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.
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)
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.