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Black lives mattered to Phule and Ambedkar. They had seen caste discrimination in India

The credit of drawing parallels between racial and caste discrimination goes to Jotirao Phule who compared conditions of Blacks in the US and Dalits in India.

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The tsunami of protests after the death of Black American George Floyd is not restricted to present day racism. It is also washing out shores of history, inciting attacks on statues of racists and slave traders from the past.

Discrimination based on race and caste has a long history of ‘co-relationship’. Different though they may seem from official or academic positions, systemic inhuman exploitation and atrocities have bracketed them time and again.

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In Phule’s Gulamgiri

The credit of drawing parallels between racial and caste-based discriminations for the first time goes to India’s leading social reformer Jotirao Phule (1827-1890). He compared conditions of Blacks in the United States and that of the Dalits in India about 150 years ago. Born 55 years after Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), Phule dedicated his Marathi book Gulamgiri, titled in English as Slavery, to the “good people” of the US. Published in 1873, the dedication of Slavery reads: “Dedicated to the good people of United States as a token of admiration for their sublime disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro Slavery; and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethern from the trammels of Brahmin thralldom.”

The subject of ‘Negro slavery’ was dwelt upon in some detail in the introduction of the book. “The arguments of the Brahmans have been imprinted so firmly on the minds of shudras that they, like the Negro slaves in America, oppose the very people who are willing to fight for them, and free them from the chains of slavery,” wrote Phule, ruefully. Yet, he believed that “the principle of freedom” was behind “the altruism” of American people who were serving the Negro cause without any benefit, even putting their lives in danger. (Selected Works of Jotirao Phule, Ed: G.P.Deshpande, LeftWord books, 2002, page 38)

How could Phule connect ‘Negros’ and ‘Shudras’ as early as 1870s or even before that? It seems it was the Scottish Mission School, Pune, where he obtained much of his knowledge “in the matter of duties and rights”. That was in 1847. Phule was 14, and had just got married a year before. He along with his friend Govande read about Shivaji and George Washington.  But it was Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man that influenced him a great deal. (Mahatma Jotirao Phule, Dhananjay Keer, Popular Prakashan,Mumbai, 1974, page 13-14)

Christophe Jaffrelot has also noted the role of Scottish Mission School in shaping Phule’s ideas and his discovery of ‘philosophy of American Founding Fathers’. According to Jaffrelot, “he (Phule) regarded the notion of equality and freedom as having reached their zenith in United States, and later drew a parallel between the condition of the lower castes and that of the blacks—on whom American society had, according to Phule, bestowed emancipation.” (Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability, Christophe Jaffrelot, Permanent Black, 2005, page 15)

Hailing the Americans who put an end to the slavery, Phule noted, “The shudras and atishudras will really appreciate this more than anyone else….Only slaves can understand what it is to be a slave and what joy it is to be delivered from the chains of slavery.” He went on to compare their situation further. “…whereas the blacks were captured and sold as slaves, the shudras and atishudras were conquered and enslaved by the bhats and Brahmans. Except for this difference, all the other conditions in which they lived were the same…All the calamities suffered by blacks were endured by the shudras and the atishudras who probably suffered more but not less at the hands of the Brahmans.” (Selected Works of Jotirao Phule, Ed: G.P.Deshpande, LeftWord books, 2002, page 40)

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Ambedkar and currents of Black movement

Bhimrao Ambedkar, born a few months after Phule’s death, spent time at Columbia University between 1913 and 1916. It was a crucial phase in Black American history. Decades after Phule’s assumption of their emancipation after Civil War and constitutional abolition of slavery, the Blacks were “struggling to free themselves from the white imagination which had defined their existence for them” (S. D. Kapoor, Economic and Political Weekly, December 27, 2003, Page 53-54). It is safe to assume that a voracious reader like Ambedkar was least likely to miss currents of the Black movement. He wrote on slavery and untouchability at length later on. Quoting from the Roman practice of slavery to contemporary injustices, he concluded that untouchability was worse than slavery. (Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol.5)

Ambedkar went a step further and wrote to influential American civil rights activist and academician Prof. W.E.B. Du Bois asking for a small favour: “I have been a student of the Negro problem… There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary. I was very much interested to read that the Negroes of America have filed a petition to the U.N.O. The Untouchables of India are also thinking of following suit.” He requested for two or three copies of the petition. Prof. Du Bois, in a letter dated 31 July 1946, promised to co-operate.

Another Columbia alumnus and famous Gujarati poet-writer Krishnalal Shridharani also compared American Negros and Indian outcastes. Being a Gandhian, he thus concluded the subject of ‘caste and the outcaste’ by declaring: “The upshot of it all has been that untouchability has lost most of its moral sanction, and its solution thus proved to be a task less Herculean than that of solving the Negro problem in America.” (My India, My America’, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1941, Page 337)

The reality is far worse than Phule’s tribute and Shridharani’s wishful thinking. But the protests after George Floyd’s death, joined by a large number of White people in America and elsewhere, have shown hope for change in the US. However, these agitations are yet to inspire any movement for Dalits in India, except hashtags on Twitter.

The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.

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  1. In present Indian scenerio, euphoria/ phobia against Muslims (15-20%) is experienced, witnessed ever since BJP (RSS), took power in Gujarat, followed by achieving power in Delhi.

    In the shadow of euphoria/ phobia of majoratarianism, Sangh/ BJP, had started anti-reservation policy in media! This de-reservation policy in education and job quota would directly effect the SC/ ST / OBC citizens!

    Civil Society can play a pivotal role to safeguard the rights enshrined to SC/ ST and OBC, under the circumstances!

  2. Not ground level reporting. In maharashtra, Arvind Bansod who belongs from Maharashtra’s Home minister constituency suspicious died. Police charge suicide but Schedule Cast people says it’s murdered by Rashtrawadi Congress people. As maharashtra have non BJP government so no major media who vocal about Amhala are now silent. Prakash Ambedkar’s organization also just formally tweet. Due to Biased journalism and biased politics, india never see such protest.

  3. No emancipation yet of the untouchable in India.You will see promotion in services of the SC/ST is still denied,no one takes care their upliftment,ii am alone fighting for promotion since 2005,but administration have not time to even correspondence with me,i have filed several petition against injustice but nothing has been changed,I am working in the highest administrative office that is in state legislature,but my claim still not entertained by any one,I have been restrained to get promotion on the key post and everyone from the open caste is trying that I should not reach on the top post,though I am possessing requisite qualification and experience as laid down in the appropriate rules,in fact I am facing casteism in the maharashtra state which seems most progressive state in India,what to do i don’t no,i availed every opportunity to redress my grievances but in vain .So this unique example of casteism in services you will find in most of the cases in administration

  4. It’s not that they suffered and it’s now ended it is there..just assume now a girl from muslim community is raped by baman and shatrya in Kashmir,DR Rohit Vemula,Dr Payal tadvi,
    Bundva rape of minor girl on which a movie article 15 is made,a corono patient refuse to eat in quarantine zone because food prepared by dalit or sc women’s.
    A school children are not allowed to take mid day meal because prepared by SC.
    Discrimination is there in almost every village even in cities like Mumbai.
    Why supreme court judges are 90% baman do all the other judges of caste and religion do not have talent.
    Why in all field the captivity is by baman,baniya why.
    Where ever you are staying just check the shops ,posh houses in all jobs hardly you will find SC people why..because caste and religion yet play a major role in India..
    So problematic situation is there but because of the efforts of the great legends the voice of equality is now increasing no doubt yet there is discrimination but will not last much..


  5. All the non-bramins have been facing racial discrimination through centuries todate. In the name of bramin caste brand, they swindle 97% economy to their favour enjoy best food and life without any hard labour.

  6. Stop wasting time on analysing re analysing over researching the past especially vote bank intellectual sand castles like caste narratives like. Wake up The Print. Contemporary matters like how to earn Rs 100 Crores in journalism like Shekhar Gupta and how India must course correct to achieve even a fraction of what so many backward countries China included have achieved in all indices of progress.

  7. Our country is coming out of the caste based wounds, please don’t unearth the controversial past when we have been treading the paths afresh.
    You see these delicate and intricate topics are understood by general public according to their conveniences. Every now and then just throwing the history to counter and finding similarity with anything arround the world is not good.

  8. Exploitation is as old as the human history, it is called slavery when it is done under force.
    The exploitation started reducing with the development of Culture and availability of resources for survival.
    In this process the savage exploitation was watered down in the name of cast system.
    Who knows had we not been under the rule of foreign power ( who were actually trading in slaves) India may have evolved as a different society on our own.
    Can anyone claim there is no exploitation ?

  9. ROTHSCHILDs are still prevalent and ruling the world, not only those $¢um Devils Phule, Ram mohan Roy, Baba Ramji Sakal, Gandhi etc. created by them to ruin India.

  10. What the writer has failed to grasp, is the level of openness hindu society has shown, in the emanicipation of dalits & ati dalits. This inspite of the fact, that at the time of independence, hindu society was largely undeveloped, both economically and otherwise. This can be seen by the universal acceptance of the reservation policy for the last almost 70 years. Steady increase in number of inter caste marriages. Yes, we still have a long way to go. I am sure as, we as a society, develop, evolve, the scourge of caste discrimination will weaken and eventually disappear. This is not going to happen overnight, but eventually it will.

  11. You are confused between shudras and Dalits. Shudras, the fourth caste tier in the Brahmin- imposed hierarchy, included castes like Jats, Gujjars, Kayastha, Patel, Yadav, Kurmis, Lingayats, Reddy, Marathas, Bunts, Nairs, Mudaliar, Vellala…. These were agrarian and royal castes that enjoyed privileges and power though Brahmins called them Shudras. Dalits, who were outside the hour caste tier were the exploited people. You are perpetuating a mistake made by people unfamiliar with the caste system. Shudra is a term that lumped all castes that did not fit into the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vysya definition.

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