Dalits and tribals are not Hindus
(Y. Chinna Rao)
On The eve of the Pope’s visit there were claims and counter-claims about Christianity in India in general, and conversions and re-reconversion in particular. Since 80 per cent of converts to Christianity have been either dalits or tribals, the conversion debate primarily concerns them. What is forgotten in the politically motivated campaigning is that dalits and tribals were never Hindus. Traditionally, dalits, known as panchamas, bahyas and outcastes, were outside the caste order.
The debate points to the dubious manner in which facts are recklessly misinterpreted. The sudden rhetoric displaying love and brotherliness for the dalits by Hindu narcissists reveals the desire to hold their hegemonic social structure intact by incorporating dalits and tribals into a social system which had no space for them till the missionaries, and more specifically Britishers, came to India. The sudden aggressive mood and the claim that dalits are a part of Hindutva is the result of insecurity arising from the loosening of Brahminical dominance.
Indeed, it needs to be emphasised that dalits have advanced to a stage in history where they can express their identity independent of outside sympathy. They no longer need patrons and godfathers. Today they are in a position to speak for themselves. It is also pertinent to note that the interests of the dalits and the Hindus are antagonistic to each other. Even before the arrival of Aryan immigrants, dalits and tribals had an independent culture, highly democratic in nature. The religion, beliefs, customs and ideals of dalits and tribals have been the very anti-thesis to the inegalitarian, exploitative and repressive culture of the Hindus.
How the dalits came to be defined as Hindus is a question the VHP and their associates have yet to answer. The dalits and tribals have always been outside the pale of the chaturvarna scheme of stratification. They are in several places not allowed to enter Hindu temples, not served by Hindu priests, and not allowed to read the “sacred” texts of Hindu religion. Then how can one count them as Hindus?
Numerous writings of foreign travellers and works of anthropologists show that before the advent of Christianity in India, dalits had a religious system of their own. Dalits are concerned with their local village goddesses. The female goddesses appear predominant. Unlike in Hinduism they emerge as independent, unblushing erotic female figures. Be it the Mariamma, Poleramma, Peddamma, or any local deity, they have nothing in common with the goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Other than the local village goddesses, they worship kuladevata (caste deity) and Inti devata (family deity). Later these traditions were incorporated as “little” traditions by Brahminical anthropologists and sociologists to protect their tradition as the “great” tradition, on account of its “intellectual”, “classical” and “higher” philosophy.
The first three census reports of 1881, 1891 and 1901 were limited in scope and excluded the dalits. With the introduction of separate electorate, communal statistics gained greater significance. Communities became increasingly conscious not only of their own numbers but also those of the other communities. The numbers game was being played between Hindus and Muslims. In this period dalits were used by the politically motivated caste Hindus. The census proved to be a blessing in disguise for the dalits whose numbers came to be decisive in the political life of the country. Centuries of neglect began to be gradually replaced by a cautious handling of them by the Hindus, only to be incorporated marginalised Hindus. The Muslims started emphasising the independent identity of dalits out of the fear that the Hindus will emerge numerically stronger by assimilating them. Thus, the Muslims took the bold step of suggesting that dalits should not be enrolled as Hindus. That was when Dr ! Ambedkar suggested alternative terms like “Protestant Hindus” or “non-conformist Hindus”. Through his Dalit uplift programmes in the 1930s, Gandhi tried to consolidate the Hindu society on the basis of chaturvarna system, and the dalits were the losers.
When Christian missionaries realised that the incorporation of dalits into the Hindu fold was the strongest obstacle to spread the Christian faith, they adopted a new policy to change their way of life by establishing schools and colleges, and by introducing social reform among the dalits. The dalits saw the contrast between caste Hindus and the missionaries. It is not the missionaries who converted the dalits. It is the dalits who opted for a religion of compassion and concern. The whole debate on conversion has given the impression that the dalits and the tribals are incapable of choice and they can be lured because they are poor.