Monday, February 25, 2008

Face 2 Face

Dr. Kancha Ilaiah

1. Keeping in mind the recent National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) ruling that has asked state and central governments to use the constitutional term Schedule Caste as opposed to Dalit for formal communication, what in your opinion is the implication of the word "Dalit" in contemporary times?

Buta Singh is in favor of state and central government decision to use the term Scheduled Castes (SC) because it is a constitutional term. Dalit however is a political term that Singh believes posits Dalits as a partial group of people. The word Dalit has had different meanings in different contexts. The first recorded use of the word was in the Buddha period. In Sanskrit, the word Dalit refers to the petals of a flower each of which is a separate entity and yet they are bound together. That's how the word was first interpreted. The word Dalit in Marathi has another connotation – it means to be broken. Petals can also be seen to be broken in the sense that there is a break between petals. In my book, I use the word Dalit to refer to those who are suppressed, oppressed and exploited by the majority. Dalit Bahujan too is one word that is used in the same context.

2. But then what about how Dalits are addressed in informal settings across different parts of India?

While untouchability is common to caste identities across the country, the names given to the untouchable castes differ regionally. In Kerela, Adevas were untouchables although they have overcome the status of being untouchables now. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu untouchables are called Nadars, Chamars or Bhangis. Mahar is a term used in Maharashtra. However, the use of the term Dalit unifies untouchables from across the country giving them a common identity and allowing the emergence of social movements. Dalit then, becomes a Pan Indian identity.

3. Your PhD thesis was on Gautama Buddha's political philosophy. Why did you choose Buddhism over other religions and what do you think is its relevance in the present day political scenario?

My thesis focused on the historical struggle between Buddha and Brahmanism. This was the period during which the Vedas and Vedangas were being written. The Manusmriti was not yet written. Caste system founded upon a Brahmanical ethos believes, “Brahman hitalaya, Brahman sukhalaya" (Brahmans are the abode of good; Brahmans are the abode of happiness). Whereas Buddha propagated "Bahujan Hitalaya, Bahujan Sukhalaya" (Majority is the abode of good, Majority is the abode of happiness).

Buddha reinvented the social organization of society by forming Sanghas and reconceptualized the idea of State. Earlier, the State was seen as a divine creation according to the Hindu thought process but Buddha exposed it to be the result of various social constructs. Gradually, women sanghas were also established and joined by excluded social groups like courtesans such as Amrapalli. The objective behind these sanghas was the creation of an equal society. A lot has been written about the struggles of men such as Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar in the context of caste reform. However, I re-asserted Buddha’s struggle against the Brahmans in my book, Why I Am Not a Hindu. While most of the writing on this subject is limited to the 19th and 20th century, I wanted to look at a larger spectrum of history which included the struggle of Buddha against caste discrimination.

4. Your influential book, Why I am not a Hindu received mixed responses. Romila Thapar especially seems to have responded quite negatively, at least as it has been quoted in Wikipedia.

The truth is that Thapar wrote both about the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Wikipedia however only picked out a negative comment. The quote chosen was also quite stray and taken out of context. However, this book continues to maintain the tempo, debate and discourse of certain issues related to caste discrimination. It is a book that puts Hinduism in crisis through which it must find a way out.

For example we may ask why the buffalo isn’t considered a spiritual animal like the cow when Hindus predominantly drink buffalo milk. The cow is claimed to be a divine animal by Hindus because of its role as a provider. But because the buffalo even though it provides milk is black in color, it’s regarded as un-Hindu and therefore kept out of the spiritual realm. On the contrary Dalits revere the buffaloes as a source of wealth and prosperity. The color black is not seen as devilish by them. It thus becomes obvious that the buffalo is as appropriate a sacred symbol as cow and if the buffalo had been equally revered by Hindus, color prejudices would disappear. Today, dark skin is considered to be not beautiful because Aryans had black hair and fair reddish skin and these became the markers of beauty. But if society propagates black skin and white hair, people will follow this norm as well. Therefore, if the buffalo as a symbol is propagated into popular discourse, it would acquire a respectable and spiritual status. Hence, nationhood could be reconstructed in the image of the buffalo as well, which in a way becomes a starting point for thought in my book Buffalo Nationalism.

5. Soon after your book Why I am not a Hindu was published, you were sent a letter by the Registrar of Osmania University on behalf of its Vice Chancellor saying, “you should write within the canons of conduct of our profession”. Keeping this in mind, what do you think is the role of academics in social reform movements?

I have been writing in several newspapers and journals for 20 years. Some articles were controversial and highly debated. Why I Am Not a Hindu was also controversial. It was debated the world over. The university had never asked me about what I wrote and what I should write. It never interfered. Suddenly, on May 6, it sent a letter, which I received on May 11. I was surprised by the letter, addressed to me by Dr Pannalal. My writings only try to reduce prejudices, as the caste system has created a huge gulf between various sections of society. The article the registrar mentioned, 'Spiritual fascism and civil society', appeared in Deccan Chronicle on February 15, 2000.

The registrar took exception to my writings. But can he explain which portion of my writing created social dissension? All over the world, professors in universities have an inalienable right to express theoretical opinions and no university has tried to censor theoretical formulations of a research scholar or teacher. This is for the first time in the history of Osmania University that a censorship attempt was made.

In the larger interest of society, the university should not interfere with the freedom of expression and academic freedom of a teacher to formulate his thoughts. There could be various reasons. There was a debate initiated by the Human Resources Development Ministry of the Union government on the one hand and also former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu on the other that there is no relevance of social sciences today. As a teacher of social sciences, I am bound to take up critical writing because, unless there is critical writing, social science does not mean anything. The attempt to censor is part of a larger process of controlling institutions of social sciences. This trend is also part of a larger privatisation campaign of educational institutions in the country.

6. The Dalit Freedom Network ( highlighted the February 2007 UN Committee Meeting on Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Dipankar Gupta, a JNU based sociologist was of the view that caste discrimination cannot be equated to racial discrimination.

The article “Green snakes in green grass” originally published in the Deccan Herald, March 14, 2007 uses the metaphor of RSS being a white snake which one can easily spot in green grass. But with communists due to their agenda being camouflaged, one cannot distinctly identify them in social processes. Since they operate within the garb of Marxism, green snakes bite sneakily in green grass. Caste and rural inequality even in the present milieu proves the existence of caste discrimination which happens to be easily dismissed by leading academicians like Gupta who are of the view that this social evil is a matter internal to India and can be resolved within its own terrain. They should honestly accept social reality as reality.

7. Although historically, the caste system was specific to Hinduism, caste hierarchies are found in other religions as well such as Islam, Sikhism and Christianity, especially among those who have converted from Hinduism.

Mazhabi Sikhs can go inside the Gurudwara and read scriptures like Guru Granth Sahib. They can sit and eat in langars and yet, they are social untouchables because they carry the Hindu baggage from their pre-conversion identities.

Diverse religions have been an influence on each other for centuries. Sikhism still has traces of Hinduism in its dress code and its rule of not shaving that comes from the tradition of Hindu sainthood. We see caste differences in Islam as well where Pathans and Muslim converts from Aryan descendants are accorded a higher status. Conversion from Hinduism to Islam provides a promise of spiritual upward mobility. However, converts who were shudras are not accorded the status of being ritual practitioners in Islam. There is a similar influence of Islam on Hinduism as well. Earlier, Hindus did not wear stitched clothing. The Pyjama, churidar are all Islamic borrowings. In this way, social and cultural practices within religions continue to be a constant influence for each other.

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