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April 15, 2018
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The myth of unity

Opinion

April 15, 2018

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Commenting on Hindutva’s ambitious project to “unite all Hindus”, Aakar Patel, former editor and the current executive director of Amnesty International, offers an interesting argument.

While it should not take much effort and imagination to unify the 85 percent majority against the less than 15 percent voiceless minority, Hindus are not a monolithic community. Far from it. While the Parivar insists on bringing everyone under the large, overarching canopy of Hinduism, the Sikhs, Jains and now even Lingayats do not consider themselves Hindus and bristle at the suggestion.

Much like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism came into existence as reform movements against the unjust social customs and practices sanctioned by Hindu clergy. Indeed, Buddha preached against exploitation by the priestly class. Buddhism, which today boasts hundreds of millions of followers across Asia and is one of the world’s largest religions, paid a huge price for taking on the Brahmins and suggesting that you do not need ‘middlemen’ to find salvation. It got wiped out from the land of its birth.

Even among the myriad castes and communities that all see themselves as Hindus, there are so many divisions and differences. They do not go to the same temples and pray to same deities, let alone marry into each other’s communities.

For all this talk of great Hindu unity and all the progress that India has made since Independence, upper castes like Brahmins and Rajputs still rule the roost and do not marry into ‘inferior’ castes like Yadavs, Kurmis or Kaistha, let alone marry their daughters off to Dalit grooms. Forget about marrying into higher castes, Dalits in many parts of the country cannot even pray in the same temples.

Some years ago, a Bihar temple had to undergo an elaborate ‘purification’ by its high priests after its then chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi – who was a Dalit – prayed there. The caste remains the biggest reality in 21st century India. These strict and stark caste-based divisions persist even in the more progressive and educated South India.

As Dr B R Ambedkar, the brilliant Dalit author of the Indian constitution, noted: “caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind”.

Ambedkar’s observations on Hinduism and the mythical goal of Hindu unity are equally fascinating: “The first and foremost thing that must be recognised is that Hindu society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mohammedans to the natives for the purpose of distinguishing themselves. It does not occur in any Sanskrit work prior to the Mohammedan invasion. They did not feel the necessity of a common name, because they had no conception of their having constituted a community. Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste is conscious of its existence. Its survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence. Except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot. On all other occasions, each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes”.

Commenting on the more recent attempts, including by Gandhi and right-wing groups, like the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, to attribute a monolithic religious identity to Hinduism, he wrote: “By its very genius Hinduism believes in social separation, which is another name for social disunity and even creates social separation. If Hindus wish to be one, they will have to discard Hinduism. Hinduism is the greatest obstacle to Hindu unity”.

Given these edifying observations of Ambedkar, how do you make sense of Hindutva’s breathless rush to embrace the Dalit icon, absurdly suggesting that he somehow shared its extremist worldview.

But the BJP and Parivar need Ambedkar and his legacy to court Dalits and perpetuate the myth of Hindu unity. While Ambedkar converted to Buddhism with thousands of his followers, the BJP has been undertaking an elaborate charade to portray itself as his ardent follower and champion of the long-oppressed Dalits – that too when attacks against Dalits have acquired a sustained pattern under the current order.

Dalits have witnessed an unprecedented political, social and economic transformation in their lives since Independence thanks to caste-based reservations or affirmative action, which they truly deserve after thousands of years of dehumanising discrimination and oppression at the hands of the upper caste elites.

And yet, this empowerment has not put an end to atrocities against the community, especially in the deeply stratified Hindu society in the North. Dalit women are still raped and their men are shown their place in numerous ways on a daily basis. Yet Dalits, along with other backward communities and groups, are a critical and integral part of the great Hindutva project to present the façade of a harmonious Hindu society, belying the grievous divisions and contradictions within this ideal, happy family.

This is why the spectre of a Muslim threat must be kept alive at any cost. It is important to come up with new myths and fictions about Muslims preying on fair Hindu maidens and their multiplying numbers threatening the majority. Ironic as it may sound, Hindutva believes that only the Muslim bogey can unite all Hindus, delivering it a solid vote bank. Besides, polarisation always helps to win elections. Who would know it better than the BJP or Modi that have leapt from Gujarat to Delhi?

Unnerved by the rising Dalit anger, Modi has asked BJP MPs to spend at least two days around the time of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (April 14) in Dalit-dominated villages and towns to reassure the community that the BJP has its best interests at heart.

Dalits, including many BJP MPs, have lately been up in arms over the recent Indian Supreme Court ruling that diluted the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, which protected the community against discrimination. Dalits see the SC’s move as yet another sign of upper caste tyranny and the creeping Hinduisation of the state.

Now, Hindutva genuinely wants to unify all Hindus. But this inclusion happens on its own terms, as Aakar Patel reasons. For example, ‘Hindu’ in its lexicon means someone who is ideally vegetarian and certainly non-beef eating. Aakar Patel notes that: “Prime Minister [Modi] comes from a meat-eating community of Gujaratis but he has chosen to give up that culture and become more RSS-like (meaning more Brahminical). This has made him acceptable. Had he been a beef-eating Adivasi, it would not have been easy for the RSS to make him the chief minister of Gujarat.”

The other impediment in the path of Hindu unity, suggests the former journalist who has long followed Modi and Hindutva, is that the Hindu upper castes are a natural constituency for the BJP, and this core constituency is fundamentally opposed to Dalit rights even though they might not say it openly. “Does the upper caste support reservations? The answer is no, because reservations to Dalits and Adivasis come at the expense of this group. This is a division that is so fundamental that it cannot be papered over in the name of Hindu unity. In such a situation, ‘sabka saath’ is not possible.”

The writer is an independent writer and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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