At a single stroke, the rape and murder of a Dalit law student has fully exposed the dimensions of social exclusion in contemporary Kerala.
In a way that is perhaps unprecedented, today, a very large number of Malayalis feel connected to each other by a veritable tsunami of pain. No wonder perhaps, because the veils of our complacency have been ripped off too thoroughly. The immediate context is the gruesome murder of a young Dalit student in central Kerala, in the tiny, rickety squatter-shack that was her home, in full daylight.
At a single stroke, the incident fully exposed the dimensions of social exclusion in contemporary Kerala. Hers was an all-woman family among families deemed ‘properly gendered’, they were lower caste people trapped and isolated among upper and middle caste families, they were the working-class poor without property in an area full of propertied domestic-oriented bourgeois and petty-bourgeois families. Oppressed in all these ways, they were invisible to the state and the political parties. They possessed no form of capital that would have allowed them upward mobility. Yet, the young woman struggled on and reached the law college.
‘But she went to college’, some ask, ‘how could she have been so helpless?’
As a teacher, I feel complicit with the entire history of neoliberal transformation of the education sector, which no doubt forms the backdrop of her isolation, and the fact that not many students or teachers knew much of the stiff challenges that this brave young woman had taken on in her life.
Education in Kerala is no longer a service, but an industry, and the lives of students and teachers have changed accordingly. For sure, this did not happen overnight. There were times in which poverty was not shameful in Kerala. In my memory of college life, far from being resigned to poverty, poor students often refused to be cowed down by it. There was much less clarity about the caste and gender dimensions of poverty, but it was regarded as a structural thing – being poor was not poor people’s personal failing, and that much was clear to most. Such politics is no longer hegemonic.
Much has changed since. The middle class seems to have evacuated liberal arts colleges and the state law colleges; their children now crowd in technical education. The rich educate their children outside Kerala if they choose the liberal arts or professions. The arts and science colleges in Kerala are now populated by students who are often poor, lower-caste and female – many are first generation college-goers. Teachers in colleges, too, have changed. The rise in salaries has made college teaching a lucrative profession, and in colleges run by private managements, the donations required to secure a teaching job have apparently skyrocketed, reaching above 35 lakhs in some instances.
The job, then, is an investment and not a social vocation. The social distance between students and teachers has, not surprisingly, grown immensely. Nor have the kind of connections student leaders used to have with their followers remained the same across these decades. In short, the law student now is not the same as the law student of the 1970s or 80s.
But more importantly perhaps, the ideological horizon of this society has changed. If participation in democracy was once the gateway to securing well-being – and membership in the legal profession could be counted as a ticket in – today, it is the entry into the market that is touted as the royal road to prosperity.
So what advantage would a law student have? After the mid-1990s, the mainstream Left in Kerala embraced neoliberal welfarism in an attempt to renew itself in the post-USSR era. True, the vital presence of the welfarist state in this imagination of development made some minimal difference. However, the idea that poverty was essentially to be dealt with by individual families that were poor – from which the position that poverty is essentially the individual family’s personal failing is just a step away – has been dominant in Kerala’s famed experiments in decentralised development.
Given that remittances to families from abroad are an important force of social change, this way of perceiving poverty could not but become all the more pervasive. The structural aspects of the poverty suffered by this family, then, would be largely invisible and their complaints would sound like disgraceful cribbing.
I am struck by reports that claim that the law student’s mother was ‘un-cooperative’, ‘quarrelsome’, ‘unpopular’, or ‘unpleasant’ (not to say of the initial reports that she suffered from mental illness). To me, that sounds like a typical way of silencing a woman who probably refused to take on herself the responsibility of her powerless state and who must have protested incessantly.
That is, someone who implicitly refused to accept the fashionable wisdom that if the poor are poor, then that must surely be because they have not tried hard enough to escape poverty – and must, therefore, as a first step, stop complaining and start working hard.
In other words, besides being weighed down by the immense structural disadvantage of gender, caste, and class, this was a family that perhaps did not consent to be meek feminine subjects of neoliberal welfarism. This is why they were apparently connected only weakly with the women’s self-help group networks or local party circles of the mainstream Left. This is why, perhaps, that despite some response from the government in the effort to secure shelter (according to reports, in 2014), the student and her family were unable to make any progress at all.
The police and the political establishment
‘But she was a law student, how could she have been so helpless?’
The question is so naïve, especially when raised by Malayalis who have been living here, it makes me want to weep. No, being a law student does not make you automatically closer to the police. The massive shift towards predatory-crony growth in Kerala, we all know, has almost completely altered our ideas of what the police are and what they can be expected to do.
In an increasing number of incidents in the past years, the local police have been found to act as the arm of, or remain blind to, the workings of predators of various kinds – the quarry capitalists, the sand-miners, builders breaking the law. No doubt, the Kerala police have come up with several innovative moves which involve the public, like community policing and the student-cadet police scheme, but it is doubtful whether the conception of citizenship that underlies these schemes is fully inclusive of the poorest, or goes beyond protectionism.
And not to speak of the Kerala police’s moral-policing concerns largely focused on young people, which is a striking contrast to their failure to protect them from the heightened circulation of dangerous mind-altering drugs (thanks, in no small measure, to prohibition in Kerala), or cellphone-centred ‘pornography’, which are now often DIY rape-manuals for boys.
‘But she was a law student, how could she have been so helpless?’
This question makes me think that the people who ask these questions have no sense of the struggles contemporary India is passing through. Students in India who hail from underprivileged castes and classes have been indeed conspicuous as the social group which has sensed that the mobility unleashed by the economic change of the past two decades remains far from them.
They have protested – and indeed, become an inextricable thorn in the flesh of a government that has been desperate to use Hindutva nationalism to precisely cover up this failure. The violence that it now unleashes against politicised students is so public that those who still feel that students, or law students, can access justice must surely be strangely disconnected from India’s present. Or they must be like the BJP, which does everything in its power to deny students citizenship but will still try to play protector to ‘women’, in a totally opportunistic way.
Nevertheless, the outrage that now spills out into the streets as protests now connect us all is an opportunity to take a hard look at ‘normal’ social life in Kerala. Sometimes violence offers extraordinary illumination, though we may not care to see. I remember such an opportunity from years back, during the tribal struggle at Muthanga in Wayanad, Kerala, when the Adivasi woman leader C. K. Janu was beaten and publicly humiliated.
Those were the days in which Malayali women were being celebrated as agents of neoliberal welfarist self-help. I am being self-critical here; those of us who protested against police violence at Muthanga did not notice how Janu had implicitly refused the terms of ‘good subjecthood’ in mainstream welfarist neoliberalism, thereby revealing its limits.
The law student’s death offers a similar opportunity for us to reconsider the social effects of the much-cherished dream of the Malayali new middle-classes, of ‘growth’ – to ask hard questions about what we want to be as a society. Let us not spare ourselves this time. The pain that we share holds the power to set aside mutual distrust, however momentarily, and think of how we may take upon ourselves the responsibility for the other’s safety.
J Devika is a feminist researcher and teacher at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
Appearance of untouchability can be dated to over 2,000 years ago: Romila Thapar
Thapar said clearly those who enforced this found it greatly to their advantage to push entire communities into permanent exclusion so much so that successive generations too were decreed untouchable.
Written by Seema Chishti | New Delhi | Updated: April 15, 2016 8:56 am
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Babasaheb B R Ambedkar, who she had been reading “more and more over the years”, had contributed tremendously to her understanding of the abomination untouchability system in Hinduism, eminent historian and Professor Emerita at JNU, Romila Thapar, said while delivering the eighth Dr BR Ambedkar lecture, organised by Ambedkar University of Delhi, on Thursday.
In a talk lasting over an hour-and-a-half, apart from select questions she fielded, Thapar said a stratified caste-based society has existed in India for millennia, but the appearance of untouchability probably can be dated to more than two millennia ago, when the word ‘asprishya’ makes an appearance and the Chandals were discussed.
Speaking on “permanently excluding” an entire set of people which made untouchability unique, and even worse than slavery (“because under some conditions slaves could become free and citizens”), Thapar said clearly those who enforced this found it greatly to their advantage to push entire communities into permanent exclusion so much so that successive generations too were decreed untouchable.
The central premise of her talk — ‘Rethinking Civilisation as History’ — was on the limitations of how the term ‘Civilisation’ was used, with a focus on “cultural singularity” to discuss or understand events, creating the idea of ‘the other’ or a mistaken ‘clash of civilisation’ to define a people. She began by elaborating on how the phrase civilisation came about, was of European origin, seeking to define others as either savages or barbarians. Citing the creation of the ‘barbarous’ by the Greece or the ‘Mlechh’ or ‘das’ idea of the ‘other’ by Brahmins in Vedic times, Thapar dwelt on colonial history, 18th century European ideas and its impact on how India was seen by them and how Indians see themselves to date. Thapar said that the term was used to denote a system with singularity of language, religion, fixed territory and a set of ideas. Eventually, when the term civilisation was used to denote the history of a particular time, it ended up representing the life of the dominant group at any point of time. So, Thapar argued, whenever ‘civilisation’ was used to talk about India, it did not fully represent India either fairly or accurately. On territory, Thapar elaborated on how a ‘section of people’, arguing for Indian civilisation over a fixed territory, usually, following the description of colonial historians like James Mill, referred to British India as the boundaries, not speaking of Jambudwipe, Aryavarta or Al-Hind as alternative boundaries; “but even that changed so dramatically, that binding Indian civilisation between fixed boundaries was meaningless.” Thapar spoke of the importance of culture at the frontiers of the boundaries and how it influenced things inside, but that having received inadequate attention so far. On one religion, Thapar elaborated how for millennia, the wide spectrum of sects, between the Brahmans and Shramans or the Astiks and Nastiks and aajivikas defined a much richer variety of faith. But after colonial European historians came to India and put all non-Muslim and Christian faiths under the ‘Hindu’ label, it was an oversimplification of what was happening here. She said dialogue between various sects between the Brahmans and Shramans resulted in each one calling the other ‘Pashandas’, or frauds, and levels of intolerance were on display with reference to Buddhism and castes and sects treated as lower and untouchable. In a statement significant with debates today about portrayal of ancient India as tolerant, Thapar said: “The degree of tolerance and ideas of non-violence in the past need to be re-examined.” On language, too, Thapar spoke of how high-quality debates and arguments took place in Prakrit, which remained a very popular but ignored language as ancient India is characterised as having just a Sanskrit base, ignoring both Prakrit and Pali, and of course languages in peninsular India. While Sanskrit was also the language which the elites and several royals patronised, with a rich repository of literature and philosophy, it was not the only language of the land. Thapar emphasised on interactions between cultures and across boundaries and even high, dominant cultures executed by often smaller and less dominant castes, such as artisans and craftsmen, about whose interaction we know little. She spoke of the importance of “interface between what see as distinct cultures, which civilisation is about and not separation”. She spoke of co-mingling of people, engagement and cultures who spoke to each other as agents of change and growth, internally and across boundaries accepted (mistakenly) as static and eternal that often generated the maximum activity. Speaking before her, the Vice Chancellor of AUD, Dr Shyam Menon spoke of plans in the university to institute a Chair for Dr BR Ambedkar Studies and, soon, to have a Centre for Critical Ambedkar Studies. Menon spoke of how the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar had coincided with difficult times for ideals Ambedkar held close to him. “We are seeing distressing times when there is the silencing of rationality, which is under attack.” He also spoke of the “acute intolerance” on display, when “public universities were become epicentres of contestation” to debate whether “difference in ideas can be debated”. Menon defined a university as a “liberal space” and a “protected space”, which acts as a “testing ground for several ideas”. The lecture was chaired by Dean, School of Liberal Studies, Prof Denys Leighton – See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/tacing-back-untouchability-romila-thapar-at-ambedkar-university-2754296/#sthash.aNNZ5FHY.dpuf
Many people came to meet Kausalya, a 19-year-old grieving the murder of her husband, at the Coimbatore General Hospital. Not all came in sympathy, even if this was a frail young woman who had watched her husband being hacked to death by sickle-slashing killers outside a shopping complex in Udumalpet in March. While in the ICU being treated for head injuries — the assailants had not spared her — a doctor attending her blamed her for everything. Why did she, a daughter from a Thevar family, have to go and marry a Dalit?
But there was one visitor who came in solidarity. M Abhirami had travelled to Coimbatore from Soorakottai in Thanjavur district. Six years ago, this 26-year-old woman belonging to the Kollar caste, had fallen in love with P Marimuthu, a bus cleaner and a Dalit, whom she met daily on her way to the Teachers’ Training College in the nearby town. They eloped and made a life in Chennai, away from social constraints. Two years later, in 2012, Marimuthu was dead, his body afloat in the Vadasseri river. Abhirami, the mother of a two-year-old girl, battled on for justice — the courts convicted her elder brother and father for the murder of her husband in October last year.
The two women are among the many casualties of caste hatred and rivalry in Tamil Nadu, in which powerful OBC groups like Thevar and Kollar are pitted against Dalits. It taps into an old righteous rage: how dare they marry our women?
It was that transgression which cost V Shankar’s life. Shankar, 22, and Kausalya met and fell in love while they were students at an engineering college in Pollachi two years ago. She was from Palani, a temple town 40 km from Udumalpet. He was a Dalit from Kumaralingam village.
They married, despite Kausalya’s parents dogged opposition, and went to live in Shankar’s village. While Shankar graduated with a BTech, Kausalya dropped out after repeated threats from her parents and relatives. Eight months after their wedding, they had travelled to town to buy clothes for Shankar’s birthday when the killers struck.
The attack on the couple, captured on CCTV, went viral via social media. It might have been a grisly scene from a Tamil movie. As the killers fled, Shankar lay on the road in a pool of blood while Kausalya, also injured, struggled to reach him. They were taken to the nearest government hospital, where doctors and nurses allegedly stayed away from them as they thought both wouldn’t survive. By the time they reached Coimbatore General Hospital, 60 km away, Shankar was dead. His body was buried the next day amidst violent protests and a lathicharge in his village.
Weeks later, Kausalya is in Shankar’s single-room house, in a village largely populated by Dalit families. “I will never go back to my parents, who killed my Shankar. I’ll look after his family,” she says. She is a frail figure in a pink-and-green salwar kameez. The bandages that swathed her head are gone to reveal a head almost shorn of hair.
“He was about to join a company in Chennai, we were planning to live there,” she says. Now, she says, she cannot abandon his home. She wants to ensure that his brothers are educated, his grandmother and father-in-law, a daily wage labourer, are well looked after. “They must have killed him for two reasons — one for being a Dalit and another for being poor,” she says, sitting on the veranda of the house. Shankar’s grandmother sits nearby, disconsolate, often breaking into tears.
When the sun sets, the residents of the house spread mats on the floor and go to sleep. In the mornings, two women constables deployed for Kausalya’s security follows her to the nearby scrub jungle, as there is no toilet in the house.
Three days after the murder, the gangsters responsible for the mortal assault on Shankar were arrested. Kausalya’s father, who allegedly hired them, surrendered in a local court. Her mother was arrested, along with a few other relatives. Kausalya’s was a middle-class family. Her father ran a travel agency and a private finance firm. One of the killers was his driver. He admitted that he had decided to kill his daughter and son-in-law as they married against his wishes. All the six directly involved in the murder were daily-wagers — either drivers or construction labourers or painters.
In the middle of an election, Kausalya’s plight finds little political traction. State politicians, afraid of losing the powerful OBC-Thevar vote, remain indifferent to the murder. Those who turned up to lend a helping hand to Kausalya were the activists of the All India Democratic Women’s Federation (AIDWA) and the Untouchability Eradication Front-— both are subsidiaries of CPM — and VCK, Thol Thirumavalavan’s Dalit party, which donated Rs 1 lakh to Shankar’s family after his murder.
Various people in Udumalpet and its surroundings speak of the murder not with shock but as a warning for Dalit youths. Near her parents’ house in Palani, a close relative of Kausalya, angrily points out that no one in his village would tolerate such marriages. “When we go back to our village during a Tiruvizha (temple festival), it would be a great shame for us. People will look at us and they will make up stories about our family for sending our girl to a Dalit family. Don’t think that we could tolerate such things, our men are not impotent. So (we) settled the issue,” he says.
“If the CCTV footage had not been leaked, nobody would have noticed this murder and it would have added to over 80 such murders that have gone unremarked. The state doesn’t have any system to rehabilitate victims like Kausalya. Organisations like ours can only take small steps to convince her that she is not alone,” said P Suganthi, state leader of AIDWA. The organisation is also helping her fight the case.
The wedding of a woman from a “higher” caste to a man from a “lower” caste is defined by the Manu Smriti as a pratiloma marriage — one which is discouraged because of the danger it poses to the social separation of various castes of Hindu society. But in Tamil Nadu, specific socio-economic characteristics combine to make this animosity between Dalits and backward castes intense.
The OBC-Vanniyars, for instance, are a politically powerful group, notorious for clashing with Dalits in Dharmapuri and Villupuram districts. In 2012, a marriage between a Vanniyar girl, Divya, and a Dalit man, E Ilavarasan had sparked riots in Dharmapuri. At the peak of caste tension in the state, S Ramadoss, leader of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a community-based organisation representing Vanniyars, drew up an image of the Dalit outsider thus: “They (Dalits) wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other communities.”
The anger was targeted against the Dalit who, having been educated, was asserting himself economically and socially — by snapping his ties with the village and claiming a more equal life in cities. The OBCs, meanwhile, dominant in a rural and agricultural economy, were falling behind. “In villages, an average OBC family would be living the life of a Dalit, except for the fact that he still retains his caste pride. The benefits of reservation, Dalit uprisings and the strong urge to improve their lives are significantly elevating the social status of Dalits while a section of OBCs in villages remain illiterate land-holders,” says former judge of the Madras High Court, Justice K Chandru, who has delivered several landmark judgements on Dalit atrocities.
In Tamil Nadu, OBCs and Dalits live in nearby villages. Even if they have a similar social and economic background, the backward castes are politically more powerful. Men and women meet on neutral ground such as colleges in the nearby town, or when one is employed by the girl’s father as a driver. For the Dalit, the village is a place one must escape. After completing his school education, Shankar, for instance, joined the private engineering college in Pollachi with the help of the Tamil Nadu government post-matric scholarship for SC/ST students. It is a scheme that has helped revive many engineering colleges on the verge of closure — and it is many young Dalits’ way to access an engineering degree.
“When Dalits focus on studies or finding a job or go to cities to do hard labour, caste pride prevents OBCs from such ventures. There comes a time when OBC women find Dalits more promising. Whenever they have an affair with an enterprising Dalit man, it has led to violence,” says Justice Chandru.
Three senior police officers from Dharmapuri, Villupuram and Tirunelveli speak of a clear pattern in the anti-Dalit violence in the state. “Such riots will begin with burning autorickshaws or motorbikes or cycles. Then the (rioters) would kill small animals such as goats, as the domestic animals bring a small revenue. Then they would attack Dalit women, burn their dresses, uproot trees and plants in the neighbourhood. Or they would pour kerosene on the houses to burn them fully. They target the most educated among Dalits — in many cases the one who wrote a complaint in English or the one educated youth who took them to a collector or the superintendent of police with a complaint,” says a senior officer. While politicians remain indifferent to caste atrocities, the state machinery also plays a role — police stations, village offices and collectorates are full of officers from Thevar or other powerful OBC communities.
“It was that woman police officer who helped her parents kill her. It was the police that killed my wife,” says B Dilip Kumar, a 26-year-old Scheduled Caste young man from Polipatti village in Usilampatti.
Two years ago, Dilip worked as a driver at the house of Chinnaswamy, a member of the Most Backward Piranmalai Kallar community. There, he met Vimaladevi, his employer’s daughter. “I worked as a driver at her home. They were Thevars, so they opposed our affair. We eloped and married at Virudhachalam in July 2014. Then we went to Kerala where we appeared before the Pattambi police as her father had filed a missing complaint. She was already 20 years old and we told the Kerala police that we’ve decided to live together. But the Usilampatti police took us back to the village, promising Kerala officers that we would be sent back after an inquiry,” Kumar said.
What awaited him in Polipatti was a public trial at the office of Usilampatti’s deputy superintendent of police. Around 200 Thevars and the local MLA had gathered to take Vimala back to the parents. “By then I sought the help of CPM’s untouchability eradication front. Before the DSP, Vimala clarified that she wanted to live with me. Still he decided to separate us and sent her to Sholavandan police station, where they forcibly removed her thali. Her relatives abused her the whole night. Eventually, they forced her to marry a relative,” Kumar says.
Vimaladevi managed to maintain contact with him. “One day, she told me that she would come to Vathalagundu along with her proposed bridegroom. Our plan to get away failed as he attacked me. We were taken to the police station, where a sub-inspector filed a case against me,” he says. Eventually, Vimaladevi was sent to a government home at Oomachikulam in Madurai, where an inspector, Vasanthi, allowed her parents to visit her. They took her back, the police claiming that she had agreed to go home.
Ten days later, Vimaladevi was dead. Her parents said she immolated herself and they cremated her. “On that October night, it was the CPM leaders who called me to their office in Madurai urgently. They revealed the story of her death. Her parents had poured petrol on the body and set her on fire. Police inspector Vasanthi still insists it was a suicide. It was the police that facilitated her murder,” he said. The Madras High Court has now ordered a CBI probe into Vimaladevi’s alleged murder. The trial is yet to begin.
Jeans, ‘Love Drama’ and the Electoral Spoils of Tamil Nadu’s Hidden Caste Wars
BY ROHINI MOHAN ON 06/05/2016
Prohibition and freebies may be on all party manifestos, but the real underlying strategy of the 2016 assembly elections is backward caste consolidation.
Dharmapuri: Divya comes to the door rubbing her eyes on an unbearably hot April afternoon in her village of Sellangottai in Dharmapuri district in north Tamil Nadu. The TV is on at a high volume and dialogues from a ‘90s Tamil comedy fill the four-room house. “Sorry, did you call many times?” she asks. She is wearing a faded pink and purple nightie, a typical home-dress for middle class women, not a hair out of place in her tight braid. The only sign of a broken nap is her small black bindi that’s moved to the upper left of her forehead. Before opening the door, she quickly scans the street behind me. “No one saw you, right? You came alone?”
It is Divya’s third year living as a fugitive, hiding from parts of her family, an endlessly inquisitive media and residents of her own village, members of the agrarian Vanniyar caste. She wants to buy me a soda, but cannot leave the house.
“People stare. Or scold me. Or someone will take a photo,” the 24-year-old says. “I have to sit in the room inside all day, waiting for my brother to return from college, and then my mother from her job at the bank.”
She doesn’t turn the TV off; the sound is a sort of fortress, to ward off neighbours as much as to keep out “thoughts and memories”. Thrice during our conversation, she jumps nervously at passing shadows.
The series of events that have led to Divya’s social imprisonment are well known in Tamil Nadu: her inter-caste marriage with Ilavarasan, a Dalit boy who lived less than a kilometre away; the engineered rage of the Patali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a largely Vanniyar political party, against this “polluted marriage”; and her humiliated father’s alleged suicide that in turn led to Vanniyar mobs torching three Dalit villages on November 7, 2012. Reeling with guilt and grief over her father’s death, Divya had gone home to her mother, which caste groups jubilantly declared as her rejection of Ilavarasan. As a legal case plodded on in court, Ilavarasan was found dead near a railway track. The court declared it a suicide, but his mother Krishnaveni alleges murder.
“My son wanted to live,” Krishnaveni says. “The suicide note could have been forced.”
Divya doesn’t know what to think. “I wasn’t even allowed out to see Ila’s body,” she says.
Today, more than 90 Vanniyar men have been charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act), previously coexisting Dalit and Vanniyar villages are irreconcilably alienated, and nearly every new inter-caste couple in the area must go into hiding. In May 2014, rallying against inter-caste marriage with a doorstep-campaign, a once-struggling PMK won a parliamentary seat in the Vanniyar-dominated Dharmapuri constituency. That member of parliament, former union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss, is now the PMK’s suave chief ministerial aspirant in the 2016 assembly election, contesting from the Pennagaram constituency in the same district.
Caste affiliations brings in votes
Caste has been the substance of politics in Tamil Nadu, but not in its current form. Electorally, politicians shied away from looking at it directly. As a movement born to displace Brahmin hegemony and Aryan-Hindi elitism, Dravidian politics needed non-Brahmin unity. Even while reservation policies were formulated and fixed at 69%, the highest in the country (for Dalits, tribals, minorities and the largest chunk for backward castes), it was done strategically on the basis of Tamilian identity, Dravidar cultural heritage and social justice, not caste pride. “Votes were won with cadre strength, ideology, personality, and oratory,” says V. Arasu, retired professor at Madras University. “Dalits were marginalised then too, but direct caste battles were not common. It wouldn’t work in an electorate brought up on abusing the caste system.”
With what analysts call the gradual corrosion of these ideals or as political analyst Stalin Rajangam says, “the unravelling of its inherent flaws,” caste began to rear its head. It still didn’t have a foothold, until the Divya-Ilavarasan case, which set off a dangerous political trend of creating and then consolidating intense caste affiliations for votes. Since the strategy worked for a small party like the PMK in 2014, other backward caste (OBC) groups have followed suit. The PMK in the north and a multitude of Gounder parties in the west are stoking backward caste insecurities by demonising Dalits, who make up about 20% of the population. These parties demand reservation, industry and agriculture development, but to really win supporters, they frame inter-caste relationships as a ‘love jihad’ by Dalits.
Divya’s life today is evidence of the irresponsibility of this sort of politics. “I just liked a boy, and look what it’s become,” she says. A college-educated woman brought up in a left-leaning household, she did not see any of this coming. “A matter of two families exploded when all these outsiders got involved,” she says. “Who are they? Why do they get to choose our life and death?” In the frenzy that’s lasted four years, she has lost two men she loved, any job prospects or plans for higher education and most of all, her personal agency – for reasons she can list, but still cannot grasp. As her younger brother comes home from college, Divya drops her voice, “He doesn’t like me to express myself. Even he has caste fever now”.
Divya is not blind to caste – “you can’t but know these brackets in our society” – but identity does not imply hierarchy to her. As caste politics takes centre stage in Tamil Nadu, and Dalit homes and lives are under attack, so is this intuitive understanding of equality.
“Crossing the line”
A few feet away from Divya’s house in Sellangottai, is Natham colony, Ilavarasan’s village and one of the three that Vanniyar mobs burned down in the 2012 riots. Most of the houses have been rebuilt, using the hard-won compensation of Rs. 2.78 lakhs per household paid by the state government led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Few men are visible when I go there – many are away working at construction sites in nearby Bangalore, some are asleep indoors to avoid the blistering afternoon heat and others have gone campaigning with a candidate from Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), a party representing the Dalits. Madhayan, a 30-year-old Dalit, admits that not everyone who has gone campaigning is a VCK supporter. “People vote for several parties here. They’re just showing crowd support, otherwise a Dalit candidate can look so desolate in an election in these parts,” he says.
Vanniyars are the dominant community in the parched district of Dharmapuri, followed by the Reddys, and then by the Dalits, especially Parayar and Arundatiyar. Vanniyars are one of the poorer land-owing communities in the state, with relatively smaller tracts of land (one to five acres) than other agrarian communities. Dalits in the area – numerically larger, but overwhelmingly landless – traditionally worked on Vanniyar farms, growing crops like tapioca, millets, turmeric and mangoes. In the ‘80s, Dharmapuri was also the heart of the Naxal movement in the state.
“Except for land ownership, these castes were economically alike, and both Vanniyar and Dalit villages had united struggles against the state for land redistribution,” says political analyst A. Marx who worked on a fact-finding report on the riots. In 2002, a sweeping police operation uprooted the Naxal movement from the region.
Socially, little changed. Durairaja (name changed), a Bangalore worker on a break at home says there was “a leftist sentiment in general” and that even though old structures of caste remained, unlike in other parts of the state, discrimination was rare. Until recently, even inter-caste marriages were common. Opposite Ilavarasan’s home, Chinnathambi lives with his Vanniyar wife, both over 80 years old. “My children and grandchildren are married now, and no one said a word,” says the elderly man.
A younger inter-caste couple, Hari and Gowri, also live in the same village. Gowri’s Vanniyar parents did not support her relationship, so she eloped. “It’s common in villages. You don’t discuss all this. You leave home if you fall in love and the worst that would happen is your family disowns you. But in time, after a baby or something, they’d come around unless some jobless uncles meddled,” says Gowri. “In some parts of the state, they will chase you with axes but not here.” Their neighbour who wished to remain anonymous recalled that “there was nothing shocking about my Vanniyar friends eating in my house, or us playing cricket all day together”.
Come evening, young Vanniyar men thronging a PMK public meeting describe the same idyllic coexistence with Dalits in the region – cricket, shared meals, friendships, festivals. “But then they started to cross the line,” says 20-year-old Mariyappan from Nochikottai, swiftly blaming the beginning of caste violence on the Dalits. “Look how stylishly the young guys dress, with jean pants and shades, to seduce our girls.” When I point to his own jeans, he becomes bashful. “We have always worn it, but these people are flaunting their new wealth.” His friend Murugan joins in, wearing a canary yellow T-shirt emblazoned with a roaring lion, crossed swords and the words ‘Vanniyakula Kshatriyar’ (Vanniyar warriors). “Intercaste marriage is a strategy by Thirumavalavan (a Dalit leader from the VCK) to make Dalits take our wealth,” he says with conviction. “You tell me, if they purposely take our girls, should we keep quiet? We will defend ourselves!”
An older man intervenes quickly, pulling Murugan’s raised hand down, “But that doesn’t mean we burned their villages, okay? That was done by outsiders we don’t know.”
These accusations, arguments and defences were near-identical to observations made some years ago by S. Ramadoss, the 77-year-old founder of the PMK. In the late ’80s, he led violent agitations to wrest a 20% most backward castes (MBCs) quota from the other backward caste category for the Vanniyars. He founded the PMK in 1989, building it through demographic experiments. He tried to form a caste-based coalition with Devendrars, an upwardly mobile scheduled caste in the south. “Then, sensing the growth of the VCK in northern TN, Ramadoss joined hands with them in the name of Tamil nationalism,” says Dalit history researcher Karthikeyan Damodaran. In 2002, he made a widely criticised demand that Vanniyar-dominated districts be carved out into a separate state. He then joined hands with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2004, negotiating the health ministry portfolio at the Centre and a Rajya Sabha seat for his son Anbumani. In 2009, he went with the AIADMK, but was back with the DMK and VCK in 2011.
“Through these decades, as Vijaykanth’s party made inroads in the Vanniyar-dominated areas, the PMK started to lose bargaining authority with the DMK and AIADMK,” says Rajangam. “So he started to use a cultural, emotive issue to quickly mobilise his community.”
Ramadoss tried to consolidate all intermediate castes under the issue of alleged misuse of the SC/ST Act. Caste grudges were already simmering when Divya married Ilavarasan on October 14, 2012 and began to live with his family in Natham colony. A month later, her father drank heavily and hanged himself from a fan, leading Vanniyar youth to loot and burn 268 Dalit homes. After this, Ramadoss started to rally against inter-caste marriage as well.
In the lead up to 2014 parliamentary elections, the elder Ramadoss held 27 public meetings over 14 months across Tamil Nadu to officially mobilise all intermediate castes what he called a “non-Dalit federation”. Referring to “a rising Dalit brazenness,” he demanded a ban on inter-caste marriages and amendments to prevent the misuse of the SC/ST Act. He accused Dalit youth of “wearing jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses” to lure girls from other castes with “bogus professions of love”. He cited statistics from the party’s own confidential surveys of broken marriages to claim that these weddings were born out of caste design and not love. Meanwhile, in a public meeting, another senior PMK leader, Kaaduvetti Guru, reportedly goaded Vanniyar men to chop off the hands of any man touching a Vanniyar woman.
Today, as the PMK contests the assembly elections alone in all 234 constituencies in the state, the party has had an image makeover. It now offers the youngest chief ministerial candidate, also the one who is most educated. With his Obama-like logo, slogan of Change-Progress-Anbumani and a professional manifesto for economic development, the younger Ramadoss is attempting to sidestep identity politics. After a two-day campaign in his Pennagaram constituency, he addresses the caste question evasively, “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we have to put this caste image in the past. We want to work for all communities. I speak to my young supporters every chance I get – I tell them, we need to think about modernity, progress.”
Young Vanniyar men crowded close to the stage at Anbumani’s public meeting present a different picture. They carefully deny any involvement in the 2012 burning or accusations of threatening Dalits, but passionately talk of “naadaga kaadal” (love drama) by Dalits, words the senior Ramadoss uses. As mellifluous campaign songs express disdain for freebies and corrupt Dravidian leaders, they blame state policies for favouring lower castes in job opportunity. Twenty-four-year-old Prabhu H., who has an undergraduate degree in education, offers his degree and joblessness as proof of “Dalits stealing our jobs”.
“They have 20% reservation, they have become so rich by cornering all the jobs, they will steal our women, our land and next our heads,” he says.
He is one of the few young men at the rally who is not drunk, having quit after Anbumani announced prohibition as the PMK’s first move if he came to power. Other young men too refer to joblessness and struggling agriculture (due to high wages demanded by labourers, in this case Dalits). As the largest group in the MBCs, Vanniyars take the lion’s share of the quota, but many supporters hunkered down to present now-popular calculations of the “dammathundu (miniscule)”quota left for them after having to share it with 108 others.
When Anbumani arrives to much jubilation and promises to provide five lakh jobs in the government for the educated youth, they are delirious with joy. But as activist Satish Kumar, a native of the region, explains, parties that kindle caste pride have not addressed the core, complex issues that plague the communities and contribute to the disenchantment among their youth.
The struggle to survive
Economist Vijaya Bhaskar from the Madras Institute of Development Studies has researched the changes in the socioeconomic status of backward castes in the state and finds that although caste violence has existed for long, the drivers of this violence and key perpetrators are different today. “The anxiety resides today not in the upper or even backward castes, but the intermediate castes that are numerically and regionally dominant, like Vanniyars and Thevars,” he says.
Economically, these groups are only marginally above Dalits. In parts like the north and west, Dalit and intermediate caste youth go to college, both private and government-run. At 40%, the state tops the country in youth with higher education, but 90 lakh youth are without jobs, 13.5% of them postgraduates. “Available jobs in industry today are highly temporary and casual in nature, so there’s no real stability,” says Bhaskar. “There is a growing feeling among backward castes, especially the ones moving away from agriculture, that the jobs available are not commiserate to their investment in education.”
Reeling with an acute agrarian crisis (agriculture’s contribution to the state GDP has fallen to less than 7%) and increasingly fragmented landholding (the average is two acres today, about 90% are small and marginal farmers), the cultivating class, both Dalit and OBCs, struggle to make ends meet. At the same time, says Bhaskar, certain welfare policies of the state – like universalisation of food distribution, and to a lesser extent rural employment guarantee, have had a significant impact on rural social relations. In the past two decades, the Dalit community has also migrated heavily to cities like Chennai, Tirupur and Bangalore. “The old control that the feudal class could exert on Dalits through food and wages has changed recently,” he says. Rajangam adds, “The emergence of Dalit parties has also given them psychological energy to challenge dominant castes.”
Nearly 92% of Dalits in Tamil Nadu live in rural areas, and Dalit incomes in Tamil Nadu are still about 24% lower than OBC incomes, a gap that’s twice the country average. But many backward caste youth believe Dalits are eating into their public sector jobs. “What they don’t see that it is the better-off Dalits from cities that might be taking these jobs, not their neighbours in villages,” says social historian V. Geetha. Caste majoritarianism stokes this rage further.
In Natham colony, hundreds of women sit under the shade of trees, taking a break from digging water-harvesting ponds under the national rural employment guarantee scheme. “It’s been four years since the incident,” says 40-year-old Mookamma, “None of them call us to work on their farms anymore.” Twenty-one-year-old Tharani adds, “They did call some of us few months ago to harvest tapioca, but when two of us went, they said ‘look, you’re so desperate, you have to come to us for work’. We don’t any more humiliation, so we stopped going.”
Even the NREGA work these days is divided by caste. “They do one week, then we do one week,” says Tharani. Fear is an everyday reality for them. “We’re always scared we’ll get burned if we say something,” says Shanta. Her neighbour’s son fell in love with a Vanniyar girl six months ago and the whole family has since fled.
In the meanwhile, the PMK’s 4.4% vote share in 2014 has infected the rest of the state. Trying to replicate Ramadoss’ formula of caste consolidation, the many Kongu Vellala Gounder parties in west Tamil Nadu, representing a community of largely well-off businessmen, have also launched tirades against inter-caste marriage, the low-hanging fruit in the perennial tree of caste grouses.
G.K. Nagaraj, founder of the Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi, which has allied with the BJP for the state polls, says, “Caste is a traditional system, we can’t simply allow our girls who are used to luxuries and a certain culture, to marry someone from slums”.
As his statement betrays, caste hierarchies are deep in Kongunadu and amplified tensions are overflowing into anti-Dalit violence. Every region now has a tragic love story that feeds into the caste machinations: in Udumalpet of Tirupur district, Dalit boy Shankar was hacked to death for marrying Thevar girl Kausalya; in Thiruchengode in Namakkal, 23-year-old Dalit V. Gokulraj was allegedly murdered for falling in love with Gounder girl Swathi.
The VCK’s Thol Thirumavalavan admits that ever since the PMK blamed him for egging on Dalit youth to trap other caste women, “even mainstream Dravidian parties seemed to exhibit a Dalit aversion, at least at the levels of district leadership”. The VCK is part of a six-party third front comprising the Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Tamil Manila Congress and Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam. “There is no point allying with the mainstream parties anymore, since in a way, it is their marginalisation of Dalits in the Dravidian framework that has brought us to this juncture,” he says.
As the two older Dravidian parties struggle with a depleting cadre base, and depend on sub-regional allies to shore up votes, these tiny backward caste parties have become disproportionately important. Their arrival and the fear of split votes in a likely fractured mandate has everyone adopting similar methods. So while the DMK and AIADMK haven’t allied with the PMK, their way of beating them is to also field Vanniyar candidates. In four of the five constituencies in PMK stronghold Dharmapuri (the fifth is reserved for scheduled castes, or Dalits), all parties – left, right, Tamil nationalist, Dravidian – have fielded Vanniyars. Similar decisions have been made all over the state, in part habit, and in part the only strategy they have left. “As long as politics is a numerical game in Tamil Nadu, this will continue,” says Rajangam.
The narrative around inter-caste marriages and caste consolidation depends on the demonising of Dalit men, but it has also inadvertently led to the infantalising of backward caste women. Nearly all speeches against Dalit youth also invoke the image of an innocent, naïve girl who falls prey to trappings like jeans and sunglasses. “Women are more educated today than most backward caste men, thanks to college availability, and education as a prestige investment for agrarian castes. More are employed than ever before, but their social structure hasn’t changed,” says Geetha. They’re still spoken of as wayward toddlers.
Of her community’s fear of broken inter-caste marriages ruining their girls’ lives, Divya says they’re caught in a social trap. “Many girls don’t even think of marriage when they like a classmate or fellow traveller. But then the threats of getting you married off start, and you make the only independent decision you can and elope. Do these parties not see that failed marriages are partly their own doing? How many relationships can survive when everybody around you, every single person you used to once know and trust, wants it to fail?” Many in the community are trying to find Divya a Vanniyar husband today. “In this kind of atmosphere, everyone acts like I’m important, that it is my future they’re protecting, but the truth is no one cares what I really want. Caste has gobbled me up.”
‘Life Satisfaction Is Linked With Caste’
Interview with Princeton economist Dean Spears on the measure of Life Satisfaction and its relation to caste
What makes people more or less satisfied with their life in rural India? Princeton economist Dean Spears answers this question in a recent paper in the EPW. In a phone and email interview with Pragya Singh, Spears dwells on how wealth, education and, importantly, caste, makes individuals think differently about their life.
Why should an economist care about life satisfaction? Is life satisfaction what we call happiness?
Life satisfaction is how people evaluate their whole life. It’s definitely not the same thing as happiness, which is one way you might feel at a time. How happy or sad somebody is, those are very useful things to know but they are substantially different from life satisfaction— being more about a person’s emotions right now. Life satisfaction is important to measure because it’s important that people have good lives!
The starting point for your paper was the SQUAT survey. What was that about?
We had done a previous study, the SQUAT (Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends) study, which gave us data for 2013-14 from rural Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. That study is now in the public domain. So, yes, this paper is from the SQUAT data. We started SQUAT with the intention of getting-to-know-you type of study in rural north India, so we asked people questions about the work they do. We mostly let people answer questions about their life in their own way, and thought the results would be interesting.
What triggered your interest in life satisfaction?
Angus Deaton was my wife Diane’s (Coffey) PhD advisor and he has worked on life satisfaction. We both felt it would be a good thing to examine in rural Uttar Pradesh. Ever since the SQUAT study, every few weeks, we would say to ourselves that we need to use its data for further research. Finally, when I was not doing anything else over one weekend, I decided to do a detailed analysis of that data with respect to life satisfaction.
Had SQUAT asked people direct questions on life satisfaction?
We had asked the people we interviewed to imagine a ladder with ten steps. The tenth step is the best level of life satisfaction and the first the least. Each person was asked what step they felt they are on. The nice thing about this is that the researcher asking the question doesn’t have to have an opinion on how satisfying a person’s life is —that is entirely the individual’s view of his own subjective well-being.
The richer people get, the more satisfied they are with life — is that your paper’s conclusion?
There is work that shows that as you get richer your happiness goes up too but we don’t see the same result with life satisfaction. This could be because with life satisfaction you are reflecting upon life as a whole whereas a person can be sad at one particular moment and still have high overall life satisfaction.
Your paper examines connections between caste and life satisfaction. What is this link?
The study has two parts. First we look at all caste categories across the board — forward castes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (OBC), in a rural setting in Uttar Pradesh. Statistically, we found that when we ask all of them the same questions we still get different answers. The very first finding, then, is that you experience life as worse when you are a Dalit than any other caste. One might worry seeing that the difference in life satisfaction is just because of money — that relative wealth is causing a difference in reported life satisfaction. Therefore, in the second step, we compared people who have the same educational qualifications and own similar numbers of assets. We found, on average, life satisfaction is not the same across castes for people living under the same conditions.
Many Indians feel caste discrimination is well behind us…
I wish I could say that but can’t, having lived and worked in rural Uttar Pradesh.
How could you conclude that caste is the key factor? Is it possible that other, perhaps subjective, factors intervened?
I’m not saying caste is the only thing that matters. The paper even shows that wealth and education do too. A study like this works on averages so we can say that life satisfaction is linked with caste, relative ownership of assets and levels of education. That said there are all sorts of studies and audits being conducted in India that examine the role of caste. For instance, a study shows that when people of different castes send resumes for jobs, upper caste candidates with same or higher qualifications are more likely to be called for interviews.
How can studies on life satisfaction add to what we already know about caste?
We know that caste is prevalent in India but importantly we still don’t know how people whose life is affected by this feel. Worldwide, there is increasing talk about including life satisfaction among other measures of economic well-being, but it is not common as yet, and it is certainly not routinely collected.
Your study seems to show that SCs or OBCs never report the higher life satisfaction levels that forward castes report. Is this correct?
All of these numbers are averages, so there are certainly some Dalits who have higher life satisfaction than some members of forward castes. This happens at a high enough wealth level. But there aren’t a lot of people there, so it is a bit of a statistical fluke.
Therefore, wealth can melt the caste barrier?
Of course, the richer and better educated have more opportunities and resources and they would have more life satisfaction. Also what we see is that if you are from the higher caste then money takes you to a certain level of life satisfaction and after that it levels out.
So money can’t buy happiness but it can buy some life satisfaction?
Although this used to be debated earlier, now there is more of a consensus in the literature that richer people have more life satisfaction, on average. We know this especially from the work of Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson (economists at University of Michigan). In a paper by Angus Deaton (Nobel laureate economist) and Daniel Kahneman (behavioral economist), they show how, apparently, when you get rich enough your life satisfaction levels off and more money does not increase it any further.
How can Indians get greater life satisfaction?
Alas, that question is a much bigger one than I can answer — India has been struggling with the annihilation of caste since at least its constitution.
What other work can life satisfaction studies be put to?
A great next step would be for it to be included in some of the big national surveys like the NFHS (national family health survey), DLHS (district level household survey), IHDS (India human development study), and NSS (national sample survey). Life satisfaction certainly isn’t the only measure of well-being that we should use for evaluating programs and policies but I think there is increasing recognition that it is one thing we should be thinking about among others.
How have other academics responded to your study?
There was one recurring question, which related to how different people might have different expectations, and so report their life satisfaction as being very low or high. That is one type of situation I would be very interested to know more about.
Dean Spears is currently visiting economist at Indian Statistical Institute and also director, Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE)
The Indian government resists any international scrutiny of the caste system, including a recent U.N. report that condemns caste hierarchy. But no amount of sophistry can wish away the possibility of anarchic violence if the government continues to downplay the problem. By VIJAY PRASHAD
Out of the maze of the United Nations Human Rights Council came a short report—just over 10,000 words—with an innocuous title, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues” (January 28, 2016). This report takes aim at caste discrimination as a global affliction, not one that impacts South Asia only. It is a powerful report, which suggests that the caste system contradicts “the principles of human dignity, equality and non-discrimination”. It is not caste violence or caste discrimination that is objectionable, notes the report, but caste hierarchy itself.
India’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Ajit Kumar, hastily dismissed the report. Speaking for the Government of India, Kumar noted that the Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, had breached her mandate. He insisted on a narrow reading of her charge, namely to report on the human rights of “national, or ethnic, religious minorities”. Caste, he said pointedly, did not belong to this list. The report noted that caste has “minority-like characteristics”, which Kumar suggested could apply to any social group. A narrower understanding of minority rights is necessary, Kumar suggests. The Indian government has resisted any international scrutiny of the caste system and its attendant consequences such as poverty and humiliation. During the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, India strenuously rebuked the U.N. for taking up issues of caste hierarchy and the status of Dalits in Indian society. Omar Abdullah, at the time Minister of State for External Affairs in the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the assembled delegates in Durban, South Africa, that reports of caste oppression were “highly exaggerated” and that those who spoke about the trials of Dalits produced “misleading propaganda” based on “anecdotal evidence”. Kumar’s statement is in line with this denial.
Rita Izsak-Ndiaye is unrepentant. She told this writer that the silence on caste discrimination was intolerable. The death of Hyderabad Central University student Rohith Vemula puts the issue back on the table. “Vemula’s death and the stories of other Dalit victims of suicide,” said Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, “are indeed tragic signals of despair and demonstrate the urgent need to challenge and change the mindset of people who think of others in hierarchical terms.” The Indian government seems loath to acknowledge the problem, let alone allow a mature discussion to take place over a toxic problem with deep roots in society.
One of the most important parts of Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report is the insistence that the discrimination of caste is not merely a South Asian problem. She notes that about 250 million people in the world suffer from caste-based discrimination, although of these the vast majority—201 million—live in South Asia. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye points to Yemen’s Mushamasheen (Marginal Men), Japan’s Burakumin, Mauritania’s Beidane and Haratines, Madagascar’s Merina and Bara, Nigeria’s Osu, Senegal’s Neeno, and Somalia’s Sab. Each of these communities, just like the various Dalit groups in India, faces untouchability practices and occupational segregation. The report turns the spotlight of attention towards a widespread practice of using ideas of pollution and filth to constrain people into essential but unremunerated occupations. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye points out that these invented barriers “are a major cause of poverty and perpetuate poverty in affected communities”.
If South Asia’s caste problem is on the surface, these others are buried in obscurity. Her framework of global caste, says Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, shines a light on these other countries where caste is a “taboo topic which is hidden from public discourse. I hope this report can trigger some further discussion.” Scholarly literature has used the idea of “caste” to unearth the practices of discrimination in places outside South Asia, although this discussion is esoteric and has had little impact on public policy. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report is not the first to raise these issues. In the early 2000s, the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Doudou Diene, had drawn out the deep-rooted discriminations against the Roma in Eastern Europe, the growth of Islamophobia in the West, marginalisation of Amerindians, and the question of discrimination based on the caste system. When Diene raised these issues, the Indian government reacted negatively. Ambassador Hardeep Puri, then based in Geneva, said that discrimination had been banned by the Constitution. Caste, he suggested, was integral to Indian society, since it originated “in the fundamental division of Indian society during ancient times”. The Indian social divisions did not amount to racism, said Puri, meaning that they were outside the purview of Diene’s mandate.
I raised Kumar’s question about the mandate to Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, namely on whether the framework of “minority rights” applied to caste. Puri had said that the framework of race did not apply, and now Kumar rejected the framework of minority rights. India, conveniently, avoided censure on caste discrimination by saying that it was sui generis to India and so outside the criticism of multinational agencies. “There is no internationally agreed definition of minorities,” said Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, “because minority situations are multifaceted. In some cases, ‘lower caste’ groups are ethnic or religious minorities in classic terms. In other cases, even if they speak the same language or pray the same way, their non-dominant status and their self-identification as minorities led them to use the minority rights framework for decades to claim their rights.”
Dalit representatives at the 2001 Durban Conference—such as Martin Macwan of the Navsarjan Trust (Gujarat), Ruth Manorama of the National Federation of Dalit Women and N. Paul Diwakar of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights—insisted that the debate about caste being an “internal matter” to India merely avoided the question of caste discrimination. If the atrocities against Dalits were merely an “internal matter”, they asked, why did the government do so little to tackle it? No resolution came from the U.N., but Macwan was unfazed. “Why do you need more resolutions than already exist? We are not interested in a resolution from the U.N.”, he said. “We are interested in creating greater visibility for the Dalit issue.” Minority rights or anti-racism provided the opportunity to talk about what had not been addressed sufficiently within India. “While theoretical and academic debates on the approach are interesting,” Rita Izsak-Ndiaye said, “I wish that there is more attention paid to the actual problems of inequalities and barriers to the enjoyment of dignity and human rights by ‘lower castes’ and to possible solutions on how we can overcome them.”
No question that the Indian government has under its belt a great number of laws. India has been a signatory to the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) and of the other nine conventions and protocols that place the country firmly in the “anti-racism” camp in world affairs. Domestically, India has not only banned untouchability, but passed a series of laws to combat caste discrimination. In 2004, under pressure from the controversy at Durban, India established a National Commission for Scheduled Castes and in 2013 India finally banned manual scavenging. If there is a political consensus against untouchability and caste discrimination, why is India so averse to the kind of report that Rita Izsak-Ndiaye produced? She told me that she recognised that “this is an extremely sensitive topic internally so it will be important for Indian society to openly and honestly carry on with a public discussion and identify joint actions on how to ensure equality and dignity for all”.
Property and Privilege
Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report recommends that governments pass laws, create awareness-raising campaigns and adopt reservation and quotas as mechanisms to combat caste discrimination. Most of these are commonplace in India. Yet, violence against Dalits and exclusion on social and economic lines continue in a harsh and brutal manner. In one aside, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye notes that “accusations of witchcraft are sometimes made to deprive Dalit women of their basic economic and social rights, including access to land and their assets”. Nothing more is said about this important point. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye told this writer that she did not elaborate on the issue of land and resources because of the “space limit”. It is hoped that a future report will take up this issue as its centrepiece.
Violence by dominant castes seems to be driven in many cases by the refusal to allow Dalits to own land and the demand for Dalits to work—at substandard wages —on the landlords’ fields and in their homes. These demands run parallel with cruel forms of violence. Any attempt to undermine the violence of caste is going to have to take seriously questions of property and privilege. In 1949, B.R. Ambedkar told political leaders of India that their hesitant approach to land reform (and wealth redistribution) did not bode well for democracy. “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
Most of the groups referred to in Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report had struggled for decades to bring attention to the problems of their society. The Buraku Liberation League in Japan has a history in parallel to Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation and the Republican Party of India. These groups fought, as Ruth Manorama put it, to turn “pain into power”. Each of these organisations and the political pressure they put on their society forced their governments to address these deeply rooted social problems. The Indian government might not like attention on the world stage, but it has been forced to adopt ideas of “human rights”—the result is the National Human Rights Commission, formed in 1993. Pressure from these groups brought the issue of caste to the U.N. for the first time at the 2001 Durban conference. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report is part of a sustained effort to force social change. No amount of sophistry by the Indian government can sideline the brutality of caste discrimination. Either it gets broached with the motivation to erase it, or it will erupt in dangerous and anarchic violence.
Whose Ambedkar Is He Anyway?
- The Beginning Ambedkar’s name derives from his name village ‘Ambavade’, located in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra
- Soldier Dad His father Ramji Maloji Sakpal retired as a subedar from the British Indian Army in Mhow
- First Student Ambedkar was the 14th and last child of his parents. He was the only one of them to go to high school.
- In Bombay Ambedkar was the first ‘untouchable’ to enter Elphinstone High School, affiliated to University of Bombay
- Home Life When Ambedkar was 15, his marriage was arranged with 9-year-old Ramabai. She passed away in 1935.
- Second Marriage In 1948, he married a Brahmin doctor, Sharda Kabir, who then took on the name Savita
On October 13, 1935, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar announced at the Depressed Classes Conference in Yeola, in the Bombay Presidency: “I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.” A few months later, in May 1936, he published Annihilation of Caste, a devastating critique of Hinduism, focusing on its most distinguishing and dogmatic feature—caste.
Towards the end of this address to the Hindus, whom he calls “the sick men of India”, he says: “This would probably be my last address to a Hindu audience on a subject vitally concerning the Hindus.” He then makes it abundantly clear that he is determined to quit Hinduism: “I am sorry, I will not be with you. I have decided to change. This is not the place for giving reasons. But even when I am gone out of your fold, I will watch your movement with active sympathy, and you will have my assistance for what it may be worth.”
On October 14, 1956, a few months before he died, Ambedkar formally embraced Buddhism with an estimated half a million followers in Nagpur, a city that happens to be the headquarters of the ultra-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that today, with remarkable lack of shame, claims Ambedkar as its own.
But the riddle Ambedkar leaves us with is this: why and how did Ambedkar, as an Untouchable, come to deem himself a Hindu, although it seems the label was thrust upon him? Like one of the advance readers of this draft introduction asked: Why is a Gandhi cap called a Gandhi cap when Gandhi did not wear one?
We must remember that Hinduism is a neologism coined in the early 19th century. As historian Upinder Singh reminds us in A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, “The English word ‘Hinduism’ is a fairly recent one and was first used by Raja Rammohun Roy in 1816-17.”
First, we need to understand that Ambedkar made the statement—that he was unfortunate to be born an Untouchable ‘Hindu’ but shall not die as one—when he was unsure if or when the British would leave India. He made it at a time when the anti-colonial struggle was taking definite shape under the leadership of a slightly reform-minded Bania leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who was later killed by a Brahmin terrorist who espoused the supremacist ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha.
In 1935, Ambedkar was perhaps of the opinion that such a statement from him would make the Brahmins take a more serious reformist course, for he knew that Brahmins, though numerically insignificant at an estimated three to five per cent of the population, were actually in real control of caste-infested Indian society, despite Gandhi being seen as the leader of the political movement at the time.
He extensively researched Hinduism and has recorded his distaste for this religion in several works. At the outset, there is need for clarity on one crucial issue. Hindu liberals argue that Hinduism as such is good, and that Hindutva is bad. They say there is a fundamental difference between Hinduism, as practised by the elite castes, and Hindutva, which is a ‘modern’ 20th century political response associated with organisations such as the Arya Samaj, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.
We have even had Communists, from S.A. Dange to A.B. Bardhan—in fact a whole spectrum of ‘left-liberal-secular’ intellectuals—extolling the greatness of Hinduism and decrying Hindutva as a perversion. This Hinduism-Hindutva binary does not hold much water. It is at best a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy.
Ambedkar’s thorough expose of the Hindu texts and everything the Hindus hold dear shows that there is no scope to evolve a positive, non-violent, egalitarian religion based on these texts. InAnnihilation of Caste he says emphatically:
“You must not forget that if you wish to bring about a breach in the system, you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and shastras, which deny any part to morality. You must destroy the religion of the shrutis and the smritis. Nothing else will avail.”
Bulking up Hindus
Today, the nation is being ruled by a strident BJP, which proclaims that the establishment of a Hindu rashtra—a Hindu theocratic state—is its ultimate goal. As part of this agenda, it is also trying to coopt Ambedkar in major ways, despite his repeatedly and vehemently critiquing this religion and wished for its annihilation. He refused to die with the ‘Untouchable Hindu’ label. After saying he’d not like to die a Hindu, if only Ambedkar had immediately converted to Buddhism—or, even better, to a non-Indic religion—such cooption would have been impossible.
Ambedkar and his wife Savita converting to Buddhism in Nagpur
However, the reason why Buddhism lends itself to easy cooption is because of a provision in the Constitution that, ironically, Ambedkar himself oversaw. Explanation II of Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution categorises Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains as “Hindu”, even if “only” for the purpose of “providing social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus”. For all purposes, the law treats Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism as sects of Hinduism. Later, codified Hindu personal laws, like the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, merely reinforced this position, and these statutes were applied to Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Pertinently, under Indian law, even an atheist is classified as Hindu.
Had Ambedkar opted to convert to Islam or Christianity, it would have been near impossible for the Sangh parivar to try to coopt him into its pantheon.
Had Ambedkar, therefore, opted for say Islam or Christianity, it would have sent a different message to the Dalits as well as to the Hindus. There are many who ask what is wrong if the BJP promotes—rather appropriates—Ambedkar in various ways. Some Dalits who say Ambedkar is their messiah have colluded with the Hindutva party—prominently Udit Raj, BJP MP from Delhi and chairman of the All-India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations; Ramdas Athawale, of the Republican Party of India (A) and a Rajya Sabha MP from Maharashtra; Ram Vilas Paswan, Union minister of food and public distribution and long-term BJP ally; and Ram Shankar Katheria (the BJP’s own RSS-trained Dalit leader and MoS for HRD).
We may recall that Udit Raj was once Ram Raj, and when he tried to stage a mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 2001 at Delhi’s Ram Lila grounds, the BJP-led government made every effort to sabotage the event. However, Dalit politicians hobnobbing with the BJP is a political move and has little to do with Dalits—or rather Ambedkarites—becoming right-wingers. Decades ago ‘Harijans’ worked for the Congress to even defeat Ambedkar in polls.
By the time Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in 1956, the Buddha himself was being coopted into Hinduism. He was declared one of the ten avatars of Vishnu. Right-wing nationalists such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak got into the act and came to seriously believe that the Aryans were a fair-skinned race who migrated from the icy Arctic circle, destined to be the ruling class of India and the world. Several scholars and philosophers in the West—from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche—believed in Aryan supremacy at a time when the whites were trying to justify both racism and imperialism. Even Gandhi, during his South African years, espoused the innate superiority of ‘high-caste Indians’, given their ‘Aryan blood’, over the native blacks. This sentiment was to then fuel the racist ideologies of Hitler and Mussolini. The point is that Brahminic Hinduism, even before it assumed the garb of Hindutva, had a fascist tendency.
Rather early in his political career, on returning from his studies in New York and London, Ambedkar presented evidence before the Southborough Committee on Franchise in 1919. Ambedkar quoted the Aga Khan Committee report of 1909 submitted to the British Viceroy to argue that the ‘Untouchables’ were indeed not Hindus. Based on this report, the J.H. Hutton-led census of 1911 separated the ‘Untouchables’ from the category of Hindus, and by 1916, the bureaucratic term ‘Depressed Classes’ came to be officially used by the British government (later renamed ‘Scheduled Castes’ after the Government of India Act of 1935).
What is important is to know the basis adopted by the census commissioner for separating the different classes of Hindus into those who were 100 per cent Hindus and those who were not. The basis adopted by the census commissioner for separation is to be found in his circular, in which he laid down certain tests for the purpose of distinguishing these two classes. Among those who were not 100 per cent Hindus were included castes and tribes which: a) deny the supremacy of the Brahmins; b) do not receive the mantra from a Brahmin or other recognised Hindu guru; c) deny the authority of the Vedas; d) do not worship the Hindu gods; e) are not served by good Brahmins as family priests; f) have no Brahmin priests at all; g) are denied access to the interior of the Hindu temples; h) are said to cause ‘pollution’ by touch or within a certain distance; i) bury their dead; j) eat beef and have no reverence for the cow.
Ambedkar uses a mathematical metaphor to say that even if one of these criterions is not met, a person cannot be “100 per cent” Hindu. In other words, one can be partly Hindu, but never fully Hindu unless you are a Brahmin. These criteria, of course, were devised for the 1911 census using both shastraic prescriptions and the ways in which caste was practised in day-to-day lives. These leave us with the conclusion that most people who are counted as Hindu are never fully Hindu.
How is one a Hindu?
In the first riddle in Riddles in Hinduism, ‘The Difficulty of Knowing Why One is a Hindu’, Ambedkar looks at the importance of religion in one’s life. But he comes to the conclusion that the idea of being a Hindu does not share the definiteness that belonging to Islam, Christianity or Zoroastrianism gives a person. At best, there is a vague connotation of religion with polytheism as its core value. There can be many gods and but there is no set of core principles that constitute a system of beliefs. There is nothing that anchors or binds people. After all, the word religion comes from the Latin root religare, which means to bind and to be bound by an obligation.
If we consider those who converted to Islam in the Indian subcontinent, they too allowed for certain aspects of the Hindu caste ideology to infiltrate their belief system and even today, such values govern their lives to an extent. The egalitarian values of Indian Muslims would have collapsed if they had not realised that their notion of a universal god is different from the regional Hindu notion of god (that is bound to the subcontinent) and Hindu polytheism and idol worship.
Muslims in India adopted the caste system and created a sometimes unbridgeable caste divide between the supposedly superior category of Ashrafi Muslims (Syed/Sheikh/Mughal/Pathan) and the so-called converts who were classified as Ajlaf and even Kamina or Itar (meaning base). This has led to the contemporary Pasmanda movement, being based on a Persian term that means “those who have fallen behind”, referring to Muslims of Shudra and Ati-Shudra origins.
The Christians, particularly the Catholics, also fell prey to the caste trap under the garb of acculturation. The educational institutions established by them turned out to be centres where the Brahminical classes were trained in English. Caste Hindus converted these Catholic schools into modern gurukulas, keeping Shudras and Ati-shudras out. In turn, Brahminic intellectuals trained in English in Christian educational institutions treated Ambedkar as an intellectual outcaste for decades.
An unusual juxtaposition, a costume sadhu sits by Ambedkar’s portraits
The Orientalist Christian scholars also treated the Hindu works that Ambedkar critiqued as books sacred to all Indians—including Dalits, Tribals and Other Backward Classes. Jesuits saw wisdom in the Vedas and Vedanta, whereas Ambedkar, coming from a sramanic tradition, repudiates the Veda and all the texts that are post-facto subjected to the adjectival tyranny of ‘Hindu’. Hinduism, thus, became an elephant—rather a holy cow—with spiritually blind men and women groping around it. Ambedkar, following in the tradition of the Buddha and the Lokayata philosophers, repeatedly dissected this sacred cow.
When it came to saving his government, Nehru, an avowed rationalist, allowed the legislation of Hindu codes—and paved the path for Ambedkar’s resignation.
From Ambedkar’s examination of the riddles in Hinduism, it is clear that the labouring Shudras—as cattle-rearers, tillers of the soil, pot-makers, fisher-folk, weavers, carpenters, barbers and so on—are not discussed in the Hindu texts at all. Untouchables, too, seldom get mentioned, except in terms of injunctions in the post-Vedic texts on how to avoid them such as in the Manusmriti, the Yajnavalkyasmriti and the Dharmashastras.
Not that these social divisions did not exist at the time when these texts were composed. All the broad divisions, based on the chaturvarna system, were in place, and the divisions were based on occupation and livelihood. Ambedkar’s entire effort in Riddles in Hinduism appears to be able to tell the world that the Hindu spiritual texts hardly contain anything spiritual—and to do so at a time the world was besotted with what Indian texts could teach it!
Why is it that most Hindu gods and goddesses bear arms and kill at the slightest provocation to establish dharma, like an army does in an occupied territory? Why does Hinduism espouse such intense intellectual and physical violence? For answers, Ambedkar wanted to examine the moral strength of textual Hinduism: be it Vedic incantations full of magic or latter-day mythological fables, or gods who display an absolute and habitual disregard for morals.
He was never too concerned, unlike Phule or Periyar, with the day-to-day lives of the Brahmins and Banias. Phule characterised them as Bhatjis and Shetjis, whose essential characteristics were that of oppression and exploitation, producing a culture of hatred for labour. Ambedkar was more intellectual and philosophical in his approach, and hence described Indian society as “a gradation of castes forming an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt—a system which gives no scope for the growth of the sentiments of equality and fraternity so essential for a democratic form of government”. Also, as Ambedkar says in Annihilation of Caste, “the caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.”
The sanctity of the caste system became the basis for enormous inequalities not only in India but the world over, ever since casteist Hindus began to settle overseas, whether in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, or Southeast Asia. Wherever they went, they took caste with them. If the Brahmin-led science establishment in India does manage to land on Mars using foreign technology for this purpose, we can be sure they shall introduce caste there—after all, a replica of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission was personally taken by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s chairman to propitiate Lord Venkateshwara at the Tirupati temple before the launch of the actual spacecraft from Sriharikota in 2013.
While ordinary foreigners come to think of Hinduism as a benign religion of ahimsa and vegetarianism, they know or care little about the violence and untouchability that the so-called sacred books of the Hindus propound. Even the Orientalist and Indological scholars—from William Jones to Sheldon Pollock—were and are more fascinated by Hinduism and its many manifestations than horrified by it. But Ambedkar, even while forced by circumstances to depend on the work of these Orientalist scholars, comes to conclusions that are the very opposite.
The Reformer and the Radical
Even a look at the titles of the chapters included in this annotated selection will reveal that Ambedkar had a deep desire to reform Brahminic Hinduism. One of his key concerns was to expose the brazen contradictions that exist within the texts of Hinduism. In ‘Riddle No. 18: Manu’s Madness or the Brahminic Explanation of the Origin of the Mixed Castes’, he offers painfully elaborate tables about the different varna categories into which various smritis fit the progeny of varna-samskara, that is miscegenation or the intermixture of jatis, resulting in a further proliferation of jatis.
Ambedkar may seem unsparing and unrelenting in the Riddles, but his reformist impulse is more evident in public interventions such as the Hindu Code Bill (1951-55), a large-scale exercise in the repair of Hinduism. Opposition to the bill came from Hindus of all hues. The scholar Sharmila Rege, in her analysis of Ambedkar’s writings on Brahminical patriarchy, explains the scenario:
“Intense opposition came from all quarters. For one, the president threatened to stall the Bill’s passage into law. Hindu sadhus laid siege to Parliament. Business houses and landowners warned a withdrawal of support in imminent elections…the Hindu Code Bill posed the imminent threat of women gaining access and control over resources and property, the possibility of removal of the restrictions of caste in marriage and adoption, and the dawn of the right to divorce. All this seemed to intimidate the structural links between caste, kinship and property that form the very core of Brahminical patriarchy.”
Despite having a huge majority in both houses of Parliament, Nehru succumbed to the right wing and scuttled the Bill. Nehru, for all his liberalism and progressiveness that the self-styled left-liberal-secular intelligentsia in India admires and loves him for, succumbed to the pressure of Brahminic Hindus both in his own government and Parliament.
Even the Communist parties and the broader Left were under the spell of the ideology of Brahminic Hinduism. Someone like Dange argued that there was evidence of primitive communism in the Vedas. Others like P.C. Joshi, B.T. Ranadive and E.M.S. Namboodiripad opined that an issue like untouchability was “mundane” compared to the “freedom movement”. Nor did Brahminic patriarchy bother them like it did Ambedkar.
Nehru, though an avowed rationalist, compromised with the Brahminical forces in order to save his government. He sacrificed his impassioned colleague and law minister of four years, choosing instead to please the conservatives, the very same lot that celebrated Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of a Hindu right fanatic. Ambedkar resigned over these developments, setting an example, showing that he was a statesman and not a selfish power-hungry politician. Writes Rege: “The Hindu Code Bill is seen as a manifesto of women’s liberation, and Ambedkar’s resignation as law minister over the sabotaging of the Hindu Code Bill is viewed as an act unparalleled in history.”
From the 1935 declaration that it was his misfortune to be born a Hindu, to his final battle to reform Hinduism culminating in 1955, it was over 20 years that Ambedkar tried everything in his power to make the Hindus see reason. While at it, Ambedkar drew upon his study and knowledge of Buddhist texts, which offered a counter to the ‘sacred’ Hindu texts totally lacking in morality and ethics.
There’s enough evidence we gather from his other works, and his interventions in the Constituent Assembly debates, that Ambedkar had made a proper study of all Abrahamic religions and their approaches to morality and ethics. For instance, the introduction to Riddles in Hinduism features a lengthy quote from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where he compares Brahmins and Jews and shows how the Brahmins, unlike Jews, never were steadfast to their gods. He writes:
“Indeed the Brahmins have made religion a matter of trade and commerce. Compare with this faithlessness of the Brahmins the fidelity of the Jews to their gods even when their conqueror Nebuchadnezzar forced the Jews to abandon their religion and adopt his religion.”
He examines these texts from a humanist and personal ethical-moral point of view, and counters their irrationalism with cold logic and reasoning. Take, for example, the divine himsa (violence) practised by spiritually authenticated Hindu heroes turned into gods like Rama, Krishna, Indra, Vishnu, Narasimha and others in the name of dharma rakshana—protection of the Hindu dharmic order—against the highly evolved message of compassion and universal brotherhood that Gautama Buddha espouses.
While the Buddha never believed in killing anybody for whatever reason, all that the Hindu gods do is wreak vengeance in a mindless fashion till they reach their final goal, which could be just a piece of property as seen in the Mahabharata. M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS leader, had once said: “Obviously we did not expand into Central Asia and South-East Asia by sermons alone. It is significant that every Hindu god is armed.”
Buddhism, given its propensity to peace and the larger well-being of not only humans but the world we live in, became a beloved universal religion because of its advocacy of the middle path. Unlike the other shramanic religion, Jainism, it does not advocate extreme non-violence as a reaction to Hinduism’s path of extreme violence. Buddhist kings in the past have waged wars and no Buddhist nation has disbanded its armed forces. (We also have the nearly theocratic Buddhist state in Sri Lanka that has unleashed genocidal violence on the minority Tamil people who happen to be Hindu. Discussing this, or even the state-backed violence against Rohingyas in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, however, is beyond the scope and purpose of this essay.)
Texts and Access
Ambedkar’s work assumes renewed significance today since we are witnessing a dangerous revival of text-based Hinduism. The present BJP-led NDA government, like its predecessor in 1999-2004, is reimposing the hegemony of Sanskrit in not just temples but as an academic discipline of study. In Anglo-American universities, proto-Hindutva NRI bodies are promoting Sanskrit chairs. It appears that Hindu gods understand only a near-dead language.
B.R. Ambedkar being sworn in Union law minister in Nehru’s cabinet
The same Brahmins who controlled Sanskrit also acquired control over the English language and established their hegemony in courtrooms, government offices and in intellectual and cultural spheres, including the great Indian diaspora. In some ways, the text-based ritual-oriented Sanskritic Hinduism and the more market-oriented English-language-friendly Hinduism have both become cunning cultural tools. This has become rather more clear now than it was during Ambedkar’s time.
Brahmins seem to regard any effort to infuse morality into their religion as a fall into Kali Yuga because there is disregard for varnas and it’s the age of quotas.
The Brahminic forces could also make friendly alliances with the Christians—more so with the Catholics and Jesuits. That is because the Christian social forces gave them the weapon of English to retain their hegemony in the modern world. If the Christians had not educated the Indian Brahminic forces in colleges like St Stephen’s in Delhi, St Xavier’s in Mumbai, St Joseph’s in Bangalore, and the chain of Loyola colleges in the south and Presidency College in Calcutta, there would not have been a good English-educated Brahminical force in India.
This has resulted in a situation where Brahmins, who continue to monopolise Sanskrit—a language that Ambedkar sought to learn but was denied in India—also use market-friendly English for profit. This Janus-faced, janeu-wearing, fork-tongued nationalism speaks both English and Sanskrit at once.
Why should the absence of Dalit Bahujans as priests in Sanskrit-oriented temples be an issue? When we say that the Dalits and OBCs are not Hindu anyway, why should their claim to enter the sanctum of temples and chant mantras in a dead language even be entertained? The logic is simple. As long as these hugely profitable temples exist—some like the rich Tirupati temple are also the biggest tax evaders in the country—managing their affairs and having the right to priesthood must be open to all according to the right to equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. It is as much a civil right as accessing the water in a temple tank, which is what the Mahad satyagraha was all about.
However, in December 2015, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India invoked Article 16(5) to hold that “exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as archakas [priests] would not violate Article 14 [right to equality]”. This gives unusual rights to the Brahmins to exclusively be the priests and controllers of Hindu religion in the name of Agama Shastras. A non-Brahmin trained and proficient in priest craft will be ineligible simply because of the caste barrier. This proves that Brahminic Hinduism’s claim to perpetuating inequality—in other words, its inherent lack of spiritual democracy—is now backed by the highest court of the land.
To accept this is no less than accepting the killing of some Dalits every day as a necessary Hindu ritual—the National Crime Records Bureau of 2012 says every week 13 Dalits are killed and every day at least four Dalit women are raped. Or, to accept that a section of ‘untouchables’ has to do sewer work clad in a loincloth while at the other extreme the Brahmin maintains ritual purity. Those who believe in caste and untouchability can never wish for the welfare of all human beings. In fact, to be Brahmin means you can never be the well-wisher of other communities.
It is in this context that Ambedkar’s study of texts, and texts which someone in his station of life ought to not be even hearing, assumes immense significance. After all, in the Ramayana the Shudra Shambuka is murdered by Rama for doing penance and studying the Vedas, for that causes anarchy. The Gautamadharmasutra lists severe punishments for a Shudra who comes even within hearing distance of a Veda. In George Buhler’s translation:
“4. Now if a Shudra listens intentionally to (a recitation of) the Veda, his ears shall be filled with (molten) tin or lac. 5. If he recites (Vedic texts), his tongue shall be cut out. 6. If he remembers them, his body shall be split in twain. 7. If he assumes a position equal (to that of twice-born men) in sitting, in lying down, in conversation or on the road, he shall undergo (corporal) punishment.”
Today, the Supreme Court more or less upholds this logic.
Absence of Production
Scholars have often described Aryans as cattle-raiders who staged enormous carnages in the name of Vedic sacrifices. At the yagna pit, thousands of cows, buffaloes and on occasion horses and even humans were sacrificed. Though in the stories about Krishna and his brother Balarama, cattle-rearers by caste, we do get some descriptions of pastoral life, the discourse around agriculture has never found significant space in Hindu texts.
Equally, Shiva, a god with patently tribal characteristics, does not figure in an important way in the main corpus of Hindu texts, except at a later stage as an act of cooption. Ambedkar speaks of how the Brahmins have changed their gods as and when it suited them, and wonders how they can be so unfaithful to their own gods.
The Brahmins of today have not given up their anathema for production and continue to hold dear the purity-pollution theory. Even today, even when forced by the odd case of penury, they would rather beg than take up agrarian work or any kind of physical labour they deem lowly. A majority of them have not even given up their so-called sacred thread (janeu), nor have they given up intra-caste marriage. They hold on as well to priesthood that demands rote-learning incantations in Sanskrit, a language even the Brahmins seldom understand.
Ambedkar does raise the key issue of food culture. Why did the Brahmins who happily sacrificed cows and feasted everyday on beef, with utter disregard to what this does to the economy, over time turn vegetarian? If everyday consumption of beef was one extreme, the total giving up of all meat is another. Both are unnatural. And we live in an age when a Shudra-origin chief minister cited Newton’s third law of motion, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, to justify one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in post-independence India, and got to become prime minister. He is vegetarian.
Ambedkar’s critique of Hinduism also brings out one historical fact that matters more than any other—that the Hindu textual heritage shows a complete estrangement from the productive culture of the working castes of India. From the Rigveda to Bhagavad Gita, all the texts deal with war, Brahmin-Kshatriya and man-woman relations, their political, personal and social morality.
All other spiritual texts of the world engage with the production processes the people were involved with in the ancient or medieval period. One example should suffice: the Book of Genesis in the Bible speaks of Abel as a keeper of sheep, and Cain as a tiller of the ground.
While critiquing the Hindu texts, however, Ambedkar somehow gave the impression that they spoke for his community too. They did not. It is this flaw in Ambedkar that makes him believe that he is born a Hindu and has to cease to be one at some point. It is this chink that the Sangh parivar wants to exploit—and do a ghar-wapasi for him—despite the fact that anyone reading Ambedkar will know that he has no regard whatsoever for Hinduism in any form.
Kali Yuga, the Best Time
Such is the abiding love Brahminic Hindus have for the hollow texts of the past—Ambedkar coldly calls the Vedas a “worthless set of books”—that they regard any effort to infuse morality into their religion as a fall into the Kali Yuga. The present may well be the best of times to live in India, for all the citizens now have their rights secured in an enlightened Constitution and are not held hostage to some book that carries hymns of hate.
In fact, even for the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas—and for women across castes—it is the present that is the best time. But led by the Brahmins, a majority of the Hindus believe that we live in Kali Yuga and this is an era of moral turpitude. Why? Because there is disregard for varnadharma—the Shudras and ‘untouchables’ have wrested some power—chaos reigns, and this will lead to complete destruction. Kali Yuga, then, according to the present Brahminic understanding, is a Shudra-Chandala yuga. For them, it is a yuga of reservation, where Dalit Bahujans can aspire to anything they want—including staking claims to priesthood.
The fear of Islamisation haunts Hindu institutions even today. They haven’t realised that their ancient texts and modern practices could not save the regions that are modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh from shifting their religious allegiance from Brahminism to Buddhism and then to Islam. The Hindu Brahminical forces could succeed in all their wars against the native producer masses but once the ‘one book, one god’ appeal of Islam came into the land, Hinduism lost what little spiritual power it had. Their mantras could not stall the exodus in several parts of the Indian subcontinent. Ambedkar nowhere talks about this historical shift towards Islam, especially the Sufi strain towards which a lot of Dalit bahujans in the cow-belt gravitated. This was the most major development in the religious sphere after Buddhism that impacted even Southeast Asia, which too saw a shift towards Islam from an earlier Sanskritic-Hindu base.
(Excerpted from the introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection, published by Navayana.)
Kancha Ilaiah Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah is the author of Why I’m Not a Hindu