Skip to main content

Rise of 'new untouchables': Veteran academics trace roots of Hindutva in Gujarat

By Rajiv Shah 
A new book by two veteran academics, “Gujarat, Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics: India’s Injurious Frame of Communalism”, perhaps for the first time traces the roots of inter-religious strife leading to Hindutva’s political hold today, pointing towards the role played by so-called upper castes in a State known during the Independence movement for its composite culture -- though not without strong undercurrent of majoritarianism.
Authored by Jan Breman, professor emeritus of comparative sociology at the University of Amsterdam; and Ghanshyam Shah, retired professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and former director, Centre for Social Studies, Surat, and published by Tulika Books, the book gives researched evidence of how the construct of ‘we’ (Hindus) a versus ‘others’ (Muslims and Christians) took shape in Gujarat.
The process took shape following the “inclusion of the lower strata of the society, Dalits, Adivasis and other backward classes (OBCs)”, who were “inculcated with Brahminical values”. This was done to “homogenize the majority Hindu community”, leading to “communal Hindutva politics”, conceptualized as “religion-centric cultural community versus imagined others”, says Prof Shah.
Following Mahatma Gandhi’s call for constructive work, several idealistic youths, mainly from the upper castes (largely Brahmins and Vaniyas, and a few Patidars), and a very tiny middle class, opted to take up ‘seva’ of Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes as their lifelong mission.
While their programmes focused on the spread of education, on economic activities such as spinning, weaving and cottage industries, and on social reforms that included campaigns against the practice of untouchability, customs and rituals practised in everyday life, etc., their ‘social reform’ was embedded in Sanskritization among deprived communities.
While carrying out these programmes, they often evoked religious symbols, rituals and idioms of the community superimposed with Brahminical nuances. They often preached emulation of upper-caste customs as well as religious rituals and morale. “Removal of untouchability was on their agenda; it was however primarily confined to removing the taboo of physical touch rather than socio-economic discrimination and inequality”, says Prof Shah.
No doubt, their prayers and discourses, respect for all religions – Ishwar-Allah – was expressed, and on certain occasions, prayers of the Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions were recited, invoking harmony between different communities and individuals, as for Gandhi, all struggles against the British government were dharma yudhha, i.e. righteous war.
For instance, the Bardoli Satyagraha led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1928 was considered as yagna (ritual sacrifice), and people were asked to take a pledge in the name of god to support the struggle. The resolution regarding the undertaking of the Satyagraha was passed in a public meeting accompanied by recitation from the Quran and Hindu hymns.
At the same time, traditional social status and assumed nature of caste/community were eulogized and legitimized. Kshatriyas were persuaded that courage was their inherent character. The relationship between labourers and landlords was legitimized as sacred using the metaphor of a husband-wife relationship in which the latter performs the role of a pativrata (devoted wife), loyal to her husband. Patriarchal and feudal bonds were harped on, maintained and legitimized to preserve social status quo.
There were of course liberal Gandhians, mostly Congress socialists, who believed in plural Hinduism. They were non-practising Hindus or Muslims, and who worked among urban labourers, peasants and bonded labourers for demanding their fair wages and freedom. However, they were “humiliated and marginalized” by Sardar Patel. Though Gandhi was occasionally sympathetic to the views of the socialists, he was helpless to defend them against Patel’s command.
A third stream, which was part of the Congress till the mid-1930s, leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, in Gandhi’s opinion, were “conservatives” but liberal -- “very large-hearted and not anti-Muslim.” Writes Prof Shah, “With the weakening of the Khilafat–Non-Cooperation movement and withdrawal of the call for civil disobedience, this section lost faith in Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and Hindu–Muslim unity.”
While discourse and action related to civil disobedience or constructive work did not interest them, their main focus was restructuring and reorienting Hinduism like other institutionalized religions as conceived by the Arya Samaj, and they used this discourse to counter Islam and Christianity. They also started a campaign for expansion of gymnasiums for Hindu youths to strengthen their physique for self-defence to counter ‘enemies’.
There were, of course, “instances” of like Vasant and Rajab, Hindu and Muslim Congress workers, respectively, losing their lives in Ahmedabad riots in 1946, while trying to prevent the crowd. Some leaders like Darbar Gopaldas Desai in central Gujarat, Dayalji Desai, Jinabhai Desai in Surat, Chamanlal, Manilal Shah, Mehbub Kadari and Mridula Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, criticized the Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj for spreading hatred against Muslims.
Some of them even organized a hartal in Surat protesting the anti-Muslim propaganda of leaders of Hindu groups. They even received the support of Vallabhbhai Patel. “However, such cases were few and far in between. The average Congress worker maintained silence and expressed helplessness”, says Prof Shah. In 1941, Gandhi himself realized the ineffectiveness of Congress workers in maintaining communal unity. 
Till 1969, there was little involvement of the backward classes, especially Dalits, in whipping up anti-Muslim feelings
At places, he found them ‘as barbarous as the assailants’, untouched by ‘Congress non-violence’. When the Gujarat Congress secretary asked all those favouring such ‘violent resistance’ to ‘get out of the Congress’, well-known littérateur KM Munshi confessed to Gandhi that he was “not able to convince the numerous Hindus under his influence to defend themselves through ahimsa.”
When Gandhi told Munshi that the Congress was “conceived to be non-violent and truthful, and the Congress policy binds them [Congressmen] to non-violence in the struggle with the government as also in dealing with communal riots and the like”, Munshi resigned from the Congress, and Vallabhbhai Patel was not happy with Gandhi’s stand.
According to Prof Shah, during all these years, there was little involvement of the backward classes, especially Dalits, in whipping up anti-Muslim feelings. The participation of Dalits in the Hindu-Muslim communal riots of 1946, on the eve of the country’s partition, was hardly visible, despite the fact that several Muslims of Ahmedabad, particularly of the upper strata, were pro-Muslim League. Nor were they actively involved in the large-scale 1969 riots, in which 1,500 people, 90% them Muslims, lost their lives.
Following the 1969 riots, RSS became very active, with its number of shakhas multiplying. Even as taking up health relief and income generation welfare programmes on a regular basis, RSS coordinated functions with other Hindu sects like Swaminarayan, Swadhyay, Gayatri Pariwar, Pustimargis, and also, occasionally, caste organizations.
This was followed by what Prof Breman calls “a wheeling-and-dealing type of politicking” of 1980s, propelled by the Congress view that Gujarat’s four major sections -- Kshatriyas, Harijans (Dalits), Adivasis and Muslims -- would form a “comfortable” political majority. This was more “inspired by a vulgar competition for power”, something the Congress had to give up soon.
The upper-caste intelligentsia – teachers, students, and professionals like doctors and lawyers – launched an agitation when the government raised the reservation quota for OBCs from 10 per cent to 28 per cent. As a result, in 1981–82 and 1985–86, the higher castes in the city protested at the “positive discrimination” from which Dalits and other backward castes (OBCs) especially allegedly benefited.
However, what started as a middle-class campaign against the reservation policy favouring backward castes increasingly turned into a conflict between Hindus and Muslims. What followed were communal riots, in which hundreds died, an outcome of the “changed strategy” of the BJP, which now decided to mobilize rather than antagonize the subaltern castes.
In order to coopt the backward classes and Dalits, “Hindu consciousness” was sought to be invoked and symbols like the sword, trishul and swastika -- perceive these as emblems of Hindu identity -- began being deployed. This led sections of Dalits and other backward sections to follow the Sanskritization path.
All this happened, opines Prof Shah, against of backdrop of Gujarat lacking any significant number of radical and secular groups – the Left, Gandhians, liberals, socialists, etc. Nor has it witnessed an anti-Brahmin or backward caste movement. The influence of Gandhians who believe in catholic Hinduism, syncretic culture, tolerance and harmony, meanwhile, considerably sank.
The anti-reservation movement turned into communal conflict in other parts of Gujarat, too. In Surat, orgy of violence broke out in the second week of December 1992, in which Muslims living in the city became the exclusive target amidst the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya “by squads of Hindu zealots.” On receiving the news of events in Ayodhya, BJP rank-and-file celebrated the victory of mandir or masjid across Gujarat, including Surat.
“Eyewitnesses told of how already early in the morning on the day after Ayodhya, gangs had assembled in their localities to attack houses and other establishments which were known to be inhabited or owned by Muslims”, says Prof Breman, adding, “The official death toll of this cleansing operation stood at 185, more than half the total score in Gujarat, when I left the city in the middle of January 1993.”
Meanwhile, the call for homogenizing Hindu identity continued. It was found necessary to identify “outsiders” who were neither willing nor able to share in the awareness of the Hindu nation. These were Muslims and secular ‘unbelievers’. In Hindutva ideology, became became a class of new untouchables. The hatred previously reserved for the ‘untouchables’ has began being projected on to them.
“The Hindu ‘untouchables’ themselves, of course, have payed a price for their new ‘dignity’. The violence needed to keep the "others" outside the door was entrusted to those who traditionally found themselves at the bottom of the caste system. Consequently, the Dalits – the ‘oppressed’ – were over-represented in the mobs attacking the Muslims in Ahmedabad during the pogrom of 2002”, says Prof Breman.
Underlines Prof Shah, with rise in unemployment, casualization of labour and criminalization of politics in Gujarat, different social groups – upper and middle castes, Dalits and OBCs – and Gujaratis and non-Gujaratis, were “encouraged” by the ruling sections, including the police, during the 2002 riots – in which officially 1,044 died 223 were missing – to also indulge in looting at several places.

Comments

Abdulrahim Vohra said…
Your review is so excellent as it compel you to read this book fist.It gives the essence of this book in so depth with all aspect as you can easily understand the main purpose of the authors to write this books which is still engima the cause and reason for the deepest and vast spreadly specific belief and understanding towards one community. The review in lucid language gives entire picture of this book..
Unknown said…
It's been slow and gradual but it can't be denied that live roots always existed. The RSS and other Hindu groups worked on making these divions very sharp while the Congress was very lazy, busy enjoying the fruits of power.

TRENDING

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Examples of support to Hindu temples, scriptures, saints by 'Muslim' rulers galore

Siya Ram coin issued by Akbar By Bharat Dogra* At a time when the country as well as the world are passing through very difficult times leading to more urgent need for strengthening national unity for meeting several big challenges ahead, unfortunately disputes relating to religious places have been allowed to raise their ugly head once again. It is well-realized by now by many people that it is not historical facts but narrow considerations of political gain and spreading of fanatic ideas of intolerance which are behind such mischief, but due to the increasing threat of mob violence and patronage available at higher levels to groups spreading intolerance many people are reluctant to openly and fearlessly express their views. Hence there is urgent need for broad-based peace committees with wider social support to spread the message of communal harmony and to appeal against the dangers of spreading false messages regarding places of worship which can ultimate

This varsity succumbed to extra-academic mobocracy, 'ignored' Hindutva archives

By Shamsul Islam* Open letter to Sharda University vice-chancellor Sub: Discarding a Question on Linkages of Hindutva with Nazism/Fascism is blatant Academic Dishonesty! Dear Professor Sibaram Khara Saheb, Namaskaar! According to your esteemed University’s portal: “The name of University, 'Sharda' is synonymous to 'Goddess of knowledge and learning-Saraswati'. She is identified with 'veena', an Indian musical instrument and the ‘lotus’, where she resides. The lotus in our logo symbolizes the seat of learning that the University is created for.  "Variety of colours signify the variety of disciplines the university offers and the overlap between petals creating new colours demonstrate the ethos of collaboration between students and teachers of different programme, nationality, creed and colour working towards creating new knowledge…the University's cherished mission to provide education beyond boundaries and to facilitate the students and faculty to achie

Whither climate goal? Increasing reliance on coal 'likely to worsen' India's power crisis

By Shankar Sharma*  Recent news articles, How to shock-proof India’s power sector and Power minister points finger at states for worsening electricity crisis , have highlighted a few current problems for the ongoing power sector issues as in April 2022. However, there is a lot more to it than a few temporary solutions as indicated in the articles. It should also be emphasised that it is techno-economically impossible to completely shock-proof a highly complex and geographically wide-spread vast power network, such as the one in India, which is only getting more and more complex with the passage of each year due to some irrational policies/ practices in the sector. A business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, wherein more and more of conventional technology power plants, including coal power plants, will be added in the near future, will also necessitate the increased complexity in the integrated national grid, and as a result the instances of power shortage/ disruptions can only escalate for

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Dalit scholar's comment on Lord Shiva 'harming' Muslims, 'damaging' secular cause

Shahid Siddiqui, Bobby Naqvi By Our Representative   Bobby Naqvi, who is with the "Gulf News", and is a well-known name among Muslim intellectuals, strongly objecting to the social media post of Prof Ratan Lal, has said that "a big reason for majoritarian hatred against Muslims is irresponsible remarks by people like Prof Ratan Lal of Delhi University." In a Facebook comment , which has attracted paise, among others, from journaliat-politician Shahid Siddiqui, Naqvi said, "Their commentary on Hinduism and icons of Hinduism (while angering religious and liberal Hindus alike) also triggers a massive backlash against Muslims. When the likes of Prof Lal criticize Hinduism on social media, Hindus bring Islam and Islamic practices and ask 'what about this' or 'what about that'." Naqvi insists, "Muslims (without their fault) and Islam get caught in this crossfire between the so called Hindu liberal class and the religious Hindus. And the ult

Why there's strong likelihood India may resurrect its presence in Afghan capital

By Anand K Sahay* Since India evacuated its mission in Afghanistan once the Taliban re-took Kabul last August practically under American aegis, following what came to be called the Taliban’s Doha “negotiations” with the US, New Delhi is evidently doing a re-think. It is considered likely that an Indian representation will soon be restored in Kabul, even if this will be small and not at the level of ambassador. This is reflective of realistic thinking. Of course, there can be no question at present of according recognition to the Taliban regime. That is likely to happen when a broad consensus amongst the leading powers emerges. Currently the Taliban government is not helping its own cause of gaining world recognition- which will help it access overseas funds at a time when the country is in dire straits- by imposing severe restrictions on women and girls in serious violation of human rights. More basic is the issue that the Taliban regime is not considered r

Message to 'high caste' attackers? Dalit leader's daughter rides elephant in wedding march

By Our Representative  In what has been termed as “jumbo celebration”, a Gujarat Dalit rights leader belonging to Saurashtra region ensured that his daughter rides an elephant as part of wedding celebrations which took place in Vadhwan town of Surendranagar district. Natubhai Parmar, who shot into prominence for organising a unique protest against the notorious Una flogging incident in 2016, in which five Dalit boys were flogged as they allegedly slaughtered a cow. Belonging to the Rohit community, whose traditionally live by skinning dead cows, in 2016, Parmar reached Surendranagar district collector’s office with vehicles full of carcasses of cows asking him to organise them disposal of, declaring, his community had decided not to continue with the caste occupation, as it had been termed cow slaughter by saffron vigilantes. The decision to make his daughter ride the elephant, which he brought to Ahmedabad, was to send a message to members of the dominant castes, whose aggressive atta

Govt of India 'ignores' GMO regulation, 'overlooks' Constitutional process

Counterview Desk Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi, independent public policy expert, in a letter to Nareshpal Gangwar, additional secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), New Delhi, has expressed “seriously concern” that a recent office memorandum (OM) has sought to exempt certain types of gene-edited plants from the country's genetically modified organism  (GMO) regulations, without any reason or basis or representation. Dr Reddy regretted, “Such a serious decision, with an impact scale of unimaginable proportions, in terms of time and ecology, is being pushed through an ordinary office memorandum”, insisting, “This is circumvention of the processes enshrined in Indian Constitution, which has defined democratic participation in matters of critical importance.” Stating that the exemption from regulation is a policy decision and has legal implications, he demanded immediate withdrawal the OM, insisting, the government should take a "strong stand again

Govt of India 'compromising' on mandate to regulate gene technologies, protect nature

Counterview Desk  In a letter sent to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and other related ministries and departments, the Coalition for a GM-Free India has raised "serious concern" over the guidelines notified for Genome Edited Organisms, in which major exemptions from regulations have been offered to certain categories of Genome Edited Organisms/Plants and products. A letter signed by Sridhar Radhakrishnan and Kapil Shah, co-convenors of the NGO network, addressed to Union Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change Bhupender Yadav, said, the Office Memorandum, dated May 17, 2022 of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology about Safety Assessment Guidelines, which follows the Office Memorandum dated March 30, 2022 of the MoEFCC, said, the move "essentially amounts to entry of risky GMOs through the backdoor. Text : Coalition for a  GM-Free India is a national volunteer-driven platform of hundre