An Afro-Dalit Story
On January 30, 1998, I went on air with Ron Daniels for his two-hour radio program on the National Urban Radio Network. The theme for the show was Gandhi and Dr. King, since it was the 50th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. After a brief back and forth, we went to the phones. From the first call onward, folks asked about Gandhi’s relationship with the Dalits as well as the condition of Dalits in contemporary India. One caller referred to the Dalits as Black Untouchables and asked if I knew a book by V. T. Rajshekar.
I was very pleased with the experience, mainly because it is rare to find a U.S. audience so informed about things Indian. But I was also curious to know about this interest amongst African Americans for the social struggles of Dalits. I knew that in India the progressive community took a keen interest in the lives of Black Americans, from the time of the 1931 Scottsboro incident through the persecution of Paul Robeson and now with the trials of Mumia Abu Jamal. Solidarity with African Americans is second nature to the Indian Left: when King came to India in 1959, he was overwhelmed by the reception accorded him.
The intimation of solidarity that King felt in India was an aftermath of the great Afro-Asian Conference held at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 (covered by Richard Wright in a fine book, The Color Curtain). The Bandung Spirit reflects an anti-racist and anti-imperialist experiment with solidarity, one that floundered in the vise of the Cold War. The people who asked about the Dalits, however, did not seem motivated by Bandung. They saw the Dalits as long-lost Africans, people so identified by the color of their skin (if not their genetic roots). I found this puzzling.
I turned to V. T. Rajshekhar’s Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India, first published in 1979, but reprinted in an expanded edition by Clarity Press of Atlanta in 1987. Rajshekar’s book began with the premise that Dalits are part of the African diaspora and that they are the first settlers in the Indian subcontinent. “It is said,” he writes, “that India and Africa was one land mass until separated by the ocean. So both the Africans and the Indian Untouchables and tribals had common ancestors. Besides,” he argues, Dalits “resemble Africans in physical features.”
This was just what Runoko Rashidi says he saw during his 1999 tour of India. “In Orissa,” he says, “I saw and photographed the blackest human beings I’ve ever seen. In fact, it is my impression that the blackest people were here most highly esteemed and considered better than the others, who were not so dark.” These “blackest human beings” Rashidi identified as the Dalits, the Black Untouchables.
In the mid-1980s, as a young student Rashidi heard Ivan van Sertima speak at UCLA. Van Sertima was already well known for his attempt to show that Africans came to the Americas long before the Europeans. “What we are doing,” he has since said, “is reconstituting the history of African people around the world. We have come to reclaim the house of history.” Van Sertima encouraged an enthusiastic Rashidi to pursue his thoughts about the ancestry of ancient Indians.
“All people came from Africa,” Rashidi argues, “but some people more than others.” He adopts the arguments that humanity begins in Africa (whether in Aramis, Ethiopia, Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya, or the Jukskei River, South Africa). All people are African, he told me, but that was millions of years ago. Some people are African more recently. Dalits fall into that category.
In 1999, Human Rights Watch (New York) published a report on the Dalits (literally broken or oppressed people) of India, a population that now numbers about 160 million. Before the growth of a self-conscious Dalit movement a few decades ago, the terms most commonly used to designate this population were ‘Untouchable’ and “Harijan” (“Children of God,” a term used by Gandhi). Human Rights Watch found that the situation of Dalits was deplorable and called their condition “hidden apartheid.” Despite India’s very progressive laws, HRW found that Dalits do not enjoy the protections to which they are entitled.
“If there are any people more oppressed than Dalits,” Rashidi notes, “I don’t want to see it. Nothing compares to that.” Ken Cooper, who was bureau chief for the Washington Post in New Delhi, notes that “as an African American I used to think American racism was the most stifling obsessive system of oppression in the world, with the exception of what was South African apartheid. After my stay in India, I am sure the caste system was and continues to be worse—it has religious sanction and has been ingrained for 3000 years.” Comparative oppression is not a useful exercise, since each society seems to conjure up its own form of barbarity. Nevertheless, both Rashidi and Cooper make the case quite forcefully that Dalit life is painfully hard.
Little that HRW catalogued is new to either the Dalits or to the many agencies and political organizations who have been at work for social justice in India. As with social justice work elsewhere, there are many factors that prevent the emancipation of the Dalits. The main causes of atrocities against Dalits, the Indian government acknowledges, are “disputes and conflicts arising from land, wages, bonded labour and indebtedness.” Without widespread economic change, any movement for social justice will falter.
Many Dalit groups, taking their cue from civil liberties organizations, ignore much of the economic ground for untouchability. Communist leader Brinda Karat notes that “only Communist inspired movements, enabled by the active participation of Dalits, have led to concrete gains against casteism.” In West Bengal, she shows, the Communist government initiated land reform that now forms “the backbone of Dalit self-respect and dignity in the State.”
If the Dalits, now one-sixth of the Indian population, did forge a united bloc, then it might be easy to fight the power of untouch- ability. However, there are many oppressed communities across the country who are considered Dalit by the government and by scholars, but who do not see unity amongst themselves. In a recent book of synthesis, the Belgian scholar Robert Deličge argues that Dalits “do not constitute a uniform community with its own culture; they are widely integrated into the local communities and share the basic values of these communities. If untouchability can be said to have one primary characteristic, it is this fragmentation, which binds them inexorably to the very communities that reject them.” The Dalit movement, of late, has attempted to forge this unity, and it has found the going rough. In June 1972, the Dalit Panthers was formed in Bombay (named from and inspired by the Black Panthers), a group who attempted to be a main agent of unity. However, it has since degenerated into bourgeois nationalism.
Racialist nationalism, of the sort preached by Rashidi and Rajshekar, is an understandable reaction to racism, but it is not an effective, nor morally defensible, anti-racist strategy. “We say you don’t fight racism with racism,” said the late Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (in 1969 before his assassination by the U.S. government). “We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.” Rashidi, who has been to India three times, was contrite about the way he represents Dalits in the U.S. “I feel bad about it. I oversimplified to make it palatable to a Black constituency. I’ve given the impression that Dalits are Black people. Dalits, I now find, are a social and economic group, more than a racial group.” Nevertheless, Rashidi holds that “large sections of the Dalits would be seen as Black people if they lived anywhere else” and that the connections between Africans and Dalits “go beyond phenotype.”
In the 1920s, several Black American writers took an interest in the struggles led by M. K. Gandhi. While writing of the non-violence campaign, they also wrote at length about the Dalit struggles for emancipation. Sudharshan Kapur’s Raising Up a Prophet: The African American Encounter with Gandhi (Beacon, 1992) offers a useful catalogue of these writings and of the deep interest taken by African Americans in Dalit lives. However, few African Americans felt the need to seek biological kin with the Dalits, since they argued (like Dr. Howard Thurman) that the two communities “do not differ in principle and in inner pain.”
Seventy years later, Ken Cooper, in Delhi, sought out Dalit intellectuals who soon took refuge in his office. “African Americans and Dalits share a common history of oppression based on skin color,” Cooper says. Skin color, however, is a very unclear mark for oppression, since in India skin color does not directly correlate to one’s caste.
If the basis of oppression is not identical, at any rate two oppressed communities can certainly share strategies of struggle with each other. That King drew from Gandhi is one example of this. Since Dalit rights are enshrined in the Indian Constitution, Cooper wondered what the implications would have been had the Civil Rights movement won that position in the U.S.? Troy Duster of the University of California at Berkeley is currently at work on a comparative project on caste oppression in the U.S., South Africa, and India.
The question of political linkages is of interest to the Black Radical Congress’s International Commission/Caucus (June 19-21, 2000), which will meet to discuss, among other things, the Dalit situation. The BRC and Cooper stay along the grain of W. E. B. Du Bois, rather than Rashidi and Rajshekar. In 1940, Du Bois reflected on his relationship with Africa. “Neither my father nor my father’s father ever saw Africa or knew its meaning or cared overmuch for it,” he wrote. “But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa.”
During his 1999 trip to India, Rashidi was greeted by a section from the Communist Party at Trivandrum airport with shouts of “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” and the moderator at his program in Bhubaneswar read extracts from Claude McKay’s autobiography. Such emblems of internationalism come to us frequently from anti-colonial nationalism. It is no secret that the first Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung (1955) did not attempt to erase differences, but brought different people together on a platform to combat racism and imperialism. The Bandung style, however flawed, provoked people across the world to put their shoulder to the wheel of other people’s struggles, to give solidarity.
Vijay Prashad is assistant professor of International Studies at Trinity College, CT. He is the author of Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community (Oxford University Press) and Karma of Brown Folk (University of Minnesota Press).
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