And The Defence Of
'Upper' Caste Hegemony
By Yoginder Sikand
13 October, 2006
ideology and politics of Hindutva are geared to protecting and promoting
the hegemony of 'high' caste Hindu elites. The twisted logic of 'Hindu
majoritarianism' is deployed in the service of the immensely powerful
'high' castes, who form only a minority of the 'Hindu ' population.
Claiming to speak on behalf of all 'Hindus', Hindutva formations have
made no bones about defending 'upper' caste privilege.
This is clearly evident in
their opposition to caste-based reservations, although, from time to
time, some Hindutva leaders, driven by political compulsions, may appear
to support protective discrimination for Dalits, Adivasis and the Other
Backward Classes (OBCs). But on the issue of extending such provisions
to 'low' caste Muslims and Christians, who form the vast majority of
the Indian Muslim and Christian population, Hindutva ideologues are
unanimous in their vehement opposition. They have stiffly denounced
moves to extend caste-based quotas to these groups, although these communities
continue to be discriminated against and are among the poorest of India's
poor. They argue that since Islam and Christianity do not sanction caste,
'low' caste Muslims and Christians have no right to be treated by the
state on par with 'low' caste 'Hindus' for purposes of affirmative action.
A good illustration of this
distorted logic is an article by a Hindutva polemicist Sandhya Jain
that appeared some months ago in the Organiser , the official mouthpiece
of the RSS (23 July 2006). Titled 'Minorities Cannot Ask for Caste Quotas',
the article denounces proposals for reservations for 'low' caste Muslims
and Christians. Caste, Jain writes, going against what Hindutva apologists
otherwise often insist about caste being allegedly alien to Hinduism,
' is the building block of Hindu society'. The romanticized picture
of the caste system that she goes on to paints is deliberately designed
to conceal its horrors, including the cruel oppression of the 'low'
caste majority that receives sanction from the Brahminical religion.
Jain describes the caste
system as a means by which 'the myriad groups of the Indian landmass
were historically integrated into a cultural and social unity, which
nevertheless respected the diversity of their beliefs and practices'.
No talk here, of course, of the cruel subjugation of the bodies and
souls of the 'low' caste majority that provided the very foundation
of the system which Jain so lyrically extols. And, of course, her claims
about the 'cultural and social unity' that the caste system allegedly
engendered are even more outrageous. As anyone who has read the classics
of Hinduism would know, the 'low' castes were forbidden, on pain of
severe punishment, to learn the Vedas or Sanskrit, don the Brahminical
thread, enter temples and so on. And even today, violations of the iron
law of caste in large parts of rural India can invite punishment by
slaughter. In no sense did any feeling of 'unity' that Jain talks of
even remotely exist between the different castes, who existed in a state
of mutual repulsion bound together by intricate rules of 'purity' and
'pollution' devised by the Brahmins that kept the exploitative system
intact. In other words, the different castes were forced to be and remain
different, and in no sense could they said to be collectively a 'social'
or 'cultural' unity.
So far does Jain seem to
go in her passionate defence of caste that she denounces critiques of
the system as a conspiracy, finding no merit in their arguments. Hence,
she claims that 'concerted intellectual attacks upon caste, in both
the colonial and post-colonial phases' stem from a realization that
it is the caste system that has prevented mass conversions to Islam
and Christianity. Without considering their arguments, she appears to
generalise about all critics of the caste system, seemingly suggesting
that they are all motivated by missionary zeal to deplete Hindu numbers.
Faced with the brutal reality
that Hinduism has, for centuries, provided theological sanction to caste
and caste-based brutalities, 'upper' caste Hindu apologists, including
Hindutva ideologues, sometimes react by claiming that caste is foreign
to 'true' Hinduism, which, they argue, has no room for discrimination.
This argument is, of course, completely fanciful. But when faced with
demands for extending caste-based affirmative action policies to 'low'
caste Muslims and Christians, these apologists for Hinduism completely
reverse their stance. Caste, they now insist, is integral to Hinduism,
and since only Hinduism or Hindu society has sanctioned caste-based
discrimination, affirmative action policies cannot be extended to Muslims
and Christians. Thus, Jain argues, 'Caste does not exist in the theology
of Christianity or Islam'. Hence, she says, 'they cannot be allowed
to make a political expedient of caste and use it to undermine Hindu
society from within'. By conflating the theory of Islam and Christianity
with their practice she seeks to deny the legitimacy of demands for
affirmative action to 'low' caste Muslims and Christians, who, although
they identify with theoretically egalitarian faiths, continue to face
varying forms of discrimination both within their own religious communities
as well as the larger society.
Since Jain sees caste as
unique to Hindu society, she denounces what she calls efforts 'to snatch
caste-based quotas from Hindus and extend them to Muslims and Christians'.
But that does not mean that she enthusiastically welcomes such quotas
for those 'low' castes that are treated as 'Hindus' by the state. She
appears too much of an ardent Hindutvawadi to look kindly on any such
move that might threaten to undermine 'upper' caste privilege. Thus,
in order to discredit current demands for quotas for OBCs in educational
institutions, she claims, without adducing any proof, that 'there is
currently a welcome review among the OBCs themselves about the desirability
of reservations in academia'. Worse still, her irrepressible hostility
to protective discrimination drives her to declare that 'Hindu society
as a whole perceives the current move as a ruse to divide the society
in conflicting caste camps'. By 'Hindu society' Jain presumably means
the 'upper' caste minority, for no major Dalit or OBC leader, social
movement or political organisation has opposed caste-based affirmative
action. Obviously, and this reflects the general 'upper' caste Hindu
way of imagining the world, the 'upper' castes are here automatically
presumed to be the authoritative spokespersons of ' Hindu society as
a whole'. 'Upper' caste interests are thus easily projected as the interests
of all 'Hindus'.
Presumably, the 'low' caste
majority could well be damned. Making no effort to conceal her defence
of 'upper' caste privilege, Jain goes on to denounce talk of extending
caste-based affirmative action to the private sector on the grounds
that this would lead to the 'disempowerment of India's assertive and
upwardly mobile educated middle class', which, needless to explain,
is almost entirely 'upper' caste in composition.
As Jain's diatribe against
caste-based affirmative action clearly reveals, talk of Hindutva as
the ideology of 'Hindu communalism' is completely misleading. It must
be identified as a political project geared to promoting essentially
the interests of the 'upper' caste ruling minority, while using the
logic of 'Hindu majoritarianism'. It is as much of a menacing threat
to the Bahujan majority—Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised
and oppressed castes—as it is to non-Hindu Indians.
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