Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti and Chandra Bhan Prasad discuss the legacy of philosophy of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the status of Dalits in India and the importance of entrepreneurship. Prasad is an Indian journalist, political commentator and activist, an entrepreneur and founder of the ByDalits.com platform, an adviser to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the editor of Dalit Enterprise Magazine. He is also a winner of the Emergent Ventures grant for his work on Dalit capitalism and progress.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan and today my guest Chandra Bhan Prasad who is a political commentator and activist, the editor of Dalit Enterprise Magazine, an entrepreneur, the founder of the ByDalits.com platform, and adviser to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He is also a winner of the Emergent Ventures grant for his research on Dalit capitalism and progress.
I had a chance to speak with Chandra Bhan about his latest book “What is Ambedakarism?”. We also discuss role of capitalism in dalit progress, dalit entrepreneurship, reservations, his platform Bydalits.com, his intellectual journey and much more. For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Chandra Bhan, welcome to the show.
CHANDRA BHAN PRASAD: Thank you.
RAJAGOPALAN: In your last book, What is Ambedkarism?, you talk about one particular work written by Ambedkar. This is the Dalit Emancipation Manifesto of 1951, which you call the most important work ever written by Ambedkar. You also talk about how this has been missed by most Ambedkarites and scholars, and how this particular manifesto has not gotten its due or not been read enough. Can you talk a little bit about that?
PRASAD: In Ambedkar’s life, he wrote only one paper, his manifesto. That is headlined Scheduled Castes’ Emancipation—Draft Manifesto, where he says, “This is the scheme. This is how Dalit emancipation will take place.”
The way the Communist Manifesto is important to communists, the way Hind Swaraj is important to Gandhians, this document has the same importance. But editors of Ambedkar volumes have published this all-important document in the 17th volume.
Why should not this document have printed in first volume, second volume, third volume, fourth volume, fifth volume, sixth volume? Why? I am asking editors of the Ambedkar volumes because that is how our mind sets. If you start with Riddles in Hinduism, then we will start thinking of Ambedkar in a different way, in that way.
The other important event, a roundtable conference where he emerged as a rock star—that is also discussed in the 17th volume.
The greatest contribution of Dr. Ambedkar is his petition to the then governor general, Grievances of the Scheduled Castes. That is where he thinks like a very pragmatic father or mother thinking of her children, so the children will go to school. But there is a long history of denial of Dalits, prohibition for Dalits to possess cash. That has been the history.
There have been great moments in the history of India that Dalits have demanded cash for wages, not grains. He said there should be freeship from school to university. Suppose the child has got admission. He has to buy pen, pencil, stationery, and other things, pocket kharch [expense]. Then he said scholarship from school to university, and then he goes on and on. Today, I am here; you are talking to me. Had there not been a scholarship, had there not been freeship, and then had there not been reservation in education, I would have remained somewhere else. But his followers, Ambedkar’s followers do not give a damn what he stood for.
This particular document has been published in, I believe, in 10th volume. If I was the editor, if I was a part of editing team, I would say, “This is where Ambedkarism starts.”
Most of the things that Ambedkar did that matter today to Dalit middle class that has an annual income of $50 billion. If Dalits were a country, they would be 79th largest GDP in the world. The reasons behind this have been published in 10th volume, not in first volumes. I will say that Ambedkar’s volumes have been very, very poorly edited.
RAJAGOPALAN: When I read your book, that is when I opened Ambedkar’s Volume 17, Part 1. I had never read that far either. I picked up the Dalit Emancipation Manifesto. I had read bits of it before. I actually read it in its entirety. I recommend everyone does. It’s only about 18 or 20 pages.
One really interesting thing that came out of it—you hinted before that it’s a manifesto, like Hind Swaraj or the Communist Manifesto. But what is really interesting about this manifesto is, at one point, Ambedkar says, “The policy of the party is not tied to any particular dogma or ideology such as communism, or socialism, or Gandhism, or any other ism.”
Ambedkar on Capitalism
RAJAGOPALAN: Later, in the same manifesto, in point 30 of the policies he lays out, Ambedkar writes, and I quote, “In our foreign policy, we have not been able to make a distinction between capitalism and parliamentary democracy. The dislike of capitalism is understandable. But we take care that we do not weaken parliamentary democracy and help dictatorship grow.”
Now, the interesting thing is that Ambedkar is critical of capitalism, and he is indeed sympathetic to many socialist policies throughout his career. Yet, as you point out, he doesn’t single out capitalism in the first quote, where he says that our party does not espouse communism, socialism, or Gandhism.
He doesn’t single out capitalism in that quote, and it’s really remarkable because this is written at a time when communism and socialism are very much on the rise. It’s very fashionable. John Maynard Keynes has already written his essay, “The End of Laissez-Faire,” and written the obituary for capitalism, in one sense. Why do you think Ambedkar spares capitalism when he’s writing this manifesto?
PRASAD: At the time he was writing his manifesto—1951—the world was completely divided in two camps, two ideological camps: capitalism and socialism. Revolution has taken place in neighboring China. It was so fashionable in India to act like a communist. Jawaharlal Nehru is so fascinated by Marxism. At that point in time, anybody saying that I will write a book against communism, remain very indifferent to even use the 10 letters, C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-M.
At that point in time, if somebody is not targeting in his manifesto, he did not target capitalism. He says just one line that I can understand that criticism of capitalism. He says just that, as you said, “I’m trying to show this idea to the Dalit middle class.”
To my limited knowledge, Ambedkar is the only intellectual of his time to say that wherever state sector is necessary, state will be allowed, too. Wherever private sector is necessary, private sector will be allowed. This is not a mixed economy. He’s trying to pitch the private sector and state to compete with each other and come out with their best.
Somebody will say, “But Ambedkar said in 1932 this, and Mr. Prasad, you are ignoring that.” I will give importance to what he said in 1951 in a document that he says this is what will cause Dalit emancipation. You may have read it. What is the relationship of lifting ban on liquors? How does it impact Dalits?
There is only one paragraph of one chapter on scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and all welfare in higher education, et cetera. In the scheduled caste manifesto, there is hardly any use of the term scheduled caste. He was envisioning an India where what is good for Dalits is good for India. What is good for India is good for Dalits.
Had authors, editors of Ambedkar volumes said in the very first volume that Ambedkar’s India is Dalits of India, and the fortunes of India as a nation-state and fortunes of Dalits are tied up, then he would have not been known as a Dalit leader and Dalit thinker and Dalit father. There would have been enough reason to celebrate him as a nationalist father.
We did a survey for University of Pennsylvania in the year 2008. We have figured out in 7% of Dalits in 20,000 households have benefited from a state government job. What happened to the rest, 93%? What happens to 20% to 30% Dalits who have made their houses on their own? Because they got opportunity to migrate to industrial cities. They got opportunities to migrate to industrial cities as workers.
If you want to become a government servant, you have to have some education, and that education will not bring you government jobs. You have to compete for that. Indian civil service, students start writing at the age of 22 (and attempt until age 32), and Dalits can go and write till the age of 37. They get five years relaxation, but you enter a city and you get a job the next day.
Why blame capitalism when you see that your three sisters and your four cousins are liberated from landlords because they fled to Bombay and Delhi. Same with the African Americans during Great Migration after World War II, from south America to midwest America.
Dalit intellectuals should have started reading Ambedkar from this point in time. But I am asking in that book, Kanshiram Lal, launched his BSP in ’84. By that time Ambedkar’s volumes had not reached a place like JNU. When did he read Ambedkar’s volumes?
The Dalit Panthers was launched when the first issue of Ambedkar’s volume came into being. The Dalit politicians and Dalit intellectuals were trained not by Ambedkar’s thought. They were trained by sayings that Ambedkar was anti-Brahminism, he was anti-Manu, he was anti-Manuvad (anti-caste)[Note: Manuvad is a society governed by the document Manuscmriti that segregates the entire social order based on caste], all, et cetera. They were not trained by what Ambedkar’s book says.
Also, Dalits have this fascination for slogans. Ambedkar’s writings are of two kinds. One is his speeches. Others are writings. Speeches are given for very ordinary people. The leader knows that he or she is speaking to maybe unlettered in the audience—high school dropouts, school dropouts, few highly educated. But when you write something, then you know that every word will be measured, and your critics and your future critics will measure what you are saying, what you are arguing.
So more than his writing, his speeches had influenced the Dalit mind more. I just want to say that you come out with all those things and read what Ambedkar writes for people who can, at that time, who could read English.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. Ambedkar is remarkable in his pragmatism and also in how he thinks about the future. Because, again, in the manifesto, it says the party will be ready to adopt any plan of social and economic betterment of the people, irrespective of its origin and provided it is consistent with its principles.
PRASAD: Capitalism is not just one shade. It has a European capitalism. Sweden and Norway are capitalist countries, but their capitalism is not exactly the kind of capitalism the U.S has. Cuba is a socialist country. He wants to free the minds from dogmas. He says whatever is good, irrespective of its origin, this manifesto will follow that. Dalits had to see Ambedkar as a scholar who is marrying interests of India with interests of Dalits and vice versa.
RAJAGOPALAN: You have a very simple rule that if we manage to uplift the Dalits, that means we have managed to do what is good for all Indians because the people who’ve been the most oppressed have been, in some way, lifted out of that oppression and lifted out of that poverty.
On Modernizing Agriculture
PRASAD: I find Ambedkar’s writings were written during an ideological hegemony of socialism and communism. I just give one example that I have given in the thesis that he emphasizes in his manifesto. His manifesto says if elected to power, farming will be done on large farms. Tell me, which ideology says this?
Two, he says agriculture will be completely mechanized. Does socialism say this? Does communism say this? The third point he is making that there will be high manure. He’s hinting towards chemical fertilizers. He says some good quality seeds.
I have heard from my childhood in my district, Azamgarh, the slogan was “Land to the tiller.” Land to the tiller, and if more machines come, this will hurt Dalits most, but why is Ambedkar saying that farming will be completely mechanized? Because Ambedkar needed somebody, some thinking scholar to say that, because any occupation done by bare hands has no respect in society.
A Dalit tilling land of a landlord using two bullocks and walking on his feet is a different laborer than a laborer who is tilling the land sitting on a tractor. Ambedkar is saying this is Dalit emancipation manifesto, and he is not naming the beneficiaries.
RAJAGOPALAN: When I read that portion on the agricultural policy, he has three points there. It’s really remarkable. I wrote a column in Mint on the biggest problem plaguing the farmers today is low productivity because of fragmentation of land holdings. The average size of holdings across India is one hectare or so.
After I had written that column, I was reading this Ambedkar manifesto, and I was just so taken by how farsighted Ambedkar was in a few things. One, he understands that in a really developed economy, there is going to be so much division of labor and specialization that there will be a lot of mechanization. Productivity in large farms will hopefully be so high because of economies of scale that very few people will be required to do the job. They will probably sit on tractors, as you mentioned.
The second part is, of course, the dignity aspect which you are talking about. There is a difference in dignity in land being tilled by one’s bare hands versus using machines and doing it on a large scale.
I think there’s a third part: his future imagination for Dalits is to exit the agrarian sector. Ambedkar reached great heights by leaving the traditional occupations behind, by going abroad to study, by studying law, by studying sociology, by studying economics and then becoming a scholar of a different level. Of course, he also practiced as a lawyer.
In his imagination, people who have for centuries tilled land don’t need to be tilling land anymore in the new India where everyone has a right to vote and everyone has political equality. He talks about that through agriculture.
I found that element particularly fascinating in the manifesto. He talks about foreign policy. He talks about agriculture. He talks about the role of public-sector enterprises and the role of the state. None of this, as you mentioned, has anything directly to do with Dalits, but all of it has to do with his imagination of how a future would look where Dalits are not trapped in traditional occupations.
PRASAD: Yes, and more importantly, his essay that came as a book, problem of Small Holdings and Their Solutions. I read that small book, and it’s one of the greatest writings when he was a student at the Columbia University.
PRASAD: Due to the two big droughts in India, 1888 and 1901, India had suffered huge loss of life and cattle, because there was huge drought. The British government started a process, why India doesn’t have a buffer stock. Then the economists come and discuss, and they say that because there is low yield in India. The reason they found is small holdings.
That decision was going on amongst economists when all Indians were pursuing their career or thinking of going to London for a law degree. Ambedkar as a student is saying, no, not only small holdings, but fragmentation of land holdings. One family remains tied to that small plot of land with the hope that something will come, and they keep on, generation from generation. He said, “End this nonsense.” Then he quotes American example. They said let us have a minimum hundred-acre rule. He said, “No, you can’t do it by rule, by law.”
Overall, he is thinking of India as a modern nation, completely urbanized, completely industrialized. He is thinking of India as America, Europe, Sweden.
Dalit Capitalism and Inequality
RAJAGOPALAN: What is Dalit capitalism according to you? What are some of the inherent contradictions between the Dalit movement and capitalism? Because on the one hand, it seems that capitalism increases inequality, but on the other hand, capitalism creates a lot of opportunity and lifts millions of people, potentially, from poverty. How do you think Dalit capitalism plays out in India?
PRASAD: Here is my question. If you have a child who is now grown up, wants a job, the child is not much educated for some reason. There are two employers for your child—you can pick one. One is Raja Bhaiya of Pratapgarh, that landlord gunda [goon], and the other is Ratan Tata. Tell me whom would you pick as employer of your child? Should I say you’d prefer Ratan Tata? If Ratan Tata is good to your child, Ratan Tata should be good to all children of under-class.
Second, suppose your wife is pregnant, and she will deliver a baby very soon. Would you prefer Delhi Government Hospital or some corporate hospital? Tell me, what is good for your child?
Third, you have a choice of Delhi Public School for a child who was born in a corporate hospital or government MCD school, municipal corporation school. Which school would you prefer for your child?
Then everybody is silent. What is not true should not be pursued.
RAJAGOPALAN: Where do you think this demonization of capitalism comes from? Is it, as you pointed out, this wrong conflation that Ambedkarism is communism, Ambedkarism is socialism, Ambedkarism is anti-capitalism? Is it a misunderstanding of Ambedkarism, or is it something else? Is it coming from some other place in society or within Dalit culture that demonizes capitalism, at least while they speak, but they embrace capitalism in their actions?
PRASAD: I have a scholar friend, D. Shyam Babu, whom you know. We were touring Uttar Pradesh during 2014 elections. We interviewed two landlords. One is landlord in Sitapur district near Lucknow, the other one in Azamgarh district. Both ex-landlords have some education. To landlord in eastern UP, I said, “What has this economic reforms, et cetera—how has it impacted you, your community?” He says, “Now today, I don’t control any Dalits. Used to be several Dalits sitting in front of my house.” I said, “What has caused this?” He said “Baazarvad.” Market.
RAJAGOPALAN: Markets. Choice.
PRASAD: These guys have fled to Bombay and Delhi and all that. They don’t love their land. They don’t love their nature. They don’t love their fresh air. For the sake of money, they have gone to Bombay, Delhi.
The other Dalit landlord—I think he’s the landlord’s uncle. He’s still a friend of mine, in Sitapur district. He says, Punjivaad [capitalism]. Punjivaad has destroyed us.” Capitalism has destroyed it. Now people are fond of money more than anything else.
Another one says, “Reason for Thakurs’ destruction is this road.” I said, “How come?” “They took this road to reach Lucknow, then this bloody train that Englishmen introduced, and they fled to Ghaziabad, Delhi, and here and there.” In the caste Hindu society, modernity is the biggest killer. As far as I can see, modernity is very close to capitalism. Right?
RAJAGOPALAN: Why are Ambedkarites then so anti-capitalist? Is it a misreading, or is it something else? Is it the fact that they are anti-establishment, and capitalism is part of that establishment that they are revolting against, or hierarchy? Because an overwhelming number of Ambedkarites are communist or at least explicitly anti-capitalist. You are a very small minority.
PRASAD: [laughs] Ambedkar’s 17th volume came a few years back. You become an Ambedkarite because you are a Dalit. As a character “super Ambedkarite” in my book says, let your readers know that in my book, What is Ambedkarism? a “super Ambedkarite” in Delhi has all the volumes of Ambedkar of all languages in his house, and he has locked them, saying that by human touch this Ambedkar’s book will become impure, and only those who want to question Ambedkar read Ambedkar.
In Maharashtra, the Dalits become Ambedkarite in their mother’s wombs. Because you are a Dalit, usually you are Ambedkarite. A very eminent Dalit asked me, “Prasad, the kind of India Ambedkar wanted was state socialism. I said that memorandum was submitted to the Constituent Assembly when he was not sure that he would enter.” I said, “Okay, I agree,” because it’s written there. “Will you agree to my point?” I said, “What?” I said, “It is written there the name of India will be United States of India.” Ambedkar, “Where is that? Where is that?” I said, “Open. Go home and open.”
Ambedkar was so inspired by America that he wanted India to be named as United States of India. During the Cold War, when the world was divided into two and America was an enemy, he wanted an alliance with America. He quotes Jefferson more than any Indian scholar. He quotes experiences of Blacks in the U.S.
Dalits who got into the realm of intellectual journey because left communism talks of equality, revolution, all that, so Dalits fell in love with the communist thinkers and scholars in universities and college campuses.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think there is also some fault of free-market places like, say, the Swatantra Party or say Rajaji and Minoo Masani and Piloo Mody. We did have a free-market capitalism movement in India, but they never talked about caste. I think that is also a responsibility of caste Hindus and others. Maybe they believed they were post-caste and they didn’t need to discuss it.
Rajaji, of course, has a particularly poor record on caste, though he is a great free-market advocate. I think some of the blame also lies on the other side, not just those who are Dalits reading Ambedkar but also those who are talking about capitalism and never make a mention about how it will benefit Dalits and how it will annihilate caste.
PRASAD: Yes, you are absolutely right, but the Swatantra guys were not totally bad guys.
RAJAGOPALAN: They were great, but they never made a mention of caste.
PRASAD: No, they talk of scheduled caste in their manifesto. But because they were found in a company that had no credibility, even now in certain villages, certain elderly Dalits describe their landlords as bloody Punjipati [capitalist in Hindi]. They describe their landlords as bloody capitalists because capitalism is explained as a system of exploitation, not as an economic order.
PRASAD: Indian communists have a very safe way of not attacking feudalism but attacking capitalism instead.
RAJAGOPALAN: Capitalism instead.
PRASAD: I come from a political constituency that was dominated by communists for long. Before that also, a communist would be elected as member of parliament.
We used to hear speeches and all that. Tata—his income grew by this much, and Birla income grew by 100 times and all that. No mention of landlords. In people’s consciousness, capitalism was taken as a system of exploitation.
PRASAD: Not as an economic order. Dalit intellectuals read Marxism first and Ambedkarism later. The books of Ambedkar that I am talking about came few years back.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. They came so late that they never knew that Ambedkar rejected Marxism, that he rejected some of these—communism and Marxism and these ideologies.
PRASAD: He gives a scheme of book in his manifesto.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, which never got published.
PRASAD: Which never got published, but he writes a scheme. Dalits became Marxist by reading Marx, they became Ambedkarites before their birth. Because they are Dalit, they are bound to be Ambedkarite. Truth got lost.
On Dalit Entrepreneurship
RAJAGOPALAN: You have been a very strong proponent of three specific things. The first is, you hold the view that liberalization has done a lot for Dalits. It has lifted a large number of Dalits out of poverty, and it has given them opportunity. I think it’s not just Dalits. Liberalization lifted 270 million Indians out of poverty. So it has also been good for India, the way Ambedkar would think about this.
The second is, you have talked about how Dalits are entrepreneurial. They have shed their assigned occupation at birth, which is the biggest sin of the caste system in one sense, and they have taken on—like you just mentioned in the case of hospitals—they have showed entrepreneurship in areas where there has been no historical connection. They have completely come on their own. These are rags-to-riches stories, and that we need more of these rags-to-riches stories.
Then, the third part of the story that you’ve talked about is, as more and more Dalits lift out of poverty and create a middle class, you are going to create a massive group of people with a very large amount of purchasing power, such that if they espouse Dalit businesses, then there is going to be this greater investment, even more opportunity for Dalits, and so on and so forth.
Now, the way you have thought about this problem is completely from a free-market point of view. Dalits can compete in the market. Dalits can raise capital in the market. And all that we need anyone to do is not charity and not politics, but just put their money where their mouth is and buy products made by Dalits.
Now we are in a new phase where, suddenly, people are making a reverse turn from liberalization and globalization. There’s all this talk about, again, import restrictions and Atmanirbhar [self-sufficient] economy and moving away from markets, and so on and so forth.
How do you see this project of yours going forward, say, in the next decade or two when it comes to Dalit entrepreneurship and Dalit middle class emerging from the market process?
PRASAD: Let me put up a few points. One is about capitalism. I have written in the book, capitalism widens gap. Capitalism creates more inequality. I have also written in the next line, but capitalism creates freedom to the underclass.
In my own childhood, I never thought that there will be a day when bullocks will be completely disappeared from North India. When Dalits sitting for eight hours at landlords’ house will leave that place completely empty—no human sign will be seen during noon.
This is the freedom capitalism brings because when a Dalit wants to escape his landlords, there are only two ways: a government job or a factory job. Government job is to those who are educated. Factory job is to those who are school dropouts.
Capitalism creates inequality, but it leads to freedom of the underclass. I ask my Dalit critics, “Do you want freedom first or equality?” I have many dumb people around, so I have to say, “Ask Blacks of the U.S. during slavery before emancipation declaration, what would have been the slogan of Blacks, equality or freedom?”
Dalits don’t have freedom to dress well, don’t have freedom to ride horses.
This inequality, India’s two brothers are unequal: Anil Ambani and Mukesh Ambani. There are many Indians I used to make fun of in my visit to the U.S. “Why your daughter in an Ivy League and the other is in Janata [public] university? Both are unequal. Why your one son taller than your other son? Unequal.”
So, this debate of equality and inequality has taken that kind of stupid form. You read all Ambedkar’s books and tell me how much he talks about inequality and poverty. Take any Dalit leader or scholar who has asked for poverty elimination. They have asked for dignity. They have asked for freedom. Those who have no experience of being unfree do not talk about freedom, but talk of equality.
These things had to be kept in mind while speaking about capitalism, what capitalism does. Capitalism does this. Ambedkar knew that in a modern society, completely industrialized society, certain things will come to Dalits without demanding.
Number two, globalization. I have at least a hundred evidence—though it will take some time to bring that in book form—how economic reforms helped Dalits. I know a hundred Dalits who were working in big companies, big factories, working with Tata motors, working with this company, that company.
With the start of economic reforms, outsourcing entered India also. Many workers were asked to choose from retirement or a package, and you take the package and go and do whatever, you have that money, or start making these parts for the company.
In Faridabad and Ghaziabad, most Dalits who are auto part makers were earlier workers with some auto company. This did not come from any direction from the Government of India. It is a natural. Economic reforms did not come unclothed. It carried a computer, it had boot, it had leather coat, so many things.
Many Indians became first-time entrepreneurs. Some fell in Dalits’ hands as well. The kind of inspector raj that was before was, somehow, not completely straight, but business was made easier. Dalits benefited more than the existing players because Dalits had hardly any person in department of industry and here and there. So, it benefited Dalits.
Third, economic reforms caused democratization of manufacturing. A Dalit in Ghaziabad makes a bike stand for a famous two-wheeler company. Before, everything was manufactured inside. I have studied Tata motors at Pune. Barring tire, everything was manufactured in the Pune complex. Economic reforms made things more competitive. So, due to this job, some worker will manufacture in his home.
In fact, I had written a column on Forbes Marshall, the company in Pune. They gave to many workers. I studied the Dalit worker. They said, “Take this machine in your home. Make this bolt, supply to us.” So, it democratized manufacturing.
RAJAGOPALAN: India has always—even post-liberalization, it has had an aversion for large-scale manufacturing, and the kinds of processes and outcomes you are talking about are an outcome of division of labor and large-scale manufacturing, where now it is suddenly valuable to outsource the making of a bolt or to outsource the making of a cycle stand for a big cycle company.
If everything remains small-scale because we romanticize the small and medium enterprises so much as government policy, do you feel like these opportunities will be limited, that they could have been much more, that we could have benefited much more?
PRASAD: Mahindra Motors, earlier, did what? They assembled the jeeps that were left by the Britishers. Hero Cycles did what? They were assembling and making/fixing punctures and all those things through their big players.
In the case of Dalits, they cannot immediately become Ford Motors and Tata Motors. They’ll have to start very small. As I said, the research we have done for the University of Pennsylvania, 98% of Dalits manufacturers—Dalits are more in manufacturing than traders—are first timers. That happened after economic reforms. There is a boom of manufacturers and manufacturing in India after economic reforms. Some benefit landed in Dalit hands as well. That’s what Ambedkar is all about. There are so many mangoes all over, so many apples all over, then some will fall in Dalits’ hands as well.
RAJAGOPALAN: As you point out, Dalits have created this middle class. Dalits have created purchasing power. They started from small-scale manufacturing, and if government policies are sensible, and if we continue down the path of liberalization and globalization, they will also achieve scale.
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to move on to a couple of other questions related to this question of capitalism on one hand and reservation on the other. I’ll start with reservation. There is excellent empirical evidence that reservations have done a lot for the upward mobility of Dalits. But on the other hand, the way our reservation policy is designed, my sense says instead of annihilating caste, we have actually constitutionalized caste, right?
Instead of a process of reservations over seven decades making people lose their caste identity, we have created a system where people only get benefits by linking more strongly to their caste identity. Now, we have more and more groups far removed from oppressed Dalits or historically oppressed Dalits who are clamoring for these benefits.
One moment was, of course, in the mid-’90s with the Mandal Commission and OBCs becoming a part of the reservation or the protected class. This is an awkward moment in Indian history because we do have a lot of evidence that “Shudras”, who are, at the end of the day, lower-caste Hindus, also participated in the oppression of Dalits, and now they’re in the same protected class as Dalits.
More recently, with the 103rd Amendment, you see an even bigger shift. Even upper castes, as long as they show some socioeconomic backwardness, as long as they hold very little land and have low income, are now in the same protected category as Dalits. Now, we have people clamoring for caste certificates and making sure they strengthen their caste identities. The moment their children are born, they make sure they have their caste certificate, and so on and so forth.
So, in some sense, I feel—though reservations have done a lot of good—we have drifted very far from Dr. Ambedkar’s vision of annihilating caste. We have actually politicized and constitutionalized and strengthened caste.
PRASAD: There is a section of Indians, basically upper-caste Indians, called caste Hindus. Your audience should also know, what is caste Hindu? Why Ambedkar was writing “caste Hindus”? My explanation is “those who prefer caste over their religion.” And then I go on and say “and prefer religion over nation.”
I find a good number of people nowadays saying, “Mr. Prasad, why give reservation to the second-, third-generation Dalits? We interact with them. We have dinners with them. There are intercaste marriages taking place.”
My counter question is that caste Hindu society if at all likes some Dalits, they are the same Dalits that are produced by reservations. If I am in an upper-caste-dominated apartment, people will come to my place and have food or drink. I go to their place. But the sweeper doesn’t get the same privilege. The Dalits who are being produced, created by reservations, society has some liking for them.
In the beginning it would appear that it has made caste more regimented. At the end, the middle class expands.
I’ll be surprising you even more. We are publishing—the book is ready—publishing a coffee table book of 101 Dalit-owned hospitals in North India. There is a hospital by first-generation doctor in Haldwani that is 200 bedded. There is a hospital in Hapur, near Delhi—a Dalit first-generation doctor has created a 100-bed hospital. And Hapur is a new district, so the district manual says if the Collector [district magistrate] falls sick, he will go to this hospital that is private.
As India is a society in transition, everything is seen in isolation. People ask me, “Mr. Prasad, if Dalits still remains so backward even after 70 years, what has reservation done?” Reservation has created a Dalit middle class. Members of Dalit middle class are not now making certificate for their sons and daughters and asking them to compete. This year, a Dalit boy, the son of a degree college professor in Bulandshehr—he got 100 out of 100 in all the five subjects in intermediate.
The journey has just begun. Whenever we discuss caste, it ultimately falls on reservation.
Now, OBC started demanding reservation, so they would not ask for merit. They would not ask for the doctor who would be produced by these medical colleges. Now, upper caste have got reservation, and this year’s UPSC score, 85%—scheduled caste candidates selected by UPSC are in the upper-caste category, that cutoff point. This transition is taking place. Had there not been reservation, I would have not got admission in JNU.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m actually saying the opposite. I’m saying it makes Dalit candidates more competitive because there is this huge opportunity to rise to the middle class. I am seeing the opposite. I am saying it makes other candidates, non-Dalit candidates, less competitive because instead of using their privilege and competing in the marketplace, they are now clamoring for reservations and using political benefits because this kind of policy exists. All they need to do is, they need to attach themselves to it. I think the problem is actually the reverse.
PRASAD: I’m not dissenting. I’m understanding, but I’m saying these are the questions I face. A few days back, I was speaking to students at IIM, Ahmedabad. They all shout at us, second-generation Dalit, third-generation Dalit, “What will happen to merit?”
I said, “Have you heard that when Britishers came to India, when Macaulay system of education was introduced in India in 1884, there were only two divisions in India: first class, second class. Second class, 45% minimum, first class, 60% minimum. A college came in Madras, but there were not enough students. Professors were imported from Britain.
The upper class at that time, basically Brahmins, approached the governor general, saying, “This is a new system of education. Our children are not able to qualify plus two [Grade 12]”—at that time, called intermediate—“So, please create a third class, and bring down the pass percentage.”
I said, “Have you heard, have your parents, or your grandparents, any relative, any friend in your country, said this to you?” “No. We have not heard it.” I said, “Have you heard that Indians started demanding Indianization of civil service during British?” They said, “Remove French as a compulsory subject.”
Have you heard it? Indians saying that there should be Indians in the civil service? They understand India better than you; you are a foreigner. “Please allow us to represent in the civil service. Allow us space in judiciary.” The battle you had, the experience you have undergone for 100 years, in the case of Dalits, it is just 70 years, not even 100 years.
You have not heard the story that when Macaulay college system of education came in 1854, British government had to issue a special instruction that no child will be refused admission on the ground of caste or race or gender because there were riots all over India against Dalits entering system of education. I said, “Has anybody told you that this happened?” “No. Nobody has told.” That’s why I say in India, nation is not the first loyalty to caste-Hindus. It is always caste.
There are rebels. Devesh Kapur is a rebel. Barkha Dutt is a rebel, [laughs] Rajdeep Sardesai is a rebel, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ravish Kumar. They have betrayed their caste, their religion. We want more betrayers from caste Hindus. The way during post-emancipation, lynching—that phase started in U.S. There were many white people who were killed by their own white people because they stood with Blacks.
RAJAGOPALAN: There is a different area of Dalit emancipation that I want to talk to you about, which is marriage endogamy. The one trend that has remained very stable for the last 50, 60 years—and a number of scholars have written about this—is that, despite increases in GDP per capita, despite urbanization, despite rising incomes and despite Dalit entrepreneurship and the Dalit middle class, an overwhelming number of Indians marry within caste.
In fact, according to the surveys, only 5% to 6% of Indians marry outside their caste or their Jāti. There is some really startling research on this, for instance, in research in the paper by Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Maitreesh Ghatak and Lafortune. They use an urban sample of matrimonial ads, and they show that 85%, even in urban areas, preferred marrying within their caste, and that a bride’s family would actually trade-off the difference between no education and a master’s degree to avoid marrying outside caste.
Now, my feeling is that marriage endogamy is the most persistent institution. It is the biggest barrier in annihilation of caste. It is also the most difficult institution to reform because it’s very difficult to give incentives when it comes to marriage. It is very difficult for the state to intervene. It is such a private institution.
So, how does one break marriage endogamy through the market process, not government interventions? Even increase in free markets, even increase in rising incomes have not managed to shatter that institution. If there is any change, it is very small steps. What is a good way to think about persistence of marriage endogamy?
PRASAD: Before I come to this very all-important question, let me say Dalit entrepreneurs, Dalit hospital owners—they’ve brought out one issue of Dalit Enterprise magazine on first-time entrepreneurs creating hotels and restaurants in Agra. What happens after a point of time? Neither the state asks Dalits, “What do you want?” Nor the society, nor the private sector. That’s why that has stopped becoming big. That’s where states and society need to come.
Insofar as about marriage, the Indian caste system has rested on twin principles of blood purity and occupation purity.
In my childhood, if you gave an upper-caste woman $100 a day—and when I say my childhood, I would say since 1970—ask an upper-caste Hindu lady that you will get $100 a day, “This Dalit man needs a maid. Will you work there?” No. No question.
Today, I think you should undertake a project, and that would be very interesting. If you drive from Delhi till Azamgarh or Lucknow or Bholapur, on roadside small markets, you will find beauty parlors. Most beauty parlors are owned by caste-Hindu women. Be it a Dalit, be it an upper caste, all brides do get their makeup done in these beauty parlors.
I never thought that in my lifetime, an upper-caste woman will be giving face massage to a Dalit woman because capitalism has made money more important than your mustache. This is one point.
As my life experience goes, most inter-caste marriages that are taking place are in IT sector—that has good number of women workers as well. It is slow also because men and women are not in the same proportion at workplaces in modern cities. As you said, an illiterate man but of his own caste would be preferred than a doctor from a—forget Dalit—from other castes within upper caste.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, within upper caste also. It’s just endogamy is so limited within a Jāti.
PRASAD: That is why, which I say, people say, and even Ambedkar said close to that, “India is a sick society.” Only big machines, big markets can dismantle this, not law, rule, moral values. Only complete elimination of old system will pave the way for annihilation of caste.
In our own life, if we get to live 20 more years, caste will become old Purana Qila in the day, where you are a Thakur, you are a Brahmin, you are . . . but nobody bothers because you have a very small pocket. Purana Qila is there in Delhi, but nobody even looks. Only scholars come and study and do something there [laughs] like that.
RAJAGOPALAN: Your view is, we need to start with occupation. You break the link between caste occupation and the actual occupation, which happens through the market opportunities. Second, increase in purchasing power, increase in incomes. Increase in incomes of the Dalit class, of an emerging middle class. And third, urbanization, where they meet people of other castes, either in university or in jobs, and so on. That is the only way, one day, we can break marriage endogamy.
There is no silver bullet to solve this problem. There’re no other policies we can pursue or any other . . . I don’t mean government policies. I also mean social reform. Is there a movement that one needs to think about marriage endogamy? Because we are living in three centuries at the same time.
On one extreme, you have these great Dalit entrepreneurs. Their children are going to good universities in cities. They meet their partner who’s from another caste, and they get married. On the other extreme, we have Dalits even marrying someone from their own caste. If they mount a horse, they are killed, and they are lynched. Then, you actually actively have inter-caste couples, where if a caste-Hindu child, son or daughter, marries a Dalit, then both the families are out for blood, and it’s typically the caste-Hindus who do the honor killings, even of their own daughter.
We live in all these centuries simultaneously. What is the way to bring this out or up to speed or solve this problem?
PRASAD: In the ’90s, when economic reforms begin, many Dalits and many from racial upper caste thought economic reforms is gas cylinder. They said it is LPG. I was the one to break from the gas cylinder description of economic reforms.
I was asked—and people know—I was asked by a very famous news channel anchor in Hindi, “Tell us, Prasad. This has happened only yesterday. An honor killing has happened. A Dalit who married an upper-caste woman has been killed.” I said, “It is happening every month.” He said, “Yes, but now, tell me, what about your economic reforms and all?” I said, “Wish these killings started a hundred years back.”
This is happening because there is inter-caste marriage taking place. In one village, a non-Dalit daughter has eloped with a Dalit boy, and Dalit boy is killed by her parents. From the same village, if an upper-caste woman married a Dalit boy, maybe 10 also thought of marrying a Dalit wife, but did not marry because of threat to life. I said, “That means India is changing. In my childhood, there was no bloody honor killing at all.”
There was hardly any Dalit shot dead. Entire Dalit hamlet was tackled by one lathi [baton] by upper-caste people. Now, they need rifles to tackle Dalits.
RAJAGOPALAN: You see the honor killings also as part of this long-term revolution of emancipation of Dalits?
PRASAD: Evidence. As a researcher, to me, it is an evidence that India is changing.
RAJAGOPALAN: But how do we stop it? I know it is evidence that India is changing, but it’s also incredibly tragic that we do this today.
PRASAD: It is tragic, but one has to pass across this bridge. Some people will sacrifice their lives, but I think one inter-caste marriage out of 1,000—there is only one killing that take place.
RAJAGOPALAN: Now, on this law-and-order issue, I had two questions for you. One is, do you think we need greater Dalit representation in law and order, which is police and judiciary? Because that is one area where it seems that there is still the greatest amount of Dalit oppression because Dalits are not even able to report crimes.
It’s more true in rural areas, especially in the Hindi Belt. Do you think the problem is there aren’t enough Dalit representatives in the forces, which is law and order and judiciary? Or do you think this is also part of the change, and we will pass this bridge also?
PRASAD: It is slightly different, and I keep telling the changes that have taken place during past seven decades after the Constitution came into being, after Britishers left. Dalits are now accepted as colleagues but not as bosses.
Dalits are given insignificant postings in the departments. That is one of the reasons why Dalit officers can’t do much. We have to cross this bridge where Dalits are accepted as bosses as well. I keep saying in my latest interview—you can search it for that. Dalits riding donkeys are cheered by caste Hindus. Dalits driving horses are feared by caste Hindus.
This distinction between a donkey and horse—it is the caste society that has to solve this contradiction. Ball is in their court. If Dalit is able to buy a big bike or a big car or a horse, society should develop that habit of clapping, that, “Oh, my God. A Dalit who has been oppressed by our ancestors so much has finally now grown up so much that he has a Mercedes, he has a BMW, he has a bullet car equivalent to your American car, big car.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Of course, I agree with you that we need to move to a place where society can cheer Dalit achievements. But the first step is, we at least need to punish people who participate in Dalit atrocities. Right now, what is happening in especially the Hindi Belt is, they just perpetrate these crimes with complete impunity because the police are never going to actually charge upper caste with these crimes. They rape Dalit women with impunity. They kill Dalit grooms marrying outside caste.
So, I think there is a law-and-order element to this. The fear of punishment doesn’t exist because there is no law-and-order stake when it comes to these kinds of crimes.
PRASAD: Partially true, but it is not a law-and-order problem. We have a shortage of caste Hindu martyrs. We have shortage of that. No upper-caste man comes and stands between a Dalit and his caste oppressor that, “Kill me first.”
RAJAGOPALAN: We need Indian civil rights movement like that, the way there was in the ’60s and ’70s in the U.S.
PRASAD: Caste is not a legal problem. It is a social problem. It needs interventions from society more than from the state.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. On the last question, I wanted to go back in history. One of the first and one of the most important aspects of Ambedkar’s thought—political and scholarly—was the need for separate electorates. We all know that he presented this at the roundtable.
How do you think things would have been different had there been separate electorates? Because right now, we see a lot of clamoring for political power and political identity, not just amongst Dalits, but all castes. Do you think the separate electorates would have solved that problem, and instead, we would have focused on Dalit education, Dalit economic opportunity and so on and so forth? Or do you think it would have been a completely different political equilibrium of some other sort?
PRASAD: It is like this. I am an atheist. But a Dalit goddess, Dalit goddess English was born in my house and that has become very popular. I was making a temple for Dalit goddess English. It couldn’t move beyond a point because of some issues. I’m asked by my close friends, “You are an atheist, and a goddess was born, a symbol of faith was born in your house.” I said that to put a new idea, you have to go to some extreme. Moderation will follow like that.
I’m saying Dalit women should worship Dalit goddess because Dalit women don’t have goddesses. My Dalit goddess is well dressed than all goddesses put together, and she has a PhD from Harvard, and she has a constitution. She stands on a computer pedestal. She has that Statue of Liberty–type dress. She’s a superior goddess.
I won’t say teach your kids English because I have in this, my consciousness, that if they start worshiping English as a goddess, nobody can prevent them from giving their kids A, B, C, D.
Had there been separate electorate, there would have been some consequences, and then somebody would come and say, “Let us moderate it.” Something like that would have happened, and I have written enough about political power climate for Dalits. I have said it is no less than marijuana.
There are 10 pillars of power that will make no political power even if you are able to grab it. Those 10 pillars of power in any society, one of the pillars is wine opener. The day there is a Dalit middle class that has wine openers also in their kitchen, that situation would witness a confident Dalit middle class that can use its cultural power. Unless you have that kind of culturally empowered class. Obama visits Delhi and says, “I want to have a dinner or a cocktail dinner in a Dalit home.”
RAJAGOPALAN: So global cosmopolitanism—you want Dalits to be like Ambedkar, dress like Ambedkar, to be able to have a meal with any president anywhere in the world and so on and so forth, and be confident.
PRASAD: That’s why I said a Dalit politician entering parliament is like a gun without bullets, is like a book without pages, is like a river without water.
On Dalit Scholarships
RAJAGOPALAN: So the revolution needs to come from somewhere else—not the political? On this question of the wine opener as a proxy, and you talked about the English goddess—I want to come to the last question on this emerging from your book also, and something that was incredibly important for Ambedkar.
One of the reasons Ambedkar became the scholar of his caliber was because he could leave India. I don’t think he would’ve reached his full potential in India, given all the problems of caste. You’ve also talked about scholarships for Dalit students at university abroad. Ambedkar talked about this—how we must create scholarships for Dalit students abroad.
My feeling is, in one sense, we have focused all our energy on reservations, which are Indian institutions, and we have not focused enough on giving opportunity beyond limited Indian institutions to Dalits, because as long as they go to Indian institutions, you are going to have situations like the tragic death of Rohith. You go to a situation where you manage to get admission. You are pursuing your PhD, but you are still steeped in an environment which considers you inferior, and they won’t let you grow.
In one sense, I feel like scholarships for Dalits abroad is an incredibly important program that just never took off from the ground. One of the barriers for scholarships for Dalit students abroad is that we don’t have excellent primary and secondary education for Dalit students. I think it needs to start even sooner.
We need something like school choice vouchers or something like that for Dalit students, where we empower the student and the family directly, and they can take their voucher to any school they want. If the school refuses them, they also lose the money. I feel like we haven’t paid enough attention to the pipeline, entire pipeline of Dalit education, from primary school until scholarships to go to Columbia University, the way Ambedkar received. How do you think we solve this problem of the Dalit education pipeline?
PRASAD: I agree completely with you. First, it is both ways. You go through the parliamentary debates—you’ll hardly find Dalit MPs asking for big reforms.
I go even a step further. Dalits need not just education—they need accent. Accent can hide their castes. It can be like a bulletproof jacket. Dalits have to realize that if one Ambedkar, after being trained by Columbia University and London School of Economics, which could do so much. All the 10 presidents of Congress Party in India were trained in Britain. So, “Why not send our kids to the universities abroad?” Dalit middle class has to think.
On the other hand, the people in the government—if I become friendly to a prime minister and ask, “Do you want 10 crore more ration cards?” Government will have no hesitation in saying, “Yes, take it.” If I say I want a thousand scholarships for Dalit kids and Adivasi kids to study abroad, “Oh, Mr. Prasad, this is very problematic.” [laughs]
There is only one post of prime minister, so only a few Dalits will become. There is only one post of president of India. Just because there is one vacancy, Dalits should not aspire to become that? There is only one post of prime minister of India. Because there is only one post, Dalits should not become . . . not every Dalit can become prime minister, so no Dalit should become prime minster?
There is only one vice chancellor. If there are only 20 vice chancellors in India, say, of central universities because there are only 20 positions, therefore, Dalits should not aspire to that? If not all Dalits can become capitalists, therefore Dalits should not pursue this agenda?
RAJAGOPALAN: One point which is missed here is that, unlike the post of prime minister, which is fixed—there can be only one prime minister—capitalism doesn’t work like that. The size of the market increases, and then there is greater division of labor and specialization and so on. So, the more Dalit capitalists there are and the larger and more prosperous India becomes, the more Dalit capitalists can emerge. It is a little bit different from the prime minister example in that there is still a lot of room for growth there.
PRASAD: I am answering that argument where they say only a few Dalits can become capitalists. For your information, I’m writing my book on Dalit capitalism. My Dalit capitalism is more a self-respect movement than just a money-accommodation tool. Dalits were not allowed to own wealth, accumulate wealth. There is every reason that Dalits become wealthier and wealthier.
RAJAGOPALAN: Can you tell us about your intellectual journey?
PRASAD: I was born in a village in Azamgarh district, Uttar Pradesh—backward, conservative area. My father and two of his brothers, mostly his first two brothers, went to Burma in 1932, and made good fortune, built big house. But they had to come back during Second World War when Royal Japanese Army had invaded Burma. So, we had that past.
My elder brother became a sub-inspector in ’69. I didn’t have much problem of fund. I did my BA from my village college. I had a subject English literature, but I studied English literature in Hindi medium. Even my professor could not speak English [laughs].
Somebody told me, but because my brother—he was a police officer, and I used to wear suit while going to college—he became station-in-charge and I became college president in ’77, after Janata Party rule. He sent back his Bullet bike to me, so I was noticed.
There is a relative of my political science professor. He said, “If you are coming from JNU, I think you are roaming around in the corridor of JNU.” I said, “What is JNU?” He said, “Jawaharlal Nehru University, where every student has to be in three-piece suit, even in June, in dining hall. They won’t issue food if they don’t go.” I think JNU came into my nervous system.
So I came to JNU, and then I was fascinated by the ideology of Marxism, communism and all that and American evil, and things like that. I fell in that group. I joined the Naxal Party. Meanwhile, there was a big moment in JNU in 1983. We were expelled, rusticated from university for three years, 140 students or so. Then most of them apologized to the Prithviraj Commission. That university was closed sine die.
I went to Tihar Jail and then became a Naxal for three years, carried a revolver with six loaded bullets, but I always would tell my comrades that killing class enemy is no answer.
There was an occasion where we were passing through Basti district of North India, Uttar Pradesh, and there was a family eating ice cream. There were three comrades—we all had revolvers, six-round revolvers loaded. One said, “Let us kill all three.” I said, “Why?” “Bloody, our people are not getting food to eat, and this family is eating ice cream.” I said, “No, no, no. I want everyone to eat ice cream. I also like ice cream.” I was shocked and I said, “Bloody, this is not the way.” For six months, I roamed around here and there—what to do, what not to do.
My brother said, “Go and take admission in Lucknow, in somewhere.” I said, “No, unless university clears, I won’t get admission anywhere.” Then suddenly, I got a notice from JNU that your rustication period is over. If you are wanting to come back to JNU, you are most welcome. I was very happy, and then along with a friend, I came back to JNU. I went to the registrar office, and they say, “You have to say sorry.”
Then I met my professor, G.P. Deshpande, and said, “Sir, I have already spent three years outside JNU. I have lost three years. Why say sorry?” Then he took me to the vice chancellor, and he said, “No, no. He is a very good boy. He got bad company and all that, so why do you want to play with his dignity? Why should he write sorry? I can write sorry on his behalf.” “All right, go ahead, gentleman.”
Then I realized that most of my relatives who have become free from landlords are the ones who had migrated to Bombay. Some of them worked with this beauty product company, very famous foreign company that makes Lux soap and all these things. Hindustan Lever, and somebody worked in Century, somebody worked in Tata, somebody worked here, somebody worked with Godrej. My one uncle worked with Godrej. I said, “These guys are good.” So I started thinking, thinking, thinking. And then it was the first Golden Jubilee, I suppose, of our freedom—1997, 50 years. There was a journalist—he was asking opinions of everybody.
Then somebody joked me, “Mr. Prasad, you are very fond of Britishers. You must have some criticism of Britishers.” It just came to me, “Yes, I too have a critique of British Raj. Bloody, they came too late and left too early.” Then it became a talking point, and then I had to find reasons for that. Then, I said, “Bloody, America is good.”
Ambedkar studied in America. America gave food to Indians for 10 years free and during that great drought, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58. I loved capitalism, but I was afraid of praising it. I rejoined JNU, did my MPhil on China’s technical transfer after Mao. Then I registered for PhD to study sciences in China. China was a very great society in ancient times. I midway lost interest. I left university even though I had three years of fellowship left.
Then I was asking me, what will I do with this expertise in Chinese science? During my Naxal days, I had seen the life of people and they’re like . . . Then I started studying Ambedkar more and then capitalism and then market and all those things, but I was not very sure what I am saying. There was nobody next to me to support me, to endorse what I am saying though I knew the truth.
Truth is this, that Dalits who fled from landlords either were caught and entered prison or entered factory sheds. Factory shed and prison were the only two institutions that hosted Dalits who fled their landlords. Why to harass them?
When I got a column, then I started a movement called Dalit Shiksha Andolan, Dalit Education Movement, and I could gather 40,000 people in Lucknow. That movement failed for some reason. Then I came back to JNU, started writing in Pioneer, and then Pioneer gave me a column. I wrote an article with Times of India also.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re the first Dalit columnist in a national newspaper and in English who had a regular voice. It is still shocking how few Dalit columnists we have in the media or voices we have in the media. You were the only Dalit I read through my growing-up years in the Pioneer.
PRASAD: Chandan Mitra has to be given that credit. B.N. Uniyal was a great Indian journalist. There was a quarrel between Indian journalists with Kanshi Ram, and Kanshi Ram allegedly slapped that journalist, who is a good friend of mine, my junior. So much was written, and then an American journalist called Kenneth J. Cooper—he was bureau chief of Washington Post. He asked his junior, Rama Lakshmi, to “see if there is any Dalit journalist. I want to quote him.”
Then she started searching for that. He met Mr. B.N. Uniyal in some cocktail party, and he asked Uniyal to find “a Dalit journalist whom I can quote about this ruckus between Kanshi Ram and media.” He tried his level best to figure out, but he could not. Then he wrote a column in Pioneer, “In Search of a Dalit Journalist.”
Rama Lakshmi ventured out looking. I had written a few articles in Pioneer in those days. She found me in JNU. Then I got a call, became a columnist. Then, slowly and slowly, I said to myself, “What is true, I would pursue only that even if it hurts anybody.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Tell us about your project, ByDalits, because I am fascinated by this project. I follow you on Twitter. I see all the posts of all the great products. I think it’s a great example of Dalit capitalism and entrepreneurship, but also a great example of activism through the economic order. Can you just tell us a little bit about it?
PRASAD: As I told you, Dalits’ annual income is $50 billion, but they don’t have control on their economy. As you would see in American experience, their purchasing power, $1.5 billion, is seen as a tool of their struggle. Let any corporate guys come and say something bad about Blacks.
RAJAGOPALAN: And they’ll take their purchasing power away.
PRASAD: Yes. Dalits have invested their . . . North India invested their entire energy in politics. In Maharashtra, they are invested in religion. In the south, they invested in activism. Dalits have not thought of Dalit economy. As a result, Dalits have not been idle with so much of wealth flowing, so much of money flowing into their pockets. It is like a flood water finally going into some kind of ocean.
I see great Dalit manufacturers in Agra, for instance, who manufacture shoes for American brands, European brands without their name. They are just vendors. As a result, we don’t have any brand that can be said it is a Dalit brand. If somebody is making shoes for an American company, and that company is selling that shoe in the entire world, and that is a Dalit art.
Likewise, Dalits in Delhi make leather coats for gents and women, only for foreign brands. They do not exist anywhere. Dalits in Delhi manufacture jeans for other brands—do not exist anywhere. Dalits don’t have a bank. Dalits don’t have insurance companies.
So I said, “Let us promote Dalit brands.” When I entered the field, there are no Dalit brands though Dalits are great manufacturers, so I am campaigning among them to register your brand. He said, “Where will you sell?” I said, “I’ll sell it on this website.”
Bydalits.com is not my family fortune. It is a campaign asking Dalits to brand their products because that will elevate their status outside society, that “Wow, this is Dalit made? Wow.” And Dalits would slowly and slowly start realizing that they need to control their income, their $50 billion into their hands, and that they don’t have any control on that. This is now doing very well, this website. Also, we have good products, but I will keep saying because this is truth.
RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t think this is just about Dalit purchasing power. I think all Indians should support Dalit entrepreneurship and Dalit products. That is another way we can vote with our voice, not just with our vote. We can also vote with our money. This is not just a Dalit economy. This is everybody. I would buy from Bydalits.
RAJAGOPALAN: You said you are working on a new book, which is talking about a hundred different cases of hospital owners, Dalit hospital owners. What is your writing process for those types of book?
PRASAD: I visit, I visit.
RAJAGOPALAN: You visit. These are case studies that you document?
PRASAD: Yes. Sometimes, I prefer staying, sleeping in their factories.
PRASAD: I see this is the highest point of Dalit genius. The book, for instance, I am writing on Dalit capitalism—there are three questions that I can share with you. I’m asking elderly Dalits who can recall Dalit lives in their villages. From South India, like Professor Mohan, if somebody wants to verify. Dalits who are very prominent today but who have heard from their parents or seen themself, since 1947.
Question number one: “Do you remember, have you heard, was there any Dalit in your village with large belly, tummy?” [laughs] “Do you remember any Dalit in your village possessing a Rupees 10-note?”
I am asking them “Was there a case in your village where Dalits got up from bed after sunset? Was there any Dalit in your village who tasted, ever, cattle milk, milk other than their mother’s milk? Did any Dalit in your village, have you heard, ate ghee? Got to eat ghee? Was there any Dalit in your village who ate wheat bread?” Eating wheat bread was also a progression. Then I’ll build the case of Dalit capitalism.
RAJAGOPALAN: These are all proxies for not just exclusion and oppression, but they’re also proxies for poverty, lack of wealth, lack of access. You are showing how these proxies have disappeared, which gives evidence for how Dalits have actually moved up in society. Is that the case?
PRASAD: I am trying to say how cash is important.
RAJAGOPALAN: Cash is important, and Dalits weren’t allowed to have cash, which is why the right to private property is so important for Dalits.
PRASAD: Yes, and Ambedkar defended that.
RAJAGOPALAN: I know that you don’t watch much television or binge-watch anything. How have you been spending your time during the COVID pandemic?
PRASAD: I wrote this book.
RAJAGOPALAN: You wrote the book during the pandemic?
PRASAD: Yes, second book during the pandemic. I waited for 15 days, reading articles in various newspapers, global publications. Then I realized that this may not end in a year or so. What will I do? So I starting writing that. I finished.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re working on three books during the pandemic. I can’t believe you say that you are not scholarly. I think you are beating everyone in how scholarly you are.
Thank you so much for your time, Chandra Bhan. It was a pleasure having this conversation.
PRASAD: It is an honor that you interviewed me, and this conversation is really lovely.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Shoumitro Chatterjee on India’s agricultural economy and policy.