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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  How Hinduism delegitimizes the Dalit
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How Hinduism delegitimizes the Dalit

We need to exorcise the notion that the only Hinduism that is valid is ours or the Puranic version, and everything else is not just wrong, but also blasphemous

Marathi Dalits are Buddhists and assertive of their identity. Photo: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan TimesPremium
Marathi Dalits are Buddhists and assertive of their identity. Photo: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times

A few days after I started in journalism (this was in 1995), a man came into the office of The Asian Age in Mumbai. He was short, stout, dark and dressed poorly. But he was confident and he took a seat, without invitation, in the chair in front of me. He handed me a press release, and it was about a demand of some union in the municipality he wanted publicized.

The note was in Marathi, which I read poorly, and its contents I have long forgotten. But I noticed the words in bold on top, and they read “Jai Bhim". This interested me because I had not encountered the valorizing of a minor Mahabharat character before. I was disabused of my ignorance only later, when I understood that it was, of course, Bhimrao Ambedkar that “Bhim" referred to. Through “Jai Bhim", this man was declaring his identity and his affiliation.

In Surat, where I had grown up, it was unthinkable that a Dalit could be assertive about who he was. What he should feel was something akin to shame. Dalits were referred to as (and even referred to themselves as) harijan, a patronizing name. Such things are not easy to be rid of. Visitors to the municipal sweepers’ colony in Mahim, on the left just before Shiv Sena Bhavan, coming from Bandra, will observe a divide straight down the middle.

To the left are the older rooms of the Gujarati sweepers, whose families came to 19th century Bombay, who identify themselves as harijan. They mark Ganesh Chaturthi, pandal and all (no doubt with a pandit terrified of being polluted), and various other Hindu occasions.

To the right is the much newer building with rooms of Marathi Dalit sweepers. This is more austere, more Buddhist, less Hindu and it is out of the question that they would refer to themselves as harijan. They would feel offended if referred to thus, not on their own terms, and rightly.

And yet Gujarat’s savarna classes—meaning those four castes who possess varna: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra—casually use the jati names of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as abuse.

An unkempt or unwashed Gujarati child will be laughingly called dublo, dhed, bhangi. This is how I was raised.

It was only in my 20s, when I encountered the works of the great Reginald Edward Enthoven (without amateur ethnographer district collectors like him and Denzil Ibbetson, where would this third-rate nation be?) that it dawned on me that this name-calling was pure cruelty. That contempt and bigotry was built into everyday Gujarati vocabulary. I had not known it—and mind you, I was reasonably informed. Indeed, it would have angered the 24-year-old me had someone suggested that I was illiterate about the most basic things about India. I have tried to exorcize myself. I suggest people like Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani try to educate themselves, and I am not saying this in derision. I am saying it in sympathy, having been through the process they need going through.

The exorcism is of the conviction that “our" Hinduism, essentially the Puranic, is valid. The rest is primitive, and even the customary, like the worship of Mahishasura, exists because of ignorance on the part of the other. Such thinking needs to be reversed, and it cannot be reversed if, as Irani and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah (a Jain Baniya, who has also been aggressive on this issue) insists, the other’s perspective is not only invalid but blasphemous.

Our middle class needs to be re-educated, else it will remain ignorant. This is not just limited to nomenclature, to knowledge of caste and so on. We confuse privilege with “merit" and most of us do not have the intellectual capacity, truth be told, to look on the issue neutrally. The arguments here are banal, and it doesn’t matter how traditionally literate the middle-class individual may be.

On an NDTV show on reservations moderated by Vikram Chandra, I was on a panel that included two former Indian Institute of Technology professors. They had little to offer and their decades in teaching had, if anything, solidified their prejudices. Their view was shallow and ignorant, I am sorry to say, and of a piece with the angry middle-class audience that was demanding an end to reservations. On the other side were the writer Chandra Bhan Prasad and BJP MP Udit Raj, both Dalits.

You will find any number of savarnas (no need to look far, I raise my hand) who take a firm view in favour of reservations, and affirmative action. I challenge the middle classes to name one Dalit who accepts their point of view on “merit". Udit Raj finds himself in a difficult position often because the truth is that it is difficult for Hindutva, with its stress on vegetarianism, on prohibition, to be open to other castes, though it pretends to be.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh invests in Ekal Vidyalaya (single-teacher schools) in Gujarat’s tribal areas. The Swayamsevaks who do the teaching sacrifice their years doing this work, it is true. But what they are focused on doing is weaning away the tribal from animism and towards Puranic idolatry.

In their work we observe the same certitude as we find in Irani, but this time there is also a “solution". And that solution is to delegitimize the customs, culture and dignity of the tribal.

Hindutva should attempt to be more inclusive. If not towards Muslims, and I can understand why here it cannot, at least towards non-savarnas.

A full 25% of India is Dalit and Adivasi. Put your palm on your heart (do it) and ask yourself what representation they have in your office. How represented is their culture in our popular culture (films, TV serials, advertising clichés)? If it is not, ask yourself why it is not. The only answer, a terrifying one, is that it is not “good culture". Add Muslims and we are talking of nearly 40% of our population, a half-billion people seen with contempt because of an illiteracy on the part of the rest of us.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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Published: 03 Mar 2016, 07:50 PM IST
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