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.”
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.
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