Mr Arun Kumar, General Secretary, Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations ( FABO), UK and Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford in conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat
VB: When did you arrive in UK? What were the reasons of coming to UK?
AK: I came to UK in 1977. In India, after Matriculation, I joined government service in the Punjab Civil Secretariat at Chandigarh as a clerk in 1969. During my eight years in this service, most of the time I was a student in the Punjab University Evening College, Chandigarh and completed my MA in Political Science. During my 2nd year in MA, I was elected as the class representative to represent students. At that time, the Scheduled Caste students studying in the evening colleges used to get stipends under the Govt. of India scheme. But the GOI stopped those stipends and students were hit financially. With the help and support of ST/BC Employees Union, campaigned and lobbied Punjab government headed by CM, Giani Zail Singh to continue the scheme. Consequently we were successful and scholarships were restored by the Punjab Government.
To bring some flavour in the dull lives of the government employees, Punjab Secretariat Naveen Rang Manch, a social, drama and cultural organisation of govt employees was set up in 1972 and I was one of the founder members of this organisation. As a Publicity Secretary, I was instrumental in staging a number of plays in the Chandigarh’s prestigious Tagore Theatre in the presence of several Ministers, Chief Minister of Punjab and other government high officials. I remained in that position since its inception till I left the government job.
I was also active in Punjab Civil Secretariat Employees Union. I went on fast for 48 hours in 1972 during a strike in 1972. The 20 point programme by Mrs. Indira Gandhi during emergency was very much in favour of the poor people especially for SC/STs. Non Scheduled Caste people were forming a front to oppose reservation. After the emergency, the government employee Union openly started campaigning against reservation. I along with other SC employees came out from the main union and started taking interest in the Scheduled Caste and Backward Employees Union. Non Scheduled Caste Union was formed first in the Punjab Civil Secretariat which later on spread to all india especially in Gujarat where a number of SC/Sts were killed when doctors went on strike. . SC employees were being harassed and humiliated. They were feeling very insecure and needed protection. That was the time when BAMCEF was formed.
As a government employee, I also faced harassment and discrimination. As a result of one of the prominent members of the organising committee of the social club, I was quite popular amongst the government employees and had direct access to the officers. Nobody knew that I was belonging to SC. But the officials in the establishment branch which dealt with confidential reports, leave etc knew the record of every individual employee. They were quite jealous with me moving around with officers of high ranks than them. They wanted to find an excuse to frame me. As mentioned earlier I was studying in the evening college. I asked for a leave for the preparation of my MA exams and they refused. I was depressed and went to doctor and he gave me sick note for four weeks and I appeared in the exams. When I went back, I was given a show cause notice saying that my illness was an excuse for appearing in the exams. I told them that one could appear in the exams while he was ill. But they didn’t agree with me and I was censured. After a year, my junior was promoted and I was ignored. That hit me hard and I questioned the decision. In spite of my immaculate service record throughout my service, I became the victim of caste discrimination. When everybody else was doing the same thing, no action was taken against them. I decided to challenge the decision. Coincidently I was working in the Social Welfare branch. As I had a good rapport with my seniors, I went straight to my Deputy Secretary who was also one of the patterns of our social club, was quite helpful to me in my studies and wanted me to appear in IAS. I explained the entire situation to him and he immediately phoned the Secretary concerned. Within a week, I had the promotion orders in my hands. The Establishment branch did another cheek and transferred me to a branch in which the in charge was another SC. But the work load was so heavy nobody attended that particular work from months. Whosoever was put on that work took medical leave and got transferred. My Superintendent called me and explained me that I was deliberately transferred on this seat so that he would be forced to make a complaint against me. That would give bad name to him and me. Being a SC incharge, he didn’t want to harm me. I assured him not to worry. It was a hard work and I had to spend my own time by overstaying in the office for clearing the work load. As an SC, I had to show more than others. I didn’t want to give to so called upper castes to say that SCs are inefficient. I cleared all pending work with a month and I became a favourite to my seniors. After three or four months, I resigned from the job and came to UK.
I came to UK for marriage purposes. To be frank, the main reason was for coming here was economic. I come from a small village in Punjab from a very poor family. My father served in the army for a little while. After having a mental health issue, he left the army and started as a tailoring profession. Occasionally he would work as a weaver. His mental health was so severe that he stopped working altogether and he needed a constant care. My mother worked in the fields to feed and educate us-my two sisters and one brother. But my mother was determined not to let us work in the fields. Even my elder sister went to school when it was a taboo to send girls to school. Occasionally I was going to fields to work on daily wages. In spite of hardship, she sent all of us to school and gave education. That is why after Matriculation, I preferred to have a job and help my family. I became the bread winner in the family. Working at Chandigarh, it was too expensive. My more than half of the pay was going in the rent and food. I was studying as well. So I was not able to save anything for my family. I was frustrated and living hand to mouth. I was getting depressed. During that period, one of my relations from UK was visiting India and offered the proposal for marriage. Without much thinking, I immediately accepted the offer and came to UK in August 1977.
VB: What kind of obstacles you faced after coming to UK. How did you handle them?
Where did you start your work initially? How and when did you settle in Bedford?
AK: My maternal uncle and his family were living in Bradford, West Yorkshire. I went to him and they organised my wedding and my wife joined me there. I immediately started finding work but no avail. Ultimately I found work in the steel foundry. I didn’t have any choice. I never worked in such an environment. A Pakistani man became my friend and he helped me a lot. I wanted to earn a lot of money and return to India. My uncle was upset as I didn’t have decent job. My brother in law suggested me to move to Bedford as there were more chances to get better job. After juggling with a couple of jobs in factories, I was able to get a job in the Royal Mail. There was a lot of overtime available in that job and I was working 15-16 hours a day. I was not thinking about my carrier or anything else apart from money. Within a year I bought my own house and settled. As my children were growing up, the idea of going back to India disappeared.
VB: Bedford is famous for the work done by Ambedkar Mission from the 1960s. You celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti every year. When Ambedkar Mission did started working here, what was its major work and who were the forces behind it.
AK: In the UK, people from India started migrating in 50s. In Bedford, there were a number of brick kilns and steel industry making car parts for Vauxhall vehicles. This car factory was based in Luton not very far from Bedford and partly in Bedford. As Dalits were uneducated unskilled labour, most of them were attracted to Bedford in the brick kilns. Majority of Dalits came from Doaba region of Punjab which was a base for the Ad-Dharam movement of Babu Mangu Ram and Ambedkarite movement. They had an influence of those two movements. There were certain people in Bedford who were directly involved in the activities of Republican Party of India. Mr Chanan Chahal was one of the pioneers of early Ambedkarite movement in the UK especially in Bedford. The Republican Group of Great Britain was set up in early 60s which included a number of Ambedkarites from all over UK. Chanan Chahal even contested a local election from this group. They invited a number of Ambedkarite leaders from India to make the people aware of the plight of our people in India and campaigned against the atrocities. In 1968, there was a first demonstration against the Shankracharya of Puri when he advocated and justified caste on the basis of scriptures. Over 7000 people participated in the protest. Mr. Lahori Ram Balley, Late Bhagwan Dass, Late Sohan Lal Shastri, late Yashwant Rao Ambedkar (son of Babasaheb Ambedkar), Khobragade and many other Ambedkarites visited Bedford. With the split of RPI, the Republican Group also disintegrated. There were certain people from Delhi settled in Bedford who had a football team run by Bheem Association in Delhi. Similarly they formed Bheem Association, sports club, in Bedford in 1972. They arranged a couple of tournaments. Chanan Chahal was not interested in sports. He used Bheem Association as a vehicle for social change. He was a forceful orator and writer in English and Punjabi and very vocal against caste discrimination. In 1976, a local newspaper Bedfordshire Times ran a feature on various communities in Bedfordshire in which Chanan Chahal introduced Dr Ambedkar to the people in Bedfordshire. In this very article, one of the Hindus mentioned that Untouchables were sub humans created by gods for the service of upper castes. They were dirty that is why they were not allowed to touch others and kept outside the temple. Dalits in Bedford took it as an offensive and had a meeting to protest against that person. The reporter involved in story held a meeting with both parties where the culprit had to apologise. But Dalits at the time were not satisfied with half hearted apology and were so angry that they boycotted his shop. Ultimately he had to close his shop. Chanan Chahal led this campaign.
In 1982, Bhagwan Dassji again visited Bedford. As he was quite active in the activities of Ambedkar Mission Society Punjab, he suggested us to change the name to Ambedkar Mission Society to become a part of an international mission of Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar.
Chanan Chahal was instrumental in starting a Punjabi journal ‘Kirti Weekly’ in Punjab. He authored a book in Punjabi ‘Main Hindu Kyon Nahin’ (Why I am not Hindu?). He also wrote to many papers here in the UK and appeared in a number of documentaries on caste discrimination. In 2008, Hindu Council UK published a report ‘Caste System’ to oppose the government legislation against caste discrimination. The report denied the existence of caste system in the UK and accused the foreigners and British in India for importing caste into India. Accusations were also made that the campaigners for legislation are trying to spread misinformation about Hinduism and attempts were being made to vilify the Hindu people. In reply to this report, Chanan Chahal prepared a paper ‘The Evil of Caste: – The Caste System as the Largest Systemic Violation of Human Rights in Today.’ To counter the misinformation and fallacy of the argument put forward by the Hindu Council UK, Chanan Chahal’s response ‘Evil of Caste’ was a detailed examination of Hindu Scriptures and every point raised was rebutted and discussed.
VB: You have documented many incidents of caste discrimination in the United Kingdom by the Indian immigrants. Is caste discrimination bigger than the discrimination the migrants from India faced from whites due to their colour or race?
AK: Colour or race discrimination is visible. It is very easy to prove. But in the case of caste, the culprit and victim of caste discrimination is of the same colour and race. To understand caste based discrimination, either you need to be Asian or understand the Asian culture. When the coloured people including Asians and blacks from African countries migrated to the UK, naturally their colour, culture and way of living were different from the host community i.e. the white people. They were looked upon differently. At the time of high unemployment, whites were considering that immigrants were taking over their jobs and houses. There was an element of hatred towards immigrants and they faced discrimination in employment and goods and services provided by the state. This discrimination was faced by all Indians irrespective of their caste or religion. All immigrants from various countries got together, fought against this discrimination and Race Relations Act came into form and discrimination on the basis of colour and race was prohibited by law. Initially when the Indians migrated to UK in 1950s, they were single men and were in small numbers. During that period, there was a wide spread racial discrimination. They forgot their caste identity out of fear from the host community and for security reasons, they used to live together sometimes sharing the same houses and even same rooms. They were eating together and the caste didn’t matter. Soon the families started coming and caste began to raise its head. The upper castes feared that the children might get mix up with each other and get marry to a person different from their caste. To avoid inter caste marriages, parents telling their children that persons belonging to Dalit communities were used to work in their fields and homes as servants and are inferior to them. They were taking a pride in their caste. There were certain cases where there were fights in schools on the basis of caste. This high and low phenomenon travelled to work places and hospitals. The caste based temples also started cropping up The music industry has played a major role in glorifying the castes especially ‘Jats’ in Punjab.
VB: One of the stories that you have said about the pub owned by an Indian who used to taunt in abusing language. What was the entire case and what happened ultimately.
AK: No that pub was owned by an English lady. That pub was located in the locality where majority of Dalits were living. After finishing their day’s hard work, they were going to the pub for socialising where they played cards, darts and dominoes etc. At that time there were no Asian programmes on TV and there was no other way of entertainment. As majority of the clients in the pub were from low caste ‘Chamars’ The ‘Jats’( so called high caste in Punjab) started calling it a ‘Chamar Pub’. Surprisingly if you asked anybody about the real name of the pub, nobody knew it. If you ask somebody about ‘Chamar Pub’, people would give exact location of the pub. That pub was stigmatised as if it was belonging to a low caste person. Sometimes abusive language was also used against each other on the basis of caste. In the surrounding areas there was graffiti on walls and some derogatory remarks were written about Chamars.
In 1985, Late Mr Chanan Chahal publically announced that as result of ill treatment in Hinduism, he would be leaving his parental religion and embrace Buddhism. At that time there was a television programme called BBC Network East exclusively for Asians. They made a documentary film about 10-15 minutes on his conversion and caste discrimination in which I and some of my colleagues including Ram Pal in Ambedkar Mission gave interviews on caste discrimination. The story about the pub was also covered. As this programme was watched by only Asians, nobody else noticed much about it.
During the Dr Ambedkar birth Centenary in 1991, we were raising the profile of Dr Ambedkar by writing to print media, TV and Radio. Somehow one of the national news papers ‘The Daily Telegraph’ came to know about the pub story and was interested to cover it. He interviewed me in front of the pub and flashed full page story with my picture. That was the first story published in the national newspaper on caste discrimination in the UK. It turned out to be a bomb shell on caste discrimination. I was contacted by various newspapers. The local newspaper ‘Bedfordshire on Sunday’ also ran a story with my picture. Sooner this story was published, it became a talking point in Asian community and I started getting threats from Indians especially from Dalits for exposing caste and giving bad name to the community. The landlady of the pub claimed that the Asian clientele of the pub dropped. She threatened the newspaper and me to sue for defamation. Naturally I was scared and reported the matter to police in case somebody attacked me physically. The local paper ‘Bedfordshire on Sunday’ ran the story for three four weeks continuously. I had a relief when a few letters were published in my support. Even one of the women from so called upper caste gave a statement that ‘untouchables are the scum of earth. If you paid me, I wouldn’t touch them’. My point was proved. Mr V.T. Rajshekhar started sending Dalit Voice to the pub. The land lady understood that the matter was too deep. She kept quiet and withdrew her threat and the matter died down. Later on another leading national daily ‘The Guardian’ also covered the story of caste discrimination in Bedford.
VB: The stories that I have heard here in UK are disturbing. I never felt that there would be caste discrimination among the Punjabis as it is our general feeling that Sikhism is an egalitarian religion and there is no caste system among them. But the stories of caste discrimination in UK expose dirty caste practices among the Sikhs too. What is the reason and what kind of discrimination the Dalits face here.
AK: Caste is basically a Hindu phenomenon. Unfortunately whosoever came into contact with it got infected. Today no religion in India has escaped from this disease and Sikhism is no exception. Though the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Saheb condemns caste and preach equality but this equality remained in their holy book. Social structure of a Punjab village is no different from any village in any part of the country. Punjab villages are divided between the localities of Jat Sikhs and Dalits whether they are Ravidassis (Chamars) or Valmikis (Bhangis). Jat Sikhs are land owning community and Dalits work in their fields. So their relationship is of haves and have-nots. Jats consider that are superior and high in status. They dominate in all fields-economic, social and religious and regulate the social life of villages. They give Dalits the same treatment as caste Hindus give in other states. In music, Jats are glorified. They have their separate places of worship. Even cremation grounds are separate from each other. In Punjab you will find Jat Sikh, Ravidassia Sikh (Chamar), Mazhabi Sikh (Valmiki), Ramgarhia Sikh (carpenter) and so on.
On the name of culture, Indians have brought their traditions and customs to UK and caste is one of them. Jats still consider Dalits lower and inferior to them. They seldom leave an opportunity when Dalits are not reminded that they belong to lower castes. Dalits in the UK built their own religious places as they were badly treated in the main stream Gurudwaras. Dalit men and women were not allowed to work in the kitchen and serve food to the congregation. I have heard the stories from our elders when Jat Sikhs refused to accept ‘Prasad’ from a Dalit.
Former Mayor of Wolverhampton, Mr. Bishan Dass, in his biography ‘Pride and Prejudice’ recorded his own experience of discrimination when he contested a local council election in Wolverhampton. One of the Jat Sikhs mobilised his community against Mr Dass to defeat him in the election. Mr Dass is an Ambedkarite who was the General Secretary of the Republican Group of Great Britain. Similarly the former Mayor of Coventry, Ram Lakha, a Labour Councillor who is a Dalit, faced intense discrimination from ‘upper castes’ when he stood for election in a largely Indian ward. ‘During campaigning he was often told that he would not get people’s vote as he was a ‘chamar’, a low caste Dalit. So he filed his nomination in a non-Asian constituency and was able to win.
Matrimonial adverts can be seen in the papers where a particular caste men/women prefer their own caste for marriages. Inter caste marriages are fiercely opposed. There were quite a few fights and physical assaults here in the UK as a result of inter caste relationships.
VB: Why do you think that the British Government not interested in implementing the Equality Law even when it is passed by the Parliament?
AK: After so many years of hard work, the both houses of parliament accepted our point of view and the discrimination on the basis of caste has been outlawed. But it has not been implemented. Some of the Hindus and Sikhs consider that this law is an attack on their religion and giving them bad name. But it is not a truth. There is a strong lobby of Hindus and Sikhs who are opposing this legislation. The opponents especially Hindus occupy the offices of influence in the government and they are advising the government that there is no caste discrimination in the UK and the law will cause more problems. There is an All Party Parliament Group for British Hindus and Hindu Council UK have regular meetings with them. There are some Hindu intellectuals who are writing against this legislation. Even they claim that caste is invented by foreigners. All the big businesses in the UK are owned by Hindus and Sikhs. They pay funds to the various political parties. Naturally the government listen to them more than us as we have nothing to offer. There is also a pressure from the Indian government as trade is more important than human right issues. British government doesn’t want to upset the Indian government in case they lose contracts.
Now the voices against caste discrimination are heard in America, Canada, Australia, New Zeeland and other countries of Europe but no country has come up with legislation. Apart from India, only Nepal has made laws against Caste based discrimination (CBD). UK is the first Western country which has enacted legislation against CBD. Hindus and Sikhs are opposing this legislation as they know once this legislation is implemented in this country, it will set up a precedent and other countries would follow suit. They are doing all possible efforts to block this legislation so the voices against caste in other countries are also stopped.
VB: What are Ambedkarite organisations doing in this regard? Do you think that there are powerful Hindu groups working against it? Are there other communities of upper caste engaged in it, say Sikhs, Muslims, Christians etc? How do you plan to counter it?
AK: As I mentioned earlier there is strong Hindu and Sikh lobby opposing this legislation. Christians and Muslims also deny that there is caste discrimination. Indian Christians hardly take interest in this issue. As I explained earlier, initially this battle was started by Ambedkarites only. With more and more awareness about caste, like minded people also joined in. With the increasing atrocities on Christian Dalits in India, Indian Christians became active as well and they formed Dalit Solidarity Group. Late Bhagwan Dass, a Buddhist was the President of Dalit Solidarity Programme in India. This organisation was made up of various religious groups but dominated by the Christians. Dass Saheb visited many times in the UK and other countries and raised Dalit issues in universities and other forums. So there was some education in intellectual circles. During that period, Rev. David Haslam who was very active in the apartheid movement, visited India and saw very closely the plight of Dalits. On his return, he set up an organisation Dalit Solidarity Network UK. As they had organisational skill as well money behind it, work on Dalit issues started being raised in organised way in the international human rights organisations as well as in the governmental departments. Other organisation called of ‘Voice of Dalits’ headed by a Christian from Kerala came into existence as well. Ambedkarites assisted and played an important part in both of the organisations. When the British government issued a white paper on Single Equality Act, another organisation Caste-Watch UK was formed in which Ambedkarites, Ravidassis, Valmikis and Christians were represented. This organisation was set up purely to concentrate on caste legislation. Some people were not happy with the working of this organisation and they called a meeting for a larger alliance and anti Caste discrimination alliance UK came into existence of which our President Ms Santosh Dass is a Vice Chair. Even the President of CasteW atchUK is also a staunch Ambedkarite and Buddhist. Ambedkarite organisations under the umbrella of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK are raising this issue and fully supporting and assisting all organisations engaged in highlighting the caste discrimination. We regularly lobby the law makers. During the discussion in the Parliament, we sent a petition to all the members of both houses of the British Parliament. Ambedkarite organisations along with other organisations produced the cases of discrimination before the National Institute of Educational and Cultural Research (NIECER) who published its report confirming the CBD in the UK. This report also widely quoted Chanan Chahal’s ‘Evil of Caste’
VB: Why are Asian communities unable to shed their caste prejudices? How long will they remain confined to their narrow caste minds? What is the way out?
AK: It is unfortunate that Asian communities are still holding on to their caste. It is not their fault. They have been brain washed and conditioned to accept this system for thousands of years. We are told everyday that our birth is because of our deeds in the previous life. If we follow the dictates of Varnashram, we may be able to born into a high caste. One is born into a particular caste and dies into it. The membership of caste is not transferable. A person follows this system as a religious duty and has become a norm in dealing with other members of society. It has ingrained in their blood. Until the caste remains, the feelings of high and low will remain.
Some people say that it would die down with the passage of time. But I don’t see that way. Caste is considered as an essential part of their culture and religion. Some of the Hindu intellectuals are trying to justify it. They say that caste is different from Jati which is based on good or bad deeds. As Gandhiji also justified caste on the basis on ‘Karamic theory’. Now most of the religious worshipping places are built on the basis of caste and the Indian Diaspora is fully divided into caste groups. The coming generation will follow their elders by not only going but also managing to the temples built by their forefathers. They have developed a sense of belongings to a particular caste. Only inter caste marriages can break the barriers and caste can be eradicated. Though the youngsters have started this trend, but the parents need to take initiative to arrange inter caste marriages.
VB: UK has the vast Dalit community, perhaps the largest one in the world outside India, which is very influential and powerful. They own radio stations, organise TV programmes and have Gurudwaras and Buddha Viharas too yet over the years we are witnessing some unfortunate trends of differences among them. The differences in the name of particular identities. Will these differences be overcome or you think they are going to increase further.
AK: It is true that UK has the largest Dalit community outside India. Unfortunately they are all fragmented into various religious groups. These groups are founded after the names of their patron saints such as Valmiki, adopted by the sweepers and scavengers of North India and Ravidasi after the name of Guru Ravidass. The followers of Dr Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. The real triumph of the caste system lies in conditioning the consciousness of every caste that they are superior to others. This feeling has created divisions between various castes. It is true that they are owning radio stations and arrange TV programmes but they are all caste based promoting a particular caste. They consider their caste as a religion and take pride in it. In the name of identity, in actual fact they are promoting and glorifying caste though they claim that they are against caste system. Media has played a significant role to establish caste identities. Ambedkarites have ideological differences with these religious groups. An Ambedkarite is not a caste. It is a symbol of change and revolution. He believes in humanism. He rejects existence of god, rebirth, and soul, sacred scriptures that teach discrimination, fate and heaven because all this philosophy has made him a subservient to others. He represents a exploited man on the earth. On the positive side, they have all come together on the issue of discrimination whether it is in India or UK. All these groups demonstrated in front of the British Parliament and Indian High Commission in support of legislation to outlaw caste discrimination and against the atrocities on Dalits. At least they have realised that their problems are common.
VB: You are the General Secretary of FABO which is truly an Ambedkarite
Organisation. What kind of initiatives are you taking in this regard to bring all kinds of Dalit groups together in UK?
AK: As a grass root worker, one needs to be very careful on dealing with other religious groups in case somebody gets offended. If we can leave religious matters aside, there is a possibility of a common ground where all Dalits can meet. We had various conferences where we invited various community leaders from different backgrounds to talk on the issues concerning Dalit empowerment. We had a large conference in Bedford in 1999 where over 200 people attended from all over the country. We helped to set up ‘Dalit Forum for Social Justice UK’ comprising of representation from different Dalit groups. Our objective was to promote leadership from Valmiki and Ravidassia community and Ambedkarites remained in the background so these communities should feel a sense of belonging to the organisation. After a couple of years, this organisation died down because of lack of interest from these groups and ego problem between the leaders. Later on ‘Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance UK’ was also formed on the same principle in 2008. I was one of the members who were present at the formation of this organisation and FABO UK fully supports its activities. I am associated with the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK since its inception in 1985. We as a team did many monumental works. We always sought cooperation from different communities and gave them due honour and representation in our functions. On the issue of caste, we have helped and cooperated with all organisations campaigning to include caste into British law. Whenever we issued a press release that was on behalf of various groups so that they feel valued. We have developed a good working relationship with other organisations. We will continue this partnership in the future. We in Bedford have a good working relationship with other organisations and set up an example for others.
VB: What do you think are the biggest challenge before us as Ambedkarite? How do you think the mission of Dr Ambedkar for an enlightened world could be achieved?
AK: Ambedkarites whether they are in India or anywhere in the World are the most outspoken on Dalit issues. They are considered as the biggest challenge to the orthodoxy and the establishment. We have seen what happened to Rohit Vemula and it is happening to many Vemulas in our country. In this situation, the followers of Babasaheb must forget their petty differences and get together to fight for the common cause. We need to learn and appreciate the work done by other organisations whether they are small or large and try to work with them rather than against them. Another biggest challenge we face is today everybody says that he/she is a follower of Ambedkar. We need to be watchful of their actions. Dr Ambedkar stood for secularism and it is reflected in his constitution. He always stood for minorities and their empowerments. Today so-called followers of Dr Ambedkar are joining and supporting those forces who are against the core values of secularism enshrined in our constitution. Minorities in India suffer as they are victims of silence. Dr Ambedkar never stopped raising his voice against injustice. If we really follow Dr Ambedkar, we need to speak all the time. Freedom of speech is our fundamental right’ If it is suppressed; we must come forward in unity to condemn such actions. Ambedkarites have more responsibility to protect those values Babasaheb fought for all his life.
When I joined Ambedkar movement in 70s, it was restricted only to the Indian community and not many people were familiar with Dr Ambedkar’s contribution and achievement. Whenever we talked to media, we had to give introduction about Dr Ambedkar. It was essential to raise the profile of Dr Ambedkar to make the Western society familiar with Dr Ambedkar’s contribution to the human rights movement. In 1989, under the auspices of FABO UK, Ambedkar Centenary Celebration Committee was formed not just to celebrate Dr Ambedkar birth anniversary but also to raise his profile and work to eradicate discrimination whether it is based on race, colour, religion, gender or caste. Functions at the London School of Economics, Grays Inn, Royal Common Wealth Hall, India House, both Houses of the British Parliament and many other prominent places were arranged and secured a wide coverage in the media. One of the functions was attended by the daughter of Lord Mountbatten of Burma. Four volumes of souvenirs were produced covering Dr Ambedkar’s various aspects of work. Exhibitions and talks were arranged at a number of libraries in the UK. Late V.P. Singh, former Prime Minister of India was also invited. The stage was set for future programmes. Later on FABO UK took up the task of installing Dr Ambedkar’s statues at the places associated with Dr Ambedkar. As a result his statues were installed at the London School of Economics, London, Columbia University, USA and at India House, Indian high Commission. Later on Ambedkar Mission Society Bedford donated Dr Ambedkar’s bust to Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. Now we are happy that statues are also installed in York University, Toronto, Canada, Hungary and Japan. The house where Dr Ambedkar stayed during his studies in London has also been purchased and converted into a museum. This proposal was sent to the Government of Maharashtra by our President, Ms Santosh Dass MBE. During that period many British people started taking keen interest in Ambedkar. One of them was Kenneth Griffith, a prominent film actor, presenter and documentary maker. Ambedkar International Institute was set up of which he remained President till his death in 2006. He made a documentary film ‘Untouchable’ for BBC on the life of Dr Ambedkar.
It took us about fifty years to bring Dr Ambedkar to World stage. Now he doesn’t need any introduction. Even his birthday was celebrated at the United Nations headquarters. His contribution is being recognised by intellectuals and human rights movements all over the World. Caravan to fulfil his mission is unstoppable and is going forward. We need to be careful that his ideology is not appropriated and diluted.
VB: In Bedford, you had the great legacy of legendary Ambedkarite coming and working. We have heard how much you had supported Advocate Bhagwan Das ji when he came to UK, stayed there for several months and prepared his presentation for UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. That superb presentation. You still have so much of documentation and memories of him.
AK: Yes, Bedford has played a fare share of its part in the Ambedkar movement. Many legendary Ambedkarites and politicians such as L.R. Balley, Sohan Lal Shastri, Yashwant Rao Ambedkar, Parkash Ambedkar, R.R. Bole, Advocate Bhagwan Dass, Nanak Chand Rattu, V.P. Singh, Ram Vilas Paswan and many others visited Bedford. Ambedkarites in the UK especially in Bedford have great respect for Bhagwan Dassji. He visited Bedford a number of times. Mr. Bhagwan Das was one of the few Ambedkarite scholars involved in highlighting the plight of Dalits at international level. He was one of the founder members of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). He attended many sessions of the (WCRP) held in Kenya, Japan, Malaysia, USA and many other countries. He gave testimony in the 36th Session of the United Nations Commission on Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities held at Geneva in August 1983 on behalf of Dr Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford and many other organisations from India and abroad. Before going to Geneva, he stayed with us for a couple of weeks. While preparing his testimony, Mr. Das suggested that it would be nice if a few copies of his testimony were made for distribution to the delegates. It would leave a long lasting impact. At that time there was no facility of modern computers and photocopying. We bought an old type cyclostyle copier. Mr. Dass typed his speech on stencils and we made copies. We all finished this work about 2 O’clock in the morning. Over hundred copies were made which he took with him to Geneva
After this testimony, the Indian Muslim, Sikh and Hindu delegates turned against him and conspired to omit his name from the next session of WCRP to be held in Nairobi, Kenya. Mr. Das asked us to write to the Secretary General of WCRP and explained the situation. A letter was written to the Secretary General, Dr. Homer A. Jack with the request to include him in the delegation as he was the only voice of the voiceless people in India. Dr. Jack was a genuine person. He thanked the Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford for letting him know the conspiracy and assured us that Mr. Das would attend the future conferences. Das Sahib was invited as an ‘expert on the Asian Affairs’. All Indian delegates kept a distance from him. Indian High Commissioner in Nairobi invited all Indian delegates for dinner but boycotted Mr. Das. Bhagwan Dass ji told me later on that boycott incident went in his favour as delegates from other countries came to know the truth and Mr. Das became a regular invitee to the future conferences. Since then we were in regular contact with each other.
In 1988, Federation of Ambedkarite & Buddhist Organisations UK had a preliminary meeting to celebrate Ambedkar Birth Centenary in the UK. The meeting was held under the chairmanship of Bhagwan Dassji. On his initiative, an organisation ‘International Ambedkar Institute, UK’ was set up to take Ambedkar thought in the premier institutes in the UK and do some research work. Renowned actor and film maker, late Kenneth Griffith was elected as a Chairman who later on made a documentary film on Baba Sahib Ambedkar. During this visit, Das Sahib visited Bedford where he was interviewed by the BBC Radio, Bedfordshire and Chiltern Radio. I requested the BBC presenter for a copy of his interview. He was kind enough to send me the original recording of his interview which I still treasure.
VB: Bedford had another legend called Dr Chanan Chahal. His anti caste work was extraordinary. Could you share your thoughts about him and other Ambedkarite friends?
AK: Chanan Chahal was one of the founding members of the local Guru Ravidass Sabha, Bedford and later on Guru Ravidass Sabha, UK, Ambedkar Mission society Bedford and Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations. UK. He was also a prominent member of the Republican Group of Great Britain set up in early sixties. Chanan was well read, a forceful orator in both English and Punjabi. He galvanised not only Ambedkarite but also Dalit movement in the Europe. He travelled USA, Canada, Europe and India to take Babasaheb’s message. His articles on caste discrimination appeared in a number of papers in UK and India. He was instrumental in organising a number of demonstrations and giving memorandums to the Government of India and the British Government against the atrocities on Dalits in India. He authored a book in Punjabi ‘Mein Hindu Kiun nahin’ (Why I am not a Hindu) and the preface was written by Bhagwan Dassji. This book became one of the best sellers in Punjabi circles. He started a periodical ‘Kirti Weekly’ in Punjab for three years. During the Ambedkar birth centenary, as a President, Chanan played a prominent part in installing the statues of Dr. Ambedkar at Indian High Commission, London, LSE, Columbia and Vancouver. Chanan Chahal’s ‘The Evil of Caste: – The Caste System as the Largest Systemic Violation of Human Rights in Today.’ Is a detailed examination of Hindu scriptures and dismantles the Hindu argument that caste was imported by the Westerns.
VB: This year on the125 birth anniversary of Baba Saheb Ambedkar you had a
wonderful programme. You had Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s work along with other great international personalities like Dr Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. What was the idea and how was the response?
AK: 125thbirth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar was a very important event. I had been a part of the Ambedkar Centenary Celebrations and find myself very fortunate to have an opportunity to be part of 125th. When we celebrated Babasaheb’s hundredth birth anniversary, we had to give introduction of Dr Ambedkar to the media, academics and human rights organisations. During the last 25 years, Dr Ambedkar’s popularity and significance are gone high sky. So far Babasaheb was tagged as a leader of Dalits. In actual fact he was a humanist. His contribution was for everybody irrespective of religion, caste, race or gender. He was one of the greatest human rights defenders. We wanted to portray Dr Ambedkar as a universal leader as par with Dr Nelson Mandela and Dr Martin Luther King not a leader of a particular section of the Indian society. Keeping in view this in mind, we arranged the programmes. We talked to our Member of Parliament and Mayor of Bedford. They were quite interested to be part of the birth celebrations. We organised an exhibition on the life and works of Dr Ambedkar, caste discrimination in the UK and atrocities against Dalits in India in the Bedford Central Library and at the Council premises. Bedford Borough Council provided these venues. Mayor of Bedford opened the exhibition and our Member of Parliament fully participated. The concluding function took place in a mega hall where a documentary film on the life of Dr Ambedkar was screened. In addition to a number of speakers, there was also a cultural programme. There was a huge response from the public. The local churches and school children attended the functions. People were surprised to know the contribution of Dr Ambedkar. I am satisfied with the positive response from the followers of Guru Ravidass and Bhagwan Valmik who not only supported these events but also provided food and refreshments.
It is matter of pride that FABO UK was able to secure the house where Dr Ambedkar stayed during his studies at the London School of Economics during 1921-22. The proposal to purchase and convert into Ambedkar memorial was prepared and sent to the GOM by our President, Ms Santosh Dass MBE. After a year’s hard work of lobbying the house was purchased by the GOM and opened by the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi. This memorial will be a tourist place for visitors and give inspiration to the academics and students involved and interested in the human rights issues. This is the biggest single achievement of Ambedkarites in the UK which would be remembered for generations to come. The year 2016 is also a year of the centenary of Dr Ambedkar’s arrival in the UK to join London School of Economics for his higher studies. To commemorate his 125th birthday and his centenary of his joining LSE, we decided to have seminar in the LSE and the British Parliament. In LSE Noble Prize laureate Dr Amritya Sen who considers Dr Ambedkar as his Guru in economics gave a wonderful talk on Dr Ambedkar and his relevance in the modern times. A number of scholars from the top universities in UK and human rights activists participated. For us the year was fairly busy for us.
VB: What are your future plans?
AK: The law against caste discrimination has been already agreed by Parliament in April 2013. The British Government is blatantly ignoring the will of the Parliament and refusing to implement this legislation on the one pretext or the other. Now they have decided to issue a public consultation on this important matter. The consultation will run for 12 weeks from its commencement date. One of the key aims of the consultation will be to obtain the views of stakeholders on the appropriate provision that should be made for caste in the Act. It is another tactic to delay and some or how to derail the implementation. Our first priority is to engage with other organisations and individuals and prepare them for this public consultation. We might have to produce more cases of caste discrimination during the consultation.
We have already written to various agencies in India for starting Ambedkar scholarships to the Dalit students interested to study in the Western Universities. To set up an Ambedkar Chair in one of the premier institutes in the UK is another objective we have in our mind. Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi is making big announcements to build Ambedkar memorials, but we want something where our young generation is benefitted. I expect from the Ambedkarites in India to press on this issue as well. We are also asking the government to spend the allocated money for the welfare of Dalits and not divert to others projects. Also invest more money in education in the rural areas of india so that the neglected people of our society are empowered.
We have also written to the Prime Minister to recommend to the United Nations to declare 14 April, the birthday of Dr Ambedkar as an Equality Day. Some other organisations in India have also written to the PM. We need more push from political and social organisations to lobby GOI to achieve this objective.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at www.manukhsi.blogspot.com twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]