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Shorn off an oppressed past

They continued to trickle in under the coppery sun. In a short while, it was possible to realise that a very large number of people had arrived, amid the sound of Buddhist chants, orange robes and shaven heads ... .The recent Dalit conversion rally in Delhi will be a signpost to the future of India, says poet and columnist DOM MORAES.

Buddhist monks at the rally ... does the future hold promise or uncertainty?

THE recent Dalit conversion rally in Delhi failed to arouse much interest. This was largely because the Government and its cohorts launched a vigorous and effective misinformation campaign to ensure that few non-Dalits would hear about it at all. These forces also ensured that many Dalits who knew of the rally would be too terrified to attend it. They had been told by Hindutva activists and websites what would happen to them if they did.

But this Delhi rally is significant as a portent of what may soon happen in India, and it should make us wonder about the future of the communities in this country. The world has seen many examples of oppressed races but no people have ever been oppressed for so many years as has happened here. The ancient Brahmins called these people too low to possess a caste, the British called them untouchables, Mahatma Gandhi called them the Harijans, and they now call themselves the Dalits, which is a very strong and terrible word in Marathi for "the oppressed".

These dalits, a substantial part of the population, have been oppressed for about 3,500 years. In July, 1997, almost exactly a month before the 50th anniversary of independence, a dozen Dalits were killed in a fracas with riot police outside their colony in Ghatkopar. During the night, some miscreants had garlanded a statue of B.R. Ambedkar outside the colony with slippers. The Dalits, who were unarmed, protested, and were shot.

A few days later I went to talk about this to Namdeo Dhasal, that very fine Marathi poet, whose work is now being translated into English by Dilip Chitre. Namdeo is a Dalit, and has suffered from the fact all his life. He pointed out that many Dalits have a culture of their own, and slightly different deities from those of the caste Hindus. "In the Indus valley, three millennia ago," he said, "the Harappans had a great culture. They had built cities and ports. The barbaric Aryan tribes from Central Asia came over the mountains and destroyed most of what these people had created. Some of them fled into the forest. The rest were enslaved under the Aryan caste system." What he was saying was that some of the Harappans became tribals and many became Dalits.

Namdeo does not speak English. A Maharashtrian Brahmin girl had come with us to translate. When he went to answer a phone call, she giggled and said, "Gosh, he may be a Dalit, but he speaks the most beautiful Marathi I've ever heard. It's absolutely pure. He makes the people in my family sound like oafs."

Namdeo came back and said, "These imbalances didn't end immediately after independence. In this state, Dr. Ambedkar called for the first mass conversion to Buddhism in October 1956. It gave the people an option, but I didn't agree with it. I created the Dalit Black Panthers." This is now defunct. "But Dalits have come into political power in some places," Namdeo said. "They are accused of corruption, but they learned it from the Brahmins who ruled before them. The reservations do not work as they now stand. I believe that our people will start to make more demands and the Hindus will be forced to submit to them."

"And if they don't?"

"If they don't," said Namdeo, "then there will certainly be civil war."

* * *

About 10 days ago, a friend in Mumbai asked me if I had heard that a million Dalits would enter Delhi on the weekend of November 4, for mass conversion to Buddhism. They were likely to be violently opposed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. This, if true, was a big story, but I was puzzled that nobody else I knew in town had heard of it. "I'll put you on to a man who'll convince you," said my friend. "He's one of the leaders."

That evening I sat in a comfortable flat in a remote Mumbai suburb and talked to Praveen Nikhade. He is a customs officer and treads the plateau of middle-class life without too much apparent difficulty. "On October 14, 1956," he said, "when Babasaheb Ambedkar made the first mass conversions to Buddhism, my parents were converted. So I was born a Buddhist. We live in reasonable comfort and I have never had to suffer what my parents did. They went through hell when they were young." He has a gentle, thoughtful face and I was glad to see that his acquaintance with hell so far seemed limited.

But in his quietly passionate way he was obsessive about the rally. "In Delhi you will meet Mr. Ram Raj and the other leaders." I said I would look forward to that, but would I also find a million Dalits on the Ramlila grounds? Why did nobody in Delhi or Mumbai seem to have heard any more than rumours of the rally? He replied that the media was controlled by the Government and by people of high caste. They had been prevented from publishing any reports. The Dalit organisations had spread news of the rally to their own people, but the VHP had launched terror campaigns to keep Dalits out of Delhi on November 4.

B.R. Ambedkar ... he began the conversion to Buddhism as a means of giving Dalits their self-respect.

He finally downloaded to my computer a massive file of e-mails written by the VHP and the Dalit organisations to each other, and to the world at large. The Dalits started to send spokesmen out to announce and publicise the rally from April 14 onward, which surely offered the media enough time to know about it. The e-mail correspondence seems to have started in early October and clearly many had heard of the event by then. One writer from the VHP feels that doubtless the Dalai Lama is involved. Another says that the Jews may be mixed up in it. Christians and Muslims are also blamed, and the Dalit leaders are asked to be reasonable.

At the end of this voluminous file, Ram Raj sends an e-mail urging all Dalits who are coming to the rally to book their train and bus tickets early, and not to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to coerce them.

Next day, I caught my flight to Delhi.

* * *

I was supposed to call on Nikhade at a Delhi address, early, before the rally started. I had forgotten how very crooked the taxi drivers of the capital are. Twenty minutes from my hotel, mine opened the door and demanded Rs. 300. Only the intervention of my hosts rescued me from this rank fraud. All the Dalit leaders were there, including Nikhade's father. They all looked haggard and sleepless, and Praveen Nikhade said, "The day has started badly. Today the Government told us that we are forbidden to use the Ramlila grounds."

"We have to go to another, smaller ground," said someone else. "They say if we use the Ramlila, there will be bloodshed by evening." Praveen remarked, "All bad things come at the same time."

He showed me some letters. One had been sent in August by the Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar to the Home Ministry about the wife of another leader Sunil Shah. Shah is a Protestant pastor and has settled down with his wife, an American, and their three children in the Yavatamal district of Maharashtra. Mrs. Shah, who cannot speak to the local people in the Yavatamal dialect or any other Indian language, has been accused of converting local people to Christianity and issued with a deportation notice. The other letter, received that day, was a refusal from the Home Ministry to reconsider Mrs. Shah's case.

These leaders, I noticed, all seemed to operate as one. All the others suffered the private grief of a colleague; but there were public issues involved too, and I asked a question. "Oh no," they assured me. "Of course the rally will take place." Two photographers, friends of mine, Madhu Kapparath and Santosh Verma, had now turned up. Madhu had a car, and Santosh and I shared it to drive to the rally. It was getting to be hot; small white shapes, clouds, floated in the blue sky, while others eddied down the roads around the ground. These latter were the first Dalits to arrive.

They continued to trickle in under the coppery sun. The photographers slowly unloaded their equipment, glanced round for vantage points. The Dalit leaders went on to a dais and the flow of followers into the arena thickened. It was possible to realise that a very large number of people had arrived and from the pressure that propelled them forward, more were coming behind them. A sound of Buddhist chants now rose from a stand near the dais. We glimpsed the orange robes and shaven heads of the monks. Santosh and Madhu went towards them for pictures. Praveen Nikhade helped me through the densely packed flesh around, slippery and slick with sweat as though with oil.

Most of these people were North Indians, but I glimpsed a Syrian bishop in full regalia: not wise in this weather. He sank down on the steps of the dais, pulled his robes up to his knees and fanned his white-bearded face with his hand. It was now hard to hear above the noise, but I understood him to say that he had also come to make some conversions. Elsewhere in the crowd, I met a man with a slim girl, who was weeping. She was well dressed. He wore a blue suit. "I am from the State Bank of India," he informed me. "She is crying because <147,1,0>she's happy. She wants to be transferred closer to her mother. If you're a Dalit it's not so easy. But after today they've promised her a transfer." The girl sobbed on.

Madhu climbed down through the crowd. "I heard something interesting," he said. "It seems the police are turning back lorries at the borders. Want to check? I've got all the pictures I need. They're starting the conversions and some guy is shaving Ram Raj's head. But I think we should check out the buses."

"Clever child," I said. "Let us go and do exactly that." As we drove away, he said idly, "You notice the police are starting to cordon off the street? I don't know what that means, but nothing much I guess, unless you want to go back in there. We've already been in that place for hours. Nikhade will get Santosh out."

The Ramlila grounds are a huge area with a number of landscape variations. A million Dalits would easily have fitted in. But there were no buses to carry them, and indeed no people except for a few policemen. Yes, they said, the lorries from the villages came early in the day, but they had orders to turn them back, and so they had. We met a distraught young villager. His wife and he had come from their village, and when the truck was stopped, got out to relieve themselves. By the time he came back, there had been a lot of pushing and shoving. His wife hadn't returned to the truck. Now it had left and he was trying to find her. She didn't know the city and he didn't know if she had any money. He was desperate.

I asked why they had wanted to become Buddhists.

"Because of things like this. If a Dalit girl goes to a police station for help, the first thing they would do is rape her. They might not, if she was a Buddhist."

We drove back silently towards the Dalit headquarters. "The Hindutva people played it very well today, didn't you think, Dom saheb?" Madhu said. "If the VHP had gone into the Ramlila there really would have been bloodshed. So first they took the publicity away by telling the media that this was a minor matter. Then they took the Ramlila away. Then they turned back the trucks and took a lot of the people away. So the public got what it wanted: it didn't want to watch Hindus converted. It might not want these kinds of Hindus, but it doesn't want any other religions to take them away. And there was no violence, which would look bad, and our poor friends the Dalits got perhaps 60 or 70,000 converts."

"After waiting three and a half thousand years, that seems very sad."

"We'll have to comfort them when we see them, Dom saheb. But Praveen said a very intelligent thing. He said it was only since Ambedkar appeared that they knew what hope was. Hope is a basis on which you can make demands."

Four years earlier I asked Namdeo Dhasal what would happen if the Dalits started to make demands, and thoses demands were refused. He replied, "Civil war." Here the Government had once more shown its great ability to scheme its way out of situations. But I still feel that this episode at Delhi will be a signpost to the future of India, and one would be unwise to forget it.

Dom Moraes first book of poems won the Hawthornden Prize in 1958. He has since then published several collections of poems and 23 books of prose which include biographies, travelogues and collections of reportage.

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