“The anti-Dalit prejudice culminating in untouchability is a sin of Hindu society and the remedy too must come from within. Untouchability can be finished forever by awakening the right understanding among the Hindus. I have always felt that the Dalits’ faith in and commitment to Hinduism is much deeper and stronger than that of caste Hindus. ‘Say proudly ‘We are Hindus” is a slogan given by Hindu organizations.” – Punarvasu Parekh
That some Dalits should set up their own trades and industries, become millionaires, offer jobs instead of seeking job reservations and establish their own chamber of commerce and industry is a novel and wholly welcome phenomenon. Under inspiration from Dalit thinker and anthropologist Chandra Bhan Prasad, Milind Kamble in 2005 set up the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, heralding a new era of Dalit businessmen. Today it boasts of nearly 4000 members who are engaged in chemicals, plastics, solar energy, agro industries and construction. The chamber, which has 17 branches in the country and 7 branches abroad, provides them a platform for mutual cooperation.
Their philosophy is one of fierce self-reliance and strong individual effort. Stop whining about social injustice; stop making demands on government; subsidies, freebies and reservations have only converted Dalits into a vote bank without solving their problems. Instead of relying on state largesse, Dalits should avail of the opportunities offered by a liberal, fairly open economic system irrespective of castes and communities, chart their own course in upward social mobility, prove their mettle in open competition with other members of society and wipe out the blot of backwardness with their actions and achievements.
In the words of Chandra Bhan Prasad, Dalits should defeat Manu with the help of Adam Smith. The author of The Wealth of Nations (1776) is regarded as the father of modern economics, whereas the ancient law-giver Manu, author of Manusmriti, is widely regarded as the epitome of standard social philosophy of Hinduism. A new generation of Dalit intellectuals has been saying that it is possible to overcome the old and oppressive social system with the help of a modern economic system. Capitalism, which smashed feudalism in Europe, is now smashing casteism in India. Market rather than state is the best antidote to social inequalities.
This thinking is in line with Dr. Ambedkar’s insight. Ambedkar had a socialist streak, but has also written about the stifling influence of government controls and the need for private enterprise. He realized that in the absence of land ownership, Dalits would find it hard to come up in an agro-based rural economy. Their best bet lay in industrialization. Urbanisation that follows rapid industrialization has the power to obliterate or at least submerge caste differences. Have you ever seen untouchability in a crowded local train compartment? Of the thousands of people who eat in hotels, restaurants and on roadside stalls in cities, how many bother to ascertain the caste of the cook or waiter?
Recently, DICCI celebrated its tenth foundation day which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Addressing over a thousand Dalit entrepreneurs, Modi said Dr. Ambedkar rightly understood that Dalit empowerment required them to break the stranglehold of traditional occupations and set up their own businesses. Modi urged Dalits to reach for the sky, stand tall and become job-givers instead of job seekers.
These are inspiring words, but Dalit entrepreneurs face a long and thorny path. One of their main problems is lack of access to existing business networks. Weak contract enforcement in India means that many entrepreneurs depend on seed capital made available on trust by members of their extended family or community. They also depend on trust-based community networks for appropriate trustworthy personnel and business contacts. This explains numerous instances of specific businesses being dominated by members of one particular community. Dalit entrepreneurs lack such networks in their own community and find it almost impossible to break into the ones dominated by other communities.
Part of the answer lies in voluntary action by large companies that have expansive supply chains. The Tata Group has been at the forefront of such experiments. Large government departments have also tried to bring Dalit entrepreneurs into their networks. How such initiatives can be expanded without compromising commercial principles remains to be seen.
At the DICCI meet, Modi made a very significant point: breaking the bondage of social prejudice is much harder than overcoming economic backwardness. Even Dr. Ambedkar, despite his education, erudition and high achievements, could not escape caste-based discrimination.
The problem is compounded by the tendency among “forward Dalits” to distance themselves from their community. Many Dalits have come up in life through government jobs or with their own efforts. However, as soon as they rise a little in economic terms, they start considering themselves superior to other Dalits. Instead of assisting their brothers in rising above their lot, they start taking pride in keeping away from them. As a result, the larger Dalit society remains stagnant and vulnerable to prejudices, humiliation and exploitation by other castes.
This is an old tendency. Academic Surinder Jodhka points out that through history a few Dalits had repeatedly made it to the top. When the writ of the Peshwas weakened, many Maratha satraps, hailing from backward or Dalit castes, became independent rulers of their fiefdoms. Even Maharaja Ranjit Singh, says Jodhka, came from a caste which would today be classified as Dalit.
Caste barriers, often wrongly projected as iron cages, did not prevent a few talented or valorous Dalits from establishing their own kingdoms. However, having become rulers, these Dalit kings underwent ceremonies that gave them the status of Kshatriyas or Rajputs. They consciously cut themselves off from their lowly origins. So, their success did nothing for the oppressed Dalit masses. In contrast, DICCI members proudly call themselves Dalits; but DICCI works for the successful and affluent Dalits, not for social justice.
How could we remove the social stigma, wholly unjustly attached to certain castes? Untouchability is a blot on Hindu society and has been condemned as such by every Hindu reformer. Yet the curse has persisted. It is not open to every Dalit to become a king or a millionaire. Moreover, if a Brahmin enjoys respectability despite being poor, why should we expect a Dalit to rise far above the rest to be treated as an equal?
Conversion from Hinduism has proved futile. Ambedkar led his followers out of Hinduism to become Buddhists, but they were soon labeled as Neo-Buddhists by the press and political class to remind them of their pre-conversion identity. Some Dalits embraced Christianity, only to find that the discrimination persisted even in the new brotherhood. The Dalit identity, which they were rightly so keen to shed, followed them like a dark shadow wherever they went.
That was probably because the approach is wrong. The anti-Dalit prejudice culminating in untouchability is a sin of Hindu society and the remedy too must come from within. Untouchability can be finished forever by awakening the right understanding among the Hindus. I have always felt that the Dalits’ faith in and commitment to Hinduism is much deeper and stronger than that of caste Hindus. “Say proudly ‘We are Hindus’” is a slogan given by Hindu organizations.
It is easy to proudly call yourself a Hindu when people touch your feet as Maharaj, when they salute you as Thakursaab or fold hands to show you respect as Sethji. But when people throw stones at you on your way to the temple, when the priest rushes to hit you with a stick for entering the temple, it is hard to retain faith in Dharma. Yet Dalits have been doing it spontaneously, effortlessly, for centuries.
Braving centuries of unjust humiliation and exploitation, resisting force, threats and pressure from Muslim rulers and disregarding allurements and sleek but poisonous propaganda of Christian missionaries, they have stuck steadfastly to their ancestral faith. Their fidelity to Dharma, in the face of severe adversity, deserves a deep bow of praise and gratitude from the rest of Hindu society. When Hindus realize this, untouchability will disappear forever. Let us work for that day.
Such a realization is a demand not just of ethics and humanism, but also of prudence. Hinduism today is facing a mortal threat to its existence from Abrahamic religions in the country of its origin. They are keen to locate and exploit every fault line in the traditional social structure. It is high time caste Hindus closed ranks with their Dalit brethren.
» Punarvasu Parekh is a senior journalist in Mumbai.