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Co-opting Dalits into the Hindutva Fold

Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis edited by Anand Teltumbde

Co-opting Dalitsinto the Hindutva Fold

Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis

edited by Anand Teltumbde; Samya, Kolkata, 2005; pp 312, Rs 500.


he following happened in Vaso village (Nadiad), Gujarat – the laboratory of Hindu Rashtra. When Gandabhai Manabhai, a dalit, died on August 17, 2006, upper-caste Hindus did not allow his family members to perform the last rites at the panchayat-run crematorium. A notice at the site pronounces: “Members of lower castes like harijan, rohit, vankar, vaghri, tadpada, rawal, bajaniya, saneva and chamar should take their dead to other locations.” This speaks how caste Hindus do not spare a dalit even after his death; imagine the plight during his life time. Ironically, the same discriminated dalits willingly became foot soldiers of modern political Hinduism –Hindutva – during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. In this context, Anand Teltumbde’s edited volume Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis makes a significant contribution by interrogating two major questions: first, how Hindutva, defender of hierarchical Hindu traditions, strategically co-opts dalits by offering deceptive discourses and practices to achieve its larger political objective; second, what are the compelling reasons which push dalits towards Hindutva, a communal ideology with distinct anti-dalit content.

K N Panikkar, in his perceptive foreword, identifies two precise objectives behind Hindutva’s overtures towards dalits: first, to expand the BJP’s electoral base; and second, to forge a broad consolidation of Hindus in order to achieve this political objective. Vulnerability of dalits to Hindutva politics has a variety of explanations. First, as Panikkar rightly suggests, dalits and adivasis, who traditionally lived with a sense of deprivation in the margins of Hindu cultural life, find “Hinduisation” attractive; when Hindutva invites them to be part of a larger and “superior” tradition, many of them accept it with a sense of pride. The Sangh parivar has been effectively manipulating this cultural quest of dalits and adivasis by sanskritising their social customs and worship patterns. Second, globalisation and deradicalisation of dalit politics further accentuate this vulnerability.

Call of Hindutva

This volume has two sections: Theoretical Perspective and Hindutva in Operation. However, the articles, mostly written by some serious scholar-activists, really do not make a neat separation between theory and practice and that makes the volume more refreshing. Shamsul Islam analyses how Hindutva ideologues – from Savarkar and Hedgewar to Golwalkar and Deendayal

– swear by Manusmriti, a notoriously antidalit and anti-women text. Though Savarkar strongly subscribed to ‘chaturvarna’ and casteism, yet he pleaded for the eradication of untouchability and dalit temple entry primarily to counter their conversion to Islam and Christianity. Savarkar also anticipated their utility as Hindutva’s footsoldiers in the anti-Muslim riots. Golwalkar, rearticulating Manu’s concept of ‘Virat Purusha’, defended Hindu caste hierarchy; for him, caste was a glorious institution in the past, and unfortunately, its dismantling facilitated the spread of Muslim rule. Like Savarkar, he also denounced untouchability; but his anti-dalit world-view was apparent when he strongly reacted to the provisions of reservation guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Deendayal Upadhyaya, another prominent Hindutva ideologue, also found the caste system natural as well as practical. Hence, Hindutva’s dalit discourse has hardly changed the core arguments of Manu, argues Islam; when some dalits were lynched in Jhajjar (Haryana), the VHP leader Giriraj Kishore found the life of a cow more precious than the life of a dalit!

Despite its inherent anti-dalit character, Hindutva has been projecting an illusory casteless Hindu society. Anand Teltumbde finds that many dalits are falling prey to this illusion as they are neither familiar with their own rich history, nor aware of Hindutva’s deceptive character. As he argues, Hindutva would never favour annihilation of castes. Teltumbde tracks down Hindutva’s evolving strategy towards dalits; how it cultivated dalit elites initially, and later targeted the dalit masses. Besides, Hindutva also played the game of divide and rule, thereby impeding the emergence of a collective dalit identity. For instance, Bal Thackeray’s call for ‘Bhimshakti-Shivshakti’ collaboration and his deliberate projection of a distinction between Ambedkarites (Naubuddhas) and other dalits worked to the advantage of Hindutva politics; certain sections/castes of dalits, which did not identify with Ambedkar, responded positively to his appeal and readily became the foot soldiers of the Shiv Sena.

Teltumbde finds a close connection between the two powerful ideologies of our times: religious fundamentalism (Hindutva) and globalisation (neoliberalism). As he observes, both Hindutva and neoliberalism have similar ideological traits which uphold unbridled Social Darwinism, completely ignoring the weak, the poor and the powerless; both consider inequality as natural and allow liberty only to a select few. Teltumbde warns, as the adverse impact of globalisation shall be inversely proportional to one’s position in the socioeconomic scale, dalits being the lowest in the scale shall obviously become the worst victims. With the ascendancy of neoliberalism their living conditions would not only deteriorate sharply, it would also embolden Hindutva to perpetuate their oppression further.

Contrary to this perception, Hindutva, however, makes a conscious effort to reach out to the dalits. Balasaheb Deoras, the third chief of the RSS, took some concrete steps in this direction. Deoras might not have made any ideological revision but he certainly introduced many progressive programmes vis-a-vis dalits, shedding Hindutva’s narrow brahminical character. Deoras consciously reached out to different castes/classes/regions through various fronts – of the Sangh parivar. The RSS included Ambedkar in its daily prayer and created affiliates like the Saamjik Samarasata Manch (SSM) and Seva Bharati to work among the dalits. Hindutva also made attempts to appropriate Ambedkar ideologically and politically. Suhas Palsikar made an excellent analysis of this appropriation while examining Hindutva. The RSS cleverly set aside the radical transformative legacy of Ambedkar and projected Ambedkar as a Hindu social reformer. The

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

objective behind such formulation further aimed at portraying Ambedkar as anti-Muslim in order to unite the dalits and caste Hindus against the Muslims.

Hindutva claims that Ambedkar’s choice of Buddhism was essentially Hindu. Sandeep Pendse, however, argues that Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism was a complete rejection of Hindu religion, caste system and ideologies of purity and pollution; it did not leave any space for accommodation, or compromise. If such sharp contradictions existed between Hinduism and the dalits, then how could Hindutva get a foothold among the latter? Sandeep Pendse contextualises this in the backdrop of the fragmentation of dalit politics. In Maharashtra, where the seeds of dalit politics germinated and flowered, Ambedkar’s writ did not run over the entire community; the Congress always had a considerable dalit constituency. In the post-Ambedkar era, dalit politics had a setback when the RPI was split due to tactical differences and personal ambitions of the leadership. The Dalit Panthers, despite their radical ideology and militant organisation also followed a similar trajectory. Though emergence of the BSP in the Hindispeaking states was another milestone, less emphasis on ideology and over-dependence on charismatic-populist politics checkmated its expansion. While dalit NGOs remained obsessed with funding and international publicity, “autonomous” dalit intellectuals alienated themselves from the dalit masses. All these developments manifested a kind of political and ideological hollowness which made it easy for Hindutva to make inroads into the dalit universe.

Gopal Guru makes an insightful observation on Hindutva’s penetration into the dalit bastion. As Guru explains, the public sector not only provided material security to many dalits, but also gave them psychological confidence to resist upper caste domination; with its dismantling, employment is rapidly shrinking and the expanding private sector is unwilling to open its doors to them. Hence, they fall back upon Hindutva primarily for material gains. However, their material objective is very much intertwined with a cultural quest as well. When dalit youths take part in Hindu religious festivals it is not just for a little pocket money, but also for glamour, public visibility, and some kind of cultural satisfaction. The glamour of Hindutva’s culture industry with electronic and digital spectacle overshadows the philosophical, rational and moral rigour of Ambedkarism.

Hindutva’s cultural domination gets further reinforced as globalisation fails to provide any meaningful cultural alternative to the dalit youths, thereby compelling them to go for “subsidised satisfaction”. Hence, they fall prey to the promising cultural universe of Hindutva, which is more of a pragmatic choice rather than a substantive one. Hindutva conveniently transmutes the caste into the communal category where dalits become Hindus, forgetting their caste antagonism and adversarial identities.

On the question of dalit propensity towards Hindu communalism, particularly on their participation in the Gujarat riots, Guru makes a sharp critique on moral and philosophical grounds. Why should society expect secular commitment only from the dalits when no caste/class is immune from communal prejudices, he asks? However, he concedes that dalits have a moral responsibility to lead the fight against the majority communalism, albeit without justifying their secular credentials to anyone. Thus, Guru certainly does not shy away from the question of the Hindutvadalit nexus in the Gujarat riots, which he finds to be an outcome of globalisation and the lack of capital to create conditions for secularism. An organised dalit movement, with its radical and ideological content, always acted as a bulwark against Hindutva’s inroads into the dalit bastion. Maharashtrian dalits certainly could not be mobilised against the minorities because of Ambedkar’s ideological legacy, shared cultural practices (e g, beef eating) between them and the Muslims, and the primacy of the “social”. Moreover, as Guru observes, dalits discourse on dignity was equally relevant for the minorities as well. Even during the 2002 Gujarat genocide, as Guru claims, dalits took a firm pro-Muslim stand. Here he is bit carried away; the pro-Muslim stand by the dalits was perhaps too feeble.

Ram Puniyani, a strong critic of Sangh parivar’s communal politics, discusses Hindutva’s hidden agenda behind its socalled social engineering programme. Hindutva, he observes, is the new edition of Manusmriti, which aims to perpetuate the dominance of elite upper class/caste Hindus over the dalits. Citing the examples of the Hindutva supported anti-dalit riots in Gujarat in 1980 and 1984, Puniyani argues that the dalits have always remained Hindutva’s prime targets. However, since the 1980s, the Sangh parivar cleverly changed its strategy by replacing the dalits with the Muslims as its prime target and adopting social engineering to woo the former. Though dalits had always been its victims, Hindutva successfully used them against Muslims during the Gujarat riots. Puniyani argues that Indian Muslims, who were mostly former untouchables, have again become new untouchables due to Hindutva politics, ironically with the support of the dalits. Meena Kandaswamy observes that Hindutva not only favours caste hierarchy but also promotes patriarchy which would have a dangerous impact on dalit women. She fears that this would domesticate dalit women and rob them of the very liberty and equality they possess.

Across the States

The second section, on the basis of studies on many states, focuses on Hindutva’s operation among the dalits and examines how they are drawn to Hindu communal politics. Two studies need specific mention: Suhas Palsikar on Maharashtra and Subhash Gatade on Uttar Pradesh. Both these states are unique in the sense that while both Hindutva and dalit politics had their strong ideological roots in Maharashtra, it was Uttar Pradesh which showed them the path to political power. Palsikar concludes that in Maharashtra due to the political and ideological weakness of dalit politics Hindutva has made inroads into the space once occupied by the progressive forces. He rightly suggests that the issue of dalit-Hindutva alliance needs to be examined beyond the realm of electoral politics; it involves larger questions of hegemony and fascism which threaten to obliterate democracy and justice. Dalit politics in Maharashtra might have failed to checkmate Hindutva, but unlike Uttar Pradesh it certainly did not become Hindutva’s partner. Gatade accuses the BSP for subverting the dalit agenda by making an alliance with Hindutva purely for the sake of political power. Analysing the three spells of cohabitation that Mayawati had with the BJP, Gatade argues that Mayawati, who was firm and confident to start with, finally gave in to the communal politics of the Sangh parivar. The worst happened when she gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi and even campaigned for him in the Gujarat elections. Ramesh Kamble mentions that reckless pursuit of political power ironically compelled her to ally with the very Hindu upper caste forces whose hegemony the BSP wanted to demolish.

The volume has four articles on Hindutva’s southern operation. Shivasundar

Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007 observes that despite Ambedkar’s strong influence on the dalits of Karnataka, the radical promise of the late 1970s ran out of steam. Absence of progressive dalit mobilisation in the state, depoliticisation and deradicalisation of dalit consciousness made the task of Hindutva fairly easy. Besides, the Sangh parivar has undertaken many pro-dalit projects; for example, its ‘sikhsha abhiyan’, funded by Infosys and Wipro, covers dalit children residing in 500 slums in Bangalore. The RSS distributes communal booklets free of cost to them in the name of education. The Sangh parivar organisations like the Bajrang Dal instigate the dalits to join anti-Muslim communal riots like the 2003 riots in Haveri, in which many Muslims lost their lives. Shivasundar finds that Hindutva’s influence among dalits is increasing in the areas facing acute economic crisis. K S Chalam traces the inroads of Hindutva into Andhra Pradesh to the onset of liberalisation and expansion of the service sector in urban areas after 1990. However, dalits in Andhra Pradesh, unlike other states, remained largely outside Hindutva as a majority of them have already got converted to Islam or Christianity. V Geetha attributes Hindutva’s growth in the state to the desecularisation of dravidian politics, Hindutva has consolidated its position among the dalits as dravidian politics gives preferential treatment to the backward castes vis-a-vis the dalits. T K Ramachandran and P T John discuss how Hindutvais making inroads into the tribal belt of Wyanad.

Navpreet Kaur, citing the example of the 2003 jat-dalit violent clash at Talhan makes an interesting observation in the context of Punjab; enhanced economic status of dalits does not guarantee them protection against oppression and discrimination. Anand Teltumbde and Subhash Gatade argue that unlike Maharashtra Gujarati dalits did not develop any dalit consciousness. Under Mahatma Gandhi’s “paternalistic” influence they perceived themselves as “harijans”– a part of Hindu community – and continued to submit to the hegemony of upper castes till 1980s which witnessed two severe anti-dalit riots. A nascent dalit consciousness was about to emerge; but Advani’s 1990 ‘rathyatra’ shattered that promise. Teltumbde and Gatade also examine Hindutva-dalit relationship in the context of economic crisis during the 1980s which severely deteriorated the living standard of dalits and Muslims. A sort of economic competition began between them and Hindutva conveniently converted it to communal clashes. Thus, the stage was set for their participation in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

This volume makes a bold attempt unfolding the contradictions and collaborations between dalits and Hindutva, from the vantage points of theory as well as practice. Though it is impossible to cover Hindutva-dalit interface in all the states in one volume, still there are some notable omissions like Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan, where Hindutva has carved out a dalit constituency. Secondly, analysis of certain states seems to be less rigorous and less nuanced. Thirdly, as some contributors construct dalit politics in the ideological prism of Marx and Ambedkar, they obviously become dismissive of the BSP, denying it the lead role in dalit politics. True, the BSP has compromised with Hindutva in the past and woos the brahminical forces at present; however, it has still not exhausted its secular potential which could be an asset in any struggle against Hindutva. On the whole, this work provides volumes of information and someexcellent analysis on the questions of caste and Hindu communal politics in India.



Economic and Political Weekly May 19, 2007

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