, by SOROOR AHMED
SOROOR AHMED examines a new area of unrest. He compares the present condition of Dalits and tribals with that prevailing during the British heyday. He opines that the exploiters have changed but there is little change in the nature of exploitation. H
In this Section
Imperialism means different things to different sets of people. When the Europeans arrived in Africa they faced little resistance and soon snatched almost the entire western and southern part of that continent from the native Black rulers. The Negroes were hunted down and massacred and millions of them were shifted to the new land of America to work as slaves. In countries like Congo, according to author Adam Hochschild, the Belgians, killed between one and 1.2 crore (10 to 12 million) people, double than those killed in the Nazi holocaust of Jews during the World War-II. Similar thing happened to original populations of North and South Americas, Australia and New Zealand. They were virtually exterminated. A large number of these people were used as guinea pigs by the surgeons and physicians of the West. Many died in the process. The original population of these continents never forgave the imperialists of the West.
However, when the same imperialists came to India they found people who were neither in the position to oppose or support them. They were not as dark-skinned as the Negroes of Africa, but occupied the bottom place in the Hindu caste-hierarchy. They were the Untouchables, the shudras. Gandhiji used to call them Harijans, but their leadership prefers to call them as Dalits. Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the tallest leader of the community and the architect of the Indian Constitution, defined Dalit as one who struggles (for the democratic rights).
In total contrast to what happened to the Blacks of Africa the advent of the British imperialism somewhat helped the Dalits. It would not be out of place to state that in the 19th century the British succeeded in occupying a large part of India with the help of these social outcasts. In the undivided British India they formed something between 15 and 20 per cent of the population. Today their percentage is even higher.
Among the Dalits, Mahars, the caste to which B R Ambedkar belonged, formed a huge chunk in the British army. Along with the Gurkhas and Sikhs they too played an important role in defeating the Mughal-led rebellion also called the First War of Independence 1857.
Mahars began their service with the British in the 1750s. Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on the Indian Army, discusses the importance of Mahars in the Bombay Army in his seminal work, The Indian Army: Contribution to the Development of a Nation. He writes: "Heavily recruited in the pre-mutiny years, the Mahars constituted a fifth to a quarter of the entire Bombay Army."
Though Shivaji also used their service the Mahars in 19th century were instrumental in the defeat of the Marathas at the hands of the British. Even after the Mutiny the presence of the Dalits in the army, especially the Mahars, was quite satisfactory. However, the Sepoys in North India, who revolted against the British rule also included upper caste Hindus from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
But when the entire country was subjugated and the British had no one to fear they in 1893 stopped recruiting Dalits in the army. They realized that the caste-factor can not be totally ignored. Later on also Dalits were appointed but their percentage was not as high as in the 19th century. Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, born in Mhow in Madhya Pradesh, also came from the family from which many people served in the army. He himself was the Military Secretary in the government of Baroda, yet faced all sorts of discrimination.
It is not that the Dalits supported British imperialism. They only felt that the western capitalism, to some extent, may be beneficial for smashing the feudal order and caste structure, which existed in India then and to much extent still exists now. Many other non-Dalit leaders, including Gandhiji, were in favour of Hindu caste system and found something good in it.
Several sociologists think that the advent of British helped the growth of Dalit and backward classes awakening. It also brought Brahmins and Dalits side-by-side in the army. However, this phenomenon did not bridge the social gap and tension between the two groups.
If the presence of British colonialism helped bring about some improvement in the status of the Dalits and even Backward Castes, there was another deprived lot which did not accept them. They were the tribes, especially the aboriginal ones of the central Indian plateau.
The historic struggle of Birsa Munda in Jharkhand in 1899-1900 is one such example. Sporadic rebellions by the Meenas and Gujjars of north and west India in 19th century also stand as testimony to this fact. The British declared these two as the criminal tribes. Strictly speaking, they were not like the original tribes of central Indian plateau. They owe their origin outside India and associate themselves with the Hindu caste-hierarchy.
The tribes of central Indian plateau like Ho, Gond, Santhals, Ho Oraon, Mundas etc unlike the Dalits – or even Meenas and Gujjars – are not a part of Hindu caste hierarchy. Therefore, unlike the Dalits they have their own life-style. Dalits had only the history of subjugation whereas the tribes are independent minded as they were in the past the rulers of the jungles.
It is interesting that while the tribes fought bravely against the British before surrendering to them, they were among the first to embrace the European Christianity. This happened in Africa too where both western colonialism and western religion made big inroads. In Africa, as was in central Indian plateau, the imperialists had an eye on the rich natural resources, which was stoutly resisted by Africans. Incidentally tribes of North-East embraced Christianity in much larger number than those of central India plateau.
In contrast Dalits had no big reason to fight the British nor were they in the position to do so. Dalits, especially of Maharashtra, in large numbers embraced Buddhism, the religion which had its origin in India. Ambedkar was the first to lead this mass conversion and this phenomenon is still going on in Maharashtra.
The advent of British imperialism affected another section of the society, and this is the Muslim artisans and craftsmen. They opposed the British stiffly just because the arrival of the western capitalism struck a fatal blow to their professions. Therefore, weavers (Ansaris) and craftsmen of North India were among those who were in the forefront in the First War of Independence in 1857.
But all these are history. Sixty years after the independence there is a different type of turmoil among Dalits, tribes and other weaker section of the society. The resentment is getting manifested in different ways. Like in 19th century some Dalits saw a ray of hope in the liberalization, globalisation and privatisation – that is the new-capitalism. They initially thought that the multi-national companies would prove better for them than the Indian capitalists, merchants and traders. But MNCs did not leave Dalits unaffected too.
The heartland of India, where Dalits and tribes form a sizeable majority and which is minerally the richest pocket of the country, is up in flames. Guns are booming in the hills and jungles of Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Andhra Pradesh etc. Farmers are committing suicide at the rate of 16,000 per annum and thousands of deprived people are facing starvation.
The ultra left movements, which started from Naxalbari township in Darjeeling district of north Bengal in late 1960s spread to the plains of West Bengal and later Bihar. In 1960s, 1970s and 1980s they were essentially peasant movements and led by the lower-middle class urban educated youths.
But that was in 20th century. In the 21st century post-liberalization era the whole struggle for the have-nots has undergone a sea change. It is now more directed against the neo-capitalists and the government machinery, which is supporting them. The economic blockade, the attack on goods train and truck carrying rich minerals are very symbolic. According to a survey done last year one-third of the 593 districts of India are under the control of the Maoists. Be it the 19th century capitalism or 21st century neo-capitalism everything is the same. The only difference is that then the British were present in the form of the rulers, today the real players seem to be invisible – sitting far away and getting their works done by the Indian rulers. The sufferers, more or less are the same people.