New Ethics for a Global World
Putting People First
by Felix Sugirtharaj
Association for the Rural Poor (ARP)
(This article was presented at the second International
Consultation on Minority Issues and Mission Strategies, October 1994, Kyoto, Japan.)
The year 1993 was celebrated as the International Year of Indigenous
People. Various indigenous groups around the world started talking about
self-determination, stating the need to achieve autonomy over their own lives, declaring
an imperative to preserve their own culture, tradition, religion, land, environment, etc.,
before they are lost and damaged irreparably.
In India, the dalits, who are more than 16 percent of the
total population of 900 million, are making a deliberate effort to recover a sense of
identity and purpose all over the country. The return to dalitness, wherever it
occurs, shows a deep commitment to dalit spirituality, a renewed relationship to
the Earth and its resources and a political will to preserve their capacity of
self-governance based on community economics within the system of a subsistence economy.
The dalits or untouchables or outcastes, who are outside the
scope of the Hindu caste hierarchy, are named as avarnas (not part of the caste),
panchamas (fifth caste), chandalas (a cursed lot) or harijans
(Gandhi) and Protestant Hindus (Ambedkar), etc. The term "dalits" was
used by a Marathi scavenger poet about 70 years ago to emphasize the sweltering oppression
of the ancient people who had been socially ostracized, culturally subjugated and
economically enslaved. Servitude is innate in the gods of the dalits: suffering
and serving is the supreme virtue of dalit gods. They had always been subjugated
to be ruled and not to rule. To speak of a servant god is to identify truly with a dalit
deity. To quote Rig Veda X, 90:11-12: "The Brahmin was his mouth; his two arms were
made the `rajanya' (warrior); his two thighs were the Vaisya (the trader and the
agriculturists); and his feet the `Sudra' (a servile) was born. The dalit, or the
untouchable, is cursed by sin (karma) and, therefore, has no place with the
providence of Brahma (The Creator God)."
The focus on "dalitness" is a clear critique of and
a force for fundamental change of systems and fetters of society which oppress and exploit
dalits. Casteism is not in the form of social stratification but a social problem
that could have been possibly invented for damaging the human race. Rajashekar Shetty, a dalit
journalist, says "untouchability" is the most naked form of racial
discrimination before which apartheid pales into insignificance.
The religious quest of the dalits has always favored cults and
religions which propagated egalitarian, pantheistic ideas and practices that attracted dalits
and made them undertake a theology of counterculture with different symbols, rituals,
dances, drumbeating and rhythms. The dalits advocated the moral human being who
was waged to fight against dominant modes of production; and when Buddha came with the new
faith where existed liberation from the bondage of all forms of slavery, the dalits
embraced it in large numbers. Therefore, the self-assertion of dalits is to
convert their concrete life experiences, struggles, conflicts and contradictions,
rejections and failures, history and culture into a faith to live by and to act on.
In pre-Aryan times, the "Adi Dravidas" - the dalits
or the ancient people - had worshiped the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers and
mountains, the trees and the Earth as gods and goddesses. The mountains and forests
remained as myths, legends and taboos and strengthened the dalits' belief system.
Anything that grew out of the earth was life and was tremendously conserved, and anything
that grew out of that earth was respected as a living source. People always feared that
overexploitation of Mother Earth would lead to catastrophes. Samantha, an Indian
anthropologist, points out that the consistent use of religion [Hinduism] against the dalits
to issue sanctions and sanctification ultimately alienated dalit forms of
worship. Their cult gods, liberation songs and fertility dances systematically prevented
the most courageous people not to become "angry people." Their heroes and
martyrs, who symbolized "dalit" liberation struggles against all forms
of economic exploitation, had been wiped out by the brutal forces of slavery and
discrimination. The caste system was not merely a dossier of labor, but it stepped into
occupation mobility that already existed. The division of labor was accompanied by the
unnatural division of laborers.
By not allowing the mobility of labor between occupations and capital
and entrepreneurship access to caste groups, the caste system created segregation in each
of these markets. Far from promoting open competition, it led to imperfection and a
monopolistic market situation of both the labor and capital markets. Labor and capital did
not flow from one occupation to another even if the wage rate and rate of return on
investment were higher in the alternate occupations. This brought a high level of
inefficiency in resource allocation. Thus, the division of occupation was not based on
individual choice but on the dogma of predestination. Individual preference had no place
in it. What is worse is that there are many occupations in India which are regarded as
degrading by the Hindu religion and provoke those who are engaged in them to aversion.
"What efficiency can there be in a system under which neither human hearts nor their
minds are in their work," asked Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
As an economic organization, caste is a harmful institution, inasmuch
as it involves the subordination of human beings' natural process and inclination to the
exigencies of social rules. The additional mischief it does is to disassociate
intelligence from work and creates contempt of physical labor. A Brahmin who is permitted
to cultivate his intellect is not permitted to labor; indeed, he is taught to look down
upon labor. Thus, dalits lost all rights to property and were prohibited from
producing what they really required in order to survive by themselves. They could not use
their labor to establish between themselves a sustained development paradigm using their
own traditional knowledge and skills in agriculture. It is, indeed, a reality that 90
percent of the labor force in the agricultural sector comes from the dalits and
tribals who are landless and marginalized. Even Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, sought a
change of heart in the sphere of caste abolition rather than confrontationist politics. He
paid no attention to the formation of "propertylessness" as the cause of
Some changes had occurred in the rigid economic order of the caste
system during the British period, but the East India Co. brought more rigid land
acquisition laws and collected taxes from all regularized land through the rich peasant
class (upper castes) and, thereby, alienated the dalits from the small holdings.
The major change in the legal and moral framework came after independence and the
acceptance of the new Constitution, but the old caste conventions have not changed by
legal measures alone. The Hindu economic and social order has been part of life, and
socio-economic forces underneath have not changed. The dalits cannot afford even
the basic needs required for bare survival. The problem is not non-availability but
Therefore, in evolving an appropriate policy, we, as dalits,
have to take into account two factors: multiple deprivations suffered by some of the
collectivities and a hierarchy of factors contributing to deprivation. To prescribe a
package of development perspectives should focus from specific core values and from the
experiences of dalit practitioners who have lived a shameful life of deprivation
in spite of their rich cultural heritage. Now the question is, How will these people build
their own community into a self-reliant conservation base?
The top-down religions, such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, have
never penetrated into the human psyche of the dalits and changed their pursuit of
a mystic faith of universal religion. Without access to their values towards cosmos,
environment and symbols of solidarity, they have been left with a profound sense of
abandonment and loss.
Non-formal education through study circles to give a new outlook to
life and to motivate the dalits to return to the roots of their traditional
rights and security is being conducted on a large scale all over two southern states,
raising the four sets of fundamental questions below.
What about your ancient religion? Is it pantheistic or monotheistic?
How was it possible to live a sustainable livelihood with the spiritual values of a
primitive religion? Would you like to use the same ethics to build your broken communities
with the firm determination of dalit consciousness and dalit power?
What about your ancestral land, which is your fundamental right and
privilege? Would you like to make claims for entitlement or reparations from the State? Do
you not believe that land accessibility would mean identity to one another and the
establishment of your own land development economics by controlling the environment and
conserving its resources for your future survival in order to build your dignity and
respect that was lost? Land rights are an inescapable part of a new hope and a new future
where each family will be allocated the size of land required for its needs, and what has
to be cultivated will be decided by the council of elders on the basis of needs during
different seasons and according to the proportion of the population, including the
elderly, children, women, the disabled and orphans.
What kind of consumption patterns within your subsistence
socio-economic structure would you like to retain or revive? What about the old barter
systems of community exchange? What about eliminating middle traders and upper caste
artisans and replacing them with your own men and women as community artisans?
What kind of self-governance would you like to retain in order to
regain your own "elder council model" and revive the political, judicial and
cultural values of civil society? How would you stop the infiltration of the free market
economy where cut-throat competition supersedes even nation-state penetration?
Apart from using the alternative media of people-based communication
techniques, such as songs, people's theater and folk cultural norms, the dalits
have to wage a sustained struggle through a people's movement strategy of non-violent
struggle for the establishment of social justice and the recovery of people's resources.
Every village must initiate a "sangam," the village council
representing all sections, to share common thoughts, feelings and decision making. The
different sangams from different villages of dalits will be knitted into
district, state and national federations to raise one voice of the Dalit Raj,
"Dalit Power" or "Dalit Rule," which is the dream of
every debased dalit in India.
While I am talking about dalit power for regaining control of
all resources that they have lost for nearly 5,000 years, the General Agreement on Trade
and Tariffs (GATT) setback is widely spoken about all around the country, blaming the
government for misleading the people about various aspects of the Uruguay Round agreement.
As a Latin American activist put it: "The Third World wept the night India
surrendered." This was done without cabinet approval. Even highly placed officials
still do not know why and when this happened. The questions are not just about
consequences but also about the capacity of governance. GATT is not only gaining ground on
the issue of seeds but the extent to which we surrender our agriculture and the plight of
our farmers (rich and poor) to international oligopolies. Patents will create exclusive
monopolies. A free trade treaty protecting monopolies is a contradiction in terms. India's
Patents Act, one of the finest in the world, has permitted 60 percent to 90 percent of
patents of monopolies to be owned by foreigners over the years.
It is immoral to make money by stealing the inventions of the dalits
since the product of physical labor and the product of intellectual labor are the same.
The dalits have in the course of centuries discovered new seeds, new food grains
and new methods of sustainable agriculture using indigenous resources of biomass, etc. Who
will protect their patent rights? Should their agricultural system be allowed to be
exploited in the future? Already extensive damage has been done to destroy the dalits'
biodiversified system of food production by the dominant caste in the name of the
mainstream development model. Now GATT and the transnational corporations (TNCs) will have
unrestricted freedom to penetrate our local markets and destroy the fabric of fair trade
which is need-based but most viable in terms of community economics. Let not these
monsters be more devilish than the caste lords who devoured half of our knowledge, skills
and experiments on land and its resources and made us "no people," says one dalit
As dalits, we were never nomadic. We never wandered like
Aramaeans. We did not go behind cattle. We all had land to live upon, distributed by one
of our elders according to each family's needs. We are basically farmers, knowing how to
retain soil fertility, when to grow what and how to conserve food to meet the needs of the
family and the community. Why should we be used as a cheap labor force either in our own
country or abroad? If Indian labor is cheaper than that of the West, let the intellectuals
who are fashioned for foreign markets go out of our country. Let not our dalits,
whatever the pressure applied by the United States and Europe to secure a labor link,
drain our precious human resource since the dalits are the backbone of Indian
Ambedkar, during his struggle, realized that the Statehood of the Dalits
expressed a concept of nationhood to establish true norms of democracy that required an
encounter with religious tradition, but he basically conceived emancipation as
self-emancipation. Today, however, we talk about the assertion of the deprived, both at
the individual and collective levels, calling forth a reorganization of social, economic
and political relations that can break the ties of dependency and servitude so as to help
the dalits to self-critically regroup themselves to have a holistic view of human
needs that embraces the spiritual, cultural and ecological dimensions of the dalits'
experience during thousands of years. The time has come for other middle and upper castes
in India to realize a sustainable relationship between the dalits' labor (a human
economic force) and the natural ecology, still existing, that has to be established on
humanistic grounds in order to overcome relative deprivation and social mobilization.
Historians and anthropologists who support the dominant view of
development always tend to interpret the dalits' reality by stating that the dalits
lived so long by being enslaved in the same dominant cultural tradition of the upper
castes and, thus, will not change their lifestyles overnight and adopt the new dalit
consciousness of an alternative theory of development. The alternative countercultural
model that we propose though will evolve new symbols and idioms with larger societal
objectives, leading to a movement of dalits paving a new dimension of human
experience which has never been experienced by the so-called dominant classes or castes.
The related sense of social and spiritual union will link both the past and present
historical realities and will help our country to reach a new level of social,
intellectual and spiritual advancement far beyond the reach of previous generations. The dalits
who have been practicing a communal citizenship of sharing, suffering, serving and
conserving, which is based on their Mother Earth ideology, will transfer the values of
indigenous wisdom to the enrichment of the cultures of the world if they are given the
opportunity to do so. The dalits have been the backbone of Indian agriculture for
centuries, and therefore, a strategy based on marginalized people's rights will enlarge
people's capabilities in terms of skills, productivity and inventiveness. "Save To
Spend and Spend To Save" should be everyone's motto in the alternative development