If there’s one overwhelming sign that numbers mean nothing and organization means everything, it is the plight of Dalits and Muslims in India. Dalits and Muslims are officially 17% and 13% of the population. That means that together one in three Indians is a ‘Dalim’ – Dalit Indian Muslim (my coinage today – in case it ever makes it to the Oxford Dictionary like Ayya and Ayyo have done). Yet these two are the most powerless and oppressed communities in the largest democracy in the world. That sounds like an oxymoron because in a democracy where one man may not have food, clothing or shelter, but he has one vote (and so does every woman); how can it be that the most populous segments of citizenry are the weakest? But so it is. Like snake charming and the Indian Rope Trick, this is also the essence of being Indian.
To know what the meaning (linguistic) of Dalit is, please see the website of the NCDHR http://bit.ly/2e5Kcso
Do notice the ticker tape at the top which gives you an idea of what being Dalit means in real life terms, not merely linguistic. But to understand what it means, there is only one way; be reborn as one. I believe that it is literally impossible to understand what it means to be Dalit (untouchable) unless you are born as one. I have had the privilege of living off and on with my Gond friend, Shivaiyya (his photo graces this article and I have written about that in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ (it’s on Amazon and Kindle). I would spend every waking hour with him all my summer and winter holidays which I spent with my dear mentor and friend Venkat Rama Reddy. Shivaiyya belongs to the Gond tribe (forest tribals are also Dalits) and was my hunting partner. He and I would walk about the forests of the Aravalli hills in search of game. In that process we would share food, time and stories. Especially on cold nights sitting by a small fire trying to keep warm and alive. When you are in that situation what you have a lot of, is time.
Once we became friends, Shivaiyya talked freely about his life and circumstances to the 17-year-old boy from another planet who was his friend. This story doesn’t have a happy ending; quite common in Dalit stories. The last I saw of Shiviyya was in the 70’s when I went off to Guyana. Then in 2012 more than 40 years later I visited Sethpally village in Adilabad District where Shivaiyya lives and went looking for him. I found two things; one changed and one the same. Shivaiyya now had cataract in both eyes and no money to have it operated. And Shivaiyya still had the smile that I remembered so well.
All the rest was the same. Same mud and grass huts, emaciated cattle walking into the forest to graze every morning and little Gond children (3rd generation from the ones I walked with) still following them collecting dung because that was the main produce of those cattle, not milk. Too many more details to go into here. Read my book. That’s my tribute to Shivaiyya and his people and all those who walked into my life. The purpose of this story is to tell you that despite having lived so closely with Shivaiyya (and with many more over the years) can I say that I ‘understand’ what it means to be Dalit? The answer is, ‘NO!’ It is not possible to understand that unless you are born one. And that it is because until then you don’t understand what it means to be born into a cage. There is a difference between visiting prisoners and being a life convict where only death can set you free. That is what it means to be a Dalit in India.
I am a Muslim from one of the so-called Ashraf castes of Indian Muslims. Then there are the Ajlaf and the Ardhal (which consists basically of Hindus of lower castes who converted to Islam thinking that they would now be treated as human). How sadly they were disappointed to find out that what the Prophet of Islam declared (absolute equality of all people irrespective of race or origin) and what Indian Muslims practice are two opposite things. Please see these two articles which explain the situation very well. Same situation in Christianity with even graveyards segregated.
Masood Alam Falahi’s excellent book, Zaat-Paat aur Musalman deals with the caste system among Indian Muslims in detail but to the best of my knowledge it has had as much effect on the Indian Muslim caste system as the many anti-untouchability laws have had on the situation of the Dalits in Hindu society. The caste system among Muslims in India goes back to the time of Qutubuddin Aibak, the founder of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century and the politics of convenience. Like all kings he was interested in ease of administration and so did nothing to change the social order amongst his subjects. He realized that if he tried to abolish caste, it would raise all kinds of conflicts with the powerful Brahmins and Kshatriyas which he could neither afford nor was he interested in. Islam came a far second as it does to this day with all manner of politicians and political groups all over the world. Sultanate scholars (Ulama) declared that the invaders were superior to the locals (not surprisingly) but they went on to declare that they were also superior to local Muslims (Hindus who converted to Islam). It didn’t end there. They also declared that among local Hindu converts, those upper caste Hindus who converted to Islam would retain their class superiority over lower caste Hindus who also converted to Islam. The Prophet of Islam declared that all human beings are equal. Indian Ulama starting with Qutubuddin Aibak’s Court Muftis declared that some human beings are more equal than others.
Please see Falahi’s interview below. http://bit.ly/2ebngLY
Muslim kings, and the Muslim ruling elites more generally, in collaboration with so-called upper caste Hindus, supported the caste system and the oppression of the so-called ‘low’ castes, both Hindus and Muslims. As Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni’s “Muntakhab Al- Tawarikh”, Maulvi Sayyed Ziauddin Barni’s “Tarikh-e-Firoz Shahi” and Kunwar Mohammad Ashraf’s “Hindustani Maashra Ahd-e-Usta Main” make amply clear, they refused to allow so-called low or razil castes, both Hindus and Muslims, to be educated or even to enter their courts, which was preserved as a monopoly of the ‘high’ caste Hindus and Muslims.
In fact, Muslims’ caste-consciousness runs so deep Allama Iqbal reprimanded them in a couplet: “Yun to Syed bhi ho, Mirza bhi ho Afghan bhi ho/Tum sabhi kuchch ho batao ke Musalman bhi ho? (You are Syed, Mirza and Afghan/You are everything but tell me are you Muslim?)”.
What is tragic is that this caste system didn’t end with the Delhi Sultanate but continued to be supported by the Ulama of India all through the history of Muslim rule in India, into the period of British rule and to this day into post-independence free India. Free from the British, but still chained by caste. Falahi has quoted from the published works of Indian Ulama and I was shocked to see some of the names. May Allahﷻ have mercy on those who tried to change the religion that He sent and who denied to the people what Allahﷻ had promised and who contradicted His Messenger Muhammadﷺ. Truly these people have some serious answering to do before Allahﷻ who many have met and all the rest will meet. The greatest disservice to Islam and Indian Muslims was that it took away from Islam one of its cardinal benefits, equality and non-discrimination; all for the benefit of ruling elites. Everyone else be damned.
This is my own history of how I came to be interested in Dalit affairs. The result was that when I returned home from America in 2000 and was invited by Chindu, a newly formed organization to promote Dalit art and Dalit human rights to help them in leadership development, I gladly agreed. It is a matter of honor for me to be listed among their teachers http://www.chindu.org/teachers.html I was also honored to be invited to be on their Board of Directors, on which I served for five years before I left due to other engagements.
So what is this article about? Rather late in the day to ask this but it is neither about Dalit history nor my own. It is about what I believe needs to be done today and done at the level of a national emergency to bring about measurable change in the situation of Dalits (and Muslims for that matter) so that 33% of the population comes into the mainstream of productive employment. It is suicidal for any nation to have one third of its population living in and subject to conditions which won’t stand the light of day. They can only be a drain on the economy and add little value while breeding all kinds of extremism as anger grows at the situation they find themselves in for no fault of theirs. So what is necessary to bring this about?
There are two things which are required to remove caste discrimination:
1. Changing religious sanction for discrimination and bringing up a new generation which believes in and lives by the new ideology of equality.
2. Create a level playing field where irrespective of caste the historically oppressed can compete on equal footing with the historically preferred.
I am an idealist. But I am also a realist. So while advocating the first with all my heart and soul, I admit that it is beyond my capability to bring this about except in my own life. That I have always done but to try to change people’s beliefs is at best a long term matter and can’t be done by force. Laws must be passed and have been passed. Equality must be and is a guaranteed right in our Constitution. But as everyone knows, there is a huge gulf between what the law dictates and what happens in practice.
It is not in the scope of this article to go into how the anti-discrimination laws actually work when it comes to implementation especially where cases of discrimination are sought to be redressed. I will leave you to lose some sleep over this research if you are interested with the guarantee that the amount of sleep you will lose searching, will be far less than what you will lose once you find what you are looking for. I hope then you will join the ranks of those who are trying to bring about this change and together we can hope to achieve something in our lifetimes.
It appears that to discriminate, to look down upon others is such a powerful need of the human being that even where religion decrees the opposite as in the case of Islam and Christianity, people who claim to follow those religions seem to find ways to discriminate and legitimize it by creating convenient self-serving arguments in the disguise of theology. The fact remains that Allahﷻ made people equal and no argument or Fatwa of any so-called A’alim can change that Hukm (Order or Ruling) of Allahﷻ and His Messengerﷺ. Class inequalities have always been prevalent in all societies but what is particularly heinous about caste inequalities is that there is no escape. Class inequalities also have this element to various degrees in different societies. But when caste comes into the picture, religion sanctions it and so the force is much more powerful. Mobility out of your caste is practically non-existent and when such people are faced with the same situation even when they try to escape the oppression by changing their religion then the situation appears truly hopeless.
For the record Islam doesn’t recognize any caste or class inequality at all.
Allahﷻ says: Hujuraat 49: 13. O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may recognize (honor, appreciate) one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is the one who is the most pious. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.
Rasoolullahﷺ said in his last sermon of Hajj, popularly known as Khutbatul Wada (Farewell Sermon):
All mankind is from Adam and Hawwa (Eve). An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white has no superiority over black nor does black have any superiority over white except by piety (Taqwa) and good action.
Let nobody blame Islam or its Prophetﷺ for what people do in its name.
Discrimination comes out of a lack of self-confidence and self-hate where a person feels confident and good about himself only when he compares himself to someone else and feels superior. You can’t talk about equality of Dalits until you remove all inequality of all the Varnas. For it to work, you have to dismantle the entire system, which is not easy to do when it is sanctioned by religion. The reality is that you either have caste or you don’t. Like pregnancy you can’t have it partially. In 1933 Dr. Ambedkar said, “There will be outcastes as long as there are castes, and nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system.” So either there is no inequality between Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vysyas and Sudras or you can’t say that Dalits are equal to…to whom?? Gandhiji made this mistake when he was unwilling to talk about dismantling the Varna system but wanted the Dalits to be included into it as the 5th Varna. For this he invented the term Harijan (Children of God). However, that was not a solution because even if it had come about, it would have meant that the Dalits would still be the lowest and have to be beholden to those who deigned to recognize that they were at least human.
The second matter has also sought to be addressed firstly by creating ‘Reservations’ in education and jobs for Dalits by lowering the standards of entry (not Muslims who are equally discriminated against but since they are not part of the Hindu caste system, they don’t qualify. I consider this poetic justice for their having joined the discriminators when they had the upper hand and so I say, ‘Jolly good.’). The purpose was to try to help those who had been discriminated against for centuries and so didn’t have the advantage that wealth and education brings by making it easier for them to enter institutions of higher learning and to get jobs.
This action, irrespective of the good intentions behind it, created more problems than it solved. It had a reverse effect by retaining discrimination in another form and actually increasing hatred against the historically deprived people who are seen as ‘stealing’ the rights of others. That others stole their rights in broad daylight for centuries is neither here nor there because logic, historical data and reason have no place in emotion based hate mongering which is standard political strategy in our country. Xenophobia ennobled by affiliation to a higher cause (religion) supported by gross, deliberate ignorance always works wonders.
American politics today is a classic example of the efficacy of this time-tested method. Historical data from the Affirmative Action movement in the United States of America where after its official beginning in 1961 http://bit.ly/1U1f509 decades in time and billions of dollars in Federal funding notwithstanding, has not resulted in achieving even a fraction of what it was supposed to do. To this day there are more African American young men in prison than at university or in the higher echelons of the corporate world and Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President in 2016. Truly fact is stranger than fiction.
So what works and how can we bring that about?
What works is quality. So create quality. Focus on creating quality and the rest will follow.
Here is what I believe we should do.
1. Create world class primary and secondary schools in Dalit areas but open to everyone. Let anyone who wants a world class education send their children to these schools. However, what happens to this day even in government schools our villages, segregation of children based on caste, will not happen here. All children will be treated as children should be treated, equally with love and compassion. They will sit together, study together, eat together, rest together, play together and be trained to the highest standards in education.
There are numerous instances where upper caste children will not sit with Dalit children in government schools and Dalit children are relegated to a separate seating area. When the government insists that this kind of discrimination will not be allowed, upper caste Hindus don’t send their children to these schools. However, it is interesting to note that everyone goes to the Christian schools in the area and sits in the same room without demanding segregation. The reason is that the quality of education which those Christian schools provide is incentive enough to put caste considerations on hold.
Of course if the anganwadi cook is Dalit, upper caste children won’t eat the food he or she cooks and teachers may discriminate against Dalit children, but at least there is no ‘official’ discrimination against a child because he or she was born in a particular family.
2. Create a Vocational Training Center in each school with vocational training as a part of the curriculum. To learn a trade and work with your hands must be a compulsory part of education. This will teach children dignity of labor and give them the joy that you only get from creating things with your own hands. It will give them also training in systems, quality, time management, leadership and teamwork; all of which are excellent life skills that one needs and which are not part of our standard school curricula. The centers will also provide employment for artisans and experts in different arts and crafts who are scrounging for jobs today and in the process many are even losing their skills.
3. Create a Center for Entrepreneurial Development where students of these Vocational Training Centers (and others) are trained in setting up small businesses. All kinds of training in hiring, organizational development, selling, raw material procurement, product development and organizational leadership can be provided so that new businesses have a good chance to succeed. The Center will also run a mentorship program where new entrepreneurs will be mentored by experienced entrepreneurs and will have access to consultant services through the Center.
4. Create a Venture Capital Fund which will offer interest free loans to entrepreneurs. These will be given after a rigorous annual selection process where hopefuls will have to present their business plans and pilot projects to a team of experts who will decide on the viability of the project. This is to ensure that businesses funded actually succeed and the process can continue ad infinitum.
http://bit.ly/2dHP5YZ is a very interesting TV show about venture capitalist/entrepreneur interaction. I know that reality is not exactly so neat and neither do decisions to fund always get taken so fast but it is a very good example of participation of haves and want-to-haves which can lead to everyone-has-more.
In short what I am suggesting is that while we need to continue to work to change our beliefs and ideology to promote justice, we need to do something that is more easily doable and can show results and will hopefully also result in a change of heart which must eventually come. The world wants quality products and services. If we prepare people well by enhancing the standard of education, then they will be respected when they gain entry beating others over the same high entry standards. More importantly it will enhance their own confidence and self-respect which is more critical than anything else. That will be real service. That will truly add value and will take away discrimination over time because when people can stand on their own feet, they don’t need others to affirm their humanity. Those who provide quality will automatically get clients, customers and friends and will not be beholden to anyone.
In time, it is my hope that we can completely dismantle the caste system in all religions. Any religion which considers one human being superior to another because he was born into a certain caste is not a religion that I recognize as coming from the Creator.
Caste prejudice is a shame on our honor as human beings, which we must remove.