Becoming Society


In this interview, central secretariat member of the Dalit Human Rights Movement, Kerala, Seleena Prakkanam talks about struggles and leadership and caste issues.


The number of women entering higher education is growing in Kerala. What were your experiences of higher education?
It is true that more women are entering higher education; it is also true that more and more poor dalit women are aspiring to enter college. In general all parents – of all social groups, all
over the world perhaps – desire to educate their children well. Some 15 years ago, a child passing even the 10th standard exam in a dalit family was an occasion to celebrate. The family would want to send this child to college but would have no clue about choosing an appropriate stream, so the child would just accept whatever stream that was offered. Then would come the major challenge: lacking adequate language skills and having to sit in a classroom with others fl uent in English. Teachers would pay no attention to you, either, and after a time, all you would want to do is run out for your life. It is hard to describe those feelings! This is not just my story – it is the story of many, many dalit girls who eagerly enter higher education but then leave it in grief.


Do you think this affects their desire and ability to enter public life?
Of course it does. Being dalit, you are always treated as second-class, and on top of that, there are these inadequacies. And perhaps more important is how education is generally u nderstood. People treat it as a mere means to a job. Study to get a job, poor parents tell their children, don’t pay attention to anything else. Just get a job, some job, stand on your own two feet. The country needs much more, though. It needs well-educated citizens. Instead, education here serves to insert people into different status-levels. It is no surprise that dalit girls hesitate to enter public forums boldly. As school students, many of them have good abilities in their chosen subjects – but this confidence melts and disappears when language becomes a barrier. That drains their power.


You entered public life as a Kudumbashree leader. What are your reflections on that experience?
First of all, you need to see that women become leaders in Kudumbshree not because they desire to be so, especially dalit women. Women take up such responsibilities because all kinds of welfare benefi ts are received through that network of SHGs – and this welfare is only temporary relief, remember, it does not make you self-reliant. Dalit women become leaders only because the government has made it mandatory through rules. And in crucial occasions such as internal elections, they step aside because it is women with greater social and political i nfl uence who are invited to contest – they win, and this is p rojected as “merit”. It is not as if dalit women cannot create their own base of supporters, but they are often plunged into a sense of inferiority. Here too, education is important. In its workings too, often, dalit women have to function as a “front” so that others can claim benefi ts. I still remember how we distributed goats to members in our group – the rule was that this benefi t was limited to dalits who possessed above 25 cents of land. Which dalit would have that kind of land? We are a people who have no place to bury our dead; our people have had to dig up the ground in their kitchen for burial! So the non-dalits got all the benefits. The applications were sent in dalit women’s names, we also attended the training, but the goats went to the non-dalit, landed women! Even recently, a group I know well split in two, into dalit and non-dalit because there was gross injustice in the way loans were distributed! There are many number of instances – dalits are unable to make use of the benefi ts simply because they lack the necessary r esources. So the government’s statistics would tell you a w onderful story of welfare benefi ts gushing towards the dalits but the ones who are becoming truly self-reliant in that overfl ow are certainly not dalit.


Did you enter the Chengara land struggle out of disillusionment with this sort of development work?
I was active in Kudumbashree when I left for the movement – but not entirely because of it. From childhood I have always felt deeply for my people, never have I wanted to follow the ways of those who were above us. As I child I could see, we did the hardest, most taxing work. Such hard work, the body itself became worn and weak. Our mothers slaved in other people’s kitchens. And we had nothing, others seemed to have everything. They commanded, made us work, and my people took orders. True, it was for wages, but I could not see anything more than slavery there. All they lacked was the whip. This could not be remedied by just raising wages, I began to feel. The problem was fundamental: they commanded us, as a group. In my village – it is in a rubber-growing area – the tappers are mostly dalit. My father was one himself. They work from 3 am every day…the farmer turns up only when the rubber sheets are ready. Everything worth owning was in their hands. But to say that I joined the Chengara land struggle just b ecause I loved my people is false – I went there because I was landless and knew well that I may not be able to buy land for myself. It was the hope that I can win the land through struggle that led me there.

You were one of the most well-known faces of the Chengara land struggle. Why did you leave?
I must say that I was a bit reluctant to go at fi rst; but after my f ather persuaded me to go there, I was convinced that this was my struggle. I attended several talks at Chengara that educated us about the struggle and why it was our right; besides, it was the fi rst time ever that I saw all my people together, collectively, in one place. It was a great inspiration; people like me, all of us together, fi ghting for our rights. Above all, I was convinced: if people who suffered the same pains got together that pain subsides. Until then, I had looked to others for a solution to our problems – the government included – but now I changed. I also travelled in dalit colonies in many districts, i nviting people there to join our struggle and that was great education. For till then I had not seen people who shared our plight outside my district. But then, soon, I also had questions. For instance, will our problems end if we receive land? Even if we receive it, do we have the abilities to make sure that we will still possess it after two generations? The Chengara land struggle could provide no real answers to these. Besides I had questions about myself: I am not a Hindu, therefore I have no caste, and I am not a Christian or a Muslim – then who am I? Many participants in the land struggle said they were not of the Hindu fold but for many other purposes, they possessed certifi cates that called them Hindu. I did not receive a satisfactory answer to this question either. It appeared to me that it was not enough that people deprived of assets had gotten together to wrest them from the government. If we are thus united, to just meet a common need, that won’t endure. If people join together in struggle just because their individual needs coincided, they are bound to part soon, irrespective of whether those needs are met or not, they will part for sure! Indeed, it has been hard to get together the people who have received land now. It was around the time I began to doubt thus that I heard of the witch-hunt against the DHRM and decided to fi nd out about it. I felt that it provided some answers to my questions and so I joined it.


You were a very young woman when you entered public life and became a leader. What were your experiences then?
I entered public life when I was 24 years old and was in the land struggle at 27. I have seen a lot of patriarchal hubris from then to now. But never have I let it push me back. Leadership consists of people in power, they are obliged to help me realise my goals, but these goals are mine, and realising them is my right. This fi rm belief has driven me to speak up fi rmly and loudly whenever necessary and also study things carefully, till the last detail. So I have always displayed a kind of courage-on-the-brink, but that came out of my fi rm belief that my d emands have always been just. I have therefore not been afraid to take the lead because I was convinced of the rightness of the decision. And even when I agree with someone, I make it a point to state clearly why I agree, so that nothing is taken for granted. This has brought me many bitter experiences, but also approbation – even those who criticised me have admitted that my presence was an important strength.


Why were you attracted to the DHRM?
From the very name, it upheld a different promise. Other dalit organisations in Kerala are named Mahasabha, or Service S ociety, and so on. Instead, the mention of human rights in the organisation’s name, I thought, was a way of highlighting d irectly the denial of these fundamental rights to dalits here – it connected with all people oppressed by elites in the world. I do believe it highlights the dehumanisation of dalits in Kerala.Secondly, I found that the DHRM was creating a “society of activists” (pravartakarutetaaya samooham) committed to working with dalit people. Society of activists? How does that differ from the cadre system in political parties? Since the 1950s, all community organisations in Kerala are divided into masses and leaders. The leaders represent the masses but the masses cannot really connect with them. Because of this, the leaders can never really generate a new society from and of the masses, however progressive their talk may be. They spawn several kinds of elites – intellectuals, writers, leading activists – but no new society from the masses they address. And as far as dalits are concerned, being the cadre of political parties is the same as being confi ned to providing physical strength for a period of time – being the striking force – it has no intellectual content at all and are at the very bottom of the organisation. The “society of activists” we imagine is different: it consists of activists who are embedded in their local social contexts, they are neither above nor below. These activists are people who have transformed themselves, gained new identities, and seek to spread that transformation to the people around them, thus slowly extending a new society among the masses. Tell us more about these new selves and identities. We believe that in India, only the political authority of the kshatriyas was redistributed with democracy – the brahminical social authority remains undivided. The move away from Hinduism is necessitated by this continuing reality. In order to create a truly enduring self, one has to move away from this debilitating legacy – we need to fi nd another, more enabling foundation. Native Buddhism is that foundation. Indeed, in Kerala we represent the Navoddhanam, the Renaissance, because we seek to revive the historical legacy of Buddhism in Kerala which was violently erased by brahminism – that is, we believe that even Sree Narayana Guru Devan and his contemporaries achieved only Naveekaranam – renewal. Only on such a basis can we construct a new self and new identity that will be free of sub-caste distinctions. So we demand caste certificates that identify us as Native Buddhist. Renewalism is only like giving the old house a new coat of paint. But it is interesting; some felt that we were deifying leaders like Baba (Ambedkar) and Yajamanan (Ayyankali) – because we use these names to refer to them. Now, we don’t accept even the Buddha as god, do you think we will deify mortal leaders? The name Yajamanan was given to Ayyankali by his people, the people who he led, what is wrong in continuing that usage? These people don’t mind when the names given to him by the Renewalists – mahatma or sreemant are used!


But won’t that lead to loss of reservations? Are you against reservations?
No, we are not. But we do not believe that our political energies must be majorly focused around the question of reservations. As individuals, we do not want them. This is because the order of caste must be abandoned thoroughly. It does not unitethe dalits, but rather accentuates the struggles between subcastes and other hierarchies. Besides, as it operates now, reservations help to perpetuate benefi ts within the same family for generations. Reservations would have been benefi cial had they been utilised differently. For instance, if we had a system by which a family which benefitted from reservations would pass on those benefi ts to other deserving families the next time – a rotating system – things may have been different. But now it works to the benefit of particular family circles. In any case, we work with the large majority of dalits for who reservations are too far a prospect – some 70 lakh people. We are not against reservations – but our horizons are much wider than that.


Tell us about your efforts in education.
There has been some talk that we are against modern education and schooling. This is totally untrue for we do believe that besides social power, we also need to claim political power through asserting citizenship. This can be done only through modern education. However we do feel that in schools, the teaching of languages and history is totally inadequate. So we have begun to establish a homeschooling system by which children are taught in groups at home – we especially want to make them strong in English by introducing the language through everyday objects. Now some 280 children are attending the home school and those of us who could not complete school are joining them.


What difference does DHRM make for women?
We are trying to bring about Renaissance – and the equality between women and men is part of the legacy we want to draw upon. Before the coming of the Aryans, women were not enslaved. It was within brahminism that they were slaves. Even under brahminical slavery, dalit women were not really subordinate to men because they were equally subject to dehumanising labour. But brahminical ideas defi nitely inform dalit family life now and so girls face discrimination and wives, people believe, must submit to husbands. Marriage rituals also were brahminised. If they were equal, then the bride would have tied tali on the groom too in marriage – not like now, when the groom ties it on the bride alone. This is plain foolishness.
When we know well that humanity cannot survive without both, why put one above the other? I have been in the leadership, and there is no male-female distinction – people with leadership qualities lead. Also, young people are not discriminated against. In my earlier experience of leading, even as I took the lead and fought off male control, there was at the back of my mind a tiny grain of thought about my female nature…that what I was doing was against it. But that’s gone now. I feel as though I am fully human. DHRM activists address each other as “saar” (sir) and “teacher”. Yes, that is the way we usually refer respectfully to schoolteachers, male and female, isn’t it? We do it because it helps us to maintain mutual respect, and also it reminds us that we have something to learn from everyone, however young she or he may be.


What is the DHRM’s understanding of the family?
Our aim is to become a society, undivided by sub-castes and unsullied by brahminical norms. Placing too much emphasis on the family and its privacy does not help this. We understand that children belong not just to their parents but to the society we dream of and that their abilities must benefi t others too. Seen this way, it is clear that feelings of partiality towards one’s own offspring are a hindrance. The family as it exists now is constructed of narrowlyconceived roles. The father is valued if he works as the provider, the mother, if she works as the cook and housekeeper, and the children, if they obey the parents unconditionally. The result of this is that when the father or mother can no longer perform these roles, or the children grow out of their obligation to obey, they turn against each other or abandon each other. We need to re-conceive the family from its very foundations. Children are not just the responsibility of the parents, but of the new society itself, and so the care of children must be a collective responsibility. But because they belong to society and not just to parents, they have a special duty to make sure that they grow up as full human beings. Parents must be respected and cared for by children not because they perform certain roles but because they are givers of life to the children. These b ecome sacred duties to be performed. So when our activists help men in colonies to get out of alcoholism, they are also i nstructed in these different family values and return home with a culture of non-violence. So many times, we have seen men starting to actually talk with women and children at home, and the latter being thoroughly wonderstruck at the transformation! So it was not a coincidence that our strongest source of support was the women in the colonies, when we faced false accusations from the police and the brahminical mainstream media.3 In fact the ganging up of political parties against the DHRM was precisely in reaction to the success of our antialcoholism work in these colonies. Because we believe in a different family, there are no dowry payments in marriage – marriage is not the common vivaham, but cheral (merging, joining) – not just two individuals but also of sub-castes. All our celebrations, including weddings, are communal, family unions. We cook, eat, sing, and play instruments together in collective expressions of joy. And above all, except for the essential private space and materials needed for normal life, we merge all our worldly assets – intellectual, spiritual, material. I and others have donated our assets to the commune – it will be owned by all DHRM activists equally, from Kasaragod to here. This too is different from the communist model – no member can eject another from ownership.


Tell us more about this commune.
People who become activists of the DHRM automatically become members of the commune and their children become heirs to this collective property. We do not insist that our activists should necessarily give their assets to the commune – it is entirely voluntary. We also advice people to join only after serious thought – and people who become activists are allowed to do so only after it is clear that they want to renounce the o rder of caste wholly. The commune, in one way of looking at it, is a response to our lack of assets which is being perpetuated despite many dalit struggles – we want to pool our r esources and make available productive resources in a collective way. We have already bought five acres of paddy land and will be farming it; we also have a plant nursery on 17 cent of land. Another way of looking at the commune is as part of our Renaissance, as a renewal of Kerala’s farming culture. The native Buddhist calendar indicates specifi c seasons and dates and marks out agricultural festivals. The Buddha who inspires us is not the Buddha of prayer, but the Buddha of practice. We intend to farm collectively. The pooled wealth is to be managed by a registered trust. Women and men of course have completely equal rights here and we aim at a food self-reliant society, where we produce what we eat. Perhaps it is these radical changes that inspire fear in the authorities. Is that why they strive so hard to depict you as monstrous?

Any uncompromising struggle against brahminism is likely to be rendered monstrous in this land! Our way is that of the Re naissance, of our true legacy, Buddhism – our Buddhism has nothing to do with Sri Lanka or Thailand or anywhere else. It is the Buddhism that was erased from Kerala that we are resurrecting – and its colour is black. The common dress that activists, men and women, wear in public are black, the colour of our spirituality. Yes, it is true that much of the propaganda against us highlighted our view of the family. But we do believe that we must begin the change from there. It is that change that allowed members of our growing society to open their eyes, to see that what we need is democracy and not the rule of caste. And it is when they raised their voices in the spirit of democracy that false charges, of murder and violence, were slapped on us and terrible violence was unleashed on us. The charges still remain unproved and we have survived the attacks. We have suffered waves and waves of attacks – after the physical attacks, the CPI(M) led others in spreading rumours about a certain mysterious “black man” robbing, mugging, raping!4 He was projected as a malevolent spirit even! From “terrorists” we became sorcerers!


It has been observed that the DHRM does not return v iolence in the same coin.
Yes, that is correct. But it is surely not a strategy. They all expect us to hit back with double the violence, at least lash back through the press. But we have refrained from doing so only because we do not believe in directing energy into unproductive channels. The dog barks, but the elephant strides on. Also, we do not believe in excessive reliance on mass media. Society is built not through propaganda but through transforming people. There is much talk of movements built rapidly through the media, but we need to ask, will they last? Also, such excessive dependence on the media is a symptom of a desire to spread quickly – that is not a healthy desire in a country as diverse as India. We have tried to bring to public attention only the horrendous violence unleashed against us; we have of course conducted several large public protests, but always to make ourselves visible, never to advance demands for material resources or welfare. It is invisibility that we have tried to fi ght through attracting public attention.


Lastly, about the controversy around upper-caste-born Jayan Cherian’s award-winning movie Papilio Buddha. The DHRM found itself dragged into the debate over the signifi cance of upper-caste-born people’s presence in dalit struggles. Yes, but we do not believe that liberation from caste will necessarily come only from dalits. We do not feel that the movie was anti-dalit or misrepresenting dalit reality. We are trying to wreck caste, not reaffi rm it. Jayan Cherian is not dalit-born, but can we deny him the potential to be human, the desire to shed caste and become human? An identity politics rooted in Buddhism cannot but give attention and support to serious rebellion against caste, no matter who initiates it. And as long as sub-caste divisions continue among us, who can say that someone being born dalit is all that one needs to engage in meaningful anti-caste politics?

- Courtesy Economic And Political Weekly



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