An Afro-Dalit Story

On January 30, 1998, I went on air with Ron Daniels for his two-hour radio
program on the National Urban Radio Network. The theme for the show was
Gandhi and Dr. King, since it was the 50th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination.
After a brief back and forth, we went to the phones. From the first call
onward, folks asked about Gandhi’s relationship with the Dalits as well
as the condition of Dalits in contemporary India. One caller referred to
the Dalits as Black Untouchables and asked if I knew a book by V. T. Rajshekar.

I was very pleased with the experience, mainly because it is rare to find
a U.S. audience so informed about things Indian. But I was also curious
to know about this interest amongst African Americans for the social struggles
of Dalits. I knew that in India the progressive community took a keen interest
in the lives of Black Americans, from the time of the 1931 Scottsboro incident
through the persecution of Paul Robeson and now with the trials of Mumia
Abu Jamal. Solidarity with African Americans is second nature to the Indian
Left: when King came to India in 1959, he was overwhelmed by the reception
accorded him.

The intimation of solidarity that King felt in India was an aftermath of
the great Afro-Asian Conference held at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 (covered
by Richard Wright in a fine book, The Color Curtain). The Bandung Spirit
reflects an anti-racist and anti-imperialist experiment with solidarity,
one that floundered in the vise of the Cold War. The people who asked about
the Dalits, however, did not seem motivated by Bandung. They saw the Dalits
as long-lost Africans, people so identified by the color of their skin
(if not their genetic roots). I found this puzzling.

I turned to V. T. Rajshekhar’s Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India,
first published in 1979, but reprinted in an expanded edition by Clarity
Press of Atlanta in 1987. Rajshekar’s book began with the premise that
Dalits are part of the African diaspora and that they are the first settlers
in the Indian subcontinent. “It is said,” he writes, “that India and Africa
was one land mass until separated by the ocean. So both the Africans and
the Indian Untouchables and tribals had common ancestors. Besides,” he
argues, Dalits “resemble Africans in physical features.”

This was just what Runoko Rashidi says he saw during his 1999 tour of India.
“In Orissa,” he says, “I saw and photographed the blackest human beings
I’ve ever seen. In fact, it is my impression that the blackest people were
here most highly esteemed and considered better than the others, who were
not so dark.” These “blackest human beings” Rashidi identified as the
the Black Untouchables.

In the mid-1980s, as a young student Rashidi heard Ivan van Sertima speak
at UCLA. Van Sertima was already well known for his attempt to show that
Africans came to the Americas long before the Europeans. “What we are doing,”
he has since said, “is reconstituting the history of African people around
the world. We have come to reclaim the house of history.” Van Sertima encouraged
an enthusiastic Rashidi to pursue his thoughts about the ancestry of ancient

“All people came from Africa,” Rashidi argues, “but some people more than
others.” He adopts the arguments that humanity begins in Africa (whether
in Aramis, Ethiopia, Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya, or the Jukskei River,
South Africa). All people are African, he told me, but that was millions
of years ago. Some people are African more recently. Dalits fall into that

In 1999, Human Rights Watch (New York) published a report on the Dalits
(literally broken or oppressed people) of India, a population that now
numbers about 160 million. Before the growth of a self-conscious Dalit
movement a few decades ago, the terms most commonly used to designate this
population were ‘Untouchable’ and “Harijan” (“Children of God,” a term
used by Gandhi). Human Rights Watch found that the situation of Dalits
was deplorable and called their condition “hidden apartheid.” Despite India’s
very progressive laws, HRW found that Dalits do not enjoy the protections
to which they are entitled.

“If there are any people more oppressed than Dalits,” Rashidi notes, “I
don’t want to see it. Nothing compares to that.” Ken Cooper, who was bureau
chief for the Washington Post in New Delhi, notes that “as an African American
I used to think American racism was the most stifling obsessive system
of oppression in the world, with the exception of what was South African
apartheid. After my stay in India, I am sure the caste system was and continues
to be worse—it has religious sanction and has been ingrained for 3000 years.”
Comparative oppression is not a useful exercise, since each society seems
to conjure up its own form of barbarity. Nevertheless, both Rashidi and
Cooper make the case quite forcefully that Dalit life is painfully hard.

Little that HRW catalogued is new to either the Dalits or to the many agencies
and political organizations who have been at work for social justice in
India. As with social justice work elsewhere, there are many factors that
prevent the emancipation of the Dalits. The main causes of atrocities against
Dalits, the Indian government acknowledges, are “disputes and conflicts
arising from land, wages, bonded labour and indebtedness.” Without widespread
economic change, any movement for social justice will falter.

Many Dalit groups, taking their cue from civil liberties organizations,
ignore much of the economic ground for untouchability. Communist leader
Brinda Karat notes that “only Communist inspired movements, enabled by
the active participation of Dalits, have led to concrete gains against casteism.” In West Bengal, she shows, the Communist government initiated
land reform that now forms “the backbone of Dalit self-respect and dignity
in the State.”

If the Dalits, now one-sixth of the Indian population, did forge a united
bloc, then it might be easy to fight the power of untouch- ability. However,
there are many oppressed communities across the country who are considered
Dalit by the government and by scholars, but who do not see unity amongst
themselves. In a recent book of synthesis, the Belgian scholar Robert Deliège
argues that Dalits “do not constitute a uniform community with its own
culture; they are widely integrated into the local communities and share
the basic values of these communities. If untouchability can be said to
have one primary characteristic, it is this fragmentation, which binds
them inexorably to the very communities that reject them.” The Dalit movement,
of late, has attempted to forge this unity, and it has found the going
rough. In June 1972, the Dalit Panthers was formed in Bombay (named from
and inspired by the Black Panthers), a group who attempted to be a main
agent of unity. However, it has since degenerated into bourgeois nationalism.

Racialist nationalism, of the sort preached by Rashidi and Rajshekar, is
an understandable reaction to racism, but it is not an effective, nor morally
defensible, anti-racist strategy. “We say you don’t fight racism with racism,”
said the late Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (in 1969 before his assassination
by the U.S. government). “We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”
who has been to India three times, was contrite about the way he represents
Dalits in the U.S. “I feel bad about it. I oversimplified to make it palatable
to a Black constituency. I’ve given the impression that Dalits are Black
people. Dalits, I now find, are a social and economic group, more than
a racial group.” Nevertheless, Rashidi holds that “large sections of the
Dalits would be seen as Black people if they lived anywhere else” and that
the connections between Africans and Dalits “go beyond phenotype.”

In the 1920s, several Black American writers took an interest in the struggles
led by M. K. Gandhi. While writing of the non-violence campaign, they also
wrote at length about the Dalit struggles for emancipation. Sudharshan
Kapur’s Raising Up a Prophet: The African American Encounter with Gandhi
(Beacon, 1992) offers a useful catalogue of these writings and of the deep
interest taken by African Americans in Dalit lives. However, few African
Americans felt the need to seek biological kin with the Dalits, since they
argued (like Dr. Howard Thurman) that the two communities “do not differ
in principle and in inner pain.”

Seventy years later, Ken Cooper, in Delhi, sought out Dalit intellectuals
who soon took refuge in his office. “African Americans and Dalits share
a common history of oppression based on skin color,” Cooper says. Skin
color, however, is a very unclear mark for oppression, since in India skin
color does not directly correlate to one’s caste.

If the basis of oppression is not identical, at any rate two oppressed
communities can certainly share strategies of struggle with each other.
That King drew from Gandhi is one example of this. Since Dalit rights are
enshrined in the Indian Constitution, Cooper wondered what the implications
would have been had the Civil Rights movement won that position in the
U.S.? Troy Duster of the University of California at Berkeley is currently
at work on a comparative project on caste oppression in the U.S., South
Africa, and India.

The question of political linkages is of interest to the Black Radical
Congress’s International Commission/Caucus (June 19-21, 2000), which will
meet to discuss, among other things, the Dalit situation. The BRC and Cooper
stay along the grain of W. E. B. Du Bois, rather than Rashidi and Rajshekar.
In 1940, Du Bois reflected on his relationship with Africa. “Neither my
father nor my father’s father ever saw Africa or knew its meaning or cared
overmuch for it,” he wrote. “But the physical bond is least and the badge
of color relatively unimportant save as badge; the real essence of this
kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult;
and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but
extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that
draws me to Africa.”

During his 1999 trip to India, Rashidi was greeted by a section from the
Communist Party at Trivandrum airport with shouts of “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal”
and the moderator at his program in Bhubaneswar read extracts from Claude
McKay’s autobiography. Such emblems of internationalism come to us frequently
from anti-colonial nationalism. It is no secret that the first Afro-Asian
Conference at Bandung (1955) did not attempt to erase differences, but
brought different people together on a platform to combat racism and imperialism.
The Bandung style, however flawed, provoked people across the world to
put their shoulder to the wheel of other people’s struggles, to give solidarity.

Vijay Prashad is assistant professor of International Studies at Trinity
College, CT. He is the author of
Untouchable Freedom: A Social History
of a Dalit Community (Oxford University Press) and Karma of Brown Folk
(University of Minnesota Press).