Interview: V.T.Rajshekar on Dalit Liberation and Religious Conversion
- Interview: V.T.Rajshekar on Dalit Liberation and Religious Conversion
V.T. Rajshekar is the editor of the Bangalore-based English
Dalit Voice. He is a leading figure in the Dalit movement, and has
written numerous books on Dalit history, culture, politics as well as
incisive critiques of Marxism and Brahminism. In this interview with
Yoginder Sikand he talks about his work and reflects on the
facing the Dalit movement today, particularly the issue of religious
Q: How did you get involved in the Dalit struggle?
A: I was associated with the Indian Express in Bangalore but I
dismissed after I came into conflict with the editor. By that time I
was already taking an active interest in the Dalit movement, although
am not a born Dalit myself. I, along with some friends, then set up
Karnataka Dalit Action Committee to spearhead the Dalit Movement in
state. When Dr. Mulk Raj Anand, the noted writer, heard about my
dismissal from the Indian Express, he contacted me and said that I
should set up my own paper to highlight the issues of oppressed
like the Dalits. So, we came out with our first issue in 1981, and
been regularly publishing Dalit Voice ever since then. It has been
uphill struggle all along, and I have had to face several attacks on
life, a spell in prison and the vehement opposition from Brahminical
forces for the work we are doing.
Q: How do you define the term Dalit?
A: We see it as a very broad term, including Scheduled Castes,
Backward Castes and oppressed sections among the Indian Muslims,
Buddhists and Christians. The word Dalit came into prominence in
early phase of the Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra in the
although earlier Ambedkar has also used the word in his writings.
Q: What role do you see your writings as playing?
A : I see them as weapons in the hands of the oppressed who are
struggling for their rights and challenging the might of Brahminism.
Traditionally, in India, the Brahmins have been the leaders of
and they denied access to education to the Dalits and Shudras. Now,
every society has its literate, elite class, but the unique thing
the Indian caste society is that the leaders of thought the thought
controllersare also the controllers of the gods. So, they have put
the mouths of the gods words that would help bolster Brahminical
hegemony and legitimize the oppression of the Dalits. The product of
this are the many Brahminical scriptures that give religious sanction
the caste system, from the Vedas, down to the Puranas, the Gita and
Manusmriti. I see my writings as contributing in the process of
challenging this thought control that has been inflicted on us for
Q: What do you see is the role of religion in the Dalit struggle
A: Religion may not be of any value for you or me, but for the
it is of great importance, giving them a sense of identity as well as
spiritual relief and solace. All revolutions of the oppressed before
the dawn of political philosophies such as Marxism, Socialism,
and Fascism, took the form of religious revivalist or religious
conversion movements. There can not be a better answer to your
than Ambedkars own conversion to Buddhism. He ultimately found
liberation in Buddhism. He advocated that for the Dalits to gain
liberation and self-respect they must convert to an egalitarian
This is why over the centuries millions of the Dalits and Shudras
their own accord, been converting to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism
so on, in a quest for liberation.
Q: What impact has conversion to Buddhism had on the lives of
Dalits who have followed the path of Dr. Ambedkar?
A: A considerable change has been brought about in their lives. It
made them more intellectually alert, more assertive.
Q: But Buddhism is itself not a militant religion.
A: That was my opinion when I wrote my book, Ambedkar And His
Conversion, more than fifteen years ago. But I had to revise my
opinions after reading Ambedkars The Buddha And his Dhamma. There,
Ambedkar shows that the authentic Buddhism is not the sort as it is
practiced by the Mahayanists and Hinayanists. He has reinterpreted
Buddhism as a really socially liberative religion. The Buddha, says
Ambedkar, did not preach absolute non-violence. Rather, he points out
that the Buddha advocated self- defence if the need arose. Later, as
Buddhism gradually got Brahminised, its socially liberative thrust
watered down and spiritualised, and this concept of absolute non-
bordering on apathy developed. And that is how the sort of Buddhism
that has become very fashionable in certain circles today limits
simply to meditation and the practice of rites and rituals. I must
confess that in large parts of Maharashtra the sort of Buddhism that
practiced is basically ritualistic and has little to do with social
change, which really is a betrayal of Ambedkars own mission. So, in
many Buddhist families among the Mahars, the caste to which Ambedkar
belonged, you will find that Ambedkars The Buddha and his Dhamma is
on a pedestal as a holy scripture but its socially liberative
is not understood or acted upon. What I want to say is, yes,
and chant Buddhist mantras if you want, but dont reduce Buddhism
to meditation. It has a message of radical social emancipation, of
liberation and freedom, which unfortunately is not being given the
attention that it must get.
Q: What are the hurdles in the path of the conversion of the
A: For one thing, they often have to face the violent opposition
upper caste Hindus if they do. Secondly, the Buddhists do not
a strong, well-organized missionary enterprise for this work.
cannot be preached by people like you and me you need religious
leaders. India is a country which has had solid religious traditions
for thousands of years. A person may be a total fraud, but if he is
dressed in saffron robes ignorant people hold him in great awe.
Realising this deep-rootedness of religion in the psyche of the
Ambedkar felt the need to clothe his message in a religious form.
Q: Many Dalits today tend to see Ambedkar as an infallible
What do you have to say?
A: I agree with you. I think Ambedkar never wanted that his
should turn him into another idol. He was totally opposed to that.
was certainly not infallible. Take the case of his writings. Since
they were so voluminous there is certainly a possibility of certain
seeming contradictions or divergences in certain areas. For
at one place Ambedkar says that the Aryans were foreigners and at
another place he says that they were indigenous to India. As I see
Ambedkars thought is like a flood. It flows, it evolves, it
It has to. If it stagnates then it becomes a cesspool. Ambedkars
thoughts evolved over a period of time. So, quite naturally, he may
changed his views about a particular issue. No creative thought
to a final standstill. It must constantly develop and must
be revised to take in to account new evidence, new circumstances.
Q: So do you advocate conversion to Buddhism for the Dalits?
A: It is not for me to tell them what to do. When the water
finds its own course. So, in Punjab the Dalits sought refuge in
and Sikhism. In Kerala and Andhra they went in for Christianity. In
each area they have chosen the liberative religion of their choice,
depending on local circumstances.
V.T.Rajshekar can be contacted on vtr@...
The website of Dalit Voice can be accessed on www.dalitvoice.org