Forgotten “upper caste” Hindus who fought for the rights of Dalits and women—and won. The fourth part of our history of Hindutva
More often than not, both in the world of Western observers of Hindutva, as well as in the left-dominated academic discourse on Hindutva in India, it is presented as an upper-caste-oriented conservative ideology that often finds resonance with white supremacist ideologies in the West. In fact, this follows from the assumption that Hindutva is an imitation of the one race/one blood-based nation states that rose in Europe with the beginning of modern era. To this notion of race, caste is also combined—the Indian upper caste wanting to imitate the European race-based nation-building ended up with Hindutva.
Often, Indian nationalism itself is construed as an “upper caste-Aryan race” construct. The subtle point to be noted is that it is not argued that the Aryan upper castes created Indian nationalism but that the upper castes, believing themselves to be Aryans—linked racially to their European rulers—constructed Indian nationalism and its more virulent form, Hindutva.
A striking instance of this narrative-building can be seen in the work of Prof Romila Thapar, one of the most prominent Marxist historians of our times. In the lecture titled “The Aryan Question Revisited”, delivered on October 11, 1999, at the Academic Staff College, Jawaharlal Nehru University, she stated: “On the Indian nationalist side, it could be argued that the upper-caste Indian who has always been regarded as ‘the’ Indian, that was the creator of the Indian civilization, is Aryan, and is related in fact to the colonizer, the British. And there is one statement which I am very fond of quoting. I quote it in everything that I write, which is Keshub Chandra Sen talking about the coming of the British to India being the coming together of ‘parted cousins’ which in a sense gives you an idea of part of the reason why there is the interest in this theory.”
The historian presents Keshub Chandra Sen as an ideal sample of Indian nationalists of the time—an upper-caste person who rationalized caste hegemony by linking his caste status to Aryan race theory. However, Sen turns out to be more a social reformer than a nationalist. He was no supporter of caste hegemony. Originally a Brahmo Samaj member, Sen even organized inter-caste marriages.
So the question arises why Prof Thapar did not talk about two of the most influential personalities who are associated with Indian nationalism of that period and even to this day: Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo. Though Prof Thapar did not mention them, elsewhere in a similar context, she refers to “upper castes like Brahmanas and Kayasthas”.
So the implication is clear. The process of Indian nationalism was an upper-caste imitation of European race theory of the 19th century. According to her, “the Aryan race theory has not only served cultural nationalism in India but continues to serve Hindu revivalism and, inversely, anti-Brahmin movements.”
Therefore, one needs to explore the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo and see if they supported the Aryan race theory and the caste hegemony. There is ample documentary evidence to show that a section of Indians, an educated powerful and wealthy class, did want to identify themselves with the colonial administrators, copying their manners and dissociating themselves with anything Indian. Most of these people belonged to Indian “upper castes”. Not only were they not nationalists, the emerging nationalist school of thought strongly criticized them.
Identifying oneself with the British and distancing oneself from the downtrodden masses on racial basis was criticized by Swami Vivekananda thus: “When I see Indians behaving like Europeans, the thought comes to my mind, perhaps they feel ashamed to own their nationality and kinship with the ignorant poor, illiterate, down-trodden people of India! Again, the Westerners have now taught us that those stupid, ignorant low-caste millions of India clad only in loin cloths are non-Aryans! They are therefore no more our kith and kin!”
Sri Aurobindo, during his vigorously nationalist period of life, had written about caste prejudices existing in the Hindu community. From Prof Thapar’s point of view, he is expected to rationalize the caste discriminations on the basis of race. On the other hand, his stand differs even from the opinion of Lokmanya Tilak.
In his essay The Unhindu Spirit of Caste Rigidity, published in the journal Bande Mataram (September 20,1907), he writes: “The Nationalist does not quarrel with the past, but he insists on its transformation, the transformation of individual or class autocracy into the autocracy, self-rule or Swaraj, of the nation and of the fixed hereditary anti-democratic caste organization into the pliable self-adapting, democratic distribution of function at which socialism aims.”
In the same article, Sri Aurobindo further points out that Indian nationalism must, by its inherent tendencies, move towards the removal of unreasoning and arbitrary distinctions, and inequalities. It is also well known that Sri Aurobindo in his Secret of the Vedas, criticized the Aryan race theory as “falsehood” and “hazardous speculations”, and warned about its “most far-reaching political, social or pseudo-scientific conclusions”.
Now, free of this flawed framework, one needs to evaluate the Hindutva process in issues related to social emancipation—particularly in matters such as of fighting racism, caste discrimination—including untouchability— and gender-related issues.
The British recognized the danger that social emancipation in the proto-Hindutva process represented by the Arya Samaj posed to the colonial regime. The movement (though with its own conditionings of the period), with its anti-caste and pro-woman empowerment credo, played a very important role in the emergence of what would be later called the Hindu Sanghatan (Hindu Unity) movement. The movement was instrumental in creating an effective chain of schools and service institutions.
As the web of activities increased, Sir Hercourt Butler, the Lieutenant Governor of Oudh and North West Provinces, wrote to Sir James Dunlop Smith, private secretary to the Viceroy Lord Minto, that “Arya Somaj (sic) was a dangerous movement” because it combined “an appeal to national feeling with a tendency to elevate the low castes”. And what was more, the cause of women’s education had been taken up by “Arya Somaj” and “our position in the country will be almost hopeless, if the women are trained up in hostility to us”.
There was historical precedent too, noted the colonial administrator: “Shivaji did that and so has every Hindu leader…” (Sir James Robert Dunlop Smith, edited by Martin Gilbert, Servant of India: A Study of Imperial Rule from 1905 to 1910 as Told Through the Correspondence and Diaries of Sir James Dunlop Smith, Longmans, 1966, p.97).
Swami Shraddhanand was one of the tallest leaders of the Hindu Sanghatan movement who came from the Arya Samaj stream. Babasaheb Ambedkar called him “the greatest and the most sincere champion” of Dalits. He was also the first person to use the term “Dalit” (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Navajivan, March 27, 1927). The letters of the Swami to the then high command of Congress and its lieutenants reveal an interesting fact. Here we see the Hindu nationalist pursuing vigorously a radical programme for the emancipation of Dalits and the Nehru-Gandhi high command backtracking.
In a letter written to Mahatma Gandhi in September 1921, Swami Shraddhanand drew the attention of the Mahatma to the fact that in Delhi and Agra all that the Dalits were demanding was that they be allowed to draw water from the wells used both by Hindus and Muslims and that water be not served to them through bamboos or leaves. “Even this appears impossible for the Congress Committee to accomplish,” the Swami pointed out in his letter, with a heavy heart.
In 1922, he wrote to Congress leader Vithalbhai Patel, describing how Gandhi had relegated to an obscure corner the emancipation of Dalits (Swami Shraddhanand, Inside the Congress: A Collection of 26 Articles, Vol 1, Dayanand Sansthan, 1984: reprint, p.134, pp.179-80).
Another stalwart of the Hindutva movement who fought for the reservation of Dalits not only in education but also and more crucially in administration was M.R. Jayakar. Though the legislative bodies were established in India as early as 1861 by the British, only on two occasions were Dalits mentioned. The first was in 1916 when a Parsi member moved the resolution that “a small representative committee of officials and non-officials for an amelioration in the moral, material and educational condition of what are known as the Depressed Classes.”
The next and more forceful voice for Dalit empowerment was raised by Jayakar and that was in 1928. The resolution he moved was that the assembly should recommend to the Governor-General-in-Council to issue directions to all Local Governments to provide special facilities for the education of the “untouchables” and other depressed classes, and also for opening all public services to them, especially the police (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches: Unpublished Writings, The Untouchables and the Pax Britannica, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, p.139).
The legacy of Hindu nationalists had been more crucial than their ideological adversaries in effecting the empowerment of the marginalized sections of the society. In many instances, it has been the pioneering guiding light for future affirmative action programmes of the “free democratic sovereign state” of India—incidentally these were words introduced by Jayakar through an amendment at the Constituent Assembly in 1946.
It should also be mentioned that despite being bitterly opposed to the Muslim League, the democratic Hindu nationalist Jayakar thwarted an undemocratic plot by the Congress to exclude the Muslim members from attending this session.
Another important Hindu nationalist who was way ahead of his Congress counterparts in empowering Dalits was Dr Narayan Bhaskar Khare. He was the elected head of the Central Provinces and was dismissed by Nehru following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. In the 1930s, he appointed a Dalit minister in his cabinet, for which he was taken to task by the then Congress high command and sacked. Dr Ambedkar made a scathing attack on the Mahatma for this abject betrayal of Dalit cause (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Gautam Books, 1945: 2009, p.96).
Dr Khare was also instrumental in securing the Arya Marriage Validation Bill on the Statute Book, which allowed large-scale widow remarriages and marriages breaking caste boundaries. This was also the forerunner in legally liberating marriages from the ritual sanctioning of birth-based priesthood.
The only context in which the name of Swami Satyananda is mentioned in academic treatises is in connection with Maximiani Portas alias Savitri Devi—a Nazi writer who worked for some time in India. She worked with the Hindu Mission of Swami Satyananda for a bit. This is how historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in his book Hitler’s Priestess: Savitri Devi, the Hindu-Aryan Myth and Neo-Nazism (New York University Press, 1998), presents her association with Hindutva movements:
“Savitri Devi regarded Hinduism as the only living Aryan heritage in the modern world. In her eyes, Hinduism was a powerful ally in her campaign to confront and oppose the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But her Aryan-Nazi championship of Hinduism also interacted with domestic political movements in India between the wars. These movements were concerned with varieties of Hindu nationalism, conceived as an upper-caste strategy to unify and strengthen Indian society against the threat of other cultures (Islam and Christianity), while seeking to emulate the confidence and authority of the British. These movements were strongest in northern India, where the Muslim threat was more acutely perceived, and originated in Maharashtra, where Brahmin prestige had been challenged by backward caste movements from the 1870s onward. When Savitri Devi became politically active in the later 1930s, such Hindu national movements as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were growing rapidly in an urgent response to Muslim ascendancy.”
However, Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst has pointed out that the relation between the Hindu nationalist movement and the Nazi ideologue was not a smooth one. Elst writes: “There was a sharp contradiction between her own racist and anti-egalitarian convictions and the reformist and egalitarian programme of the Hindu Mission. To the Hindu Mission, Hinduism was a value in itself; to Savitri Devi, it was but an instrument of her imagined Aryan race. In her years as a preacher, she kept her non-Hindu preoccupations to herself, but in her memoirs (Memories and Reflections of an Aryan Lady), she declared that she conceived of her reconversion mission as an exercise in deception: ‘From the racist Aryan viewpoint, it was necessary to give the most backward and degenerate aborigines a (false) Hindu consciousness.’”
Elst also points out that according to her, the Hindu Mission’s leader, Swami Satyananda, had seen through her insincerity and told her to preach from the Hindu viewpoint and keep her private opinions to herself (Elst, Return of the Swastika: Hate and Hysteria versus Hindu Sanity, 2015, p.119).
Interestingly, Swami Satyananda’s approach to the caste problems in India had been recorded elsewhere and provides one an opportunity to see if the Hindu nationalist movement was really an upper-caste one that rose in reaction to the assertion of the so-called lower castes.
Buddhadeva Bhattacharyya et al, in their book Satyagrahas in Bengal, 1921-39 (1977), have given a detailed report of the Munshiganj Satyagraha, which was the Dalit temple entry movement organized by Swami Satyananda. Yet no study of Hindutva mentions this important role of the Hindu Sanghatan movement in the struggle for Dalit rights. In 1929, Swami Satyananda was approached by the Dalit leaders of Bengal for their right to enter the Kali temple at Munshiganj in Bengal province (Munshiganj is now in Bangladesh).
The Swami made a public speech demanding an end to the discrimination: “If the depressed classes get the right of free access to all places of public worship and can sit side by side with the high-class Hindus, the caste prejudice will be mitigated to a great degree. I think this is the most elementary right of every member of a religious community. So I have begun with the assertion of this right by the depressed classes and temple entry is the first step towards its realization.”
Following the upper caste Hindus’ adamant stand, on 12 September 1929, the President of Hindu Mission, Calcutta, wrote to Jamnalal Bajaj, the convener of the Anti-Untouchability Committee of the AICC, informing the latter of the satyagraha being launched. Bajaj wrote that the existing conditions did not warrant starting a satyagraha.
However, the satyagraha was launched and at one point, the upper castes abused and threatened Swami Satyananda with violence. He was even attacked with bamboo sticks. The Swami again pointed out, in spite of the attacks and abuses, that this was not a Brahmin vs non-Brahmin fight, but part of an all-India movement that had the blessings of leaders like Gandhi, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Dr B.S. Munje and N.C. Kelkar.
On 16 May, the movement took a new turn with local upper-caste Hindu youths joining the satyagraha. Six Brahmin boys started an indefinite fast in support of Dalit temple entry. The Swami and one of his celibate disciples also joined the hunger strike. The ladies of the households of the six boys joined them.
The next morning, about 200 ladies removed all the barriers and threw open the doors of the temple to all Hindus, irrespective of caste, amidst shouts of Bande Mataram.
The 261-day-long satyagraha conducted by the Hindu Mission of Swami Satyananda triumphed without Congress support and it was a complete victory, unlike satyagrahas conducted by the Congress which often ended in compromises and partial victories.
Thus, the Hindutva movement, despite the abject indifference to facts shown by the academic researchers of the movement, did contribute immensely to social emancipation.
For anyone studying women empowerment in a society that is in transition from pre-modernity to modernity, one of the vital indicators would be the marriage age of the girls. It is obvious that legal prohibition of marrying off girl children in the name of custom and tradition plays an important role in women achieving education and empowerment.
Social reformers in India fought a very tough battle for this. Among important pioneers who paved the way for stopping child marriage was Hari Singh Gour, who, through his repeated appeals to recognize the standards of modern clinical psychology, was able to get the law passed that raised the age of consent within marriage for girl children from 12 to 14.
This war for raising the marriage age of women and prohibition of child marriage was carried on further by Harbilas Sarda.
Many great men like Dr Ambedkar stood with Sarda shoulder to shoulder. Due to their efforts, The Child Marriage Restraint Act, also known as the Sarda Act, was passed on October 1, 1929. Setting the minimum age for marriage for girls at 14 and boys at 18, it was a crowning glory for the social reform movement in India.
While the abolition of sati was a great victory for social reform, it was actually dealing with an essentially localized and colonially exaggerated phenomenon. But the Sarda Act had and still has strong implications for the nation as a whole and made women participate in large numbers in the coming Gandhian movement. Womens’ empowerment became possible thanks to the Sarda Act.
The implication of these acts for the participation of large number of women in the struggle for Indian independence is brought out by Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, medical practitioner, social reformer and one of the earliest woman legislators in India:
“Sir Hari Singh Gour was responsible for raising the age of consent for girls…Sir Harbilas Sarda worked for the act which restrains child marriages. So we have much for which we must thank our men. It is not strange that now, when they want political freedom, we women are willing to stand beside them in their effort to attain it.” (Muthulakshmi Reddy, Creative Citizenship (1933) in Documenting First Wave Feminisms, Volume 1, edited by Nancy Margaret Forestell, Maureen Anne Moynagh, Nancy Forestell, University of Toronto Press, 2012, p.203)
Hari Singh Gour was the member of the Legal Advisory Committee of the Hindu Mahasabha. Harbilas Sarda was one of the strongest proponents of pan-Hindutva. In his book, Hindu Superiority: An Attempt to Determine the Position of the Hindu Race in the Scale of Nations (Rajputana Printing Works, Ajmer, 1906), Sarda envisaged a common Indic alliance for Buddhism and the Vedic religion, and groups religions of Indic origin together.
Such a broad categorization of Hindu cultural unity, based on Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh unity, rather than the scriptural authority of the Vedas, is the hallmark of the thoughts of both Veer Savarkar and Dr Ambedkar.
One should remember that Sarda also came from the Arya Samaj stream which was not well disposed towards Buddhism. Yet Sarda was able to enlarge the definition of “Hindu” by seeing Buddhism as not differing “materially from the Vedic religion in its scientific aspects“—a classic instance of samanvaya in action.
The fight against child marriage and the triumph in increasing the legal marriage age of women were definitely the single greatest achievement on the path towards gender equality and was ideologically an integral part of the larger social emancipation movement created by the Arya Samaj.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.