Swami Agnivesh

It is a great pity that the radical spiritual legacy that Swami Dayanand enunciated as the Arya Samaj movement more than a century ago could not be nurtured into a source of inspiration and empowerment for the Dalits. Significantly, everyone in the past who has had any spiritual sensitivity at all realized that the perpetuation of the social degradation and oppression of the Dalits, legitimized through the caste system, was a blatant blemish on those who claim the Vedic vision of life. Nanak and Kabir, Buddha and Mahavir, Dayanand and Vivekanand, Gandhi and Ambedkar, were all unique personalities with their own distinctive vision of life. But all of them shared the conviction that unless the Dalits were liberated from the dungeon of caste oppression and empowered to attain fullness of dignity and development, the Indian society could not be truly itself. It is an astonishing reality that, despite the ardent and admirable work of these great reformers and spiritual giants, no dent could be made on the oppressive caste system. Thanks to vote-bank politics, on the contrary, the power of caste has only increased in recent times.

There are evident and encouraging signs that the Dalits are running out of patience. In this they cannot be blamed. They have waited long enough; if anything, they have waited too long. It is the bigoted resistance from the keepers of birth-based upper caste power and privileges to religious reform and social justice that forced a social prophet like Ambedkar to conclude that the Dalits had no hope for rehabilitation and empowerment within the Hindu fold. This frustration made him convert with 300000 of his followers to Buddhism. Likewise, nearly a million Dalits held out the threat to converge on Delhi and convert to Buddhism on the 4th of November. Rather than sense the growing ferment among the Dalits in this event, the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists mounted pressure on the government and ensured that a majority of those who wanted to participate in the event, did not reach Delhi. The background to the anti-conversion Ordinance promulgated by the TN government is the mounting unrest in the lower castes and Dalits in the state who continue to suffer from atrocities and discriminations of various kinds.

Those familiar with the predicament of the Dalits cannot pretend to be surprised that they are getting restless. Poverty is endemic to their way of life. They are plagued and paralyzed by illiteracy, unemployment, exploitation, bondage of diverse kinds, social alienation, infringement of rights (including right to natural resources like water), atrocities including rape, physical assault and murder. They are not seen, accepted or treated like full-fledged human beings. Illiteracy and unemployment bind them to socially underprivileged occupations, perpetuating the economic rationale for their social degradation. To make matters even worse, they rarely get justice from the administration; in the face of the atrocities and discriminations they suffer. It is crystal clear to the Dalits, if not to the upper castes, that it is the pseudo-religious caste system that perpetuates their misery and oppression. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect that millions of our fellow human beings will remain satisfied with this hell-on-earth for all days to come. At any rate the signs are clear and loud that frustration and resentment are reaching explosive proportions.

This leaves us only with two options. As far as the Dalits are concerned, their plight is like that of a man inside a house on fire. Either someone must put out the fire or he must be allowed to escape. Unfortunately, so far only the option of fleeing from the Hindu fold has been held out to the Dalits in any significant way. Hence conversions to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism continue to happen. At the same time, the volume of these conversions is strangely negligible as demographic data prove. Given the utterly miserable plight of the Dalits, there would have been a massive exodus from the Hindu fold but for the fact that the Dalits know, as Ambedkar did years ago, that the promise of equality, dignity and empowerment held out by these converting religions remains unfulfilled. Even though these are egalitarian and caste-free faiths, the Dalit converts are never integrated into their mainstreams or accepted as equals. All religious communities in India are infected by the scandal of caste. And it is dishonest on the part of anyone to hold out the carrot of conversion to the socially hungry Dalits without disinfecting his faith of caste practices. Thanks to the barely-masked hypocrisy and commercial undertones of conversions, Dalits remain Dalits even after their conversion. This is the fraud endemic to conversion.

But this should not breed complacency in those who cherish the Vaidic faith. The fact that other religions too are caste-ridden does not justify its perpetuation in the Hindu fold. Hindus invented it; they must dismantle or disown it first. The cheap and dishonest alternative is to improvise legislation or executive measures to disable conversion. The only valid way forward is to offer to the victims of caste oppression a new hope and a viable alternative.

That alternative is available in the form of the Arya Samaj. Swami Dayanand's concern for Dalits exceeded that of Gandhi's by far. While Gandhi simply sought to stick plaster on the socio-economic wounds of Dalits, Dayanand went all out to effect their total social and religious transformation. He would not stop short of rehabilitating them within the fold of the "Arya": the noble-fold. The Arya Samaj was not envisaged as a religion, but as a spiritual and liberative movement. Those who embraced it were to be totally liberated from their caste antecedents and made new entities as Aryas. This was based on Dayanand's scholarly insight that the caste system was a post-Vaidic aberration and that it was a blot on the spiritual greatness of the Vedic vision. Arguably, India has not seen since then a spiritual revolutionary comparable in stature to Swami Dayanand.

But the Arya Samaj Movement has not been able to fulfill its spiritual mission with the requird zeal and commitment. Its liberative agenda has been diluted by a spirit of compromise and accommodation with the caste agenda. Caste interests have infiltrated and hijacked this glorious movement. So when the Dalits look around for alternatives, they see no difference between what it offers and upper caste practices. This needs to change. From a realistic perspective, the Arya Samaj is the best bet for the Dalits of today. Conversion to Islam or Christianity is attempted in most cases as a means of protest. Dalits convert to these faiths not because of any substantial advantage they acquire. They do so merely to express their protest. The Arya Samaj, in contrast, is the pathway to their total social and religious rehabilitation. As for the Samaj itself, this needs to be seen not as a means for swelling its ranks but as a historic challenge that it is so eminently suited and specially mandated to address.