An interview with CHANDRA BHAN PRASAD
"Shudras in power treat Dalits as subjects as they cannot treat Brahmans as subjects. They point to the social monster called Brahmans, rob Dalits' support, then oppress Dalits."
Chandra Bhan Prasad is perhaps India's only dalit who gets to write a weekly column in a mainstream English newspaper, Pioneer. He also runs the Dalit Siksha Andolan and has emerged as one of the key spokespersons of the dalit movement in India. Chandra Bhan lives with his wife, Meera, in Delhi. Here, in this exhaustive interview, the intellectual shares his views with Siriyavan Anand, journalist-activist, on a wide range of issues that concern the dalit movement in India today. Anand is currently anthropologically examining brahmans and brahmanism having been born one. He is associated with Dalit Media Network, Chennai. The interview was conducted in the last week of February 2001; 30-plus questions were emailed and Chandra Bhan Prasad said he took four days to reply. (Please mail feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com)
SIRIYAVAN ANAND: How does it feel to be (perhaps) the sole English language dalit journalist in the country?
Yes, since I am the first and the only Dalit columnist in the English language press, I feel self-conscious and burdened with responsibilities — from a population of over 20.5 crore Dalits, which is more than the combined population of France, the UK and Germany, only one regular commentator in the Indian mainstream media. There is more to be researched, more to be commented upon, but a single-man army?
How did you come to be what you are now? Tell us about your childhood formation, your education, your politicisation... some definitive private and public moments that shaped your consciousness.
With the money they had earned in Rangoon, they built a huge house in 1935, and later bought land. Ours was the first brick-house [in the village], and when it was being built the local Zamindar had come requesting us to keep the height of the walls/roof below that of his own house. Since my father and uncles were musclemen, and going by family tradition — where each social snub was responded to violently — they raised the foundation even higher. They all ensured education for their children, and the son of my eldest uncle became a postal clerk as early as in 1952. In my childhood, when I was probably in lower primary, say Class-II, I met with a serious accident, but survived. When I was in Class VI, my elder brother, who was the first child of my parents [I was the last, after three sisters], became a Sub-Inspector. He is now a Deputy SP posted in Lucknow, due to retire next month. Thus, I was extremely fortunate in the sense that my entire childhood, and youth, did not see poverty. Because of a sound economic background, I had the opportunity to study in JNU, where I did my MA in International Politics, MPhil on 'China's Technology Acquisition in the Post-Mao Era', and had enrolled for a Ph.D. project to study the 'Development of Science in Communist China'.
I have a CPI[ML] past in politics. I did my graduation in a college situated one km from our village... say, in my village college. In 1977, when I was in first year BA, Students Union elections were to take place. The upper castes and OBCs were against any Dalit standing for any of the posts. They had even thrown a challenge. I was very upset upon hearing this, and narrated the matter back home. My Dalit friends asked me to take up the challenge.
One of my cousins, who had secretly joined the CPI[ML], encouraged me to contest. And I decided to contest. The news spread like a wild fire. The CPI[ML] brother gathered his own armed squad, supported by the Dalits of the area, and I filed the nomination. I won, and my opponents lost deposits. I received great support from the girl students, most of them belonging to the upper castes, for two reasons. First, my niece was a BA final year student, so she could muster great support. Second, most my opponents were lumpen elements, who were disliked by the girl students. So they decided to back me. Some upper caste friends, afraid of an OBC onslaught, too supported me. Meanwhile, another cousin brother of mine, who was an Engineering student, too had joined CPI[ML]. There were lots of confrontations, and the CPI[ML] movement was gaining ground. I too joined the party. Thus, before coming to JNU, I was deeply involved with the CPI[ML] movement.
In JNU too, I continued with radical politics, but I was always fascinated by Dr Ambedkar. In JNU, I had the opportunity to read Ambedkar, and thus began arguing with my Comrades. There was already an SC/ST Students Welfare Association, in which I became active, and later became its Vice-President. My CPI[ML] comrades were supportive of the issues we were taking up, but never agreed with Dr Ambedkar's philosophy.
In the May 1983 JNU movement, I was at the forefront. In the movement, we were arrested. Some 600 JNU students, including some 200 women students, were put in Delhi's Tihar Jail. JNU was closed sine die, and no admissions took place for the 1983-84 academic session. An inquiry commission, headed by a retired High Court Judge, was instituted to probe the incidents of the May 1983 movement. Along with about 40 students, I too was rusticated for two years, in two cases. Like about a dozen students, I too didn't submit an apology. After rustication, we were given an option: either apologize and give an undertaking that we would not involve ourselves in any movement on the campus, or face action and vacate the university premises. Most [students] had apologized.
For three yeas, 1983-1987, I worked as a full-timer for CPI[ML] in UP. During that period, I thought that I was wasting my energy — I argued with my leaders why they were all the time against the Indian State, which is the only place where Dalits get some relief, and, in what way is Dr. Ambedkar less radical than Karl Marx? It was indeed amazing to hear them dismissing the Varna/Caste nature of society as a NON-FACTOR in Indian society. They didn't agree with me, and I got disillusioned, left the movement, came back to JNU, completed my MPhil, and enrolled for PhD.
But, during my three full-time CPI[ML] years, I had firsthand experience of revisiting the countryside. The pathetic condition of the average Dalit always haunted my mind. While I was back in JNU, I had no peace inside me. And then came Mandal. I was very skeptical about strengthening OBCs, upper segment in particular. I had seen them occupying the aggressive space being vacated by Dwijas from rural India. But, the anti-Mandal agitation had begun questioning Dalits' reservation as well. Then we jumped into, rather initiated, the pro-Mandal agitation in JNU, and Delhi. Dalits all over India supported the pro-Mandal agitation; in most cases, the Dalits were at the forefront.
I was restless within, and thus launched Dalit Shiksha Andolan in 1991. It spread in UP. Almost in each district. But then I thought by merely restricting the movement to scholarship and literacy-related issues, issues are not going to be resolved. The bigger question was about the model of development pursued so far, about changes taking place since 1950, and about history itself. And about Ideology. I sat down in Delhi, and began exploring all these...
Could you identify the central issues facing dalits today? Is it possible to see the dalit movement in a national/ pan-Indian sort of way at all, say like the hindutva movement?
Is it a strength or weakness of the dalit movement that there does not seem to be a pan-indian dalit consciousness, a national dalit political leadership? Do you think this is necessary or will it emerge/happen in the future? Other than Ambedkar the dalits do not seem to agree upon anyone as a leader/icon...
How do you view the BAMCEF-BSP growth and subsequent developments in UP, Punjab and other neighbouring areas? Why does the Kanshi Ram-Mayawati duo seem to have not lived up to its promise? What next in UP, and what bearing/ lessons would that have for young dalit political parties that have come up in other states?
Ambedkar did say that capturing political power was important; but there does not seem to be any cultural-social agenda that dalit leaders/ parties seem to have evolved...
When the blacks in the US started asserting themselves (Black Power) and fought discrimination, it was accompanied by a renaissance in the cultural realm — art, literature, music... What similarities and differences do you see between the various black consciousness movements and the dalit movement here?
Early on, the US blacks put in place an institution like the NAACP (National Association for Advancement for Coloured People), had black churches, opened black schools and colleges and saw the need to rally around as a community... they even went on to have black-centred media, publishing, created distinct musical genres... even in terms of religion, there was/is the Nation of Islam. Do you think we need such efforts here? Are similar things possible, desirable in the dalit context? What about a National Association for Advancement of Dalit People to start with?
Do you think we can compare race and caste-based disabilities? Is not what happens to dalits, especially in villages, a form of apartheid?
Of late, efforts to get world bodies such as the United Nations to recognise caste as a source of discrimination (like race, gender) have had some success... How important are such moves for dalits in the country? Would such pressure finally matter? Can we get foreign nations to slap sanctions on India over the issue of casteism, especially as it relates to dalits?
A major drawback of the dalit movement has been the lack of visibility of dalit women's voices. In mainstream politics we have of course Mayawati, but in terms of intellectuals, academics, opinion-makers we hardly hear them...
What is your opinion on 'hinduism', not just the hindutva variety, but... all types?
Do we need to distinguish between 'good hindus' who dissociate themselves from the BJP-RSS-VHP brand of hinduism? Or are these 'good hindus' (who practise caste discreetly) more dangerous than the hindutva type?
What do you think about the brahmanism/ hinduism of the communists?
Your comments on the Kumbh Mela... Did you go there, or think of going there, out of mere curiosity? Women of course cannot splash in the nude at the Kumbh, but do north indian dalits figure in some way here? And what does one make of a buddhist like the Dalai Lama visiting the mela?
What kind of music do you listen to, what books do you read, what films do you like watching?
Leading an urbanised life with modern amenities one is faced with a barrage of cultural-artistic representations which are hardly alive or attuned to subaltern concerns of the aesthetic. We are forced to consume what is around us but these tend to alienate us from our own moorings, however region-specific these moorings be. These male-savarna-created cultural practices even inferiorise dalits, poor muslims, women and other subaltern communities. Yet, we seem to partake in the process as choiceless consumers... How do you, as an insurgent dalit intellectual, come to terms with it?
What have you registered yourself as in the Census? A buddhist? What should be the strategy of dalits vis-à-vis the Census? What is your position on caste count in the Census?
Do you believe in god? I mean, does the larger question of faith as a socio-political space interest you personally and/or in terms what it means to dalits?
Could this (question of faith) have been a problem that Periyar, because of his credo of atheism, failed to understand, especially as it concerned dalit spiritual-cultural practices? What do you think is the major faultline in Periyar's philosophy (if we can see it separately from the political legacy that the mainstream political parties in Tamilnadu claim to represent)?
You have been arguing that dalit-OBC unity is not possible, given that wherever an OBC movement has flourished (as in Tamilnadu, the Dravidian movement, or in Bihar now) the dalits have not been able to stand their ground. But culturally and in day-to-day habits don't you think there is more in common between the sudra-OBCs and the dalits?
I think there are more Brahmans who eat Beef and Pork than Shudras. I also think Shudras tend to have an increased intensity of religiosity than Brahmans. I think Shudras practice untouchability more vigorously than Brahmans today. Further, Shudras tend to use violent methods against Dalits more often than Brahmans do. To me, a violent form of aggression is the ultimate form of oppression. But I still believe an attempt should be made to unite with artisan Shudras.
Dalit-OBC unity may not be happening out there in the field... but do you think it is at least theoretically desirable? Can it be a long-term goal/ possibility?
You have even been suggesting that a brahman-dalit (political) alliance seems to be emerging (the BSP fielding brahman candidates). You even seem to think intellectually they can come together... But do you think a brahman and a dalit can ever come together physically, philosophically and spiritually; in marriage, living together, food habits...? Aren't they the opposite poles of the caste system?
Do you subscribe to the term 'bahujan' or the idea of 'oppressed majority' formulated by Phule and which has found contemporary rearticulation in Kancha Ilaiah's writings? Elaborate...
Kanch Ilaiah is a Shudra scholar. He targets Dalits sentiments. Tells them that Brahmans are the creators of the Chatur-Varna Order, that they developed the notion of untouchability. And therefore, they must be destroyed. Dalits tend to get emotionally moved. But, he never says that it is not the Brahman, it is the Brahmanical Order which has to be destroyed. He never says that upper Shudras are turning more Brahmanical than Brahmans themselves. He never tells what is the performance of Shudra governments in the South and elsewhere. He never tells us what the Thevars do to Dalits in Tamil Nadu, or Kammas and Reddies do in Andhra Pradesh.
Ilaiah, foregrounding his position as an OBC, has talked about the need to dalitise the nation as a challenge to savarna cultural hegemony. Do you think it is possible/ okay to identify something like 'dalit' culture as a distinct category? Or does that amount to essentialising...
If you reject Ilaiah's diagnosis of brahmanic hinduism and his positing the need for dalitisation of the savarnas, including the OBCs, what cultural alternative must we pose to the 'brahmanic' model, especially in the context of the pressure on dalits and other subaltern communities who, while coming to enjoy the benefits of urban modernity, are forced to 'brahmanise'. What can be done to prevent the proliferation of what some dalit intellectuals have identified as the 'dalit brahman'? How do we get dalits to be proud of being dalit?
Is there a need to distinguish between the 'harijan' and the dalit, in the sense of the latter being a politicised/ intellectually aware, responsible person. But what do we do with 'harijans' like Bangaru Laxman, Ajit Jogi, Paswan, Meira Kumar, or similar figures who occupy the academia, media and opinion-making sections of society? In other words, how should we view dalits who want to efface/ disavow their dalitness?
I feel savarna intolerance is to be blamed to a large extent for this situation... Don't you think this problem, of what the brahman sociologist M N Srinivas conveniently termed 'sanskritisation', will remain as long as we do not provide a meaningful alternative? Can such an alternative be built by fusing the positive elements of dalit cultures and those of western modernity (meaning concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity)?
The alternative is there, in the last sentence of your question. Fusion. Yes, fusion of the positive elements of Dalit culture — which is yet to be theorized — and the modernity of the western culture. M N Srinivas suffered from the same inferiority complex which Arun Shourie suffers from today. Shourie is under great civilisational pressure: why was no Brahman suitable / good enough to write the Constitution of the Indian Republic, which regulates the affairs of the State, and also of society. He, therefore, went on to artificially prove that Dr Ambedkar had only a minor role in drafting the Law Book. Srinivas sensed that the new Brahmans' modern [westernized] culture is more closer to Dalits — man-woman relationships, sex patterns, non-vegetarianism etc. — and therefore instead of admitting that Brahmans are picking things from Dalit culture, he went on to artificially prove that Dalits are aping Brahmans!
What is your position on the participation of nondalits in dalit struggles? Till now, the savarnas have been interested in dalit issues only in a patronising gandhian way, without attacking the varna system. Should not nondalits underplay themselves in terms of visibility/ outspokenness, and try to be mere facilitators...?
Don't you think the intellectual responsibility of nondalits who (in whatever way) approach dalit identity issues should be to address those nondalits who are wilfully unalive to the problems posed by caste and their own implicatedness in the caste system?
How should dalit intellectuals, especially historians, look at history? Recently Gopal Guru has argued that the dalits have no nostalgia; what they remember is 'only the history of humiliation and exploitation'. Your comments.
Isn't the intellectual liberation of nondalits, starting with the brahmans, important for dalit liberation? Can a dalit struggle take place independent of the emancipation of all castes? Isn't it necessary to dialogue with the oppressors, though the possibilities of such a dialogue — a scenario where a brahman listens to dalits and is willing to change — seem remote right now. Where and how do we start, given that dalit consciousness and brahman revivalism seem to be happening simultaneously?
Yes, Dalits must convincingly tell nondalits that they too are in the bondage of the Chatur-Varna Order. Nondalits' intellectual emancipation is very important, for unless they undergo emancipation, Social Democracy can be accomplished. It is extremely necessary to tell Brahmans that once Shudras capture political power at the all-India level, the first thing they would do is destroy democratic institutions. Then, the Shudras will unleash SOCIAL FASCISM in India, which will not harm Dalits alone; Brahmans too will face humiliation.
The real danger of revivalism of Brahmanism rests with Shudras, and the Brahmans will be the immediate victims of Brahmanism.
Brahmans cannot revive their medieval oppressive system, nor the medieval-type dominance. Yes, the real danger of revivalism of Brahmanism rests with Shudras, and the Brahmans will be the immediate victims of Brahmanism. Dalits can still withstand that revivalism, as they already undergone that experience. But Brahmans will collapse, will be totally shattered. Therefore, they should join the Dalits' battle for land reforms. The only way Brahmans can escape the Shudras menace is to democratise land-labour relationships, followed by achieving social democracy. If the land-labour relationship is democratised, Shudras will lose their clout. But, unless Brahmans decide to share urban assets and institutions, Dalits can't save Brahmans from their sure downfall. If Brahmans do not take the initiative, they will be finished in the coming fifty years.
During a talk in Hyderabad in January you talked about how a 'progressive-leftist' journal like the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) refused to publish your article. But they allowed a nondalit, Aditya Nigam, to theorise on the epistemology of the dalit critique. Would you like to throw more light on this? Is this related to the larger problem of the hypocrisy of savarnas of all hues — marxists, feminists, secular-liberals, antimodernists (like Nandy, Kakar, Kishwar), postmodernists, and the hindutva-wadis?
Right or Left, both the arms belong to the same body, serve the same body, are guided by the same brain. We must be able to understand this situation.
Yes, when Brahmans are cornered, then they look for allies. That is what happened in UP, when in order to escape subjugation at the hands of Shudras, they approached BSP, and made Mayawati the chief minister twice. Likewise, when we strip the Brahman intelligentsia naked, and parade them on the intellectual streets of India, they will need some patch of cloth for cover — then they will look towards Dalits to turn saviors!
There's been great confusion over how the dalits should understand and react to the formulations of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and its spokespersons, Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. How should we critique their gandhian-environmentalism without undermining the larger issues that concern the dam-affected?
Some dalit and OBC spokespersons have been talking about the liberatory potential of globalisation/ liberalisation for dalits/ subaltern groups, arguing that it would be easier to deal with a professional capitalist like Jack Welch (GE chairperson) than with an unprofessional baniya-capitalist like Rahul Bajaj. Do you agree? There is also a demand for reservation in the private sector? Will this be possible? How should dalits handle globalisation?
The anti-globalization drive has been launched by the Sangh Parivar and the mainstream Left, whom I call the Domesticated Left. For, both are ultra-nationalists.
But here I have one problem, which is different in nature, and which neither Left and nor the Sangh would agree, for, both have an amazingly high degree of contempt for the Indian State. My problem is this: globalization/liberalization is inseparably linked to privatization. As I have stated earlier, any Dalit who has some smile on his face, is better-dressed, better-housed, is so because he is serving or has served under institutions of the State — be it a Class-IV employee, an Engineer/Doctor/ Civil Servant or a legislator. The few Dalits who are abroad, in the US or UK in particular, must have some indirect connection with the Indian State — their parents, relatives or friends. Thus, if the institutions run by the State get privatized, where will Dalits go? This question has always haunted me. Look at the condition of Muslims! Within fifty years, where have they gone, those who once ruled for over six hundred years?
Today, nine major Indian states are being headed by Shudra Chief Ministers. The Shudra parties like DMK, TDP, RJD, SP, JD, Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, Chautala's Lok Dal, etc. seems to have entered into agreements with Dwija parties like Congress and BJP. The agreement is — 'Don't raise the question of Land Reform, we will not oppose privatization'. Likewise, Dalit parties should tell Dwijas, 'Your game will be over within 50 years. Shudras will finish you politically. Then your hold over urban assets and institutions will be over. So, align with us, as Shudras want to treat us as their subjects. And, therefore, support us in a new phase of Land Reforms, give us our share in private sector — in both capital and jobs, and in public institutions. Then, we can support you in redefining Mandal reservation, which must go to artisan Shudras.' Something like this can be done. Only then can the larger Dalit mass benefit.
What about computers and the hype over information technology? Where do dalits stand in the context of such virtual, air-conditioned, anti-sweat labour? What must be their strategy?
What is your position on conversions? Since reservation in the public sector hardly matters given that government jobs are shrinking, and being counted as a 'hindu dalit' has no social benefits whatsoever, do you see the possibility of dalits embracing new religions — islam, christianity or buddhism — if these faiths offer them not just dignity and respect but also tangible material benefits like education, jobs... What threat does this pose to localised dalit spiritual traditions, faith-spaces?
Those who have a clearer idea of the Chatur-Varna Order, or the Caste System, must keep this basic fact in mind — that, there is no Varna or Caste, in the traditional Chatur-Varna Order, without an OCCUPATIONAL identity, and vice-versa. Thus, unless a Dalit changes his/her occupation, which is historically imposed on him/her, and chooses an occupation, or is caused to choose one, no real emancipation can occur. Since conversions are not necessarily accompanied by a change in occupation, he/she continues to be identified with his/her traditional occupation and Dalit identity, and thus turns into DALIT-CHRISTIAN, DALIT-SIKH, DALIT MUSLIM, NEO-BUDDHIST etc.
Today, all those Dalits who have some respect [respect in the relative sense of the term, for instance, the status of a Dalit who is an Engineer, and status of a Dalit who remains a cobbler] in society, are so because of change of occupation. Thus, if a Dalit (who remains a so-called Hindu) becomes a clerk in Railways or Postal Department, or a schoolteacher, or even a peon in Collectorate, he/she is more respected than a Dalit who remains a landless agricultural labourer but becomes Christian or a Buddhist . Thus, keeping this experience in mind, the Dalit energy, or the Dalit movement should address the basic material/ educational question of the community, and try to dismantle the relationship between traditional OCCUPATON and Caste.
But, then one can easily tell Mr Prasad, "A Dalit who has become a clerk, and converts to Christianity or Buddhism, is still called Dalit-Christian or a Neo-Buddhist. That means, his/her occupational transformation has not helped him/her."
SOUND-BYTES FROM THE INTERVIEW THAT COULD BE USED AS BLURBS
"A so-called Hindu is only bad. 'Hindus' cannot be good."
"RSS and Communists are more hostile to Ambedkarism than anybody else... EPW is the other face of Organiser."
"The Dalai Lama is a Brahmanized Buddhist"
"I have never argued that 'Dalit-Shudra unity is not possible'. I have argued that the Dalit-Shudra unity, even if it takes place somewhere, should be stopped..."
"Shudras play with Dalit sentiments — they will point to the social monster called Brahmans, rob Dalits' support, come to power, and then turn to Dalits to oppress them."
"The Shudras, once in power, treat Dalits as subjects as they cannot treat Brahmans as subjects. Not only in Tamil Nadu, the entire South is a classic example. Out of every 100 SCs in UP, 43 are cultivators, whereas in TN it is 15, Kerala 3, Karnataka 23, and AP 13."
"Ours was the first brick-house [in the village]... the local Zamindar requested us to keep the height of the walls/roof below that of his own house... [We] raised the foundation even higher."
"I have a CPI[ML] past in politics... In JNU, I had the opportunity to read Ambedkar, and thus began arguing with my Comrades."
"I argued with my [CPI-ML] leaders why they were always against the Indian State, which is the only place where Dalits get some relief, and, in what way was Dr Ambedkar less radical than Karl Marx? ... It was indeed amazing to hear them dismissing the Varna/Caste nature of society as a NON-FACTOR."
"Here in India, the most radical NON-DALIT will be less progressive than the most conservative White in America."
"I believe in Ambedkarism, Dalits' intelligence, democracy, science, and the Indian State. Call these my gods and goddesses."
"I think we should not waste time on religious issues. What happened in Maharashtra? The entire energy went towards spreading Buddhism, and the Dalit movement suffered."
"Periyar could probably not foresee that the Shudra once in power will become Ultra-Brahmanical. That is why he targeted Brahmans alone, and the Chatur-Varna Order. That one blunder eliminated the Dalit movement from the Tamil soil in the 20th century. Unconsciously though, Periyar's movement has created a Social Monster in the form of Shudras."
"Shudras tend to have an increased intensity of religiosity than Brahmans... andpractice untouchability more vigorously than Brahmans today. Further, Shudras tend to use violent methods against Dalits more often than Brahmans do. To me, a violent form of aggression is the ultimate form of oppression. But I still believe an attempt should be made to unite with artisan Shudras."
"It is not the majority [bahujan] which is oppressed, it the minority, it is the Dalits. Do you think Shudra communities such as Thevars, Vanniyars, Chettiyars, Gaudas, Lingayats, Vokkaligas, Kammas, Reddies, Jats, Yadavs, Gujjars, Kurmis, Patels, Marathas are oppressed communities?
"Dalits and Shudras differ culturally as much as Dalits and Brahmans do. Shudras and Brahmans are culturally closer to each other than Shudras and Dalits. Dalits are a distinct social category, and so is there culture."
"When we strip the Brahman intelligentsia naked, and parade them on the intellectual streets of India, they will need some patch of cloth for cover — then they will look towards Dalits to turn saviors!"
"NBA is supported by bored house-husbands/ bored housewives of Savarnas, and its cadres are the spoilt brats of the urban elite. Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar represent the most ugly face of the Brahman world."
"Shourie was under great civilisational pressure: why was no Brahman suitable / good enough to write the Constitution of the Indian Republic, which regulates the affairs of the State, and also of society."