The assimilation of Dalits into the Hindu fold has led not only to a misreading of who constitutes Hindus but also to a change in perception of Dalits and other religions. Dalit culture is appropriated as being part of the larger Hindu sphere and debates on discrimination from within the fold are reduced to merely providing reservations to aggrieved groups, without addressing the question of dignity and equality. It has also shaped a kind of majority-versus-minority politics, leading to the majority community believing that it has the ability to shape the distinctive culture of the public sphere.
Maiytree as fraternity
B.R. Ambedkar had imagined the political realm as a radical republican space. His conversion to Buddhism was a choice made for a life of dignity, compassion and justice. Within the Hindu social order, he argued, there was no scope for mutual recognition or reciprocity between communities and groups. As V. Geetha argues in Religious Faith, Ideology, Citizenship: The View from Below, “Dr Ambedkar famously noted that the Hindu has no public, and that his public was caste: in the absence of ‘social endosmosis’ which makes it possible for classes to hold values in common … the absence of fraternity was a founded absence, based on rigid economics which disallowed learning to many, and condemned them to servitude and which forbade occupational mobility to all.”
Through Buddha and his Dhamma, he built a concept of fraternity that was quite distinct from the idea of unity. The idea of fraternity as understood from the writings of Ambedkar points to an egalitarian order based on the modern ideals of liberty and equality. It wasn’t borrowed – as such ideas traditionally were – from law or religious morality. By adapting the Buddhist doctrine as a scientific religion for Dalits, Ambedkar constructed a spiritual alternative for Dalits. It was to provide a “new metaphysics adequate for modern life”. Navanaya Buddhism, as he termed it, had an inbuilt conception of how society was to recognize the other. It was not based on assimilating via inclusion, rather on recognizing groups in the act of karuna; it was a conception that upheld reciprocity of recognition. Karuna was to be supplemented by maiytree, or the notion of loving kindness towards all creation. According to Geetha, it was to be an active fellowship with the world on equal terms. Dhamma was to be the guiding idea for this fraternity, as it was based on an ethical consensus with each other. This was not a call for individuals to be alike. Instead, it was based on the moral equality of individuals upheld through mutual respect.
However, in the nationalist paradigm, the heterodoxy within the Hindu tradition was projected as “inclusivism” – a process of assimilation to project a condition of tolerance – which was later claimed to be a mark of Indianness. Tolerance referred to how diverse religious beliefs were being absorbed and arranged within the larger discourse of Hinduism – for instance, Buddha was seen as an avatar of Vishnu, Jainism and the Sikhism as sects of Hinduism. Extending this idea of tolerance as inclusivism to the national context meant the assimilation of minorities, primarily focusing on religious differences rather than on the myriad ways in which religion negotiates cultural, linguistic and social landscapes.
As a result, since the 1980s, Indian politics has witnessed the rise of a specific kind of identity politics. While it represents the heterogeneity of demands and aspirations it also complicates the discourse of social justice. It recognizes differences, yet doesn’t acknowledge equality like the Ambedkarite understanding of fraternity. Thus, it becomes important to understand the rise of political parties from the right like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which tries to negotiate the quest for a “Hindu Rashtra” through the rhetoric of development for all – a way of demonstrating an idea of unity by going beyond the politics represented by various groups.
Notion of unity today
The BJP treats individuals belonging to all groups as citizens but while it talks of a citizen it has the Hindu citizen in mind. “For the Sangh, a cultural affiliate preceding the formation of the political party, Hindu religion, culture and language exist in their ideal state in Satyuga: they are eternal, inseparable, ‘undefinable’ emanations of the Ultimate Reality,” writes Christophe Jaffrelot in The Sangh Parivar. Diversity, and more importantly, differences among the people don’t figure in their plans for an Akhand Hindu Rashtra. While they simplistically term Parsis as the only minorities in India, they talk of ghar wapsi to “bring back” other minorities to the fold. They equate Indianness with Hinduness. This Hinduness moves beyond being just a religious identity and seeks to uphold a kind of cultural ethos. It stakes claim to inventions of modern science and medicine by quoting instances from mythology.
For Jaffrelot, when in power the BJP symbolizes an oscillation between, “ethno-religious mobilization and a more moderate approach of politics according to three parameters: the Hindu feeling of vulnerability; attitude of other political forces; and attitudes of the party cadres as well as of the RSS, with which the party cadres often display strong affinities.” While the RSS, from their headquarters in Nagpur, is not seen as playing a major role in shaping the political strategies of the BJP, it, however, is allowed to meddle in the cultural arena. Since the BJP came to power more than a year ago, the RSS has actively furthered its old agenda of the Hindu Rasthra through its god-men and god-women who also happen to be BJP members of parliament. Other parliamentarians have gone on record to say that they are proud of their RSS roots. The posturing of the RSS as a kind of modern-day NGO – which works not only as a mobilizer of votes for the BJP but has over the years gained a kind of legitimacy, through its “social” work among Tribals and weaker, vulnerable sections of society – has enabled it to come out more aggressively as a preserver of “Indian culture”. Its communal aspirations and narrow view on the nation’s unity have receded to the background, including the fact that one of its ideologues assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for having destroyed that conception of unity by conceding to the demand for Pakistan.
So, while the Sardar Vallabbhai Patel’s “Statue of Unity” is being built, the contours of this idea – given the strategic silence of the BJP – are being drawn by the sadhus, sadhvis and the RSS.
Published in the September 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine