Atrocitynews Special: Interviewing Bhagwan Das – Part I


“It is good to break and bad to continue with a tradition that has subjugated the Dalits”, tells  Bhagwan Das  to Vidya Bhushan Rawat. Mr Bhagwan Das is one of the most reputed scholar on Ambedkarism and the issue of Human Rights of Scheduled Castes. Widely traveled, Mr Bhagwan Das has spoken at various national & international platforms on the conditions of Dalits in India and what is the best way of their emancipation. In freewheeling conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, he speak of the state of Dalit movement as well as political parties in India.

Please tell us about your childhood? Being son of a sweeper, what hurdles and obstacles you faced with and how did your father react to them.

My childhood was different. My father came from well off family. After the death of his father, differences occurred in the family and he came to live near Simla. He was not educated, as he could not go to school. My father worked as a sweeper in the post office. He had a house of his own and saved money regularly. He loved reading and had deep interest in Ayurveda. He took special care to educate my sister and me. A Maulvi was kept to teach us. So it was different unlike other untouchable families of time where education was not considered important. He was financially well off and spend most of the time with his books.

In my native village untouchability was practiced in turning on the taps. The barbar did not cut my hair; we could not enter a temple. We had to ask Hindu boys to give us water whenever we had to drink it but since my family was well off, we did not face any difficulty in this regard.

How did you come in touch with Dr Ambedkar?

Dr Ambedkar, then a labor minister visited Simla. I had read about Ambedkar particularly reading Urdu newspapers. He was our harbinger of Hope. We did not anything about him except all anti Ambedkar campaign in Congress papers was the same as in Hindu papers. The only exception I found Ambedkar in Hindi newspapers was Kranti by Sant Ram BA.of Jaat Paat Todak Mandal.

I went to meet him for the first time as I waited for him for three hours because I was first a boy, all the people holding important position came and went away, At 7 pm I was taken inside his house. He looked at my face. I did not go to ask for anything from him but he said ‘ What do you want?’ ” I do not want anything, as I was already employed, I said. I told him about my family and about my applications. In 15 days, I got a letter of appointment. This time my boss was a Muslim. It was surprising that I found that most of the Muslims were terribly against me. Some of the Hindus were very helpful and progressive. Some of them were South Indian Brahmins and I found them quite progressive but Matlab Hussain, my immediate boss, had some complaint against me as I was overburdened with my work. I used to work till 7.30 pm. Everybody tried to exploit me. I left that job and joined Indian Air Force. I did not want to join army but navy appealed to me.

I was again selected for further training to UK but I had to deposit Rs 5000/- which I could not do that and left Air Force in 1946 and went back to my family in Simla. There I was working with Scheduled Caste Federation and I came across very progressive people belonging to the communist parties, and one very progressive in the party was Kameshwar pandit. There we read a lot of Marxist literature and also learnt about Chinese experiment. I read about Mao Se Tung but who appealed to me was Le Su Tse.

We used to hold study circle meeting. I was staying at Seva Nagar, in Delhi. It was a peon’s house where I stayed for two years, as I could not afford a better one. Then I shifted to Lodi Colony with a friend who was an ex communist. He was thrown out of the party. He had been a whole timer. He was very fond of reading, not just Marxist literature but general reading. Later, I was allotted house in Sarojini Nagar.

Here, I came in touch with Mr Shiv Dayal Singh Chaursia, a backward caste person and a few others who were working with him in the movement. I used to spend out time in Gandhi Peace Library. Chaurasia wrote a note of dissent in the backward classes commission. He took me to show the note of dissent, which was actually drafted by me to Dr Ambedkar. Dr Ambedkar did not have a high opinion about that note. He asked to keep the note for his comment but started putting questions about me. He had forgotten that he had met me earlier. I spoke most of the time in English and offered to work for him. It was three days in a week to which he agreed. Some times, he wanted to information/abstract about certain books for which I used to go to Library. But after the work was over, I used to sit with Dr Ambedkar for 10 minutes and put my questions.

What would you discuss with Dr Ambedkar? What would he say to the issue of such as conversion as he was promoting a particular idea of embracing Buddhism? What actually was your position on it? Why should not we convert to any other faith of our choice? Unfortunately, caste system goes along with you even after conversion? What choices do we have to save us from the oppression and exploitation of caste system?

One of the questions was on Buddhism as he was always asking us to embrace Buddhism. I asked that I could not enter a Buddha Vihar. How do you say Buddhism is better than any other religion? I have been to Burma, seen Tibetan Buddhism but have not come anything worthwhile. Study is different but as long as social practice is concern, I do not find anything different in it.” Ambedkar replied, ‘all you said might be right whether I studied Buddhism or not. Now onwards it would not happen again. Since I studied a lot books on Buddhism and since I studied books on religion particularly Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikkhism, Kadianis etc, but Marxism and Buddhism attracted me the most. About Sikhism, I have a very poor opinion. I came close to them because I was teaching two children belonging to them. One of the students father was a doctor, who used to invite me to Gurudwara. I used to go there. Then there was one festival on which they had a langer (community meal) in the Gurudwara. One man asked the doctor; ‘you are making us eat with the Churas and Chamars.’   It was a shocking experience for me in the Gurudwara.  After it I studied Sikhism and found that they had 10 Gurus, all belonging to the Khatri caste, none married outside their own parental castes and the fourth guru included teaching of Ravidas, Kabir and others in the Guru Granth Sahib but in practice Sikhism is no different from Hinduism. If a convert comes from Carpenter community, he is a Ramgarhia, if is he a convert from scavenger then he is a Majhabi, if he is a convert from liquor seller then is an Ahaluwalia. Where is the caste system gone? If goes from the front door and comes back from windows. They never started a movement to condemn caste system. After that incident, I never went to a Gurudwara.

I was still critical of Buddhism but felt that if untouchable continue to follow the religion they have been following then there was no chance of their ever unifying. If Hinduism is preaching untouchability against their castes, these castes themselves practice untouchabiliity among themselves. Now for instance, if you go to a Chamar, he looks down upon sweeper and if you go to a sweeper, especially in north India to those who calls themselves as Balmikis, they will never do anything with Helas, doms and Mehtar. Because Valmiki movement started in 1930s and mainly started by Arya Samajis because they were converting to Christianity. One person Tetar was asking the Christians to convert them but the upper caste priests were not ready to convert them for the fear of losing the other people from the church.

Upper castes converted to Christianity after 1857. There were Muslims, Hindus who became Christians when the missionaries started converting the untouchables. They too had started going to church but the Holy Communion was a problem. The upper castes started their prayer meeting in the morning and the untouchables were told to conduct their church meetings in the afternoon. So Kashmir gate church had two services, one in the morning and other in the evening for untouchables.

I also found that people who were converting to Buddhism was just for the namesake. It is unique to India that even after leaving your religion and embracing the other religion they stick to their castes. You cannot get rid of your caste. Unfortunately, a majority of those converted to embrace Buddhism were Mahars hence Mangs were looked down upon by the Mahars as they did not bothered about Chambhars.

What were your impressions about Baba Saheb Ambedkar when you first met him?

My father used to talk proudly about him. The thing which impressed me very much when I first met him was his love for learning and second his character which was immaculately clean, his worst enemies could not charge him on this front and third his commitment to the cause of untouchables. But when I was working with him in the labor ministry, I found his involvement in developing this country. He sent six Scheduled Castes to UK who later held important positions in the central ministry. Besides the SCs, he was interested in the industrialization of the country after the British left.

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