Wednesday, December 15, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Bhagwan Das-The historian of ‘his people'


The historian of 'his people'


Bhagwan Das (1927-2010). His life was given over to the fight against
caste and untouchability, and towards the promotion of Buddhism.


Bhagwan Das outside his residence at Munirka in Delhi, in 2009.

During the monsoon season of 1991, I began my dissertation research in
Delhi. I always knew that the project was going to be hard: to write
the history of the Balmiki community of North India. In graduate
school at the University of Chicago I studied with Barney Cohn, who
guided me deftly into the study of a "people without history". Nothing
about the Balmiki community was without history, but its absence in
the archives made writing the history difficult. Unlike commercial
communities whose archives resided in their transaction documents and
unlike royal families whose archives slumbered in palaces and in war
notes, the "untouchables" of India did not seem to have their own
archives, and only rarely made an appearance in history books.

My work began in the National Archives of India, where my friend
Prabhu Mohapatra led me into the Revenue papers. Here, in the margins,
I found a lot of information on the Chuhra community of Punjab – the
people whose hard labour made Punjab's fields flower. I also went out
to the various colonies where the Balmiki community lived: in the
Bhangi colony on Mandir Marg and in the Old City, along its walls. One
evening, near Kalan Masjid, a community elder handed me a slip of
paper that had a name and a number written on it. He told me to call
the number and go and see the man.

A few days later, I called the number and asked to speak to Bhagwan
Das. In less than a minute a man came on the line. He spoke with what
sounded vaguely like an American accent. Very courteously he asked me
to see him a few days later. Bhagwan Das lived in a modest housing
complex in Munirka. His unpretentious apartment was filled with books
and magazines, all well read.

One of the first questions I asked him was about his accent. He
laughed, a bit startled by my abruptness, and told me about his
childhood near Shimla, in the Jutogh cantonment. English came to him
not from the colonial overlords, but in the 1940s when he encountered
U.S. airmen during his service on the Burma front during the Second
World War. We chatted about the American troops, and he told me that
he had befriended a few African-Americans among them. He was curious
about racial discrimination and they were interested in his Dalit
community (a U.S. air force report in the 1940s noted, "Native persons
here are of a dark race and the Negro fails to respect their rights
and privacy"; certainly the airmen that Bhagwan Das met did not
respect his privacy, but they did honour his rights). These evenings
in Bhagwan Das' house were my apprenticeship.

Many scholars came through Bhagwan Das' Munirka flat. He offered us
his encyclopaedic knowledge and his kind wisdom. When I heard he had
died on November 18, I was reminded of his calm intelligence and his
kindness. Born in 1927 in the Jutogh cantonment, Bhagwan Das came of
age in the shadow of B.R. Ambedkar, whom he met for the first time in
1943 in Shimla. Ambedkar drew him into the Scheduled Castes Federation
and into working for him as a research assistant between 1955 and
1956. Finishing his law degree, Bhagwan Das went to work at the High
Court. This was his job. His life was given over to the fight against
untouchability and caste, and towards the promotion of Buddhism.

Bhagwan Das helped found the World Conference of Religions for Peace
(Kyoto, 1970), along with the remarkable American Gandhian, Homer
Jack. In 1983, he spoke before the United Nations on the vice of
untouchability. He pointed out that India has an enlightened
Constitution, what many in his circle called "Dr. Ambedkar's
Constitution. Nevertheless, Bhagwan Das told the U.N., "Anything which
the untouchables consider good for them is vehemently resisted and
opposed. Whatever goes to make them weak, dispirited, disunited and
dependent is encouraged." It was a powerful presentation.

Bhagwan Das was also a leading figure in making sure that the Dalit
issue was not seen only in its domestic context, but taken in an Asian
and global framework. In 1998, he was central to the creation of the
International Dalit Convention (Kuala Lumpur) and had a role in the
Dalit presence at the World Conference Against Racism (Durban, 2001).
I had presented a paper at the U.N. conference on Dalit oppression in
the global context, a talk that greatly pleased him (it was later
published in a volume in honour of Eleanor Zelliot, titled Claiming
Power from Below, by Oxford University Press). At the time of his
death, Bhagwan Das was working on a book on untouchability in Asia.

I went to see Bhagwan Das several times during the early 1990s. He had
a remarkable memory: one day, in 1993 (as my notes tell me), he fired
off a series of names of people I should meet: Kanhayya Lal, Bhagwan
Din, Narain Din, Kalyan Chand, Shiv Charan, and so on. Each name came
with a story. Bhagwan Das did not have to consult any paper or notes;
he had their names and their biographies at his fingertips. It was
exhilarating. What kind of idea was this that a "people have no

Bhagwan Das was a living historian and his autobiography, Mein Bhangi
Hoon (I am a Bhangi, 1976), provided a window into the life and
lineage of one person who fought against the idea that he had no
history. A part of his story is available from Navayana as In Pursuit
of Ambedkar, 2010. I read his works eagerly. He also taught me how to
create my archive. The state might have only put the Chuhra and the
Balmiki into marginal notes; but the people were less dismissive of
their own histories. In plastic bags, and wrapped in rope, under beds
and in steel trunks, he said, there were documents galore; and indeed
this was the case. The most precious papers that tell the history of
the Balmiki community were not found in the National Archives but in
the humble homes from northern Punjab to western Uttar Pradesh.

One day Bhagwan Das said to me, get out of Delhi. Go to Punjab. That
is where the trick will be uncovered. He sent me to meet Lahori Ram
Balley, the remarkable leader of Buddhist Publishing House at Phagwara
Gate in Jalandhar. Lahori Ram told me the story of the Scheduled Caste
Federation of Punjab and handed me an invaluable pamphlet by Fazul
Hussain ( Achutuddhar aur Hindu asksariyat ke mansube, Lahore, 1930).

"IN PURSUIT OF Ambedkar" tells a part of Bhagwan Das' story. The first
volume of "Thus Spoke Ambedkar" was strongly criticised by the press,
said Bhagwan Das. "We expected it and in fact welcomed the criticism,"
he wrote in the second volume, "because we believe nobody kicks a dead

Lahori Ram had encouraged Bhagwan Das' intellectual and political
work. Both were followers of Ambedkar. In the 1960s, the two friends
would publish a series of books of Ambedkar's speeches, Thus Spoke
Ambedkar (edited with superb introductions by Bhagwan Das; the first
in 1964). The second volume opened with a poem by Khalil Gibran,
demonstrating the open-mindedness of these men. They were not bilious
like those dominant caste intellectuals; nor were they prone to
compromise. The first volume was strongly criticised by the press,
Bhagwan Das recollected. "We expected it and in fact welcomed the
criticism," he wrote in the second volume, "because we believe nobody
kicks a dead dog. All great ideas have to pass through three stages
namely ridicule, discussion and finally acceptance." They were at the
first stage. The next was before them.

The generosity of Bhagwan Das and his friends never ceased to astonish
me. Lahori Ram and Bhagwan Das also sent me off to meet the leaders of
the Balmiki community in Jalandhar and Ludhiana, and later, in Shimla.
The trick was here. I had not noticed it. They knew where they were
leading me. It was the classic matter of the novice historian being
led by the intellectual engagé.

Just outside Jalandhar, in a Balmiki-dominated village, I spent
several nights. One went poorly. It was cold, and I was not keen on
the bed. I went for a walk just before dawn. In the field I saw a
light flickering, and went toward it. There I saw an old man lighting
a set of lamps and placing them in a set of pigeon-holes. He was in
what might have been a trance. I watched him, and then retreated. The
next morning I asked him what he was doing. He told me about Bala Shah
Nuri and Lal Beg, the preceptors of the Chuhras, the great faith of
his people that had been obliterated in the 1930s. It was in this
decade that the Chuhras had been force-marched into Hinduism and
encouraged to forget their own religion and customs. This was the

I went back to Delhi. Bhagwan Das knew I had found it out when I
walked into his door (it must have been in March 1993). He handed me
his book, Valmiki Jayanti aur Bhangi Jati, which laid out part of the
story. Later, I found Amichand Pandit's Valmiki Prakash (1936), which
was a catechism for the Chuhras; and I found Youngson's collection of
Lalbeg songs in The Indian Antiquary (1906).

Bhagwan Das appreciated how we had together uncovered a forgotten
story: how his community's deep cultural traditions had been
vanquished by the Hindu Mahasabha and conservative sections of the
Congress – eager as they were to increase the numbers of "Hindus"
against "Muslims". It was a tragedy for the Chuhras, the Lalbegs, the
Bala Shahis: they now became second-class Hindus. It is from this kind
of reduction that human dignity shudders. It was also out of this
history that Bhagwan Das followed Ambedkar to Buddhism; better a new
religion that one loved than an enforced one that treated you as
beneath contempt.

The generations before us loved poetry. It is something that we have
lost to our own discredit. To make a point, and to do so in an
unexpected way, they would often offer up a couplet or a line of
poetry. It was very graceful. Bhagwan Das loved poetry. He
particularly liked to talk with me about the verse of the Punjabi
branch of the Balmiki community. It is from him that I grew to love
the writings of Bhagmal 'Pagal', whom I would later meet in Jalandhar,
and Gurudas 'Alam', whose poem from 1947 stays with me.

After one trip to Jalandhar, I brought back Alam's Jo Mai Mar Gia
(1975) for Bhagwan Das. We sat in the main room in his house, me
drinking tea, and him reading out the poems. Here is Azaadi,

My friend, have you seen Freedom?

I've neither seen her nor eaten her.

I heard from Jaggu:

She has come as far as Ambala,

And there was a large crowd around her.

She was facing Birla with her back towards the common people.

In Jalandhar, I also met R.C. Sangal, the editor of Jago, Jagte Raho,
from whom I got a stack of the papers. Bhagwan Das enjoyed the fact
that the paper carried the verse of Baudh Sharan Hans and Alam (I also
found Bodhdharam Patrika, another Ambedkarite newspaper that regularly
carried poetry, including, from 1978, Alam's great Chunav). The last
time I met Bhagwan Das, we talked about poetry. I had thought to bring
together some of these poets into a small volume. I was such a poor
translator that I doubted my abilities. He was as encouraging as ever.

He called Ambedkar "an iconoclast and a revolutionary". These words
apply to Bhagwan Das himself, whose flat in Munirka was a stone's
throw from Jawaharlal Nehru University, but for me it was an
intellectual haven like no other.


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