Reluctant outreach has informed the attitude of Hindutva organisations to the Dalit question in the last century.
On December 6, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah paid tributes to B.R. Ambedkar on his death anniversary at the party office in the capital.
This happened days after the government fondly recalled Dr. Ambedkar, in his 125th birth anniversary year, in a discussion in Parliament on his contribution to the Constitution. Months before this, Organiser — popularly seen as a mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — brought out a special edition on the life and contribution of the Dalit icon, who was also India’s first Law Minister, and one of the key architects of the Indian Constitution.
But there have been jarring notes in between.
Union Minister General (retd.) V.K. Singh recently put the BJP in trouble by using a “dog analogy” when asked about the deaths of two Dalit children in Haryana from severe burns after their house was set on fire, allegedly by upper caste men.
Another Minister, Piyush Goyal, also courted controversy in Parliament when he dubbed as “manufactured discrimination” the Congress’s Dalit leader Kumari Selja’s assertion that she was asked her caste when on a visit to a temple in Gujarat. Her taunt that this, too, was the “Gujarat model” — a shorthand for governance in the BJP’s lexicon these days — annoyed many BJP members. Mr. Goyal did express regret later to cap the controversy.
Calibrating Dalit outreach
Reluctant outreach has informed the attitude of Hindutva organisations to the Dalit question in the last century. They want to reach out to prevent Dalits from embracing other religions, but they are aware that their core constituency is upper caste. But attempts at outreach are a must, as Hindutva — seen as a century-old movement to organise Hindus vis-à-vis Islam and Christianity — would lose its claim to represent Hindus without Dalit presence. The problem gets compounded as educated Dalits see representation as central to their politics. They demand government jobs, key policy-related posts and quotas in the private sector, where many jobs are shifting.
Many upper castes, often BJP supporters today, are hostile to quotas, making them take positions against those taken by educated Dalits. Hindutva has to negotiate this paradox, which explains why RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently sought a review of who should get quotas and the BJP promptly distanced itself from the statement.
The outreach, thus, has to be a cautious one and largely symbolic.
This problem — of having to calibrate Dalit outreach to the sensitivities of upper-caste supporters—isn’t specific to Hindutva proponents; even the Congress found that its bid to enrol Dalits during the days of Mahatma Gandhi’s Harijan programme 80 years ago wasn’t easy. While work among the then “untouchables” was seen as crucial, the organisation could not radically address the caste question from its platform so as not to alienate upper caste Hindus from the freedom struggle it was steering.
The mainstream parties’ Dalit outreach thus acquires a symbolic character. Both the Congress and the BJP celebrate Dr. Ambedkar today but would not be willing to implement many demands of educated Dalits, such as reservation in the private sector.
Root of untouchability
But the outreach on the part of the Sangh Parivar has an aspect not found elsewhere — the bid to trace untouchability to the arrival of Islam, thus blaming Muslims for the Dalits’ plight. This is a position historians do not take seriously.
In the Organiser’s special Ambedkar edition, RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal did precisely this. “He (Dr. Ambedkar) says untouchability encrypted Hindu society 12 to 13 hundred years ago,” Mr. Gopal wrote. “The first instance… can be seen in the family of Dahir. Dahir lost the war against Islamic aggressors. When the invaders entered his palace, the women of his family said, ‘They are coming. They are mlecchas (meaning dirty or bad). They will touch us and we will be impure. We should kill ourselves…’ This is the first reference to untouchability.” Dahir was the last ‘Hindu ruler’ in Sindh and parts of west Punjab.
This, however, is completely at odds with Dr. Ambedkar’s own reading of the origin of untouchability. “Can we fix an approximate date for the birth of untouchability? I think we can, if we take beef-eating, which is the root of untouchability, as the point to start from… The date of the birth of untouchability must be intimately connected with the ban on cow-killing and on eating beef,” the seventh volume of his speeches and writings edited by Vasant Moon states. “Cow-killing was made a capital offence by the Gupta kings some time in the 4th century AD… Untouchability was born sometime about 400 AD. It is born out of the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism.” In other words, Dr. Ambedkar lays the blame for untouchability on the ancestors of today’s Hindus and relates it to cow protection, an agenda that the Sangh Parivar takes seriously.
BJP spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shastri, however, has a different reading of the origin of untouchability. He told The Hindu that today’s Dalits were those Brahmins and Kshatriyas who refused to accept Islam at any cost: “Some Brahmins and Kshatriyas decided they would not accept Islam at any cost — even if they died. To destroy their dharmabhiman (religious pride), swabhiman (self-respect) and rashtraabhiman (pride in nationality), they were forced into carrying the night soil and engage in leather-work. This is how Scheduled Castes were created.” In this reading — which flies in the face of professional historical research — the Dalit somehow becomes a Hindu warrior against Islam.
The upper caste Hindu outreach to Dalits — be it on the part of the Congress, the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha figures — began more than a century back. The threat of religious conversions and the imperatives of the colonial census brought the Dalit question to the forefront. For those in the Congress, there was an additional need to engage Dalits: they did not want this section of society to ally with the colonial state against the Congress.
One Colonel U.N. Mukherji from Bengal wrote a book, Hindus — A Dying Race, in 1909, in which he expressed the fear that the Hindus would be extinct in a little over four centuries because of conversions.
Swami Shraddhanand — the Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha leader associated with mass Shuddhis (“purification”) of Dalits to win them social acceptance — had met Colonel Mukherji in Calcutta in 1912, where they discussed the colonel’s thesis, writes his biographer J.T.F. Jordens.
The conversion threats posed by normatively egalitarian religions such as Islam and Christianity made Hindus fear a loss of numbers. By this time, the colonial exercise of enumeration on religious grounds had produced a census mentality in which a community’s numerical strength had become synonymous with its power.
Small numbers of educated Dalits also used their numbers to their advantage. Adi (original people) movements came up in the 1920s across India — each claiming that upper caste Hindus were “Aryan invaders” and the Dalits “original Indians” and even successfully demanding that they be separately enumerated in the 1931 census with the prefix ‘adi’.
The 1930s saw Dr. Ambedkar champion the cause of Dalit representation. More than a decade later, the Indian Constitution accepted the principle of reservation — provided by the colonial state and the princely state of Kolhapur even earlier and accepted as a substitute for separate electorates in legislatures by the 1932 Poona Pact between the Congress and Ambedkar — as a cornerstone of social justice.
But, today, it is reservation itself that has alienated large sections of upper-caste youth, who believe it takes away their job opportunities.
The BJP can ill-afford to lose their support, as they are seen as its core support base. They are often sympathetic to Hindutva and are on the same page as the BJP on free market economic policies.
With greater representation in jobs being the key slogan of the Dalit middle class for decades now, it is difficult for the proponents of Hindutva to play ball without alienating their core voters.
JNU academic Badri Narayan says that while core RSS workers are conditioned to be sensitive to Dalit feelings, it is lateral entrants who sometimes lack the political astuteness to understand how an insensitive statement can generate heat.
It is this chunk — which has taken to the BJP in large numbers in recent years — that is part of the problem for the saffron party as far as the caste issue is concerned.