December 23, 2005
What is the DALIT-BAHUJAN Emancipation Movement all About?
What is the DALIT-BAHUJAN Emancipation Movement all About?
Dr. Joseph D’souza, International President, Dalit Freedom Network
Major Debates Over Caste Discrimination Continue in Indian Society
Another major debate has erupted in Indian political and civil society circles after the October 6, 2005, United States Congressional Sub-Committee hearings in Washington, DC, on the issue of caste discrimination in India. Some questions raised as a result of this hearing are: “Why has it taken so long for the world to hear about the persistent problem of caste discrimination in India? We thought the caste system was abolished in India? Why is it that we have not been told about the connection between caste discrimination and the 25 million bonded child laborers, the girl trafficking, the prostitution trade, the illiteracy and poverty, the constant rape and abuse of women, and the plight of the landless laborers?”
Following the hearings in the USA, there was also an extensive debate on the Dalit issue in the British Parliament on November 22, 2005.
For the Christian community around the world the issue is, “Why is it that we have not heard about the serious nature and scope of caste discrimination within the Church in India – no matter the denominational affiliation, whether Catholic, mainline Protestant or Evangelical?”
The blunt answer to the above questions is that until now the Indian reality has been interpreted and articulated within India and around the world through the worldview of the dominant castes in larger society and also in the Church. For all practical purposes, the dominant castes rule, control and articulate the Indian reality.
Without a “Caste Analysis” India Can Not be Understood
The dominant upper castes have been quite content with a “class analysis” of India (focusing attention on the rich, the new middle-class and the poor), knowing very well that it is only a “caste analysis” of India that can uncover the true but hidden reality at the heart of India – the India of the majority masses. One cannot understand India without understanding the complete nature and scope of the caste system in Indian life. Caste considerations dominate people’s lives from birth to death. This understanding of the caste system and how it controls and regulates social, economic, political and religious life is absolutely essential to interpreting the Indian reality. Add to this the “corruption factor” in Indian society and the Dalits and other oppressed people who are poor are left in a completely hopeless situation. India is not a homogenous society where there is a level playing field on which everyone can prosper.
Caste continues to dominate Indian society despite the fact that the draftsman of the Constitution, the redoubtable Dalit thinker and lawyer Dr. Bhim Rao Babasaheb Ambedkar, wrote his prophetic work “Annihilation of Caste” to reveal to the world the brutal stranglehold of the caste system. The Indian Constitution, taking the best out of American and British statutes, outlawed untouchability, one of the manifestations of caste discrimination, but stopped well short of abolishing caste.
Dalit-Bahujan leaders across India refer to caste discrimination as “India’s silent apartheid” of 3,000 years against its majority peoples – a full 70% of the population. It is a religiously sanctioned racism that has maimed, dehumanized and destroyed hundreds of millions of people through the ages. The horrendous fact is that we continue to destroy millions of people through this system even today in the 21st century.
The Inhuman Discrimination Against Dalits Continues Unabated
Here is what the former President of India, Dr. K.R. Narayanan, recently stated regarding caste:
“An empowered India bereft of the respect for women, values of civilized existence and morality will collapse in the face of the disaffection and discontent of those who have suffered for centuries. Day in and day out we take pride in claiming that India has a 5,000-year-old civilization. But the way the Dalits and those suppressed are being treated by the people who wield power and authority speaks volumes for the degradation of our moral structure and civilized standards.
“Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Constitution, had said political equality devoid of economic and social equality would bring about contradictions in our democratic set-up which if not rectified will lead to its doom. In the dark cloud of inequality and social injustice the silver lining represented by the assertion of the hitherto suppressed and exploited sections for their rights inspire confidence for their future empowerment. Their struggle for empowerment represents empowerment of India.
“As the struggle gains momentum and gets accentuated, there is bound to be reluctance and resistance on the part of the high and mighty to accept their upward rise. The killing of Dalits, their exploitation and the brutality they face is a negation of the empowered India.”
Who are the Dalit-Bahujans?
The Dalit-Bahujans make up what are known in India as the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Backward Castes. Together these groups are classically known as the Sudras or the slave / “vassal” castes. (“Scheduled” means they are listed in a special “index” appended to the Constitution. “Backward Castes” are those whose rank and occupational status are above that of Dalits, but who still remain socially and economically depressed.) The Scheduled Castes were until recently also known as the “Untouchables” because they were deemed literally untouchable by the upper castes. The Scheduled Tribes were defined as “Criminal Tribes” because they occasionally challenged, with arms, the dominance of the local landlords.
The word “dalit” means “broken” or “crushed” and the word “bahujan” indicates membership in the majority people or the larger population.
Combined, these groups make up 67% of the population of India.
Among this suffering humanity of Dalit-Bahujans, it is the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes who continue to bear the brunt of caste discrimination and oppression.
Caste discrimination has an immediate impact on 250 million Dalits. It also affects hundreds of millions more from the Backward Caste communities.
Nature of the Revolt Against the Caste System: Caste Upheaval Influences Indian Politics
Caste turmoil and upheaval fully exploded on the national scene when the recommendations of the Mandal Commission were implemented in the mid-1990s. The Mandal Commission indicated that the Backward Castes were no better socio-economically because of the consequences of the caste system. The Supreme Court supported the view of the Commission and granted affirmative action benefits to the Backward Castes. Upper caste mobs resisted the judgment and anarchy prevailed in major cities for many weeks. Indian politics changed dramatically after the Mandal issue hit the national consciousness. Caste politics became a dominant factor in Indian society, and caste loyalties began to determine elections across the nation. The north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar saw dramatic movements of the political empowerment of the Sudras, or Backward Castes. Dalit politics, too, was established with the emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party as a major player in Uttar Pradesh and the surrounding north Indian States in the so-called “Cow Belt”. Consistent with the larger caste assertion by the Backward Castes, the Dalits also began to increasingly assert themselves.
The Religious Revolt
Caste had the sanction of religion, and as the extremist and fascist Hindu Right made a bid for political power in Federal India, open calls were given to Dalits to exit the caste-based Hindu society to more egalitarian faiths and communities.
Dalit and Backward Caste ideologues launched a full-fledged attack against the caste system and Brahminism maintaining and pushing forward the movement first launched by Mahatma Phule, fine-tuned by Periyar in the South, and finally polished by Ambedkar.
These anti-Brahminical movements kept the Hindutva brigade from expanding in the northern bases of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar even at a time when the arch-Hindu Ayodhya Temple movement was at its zenith.
History Vindicates Ambedkar’s Stand Versus Gandhi
Increasingly, the Dalit-Bahujan emancipation movement began to gather more strength across the nation. Ambedkar’s true contribution to the nation, his work for the depressed castes, was progressively more greatly understood and appreciated. Even the upper caste movements and political leaders began to co-opt Ambedkar’s legacy and brand name as their own.
Ambedkar’s bitter disagreement with Mahatma Gandhi was no longer locked in archival documents. Suddenly, Ambedkar’s opposing sentiment became common knowledge. Ambedkar wanted the abolishment of caste itself, which then would result in abolishing untouchability and the inhuman discrimination against the Dalits. Gandhi’s proposal to simply deal with the symptom of untouchability and not touch the issue of the caste system was a major mistake and has marred his otherwise great legacy. Perhaps he was influenced by the orthodox upper caste people who surrounded him, telling him that Hinduism as they knew it would not survive the demise of caste, its foundation, steel frame and bonding force.
Fifty years after Independence, caste prejudice and discrimination continue as a persistent disease. Ambedkar was correct in his thinking that caste must be “annihilated” if untouchability is to be genuinely eliminated.
Ambedkar also concluded that conversion was the ultimate solution if Hinduism was not able to reform itself and annihilate caste. He did not see much hope that this cataclysmic reformation would take place.
Again, fifty years later, nothing of the needed reformation has taken place. If anything, with the emergence of the extremist right-wing Hindu movement, caste discrimination and oppression have increased.
The modern-day increase of caste-based oppression is the reason why the Vice President of the world Hindu federation known as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) can say on national television that the life of a cow is more valuable than the lives of five Dalits after five Dalit young people in north India were lynched near New Delhi, when they were found skinning the carcass of a dead cow.
This is why a Shankaracharya (major community leader) said that Dalits should learn to live in the position in which they were born. This leader was more brutal in his statement than was Gandhi who simply said people must be happy and perform to the best of their ability in their given occupation – scavenging, tanning, sweeping, etc.
The movement for emancipation of the depressed classes kept pace with the freedom movement Ghandi led. While Kabir and Phule’s folk teachings influenced the masses, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar made a frontal assault on caste, using the brilliance of his legal training and his access to the political negotiating tables in London and New Delhi in the days preceding the transfer of power from Imperial Britain to Independent India.
Ambedkar was an intellectual giant and India’s great reformer. Born a Dalit in Maharashtra, he had experienced caste’s depravity first-hand. He bitterly disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi’s cosmetic solution to the problem of untouchability.
History has proven Ambedkar right. The Indian Constitution should have banned the caste system along with the problem of untouchability. Trying to remove untouchability without removing the caste system was like dealing with mere symptoms rather than combating the root disease.
Ambedkar Champions Freedom of Conscience for the Oppressed Castes
Ambedkar championed religious freedom for the Dalits, thereby leading hundreds of thousands of Dalits into Buddhism in 1956 at a public ceremony in Nagpur. Still today, Dalit and Backward Castes have seen an exit to egalitarian faiths as a way out of caste-based bondage. Religious freedom and spiritual rights remain a fundamental component of the Dalit struggle for emancipation.
In a counter-move, the upper caste political leaders have devised and passed several anti-conversion laws during the past few decades in the dubious name of “freedom of religion”. These laws have been a deliberate move to keep the Dalit-Bahujans locked in the dehumanizing caste system.
With the rise and the destructive specter of right-wing Hindu fundamentalism and fascism (which advocates a return to a so-called “Hindu India” where the caste structure dominates and rules), Ambedkar’s struggle and thoughts become hugely relevant, not only for the oppressed sections of India, but also for Indian nationalism itself.
During the recent rule of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the extremist right-wing groups distributed huge quantities of the book the “Manusmriti” which codified and imposed the caste system on the Indian masses. This book was written by the law-giver, Manu, whose statue is installed in the premises of the High Court of Rajasthan. This is the same book which states that if a low caste person hears the word of God, he should have molten lead poured into his ears. Articulating the name of the Lord invites having his tongue cut off. Other infringements of caste laws carry the death penalty. Is it any wonder that the powerful upper castes perpetuate violence against Dalit women, Dalit men, and Dalit children with such impunity?
WHAT IS THE DALIT-BAHUJAN EMANCIPATION STRUGGLE ALL ABOUT?
1. Building a Worldwide Alliance for Dalit Emancipation
It is the process of building a broad-based, pan-Indian alliance of individuals and groups to bring an end to caste discrimination and exploitation. It is a national and global struggle for the human rights of the Dalits and other oppressed sections of our society. The movement seeks to build both a national and global union against the caste system and the ensuing inhuman oppression and discrimination.
The movement works with everyone who is committed to ending the dehumanizing caste system. Caste, creed, nationality and economic standing are no bar in building this alliance for ending India’s silent apartheid of 3,000 years. We believe in a better future for all Indians.
2. Ending Caste Discrimination Around the World
It is the process of building a global alliance to end caste discrimination around the world. Caste discrimination is not limited to India alone. It is rampant in South Asia and extends to wherever the people of the sub-continent live. It is present among Indians living in the United Kingdom, USA, Canada and other places.
The right wing Hindutva movement has now spread across the world with offices in all of the major Western nations including North America, the Caribbean, the UK, and the nations of the European Union. These organizations in the West have financed the violent, caste-based, right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups in India.
Caste discrimination should be a legitimate item on the UN agenda and on the agenda of global human rights movements and organizations. Without the active collaboration and support of all global entities that believe in the intrinsic dignity of all humans, caste discrimination will not end.
3. Eliminating and Prosecuting Caste-Based Violence
It is a movement seeking to end caste-based violence against people of depressed castes. The constant rape of Dalit women, the burning of Dalit homes and the blatant physical attacks on Dalits is not acceptable. Year after year physical attacks against Dalits are reported and documented, but fewer than 2% ever reach conviction in a court of law. According to one conservative estimate there are over 50,000 major atrocities committed against Dalits every year. We work towards applying the rule of law to those who perpetrate these crimes.
4. Eradicating Bonded Child Labor
It is a movement designed to deliver the vast majority of Dalit children who make up the bonded child labor market in India. Bonded child labor is a crime against humanity. Estimates report that at least 15 million bonded Dalit children work in inhuman conditions for a paltry sum. Most bonded laborers in India are from Dalit and other backward communities.
5. Rejecting Gender-Based Oppression and the Trafficking of Girls
It is a movement seeking to end girl prostitution, trafficking of women in the sex trade, and other violence against women. There is a huge inter-state trafficking of girls in the sex trade. Dalit and other Backward Caste girls from Nepal are bought and sold into the sex trade in the major cities of India.
Sex trade in the sub-continent draws its victims from the Dalits, Tribals and oppressed castes. The targeting of Dalit and Tribal women for these trades is a symptom of the caste system and its view of Dalit/Tribal women in particular and women in general.
The movement is deeply conscious that caste discrimination extends to all women in India and that Dalit women are twice oppressed. We reject this oppression. We are deeply concerned for the hundreds of thousands of minor/teenage Tribal girls who work in affluent homes in the cities and urban areas of India. We are concerned about the abuse they face – sexual and physical.
Caste ideology also places a low value on women. This prejudice and worldview has resulted in the female feticide of tens of millions causing an alarming decline in the female population in many states of India. Unless addressed immediately, Indian society is hurtling towards a major social disaster and increased abuse of women.
6. Standing Against the Deceit of Cultural / Extremist Nationalism
It is a movement that rejects the “cultural nationalism” (a direct acquisition from Nazi nationalism) of the extremist Hindu right. The right-wing groups and their silent subscribers have used the idea of “external” enemies like “minorities” to try and cover up caste discrimination and unite the oppressed castes in violence against Muslims and Christians in the name of “nationalism”. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists are not the enemies of India, nor are they enemies of the Dalits and other oppressed peoples.
In fact, most Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs were Dalits and Backward Caste people who turned to these religions to escape the tyranny of the caste system. True nationalism is not separating India along false divisions in society, but instead, it should be uniting and integrating the peoples of India. True nationalism must see the larger Dalit-Bahujan population delivered from caste oppression and discrimination. Their children, their girls, their women and their men must be delivered from modern day slavery.
7. Deploring Religious Exploitation and Encouraging Authentic Spirituality
It is a movement that deplores the religious exploitation of Dalits and other oppressed groups by any religious entity. It is a movement that categorically rejects Pseudo-Spirituality even as it champions religious freedom for the oppressed masses. On the one hand, Dalits have been enslaved by one religious system that denies them any spiritual rights and privileges – such as rights of spiritual equality, access to the temple priesthood, and access to all temples and all religious rites. On the other hand, other religious systems have offered them a place in a “heaven” of the future while continuing to practice caste discrimination within their religious communities.
The Church in India is also guilty in this regard. Large sections of the Church in India have betrayed the legacy of Jesus, the legacy of Wilberforce, and the legacy of William Carey when it comes to dealing with the issue of the caste system and the ensuing inhuman discrimination within society and the Church. At the same time, Dalit leaders acknowledge their debt to those Christian missionaries who reached out to them in love and accepted them as fellow human beings. The present movement seeks an end to this exploitation and Pseudo-Spirituality. It encourages Dalits and other oppressed peoples to seek true and authentic spirituality – spirituality that truly addresses their spiritual, social, emotional and physical needs.
Dalit-Bahujan ideologues speak of this struggle as one of spiritual democracy versus the spiritual fascism of the caste system.
8. Promoting Full-Life Transformation and Empowerment for the Dalit-Bahujans
The movement is about the economic and social empowerment of the Dalit-Bahujan people through effective economic and educational programs. It aims to build effective micro-enterprise projects along with macro-enterprises.
It also calls for the review of various foreign governmental aid programs which do not reach Dalits. We ask for a proportionate disbursement of all aid money and projects. It also calls for a review of funding coming through NGOs into India and the disbursement of the same among the Dalits and other oppressed sections of society.
We acknowledge the heart wrenching poverty that is prevalent among the Dalit majority coupled with the huge problem of overall illiteracy. We believe economic dignity is a critical part of human dignity and that the oppressed must be freed and empowered to take care of their personal economic needs and prosperity.
It aims to provide Dalit-Bahujan children – the future – access to quality English-medium education to allow them to play their leadership role in an increasingly globalized India.
Thus far, Dalit children (and large sections of the Backward Castes) have had no access to such quality education. English-medium education is the preserve of the moneyed upper caste and middle class elite. This movement rejects the hypocrisy of the elitist castes whose children are educated in English, while the children of the oppressed castes are encouraged to study in the “vernacular” in the name of culture and extremist nationalism.
In addition, we are deeply concerned for the lack of medical care and health problems connected with the Dalit-Bahujan people.
We are disturbed that in the battle against AIDS the Dalit and oppressed caste victims of this disease are once again marginalized in the various programs launched to fight this epidemic. The pattern remains the same whether it is the Dalit victims of the Asian Tsunami of 2004 or the Dalit victims of the Gujarat Earthquake of 2001. Dalits are marginalized even in the midst of catastrophe.
9. Recognizing the Global Security Threat Caused by Caste Discrimination
It is a movement that recognizes the huge security threat that ongoing caste discrimination against the Dalit people and other oppressed sections poses to India and the rest of the world. Disenchanted, bitter and angry young men and women drive the extremist violent Maoist and Naxalite left-wing movements from Nepal to South India. As India increasingly becomes two nations in one – one for whom India is shining, and the other for whom India is in darkness – these violent movements will only increase and will attack not only local governments but also international institutions they deem as collaborators with the elitist castes who oppress the masses.
The movement also recognizes the threat of the oppressed castes exiting into other faiths, legitimizing violence and attacking the ruling castes and their institutions. All in all, these facts produce a depressing outlook for the great nation of India if we do not see the abolishment of caste in this generation and the achievement of authentic Dalit Freedom.
10. Demolishing the Tyranny of Caste Hierarchy
It is a movement that seeks to end the oppression within Dalit and Backward Caste groups due to the notion of a superior/inferior caste hierarchy. It acknowledges that in some places, sections of the liberated Backward Castes oppress and discriminate the Dalits out of a mistaken sense of their “better” identity, or patently at the behest of the upper castes. It also acknowledges that the Dalit groups themselves need to unite to end the tyranny of the caste system and that the small number of liberated and well-to-do Dalits must not forget the plight of their brethren who continue to suffer. Restorative reconciliation between castes is an integral part of the emancipation agenda.
We believe in the truths of human equality, freedom of conscience and equal opportunity for all. We reject all forms of racism, caste discrimination, color prejudice and gender discrimination.
We invite all concerned people everywhere to become part of this struggle for the emancipation of Dalit-Bahujans. Action points have been developed for the above goals of the movement. Remember: our work immediately impacts the 250 million Dalits, as well as the hundreds of millions of other oppressed sections of Indian society.
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Posted by K Lajja at December 23, 2005 10:19 PM