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Interview: V.T.Rajshekar on Dalit Liberation and Religious Conversion

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    Interview: V.T.Rajshekar on Dalit Liberation and Religious Conversion by Yogi Sikand V.T. Rajshekar is the editor of the Bangalore-based English fortnightly
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 20, 2005
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      Interview: V.T.Rajshekar on Dalit Liberation and Religious Conversion
      by
      Yogi Sikand


      V.T. Rajshekar is the editor of the Bangalore-based English
      fortnightly
      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
      challenges
      facing the Dalit movement today, particularly the issue of religious
      conversion.

      Q: How did you get involved in the Dalit struggle?
      A: I was associated with the Indian Express in Bangalore but I
      was
      dismissed after I came into conflict with the editor. By that time I
      was already taking an active interest in the Dalit movement, although
      I
      am not a born Dalit myself. I, along with some friends, then set up
      the
      Karnataka Dalit Action Committee to spearhead the Dalit Movement in
      the
      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
      groups
      like the Dalits. So, we came out with our first issue in 1981, and
      have
      been regularly publishing Dalit Voice ever since then. It has been
      an
      uphill struggle all along, and I have had to face several attacks on
      my
      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,
      Tribals,
      Backward Castes and oppressed sections among the Indian Muslims,
      Sikhs,
      Buddhists and Christians. The word Dalit came into prominence in
      the
      early phase of the Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra in the
      1960s,
      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
      thought
      and they denied access to education to the Dalits and Shudras. Now,
      every society has its literate, elite class, but the unique thing
      about
      the Indian caste society is that the leaders of thought the thought
      controllersare also the controllers of the gods. So, they have put
      into
      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
      to
      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
      centuries.

      Q: What do you see is the role of religion in the Dalit struggle
      for
      liberation?
      A: Religion may not be of any value for you or me, but for the
      masses
      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,
      Democracy
      and Fascism, took the form of religious revivalist or religious
      conversion movements. There can not be a better answer to your
      question
      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
      religion.
      This is why over the centuries millions of the Dalits and Shudras
      have,on
      their own accord, been converting to Islam, Christianity, Sikhism
      and
      so on, in a quest for liberation.

      Q: What impact has conversion to Buddhism had on the lives of
      the
      Dalits who have followed the path of Dr. Ambedkar?
      A: A considerable change has been brought about in their lives. It
      has
      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
      got
      watered down and spiritualised, and this concept of absolute non-
      violence
      bordering on apathy developed. And that is how the sort of Buddhism
      that has become very fashionable in certain circles today limits
      itself
      simply to meditation and the practice of rites and rituals. I must
      confess that in large parts of Maharashtra the sort of Buddhism that
      is
      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
      kept
      on a pedestal as a holy scripture but its socially liberative
      message
      is not understood or acted upon. What I want to say is, yes,
      meditate
      and chant Buddhist mantras if you want, but dont reduce Buddhism
      simply
      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
      Dalits to
      Buddhism?
      A: For one thing, they often have to face the violent opposition
      of the
      upper caste Hindus if they do. Secondly, the Buddhists do not
      possess
      a strong, well-organized missionary enterprise for this work.
      Buddhism
      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
      people
      Ambedkar felt the need to clothe his message in a religious form.

      Q: Many Dalits today tend to see Ambedkar as an infallible
      prophet.
      What do you have to say?

      A: I agree with you. I think Ambedkar never wanted that his
      people
      should turn him into another idol. He was totally opposed to that.
      He
      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
      instance,
      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
      it,
      Ambedkars thought is like a flood. It flows, it evolves, it
      develops.
      It has to. If it stagnates then it becomes a cesspool. Ambedkars
      thoughts evolved over a period of time. So, quite naturally, he may
      have
      changed his views about a particular issue. No creative thought
      comes
      to a final standstill. It must constantly develop and must
      constantly
      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
      flows, it
      finds its own course. So, in Punjab the Dalits sought refuge in
      Islam
      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


      By
      Yogi Sikand
      ysikand@...
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