Hindu Society in the Mirror of Violence Against Dalits

On 20 March 1927, large number of Dalits led by Bhimrao Ambedkar drank water from Chavadar Tank in Mahad, Maharashtra. The act challenged Brahminical caste domination, but was very much within legal rights of Ambedkar and his followers. The then Bombay Legislative Council had thrown open all public utilities to untouchables in 1923 and in January 1924, Mahad Municipality had declared Chavadar a public tank. Dalits however were not spared for asserting their right. Gangs of caste Hindu men pounced upon returning groups of Dalit men, women and children. Unfazed, Ambedkar organized an even bigger gathering of Dalits in the same town on 25 December that did a symbolic burning of Manusmriti. A gathering of Dalits was attacked again ninety years later in Bhima Koregaon on 1 Jan, 2018. The purpose of gathering this time was not a direct challenge to a caste taboo. Dalits had come to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of a relatively minor battle during the British conquest of India. The British contingent in that battle had a sizeable proportion of Mahar dalit soldiers, a number of whom died fighting the much larger Peshwa army. Dalits of Maharashtra celebrate the day as Shaurya Gatha Divas and gather in large numbers at the site of battle every year in an act of public assertion of their ancestors’ valour against Brahmanical Peshwas. The atmosphere is like a typical rural Indian fair; men, women and children coming from even far away regions for a day long outing. This year the gathering was especially large due to mobilization by Dalit organisations. A number of vehicles that brought them and had explicit Dalit signs like Jai Bheem, or the Buddhist Panchasila insignia were smashed and burnt in the violence.

Even if the context of Dalit gathering at Bheema Koregaon this year was different than at Mahad ninety years ago, the structure of violence against them was same. Whereas Dalits engage in a public event in an open public space, the attack on them is sudden and conspiratorial in nature. Dalits come to a place from far away regions; their attackers are entrenched, both spatially and socially. Ideologically and organizationally Dalits are not prepared even for retaliatory violence. At best they can run away in self defence. The violence and dispersal of Dalits appears to be the sole motive of their attackers. Dalits want to make a public statement, their attackers are organised for hit and run tactic. The attackers do not need to explain themselves, their attack is sufficient in itself because it supposedly carries the writ of a dominant normative order.

Attacks on Dalits are often viewed only from the perspective of violation of their basic rights and dignity. A lot of attention this time has been paid to the political context of Dalit mobilization, and the recent state of their relation with the dominant Maratha caste in the area. Analyses from such perspectives often miss the actual elephant in the room, namely the caste Hindu society to whom their attackers belong, and from whose normative world they derive their justifications. Confronting this elephant is crucial at present. The public sphere in India, in which Dalits have been trying to assert their dignity has lately come under severe strain due to political successes of Hindutva. Ambedkar could look to the limited but legally entitled public sphere of the colonial regime, and the public sphere of India’s independence movement which had at least some currents critical of the Hindu caste society. He had a number of caste Hindu supporters in Mahad, including the chairman of its Municipal Council, who came out in favour of Mahad satyagrah. The Hindu society now shows little signs of internal reform against superstitions, preposterous religious practices and blatant caste oppression. It has become the ground over which Hindutva political successes are being built. The majority of caste Hindus showed little hesitation in voting for the party of the Hindutva, whose cow protecting followers only last year had engaged in the barbaric act of beating Dalits in public at Una, and circulated videos of the beatings as an instance of their Hindu pride. The relationship between Hindutva and the Hindu caste society is perhaps the key determinant of the fate of democracy in India.

Ambedkar’s Total Critique of Hindu Society

Ambedkar understood Hindu society through the lens of caste. He underlined the caste character of its spirituality and social life. Even while he considered the Hindu caste system to be primarily a religiously sanctioned system of graded inequality, he was clear about its secular significances. The five cardinal principles of Brahminism according to him included bans on Shudras and Untouchables to arm and educate themselves, hold positions of authority, and own property, and ‘complete subjugation and suppression of women’. Caste hierarchy is antithetical to any notion of equality. The radical character of Ambedkar’s conception of equality is however little appreciated. With time he moved away from the classical liberal demands of equality within an existing legal system, to a radical politics that aimed to reformulate the social foundations of this very system. This shows also in his appropriation of Buddhism as the most suitable religion for social struggles for equality in the modern era, and a critical engagement with Marxism. His critique of Hindu society unfortunately has been missed by generations of Communists and Socialists, the two strands of radical politics in the country whose programs would have gained immensely from a meaningful engagement with it.

If hierarchy is the organizing principle of caste; caste hierarchy operates through differentiation and division. One consequence of every caste being a unit in a graded hierarchy is that it develops a stake in constituting itself as a separate corporate entity. While the threat to democracy due to caste inequities is immediately obvious, consequences of differentiation and division are little appreciated. Ambedkar was acutely aware of both of these. His address on the Annihilation of Caste, which incidentally was meant for caste Hindus rather than his untouchable followers, is most clear on this point. According to him, ‘(t)he effect of caste on the ethics of Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit…. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste.’ These characters of caste continue even after its secularization, and can be seen most clearly in the role caste has come to play in electoral politics. The caste roots of Hindu society to an extent also explain the fragility of public sphere in India. The professional urban middle classes belonging to savarna castes often claim to be the only public of India (the Common Man of RK Laxman cartoons). In reality this ‘public’ too is like a caste. It is very conscious of its boundaries and has no sense of how those outside can be treated as equal. Further, the social life of these sections too is dominated by informal networks in which violations of public rules is common.

 Caste and Hindutva

As is well known Hindutva is a project to develop a political community of Hindus. In a way, Gandhian project also had the same aim. Whereas Gandhi insisted on building this political community on a moral basis of struggle against an unjust colonial rule, and called upon inter community co-existence, Hindutva has no moral claims, and is actually driven by two moral fallacies. One is the severe inferiority complex generated by seeing Hindus as perpetual victims of external aggression, which can be overcome only by retaliation. The second moral fallacy of Hindutva is rabid hatred of Muslims and Christians. This means that it has no place for the value of universal humanism, without which no modern democracy is possible. Imperviousness to the calls of universal humanism is common to both Hindutva and caste. This is related to another common characteristic. Caste and Hindutva both consciously articulate themselves as above, or alien to the law. Hindutva does it openly by its claim that the existing liberal secular order of law is against the demands of Hindus. The idea is clear that to realise Hindu Rashtra, Hindus should be ready for all means, including spectacular public violence. For caste, it is the understanding that as a self governed entity it need not follow external rules. Khap panchayats are a clear illustration. In this sense, Dalit mobilisations, whether political, for legal protection, or for re-articulation of self-identity, are actually anti-caste. The main stream media and academia show their casteist prejudice and blindspot by lumping them under the rubric of caste. The third overlap between caste and Hindutva is religion. Both operate with a sense of obvious naturalness to their demands. To the extent that the idea of the self and community for an average Hindu is still largely religious, it helps both caste and Hindutva become effective in everyday life.

Such overlaps however do not mean that caste can be readily incorporated in the political programme of Hindutva. Caste ridden Hindu society is not easily amenable to community wide calls of political nature. Congress achieved it under a basically liberal project that had place for at least a formal critique of caste as part of the reform of Hindu society which needed to be modernized. Hindutva can not take any anti caste stance due to the centrality of the idea of a Great Hindu civilization/religion in its programme. This explains why for many decades after its initiation it remained confined to savarna castes. The two key events in its growth trajectory were one, when it became the common political sense of savarna castes, and second when it managed to draw in sizeable sections of Shudra and untouchable castes. The first was achieved when the Congress formula of broad coalitions of social groupings unraveled in the absence charismatic leadership, and savarna castes, which as a block continue to enjoy cultural, economic and bureaucratic hegemony, found that it is unable to counter mobilisations by rural dominant castes. Savarna castes now form the core voter base of Hindutva. Psephologists have known this for more than three decades. In fact sections of savarna castes like Punjabi Hindus of Delhi, have consistently voted overwhelmingly for the Hindutva party for over three generations now, however in the media talk of ‘vote banks’ they are not counted as one.

The success with Shudras and untouchables is the real tour de force of Hindutva, which helped it become a mass movement. This was facilitated by the preponderance of religion in the cultural and community life of Hindus. Hindutva exploited this religiosity through two complementary tactics. RSS affiliated organisations facilitated, encouraged and organized events of mass religiosity. The Hindutva touch was given by a certain kind of aggressive occupation of public space with a clear lumpen character, which, as is true with all lumpen mobilisations, could be used for spectacular mass violence under the control of a centralized leadership. These organisations also calibrated their programmes by incorporating specific caste centric gods, temples and religious programmes within a Sanskritising narrative. The success of this strategy was based on the continuing hegemony of Brahminical cultural norms at the molecular level, where the penetration of suitable counter narratives, either anti caste Periyarite or Ambedkarite, or the mores of modernisation, was weak. It succeeded most dramatically in the ‘cow belt’ heartland of Northern India.

The re-establishment of old Brahminical ritual based caste hierarchy is not an aim of Hindutva. It does not mind an OBC Prime Minister, a Dalit President, and can not publicly support untouchability. Hindutva is also comfortable with the role caste has come to play in the electoral politics in India. In fact the inherent divisiveness of caste in politics makes it imminently suitable for social engineering under a hegemonic project. However, it is dead against any anti-caste movement, because that can challenge existing power relations in society, as Bhim Sena is trying to do in Saharanpur. It can incorporate non-Jatav dalit castes in UP, and can hope to manage a Hardik Patel. It can not stand a Rohith Vemula whose anti-caste stand was inspired by a deep and universal conception of human equality, and a Jignesh Mevani who has deftly combined his anti-caste politics with concrete socio-economic demands, through invocation of both asmita and astitava. Their politics is not only anti-Hindutva, but has the potential to knock the bottom out of Hindu caste order. Hindutva provides a safe haven for all hierarchical caste prejudices, of Savarnas against OBCs and Dalits, and of OBCs against Dalits. A radical Dalit who has courage to stand against all, is its public enemy number one.

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Sanjay Kumar Written by:

Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen's College, Delhi

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