Where Is The Hindu Social Reform Movement?

23/05/2016 7:09 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Hindutva organisations answer the problem of caste and untouchability by seeking to give Hindu pride to Dalits and OBCs. The effort has seen mixed results, but can’t be called successful by any standards.

What they never seek is confrontation and conflict, because that can’t be useful in bringing about Hindu unity. They have an easier way of bringing about Hindu unity: creating the fear of the cow-slaughtering anti-national Muslim.

The BJP’s outgoing Rajya Sabha MP, Tarun Vijay, stands out in this respect. For some time now, he has been plunging himself headlong into situations of caste conflict, not only commenting on them but seeking to intervene in ways that bring about resentment and retaliation from upper castes.

Asked if the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh would have a Dalit chief one day, he said it would happen some day since the organization didn’t practice caste discrimination.

For instance, in November last year, he visited a Dalit woman in Karnataka’s Kolar district on Bhai Dooj and made her his sister. The woman was a cook facing ostracism. Students refused to eat food cooked by her for the school’s mid-day meals. In her lonely battle, a Rajya Sabha MP’s intervention became a powerful message to local upper castes who have ostracized her.

Vijay introduced in the Rajya Sabha a private member’s bill that sought to give equal opportunity to Valmikis to become priests in Hindu temples, or any other profession with training, so as to bring them out of manual scavenging. Speaking in Pune recently, he described caste discrimination as “religious bigotry,” and asked upper caste Hindus to apologise .

Asked if the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh would have a Dalit chief one day, he said it would happen some day since the organization didn’t practice caste discrimination.

Truth is, the RSS is not even upper caste dominated. It is dominated by just one high caste, Brahmin. In its 90-year history it has had only one non-Brahmin chief, or sarsanghchalak.

That is also why it is rare for someone from the Hindutva fold to lead hundreds of Dalits into a temple they are not allowed in, knowing that the resulting confrontation could even spark violence.

When Tarun Vijay did so on Friday, making Dalits touch the ‘Dev Doli’ of the SIlgur Devta in Chakrata, Uttarakhand, a mob of upper castes retaliated with stone-pelting. He was hurt in his head and ear, admitted to hospital, his car thrown in a gorge.

Such violence and discrimination flies of the face of the claim that Hindus are “peace loving” as against those marauding Muslims. And it is very much a religious issue. The Devta is upset, say the upper castes in Uttarakhand about Tarun Vijay taking Dalits into the temple. They are now doing a nine days long “purification ritual” .

The conspiracy of silence around untouchability and caste discrimination comes from left, right and centre alike.

Conspiracy of silence

There are more than 340 temples in the Jaunsar-Bawar region of Uttarakhand where Dalits are denied entry. In November last year, three Dalits were assaulted and fined for entering a temple in Uttarakhand. Vijay took the three Dalits to meet the Uttarakhand governor. He wondered why those who returned awards and signed petitions crying over intolerance, were silent over this issue.

The conspiracy of silence around untouchability and caste discrimination comes from left, right and centre alike. Vijay is questioning the left-liberals but it is not as if prime minister Narendra Modi has been tweeting about this, or I&B minister Arun Jaitley has been writing Facebook posts.

The lack of social media outrage over the attack on Tarun Vijay is curious. The left-liberals didn’t go into overdrive, and the BJP’s “social media volunteers” were busy with other things.

Mostly, they would have you believe the only social reform issue in India is the Muslim Personal law.

One could similarly ask Tarun Vijay why his activism for caste equality is not taking him to BJP ruled states. He could go to Haryana for instance, where two Dalit children were recently burnt alive. It was supposedly a property dispute. Amongst the leading reasons for caste violence is land grab, or efforts to prevent Dalits from living in areas dominated by upper castes.

When he’s up and running again, he could go to this village in Madhya Pradesh where a Dalit student drowned trying to fetch water, because the teacher wouldn’t give him water like non-Dalit students after the mid-day meal.

He could go to this Gujarat village where the well in the Dalit basti has become dysfunctional. Dalit women line up before the well used by upper castes, but since it is part of a temple complex (“belongs to the goddess”), the Dalit women don’t go on to the platform of the well. Instead, they wait for upper caste women to take pity and fill their pots. This means the Dalit women wait for hours to fill their pots.

A bright student in Hyderabad lost his life because of the caste discrimination by Vijay’s fellow travellers, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, but Vijay sees it differently. Speaking recently in Chennai, Vijay said, "Rohith Vemula's letter to CPM leader Yechury exposed the anti-dalit mindset of the Left, which has not been answered by the pro-Afzal crowd."

But what does the ‘anti-Afzal’ crowd do? For the self-appointed guardians of the Hindu faith and Indian nationalism, there is only one caste issue, reservations. Sometimes they go further, like Rupa Subramanya asking “WTF is caste Hindus?”

If a Sufi shrine disallows entry to women, that will cause ‘national’ outrage, many column inches of gyaan and high-decibel TV debates.

Mostly, they would have you believe the only social reform issue in India is the Muslim Personal law. It is curious that those who claim to defend Hinduism from the onslaught of foreigners, have nothing to say about the daily violence and discrimination against Dalits by Hindus. They want Muslim social reform, but see no need for Hindu social reform beyond paying lip-service to Ambedkar.

“Who will change their hearts?”

They have nothing to say about the social boycott of 40 Dalit families in this Karnataka village. They can’t enter flour mills, or get potable water, or enter temples, but the only issues in mainstream national discourse are beef, Afzal, nationalism.

If a Sufi shrine disallows entry to women, that will cause ‘national’ outrage, many column inches of gyaan and high-decibel TV debates. But when Dalits are assaulted for daring to fold up their lungis while passing by an upper-caste settlement, that is for the inside pages of a local edition.

Paying for sweets in a shop in Agra, a Dalit child accidentally touches the hand of the Brahmin shopkeeper, who assaults him, goes to his house and beats up people there, including a pregnant woman. When you come across such news reports, you wonder, where is the Hindu social reform movement?

When there’s honour killing – an upper caste family in Tamil Nadu try to kill their own daughter, and hack to death their Dalit son-in law, you wonder if it is about the pro-Afzal brigade or the anti-Afzal crowd?

Who will change their hearts? When will that time come?”

Nagaraj Hettur, a Dalit activist in Karnataka’s Hassan city tries to rent a house.

‘What is your caste, sir,’ the owner asks.

Lying is not my thing because for the kind of social work I do, I appear on television or in newspapers from time to time. One day or the other the truth would be out.

SC (Scheduled Caste), I said.

The house owner’s face fell…

‘Sir, don't be offended but, I don't rent out to an SC,’ he said.

‘Why?,’ I asked.

‘My wife doesn't like it,’ he replied.

An angry Hettur called up his uncle, saying he wanted to file a case under strict anti-caste discrimination laws. Even after seeing 50 houses he didn’t find one landlord willing to give him a house. His uncle replied, ‘Without a change in mindset, nothing can be done. It is their house, they can give it to anyone they like.’

Hettur calmed down and dropped the idea of going to the police. But he wrote on Facebook, “Who will change their hearts? When will that time come?”

There is a vibrant Dalit movement, which challenges the hold of caste. But upper castes also need an anti-caste movement amongst themselves. If that is what Tarun Vijay seeks, he must stop framing the question in pro- and anti-Afzal terms. The communal-secular binary prevents us from talking about caste.

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