Vidya Bhushan Rawat in Conversationwith Dr. R M Pal

Dr R M Pal

Dr. RM Pal (July 17, 1927 – October 13, 2015)

Dr. RM Pal was the principal of the Rajdhani College in Delhi who actively worked with the human rights organization People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), gave lectures on secularism and issue of Dalits and minorities at various government institutions including police academy and other such places. He was an associate of the legendary M.N. Roy. A radical humanist Dr. Pal became President of Delhi PUCL and edited its journal PUCL Bulletin for many years. He also edited The Radical Humanist for many years. This interview was conducted at his Greater Kailash residence several years ago.


VB:  There was an article by MN Roy where he opposed state intervention in education and he supported the privatization of education. He says the state has no business to impose its ideology or impose its views on the children.

RMP: When MN Roy wrote that, he had in mind what Hitler did in Germany because MN Roy could not forget his own past spent in Germany. Hitler there wanted to change the education system because he wanted a healthy woman to marry a healthy man so that the healthy children could we born and they will become better soldiers. That is what Hitler had wanted to do.  Roy was against state intervention in that country because if the state intervenes then it will bring only its philosophy as for instance as you have seen what the NCERT tried to do in the recent past.

VB: It is not only in our recent past because it has been always done by the state in the past also. Much before the BJP came to power the Congress has been doing that the same thing. So, isn’t it time that education be kept away from the state?

RMP: Oh, yes education should be kept for instance these organizations like the UGC or the and NCERT they should be dominated by intellectuals and members who know and understand. I could give you an example also, for instance, if you want to have a historian in the NCERT or in the university grants commission then you must have a historian like RomilaThapar but you mention RomilaThapar to any RashtriyaSwayamsewakSangh (RSS) man his temperature will rise to 105 degrees at once because they can’t stand the name of RomilaThapar because she’s against the inglorious past of India- what we term as a “glorious past.”

I once criticized Soli Sorabjee who wrote an article. He had concluded his article by saying that if you do that then India’s past golden past will be written in gold. One day,I met him in a party and said you could have managed to do without that journalistic thing- he said it is only in India where 10,000 people from Iran came and a Hindu king gave us shelter. I pointed out that it was also in India, for instance, that Jains and the Buddhists had been brutally treated by the Hindus. This is also India’s glorious past. Yes, the real, genuine glorious past will be written in gold but not the kind of past that you are referring to, about what you don’t know anything at all.

That is the kind of understanding of, for example Human Rights education which was you very much and what the NCERT or the UGC wants to do – the formal education with regards to human rights.  (Catering to) every religion- that is not secularism.

VB: So, there is no need for a God in our education system, or is there a need?

RMP: We do not need a God in our education system but unfortunately it is state organizations like UGC and NCERT. Do you know when our pundits started saying that astrology be taught. A university like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) could not go against the government because their grants might be cut so what they did very clever thing. God has not created more clever people than Hindus, let me tell you. They said no we are going to introduce astrology as part of Sanskrit studies. So, astrology was introduced in the Department of Sanskrit.  That’s how they brought astrology to the JNU. Otherwise, many universities rejected that government circular to introduce it as a subject.  The JNU rejected in this manner the Sanskrit Department will teach astrology.

VB:  How did you come into the human rights movement? Was it a coincidence or something happened?

RMP: It is not a coincidence. I came to the human rights movement through MN Roy. MN Roy is known as a humanist and not a human rights intellectual activist. But that’s not true When I came to Dehradun, it was a chance that I came to MN Roy. He asked me he where I lived. I said I don’t have a room. He offered that I could stay in one of the vacant rooms on his premises. So, I started staying there.

I was just talking about the caste system, about the Brahmins. He said that you don’t mean the Brahmin as an individual but as a Brahmanical system. I said yes, but then he saw my interest in the caste system so he told me that there is a book in the library “Caste in India” by an Englishman W.W. Hunt, an Indian Civil Services officer, you can read that. Since he knew that I was totally opposed to the caste system he warned me that the book is a bit pro- caste but if you can give up your prejudices then that book will help you tremendously and he was so right.

I read that book. That is the only book about caste that I read. I think that is wonderful and what a pity a book like that was written by an Englishman or not by an English scholar, not by an Indian. In his writings in number of places he refers to social justice. Even in his (MN Roy’s) prison volumes,there is more reference to social justice than in any other book about the caste system. For instance, he calls it the ugly relic of the past and how to get it up. There he has differences with other intellectuals. MN Roy had many admirers among intellectuals. K.N. Panikkar was one of them so once he asked K.N. Panikkar to write an article for the magazine which he had just started and Panikkar agreed and wrote an article on the caste system and suggested that the state should abolish caste in this country otherwise there is no remedy.

Roy did not agree with him. He said no if you allow the state to do these things then ultimately the state will become a fascist state so this is the thing in the caste system which have been very harmful for India to be tackled by intellectuals. Once they conclude that this is a wrong system then it is they who should take the initiative to see that this thing is removed from our social system, from social norms. Caste should not be allowed to interfere in such matters.

VB: Isn’t it an irony that neither the human rights movement nor the movement for the self- respect or moment for the rights of Dalits,never recognized MN Roy for his contribution?

RMP: It’s a very sad thing for a country like India. Well it is one thing that MN Roy has not been recognized as such. He is dead, so it doesn’t matter to him whether he’s recognized or not but it does matter to our society as such, that some of the wise things that he had recommended are not being followed by either the Dalits or those who consider that the caste system is an evil.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, per whom untouchability and communalism- these are the two most important obnoxious evils in this country. If these are not removed, then India does not deserve to be an independent country. Even he did not recognize the evil thing involved in the varna system. He said the varna system must remain.  I refer you to one thing that is in the Tagore- Gandhi debate.

Tagore asked Gandhiji that you are wrong because if you are against untouchability then you must see that the varnasharm is not the correct system. Gandhi did not agree with him but if you read the correspondence you will see that Tagore was intellectually far superior to Gandhi. Of course, the debate did not provide any conclusion but it is quite clear that even Tagore did not agree with Gandhi on the issue of varnashram but Gandhi was adamant that the varnashram must remain and untouchability can be tackled without disturbing the orders. It is not possible, so where a man like Gandhi has failed we are much too small people, smaller people who will not succeed but even then, we must keep on fighting.

I am only suggesting that among us philosophy of radical humanism is one such philosophy through which the caste system and the Dalit question can be addressed because Dalits have nowhere to go to except to humanism. Dr. Ambedkar recognized it, realized it and that’s why I suggest that he adopted, accepted and converted himself to Buddhism because Buddhism is one religion which is without God. It is a godless religion, so Ambedkar saw that God has done incalculable harm more to Dalits than to the other people in the Hindu society so he brought Buddhism in the picture and he advised his people to convert themselves to Buddhism.

VB:  But you were associated with the PUCL. An organization like the PUCL, which came in the aftermath of emergency 1975. Don’t you think that PUCL and the other organizations have rarely raised the issue of caste and perhaps you had to struggle a lot to bring the issue of the Dalits in these organizations. What are the reasons? Why is there a resistance among the human right groups to raise the issue of caste and Dalits?

RMP: Most unfortunately and regrettably the human rights activists in this country associate human rights violations only with state violation of Human Rights. They did not recognize that societal violation is more dangerous than state violation, or to put it in in a different way if you do not tackle the societal violation, like, for instance communalism, as you have seen in Gujarat. The Dalits know atrocities as human rights as NHRC has recognized recently, if you don’t tackle these then state violation of human rights cannot be tackled. After all, the policeman- where does he come from? He comes from the same strata of society as you and I do.They are the people who are perpetrating atrocities on the Dalits or on Muslims.

This is one thing. Then the other aspect how I came in contact that is from my experience of my village. I am a Bengali and I was born in that part of India which at that time was known as East Bengal, now known as Bangladesh and that was a Hindu majority area and I saw how the Muslims were treated by the Hindus in East Bengal. I maintain that it is because of these Hindu treatments of Muslims that Bengal was partitioned, first in 1905 and then second time in 1947.

One Mrs. JoyaChatterji from the Cambridge University has written a thesis on this subject called “Bengal Divided”. I recommend this book to anybody. Even Gandhi, if he were alive today, I would have gone to Gandhi and said don’t give lecture to anybody- read this book first. Do you know that Gandhi did not take any cooked meal in a Muslim house?So, how can you solve the societal violation of human rights when you have that attitude?

In East Bengal, in my part of Bengal, a Hindu would not drink water even if he is dying even then he will not drink water from a Muslim hand or even in a glass which was first used by a Muslim- no, the question doesn’t arise.

In marriage ceremonies and all that, Muslims- even if they were very important people would not be invited. Even if they are invited, separate arrangements should be made for them separate glasses to drink water and separate plates to eat.

VB: It still existing in Bangladesh today where the Muslims are doing a role reversal. Organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami have launched a war against the minorities, the Hindus. So how do you tackle a situation like this?

RMP: Exactly. Because this, I have maintained all during all these years, that it is majority communalism which is the most dangerous thing. It is not the minority communities, for instance, in our country the RSS talks of Muslim communalism but Muslim communalism is not as dangerous in our country as Hindu majority communalism. To tackle this, again the caste system comes into the picture because we must reform ourselves even though it is true that the reformists have not been able to achieve anything in this country during the last two centuries. They have not but that there is no other way also because if you want to tackle, for instance, recurrence of another Gujarat then how does one go about it? We have seen that the State cannot help, the State does not succeed.

Therefore, intellectuals should come together and have brainstorming sessions one after the other. I can give one example. When the NHRC came into existence I was the first person to write an article against it saying that that the NHRC should be instituted only to tackle the people in our society who are downtrodden and were deprived and therefore the members also should come from those categories. Nobody else mentioned that and when Justice (Ranganath) Mishra became the chairman, people like VM Tarkunde and Rajni Kothari were opposed to his appointment. They were opposed to his appointment only for one reason- because of the anti- Sikh 1984 riots. He was appointed to the Commission and he completely ignored the society which was formed for that purpose and he did not take into account the politicians who were responsible but only dealt with the police and others. I not only told him but told everybody, including Tarkunde that this is wrong, this is nonsense. The killing was not done by the police- the killing was done by the non- policeman, by the willing executioners of the politicians. Therefore, if a commission cannot do that, such a man has no right to become the chairman of the NHRC.

VB: All these Commissions whether it is the National Human Rights Commission or SC, ST Commissions or the National Commission for Minorities- are these institutions being created to give jobs to a few retired people or to those who haven’t made it to the ministry? Like a person heading Minorities Commission is trying to reconcile between the RSS and other organizations. So, is it the job of the Minority Commission to go to tell people that you talk to the VHP, you talk to the RSS? That is what these days the Minority Commission is doing today.

RMP:  You are partially right in that it is meant for people who must be provided jobs. Again, why? Because the state wants to use these institutions to come to the rescue and to help the same for all the wrongdoings that in it indulges in. The NHRC was created primarily with a view to rescue the Indian state at that time because Indian state at that time was under attack from all governments abroad and all funding agencies. They announced that no funding agency will any more give money to India unless they rectify the situation. They thought once NHRC is created it will give a good chit to the government of India and then they will make use of that good status before the UN, Japan, the US and the funding agencies who had announced that they would not give more money to India for any funding purposes.

So far as the Minorities Commission is concerned yes in fact the man who was first appointed the chairperson was a judge from Andhra Pradesh High Court and he was NarasimhaRao’s man. TADA had just come into existence and I tried my best to bring the Minority Commission in the picture. I said look TADA is being used against the Muslims in Gujarat and all that, therefore you should stand up. You may not be able to do anything but at least you should stand up. They did not stand up, but at least the NHRC did and I still remember when the NHRC first held a meeting and invited all, including many NGOs and activists. Then in that meeting the NHRC said, what a shame that a country like India has TADA which is an uncivilized law. The members said it openly in that meeting but again you know that is…

VB:  I read your editorial in the PUCL Bulletin when you talked about NHRC and sometimes futility of the organization but after NHRC’s intervention in two areas particularly on Gujarat and the other on the Durban Conference against racism they came out strongly in support of the Dalit groups as well as in Gujarat. They came out against the communal Gujarat government. Do you think that NHRC has now lived up to its expectation?

RMP: No, I don’t think so. I will tell you how it came about. It is very simple. I was in very close contact with the NHRC when it came into existence where I came to know the secretary-general- one Mr. Pillai whom I found to be a quick learner. I told Mr. Pillai, if you want to survive then you must take up the societal violation. To begin with, you need to have a brainstorming session not in North India but in South India. He asked if I could put this in writing. I said I will give it put in my individual capacity but not on behalf of PUCL. So I wrote it then and there in his office then he offered me a cup of tea, saying, “I will just be with you in another couple of minutes”. He went out of the office and then returned and he says ok, done. We have accepted your proposal in principle that we should have a brainstorming session on the question of human rights of Dalits. I said it should be done not by NHRC alone but in cooperation with some Dalit organizations. They asked me and I suggested one organization in Madras, Dalit Human Rights Trust. They agreed and the first brainstorming session was held in Madras in cooperation with NHRC and I took a leading part in that and subsequently I edited that book and it the proceedings came out as Human Rights of Dalits.

After that I suggested to the NHRC it is very good you have started that and I wrote an editorial in the PUCL bulletin that now the NHRC should divert its attention to the communal riots and they should have a brainstorming session. Unfortunately, they did not pay any heed to that but after that as you know there have been many human rights violations because of communal riots, particularly during the Ratha- yatra and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid- in Surat, in Bombay and in many other parts of Maharashtra and India. So, one day when I was speaking to the members of the Human Rights Commission, they said, Dr. Pal you are right, we should have had that brainstorming session earlier because a lot of damage has been done as you pointed out in your report on Aligarh. A lot of damage has been done.

I said look I am not suggesting NHRC as a panacea for everything but at least you can start a movement so that other people would also be drawn to that. Look, we must start somewhere and see that human rights violations of the Dalits is stopped. Dalits are respected, women are respected, children’s education- all these things are addressed. Unfortunately, there has been no follow up. Their eyes opened only when it started in Gujarat, so they sent a team to Gujarat. But that was too late. The idea is once it started and then you react, it does not work. But at least the NHRC has now recognized this thing (human rights for Dalits). You will be surprised to know when initially I drew their attention to Dalit human rights, they dismissed it in their annual report by using only two words and sent wrong a signal. That’s all.

I wrote on several occasions. I said this is all humbug what do you mean by atrocities. Then I try to draw them- If it is caste system then you must say that the caste system should be tackled. So the NHRC accepted and they did go to Durban and recommended, but without accepting the fact that the caste system is the real evil and unless that evil number one is tackle the evil number two named untouchability or discrimination against Dalits cannot be tackled. That the NHRC has not yet accepted- nor have the other human rights groups in this country. You might have heard of one man who has done good work in this area- Henri Tiphangne in Madurai. One day I asked why can’t you accept that? You should come out openly against the caste system. Then some of them would always say that you don’t know if we say this then we will be completely wiped out. I said who can wipe out? The state would not come against you.

I was wrong and Henri was correct because very recently you might have heard that Henri’s organization was attacked and the police came and they arrested him and all his colleagues and took them to jail because they were so… but the question is that you once you are in this field, once you have a shop, you run your it properly. If not, then close your shop because it is understood once you come out like this, the state or some agencies of the state might like to persecute you. You should be prepared to face that. If you are not prepared to face that, you close your shop. I once told the NHRC when the Chairman was there. I said look so far as human rights violations are concerned you cannot be apologetic in your language. If you are apologetic then close your shop, recommend to the Government of India the NHRC should be closed.

I said look it’s not only you, I have told the PUCL that if you are apologetic, I could bring the Dalit question in the PUCL through the columns of the PUCL Bulletin and thanks to one man Justice Sachar who does not have any special corner for the Dalits but he was a genuine liberal and he was the President of the PUCL at that time. He gave me absolute freedom and liberty to write anything. I mention one small incident. I once wrote in an editorial that unless the caste system is abolished lock, stock and barrel, it is of no use. The Human Rights movement in this country cannot flourish.

Once at their annual conference in Bombay, Nissim Ezekiel, one of the best-known Indo- English poet was there to inaugurate the session and he stood up and he says, “I have been reading the few PUCL Bulletin from first word to the last and I have read your editorial in which it says it unless the caste system is abolished lock, stock and barrel human rights movement cannot start.” He said I don’t agree with you because then there are other systems in other religions so that means we must first tackle with those. I said well I’m sorry Mr. Ezekiel, I hold this view and your political guru and my political guru, we are guru- bhai because we have learnt from the same guru because Nissim Ezekiel was also at one time a Royist.Just as I started arguing with him, Justice Sachar stood up and said look I am the chairperson of the PUCL and I want to intervene at this stage because our editor Dr. Pal has the complete freedom to give expression to his views and I know. Once I rang him up because when he quoted the Gita I thought he was wrong so immediately he cut me short by saying on the telephone he says Judge sahib, if you think if you don’t agree with me just give me a hint and I will stop writing but I said no, you must continue writing but I only wanted to tell you that your quotation from the Gita is not the correct it is not the most appropriate one. Then he asked me is it the correct one? I told him yes have quoted correctly from the Gita but I only say that it is not the appropriate one in relation to the varna system. That’s all. And after that he went on writing about the caste system in the same language and manner as he has been writing. He has complete freedom, Mr. Ezekiel, and he is not compelling you or me to accept his point of view but he has the right to bring it to our notice and I am grateful to him that he has brought this subject on the PUCL agenda and not only on the PUCL agenda. I am sure he will bring it on many other agendas because this is an important issue. Our political guru Dr. Lohia also thought about this like this and he wrote also extensively on this subject like this.

VB:   I want to talk about the paradox of Indian human rights movement or intellectual circles. They are very comfortable talking in terms of communalism, the question of Gujarat, question of Meerut riots or Maliana riots, in Moradabad or Bombay in 1992 we saw a number of groups sitting on a dharna the Raj Ghat this number of people expressing their deep anguish over what had happened to the Babri Masjid but when the question of Dalits comes, the people who are secular intellectuals or secular human right activists keep a conspicuous silence. Why is this paradox? Why the same people don’t come and say that what has happened against Dalits is wrong. We have so many mass protests against war in Iraq but when it comes to where Dalits are massacred, people do not hear that much of a media protest, that kind of protest from intellectuals, that kind of reporting even from organizations like the PUCL. We have very good reports from PUCL on Kashmir but why not the same kind of reports on Dalits?

RMP: I was a member of the Dalit caucus and I went to Durban. There were many groups to represent many aspects of this thing. There was a group from Pakistan and the Pakistan High Commission officials came to the tentof the (Pakistani participants) and found then out how they were doing. Nobody from the Indian High Commission came. Not even a junior secretary turned up to find out how the Indian groups were doing. I rang up a secretary in the High Commission. He said sorry, we don’t have time because so many VIPs are coming here. I asked who is coming. He said today a Justice so and so from the NHRC. I said he is a friend of mine you can tell him that he can manage without a secretary from the High Commission but at least once you should go to the tent. He said, no, sorry. So, nobody turned up. That is the concern of our people.

The NHRC was there but they also did not turn up to find out, but one thing the NHRC did do before the Durban Conference. They held a session and invited a good number of intellectuals and activists to discuss this issue because the Dalit caucus felt that this should come on the agenda of the UN that this is a straightforward human rights violations and Government of India was resisting. We and the Dalit caucus and intellectuals said that this is by birth and the government of India’s representative said no even the NHRC said no this is not by birth. We do not recognize our Constitution does not recognize any discrimination because of birth. I argued that the Constitution may not, but does it exist?  If it exists then our only request is that you should adopt it, that’s all. We failed, I as a member of the Dalit group I must say to my great shame that we failed and where we failed miserably.  The UN did not put it on the agenda.

VB:  Was just the government opposed to it or were there groups also so- called human rights groups also? That’s why it’s a paradox I referred to.

RMP:  Not human rights groups but several intellectuals accepted this fact that the Dalit question is a very serious question but they would not accept the fact that it is it is because of birth that is discrimination, due to birth that nobody would see. Asghar Ali Engineer has brought out a book edited by him, he has collected all the articles written during that period and he has given the title “The Mandal Commission Controversy” and I suggest you just go through the articles to the kind of people who wrote- all middle-class intellectuals from universities but nobody would accept this thing. That is where we failed. We failed because our intellectuals failed us.

VB: But are these things, like you talked about, as Asghar Ali Engineer’s book.Do you think we have continuously been trying to be apologetic about our caste? Like Asghar Ali Engineer there are many others who say that this thing is not written in our text book. This doesn’t happen, it is some Hindutva sort of people, they are involved on casteism or communalism otherwise our holy text books are very fine, very nice and we are had a very golden past. I know that you have been writing that our past has never been golden so don’t you think that we have come to a stage where we can say that our past is not glorious and that intellectuals are doing a great damage when they’re trying to hide this kind of a thing?

RM:  Oh yes, I couldn’t agree more because we want to bask in the sun of our past glory. But what is the past glory? For instance, today Bangladesh had one heritage of which they should be proud of and they are now restoring – that is the Baul singers. Baul singers, as you know, they are both Muslims and Hindus and now the mullahs, the fundamentalists in Bangladesh have come down very heavily on the Bauls in some villages in Murshidabad district. If I can think of any practicing humanists in this country or in this part of the world, in South Asia, then Bauls are the only practicing humanists because if you ask Fakir Shah Lallan, the most important Muslim Baul singer, his most important song is “People ask me my religion, I tell them I have no religion and whatever I had I have thrown it away in the marketplace“. Then he says in one song that if there is a Brahmin male you know he is a Brahmin because he has put on the pita that is the sacred thread but how do you know if you see a woman how do you know that she is a Brahmin because she does not use the pita.

These are the kind of songs the Bauls sing and a fatwa has been issued by the fundamentalist mullahs that they must be socially boycotted. People should not sell them anything and they must not be allowed to irrigate their land, they must not be allowed to buy anything from any Muslim shop meaning total boycott in Murshidabad. Similarly, in our country we can be proud of our past, for example, our Buddhist past or our materialist past. No, I don’t think in recent times we have come across any article written by any intellectual in our country about this past. They will always talk of the past of Rama and Krishna and all.

I don’t know how one can be proud of Rama…

VB: It is a blasphemy to say anything about him. When Dr. Ambedkar wrote the “Riddles of Rama and Krishna”, there were protests. It was banned which showswe are not a mature society, not a civilized society.

RMP: Not at all. If we want to be a civilized society we must do away with the ugly relic of the past. This phrase is by Roy, we must do with this ugly thing of the past and that is why he talks of Renaissance. Renaissance means revival of the past and when you revive the past you retain the good things and bury the bad things. That is what the European Renaissance did, that they retained the good things of Greek and Roman civilization and buried the ugly past- for instance the Pope would prescribe which book to read and which book not to read. The Europeans retained ideas like democracy from the Greeks and during the Renaissance they came to recognize the fact that man is created in his own image not in God’s image. Otherwise the Catholic Church would prescribe that man is created in God’s image.

That is the kind of revolution, a philosophical revolution we must bring about. One may not agree with many things that MN Roy has said but this one thing- that is unless you bring about a philosophical revolution to be followed by a social revolution I don’t see any future, the kind of future that for instance Europe achieved.

VB: We are still uncomfortable with criticism and dissent, particularly this is an instinct in South Asia. If I say TaslimaNasreen writes something, some Muslims will come up, if Ambedkar writes something the Hindus will come up and we try to defend ourselves saying, look the government banned TaslimaNasreen’s books so it must ban this and every community is using the other for its own purposes

RMP: I recommend an essay by Prof. Sibnarayan Ray in the book ‘The Human Rights of Dalits’ which I edited. He has drawn our attention to this fact, that a Muslim cannot criticize the Allah or some of the deeds of the prophets. So, you bring a law like the obnoxious blasphemy law in Pakistan. Do you know that Bangladesh is now thinking of introducing that law? Introducing that law in Bangladesh means the minorities will be completely wiped out the few remaining Buddhists, Hindus and Christians who have been left behind in Bangladesh.

The main purpose of the blasphemy law is that the minority property must be taken away by the majority, the Muslims and they have already thrown away the Buddhists from Bangladesh. Almost the entire Buddhist population from Bangladesh has come to Tripura state, which is known as Chittagong Hill Tracts. I remember I was at the University of Leeds during the Bangladesh war. There were many students from East Pakistan at that time. They organized a function to celebrate the birth of Bangladesh. I was also invited to speak. I spoke and I said I am happy and I am hoping Bangladesh will be different from other South Asian countries because Bangladesh has a different kind of past, namely, a Buddhist past, a Baul past, a Nazrul past- not merely a Tagore past. But the kind of thing we see now in Bangladesh, I think I should confess that I was wrong, because Bangladesh is also adopting the same. In fact, I read about it from a journalist who wrote an article for us at the Radical Humanist, that the mullahs are pressing the government to introduce the blasphemy law.

The blasphemy law exists everywhere in the world- section 125 is the blasphemy law in our country also, but in Pakistan they introduced many other sections where they made the death penalty mandatory, that is if a non-Muslim speaks a word critical of the Prophet, the mandatory punishment is death.Similarly, the Ahmadiyyas. Do you know that the Ahmadiyyas were declared non- Muslim not by Zia-ul-Haq but by a great liberal like Bhutto It is Bhutto, when he was the President of Pakistan, who declared the Ahmadiyyas as non- Muslim? As a matter of fact, Islamisation in Pakistan started with Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq only perfected it. Zia-ul-Haq brought all these sections to it. Death penalty became mandatory. So now in Bangladesh also they have started; they have declared the Ahmadiyyas non- Muslim. Ahmadiyyas are the best of soldiers; the best of scholars. The same thing is existing in our country, in a much bigger way. In India, it is in a much bigger way than it is in Pakistan or it is going to be in Bangladesh.

VB: Are you satisfied the secular response in the Asian Subcontinent like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, whether they are strong voices, small voices or marginal voices against the religious fundamentalism or is it the same kind of liberal fad? As you have pointed out liberalism is sometimes dangerous.

RMP: The secular voice in India is very weak, it is not articulate at all and there is no secular movement in India. If you want a secular state, then the first thing you must talk about is that you should have secular morality and not religious morality. In India, we are practicing religious morality but we declare that we are a secular state, this is a contradiction in terms.  Even secular intellectuals, they are also…

VB: That means secularism and multiculturalism are two different issues and what we opted for was a multicultural society not a secular society?

RM: No. We are using this pluralism in a very wrong context. When we say, ours is a pluralist society, we want to mean but don’t, that ours is a tolerant society. So, pluralism and tolerance are being used interchangeably and I suggest, very wrongly because a pluralist society need not be automatically a tolerant society. Yes, it is true, we have inherited a pluralism, but have not inherited tolerance.

VB: But do you support a French kind of law, as the French government banned religious signs in the government aided schools, do you support that kind of secularism in India, that we don’t want to have any religious symbol in Government agencies, government schools, and government buildings. Do you think we should have that kind of a secular approach?

RMP: That will be again empowering the state with arbitrary powers which may lead to fascism and the birth of a fascist state. Soviet Russia tried after the revolution but failed and the church has come back in post- Soviet Russia with a vengeance. It is the Orthodox Church which is dominating in Russia today. They tried to abolish religion in communist Russia, but they failed.

VB: But don’t you think the State in India is buckling under every religious “politics?” You can change laws for appeasing the Muslim mullahs, you can allow the Sikh women not to wear a helmet when it was made mandatory. So isn’t it a fact that we always do that kind of a knee jerk approach as far as dealing with religious fundamentalism?

RMP: The only difference between you and me could be that you may suggest, obliquely, that it is the state, that should jump in these affairs. I am only suggesting, no, it is the intellectuals even if they are weak today, they must come together and have brainstorming sessions one after the other to tackle these issues. For instance, the kind of approach in Pakistan, that the mullahs are being tackled in Pakistan more by the human rights activists than by the state today. I was there a few years ago, in Lahore. I met many women activists. One of them was a chain smoker, so I said, how come in a Muslim society are you can do that in a Muslim society?

She said it became a habit during Zia-ul-Haq’s time. Some of the women started doing so to show our protest against his regime. Women were being forbidden to drink or smoke in public and the burqa was re-introduced, so we took to the cigarette in protest. It then became a habit. My parents came from Azamgarh to Karachi, for a girl from Azamgarh to be a chain smoker, that is the example I can give you.

For instance, the movement against death sentence in our country is not as strong as it is in Pakistan. Pakistan Human Rights Commission, which is a Non- Governmental Organization (NGO), has been agitating against the death sentence for the last several years even though the government there is persecuting. So even if today we are weak, the intellectuals, we have no other option but to go on raising our voice and find out the answer to these questions outside the state intervention.

VB: But we still talk of the rule of law.

RMP: Yes, rule of law is very important. As you have given the example, using the helmet is a law in our country, now if the Sikhs came out claiming that this law cannot be applied to them. I did not agree. I wrote for the PUCL bulletin also, I said I do not agree because it is against the rule of law.

VB: A player like Navjot Singh Sidhu or Maninder Singh is playing cricket. They will never refuse to wear the helmet if they are facing Imran Khan or somebody else. Then god will never save them?Or isn’t it a fact that we keep silent when see minority fundamentalism and that is why it is giving rise to the majority fundamentalism of the majority community in India. Like we have the recent case of the Bollywood film ‘Sin’. The Catholic community in India is protesting it because they say that it is against their culture, against their religion. In it a priest is shown having an illicit relationship with a girl and they say it is an attack on the Christian community. It is like what happened in London this year, a play by GurpreetKaur based on the life of a Sikh woman, and the Sikhs objected to it. But I have heard very few voices in India protesting it. Why is it that when this minority fundamentalism comes up, we keep quiet and if there is a certain thing that comes up from the Hindu system we all jump up and cry and that gives a kind of strength to the RSS.

RMP: Another recent example, the Calcutta Muslims. Do you know in Calcutta, the population ratio of Muslims to Hindus is one Muslim for seven Hindus? Some sections of the Muslims raised a voice against SaniaMirza. They objected to her putting on that dress while playing but fortunately amongst the Muslims, because the Hindus are also there, immediately a leadership came up, they said, no, SaniaMirza has brought India on top of the world in the field of tennis and therefore we should applaud that and not decry her dress. She must put on that dress, it is obligatory. The Calcutta Muslim community started applauding SaniaMirza after that. It’s true, the Hindu Intellectuals were also there and joined the Muslims. That should be the kind of approach. I don’t suggest that if we raise our voice against the Sikhs, the entire Sikh community will be against the Hindus. No, it will not be.

VBR: But we keep quiet on that.

RM: Yes, but we must not fight shy of that. That if the Muslims, for instance, I still remember a few years ago, I have a friend in Karachi, Mr M BNaqvi He is a very well-known name as he was The Times of India’s Pakistan correspondent for many years. For some time before partition, he was for a short while, associated with the Radical Democratic Party of M.N Roy. I know him that well. One day, we were coming from Calcutta together in the same train, same compartment and I said, ‘The Quran gives security to women’. He said, it’s all humbug, nowhere is it written in the QuranthatMuslim women are equal to Muslim men.

He came to Delhi. I was in the Indian Social Institute so I organized a lecture for him. I introduced him saying he was one of the most progressive and highly educated Muslims I had come across; he lives in Karachi. The audience there in the Indian Social Institute, majority were Muslim. I raised the topic that I request Mr. Naqvi to speak about the human Rights of women in Pakistan and he came down so heavily on the Quran. He said Hindu intellectuals have caused a lot of damage to usbecause they said Quran gives equal rights to women. This is all humbug, and I request them not to spread such misinformation.

He went on to say that since you are from Bangladesh so you should know that in Chittagong and in Comilla, the burqa is the most common thing but you go to North Bengal, Rampur and all that you don’t find any burqa. So again, it is the cultural improvement that has been taking place among the Muslims by the Muslims.

Whatever we have achieved in Pakistan, it has been achieved by the Muslims and by our effort, not by the effort of the progressive intellectuals outside the Muslim community either in Pakistan or outside Pakistan. ” I am Muslim”, he said it openly. I have read the Quran so many times and I don’t know many things about the Quran and a non-Muslim who might have read the Quran, pointing out to me, he said, you might have read the Quran only once you know and based on your reading the Quran only once, you pass judgement which are at best, I can say,judgment.

VB: That is what I want to ask, like in our education system, because you are involved with the Human Rights Education also and University Grant Commission and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in a joint effort for human right education. What kind of education system do we have that we can’t even tell our children that there is a caste system or we can’t tell our children that there something wrong in our values? Can we?

RMP: No! It is not in our book, and if it is, we remove it.  It happenedin my own family. One day my younger daughter came home from her school. She read in a secular school. She asked her mother What caste do we belong to?”.My wife asked what made you ask the question. My daughter says, you know what happened today, we had a civics class and the caste system was being discussed. After the class was over, all the girls were asking one another “What is your caste?”  They also asked me and I said I don’t know.So, my wife told her, that is the best answer in the future also, say ‘I don’t know’.

That is how we become caste conscious and the NCERT books have mentioned this and those books have been withdrawn. Unfortunately, in our textbooks, these facts are not mentioned, these are not taught to our children. So how can you know about our evils, unless it is being taught? You are right- it is our education system.

VB: What is the main challenge for the human rights movement in India?

RMP: In India, the main challenge is the societal violation of human rights. Unless the societal violation of human rights is tackled, no other human rights violation can be done away with.

VB: So how do we do with this international covenants or the Atrocities Act?

RM: International covenants, the Atrocities Act…… but intellectual brainstorming session’s one after the other, that must continue.

VB: And we should be ready to challenge our past

RMP: Oh, Yes! Absolutely

VB: What has been your most successful achievement in the human rights field?

RMP:  My most successful achievement has been to introduce the human rights of Dalits to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) movement. Two years after that, PUCL, in their national conference, kept this as subject the main subject for discussion, after I started that.

The second is that I succeeded in organizing the brainstorming session in Madras on the Human Rights of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). I am only suggesting that, if you go on discussing, intellectual discussion, then some results are bound to accrue. Otherwise only depending on the UN or a conference like Durban, which I saw, we failed there miserably.

I should give you a very simple instance, did you get to negotiate to, talk to other delegates to support us in our cause? I spoke to one British delegate, so I was talking about the caste system and he says, what is the caste system? I said, come on, you haven’t heard of that. He said, no.I said, you people ruled our India for two hundred years, more than two hundred years and you don’t know what is caste system. I said, when you go back and talk to people, they will laugh at your ignorance. I was not even able to bring the Bangladesh representative to support us.

VB: I wanted to draw your attention to the fact that though we had a very strong materialist past, what had Lokayatdarshan, we had Buddhism, we had Kabir, we had Charvak, all these kinds of legends but today the humanist tribe in India is looking like an endangered species. What is the reason?

RMP: In our country, humanism is juxtaposed only against religion. I suggest this is the western approach. This is the western approach because in the West, Catholicism has played havoc. Any humanist movement in Europe or in the USA will naturally rise against and their number one enemy will be the Catholic Church. But in India if I start from the assumption that my number one enemy is Hinduism, then I cannot succeed as a humanist.

VB: Why?

RMP: For instance, the number one enemy in our country is the absence of social democracy. That is the number one enemy. Everybody is celebrating today Lalu Prasad’s defeat, but I have been feeling very sad because one single contribution by Lalu Prasad Yadav is to bring about reasonable success in the field of social democracy in Bihar. That nobody recognizes. The number one enemy in this country is the absence of social democracy and this absence of social democracy arises out of the caste system. Any humanist movement in our country must tackle the question of social justice which intimately is connected with social democracy. Nobody talks about this one simple thing that political democracy can never succeed anywhere in the world without a very strong articulate social democracy. That is how the humanist movement in our country should start….

VB: What are the meeting points of humanism and human rights?

RMP: For instance, societal violation of human rights is the most important.

Materialism is the right approach for any human rights activist, like say among Dalits or for instance the kind of philosophy that Dr. Ambedkar had shown, or Phule had indicated. That is the meeting point. They were very great human rights activists. I cannot think of anyone, a more active human rights activist than Ambedkar or Phule in this country.

As a matter of fact, I have always been wondering, the human rights movement in our country, their most important members should be Dalits because they have nowhere else to go except to a Humanist Philosophy, to a materialist philosophy. If you bring God to them or you take them to God, they are finished again.

VB: But that hasn’t happened.

RMP: Yes, that hasn’t happened. I tried in a small way in this area, when the Babri Masjid was demolished. In this area, I talked to this people,Mochii.e shoemaker and all-they are my good friends. When I fell ill, they are the people who first came to see me and then I asked them what have you done (by voting for the BJP)?

They said, sir, we voted for Vijay Kumar Malhotra (the BJP’s candidate) to govern, not to demolish the mosque and build a Ram temple. It’s not their job,that is the job of the priests and pundits. It is not the government’s job to build temples, this cannot continue.

And I spoke like that to many individuals and every Tuesday, Hindus particularly, they go to temple- Hanuman mandir. So, one day I went there. I found that Sitaram, my tailor, was not there. I enquired from his neighbor about his whereabouts.

He said it is Tuesday today, he has gone to the temple in Greater Kailash today.

I said Sitaram doesn’t have enough to eat, what business does he have going to the temple? Only the rich go to the temples. The next time they said, you are right, sir. We should not be voting for those who talk of mandir- masjid disputes.

So, it’s not that people don’t or will not but even among the Dalits, when you talk to them about Periyar, you are not going to be a popular man, because Periyar is no longer a Dalit. The Dalits do not accept him as their leader or as their benefactor, although nobody else did as much for the cause as Periyar did.

VB: What has been your regret? Is there any regret that you feel so far you have not been able to do or you want to do?

RMP: My one regret has been that the failure in the Durban Conference. That we were not able to put it on the agenda — the discrimination against Dalits in this country, comes from caste and birth. That is a real great regret. Because I think it is very correct and we should have been able to make the UN leaders understand this issue.

VB: What message would you like to give to the new youth who are entering the human rights field and humanist movement?

RMP: Well, I am not so important to give any message but I can only say that I try to practice what I say or what I have been writing all these years. Some of you may be familiar it. There is no shortcut to having a new philosophy for India, for Hindus, Muslims and for all, a progressive philosophy which then would be followed by social revolution because no social revolution without a proper philosophy can ever succeed. We have the French revolution. The French Revolution succeeded because of the Encyclopedic movement. Unfortunately, we don’t have one.

Young people may not be able to bring about a philosophical revolution in this country tomorrow. But Ambedkar -you may say anything about him – but he did succeed in bringing a kind of philosophical revolution. For instance, his interpretation of Dhamma. Many Buddhist scholars attacked him saying that Ambedkar is wrong and he’s treading on dangerous ground but he did it. So, either you follow his interpretation of Nirvana, for instance, even the most orthodox of the educated Buddhists understand today Nirvana in the way that the Hindus interpret Nirvana but Ambedkar struck to his ground and says no, Nirvana means that is the Karma you know you get the result of  Karma only in this world  not after that and death is not  Mukti or is not  there’s no transmigration of  souls and he struck to his ground.  He did not believe in the transmigration of soul and he did not believe in the kind of Nirvana that our Hindu philosophy has been teaching. That is the kind, in a small way, Ambedkar.

Another example, Mahatma Phule had started but unfortunately he was not able to bring about this kind of anti-Brahmin movement in Maharashtra, at least in the political field- something like the BahujanSamaj, but he failed or maybe he did not have enough time to pursue that. Therefore, young people in our country must get involved with the younger people from the minorities and from the Dalits and try to have brainstorming among them.  You must because if society does not become a better society then whether one is a Dalit or one is an upper caste both are going to suffer ultimately.

That is the only thing and to say the state would come to our rescue, I don’t agree, and don’t believe in that

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter  @freetohumanity




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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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