Dalit Perspectives on Religion and Inter-Community Relations
Dalits account for almost a fourth of the population of Jammu province, but in discussions about the Kashmir question the Dalit voice is almost completely absent. Typically, the Hindus of the state are treated as a homogenous whole, although sometimes a distinction is made between the Pundits of the Valley and the Dogras of Jammu. It is, however, crucial to bring in the Dalit perspective when examining inter-community relations in Jammu and Kashmir, not only because of the numerical importance of the Dalits but also because they are among the most marginalised communities in the state.
There are 13 officially recognised Scheduled Castes in Jammu and Kashmir: 1) Barwala, 2) Basit, 3) Batwal, 4) Chura, 5) Chamar/Ramdasia, 6) Dhyar, 7) Doom/Mahasha, 8) Gardi, 9) Julaha, 10)Megh/Kabirpanthi, 11) Ratal, 12) Saryara and 13) Watal. The state’s Dalit population is almost entirely concentrated in the Jammu province, with only a few Dalits, belonging to the Ratal and Watal castes, in the Kashmir Valley. In addition to the Dalits who are counted as Hindus are numerous Dalit groups who have converted to Sikhism, Christianity and Islam. According to T.R. Azad, a leading Ambedkarite activist from Jammu, historically the Dalits of the state, as elsewhere in India, have converted in large numbers to various religions in search of liberation from the caste system and the Brahminical religion that provides it religious sanction. Many Dalits who are today counted as Hindus follow sectarian traditions that are markedly egalitarian and anti-Brahminical, such as the Ravidasi panth and the Kabir panth. These traditions, in theory, obviate the need for the Brahmin as an intermediary, and also stress the equality of all human beings. In the case of the Kabir panth, inter-communal harmony, between Hindus and Muslims, is also given particular stress. Rituals, while not denied, are seen as ultimately of little value, with the focus instead being placed on individual morality and devotion to the one formless God.
Despite their large numbers, the Dalits of the state are not well-organised. The Ambedkarite movement, which is strong in various other parts of India, has not established a major presence in the state. There are only two Ambedkarite organisations in Jammu—the Dr. Ambedkar Education Foundation and the Dalit Sahitya Academy. ‘Don’t get taken in by these fancy titles’, a Dalit activist warned me. ‘They are just letterhead organisations, and their work is limited simply to celebrating Ambedkar’s birthday, protesting against victimisation of Dalit government employees from time to time and garnering Dalit votes at election time’. One reason for the weakness of the Dalit movement in Jammu, I was told by many Ambedkarites I met, is that the vast majority of the Dalits here continue to identify themselves as Hindus. A number of Hindu religious organisations are active in the area, working also among the Dalits, while, unlike in several other parts of India, Ambedkarite Buddhist groups have only a marginal presence here. Although some 2000 Dalits of the Batwal caste are said to have converted to Buddhism in recent years, they are said to be Buddhist only in name and to retain most of their Hindu beliefs and practices. Because the Dalit movement is still weak in the region, the 8 per cent quota for Dalits in government services remains unfilled, and many Dalit leaders are said to be associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is generally seen as an anti-Dalit party.
Under Shaikh Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir was the first state in India to implement radical land reforms, as a result of which a large number of landless Dalit labourers received plots of land of their own. The economic conditions of the Dalits have thereby improved, and although the majority of the Dalits continue to work as labourers, artisans and petty shopkeepers, there is a small Dalit middle class, consisting almost entirely of government servants, who form the backbone of the fledgling Ambedkarite movement in the state. Despite the improvement in the Dalits’ economic conditions, however, caste discrimination continues to be widespread, especially in the villages in the hilly regions of Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur. I was told stories of Dalits being forced to leave their villages by Rajput landlords for daring to take out a marriage procession in the streets, of Dalits being refused houses on rent, of Dalit students suffering the taunts of ‘upper’ caste students and so on. R.L. Jangral, who is one of the most senior Dalit officers in the Kashmir Administrative Services, relates how, when he was a lecturer in a college in Jammu, a Brahmin landlord refused to rent him his house simply because of his caste. ‘Such things are still widespread’, he says. ‘In many villages’, he tells me, ‘even senior Dalit government servants cannot enter ‘upper’ caste houses’.
‘Hindu Rashtra has no place for Dalits, except for at the bottom of the heap’, insists Nathu Ram, a young Dalit school teacher whom I met at the office Dr. Ambedkar Education Foundation, one of the only two Dalit organisations in Jammu. ‘Hinduism or Hindutva or call it what you will is simply a means to preserve and promote Aryan hegemony’, he forcefully argues. He hands me a leaflet issued by the Nagpur-based Babasaheb Ambedkar National Intellectual Forum protesting against the demand by the Shankaracharya of Karvir Peeth that the Indian Constitution be scrapped and replaced with the Manusmiriti. ‘This’, he tells me, ‘is what the RSS plan is all about. They want to keep us in perpetual slavery, faithfully following in the path of Manu’. Yet, he concedes that many Dalits are ardent supporters of the BJP. ‘They want to be known as super-Hindus in order that the ‘upper’ castes accept them’, he explains.
At the same time as he bitterly denounces the BJP and Hindu supremacist groups, Nathu Ram comes down heavily on Islamist militants in Kashmir. Although there are virtually no non-Muslim Dalits in the Kashmir Valley, he fears that if the state were to join Pakistan, the plight of the Dalits would only be further exacerbated. ‘Groups like the Lashkar see all non-Muslims, no matter what their caste or class, as, by definition, enemies of God. So, how could we ever agree to live under them?’, he asks. However, he claims that relations between Dalits and Muslims in Jammu are fairly cordial, and says that while many ‘upper’ caste Hindus treat Dalits as untouchables, the Muslims, in general, do not. In Muslim dominated parts of Jammu, such as Doda, Rajouri and Poonch, he says, Dalits did not suffer the stigma of untouchability. ‘This is both because of the Muslim influence and also because the ‘upper’ castes feel that if they openly discriminate against us we will join hands with the Muslims’, he explains.
A meeting of Dalit activists is under way at the Dr. Ambedkar Education Foundation when I arrive. They are discussing a range of issues, from politics and Buddhist culture to the problems of women and Dalits living in areas of the state affected by militancy. All the activists present on the occasion are in government service, a reminder that Dalits still cannot hope to rise up in the ‘upper’ caste controlled private sector. Even as relatively privileged members of their society many of them continue to face caste discrimination. Few of them have any ‘high’ caste Hindu friends, although some have good Muslim and Christian acquaintances. A consensus seems to prevail at the meeting that religious conversion is the only way out for the Dalits, for they can, they believe, never find equality and acceptance in Hinduism.
‘In Hinduism there is no concept of a human being plain and simple. You are always identified as a member of one caste or the other, and the ‘upper’ castes call us as Hindus only to inflate Hindu numbers’, says a Dalit youth who teaches in a village school.
Most of the men in the room feel that the solution lies in conversion to Buddhism, and some say that they plan to take the step in the near future. Yet, they also agree that many Dalits who have not been influenced by the Ambedarite movement would not follow them. ‘They think they can shed their ‘low’ caste identity by joining a Hindu sect and claiming to be Rajput or Brahmin, but this does not work in the long run’, one of the men insists. Many educated Dalits, he tells me, desperately seek to conceal their Dalit identity. ‘If this continues’, he argues, ‘how can we, the privileged Dalits, ever work for the cause of our less fortunate fellow Dalits?’. For that to happen, he says, Dalits stress, rather than conceal, their Dalit identity, to ‘take pride in being Dalit, like the Afro-Americans take pride in being black’.
Besides considering the Buddhist option, the activists also talk about what they referred to as the de-Brahminising of their own religious traditions. ‘Our religious traditions contain a strong strain of protest against Brahminical oppression, but over the years they have been so diluted that they are now hardly distinguishable from Brahminical Hinduism. In this way, the Brahminical establishment has sought to perpetuate our slavery’, says Lokesh, a railway employee. ‘We have to revive them, to turn them into weapons for protest and social transformation, because ours is a very religious society. People will throng in their thousands for a satsang but if you call them for a Dalit meeting, hardly a doyen will turn up’, he says.
N. Kumar, a school teacher from the Megh or Bhagat (weaver) caste, who are also known as Kabirpanthis, points out that while the Meghs claim to be followers of Kabir (who was also from the weaver caste), and have several Kabir temples in Jammu, in actual fact they continue to worship the deities of the Brahminical pantheon and to employ Brahmins to officiate over their religious functions. ‘This is a complete travesty of Kabir’s message’, he admits. The Brahminisation of the Kabirpanth tradition has gone so far, he claims, that the Meghs now consider themselves superior to the Chamars and generally refuse to eat food cooked by them. He alludes to the role of the Arya Samaj in this regard, and claims that Arya Samaji missionaries have been actively engaged in promoting divisions between the Meghs and the other Dalits. ‘They propounded and propagated the myth that the Meghs were originally Brahmins and hence superior to the Chamars, but that because they inter-dined with the Dalits they, too, were condemned to becoming Dalits. In order to co-opt the Meghs into the Hindu fold they went about providing them with the Brahminical thread’, he tells me.
The Chamar activists, too, speak about how the Ravidas tradition has been so thoroughly Brahminised that it now bears little resemblance to Ravidas’ original teachings. Although there are several Ravidas temples in the Jammu province, almost none of them, I am told, is engaged in any sort of social work. ‘They’ve all become like Hindu temples, where people go to pray and expect that Ravidas will grant them their wishes. The priests in these temples have become like Brahmins, making a livelihood out of the faith of the credulous’, says Ramesh, a Chamar working in a government department in Udhampur. ‘Ravidas was a great social revolutionary’, he argues, ‘but that radical spirit of his message, his message of working for the oppressed, has been completely ignored or else spiritualised today, and now many in the Ravidas Sabha seem to be pro-RSS, although Hindutva stands for the oppression of the Dalits’. He quotes a verse from Ravidas to make his point of Ravidas being, what he calls, a ‘great revolutionary’:
Aisa chandu raj mai mile saban ko ann
Chhot bado sab ram base ravidas rahe prasann
May such a kingdom come where everyone gets enough to eat
God resides in every man, small or big, and Ravidas is happy.
Critiquing the Brahminisation of their religious traditions also means retrieving what the Dalit activists see as their authentic histories, fashioning historical memory into a tool for social protest. Thus, Ravidas, so the ‘Brahminised’ version of the story has it, died after he was refused entry into a temple in Chittor by the Brahmins. In order to prove that he was a ‘Brahmin’, he tore open his heart, revealed three ‘holy’ threads inside his body, and then died. ‘This is complete hum-bug, a myth propagated by the Brahmins in order to claim Ravidas as one of their own’. Ramesh tells me. ‘In this way they want to argue that Dalits just cannot produce such a great thinker as Ravidas. It is also a way to dilute the powerful challenge to Brahminism that Ravidas posed’. In actual fact, he adds, Ravidas was probably killed by irate Brahmins, incensed at his crusade against Brahminical hegemony. ‘We in the Ambedkar Educational Foundation want to recover and highlight these facts, in order to remind the Dalits of their true history, of the struggles and achievements of their forefathers’, he says.
The same recovery of history is underway among some Kabirpanthi Meghs, who as a Megh activist says, stoutly rebut the theory that Kabir was born in a Brahmin family. ‘We must rewrite our traditions from the Dalit perspective, for if we lack our own histories, we will never be able to speak for ourselves’, he asserts.
As the radical Kabir and the iconoclastic Ravidas have been ‘spiritualised’ beyond recognition, they have been turned into caste deities, functioning to symobolise caste divisions rather than inspiring their followers to overcome these differences. ‘Both Kabir and Ravidas’, says this Megh activist, ‘spoke on behalf of all the oppressed, but today Ravidas has become a Chamar deity and Kabir a Megh deity’. As a result, few, if any, Chamars visit Kabir temples and hardly any Meghs worship in temples dedicated to Ravidas. ‘We in the Ambedkar Educational Foundation’, he explains, ‘try and encourage Chamars and Meghs to visit each others’ places of worship. That is precisely what Ravidas and Kabir would have wanted, and, besides, this sends out a powerful message to our people that we must work together’.
Just as getting the Dalits to agree on conversion was an uphill task, so too was seeking to broaden the Dalit movement to include all the Dalit castes, the men concede. The Dalits of Jammu, as elsewhere, are not a homogenous category, being divided into more than a dozen castes. Internalising the logic of the Brahminical system, some of these castes claim to be superior to those considered to be below them in the caste hierarchy. This has made it immensely difficult for the different castes to work together, and has left the Dalit organisations in Jammu vulnerable to the charge of being a monopoly of the Chamars, among the most numerous of the Dalit castes in the state. Yet, the men insist that the Dalits must work together for without unity they would be bound to go unheard. ‘If the Dalit view is not heard when discussions are now on regarding the future of Jammu and Kashmir we will be the biggest losers’, they stress. It is imperative, they argue, that their interests, which they identify as distinct from those of the ‘upper’ castes, be taken into account when discussing the political future of the state. For this they underline the need for Dalits to have a separate political voice of their own, pointing out that all the established parties in the state are either dominated by Kashmiri Muslims or ‘upper’ caste Hindus from Jammu, and hence cannot be expected to champion Dalit concerns. As one young activist puts it bluntly, ‘We’ve tried the Muslims and we’ve tried the Hindus, but they’ve done nothing for us. So we must speak for ourselves to get our voices heard’.
This is Part VIII of VIII Part series by Yoginder Sikand, first published in 2010