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Date: Thu, 8 Jun 2000 19:25:35 -0400
From: Art McGee <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] An Afro-Dalit Story
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Badges of Color: An Afro-Dalit Story
By Vijay Prashad <firstname.lastname@example.org>,
Z Magazine, March 2000
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
"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 untouchability. 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 Deliege 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
The question of political linkages is of interest to the
Black Radical Congress' International Commission/Caucus
(June 22-25, 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).
Copyright (c) 2000 Z Magazine.
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