Brahminism, Hindutva And The Dalit Question
By Yoginder Sikand
26 August, 2011
Some weeks ago, Subramanian Swamy, President of the Janata Party and former Union Cabinet Minister of Commerce, Law and Justice, created a major stir by publishing what was widely denounced as a hard-hitting anti-Muslim article in a leading daily newspaper. The media was agog for a while with news about the story, and an irate National Commission for Minorities even threatened to take Swamy to court for it. However, the controversy appeared to have died soon out thereafter.
Scanning the Internet for material for a piece I was writing about the Swamy affair, I learned that he had written an entire tome detailing his Hindutva-grounded vision for India, and that his newspaper piece, devoted to his solution to the ‘Muslim problem’, was a modified version of a chapter of this book. I purchased the book, and forced myself to read it (despite finding it eminently avoidable) in order to learn how Swamy and folks like him who share a common commitment to Hindutva conceive of the future of this country.
Published last year by the relatively obscure Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, Swamy’s Hindutva and National Renaissance makes agonizingly boring reading. Be that as it may, it is an invaluable guide to contemporary Hindutva socio-political thought. Whatever the merits of Swamy’s comments on Muslims may be, the book clearly indicates that votaries of Hindutva are fiercely committed to a nauseatingly Brahminical view of Indian society, culture and history. The danger they pose not just to Muslims but also to the oppressed castes, historical victims of the Hindu order, who form almost half of India’s population, is enormous, so the book, if read carefully, clearly reveals.
Sanatana Dharma and Indian Nationalism
Swamy starts off by insisting that India suffers from an acute identity crisis. That, he argues, is the source of most of India’s ills. The only way out of this predicament, he contends—and this is the central theme of his book—is for India to recover and stress its ‘Hinduness’. This, he pontificates, is also the solution to the perceived widespread loss of morals and the absence of a balance between material and spiritual forces in contemporary India. In practical terms, he lays down, this requires that sanatana dharma be revived, that Hindutva, based on sanatana dharma, form the firm basis of the Indian state, and that individual citizens, too, firmly abide by sanatana dharma in their personal lives. That, he expects us to believe, is the only solution to all of India’s many travails.
Echoing the standard Hindutva line, Swamy equates Indian nationalism and national identity with Brahminical Hinduism, thus effectively consigning all the hundreds of millions of India who refuse to accept this imposition outside the pale of Indian-ness. ‘India and sanatana dharma exist for each other’, he pompously declares. ‘Sanatana dharma is our nationalism and our nationalism is sanatana dharma,’ he announces. ‘Hinduism provides the foundation or the defining characteristic of an Indian,’ he declaims.
As for non-Hindu Indians, specifically Christians and Muslims, Swamy controversially contends that most of them are offspring of Hindus who were, so he alleges, forcibly converted to the religions of conquerors. Hence, if they were to reconvert to Hinduism or at least were to recognize and take pride in the supposed Hindu-ness of their ancestors, they could be taken to be part of the Hindu or Indian ‘nation’. Non-Hindu Indians, he writes, are to be co-opted into the Hindu fold through the use of a variety of means, which he classifies using the Sanskrit phrase saam, dhaam, bheda and dand. This roughly translates as ‘pacification, money, divisions and punishment’.
Nothing in all of this is at all novel, for Swamy simply mechanically parrots what a whole tribe of Hindutva ideologues before him have said on the subject.
Hindutva and Brahminism
Swamy’s call for Hindutva, based on sanatana dharma, to be the basis of the Indian state reflects a sternly Brahminical view of Indian history and culture. That Hindutva seeks to promote a revamped Brahminism under the guise of Hindu nationalism is amply evident from Swamy’s selective approach to Indian history as well as his bizarre claims and distortions of that history, despite his evidently not being anywhere near an expert on the subject.
Although he repeatedly invokes the term sanatana dharma, Swamy does not care—and probably deliberately so—to elaborate on precisely what it has historically been understood to mean. Roughly translatable as the ‘eternal law’, it is actually a bundle of laws and rules, reflecting duties and rights of various classes of people as conceived of by Brahmin law-givers throughout the centuries. It is geared, among other things, to the preservation of ‘upper’ caste, particularly Brahmin, supremacy, which, in turn, is premised on the permanent degradation of the Shudras and the Untouchables. Sanatana dharma has traditionally been conceived of in the Brahminical scriptures as inseparable from varna dharma, the dharmas of the four varnas of classical Hindu society.
Given this, Swamy’s calls for re-establishing and reinforcing sanatana dharma can easily be perceived as a thinly-veiled guise for shoring up ‘upper’ varna, particularly Brahmin, hegemony, his pious proclamations about caste not being based on birth notwithstanding. Swamy devotes an entire chapter to arguing the case for ‘Ram Rajya’ as the model of governance for contemporary India. And, as numerous scholars have pointed out, Ram Rajya, as described in the Ramayana, was characterized by the iron law of caste, the subjugation of the Shudras and Chandals, and the unquestioned supremacy of the Brahmins, in league with their Kshatriya subordinates.
Swamy’s thoroughly twisted understanding of Indian historical identity is clearly intended to present it as synonymous with Brahminism at the same time as it reflects a certain urgency to whitewash Brahminism completely beyond recognition. If Swamy is to be believed, all was hunky-dory in India till the Muslim invasion. The ‘Vedic civilization’, Swamy proclaims, revealing an alarming ignorance of history, provided ‘prosperity and justice to all’. It is as if the brutal reality of Brahminical hegemony, the heinous oppression of the Shudras and Untouchables and the suppression of women, all of which long predate the ‘Muslim period’ and which, in fact, were blessed in the name of the sanatana dharma, simply did not exist or that they are of no consequence whatsoever.
In Swamy’s understanding of history, it is essentially the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, who occupy the pinnacle of the caste pyramid, who seem to matter as agents of change and as instruments of governance. The rest of the population seems to be of no consequence in this regard. Thus, Swamy argues that in the pre-Muslim period the Brahmins, ‘sages’ who supposedly represented the sanatana dharma, worked in tandem with the Kshatriyas, rulers who represented worldly power, and, together they enabled a system to function that, so Swamy wants us to believe, was harmonious and just. In presenting this neatly-sanitized version of Hindu history, he conveniently ignores the fact that this system was built on the permanent subjugation and extreme degradation of the vast majority of the population—Shudras and Untouchables.
By no stretch of imagination can this most iniquitous and inhuman system ever devised by human beings be considered to be the epitome of virtue that Swamy makes it out to be. Yet, this does not hinder Swamy from insisting that the model needs to be revived and imposed today. ‘This understanding of the rishi and king alliance propounded in the Rig Veda’, he ordains, ‘can serve as a guide and inspiration to the future for India and the polity.’
In order to drum up support for Hindutva as the basis not just of Indian nationhood but even of every single Indian’s personal identity, Swamy and his ilk have to deal, somehow or the other, with the enormous dark spots that mar Hindu history, particularly with regard to caste and Brahminism. In true Hindutva tradition, Swamy’s method of confronting these bitter historical truths is either to ignore them completely, to twist them in a manner calculated to proving precisely the opposite of what they plainly convey, or else to blame entirely Muslims for them.
Hindutva historiography is based on such convenient contrivances, and Swamy’s book is replete with them. Thus, he desperately declaims against the Aryan invasion theory, and insists, completely blind to ample historical evidence to the contrary that is amply present even in the Vedas, that Aryans and Dravidians never warred with each other. He flatly denies that the latter were subjugated by the former and then turned by them into Shudras and Chandals. This denial is essential in order to portray Muslims as the real ‘invaders’ and the major source of all the ills of India as well as to stave off persistent Dalit critiques of Brahminism as Aryan supremacy in a religious garb forcibly hoisted on the original denizens of this land, whom the Aryans reduced to lower than sub-human status.
In order to rob assertive Dalit critics of the pride they take in the Indus Valley Civilisation, which they consider as pre-Aryan or Dravidian in origin and as having been destroyed by the marauding Aryans, Swamy imperiously announces, without citing any sensible sources, that recent historical researches have supposedly discovered that this Civilisation was Vedic in origin! In the Hindutva scheme of things, every good thing, it seems, must necessarily be a Brahminical invention! Even Buddhism, which, following Ambedkar, vast numbers of Dalits have embraced in their struggle for equality and self-respect, is sought to be denied its autonomy, and, instead, sought to be palmed off as, supposedly, merely a version of Hinduism. Swamy piously proclaims Buddhism to be simply ‘another colour or hue, in a many-splendoured thing that Hindutva is.’ In this way, Buddhism’s firm opposition to Vedic ritualism and Brahminical supremacism is completely effaced. Swamy attributes its decline in the land of its birth simply to the brutality of Islamic iconoclasts, conveniently ignoring the central role of Brahminical revivalists, who, like the Muslim conquerors, used violence on a wide scale to demolish Buddhist temples and slay bhikkus in vast numbers. That denial is necessary in order to reinforce the myth, which Swamy is at pains to reinforce, of Hinduism being the epitome of non-violence and tolerance.
Swamy’s firm commitment to Brahminical Hinduism leads him to refuse to recognize that untouchability and caste were a logical consequence of the very ideology which he so doggedly champions. Probably in order to stave off attacks against ‘upper’ caste Hindus and Brahminism by Dalits and other historical victims of the caste system, Swamy echoes a completely bogus theory that Hindutva ideologues have, of late, concocted and have been aggressively propagating. The Dalits of today, he announces, are actually descendants of brave Brahmins and Kshatriyas who refused to convert to Islam in the Muslim period, supposedly preferring social ostracism and ignominy in order to remain Hindus. As a punishment for thus defying the tyrannical Muslims, they were ‘made to carry night soil’. Hence, they were ‘disowned by other Hindus’ and declared to be Untouchables. So Swamy wants us to believe is the origin of the practice of Untoucahbility and the degradation of the Dalits.
Quite evidently, this completely fanciful theory, which has no merit at all in it, is carefully calculated to blame Muslims for the Hindus’ crime of treating Dalits as Untouchables. Simultaneously, it is geared to avoid the embarrassment of having to face the harsh reality of caste discrimination being entirely a product of ‘upper’ caste Hindus and their religion, as is clearly evidenced in Brahminical texts and scriptures that long predate India’s first brush with Islam. Swamy’s bizarre theory about the origins of the Dalits and untouchability seeks to set Dalits and Muslims, both victims of ‘upper’ caste oppression, against each other at the same time as it works to co-opt the Dalits under Brahminical hegemony.
Hindutva, ‘National Unity’ and Brahminism
Hindutva ideologues present themselves as the most ardent champions of ‘national unity’. This rhetoric of ‘national unity’ is generally deployed as a convenient guise clamp down on all dissent against ruling class/caste hegemony, including every challenge to Brahminism on the part of the oppressed castes. All such efforts are readily branded by votaries of Hindutva as alleged plots against India, which, in their minds, is synonymous with ‘upper’ caste interests. True to form, Swamy lambasts Dalit demands for separate electorates as divisive, although, as numerous scholars have pointed out, this would be a far more effective way for genuine representatives of the Dalits to emerge. Aware of the enormous popularity of Dr. Ambedkar among the Dalits, Swamy cannot avoid dealing with the fact that Ambedkar himself was a vociferous champion of separate electorates for Dalits, which Swamy considers as ‘anti-national’. And so, in true Hindutva fashion, Swamy conveniently distorts Ambedkar’s stance on the matter. Instead of acknowledging that Ambedkar was a firm supporter of separate electorates for the Dalits but that he was forced (or blackmailed, many Dalits would argue) by Gandhi into giving up the demand, Swamy terms the demand as a ‘sinister attempt’ on the part of the British to ‘divide the Hindu community on caste basis’, and speaks of Ambedkar’s ‘visionary rejection’ of it.
But Swamy’s deliberate distortion of Ambedkar does not stop there. Well aware that the most potent potential challenge that ‘upper’ caste hegemony faces is from increasingly assertive Dalits, Hindutva forces have been hard at work seeking to domesticate and co-opt the legacy of Ambedkar, the foremost critic of Hinduism and ‘upper’ caste hegemony, the unparalleled hero of the oppressed castes. Today, Brahminical forces, whom Ambedkar spent his entire life opposing, have incorporated Ambedkar into their pantheon of heroes in a bid to win over the Dalits under their fold and domesticate the challenge that Ambedkarite radicalism poses to ‘upper’ caste domination. This is no novel development, for throughout its history, Brahminism has been able to survive, spread and prosper in the face of all odds using precisely this method—of co-opting its rivals into its set of deities if it cannot defeat them directly.
Thus, brutally ignoring Ambedkar’s hard-hitting critique of Hinduism, Swamy, in true Brahminical fashion, pays him lip-service by insisting that Hindus must ‘honour him now as a great maharshi and co-opt his writings as part of the Hindutva literature’. At the same time, however, Swamy’s entire politics and ideology, as elaborated upon in his book, are intrinsically inimical to the project of Dalit liberation and the Ambedkarite vision. Swamy quotes Ambedkar on occasion, carefully selecting bits of his writings that appear to support Swamy’s vision of ‘national unity’ (just as he quotes from the Manusmriti, the Bible of Brahminism, which Ambedkar had consigned to the flames, as well). Yet, he cleverly avoids any reference to Ambedkar’s powerful criticism of Brahminism. He insists on calling Ambedkar a ‘Hindu patriot’, wholly blind to Ambedkar’s principled opposition to Hinduism, which led him to abandon the religion and embrace Buddhism instead, along with hundreds of thousands of his followers.
Hindutva Political Economy and the Caste Question
Swamy spells out in some detail the economic vision of the Hindutva-based state. Here, too, he clearly indicates how heavily such a state would weight against the poor, serving essentially as an instrument for protecting and promoting the interests of the dominant castes/classes.
The Hindutva state, Swamy lays down, must be ‘minimalist in regulatory interventions in social and economic matters’ and ‘maximalist in the maintenance of law and order, in opposing terrorism.’ This can easily be taken to mean that the state must not seek to interfere with the working of the market mechanism, which is heavily skewed in favour of the dominant castes/classes. In this scheme of things, if the state were to intervene in the working of the market in order to protect or benefit the poor, including in the form of affirmative action for the oppressed castes, it could easily be berated for allegedly exceeding its limits. This intervention might even be condemned as being anti-Hindu dharma, for, Swamy insists, ‘There is a negative correlation between the state’s coercive power and dharma.’ The main task of the state, then, it would appear, might simply be to prevent any challenge to the iniquitous status quo and to ruling caste/class hegemony—and this in the name of ‘maintaining law and order’.
Swamy prides himself in being supposedly a leading economist. His book makes it a point to mention that he is regularly invited to teach Economics at Harvard. He takes credit for the neo-liberal ‘reforms’ in the 1990s that have played such terrible havoc with the lives of India’s poor but have further fattened, far beyond their expectations, the country’s rich and their international backers. In the wake of the 1991 financial crisis, Swamy proudly declares, as India’s Commerce Minister he presented the first blue-prints for the ‘economic reform’ package that was adopted by the then Narasimha Rao government, which led, so he says, to an ‘economic boom’. This supposed father of India’s alleged ‘economic boom’ seems completely unmindful of the devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of India’s poor of the neo-liberal economic policies that he takes such pride in claiming to have ushered in. It is well-known that these policies have hit Dalits and Adivasis the worst, leading to their rapidly escalating overall impoverishment.
Swamy proudly announces that he has been critical of socialism, even at a time, so he says, when, in the 1970s, few intellectuals dared to publicly question it. This fits neatly with his stress on what he calls ‘class harmony’, which he claims is a ‘basic’ human instinct. He expresses his disgust with class-struggle, which he summarily dismisses as anti-human. Rather than admitting the existence of enormous class contradictions and urging that they be addressed, Swamy talks of the need to explore and develop ‘complementarities embedded in various conflicting interests in society’—or, to put it baldly, class-collaboration. In place of socialism he advocates what he calls a ‘Swadeshi Plan’, the details of which he conveniently leaves out. But we do learn that it is based on the so-called philosophy of ‘Integral Humanism’ of the late Deendayal Upadhyaya, leading ideologue of the RSS, and commentaries on it by the former RSS supremo Dattopant Thengadi. Swamy also confesses that his musings on the economy have been motivated by the former RSS head, ‘Guru’ Golwalkar, as well as his discussions with yet another former RSS boss, Sudarshan, whose advice on economic matters, he notes, he has incorporated in his book.
Swamy’s wants his readers to believe that the Hindu religion is ‘the liberator of mankind and is an engine of growth, prosperity and fulfillment for the individuals as well as for the society on a long term sustainable basis’. That it was precisely because of Hinduism that vast numbers of Dalits and Shudras have been consigned to grueling poverty for centuries completely escapes Swamy. His lengthy chapter on economic affairs, a field he has supposedly specialized in, contains nothing but pious and empty platitudes about the need to harmonise material and spiritual growth in order, supposedly, to abide by the laws of sanatana dharma. Curiously—or perhaps not so curiously—no mention at all is here made of the plight of the poor and of strategies to reduce the enormous socio-economic inequalities between classes/castes that are only increasing with every passing day. Presumably, these issues are of little or no concern to the Brahminists.
On the one hand, the poor, the Dalits, the Adivasis, find no mention at all in Swamy’s economic strategy, as contained in his chapter on economic development. But on the other hand, the cow, which Swamy hails as a ‘divine animal’, takes up almost half this chapter. This clearly reveals that the poor matter much less than cows in the Hindutva imagination. We are regaled with stories about the supposed divinity of the cow, of the animal being, in fact, ‘all that the sun surveys’, and of how, ‘without the blessings and help of the cow’, sinners ‘cannot swim across the Vaitrani river of hell’. We are informed about the supposed enormous merits of cow dung and urine, about alleged ‘scientific proofs’ that ‘suggest that only the milk of Bos Indicus, i.e. Indian breed of cows, has the desired health promoting properties’, about the need for a total ban on cow slaughter, about a former RSS chief meeting with ‘gobhakta’ industrialists and appealing them to set up ‘cow-based industries’, and about the urgent need that Swamy feels for a ‘a new fervor […] to create a cow-renaissance in the nation’.
What does the economic vision that Swamy spells out for the Hindutva state mean for the hundreds of millions of India’s pathetically poor, mostly Dalits and other historically oppressed castes? Briefly put, Swamy’s opposition to state intervention in the economy, his advocacy of market-oriented policies in the name of ‘economic reforms’ and, more than that, his deafening silence on the plight of the poor all simply mean that as far as the poor are concerned they can expect nothing from Hindutva but further pauperization and mounting socio-economic inequalities. Land reforms and redistribution of assets, basic democratic demands that are indispensable for empowering the poor and addressing the yawning gap between the dominant castes/classes and the dominated, would probably be totally ruled out, for Swamy harkens to what he calls the ‘Hindu concepts of trusteeship of wealth, philanthropy and voluntary group action’. He expects us to believe in the efficacy of the thoroughly-discredited Gandhian theory of trusteeship as being able to address the question of poverty, wherein the rich continue to control productive resources but as trustees for the rest of society, supposedly in the name of helping the poor. Needless to say, the theory has never worked and never will, and today even most Gandhians might find it embarrassing to admit that Gandhi fervently championed it.
Swamy’s vision fits snugly in with the American imperialist global agenda. For all practical purposes, and despite his deafening rhetoric of national pride, Swamy advocates India’s surrender to American dictates and designs. That, he indicates, is the price it must pay if it India is to achieve the dream of becoming a ‘developed’ country. This, he argues, can happen ‘only through a globally competitive economy,’ which, he contends, ‘requires assured access to the markets and technological innovations of the United States and its allies.’ And, in turn, he revealingly adds, ‘This has concomitant political obligations which must be accepted as essential for national renaissance.’
Muslims and the Struggle Against Hindutva
To be fair to Swamy, much that he says on the Muslim question—and this occupies a major part of his book—is not wide off the mark. Some of his observations on general Muslim intolerance of non-Muslims are, to be fair, acute and compelling. Who can deny the strong streak of intolerance in most interpretations of the Semitic theologies that proclaim themselves to be the only way to please God and that declare the rest of humanity to be doomed to eternal perdition in hell? The phenomenon of Islamic supremacism and extremism cannot be denied, but, sadly, that is precisely what many Indian ‘secularists’ generally do in order to appear politically correct. And so I do not quite find myself comfortable in the company of those who rushed to condemn Swamy simply for his statements about Muslims and the undeniably real threat of Muslim extremism from across India’s borders.
Hindutva simply cannot be challenged simply by pointing out the dangers it poses to ‘secularism’ and, in particular, to Muslims, as our professional ‘secularists’ are wont to do. Indeed, given the grim reality of violent extremism in the name of Islam in India’s neighbourhood, such an approach to combating Hindutva can only strengthen its appeal to most non-Muslims, who are sure to accuse ‘secularists’ of double-standards and of being soft on or even completely ignoring Muslim extremism and intolerance.
As Swamy’s book clearly shows, while claiming to speak for all ‘Hindus’, Hindutva poses an immense danger not just to Muslims and other non-Hindus but also to the vast majority of the ‘Hindus’ themselves—the Dalits, the Adivasis, the Shudras. A revamped Brahminism, Hindutva is geared to shoring up and promoting the hegemony of the minority dominant caste-class elites. Accordingly, the challenge of Hindutva can be effectively met only be exposing its caste-class underpinnings and highlighting its ominous implications for the subaltern castes, in whose name it claims to speak. Only then can these castes be enthused to struggle against it. Till such time as our ‘secularists’ continue to harp on Hindutva as simply a threat to minority rights and secularism, the subaltern castes can hardly be expected to evince any interest in opposing it. This clearly indicates that the struggle against Hindutva needs to expand from simply being an anti-communal struggle or a struggle simply for secularism and minority rights (which is how mostly ‘upper’ caste ‘secularists’, indifferent, despite their democratic pretentions, to the issue of caste oppression and the menace of Brahminism, conceive it) to become part of the wider struggle for social justice for the oppressed castes and of their quest for emancipation from Brahminical hegemony.
Yoginder Sikand is Indian writer-academic and the author of several books on Islam-related issues in India.
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