The Hindu nationalist and spiritual tradition has always accepted responsibility for discrimination against backward castes and tribes, and tried to find a solution to it. The Tarun Vijay incident should thus be seen in the context of a struggle dating back centuries.
Four days ago, Tarun Vijay, Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP, was attacked by a mob when he was returning from Silgur Devta temple in Chakrata, 180 kilometres from Dehradun. He was with the Scheduled Community (SC) leaders and had led the community members into the temple. On his way back, he was attacked by backward community members in the village.
It may look paradoxical for our colonized collective psyche to understand Hindutvaites fighting the evil of casteism. Unlike the so-called progressives who take the easy route of blaming the evils of the society on the mythical ‘Brahminical Hinduism’ invented by colonial and Marxist historians of the establishment, the Hindu nationalists take the responsibility on their shoulders.
What the BJP MP did at Chakrata should not be seen as an isolated event. Rather, it should be viewed in a much neglected historical context.
Continuation of Hindutva legacy
Hindu nationalists have a long history of fighting the social evils in Hindu society. Here, one has to take into consideration an interesting phenomenon unique to it in current times—the result of colonial-missionary portrayal of Hinduism.
In other cultures, the social evils protected or justified by religion were fought by voices for justice found within that religious culture itself. For example, the slavery in United States was vehemently justified by the Hamitic myth in the Bible, while anti-slavery activists also sought to justify their stand from the same scripture. Many of the radical Black movements today are led by Black theologians.
In India, the movement for the abolition of untouchability was inspired by the long tradition of social emancipators inspired by Hindu spirituality. From Viswamitra in Vedic literature through Ramanuja to Bhakthi saints, the Indic spiritual tradition has continuously fought against the trends of marginalization and social stagnation.
Yet, one may ask why these social evils exist today despite such continuous efforts.
First thing to be understood is that untouchability and caste system cannot be essentialized as a Hindu phenomenon as was done by colonial and Marxist anthropologists. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his note to ‘Strikebreaker’ (see: Carol Mason ed. ‘Anthropology through science fiction’, St.Martin’s Press 1974) caste becomes rigid and untouchability emerges when mobility decreases and resource scarcity sets in, in any society.
In pre-modern Europe not only caste system but untouchability too, was rampant. Society was divided into ‘honourable’ and ‘defiled’ sections. As historian Kathy Stuart points out, ‘throughout the Holy Roman Empire dishonourable tradesmen suffered various forms of social, economic, legal, and political discrimination on a graduated scale of dishonor at the hands of ‘‘honourable’’ guild artisans and in ‘‘honourable’’ society at large.’
If this distinction between ‘honourable’ and ‘defiled’ has a striking resemblance to ‘Savarna’ and ‘Avarna’, what the author reveals further is even more striking: In the case of the most extreme dishonor, that of executioners and skinners, Unehrlichkeit (dishonour) could lead to exclusion from virtually all normal sociability. Executioners and skinners might be pelted with stones by onlookers, they might be refused access to taverns, excluded from public baths, or denied an honourable burial. Dishonour was transmitted through heredity, often over several generations. (Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts, Cambridge University Press, 1999)
But what is striking is that throughout European history there does not seem to have surfaced any spiritual voices for the people thus tyrannized and discriminated while in India there has been a continuous stream of spiritual voices and activism siding with the marginalized and defiled people.
Yet in India when British came and started a paradoxical process of imposed increase in mobility with enormous resource drain, it created its own impact on the forces of social stagnation and emancipation. In a parallel development, Europe was removing their internal hierarchies and division between ‘defiled’ and ‘honorable’ categories. This was the result of colonization and slave trades. It would be another two centuries before the West would remove the slave system – only after it had served its ‘historical’ purpose. Even Karl Marx who was all bleeding heart for the ‘workers’ never cared to write about Europe’s own untouchable communities like Cagots who were inhumanly treated in his own backyard. Further, though not a supporter of trans-Atlantic slavery, he justified it ‘as an economic category of greatest importance’.
In India, the colonial administrators favored either a status-quo or a conversion to Christianity fitting in the colonial stereotype of India being an unjust society to be emancipated by enlightened Protestant ethics. Thus the proclamation that British would not intervene in the religious practices of Indians was effectively used to essentialize Hinduism as the root of all social evils and also served the vested interests within the Hindu society. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, some of which them seated in high seats of religious authority and orthodoxy. Epigraphist Ramachandran and social activist Ganesan of SISHRI (South India Social History Research Institute) have brought forth documentary evidence as to how colonial powers thwarted an amicable settlement arrived at by two communities for temple entry.
Marxists and missionaries make political and theological capital out of every social evil, creating conflicts and deepening the faultlines. They further persistently use unscientific categories like Aryan and Dravidian, the extension of which is mirrored in the Brahmin vs. non-Brahmin binaries. As against this, Hindu nationalists seek both justice and social harmony. The contribution of Hindu nationalists to the cause of scheduled communities can be seen right from the colonial days.
The Munshiganj Satyagraha in 1929 was organized by Swami Satyananda Saraswathi of the Hindu Mission and perhaps it was the only completely successful temple entry Satyagraha after the Poona pact. Both Ayyankali and MCRaja had recorded the radical stand Hindu Maha Sabha took against the disadvantages the Scheduled Communities were made to suffer by social stagnation and colonialism.
Kavyakantha Ganapathi Muni – a great Vedic scholar and nationalist confronted, and proved to the orthodox south Indians that there is no Vedic sanction for untouchability. He boldly suggested that Scheduled Community members be made cooks in ‘Cheramadevi Ashram’ in the wake of a controversy where E.V.Ramaswamy was raising the issue of separate dining for Brahmins and non-Brahmin ‘upper castes’. Both, the orthodox Brahmins and more curiously, EVR too backtracked when Muni made that suggestion. Incidentally he was given the title ‘Muni’ (Rishi) not by birth-based so-called ‘upper-castes’. It was conferred on him, rather, by the ‘Adi Hindu conference’ held at Hyderabad. These are just some of the examples, largely ignored by establishment historians.
Hindu nationalists in independent India continue this tradition.
A historical example was set forth by none other than MS Golwalar (‘Guruji’), the second RSS chief who took forward Dr.Ambedkar’s suggestion and made traditional seers from all over India come together and declare that untouchability had no scriptural basis. Bharatiya Jana Sangh – the precursor of the BJP, was the first party to legally stop manual scavenging in Udupi – a holy town for Vaishnavite Hindus.
In 2006, RSS came up with the suggestion to annnoint Scheduled community members as priests in major Hindu temples across the country. In 2007, the RSS magazine emphatically declared that those who oppose the entry of scheduled community members inside temples were against the welfare of Hindu society. “There should be no Hindu temple which discriminates against people on the basis of caste”, the Sangh had declared.
In 2011, at a Tamil Nadu village called Uthrapuram, Marxists publicised that they effected the Dalit entry into a temple where they were denied entrance. A closer look, however, revealed who actually did the real ground work for that. ‘The Hindu,’ in a totally biased report with lavish praise for the Marxists, could not avoid the following lines:
Meanwhile, Vishwa Hindu Parishad district president Chinmaya Somasundaram and his long-time friend and former Aavin general manager K. Athimoolam, who had relatives on both sides, began fresh negotiations between the Dalits and the upper caste Hindus. “After nearly two months of talks, we were able to bring peace. This [the temple entry] has been the demand of the Dalits for nearly seven decades,” Mr. Somasundaram said. The SP offered all possible help to further the talks. (‘Uthapuram Dalits enter temple after more than two decades‘, ‘The Hindu’, 11-Nov-2011)
What is interesting here is the crucial information that the VHP officials have ‘relatives on both sides’ and that they were working for two months. Clearly the Hindu nationalists can transcend caste barriers and establish family relations between communities, scheduled or otherwise and they are also able to use these ties to harmoniously boost social emancipation. Yet the entry was hailed in Old Media as the victory of the social justice war waged by Marxists.
Contemporary politics and social emancipation
The previous UPA had seen it necessary to bring amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act’ only during the fag end of its ten years rule. It was the NDA government, however, that brought in even more stern amendments, and strategically navigated the passing of the bill through both the houses of the Parliament. The new amendments make it a crime to prevent the temple entry of SC/ST members.
Hindu nationalists have also taken the major step in delivering historic justice to Indic nomadic forest dwelling communities which were branded as criminal tribes by the Protestant colonial administration. Narikuravas were categorized as ‘criminal tribes’ in 1871 by the British rule. Both eugenics and protestant worldview were behind this legislation. It took five years for independent India to denotify them. Still, these nomadic communities were placed only in the categories of Backward Classes (BC) thus effectively excluding them from empowering themselves. Though the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Dr.M.G.Ramachandran had recommended placing them in the ST category, the central governments have largely not cared for this demand.
The Modi government though, on May 25, approved bills placing Narikuravar and Kurivikaran communities in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category.
These social empowering acts have ideological connect with Hindu nationalism which is not escapist but takes responsibility for the social evils that exist in Hindu society. Thus, when Tarun Vijay simply continued the historic towards social justice even when inhumanly attacked by ignorant caste-ridden Hindus, he was only following others before him in the Hindu nationalist tradition.