Interview with Dr Kancha Ilaiah - Leading Dalit Rights Campaigner in India

|PIC1|Dr Kancha Ilaiah, a leading campaigner for Dalit rights in India, has been on a visit to the UK this week. Dr Ilaiah is Professor in Political Science at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, and the author of a number of books on caste oppression in India. Of the practice of untouchability in India he has said: "Nowhere in human history has one group - the upper castes of India - been able to oppress so many for so long."

He recently testified at a widely-reported Congressional hearing in the USA, under the title 'The Abolition of Untouchability: the Key to Stability in India'. He described the roots and the ongoing reality of violence and discrimination against Dalits.

Dr Ilaiah is one of the key figures in the international movement for Dalit emancipation from caste oppression - often described as a 'hidden apartheid', due to the caste segregation throughout Indian society. The oppression of Dalits is wide-ranging, and well-documented. Dalits are compelled to perform the most menial and hazardous tasks, many Dalit women are sold into prostitution, and the use of Dalit child labour is widespread, report Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Atrocities against Dalits are reported on an almost daily basis.

As hired workers, Dalits are typically paid under 50 percent of the minimum wage, and the careers of educated, more influential Dalits are hampered by their caste. Even during the 2004 tsunami relief effort, Dalits were segregated from upper-caste Hindus. Dalits are also excluded entirely from Hindu religious practices.

Christian Today has been able to meet with Dr Ilaiah and David Griffiths, CSW's India advocacy officer to discuss the situation of the Dalits in India under the repression if the caste-system. The full interview can be seen below:

CT: Thank you for taking time to speak to us. Can you start by giving us an impression of the general situation of Dalit Christians at the moment?

Dr Ilaiah: Thank you very much for this interview today. Let me first briefly tell about my work and myself. My name is Kancha Ilaiah and I am professor in political science at Osmania University. I have been writing newspapers, journals and also I have three major books.

One is called ‘Why I am not a Hindu’ which was a bestseller in 1996 and then I have done a book God is a political philosopher. A third is called Buffalo Nationalism; a critique of spiritual fascism which critiques the Hindu cultural history and Hindu cultural values.

What we are trying to campaign about is that there is this problem in India within the Hindu religion called the caste system. The caste system is created out of Hindu religious structures itself, out of the scriptures called Rigveda, it is the first ancient scripture which said that God in Hinduism created people unequal.

There was Hindu God called Brahma out of whose body man was said to have been created. The book said God created the Brahmans, the priestly cast from his head, the political leaders were created from his shoulders, business community, from which Mahatma Ghandi was part of, were created from thighs of God, producers community, shepherds, carpenters, tillers of the land and other working communities were said to be created from his feet. So the Dalits were actually untouchables in physical terms, said to not be created by God at all.

So they were untouchables and therefore they cannot live in the villages and the towns and civil society. So they were supposed to live away from the religious and when the religious needed the menial jobs road cleaning, leather work, removing dead cattle from the town they were supposed to come and clean the town.

But there were also the leather workers who were the ones who were making they made them and they were also part of the agrarian production. So they were never supposed to touch anybody and they were never supposed to go to temples. But when there was a temple building or construction work they were supposed to do that work.

So the Sutras can go into the temples but they are not supposed to read scriptures, not supposed to get trained for theological work within the temples. So entirely different from the Christian faith ... I was reading Genesis but I was not a Christian by birth or even now but when I was reading the Bible Genesis says that God created all human beings in his own image both men and women and he created them equal.

But Hinduism created a system where it stagnated and millions of people are now untouchables. And we have a population of Tribals also. So the untouchables are about 180 million, the Tribals are about 80 million, so in all it works about 250 million people outside the village system itself, and then we have this Sutra caste of about 500 million. So in effect we have about 750 million people are completely discriminated, they can’t have education on par with the Brahmans, priests and the business communities. So even now the country is in their hands. These people have no religious rights. The right of religion is completely negated for them.

So that’s one major issue we haven’t had: so how to see that these people first enter into religious equality, what is the mode in which they can go. So I have been saying and writing in one of my books that Hinduism is a kind of spiritual fascism because the Hindu books say that Aryans wrote that, and Nazi Germany Hitler believed he belonged to an Aryan race.

So the symbols that Hindus and Aryan Germans are the same, the swastika and the concept of a few people always being superior to the other. And these women’s equality is very seriously affected. In this all women are considered the Sutras, the feet born. So therefore women could never become spiritually equal or valued humans not even equality but they were not even valued in the spiritual realm. So Hinduism is a very spiritually fascist system and because of that our country has suffered in many ways.

Our spiritual potentials were never released, people could never think of God on an equal basis. So now there is a rebellion instigated. This is where people also look up to Christianity, particularly the Tribals and the untouchables, the Dalits. The Word Dalit actually means broken. So they are called “broken people”.

So why were they broken? Because the Hindu religion made them broken. So they can’t have a unified life, they can’t congregate, they can’t pray together, so there is a complete brokenness in the society, that is the reason they are called “broken”. They are rebelling against the Hindu order, Hindu spiritual life and quite a lot of them think of Christianity as an alternative. So that’s happening in a big way.

CT: Is that why faith among the Dalit Christians is quite strong?

Dr Ilaiah: No, what’s happening is that in the last 50 years or so after independence, even earlier, the Christian missionaries came to India but not with the support of the political rulers, not even the British rulers. When William Carey came there in 1793 he was a most positive missionary so he came with the Bible and started to translate that into the regional languages and started talking with the Tribals in the forest areas.

He also had some contact with the untouchables. But he mostly spent his time in translating the Bible into the people’s language, but then gradually the Christian message began to spread to the Tribal areas most significantly. So quite a lot of tribes in the last sixty or seventy years in the eastern part of the country have become Christians and now you have three major states where Christianity is the dominant religion.

In the south the Dalits began to become Christians but there was one constitutional problem. When the constitution was being written in the 1940s there was a famous Dalit leader called Dr Behar Ambertkar who studied at LSE and Columbia and became part of the writing project of the constitution, and he introduced a mechanism called reservations which is like affirmative action to blacks in America.

They said Hinduism is our system-based religion and affirmative action will be given to only those who remain within the Hindu order. But there they cannot become equal at any point in time, they have to be hierarchically unequal, if they become Christian they cannot get reservation, cannot receive any affirmative action in education and jobs. So a lot of Dalits were becoming Christians but for the fear of losing the educational channel and jobs they were not registering as Christians.

So now there is this huge demand that Dalit Christians should also get this benefit. So the court cases are there in the court and fighting is going on in the field. Then the other major problem is when the English missionaries started schools in the colonial periods in the 19th and 18th century, the upper caste opposed the English as the Christian language, they saw English as the Christian language... but the same upper caste the Brahmans became English educated, now English has become their language.

So before the Dalits and the lower castes and the Tribals are being educated in their regional languages. So the Christian institutions and the church is one of the biggest English educating institutions in India. But unfortunately most of the Christian institutions were charging huge money for English education. So the rich and the upper caste could get English education there.

But in the recent past there has been a right-wing school that emerged very strong in extremist Hinduism, like the Klu Klux Klan in America. So they started raping nuns and destroying churches and distributing weapons. So the Christians started organising human rights groups. So in the recent past in about 2000 there was this organisation called the All India Christian Council, which is a huge civil liberties organisation. It organises defence of human rights for all Christians, Pentecostals and Catholics all joined together.

But then our demand was that look you have been selling English education to Upper castes but you have never educating us. So they have been empowered doubly. They have been going to the UK, US and getting money, the pound and dollars to empower their children and houses.

So what have you done for us? Now they are discussing some money should be spared for our English education in the rural areas for the untouchables, Tribals and lower castes.

Recently a lot of awareness has come into the world in the US and the West world. They started Dalit Education Centres. So about 40-50 schools have been started by these centres in the English language, from Kindergarten and upwards.

But this is being opposed by the right-wing Hindus, and also Upper Caste teacher show no interest. So we need to mobilise teachers from the Dalit communities and Tribals and lower castes – this is a big job.

The Western Christians somewhere did not understand the Indian context properly. So they said that Christianity is Western, but in my understanding Christianity was not Western – it came to west from Rome and Greece and so forth.

So the right-wing Hindu people say that Christianity is western so why are you bringing it here. The West came to rule us 300 years do you want them, to come and rule again. But we say you have been ruling us for 3000 years, and treating us as slaves. At least the British came and gave English education to all.

When there is this distributing of Bibles to all, when the British were ruling, there was a famous reformer in the 1850’s that said you give us English education and let our children be taught Bible also. But the upper caste said you are not allowed to teach it as it opposes our religion. SO he went on asking for Bible teaching.

The Hindus did not even teach us about their books, we cannot even read their books in the ceremonies. So there was no way the people can read about God or the notion he built all men equal. So there is a depression. Poverty and hunger and uncivilised ways of living are in India now.

So what we are telling the west is that Christianity is not western, but is also eastern. So the campaign about rights to religious equality before the God has to take place in a very big way in India masses now. But the Western Christian world is remaining indifferent to this, so there is a problem. If hunger increases then huge riots may take place in Indian context breaking the whole society into pieces, like what is happening in France right now. But in a much larger scale that that as the masses are huge in number.

CT: What are you asking the International community for?

Dr Ilaiah: We are asking for the international community for four things:

One, first let the Christian world pray for the Dalit Christians and Tribals, as they will learn and understand the focus more.

Second, there is a constitutional understanding at that time when the British gave us that freedom. They said missionaries cannot come to India, but the western world can give us English education. The schools we need. English education means opening up their eyes to the whole world – let our children understand what is the world and who that God out there. So we are asking the western church and people to help us get English education.

They can sponsor children for education. Each church could sponsor one school itself. Young people can come to teach English and bring about human life and teach them what equal life means.

Thirdly, we want this campaign to take place among the UK and US governments and the European Union, so that the World Bank and IMF and aid agencies allow them a share in the world economy.

Fourth, this issue should be taken to the United Nations forums. The problem of untouchability and the caste system is not just our problem but it is a problem for 750 million people and so a problem for the world. So they need to help us put everything into a global sense.

These four things are very important as this is the century of globalisation and we need to know what globalisation is.

CT: What reaction have you had so far from international governments?

Dr Ilaiah: There has been some positive feedback. We have spoken to MP’s yesterday and also House of Lords members and the peers. We have also recently had a US Congressional sub-committee hearing on caste-system and untouchability.

In 2001 we took the issue to the UN but our government opposed putting it into the world agenda. Other governments would not support us. So what we want is by 2007 or so, is the UN conference to once again take up this issue of global discrimination and we want them to support our cause.

CT: What has happened with the Supreme Court decision?

Dr Ilaiah: It has been postponed till the 28th of November, and there is also a rally taking place on the 26rd November.

What is known as the reservation for Dalit Christians, if the Supreme Court upholds that then the Dalit Christians become equal to others- their children can get the same jobs and education on a par with others.

But the Indian government is not forthcoming to support that argument, so we need world opinion mobilisation, and get pressure on the Indian government to support that issue.

Also in abolishing the issue of caste in the constitution itself along with untouchability and to give preferential treatment to the lower castes and Dalits in foreign companies working in India. British companies, US companies, the Japanese, French and others. We need the help of organisations like yours.

CT: How has it been for you as a campaigner?

Dr Ilaiah: When I wrote my book ‘Why I am not a Hindu’ it was a tough time. The right-wing Hindus wrote threatening letters saying they will kill me and my body will be put into a Museum. But there was global support and national support from among the Dalits and lower communities. So I am not afraid of that but the important thing is what will this campaign do?

When I am writing or speaking to the West I have been accused to be a sympathiser to the mission work, which is seen as negative. The British come and give the Tribals some pounds and the US come and give dollars to the lower castes, and they complain. But the upper castes come to the UK to earn pounds and they send this back to India and their children are becoming hugely rich with chauffeur-driven cars and swimming pools and air-conditioned houses. The pound comes to the rich but then how can they say it cannot come to the poor. So I have been asking the Christian world to give our children the Bible and pound, so that some health and wealth of Jesus can come to them. Jesus should bring wealth to India also. Please come and give both.

We have asked for equality for generations and they will not allow us to learn from them, and so we ask for people to do anything they can for us. Send books, health books, education books, and distribute the book of Genesis in millions of copies so that people will know that God created all humans equal.

This liberation of the masses in India should be the burden of every Christian.

CT: What support have the Dalit Christians had from the Christians belonging to the other castes in India?

Dr Ilaiah: There is the problem in India where there are 2 types of churches. Some of the very old established churches in south India practice the caste system still. In some other parts then the upper castes became Christians first and they said that Dalits cannot become part of their church.

But there is a fight against it and they did create some alternative churches called the Salvation Army Church, and the Dalit churches came in. It is not to say that all the older churches practice caste system at all, but there has been some practice of untouchability in the church too, but now there is a fight to transform the church. This is something that the church in the west does not know that the untouchability is being practiced even in some churches.

**Opinions represented in this article may not reflect the opinions of ChristianToday