In Conversation with Bhagwan Das

Mr Bhagwan Das was a reputed scholar on Ambedkarism and the issue of human rights of the Scheduled Castes. Widely traveled, Mr Das addressed throughout his lifetime, various national & international platforms on the conditions of dalits in India and the best ways of their emancipation. In freewheeling conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, he speaks of the state of dalit movements as well as political parties in India.

(For the English transcript, see below.)

Please tell us about your childhood. Being the son of a sweeper, what hurdles and obstacles did you face, and how did your father react to them?

My childhood was different. My father came from a well-off family. After the death of his father, differences occurred in the family and he came to live near Simla. He was not educated, as he could not go to school. My father worked as a sweeper in the post office. He had a house of his own, and saved money regularly. He loved reading, and had a deep interest in Ayurveda. He took special care to educate my sister and me. A Maulvi was kept to teach us. So, it was different – unlike other untouchable families of the time, where education was not considered important. He was financially well-off and spend most of the time with his books.

In my native village untouchability was practiced in turning on the taps. The barbar did not cut my hair; we could not enter a temple. We had to ask Hindu boys to give us water whenever we had to drink it, but since my family was well off, we did not face any difficulty in this regard.

How did you come in touch with Dr Ambedkar?

Dr Ambedkar, then the labour minister, visited Simla. I had read about Ambedkar particularly through reading Urdu newspapers. He was our harbinger of hope. We did not know anything about him except that all anti-Ambedkar campaigns in the Congress papers were the same as in the Hindu papers. The only exception I found regarding Ambedkar among the Hindi newspapers was Kranti, by Sant Ram B.A. of Jaat Paat Todak Mandal.

I went to meet him for the first time [and] I waited for him for three hours because I was then a boy. All the people holding important positions came and went away; at 7 PM, I was taken inside his house. He looked at my face. I did not go to ask for anything from him but he said, "What do you want?" I do not want anything, as I was already employed, I said. I told him about my family and my applications. In 15 days, I got a letter of appointment. This time, my boss was a Muslim. I found it surprising that most of the Muslims were terribly against me. Some of the Hindus were very helpful and progressive. Some of them were South Indian Brahmins, and I found them quite progressive. But Matlab Hussain, my immediate boss, had some complaint against me as I was overburdened with my work. I used to work till 7:30 PM. Everybody tried to exploit me. I left that job and joined the Indian Air Force. I did not want to join army, but the navy appealed to me.

I was again selected for further training in the UK, but I had to deposit 5000/- which I could not do. I left the Air Force in 1946, and went back to my family in Simla. There, while working with the Scheduled Caste Federation, I came across very progressive people belonging to the communist parties, and one very progressive member of the party was Kameshwar Pandit. We read a lot of Marxist literature, and also learned about the Chinese experiment. I read about Mao Se Tung, but [the person] who appealed to me was Le Su Tse.

We used to hold study circle meetings. I was staying at Seva Nagar, in Delhi. It was a peon's house where I stayed for two years, as I could not afford a better one. Then I shifted to Lodi Colony with a friend who was an ex-communist. He was thrown out of the party. He had been a whole timer. He was very fond of reading, not just Marxist literature but general reading. Later, I was allotted house in Sarojini Nagar.

Here, I came in touch with Mr Shiv Dayal Singh Chaursia, a backward caste person, and a few others who were working with him in the movement. I used to spend time in the Gandhi Peace Library. Chaurasia [had written] a note of dissent in the Backward Classes Commission. He took me to show the note of dissent, which was actually drafted by me to Dr Ambedkar. Dr Ambedkar did not have a high opinion about that note. He asked to keep the note for his comment, but started putting forth questions about me. He had forgotten that he had met me earlier. I spoke in English most of the time, and offered to work for him. It was three days in a week to which he agreed. Sometimes, he wanted information/abstracts about certain books – for which I used to go to Library. But after the work was over, I would sit with Dr Ambedkar for 10 minutes and put my questions.

What would you discuss with Dr Ambedkar? What would he say to the issue of conversion, as he was promoting a particular idea of embracing Buddhism? What was your actual position on it? Why should we not convert to any other faith of our choice? Unfortunately, the caste system goes along with you even after conversion. What choices do we have to save us from the oppression and exploitation of caste system?

One of the questions was on Buddhism, as he was always asking us to embrace Buddhism. I asked that I could not enter a Buddha Vihar. "How do you say Buddhism is better than any other religion? I have been to Burma, seen Tibetan Buddhism but have not come [out with] anything worthwhile. Study is different, but as far as social practice is concerned, I do not find anything different in it.” Ambedkar replied, “all you said might be right, whether I studied Buddhism or not. Now onwards it will not happen again.” I studied a lot of books on Buddhism, and I studied books on religion particularly Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikkhism, Kadianis etc., but Marxism and Buddhism attracted me the most. About Sikhism, I have a very poor opinion. I came close to [it] because I was teaching two children belonging to [it]. One of the students’ father was a doctor, who used to invite me to the Gurudwara – I used to go. Then, there was one festival on which they had a langar (community meal) in the Gurudwara. A man asked the doctor, “you are making us eat with the Churas and Chamars.” It was a shocking experience for me at the Gurudwara. [Afterwards], I studied Sikhism and found that they had 10 Gurus, all belonging to the Khatri caste. None married outside their own parental castes, and [while] the fourth guru included the teaching of Ravidas, Kabir and others in the Guru Granth Sahib, in practice Sikhism is no different from Hinduism. If a convert comes from the carpenter community, he is a Ramgarhia; if is he a convert from [among] the scavengers, then he is a Majhabi; if he is a convert from the liquor sellers, then he is an Ahaluwalia. Where [has] the caste system gone? It goes out from the front door, and comes back from the windows. They never started a movement to condemn the caste system. After that incident, I never went to a Gurudwara.

I was still critical of Buddhism but felt that if the untouchables continued to follow the religion they had been following, then there was no chance of their ever unifying. If Hinduism preaches untouchability against their castes, these castes themselves practice untouchabiliity among themselves. Now for instance, if you go to a Chamar, he looks down upon a sweeper; if you go to a sweeper – especially in north India, to those who call themselves Valmikis – they will never do anything with Helas, doms and Mehtar. [The] Valmiki movement started in the 1930s, and was mainly started by Arya Samajis because they were converting to Christianity. One Tetar was asking the Christians to convert them, but the upper-caste priests were not ready to convert them for fear of losing other people from the church.

Upper castes converted to Christianity after 1857. There were Muslims, Hindus, who became Christians when the missionaries started converting the untouchables. They too started going to church but the Holy Communion was a problem. The upper castes started their prayer meeting in the morning, and the untouchables were told to conduct their church meetings in the afternoon. So Kashmir Gate church had two services, one in the morning and another in the evening for the untouchables.

I also found that people were converting to Buddhism just for the names' sake. It is unique to India that even after leaving [their] religion and embracing the other religion, they stick to their castes. You cannot get rid of your caste. Unfortunately, a majority of those converted to Buddhism were Mahars, hence, Mangs were looked down upon by the Mahars – as they did not bother about Chambhars.

What were your impressions about Baba Saheb Ambedkar when you first met him?

My father used to talk proudly about him. The thing which impressed me very much when I first met him was his love for learning. Second, his character, which was immaculately clean—his worst enemies could not charge him on this front. [Third], his commitment to the cause of the untouchables. But when I was working with him in the labour ministry, I found [out about] his involvement in developing this country. He sent six Scheduled Castes to the UK who later held important positions in the central ministry. Besides the SCs, he was interested in the industrialisation of the country after the British left.

A lot has been written about Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism. Many Dalit intellectuals interpreted it as his anti-Marx philosophy. Where does Ambedkar stand on Marx?

He was not anti-Marxist but against dogmatic people, because the books written by Dange and other upper-caste, elite Marxists did not appeal to him. But he studied Marxism seriously, and also the labour movement of UK. He was much interested in modernising India, and that is why he introduced this thing when he was labour minister. If you go to his writings in the Parliament, [they have] an inclination for progressive and modern thinking. That is a common link between Nehru and Ambedkar, and which writers have not highlighted, as they have not done independent research. They had much respect for each other. Ambedkar was not a great admirer of Nehru when he joined the government, but when he had opportunity to interact with Nehru his opinion was very much different.

What is your reaction to the state of the dalit movement today? There are so many republican parties as well as different caste-based organizations. Then, there is political philosophy of BAMSEF and BSP. What do you think is the future?

When Ambedkar entered the field, he started the Independent Labor Party and in that he not only had untouchable leaders, but leaders from other communities (such as upper castes) who joined the movement and the party. In 1940, he felt that it was not enough—so he formed the Scheduled Castes Federation, exclusively for the untouchables of India. After India's independence he felt that the SCF was meaningless, hence, he founded the Republican Party of India. It was not a party exclusively for the SC people. He wanted to broaden the base, and take up the economic cause for advancement of India. But the people who took over the leadership of RPI did not understand him, and did not want to follow him. They wanted RPI for caste mobilization, and so, it split on caste lines. Today, there are so many wings of RPI that you do not even know.

You have been critical of BAMSEF? What were the basic differences that you found with them?

BAMSEF is not a political party. It says it is a backward, SC, and minority employees' federation. If it is an employee federation, then it is not a political party. BAMSEF was actually started by some people in Poona. They say we are trying to raise the consciousness of the people – but how can a party which has no political ideology and programme do that? But even today, strictly speaking, it is not a political party. It is still [in] utter confusion, and now it has spilt into three. And each is speaking its own language and, frankly speaking, is dominated by the Chamar community in certain areas. In some areas of Vidarbha, it is dominated by the Mahars. It does not have an all-India appeal, because to organize the SCs is not an easy job: they are divided into more than 800 castes. And there are castes and sub-castes, [where] caste rivalry [exists]. Chamars are divided into more than 60 castes, while Sweepers are divided into 12 castes. Valmikis dominate the sweeper community, but they cannot carry Dhanuks, Helas, Doms and others with them.

So, the Dalit movement became a movement of a few enlightened castes. When I started the Ambedkar Mission movement, I asked in writing that one member of the family marry outside his/her parental caste. That is the only way to show that you [are working] against casteism. In my case, I have a relationship with 67 communities including Malas, Dhanuks etc. If you do not do it, then what is the use of saying that you want to break [caste]?

What has conversion changed for the Dalits? One great Dalit cultural icon blamed conversion for taking away the revolutionary spirit from the community.

It is good to break [away] and bad to continue in the tradition that has subjugated you. It is also important to understand whether it takes away the revolutionary spirit or not. It is lack of understanding. Look at it this way, if you continue to divide [society] on caste lines you can never become a strong force. All Shudra castes are divided. And atishudras are hopelessly divided, because of reservation, as it gave opportunities only to those enlightened [ones] who made use of reservation, and not others. In western UP, it was Jatavs who were in the business, and lay out number of educated people actually monopolized the jobs. What about others? In case they continue to remain in their communities/castes and not broaden their base, there is no hope.

Second, here you are strengthening Hinduism, a religion which has exploited you—because in ceremonies such as marriages, cremations, festivals, mundans, you are following them and strengthening [the religion]. You are not strengthening yourself. In case the dalits embrace other religion[s] what will happen? They embrace Christianity, but maintain caste. They embrace Islam and maintain caste, because Islamic society is divided into three main castes: Ashraf, Ajlaf and Afjals. Ashrafs are Shaikhs, Syed, Mughals and Pathans who came with the invaders, and they looked down upon people who converted here (who were Ajlaf). And the third category of people were the working class people; the lower castes and untouchables who converted to Islam were termed as Afjals. Today, Butchers (Khatiq) convert and claim that they are Quraishi because they came from outside. Julaha is an untouchable caste, but after conversion he claims himself as Ansari who came from Ansar. This fact remains despite all claims, that Muslim society remains divided into three castes, and that there is no inter-marriage. Christianity, Islam and Sikhism have failed because they stick to the originality of religion – the presence of God, and a book, which was allegedly created by God.

If people continue to be divided on caste lines, then what is the future? Religion is of nominal or little value for the people. They stick to it mostly for political reasons, not because it gives them identity and history; but the majority of people who are forced into different religions, use it only for marriages and burial. [There is] nothing wrong with it.

Dr Ambedkar thought, we need a revolutionary change and for that religion has to be changed. [The new religion] needs to be based on reason, compassion and brotherhood. He studied Buddhism, and as Lord Buddha said towards the end of his life, that there is no place for God. He wanted happiness of the people too. Unfortunately, the leaders of Buddhism were not able to carry that message [forward]. They maintain caste and at the same time call themselves as Buddhist.

What is the status of Dalit movement today?

Unfortunately, the movement never reached the agrarian communities. Dr Ambedkar chalked out a programme to reach 70% of our population—which lives in villages—and was treated by the dominant communities very badly. If it is Marathas, Kunbis in Maharastra, it is Jaats and Gujjars in UP. He thought that Bengal is different. In Bengal, land went to the dalits because of reforms. Unfortunately, the leadership of the movement came from the urban areas. Educated, semi-educated people took over the leadership of the movement; the movement did not go beyond that. Some people tried to educate those in the villages, but working in the villages is very different, because society there is horizontally and vertically divided and the land-holding community is the worst enemy. What Ambedkar did was—he gave a call to the people to migrate to the cities. So, the people who could not face the situation in the rural areas migrated to urban areas. But then the situation differs in every state.

In southern states, the situation is slightly better, because the land was owned by the Brahmins and they have been thrown out in the South. In northern India, the land was not owned by the Brahmins but by the other people. They are the middle communities [who] became Hinduised. The village movement of landless people was not initiated by RPI. They had it in their programme, but it was never promoted, because most of the leaders (who came from cities) were interested in winning reserve seats and used poor people for winning elections only.

The Scavenger [community] remains the lowest among the dalits. How would you describe their condition today? What are the impediments to their development?

It is not a community itself. It is divided into 12-14 castes. But in the South, the division is not that bad. In Andhra, there are the Madigas –  basically Chamars, but 7 castes among them work as scavengers – hence, the division is not as strict and harsh as in North India. Most of them are employed under the municipality, cantonment boar, and station staff offices. They bear a long tradition of people exploiting them, and [were] promoted as Jamadars in their department. In spite of the fact that it is a low-paid occupation, people pay bribes to get [this] job; even in Delhi, you have to pay bribes to get jobs under the MCD.

Unfortunately, efforts have not been made to unite the sweepers. Why? Because you took up the cause of one particular area and you choose a leader from these quarters. Others are working as private quarters, in Mohallas, under the bridge system. In this system you work under several masters, get leftover food, old clothes, food at weddings or any other festivals.

If they unite for [reasons of] economic weakness, they do not remain so for long. That is why the sweepers and the scavengers remain, even today, [among] the poorest and backward communities. One reason is leadership, the second is economic, and the third is your locality. And this job does not need hard work; it is definitely dirty work, and looked down upon by everybody. These factors have esulted in many problems, like [alcoholism] and wasteful expenditure. Hinduisation has weakened them, as they imitate [it]. Efforts have not been made by different people and leaders to unite the different castes, and make them acquainted with the programmes of the government. Even the Commissions have not been able to do that. Educationally, they are backward, because the dropout rate is very high. Efforts have not been made to spread education to these classes.

I have been associated with the movement from the age of 16. I have also been associated with the labour movement. Unfortunately, politically ambitious people take benefit of the ignorance and backwardness of these people. The right kind of people are now training the dalits and giving leadership, but unfortunately, 'illterate' people with little knowledge are long in the way. And I think, hardly any organization is free from these accusations – Congress, BJP and the others.

I am happy with the new young writing about the movements. When I meet them in conferences and seminars, I feel there is hope, though it is not easy. The population of the right thinking people is showing an upward trend. Could you ever imagine that the sweepers of Punjab would hold mass conversions to Buddhism? New trends are coming up. A new kind of leadership is coming [forth]. Unfortunately, they do not have the means to support [themselves].

Political power is the master key.

Well, there was a time when Baba Saheb Ambedkar said that. When you speak to different kinds of audience – particularly, political leaders – it makes sense. But you will also have to get rid of the weakness within the society. He also called for the promotion of education. What is being done on that side? It is wrong to say that he laid emphasis on political power. Political power without the right kind of ideology means nothing. I think people are misquoting Ambedkar [when they say] that political power is the master key. He might have been speaking at the Scheduled Caste Federation and with political leaders. But why do we not talk about his other work? It is not enough.

Globalisation has banged on our door. There are movements [springing up] against it in various parts of India. Many of our friends have written positively on it, suggesting that it would benefit the dalits. What is your take on it?

This government would have a different complexion if we had the 10 percent in the civil services. Now, with the judgment of the Supreme Court, they are going to suffer more in the years to come. This globalisation does not [attract] the weaker section, at the moment. But then, if through globalisation, the international movement on the issue of the dalits is properly handled, then even here – in globalisation – they can have a share. Globalisation has a political model and an economic model, and it leads to empowerment. But behind these ideas are people who want to solve their problems, find a market, create new markets, and create new classes. In western countries, people are trying to create consciousness and awareness among the downtrodden communities to develop leadership.

Dr Ambedkar was a truly humanist leader of our time, but it seems different castes have made him look like he was a caste leader. How do you describe Ambedkar?

He was a rationalist in thinking, with the interest of the SCs in mind. He never considered the British to be friends. But he got an opportunity because the British wanted to expand the elected council, but they elected other progressive people also. I think he was the most capable and learned person among his contemporaries. He had economic programmes which he could implement through the Ministry of Labour (which was considered as an orphan Ministry), and through that he tried to promote the industrialisation of India, and tried to create a class of technically trained people. Nobody had done that earlier.

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