distance between Dalits and others on most developmental dimensions was reducing until the 1990s but the recent trends clearly show that the gaps are widening. By WHO standards of body-mass index, Dalits would be famine-stricken community. To speak about such people in terms of ‘Dalit Capitalism’ is nothing but an unpardonable cruel joke.
(Another link on East Bengal Migrant and Dalits in Bengal)
[Dalit woes and hope]