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Is Dalit a Hindu?

Very recently I participated in an international seminar in one of India’s prestigious universities. The topic was- Reflecting over the marginalized thinkers and traditions of India, particularly of Modern India. Eminent scholars and few activist scholars were part of this three day confluence. In one of the sessions, the issue of caste and dalit politics was discussed where I also read my paper and, subsequently, invited observations and queries over the issue in hand.

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 Topic of my paper was Caste, Tradition and Education in Jyotiba Phule’s thought: Some Reflections. As academics many of us, including me, discussed the issue citing books and references, as we mostly do in academics. After that discussion I felt that how caste fails academics also to understand caste in India! Two dominant narratives of caste in India are there. First narrative is the narrative of the oppressed, the lower and the lowest castes. Another narrative is of those who have persistently been accused of ‘being casteist’, the Brahmin castes in particular and upper caste Hindus in general. One can say that there are two classes of castes in India, i.e., Upper Castes’ class and Lower and lowest castes’ class.

Interesting aspect of this caste-class debate is that, after almost seventy years of independence, after having a heavy load of social legislation to eradicate the ill-impact of caste discrimination and marginalization, India still finds itself equally divided, as it can be seen in pre-independence times. One may argue against this observation while quoting that many rational minded people, belonging to upper castes, have started recognizing the importance of the inclusion of ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative-action’ in our polity, and hence, one can draw the inference that ‘caste-lines’ are not as prominent as it used to be in pre-independent India or India after Independence. Now, in India, after 1991- economic reforms, caste-based discrimination prevails, but it got milder, and a particular semi-urban and urban class have started to understand the futility of caste as a social variable. This class gives greater importance to economic development, education, employment etc. and hence is less-casteist. Some truth prevails in type of observation surely. But, if we try to understand this transformation from the kind of experiences we could have recently in Indian state, we may, simultaneously, have another perspective.

While living in 21st century, many of us who are living in semi-urban and urban areas, have started recognising the importance of education, employment, growth, and participant in the globalization process. In doing so, certainly one is more concerned in capability creation and enhancement to avail the benefits that globalization promises. Education has become the panacea.  But, strikingly, we find that a new form or newer forms of caste-discrimination are evolving. Another narrative, the dominant narrative, less spoken in public domain, league of upper castes, equally finds believing that there is no good in continuing with reservation policy. In carefully observed, one finds that this dominant class, when they reflect over ‘reservation and claim the futility of reservations in present times’, also suggest their mind-set about other social aspects of their thinking. If read carefully, one finds that ‘a latent dislike’ about socio-political patterns of lower castes is also visible in that thinking. And this type of mind-set is majorly responsible for many atrocities that occur with lowest castes in India.  This observation also leads to reconsider as to why those who are not Muslims, Christians, Sikhs etc. are considered Hindus. In its social context, religion, nation and state interact incessantly. In India, nation and state, had to fail in its deliverance, due to caste-conscious society. Recent killing of a dalit boy in a town in Vadodara in Gujarat who happened to peep into the garba dance is a reflection and example of that kind of mind-set. Gujarat, being a state that always believed in development, not in recent past in its long history as well. Why does it happen there? Caste discriminates and discriminates in newer and newer forms.

Scholars and activists have their limitations. Education gives us tools to substantiate what we believe in. Mostly, in the case of caste scholarship, it can be seen that scholars and activists have been found successful in substantiating their ‘narrow’ outlook. But this has damaged the possibility of reaching out at a social consensus to eliminate not caste but caste-based atrocities, marginalization, human rights violations and observe the spirit of Indian constitution.  We need to count them the part of society, of Hindu society. When dalits say that they are Hindus, possibly much of the burden of scholars and academics would be eased out and nation and state would be direct beneficiary of that. Let us treat dalits as Hindus, let them be the part of same garba, much of caste atrocities would wither away on its own.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Prof Ravi Saxena

The author is an Assistant Professor (Political Science) in NMIMS, Mumbai.

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