"Caste is the worst expression"
By V B Rawat
Ram Raj, an Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax in New Delhi is the founder of "Lord Buddha Club". He has also been the Chairman of National Federation for Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe. Known for his meticulous organising skills, Ram Raj gave a call for conversion to Buddhism on 14th October 2001 at Nagpur. Ram says this will usher in a new era in the history of Dalit movement. There has been no significant conversion to Buddhism after t 1956 when under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar, over 1 million Dalits embraced Buddhism in Nagpur. But after his death, the Dalit movement remained divided. Politically they may have become powerful, but socially they remain isolated. Ram Raj feels that it is time to address their socio-cultural problems - the root causes of their exploitation. At a time when the Dalit leadership in India has failed to respond to various other aspects endangering the welfare of the community, Ram Raj seems to be very determined. In a conversation with V. B. Rawat a Peacemonger and an internationally acclaimed human rights activist, Ram Raj repudiated charges made by his adversaries and explained his views on various issues facing the community and the country. Excerpts:
Peace Monger (PM): What is the historicity of this conversion on 14th October and what support are you getting from the Dalits so far?
Ram Raj (RR): I won't term it as conversion. This is a "punarjagran" (renaissance) for us. Dalits have nothing in the caste system. We want to get back them where they belong to. Buddhism is an equality-based society. In real sense it is not a religion but theology of freedom and equality. It is ethic, a code of conduct and behaviour. So when the brahmanical system does not consider us their part of system why should we stick to them? And hence our call is clear. As long as you are part of the caste system you cannot do anything. You cannot be a part of it and then abuse it. If you dislike it, leave it. That is the best way. They may like their system but it has nothing for us and hence the best way for us to leave it for a better way of life and that is why we have given call for returning to Buddhism which is the original religion of Dalits in India
PM: Initially, conversion to Buddhism attracted only a few select Dalit communities. It was true about Ambedkarism also. What do you think is the condition at the moment?
RR: We don't believe in subcasteism. We have given call to entire Dalit community to leave the tyrannical brahminical social order. I don't know the caste of my people. Caste is the worst expression of brahminical system. The entire Dalit society is participating in this historic call. Those who feel pained will have to fight their own battle. Jiska dard uski ladai.
PM: So far Dalit leadership in India emerged from certain sections of society. How do you define your emergence? Is it a challenge to one caste domination within Dalit system or you are perceiving it as a democratisation process of the Dalit society?
RR: Neither the democratisation process nor me is a threat to any one. Dalits are not pocket borrowers of any special individual. They should not be treated like this. I am ready to work under the leadership of anyone who is working for the welfare of the community. Subcastism is the contribution of brahminical system and we don't believe in it.
PM: Who do you think is the biggest threat to India today and why?
RR: Certainly the foreign powers and multinational corporations. Those who used to talk about nationalism and patriotism are today in love with multinationals. Economic exploitations will further increase in the coming days. Today it is difficult to rule through political exploitation hence the new way to subjugate a country through economic exploitation. Today our national sovereignty is in danger, with multinational ready to exploit our national resources. Changes in labour laws are dangerous. Now the freedom of labour is chained. Our leaders do not have time to see these things.
PM: You have mentioned MNCs as one of the biggest threats to India today. What about communalism and Hindutva? Your detractors blame that you have been hobnobbing with the Hindutva forces and dividing the Dalit society.
RR: These are baseless allegations and rumours by those who have been playing with BJP all along. We have built up a huge movement. It is not childish game. Our fight is against caste system. People are joining us because they have realised Dalit solidarity. We organised a massive rally in Lucknow on March 15th 1999 and on the very next day, Ms Mayawati used abusive language against me at a press conference and said that I was doing dangerous work. Is conversion to Buddhism dangerous? That is the path Baba Saheb has shown us. BSP claimed to have been following the path of Baba Saheb then why didn't it give a call to join Buddhism? They are completely exposed. You cannot fight caste system by being a part of it and using the same for your own purposes. Earlier there was no alternative but now the alternative is emerging among the Dalits, and the community will teach a good lesson to those who betray its cause. This will not work for long.
PM: Will land reform and issue of minimum wages be on your agenda?
RR: Of course, it is the precondition for the liberation of the Dalits and the marginalised. I salute West Bengal government for honestly implementing land reforms. They tried in Kerala also with a lesser success. Even if someone is giving wasteland, them do it. But we do not have the necessary will to do it. Logon kee neeyat theek nahin hai..It is important to change their mindset. Unfortunately, our leaders were preoccupied with caste theory and nothing more than that. If I were in a situation where I can make decisive changes my first and topmost priority would be 'Equal and Compulsory' education for all, apart from effective land reform measures. Hence it is important for Dalits to wage a war on their own. They will have to fight their battle in a more organised way and with a positive approach of creating an alternative to Bramanical social order.
PM: In the last few years, communists were the first targets of certain Dalit parties and 'intellectuals'. Would it be fair to put them worst than the Hindutvadies?
RR: It is grossly unfair. I can say with firm conviction that we cannot forget the sacrifices made by the naxalites (communists) for Dalit cause. We should acknowledge this. If Dalits in Bihar can stand up today it is largely due to groups like these who have tirelessly waged a war against state-owned terrorism. People will automatically go to those who come to save them. It is a collective failure of Dalit leadership, which didn't want to raise the issues concerning the people. As far as certain Dalit leaders targeting the radical communists fighting at the grassroots because their work will dislocate these so-called leaders who only work on the basis of their caste and have made Dalit movement a 'caste movement'. Let them criticise the communists but what about their hobnobbing with Hindutva? Will it be good for Dalits? By criticising the communists they make it easier for themselves to work with the BJP.
PM: Despite claiming to be Buddhists, a large number of Dalits still follow the same Brahmanical pattern in their routine. How will you ensure that this conversion is not just symbolic but a factual one?
RR: I agree with you, but the most important thing is that the dominant culture of a country is bound to affect the other culture. Brahmanical culture is dominant in India and that is why we want to demolish it. By joining Buddhism we will be challenging the existing social structure. In the US, their dominant culture is secular or Christian and that make impact on even those caste Hindus who live there. We hope in the 21st century, Buddhism will be the dominant culture of India and will change the lives of all Indians - irrespective caste and creed.
PM: What is your entire movement about? Is it a political movement? If not, then how would you fight against the political elements as they say: Political power is the master key?
RR: Our movement is not political at the moment. There are many aspects in the society. Surely, political power is the master key but definitely not the end. It is not the key to all the problems. Sometimes people use to say we should have a Dalit president. We had him but has the situation changed? We may have Dalit prime ministers also. We did have Dalit and Adivasi chief ministers but has the situation changed? Without changing the culture and social system, any change in political system will be futile. Political power obtained with the help of Brahmanical Social Order will not allow us to bring change in socio-cultural life. Has there been any attempt by our so-called leaders to eliminate casteism among the Dalits.
PM: What do you think, "If Ambedkar had not drafted the constitution of India, Dalit would have revolted against the current crisis"? Would there have been a revolution in India from Dalits by now?
RR: It is a debatable issue. However, I must say the atmosphere is there for revolution. But our society is deeply involved in Brahmanical 'bhagyawad' which consider 'world is illusion or Maya.' And Dalits follow this bhagyawad and Karma theory more than anyone else, hence without the space for revolution we cannot get it. If you tell him to come out and revolt he would say: meree taqdeer main he aisa likha thaa.. and that's why we have given this call to Dalits to glory yourself by getting enlightenment and making Indian society a healthy scientific and progressive society to face 21st century, which will be based on equality of all, where caste barriers will collapse and where people will have to time to think about those who have been left behind in the race.
Dr Bheem Rao Ambedkar, who is respectfully known as Baba Saheb Ambedkar, was the founder of Indian Constitution. But more than that his unrelenting fight for Dalit cause made him the tallest among the Indian leaders. Today, Dalits all over the world worship him and consider him as their sole emancipator. Ambedkar was born in a Dalit (Mahar caste) family in Maharastra. His father was a Kabirpanthi and faced the harsh realities of untouchability from the very childhood. He was a bright student and he had to face the racism from the caste Hindus. Dr Ambedkar was the first Indian who did his Ph.D in Economics from Columbia University in the US. Ambedkar then went to study his D.Sc. from the London School of Economics and again headed for Germany. He was a nationalist to the core and came back to India to work for the Dalits. He fought for their rights and had bitter experiences with Congress and Gandhi. His arguments on the issue of caste system and Congress are an eye-opener and should be read by everyone who wish to know about the caste system of India. His book on partition of India is another independent analysis on the partition of the subcontinent. Today, Dalits are united in the name of Ambedkar, whether they convert to Islam or Christianity or Buddhism. Ambedkar is their hero, sole emancipator and nobody can replace him from that place. But, surely, embracing Buddhism was the path that Ambedkar showed to Dalits in India.