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India: The reactionary present

by Ananya Vajpeyi, 6 October 2015

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The Hindu - 6 October 2015

Under a government of the Hindu Right, India is witnessing yet another phase of reaction and orthodoxy, a return to medieval Brahminical values that seek to monopolise rights for a select few and turn everyone else out of the body politic.

Ever since Mandal and Mandir in the early 1990s, conflicts arising from caste politics and from religious politics have been treated as separate types of problems, with distinct causes, logics and effects. This separation of “casteism” and “communalism” can be seen both in the specialist discourses of social science and in popular perception. So we might regard the massive Patidar agitation for reservations under Hardik Patel’s leadership in Gujarat as unrelated to Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, by a Hindu mob, on the suspicion that there was beef in the refrigerator of his Muslim household. Both events unfold simultaneously in different parts of India, but thanks to our analytical bad habit of separating matters of caste violence from matters of communal violence, we fail to see the direct connection between them.

The connection, which it is high time we brought out of the shadows, is Hindutva. Hindu right-wing ideology is precisely what undermines or worse, aggressively attacks the very foundations of equality and egalitarianism in India, be it between castes, between religious communities, between majority and minority groups, or between men and women. The Hindutva world-view is opposed to the central idea enshrined in our Constitution that all Indian citizens, regardless of caste, gender, religion, ethnicity, language or culture, are absolutely equal and equally entitled to the fundamental rights of citizenship. Indians have elected to power a party whose core beliefs unapologetically militate against the equality, liberty and fraternity that we adopted as the basis of our nationhood at the promulgation of the Constitution in 1950.

The origins of caste

The domain of religion, philosophy, literature, arts and everyday life that falls under the umbrella of “Hinduism” is vast and varied. We find attestations for every imaginable type of human behaviour and social practice from the earliest recorded history of peoples who might be described as “Hindus”. But an important and historically salient stream of Hindu belief takes hierarchical social structure to be as organic and intrinsic as the natural order of the universe.

In the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda (10:90:1-16), social hierarchy originates together with and at the same moment as the very creation of the world, through the sacrifice of the body of the Primeval Man, Purusha. From the sacrifice of his head come Brahmins; from his arms, Warriors; from his thighs, Freemen; and from his feet, Servants (RV 10:90:12). The cosmogonic hymn that describes how the gods created the cosmos through a sacrificial ritual, occurring in the very earliest text of Sanskrit that is available to us, the Rig Veda, datable in its current form to roughly 1000 BC, naturalizes an unequal social order.

The layers of this four-tiered society come to be called varna, literally “color” or “hue”, not in the narrow sense of the pigmentation of the human skin (denoted by race), but in the broader sense of a striation or class in a hierarchical order that goes downwards from the most to the least powerful groups. In the dharmashastra tradition, a body of influential texts in the enormous and heterogeneous repertoire of Sanskrit, including ancient legal treatises by hoary authors like Manu, Gautama, Apastamba, Yajnavalkya etc., the notion of varna-dharma is taken up and developed. This is the normatively prescribed ideal where identity, group-formation, relationships within and between varna strata, occupation, indeed, the entire social structure, all flow from the proper definition, arrangement and regulation of the four parts.

Throughout the first millennium, the combined effects of Buddhism, Islam and various materialist, heterodox and atheistic schools of thought and life that flourished on the subcontinent continually counteracted the influence and prestige of the Brahminical social construct, with varna-dharma as its central artifact. The rigid hierarchy laid out by Brahmins in the dharmashastra texts existed as theory, but did not necessarily prevail in practice.

However, by the second millennium, when a growing number of rulers, ministers, philosophers, saints, poets and other prominent members of society were either Muslims, tribals, lower castes, outcastes, women or those completely unclassifiable within the Brahmin grid, we begin to see a revival and reassertion of the most orthodox aspects of dharma as caste hierarchy. In an extended period of reactionary social theory, from the 13th to the 17th centuries, a number of Sanskrit texts which reiterate and detail sudradharma are produced in Banaras, Mithila, Bengal and other parts of the Gangetic plain by families of Brahmin dharmashastra experts.

This is just one of dozens of topics in the Laws of Manu, but now it becomes a stand-alone subject, requiring book-length treatment. An entire corpus of new nibandha works, or digests, elaborates the dharma of the sudra, the class of servants or slaves that per the Rig Veda came from the feet of the sacrificial Purusha when the gods created nature and human society. This body of texts is produced throughout the ascendancy of the Mughal and Maratha empires, until the very eve of colonialism.

Adhikaara and Bahishkaara

The assertion of the preeminent status of Brahmins, of the superiority of the three higher varna classes relative to the sudra, and of the inferior place of the sudra and ati-sudra (the stratum of people who are lower even than the lowest layer of this hierarchy, those cast out altogether from the caste system), rests on two paired principles: adhikaara, or priority, and bahishkaara, or exclusion. The right to Vedic study, to sacrificial performances, to ritual rebirth into higher dvija (“twice-born”) status, to the utterance of sacred mantras and to Sanskrit doctrinal knowledge more generally, is adhikaara, a form of authorization, a proprietary entitlement, ideally open only to Brahmins, and with caveats allowed to the two middle classes of the kshatriya and the vaishya varna.

But these rights, rites, entitlements and resources, these forms of self-improvement, are all prohibited for the sudra, and not even thinkable for the outcaste. The sudra is bahishkrita — excluded, exiled, restricted outside — with respect to the gated confines of religion, ritual, higher learning, and eventually the physical boundaries of the settled community itself. Proprietary control for some and marginalization for others are two sides of the same coin, the coin of a resurgent and bellicose varna-dharma that we see come back to the learned Sanskrit discourse of power and knowledge, the juridical realm of dharmashastra, at the height of the medieval period.

A corollary of the dvija’s exclusive access to the idioms of prestige and privilege is the denial of the same to women. The woman is equated with the sudra: stri-sudra samaanata is a basic axiom of sudradharma. This means that along with being authoritarian from a caste perspective, this discourse is also unequivocally patriarchal. Women are kept out of religion and education; they too are denied all forms of social capital. Whatever the stock counter-examples of the wives of the great Vedic rishis in antiquity, erudite female intellectuals like Maitreyi and Gargi, for most women in real life, according the Brahminical texts, vaunted Sanskrit knowledge is off limits.

India’s colonization by the British and the consequent struggle for decolonization, between the 18th and the 20th centuries, brought vast changes to the way caste was understood, by both the people and the state. But what we are witnessing today, under a government of the Hindu Right, is yet another phase of reaction and orthodoxy, a return to medieval Brahminical values that seek to monopolise rights for a select few and turn everyone else out of the body politic and the social compact.

Old discrimination, new inequalities

Adhikaara is once again usurped exclusively for Hindus, men and upper castes. All others are shown their place as second-class citizens. This marginalisation is effected through new forms of bahishkaara, which extend from the language of insult and injury, including trolling and online abuse, to intimidation, physical and sexual violence, and ultimately assassination and genocide.

Right-wing Hindu NRIs speak of the adhikaara to study Indic knowledge systems and Indian history, which according to them belong only to Indians, Hindus and those representing “The Tradition” (howsoever dubious their definition or mistaken their grasp of “tradition”). Foreigners, Muslims, Christians and critical or dissenting voices, even among Hindus, and especially from women scholars, are summarily dismissed through gestures of bahishkaara, which can range from mildly obnoxious to utterly offensive to seriously threatening. The recent silencing of Perumal Murugan, the murders of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi, and the relentless harassment of American Sanskritists like Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock and Richard Fox Young are clear instances of this atavistic calculus of priority and exclusion at work.There is no compromise possible between the framework of inalienable dignity, equal citizenship and universal human rights, and the scheme of varna-dharma, adhikaara and bahishkaara. You can either erect a Hindu Rashtra that is already always a caste society and a patriarchy, or you can build an egalitarian, secular, pluralist and inclusive India. Our founders chose modern Constitutional values over authoritarian norms of ancient vintage, precisely to enable a deeply hierarchical society to become the world’s largest democracy.

The first step in protecting our Constitution is to recognise the seamless continuum between caste-based discrimination and communal hatred that provides the very plinth of Hindutva. This unequal, monopolistic, disrespectful, patriarchal, hate-filled and exclusionary ideology is no foundation for a nation that all of us, women as much as men, Muslims as much as Hindus, and Indians regardless of caste, could call our own.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India.)

P.S.

The above article from The Hindu is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use