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Posted at: Feb 1, 2016, 12:51 AM; last updated: Jan 31, 2016, 10:58 PM (IST)

The Dalit question as answer to Hindutva

In order to change the foundations of society, political struggles have to be fought on the basis of a united front that comprises all progressives. The Dalit leadership must forge a joint front with progressives as a counter to the hegemony of Hindutva.
The Dalit question as answer to Hindutva
Activists protesting in Chennai in support of Rohith Vemula. Tamil Nadu’s anti-Brahmanical stir can be emulated.pti

The suicide of a Dalit research scholar, Rohith Vemula of University of Hyderabad, has once again brought into sharp focus at an all-India level the central issue of rigid social, caste-based hierarchical structure of Hindu society. It has also highlighted the antagonistic contradiction between the assertive Dalit social movements and the political ideology of Hindu Sangh parivar and the BJP governments at the Centre and in various states.  The Sangh parivar claims  proprietary rights on ancient Indian classics, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Vedas, and the Smritis. It is asking every Hindu to go back to the Vedas for knowledge and spiritual inspiration.  

However, notable Dalit scholars like Jyotiba Phule and B.R.Ambedkar have disowned the ancient Hindu classics that they perceive as the fountain source of the origin and genesis of the pernicious Brahmanical caste-based social order. The real victims of that have been Gandhi's Harijans, the Scheduled Castes or Dalits. The Sangh parivar, as a self-appointed champion of ancient classics, has mobilised Brahmin caste priests, Shankaracharyas and Sanskrit scholars to propagate the "Hindu values" as laid down by these shastras. Powerful central and state governments of the BJP have left no stone unturned in the implementation of rituals associated with Brahmanical Hinduism. Every school in the states governed by the BJP has been asked to perform Surya Namaskar, Saraswati puja  and recite the Gayatri Mantra. 

On February 12, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will address 1,100 principals of RSS-run senior secondary schools in Delhi. The RSS has a definite agenda of managing educational institutions to create Hindu citizens with Hindu values. Vidya Bharti of the RSS is actively engaged in this task and 56 senior and committed pracharaks are engaged in the project of Hinduisation of education.  This RSS project of Hinduisation of education is fully supported by the BJP governments and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It has brought university and college-based Dalit ideologues and activists in direct clash with them. This is the explanation for the all-India turmoil triggered by Rohith’s suicide. 

If the ABVP, the BJP’s student wing is an all-India organisation established in every campus, so is its opponent the Dalit Student Organisation. The Dalit students oppose the programmes and ideology of the RSS-ABVP. Kanchan Illiah and Dalit student leaders have openly declared: “Teach us English and teach Sanskrit to the children of upper-caste Hindus”. The Narendra Modi Government has provided huge funds for the development of Sanskrit studies and departments generally consisting of Brahmin and high-caste Hindu faculty members. The goal is to propagate Hindu values in educational institutions by teaching Sanskrit and and Indian classics. Dalit students want modern education and for them, English language and not Sanskrit is the vehicle of learning science and modern areas of knowledge. 

The opposition to Sanskrit is linked with the rejection of the Hindutva of the Sangh parivar which is the champion of teaching of Vedas through Sanskrit for establishing Hindu ideological hegemony. Under the protective umbrella of the BJP government, not only cow slaughter, even a suspicion or rumour of eating beef has evoked violent responses by cow-protection samitis and many anti-Muslim riots have taken place. Dalit students have reacted against the BJP’s Hindutva agenda and symbolically “beef-eating feasts” were announced on the campuses by the Dalit students. They were opposing the imposition of Brahmanical food habits by the Sangh parivar ideologues.  

Dalits find themselves in contradiction with the Sangh parivar and the BJP’s Hinduisation project. A new Dalit consciousness has emerged in Indian society and Dalit intellectuals, artists and activists are challenging the old caste-based Hindu social order. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are being re-interpreted by Dalit scholars to substantiate the argument that the classics have enough material to justify caste-based oppression. Ambedkar's call for  "annihilation of caste" is an agenda of rejection of anything associated with high-caste Hindus by the Dalits. The new Dalit movement has made many Dalits "atheists" and there is rejection of rituals based on religion. This quest for equality in Hindu caste-based society of the new Dalit groups has made them raise fundamental questions about the place of religion and the politics of religion.  

The Dalit movement is a “separate” path and they have been compelled to launch struggles against caste-based institutions. The silver lining is that new levels of consciousness among Dalits,  especially among its educated vanguard, is shaking the foundations of the inherited, caste-based social order. The new Dalit leadership must analyse factors responsible for the perpetuation of caste hierarchy and oppression in Tamil Nadu, home to a powerful anti-Brahmin movement. There upper and Backward castes and not Brahmins perpetuate caste oppression.  

Can the Dalit leadership draw some lessons for the larger society of India from the limited social universe of Tamil Nadu? The answer is in the affirmative. The Dalit leadership understands that the complex Indian caste question is linked with history and political economy of India. The Dalit movement alone cannot deal with the challenge of  “caste” without forging alliances with other like-minded, progressive, secular, intellectual, social and political forces of the country. The landless agricultural Dalit workers and extremely marginal farmers in an agrarian society are victims of daily oppression, due to their existing “situation” in the economy of the country.  

Will agrarian social restructuring, which is essential for the liberation of the Dalit landless labourers, be achieved without making “anti-BJP” and “anti-upper caste Hindu” political alliances? Caste hierarchy is not an isolated part of the whole society. The leaders of the present Dalit movement have to accept the limitations of their struggle which is disconnected with other progressive struggles. There is an urgent need to think over this important aspect. 

The writer is  Professor Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies, JNU


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