Badges of colour: An Afro-Dalit story
On January 30, 1998, I went on air with Ron Daniels for his two-hour radio programme on the National Urban Radio Network. The theme for the show was Gandhi and Dr King, since it was the 50th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination. After a brief back and forth, we went to the phones. From the first call onward, folks asked about Gandhi's relationship with the Dalits as well as the condition of Dalits in contemporary India. One caller referred to the Dalits as Black Untouchables and asked if I knew a book by VT Rajshekar.
I was also curious to know about this interest amongst African Americans for the social struggles of Dalits. I knew that in India the progressive community took a keen interest in the lives of Black Americans. Solidarity with African Americans is second nature to the Indian Left: when King came to India in 1959, he was overwhelmed by the reception accorded him.
The callers who asked about the Dalits, however, saw them as long-lost Africans, people so identified by the colour of their skin (if not their genetic roots). I found this puzzling. I turned to VT Rajshekhar's Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India. Rajshekar's book began with the premise that Dalits are part of the African diaspora and that they are the first settlers in the Indian subcontinent. "It is said," he writes, "that India and Africa was one land mass until separated by the ocean. So both the Africans and the Indian Untouchables and tribals had common ancestors. Besides," he argues, "Dalits resemble Africans in physical features."
This was just what Runoko Rashidi says he saw during his 1999 tour of India. "In Orissa," he says, "I saw and photographed the blackest human beings I've ever seen." These blackest human beings Rashidi identified as the Dalits, the Black Untouchables. In the mid-1980s, as a young student, Rashidi heard Ivan van Sertima speak at UCLA. Van Sertima was already well known for his attempt to show that Africans came to the Americas long before the Europeans. Van Sertima encouraged an enthusiastic Rashidi to pursue his thoughts about the ancestry of ancient Indians.
"All people came from Africa," Rashidi argues, "but some people more than others." He adopts the arguments that humanity begins in Africa. All people are African, he told me, but that was millions of years ago. Some people are African more recently. Dalits fall into that category.
In 1999, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on the Dalits of India, a population that now numbers about 160 million. HRW found that the situation of Dalits was deplorable and called their condition "hidden apartheid."
"If there are any people more oppressed than Dalits," Rashidi notes, "I don't want to see it. Nothing compares to that." Ken Cooper, who was bureau chief for the Washington Post in New Delhi, notes that "as an African American I used to think American racism was the most stifling and obsessive system of oppression in the world, with the exception of what was South African apartheid. After my stay in India, I am sure the caste system was and continues to be worse - it has religious sanction and has been ingrained for 3000 years."
If the Dalits, now one-sixth of the Indian population, did forge a united bloc, then it might be easy to fight the power of untouchability. However, there are many oppressed communities across the country who are considered Dalit by the Government and by scholars, but who do not see unity amongst themselves. The Dalit movement, of late, has attempted to forge this unity, and it has found the going rough. In June 1972, the Dalit Panthers was formed in Bombay (named from and inspired by the Black Panthers), a group who attempted to be a main agent of unity. However, it has since degenerated into bourgeois nationalism.
Racialist nationalism, of the sort preached by Rashidi and Rajshekar, is an understandable reaction to racism, but it is not an effective, nor morally defensible, anti-racist strategy. "We say you don't fight racism with racism," said the late Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (in 1969 before his assassination by the US Government). "We're gonna fight racism with solidarity." Rashidi, who has been to India three times, was contrite about the way he represents Dalits in the US "I feel bad about it. I oversimplified to make it palatable to a Black constituency. I've given the impression that Dalits are Black people. Dalits, I now find, are a social and economic group, more than a racial group." Nevertheless, Rashidi holds that "large sections of the Dalits would be seen as Black people if they lived anywhere else" and that the connections between Africans and Dalits "go beyond phenotype."
Vijay Prashad is assistant professor of International Studies at Trinity College, CT. He is the author of Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community (Oxford University Press) and Karma of Brown Folk (University of Minnesota Press).