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 powerlessness.

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 non-affordability.

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.

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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 activist.

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 agriculture.

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 paradigm.