Swami Agnivesh and Rev. Valson Thampu

Sunday, the 4th of November 2001. Ram Raj, a dalit tax commissioner, had served notice that a million dalits would converge on the nation's capital and liberate themselves from the oppressive caste system by converting to Buddhism. When the show did take place, it turned out to be a much smaller affair. The dispensation in Delhi had seen to it that it would be. The dalits from the adjoining states were prevented from entering Delhi. And those who managed to sneak in were denied permission to meet in the sprawling Ramlila Grounds. The way the powers that be rough-handled this situation served only to reinforce the charge sheet of Ram Raj, now Udit Raj, on the conspiracy of the Hindu upper caste against the dalits. It was as if Constitutional rights that guarantee freedom of movement, of association, of expression and of choice, simply did not apply to the dalits.

Weeks in advance there were clear indications that the 'long march of the dalits', if you like, would be stalled. We do not know if pressure was mounted on Dalai Lama. All we know is that he had to publicly dissociate himself from this fanfare of conversion to the faith over which he presides. The venerable Lama, of course, did not clarify if conversion is contrary to the spiritual genius of Buddhism. The VHP leaders turned the heat on the government to thwart this public indictment of the caste system by its victims. Acharya Giriraj Koshore demanded that Ram Raj be punished for his role in waking up the dalits. Shri. Raj, on his part, sought desperately to ward off the VHP allegation that he was propped up by some Christian or Muslim conspiracies. He has been at pains, ever since, to wash off the political stain cast on what he insists is nothing but a religious movement for dalit liberation.

Not surprisingly, VHP insists on misreading the message of this mass movement. All through history, ideological outfits committed to the perpetuation of class or caste hegemony have been deaf to the call of truth. They have mistaken the cry for justice as the rumble of rebellion. Power breeds blindness to truth. In this state of power-bred blindness, the custodians of indefensible privilege tend to respond in panic. All panic-driven responses invariably hurt the causes they seek to help. That is because these knee-jerk reactions dodge the demands of justice and, in doing so, provoke further resentments and protests. The subtext of future protest by the suppressed group is already present in the text of the dominant group's strategy for its suppression. All that is achieved in this series of thrusts and counter-thrusts is a hardening of attitudes and positions. This leads to the inevitable vivisection of the society, ruling out the prospect for any dialogue between the two sections so as to evolve a higher harmony.

There is nothing new about this cry of the dalits for greater social justice. It is a mark of the greatness of the soul of India that even before the dalits began to cry out for justice, our religious and social reformers have been seized of this matter from ancient of days: Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavira, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Swami Dayanad, and others. They were all inspired by the vision of the Vedas and they paved the way for Ambedkar. What Ambedkar denounced was the distortion and desecration of the Vedic vision by the Brahminical conspiracy, and not the Vedic worldview itself. This is amply evident from his decision to stay within the same spiritual boundary even in walking out on caste-dominated Hinduism. Significantly, he and his followers chose to embrace Buddhism, rather than convert either to Islam or to Christianity. The blame for this setback for the Vedic faith rests entirely on those who desecrate the sanctity of Hinduism by corrupting the Vedic vision and degrading it into an oppressive religious system, which it is not meant to be. This drove Ambedkar in the end to the painful conclusion that, so long as the Hindu fold continues to be vitiated by a stonehearted Brahminical hegemony, the dalits have no option but to walk out of it. A state of affairs that allows 10 crore upper caste Hindus to trample under foot 30 core dalits, says Udit Raj, should not be acceptable to anyone in this age of democracy. The way the Sangh Parivar is seeking to smother this subaltern ferment, rather than reform the Hindu society of its aberrations, proves Ambedkar right several times over.

Today everyone is obsessed with history. But that is no guarantee that we read the message of history aright. Almost everyone, including the VHP think-tank, seems to overlook the fact that the political awakening of the dalits has been taking place alongside the ascendancy of rightwing Hindu political establishment. That being the case, the more aggressive and domineering the Sangh Parivar becomes, the greater will be the urgency for the dalits to organize themselves and carve out for themselves a niche in the power structure of this country. Both the BSP and the SP are, in a sense, by-products of the Sangh Parivar's successful quest for power. The assertion of upper caste hegemony has been the catalyst for the current subaltern ferment in the spheres of politics and religion. Udit Raj is the religious complement to Mayawati in politics. In the crucible of communal politics, though, they could switch identities with a modicum of cosmetic changes.

It is a fatal folly to continue to react to this radical turn of events as though we are not living in the 21st century. In a globalizing world, political players perforce need a double vision. With one eye they have to watch the domestic scene and, with the other, scan the global scenario. This is a radical change and it is already at work in our cringing eagerness to secure the endorsement of the US for our Kashmir policy. This would have been merely hypothetical a few decades ago. Today even the US has to improvise the tunic of a 'global alliance' to cover the nakedness of its partisan interests. All of us know how hard the Indian government had to parley to coax the US to exclude caste from the Durban agenda. Next time around, we may have far less success in such maneuvers.

While it would be na´ve to turn Udit Raj into latter-day Ambedkar or the messiah of the dalits, it is clearly irresponsible to belittle the on-going dalit ferment or to seek to suppress it with brute force. November 4 in Delhi, like September 11 in New York, needs to be seen as a wake-up call to the country as a whole. It makes an urgent and convincing case for seeing the inhumanity of the infamous caste system for what it is. The institution of caste is a civilizational anachronism, a democratic scandal and a spiritual self-contradiction. The nation as a whole needs to apologize to the dalits for the abysmal injustice inflicted on them for centuries. But this has to be something more than a ritual of sentimentality. It calls for collective and systemic repentance and a radical social engineering. We need to imbibe a new passion for social justice, which is arguably the weakest link in our social chain.

Those who care for the Vedic faith today have no option but to heed the cry of the dalits and do all they can to make this universal household of faith hospitable to them. To be mute witnesses to the continued perpetuation of injustice and oppression in the name of Hinduism, committing the crime of complicity with this crude and chronic aberration, does no good to anyone. It is a frontal insult to the glory of the Vedic tradition. Laughable attempts have been made to invent a Vedic basis for the legitimacy of the caste system. This is a blasphemous joke. Caste is, clearly and emphatically, a post-Vedic invention. The spirit of division and domination animates it; and not the spirit of universal brotherhood such as pervades the Vedas.

The task of reform today cannot afford to fall short of creating an egalitarian society founded on the equal worth of all human beings and their right to equality in all aspects of public life. It is not in the interest of the dynamism and future of this country, as Swami Dayanand argued, to keep even a single member of our society paralyzed in the cast of the caste system. At any rate, the unfolding logic of history would not countenance this prehistoric mechanism any longer. Our credibility both as a democratic polity and spiritually informed society is at stake here. It is the regressive conspiracy to perpetuate the indefensible birth-based privileges of the Hindu upper caste that squanders the integrity of this country in defending the caste system. This is perverse politics, crude culture, and rancid religiosity.

Why do dalits convert to an alternate faith? Abandoning the religious fold within which one grew up is just about the most agonizing and difficult decision a human being can make. It is tantamount to symbolic death. The metaphors used in describing the experience of conversion are exactly that of death and new life. In conversion, a person dies to his old identity and is born again to a radically different identity and way of life. No human being would want to go through this painful process, if there is any other alternative. The fact that dalits are increasingly resorting to the conversion route to escape from their hurt and humiliation within the Hindu fold is a heart-breaking statement on how cynical they have become of any improvement in this sphere. In this, you can't blame them; they have waited long enough, hoping against hope. They have waited in vain. They continue to be blighted by the twin curses of poverty and caste. These two reinforce each other, creating a limbo of human degradation. The just and honest way to respond to the challenge posed by the current subaltern ferment is to address these basic issues with all the seriousness and urgency they demand.

The perpetuation of the upper caste hegemony rested so far on the fragmentation and the political self-alienation of the dalit constituency. Within such an arrangement, political parties have managed till recently to hold on to their dalit vote bank through tokenisms of various kinds, such as reservation and the ornamental accommodation of dalit aspirants in party hierarchies, the unfortunate Bangaru Laxman and the late Rajesh Pilot being two such examples. Every political party milks the dalit constituency for its own profit, but none wants to bring justice to it. The dalit identity continues to languish in the dungeon of social alienation and developmental stagnation. In this respect even the icons of dalit aspiration like Mayawati, Mulayam, and Laloo Yadav have done precious little for the dalits. That is because their mission has been focused on acquiring the seat of power and perpetuating their hold on it. Laloo must be indicted not so much for the mystery of vanishing fodder but for the gross neglect of the dalits in Bihar. The fact that so many dalits have responded to the mission of Udit Raj in such a short span of time shows how frustrated the rank and file among the dalits are with their political leaders and how suffocated they are within the caste system.

Mass conversion to Buddhism, or any other faith, if it grows into a torrent of anti-caste protests, can have immense political implications in the days ahead. The social grievance and political consciousness of the dalits have so far failed to peak because of their shadowy existence on the periphery of the Hindu society. As they acquire a new and different identity, they could become immune to the current mass mobilization technique of the Sangh Parivar: the activation of some evocative Hindu symbol or issue like the Ram mandir. The psychology of conversion is that converts have a deep inward need to despise and abjure the religious fold they vacate. None admires a religion more zealously than its new convert. The measure by which he admires the acquired faith is also the measure by which he despises the faith he abandons. It is this prospect that makes the custodians of the caste system nervous about the unprecedented motivation among the dalits to acquire an alternate identity.

The Sangh Parivar has chosen to taken on this subaltern ferment in outright antagonism. Presuming on a partisan political dispensation they hope to ram the brakes on this ominous movement. But bottlenecks cannot endure forever. Nor can the Parivar bluster freeze the dalit ferment for too long. It will only serve to provoke its own nemesis and sharpen the battle-lines of conflicting interests. This is contrary to the genius of our spiritual and philosophical tradition that has advocated, from time immemorial, the need for integration and higher harmony. The alternative to the option for harmony is the strategy of disruption, the like of which was on full display in Delhi on November 4. This can only keep the social cyclone temporarily away from the shore of caste interests. Elemental cyclone, we know, grows more and more fierce the more it stays over the sea. It gains in gale-speed and kicks up tidal waves that rise, roar and ransack everything in its path. The alternative to reform is degeneration, which is slow suicide.

The writing on the wall is loud and clear. We cannot withhold justice from the dalits any further. We should not even try to. The need of the hour is a repentant return to the egalitarian vision of the Vedas that recognizes neither Hindus nor dalits, but only the human family. All are equally members of this great and noble species. A nation that continues to treat over 30 crore human beings worse than animals cannot hold its head high on the stage of human civilization. The stature of India must be measured, Gandhiji would have insisted, by the dignity and development of the least among the dalits. It is in the dalit constituency that the soul of Bharat yearns to wake up. Those who seek to suppress this sacred ferment are stone-deaf to the agony of Bharat Mata. We need to rejoice that a significant subaltern ferment is now under way in our society. Rather than suppress it this as a religious threat, it needs to be received as an invitation to reform and regenerate our society so as to regain our dignity and dynamism as a dharmic nation.