Caste has been a major factor of Indian society. It has determined politics here throughout history and continues to do so today. There are various claims and interpretations about the origin and prevalence of the caste system. While Ambedkar locates the origin of caste in the scriptures, the Hindutva ideology claims that all castes are equal in Hindu society and that Muslim aggressors wanted to proselytize and those who wanted to remain Hindus had to escape to remote places, leading to caste inequality. This interpretation reflects the upper-caste ideology rather than the events that actually took place. The simple reason to debunk this “aggressors and conversion” theory is the “holy books” like the Manusmriti, which show us the social impact of a full-fledged caste hierarchy by 2nd century AD, well before Islam came into being, well before Muslim traders arrived on the Malabar coast and well before Muslim kings’ incursions took place.
Contrary to this warped interpretation, Swami Vivekananda also tells us that major conversions to Islam took place due to tyranny of the caste system. It was this caste that remained in Indian society as an indelible scar despite the semi-modernization that Indian society underwent during colonial rule. It persists despite seventy years of independence and formal implementation of the Constitution, which promises us equality. This painful reality has come to the fore again with Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-clothed chief monk of Gorakhnath math, assuming the office of Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh. Atrocities against Dalits have risen, as reflected in multiple incidents of violence in Saharanpur.
It is reported that close to 180 Dalit families from three western Uttar Pradesh villages have embraced Buddhism to protest against the atrocities that have increased after Adityanath became chief minister. In a few villages, the Thakur-Dalit animosity took an ugly turn. Thakurs had the local administration stop the installation of an Ambedkar statue. Later, Dalits objected to the Rajput procession to honour Maharana Pratap because the organizers hadn’t obtained permission from the authorities. Now, Dalits say that Adityanath’s government “belongs only to his fellow Thakurs”.
Yet again, in Moradabad, about 50 Dalit families near the district’s border with Saharanpur, have threatened to quit Hinduism if Adityanath don’t put a stop on the attacks on Dalits by the “saffron brigade”. Similarly, in Aligarh, nearly 2000 Dalits have threatened to embrace Islam. The Bhim Army has been taking up the cause of Dalits. While administration accuses the outfit of precipitating violence, Dalits claim that it has often come to their aid and that the pro-upper-caste administration is targeting this outfit rather than nabbing the culprits. There has been a huge rise in Hindu vigilantism and the Bhim Army offers hope to Dalits, who have faced the brunt of the excesses of the vigilante groups. While Adityanath looks the other way, Dalits feel they have no option but to leave the fold of Hinduism, which is currently dominated by brahmanical norms. These brahmanical norms form the base of the politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, which Adityanand represents. A large number of Dalits have protested at Jantar-Mantar, New Delhi, demanding an end to the atrocities against them.
RSS faces a big dilemma in dealing with the Dalits. On the one hand, they want to take them along for electoral benefits and on the other, giving them some status in society and recognition upsets its core upper-caste constituency. To overcome this challenge, there have been efforts to co-opt Dalits through cultural mechanisms. RSS launched the Samajik Samrasta Manch and started the programme of co-dining with the low castes. It has also offered lollypops of power to many Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale and Udit Raj. It has been actively engaged in trying to win over Dalit communities by distorting the community history to present them as protectors of Hinduism in the face of Islamic aggression. These cultural manipulations are also central to the construction of Hindu nationalism.
During the last three years, atrocities against Dalits have taken various forms. The Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was banned in IIT Madras. In Hyderabad Central University, the anti-Dalit policies of the administration led to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula and to cap it all, the politics of protecting the “holy cow” led to the brutal beating of Dalits in Una, Gujarat. The politics of Hindu nationalism is the polar opposite of the path and goal of those suffering under the caste system. Bhimrao Ambedkar, standing for social justice and democracy, went on to support the burning of the Manusmriti, which was at the core of ideology of M.S. Golwalkar, one of the early leaders of the RSS. Golwalkar opposed the formation of Indian Constitution arguing that we already have a “wonderful” constitution in the form of the Manusmriti. While Ambedkar said that, in a nutshell, the Gita is the Manusmriti, this government is promoting the Gita to the hilt.
Hindu nationalists have constructed a history that glorifies the ancient “values” of Hindu scriptures. Its attempt is to revive caste hierarchy, which can’t have a place in a democratic society. There has been another stream of Hinduism, called Shramanism, (the Bhakti sect, for example), which rejected the hierarchical notions. But it has been eclipsed by the brahmanical versions, which form the core of Hindu nationalism being propagated for the past century. The massive protest in Jantar-Mantar, led by the Bhim army, is an indication that the illusion of equality being created by the RSS won’t succeed in its objective of winning over Dalits. It reminds us yet again that Ambedkar had to finally renounce Hinduism to escape the religiously ordained caste system, and that is what a large number of Dalits is aiming at today.
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