What went wrong?

By Gail Omvedt

No one should have any illusions that the forces that ravage the State are absent elsewhere.

REVULSION SEEMS to be the predominant mood among most Indians following the Gujarat holocaust. Calm in most cities and States and now the anti-BJP vote in the Delhi municipal elections appear to indicate, at the very least, a pervasive uncertainty about the goals and means of Hindutva. Ram, after all, had been depicted as a noble hero, a fighter against injustice; not a deity whose name needed to be written in blood and fire on the bodies of the country's Muslim citizens.

It is important at this stage to look very seriously at how such pogroms could happen. It was not simply a matter of riots, of backlash against the brutal killings of Godhra: all evidence shows that it was pre-planned; that Muslim homes, Muslim places of worship and Muslim businesses were identified, pinpointed and destroyed without mercy. Children were burned to death in front of their parents; foetuses were ripped from wombs. Vicious looting and killing were led by the middle classes, while directionless OBC and sometimes tribal youth were pressed into service as mercenaries. The police stood aside; that this was a matter of policy was made clear after the slaughter subsided and the few police officers who had tried to take action were transferred. Even in the refugee camps, nothing has been done so far to show the terrified people huddling there that they are welcome back in their homes. Low-key but highly targeted attacks on businesses and individuals have continued for weeks after the main outburst. No wonder that the thousands in refugee camps are refusing to go home, that Muslims from outside employed in the State are leaving their jobs. The atmosphere of terror continues.

How could all this happen? The question needs to be taken seriously. India stands at a turning point: one path, still proclaimed by the forces behind the Government in power at the Centre, leads to a "Hindu Rashtra" in which all Muslims, Christians will exist at the will of the proclaimed majority, in which "Aryan" continues to be a banner of racial pride, in which history and education will be pressed into the service of self-justification. Gujarat may in many ways be an exception within India, but no one should have any illusions that the forces that ravage the State are absent elsewhere.

There are several ways in which Gujarat has been unique. First, it has been the only State where the BJP has been in power by itself for a significant length of time. The importance of political power in not only endorsing but intensifying and spreading religious hatred here becomes clear.

The infiltration of the RSS into the bureaucracy and the police; the opportunities for Hindutva forces to tighten their grip on educational and other institutions of civil society, and the powerful support for a murderous goondaism are all founded in the elected political regime of the State.

Second, Gujarat has not been, on the whole, a very progressive State. The pervasiveness of the caste system here is perhaps more longstanding than in many other parts of India: the first Sanskrit inscriptions of India, for instance those of the early Kshatrapa ruler Rudraman in the 1st century are found in Gujarat. Most other rulers of this time were still using Prakrit. Sanskrit is identified with the support of Brahmanism and varnashrama dharma; Prakrit, in most cases, meant a support of Buddhism and other shramana religions. Buddhism had very little hold in Gujarat; Jainism had some bases of strength, but it rather early became an enclave religion, content to accept the political hegemony of Brahmanism. Rajputs the "agnikula kshatriyas" whose duty was to destroy the mileccha, the barbarians, and uphold the varnashrama dharma became a powerful force. The State's economic prosperity, then, was surrounded by military and social orthodoxy.

During the colonial period, there was no strong upsurge of Untouchables, and in contrast to neighbouring Maharashtra, the non-Brahmans (or former Shudras) appeared ready enough to accept the hegemony of the upper castes. Patels identified as Vaishyas. There was no broad democratic movement of the sort that took place under the leadership of Phule and Ambedkar in Maharashtra, or Pandit Iyothee Thass and Periyar in Tamil Nadu. Among other things, this meant that little positive action was taken for ending untouchability. Dalit students, for instance, did not get entry into hostels until decades after they did in Maharashtra.

Even the ferment in places such as Uttar Pradesh, where OBCs and Dalits are now posed against each other, did not take place in Gujarat, Instead, in the post-Independence period, Gujarati OBCs got absorbed as lower "Kshatriyas" in the "KHAM" alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims. This gave a foundation for Congress political power, but it provided no moral or ideological force for anti-caste social transformation.

A third factor is undoubtedly the unbalanced, inequalitarian and even faltering development Gujarat has undergone in the years of liberalisation rampant commercialism on the one hand, and pervasive drought and rural neglect on the other.

Finally, Gujarat has been the State of Mahatma Gandhi. The closed gates of the Sabarmati Ashram signal the failure of Gandhism in India. Gandhi had envisaged "Ram Raj" as a harmonious, morally ordered village-based alternative to what he saw as the evils of western industrial civilisation.

He had generally refused to condemn varnashrama dharma, and instead tried to reinterpet it in a way that would allow the removal of untouchability and other excrescences of the caste system. In his 1936 confrontation with Ambedkar, who had called for a radical revolt against the shastras, smritis and other religious texts of Hinduism, Gandhi said that "caste has nothing to do with religion... Varna and Ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes. The law of Varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling. It defines not our rights but our duties. It also follows that there is no calling too low and none too high. All are good, lawful and absolutely equal in status.

The callings of a Brahman spiritual teacher and a scavenger are equal, and their due performance carries equal merit before God and at one time seems to have carried identical reward before man... And there is nothing in the law of Varna to warrant a belief in untouchability. (The essence of Hinduism is contained in its enunciation of the one and only God as Truth and its bold acceptance of Ahimsa as the law of the human family)."

Underlying and giving meaning to this position of Gandhi was the general framework of elite thinking during the colonial period that "Hinduism" was the national religion of India. It is this basic theme which has to be re-examined today.

The coming of a new industrial society and the rise of science and technology should have made possible a life of prosperity for all... But this did not happen.

AMBEDKAR'S ARGUMENT against Gandhi was simple. In 1936, he had written, "You must destroy the sacredness and divinity with which caste has become invested. In the last analysis, this means you must destroy the authority of the Shastras and the Vedas... You must take the stand that Buddha took. You must take the stand which Guru Nanak took... You must have courage to tell the Hindus that what is wrong with them is their religion the religion which has produced in them this notion of the sacredness of caste." (Ambedkar, 1979: 69).

Pre-British India had seen a flourishing of religions and philosophies. From the first millennium BC, though Brahmans taking the authority of the Vedas had worked to establish a society functioning according to the laws of varna, other darshanas Buddhism, Jainism, Lokayata had challenged this with more equalitarian and rationalistic ideals. The coming of Islam meant another momentous civilisational encounter, one seen in newly flourishing artistic, architectural and music traditions. Bhakti sants also challenged caste and Brahman domination, posing new ideals of a society of equality.

Ravidas had written:

"The regal realm with the sorrowless name
they call it Queen City, a place with no pain,
no taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh my brother, I've come to take it as my own,
my distant home, where everything is right.
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends."

This expressed both "class" and "caste" utopias no taxes or property, and the right of even the lowest toilers to walk freely everywhere, so important for those classified as Untouchables and relegated to live and work away from the main areas of a city. Within the context of a Brahman-dominated medieval order, this was a dream. The coming of a new industrial society and the rise of science and technology should have made possible a life of prosperity for allsuch bold dreams could have shaped a new national society in India. But this did not happen. Industrialism, science and rationality came to India as an appendage to colonial rule. By the end of the 19th century, the early openness of the British became closed, and racist ideologies began to pervade their rule. The discovery of a relationship between Sanskrit and

European languages led to the formation of the "Aryan theory" which expressed on the one hand a racial kinship between Europeans and high-caste Indians, and on the other hand defined the Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis as descendents of more primitive, dark-skinned indigenous peoples. The Indian elite accepted this racist interpretation readily enough: they were Aryans, the noble ones, possessors of ancient religious scriptures and high philosophical knowledge. Theirs was a spiritual heritage; the low castes could be seen as subordinate parts of this, incorporated within a hierarchy of "Hinduism" which possessed a unique social system that could incorporate inferior elements without destroying them. Varnashrama dharma was thus given a new justification. All the elite "reform" organisations of the 19th century the Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj proclaimed this acceptance of Vedic-Brahman hegemony within Hinduism in their very names.

A Hindu, according to Savarkar, was one who accepted India as his "holy land" and "fatherland". This was linked also to European notions of the nation-state, as a solidary society based on a people with a common religion and culture. The word "Hindu", which had once had a simple territorial meaning, was redefined in terms of religious nationality. It was seen as incorporating all the diverse traditions, including Buddhism, Jainism, Veerasaivism, Sikhism, and other movements which had opposed Vedic-Brahman hegemony and the varna-jati system.

Thus, the reality of India as a plurality of cultures and philosophies was replaced by one divided into two major communities "Hindus" and "Muslims". The more liberal of the nationalists saw the need to create a "secular" state uniting both communities. But the idea of "two communities" very easily gave birth to that of "two nations". The way of envisioning the major social-religious division of India itself laid the groundwork for Partition.

Gandhi accepted these ideas. He also saw "Aryans" as his ancestors. As against what he saw as the evils of industrialism, he wanted to go back to an idealised, harmonious village society in which tradition ruled. This he called "Ram Rajya" appealing to an ideal of a divine king and his

subordinate family members, who had enforced varna dharma at the cost of the life of the Shudra ascetic Shambuk. As against Ambedkar at the Round Table conference, he proclaimed that he himself was the leader of Untouchables because they were part of "Hindu" society. They should not leave "their" religion but should instead reform it. Gandhi was ready to conciliate Muslims whose separate religious-cultural identity was undeniable; but he could never admit that the Untouchables had a separate religious and cultural identity. Thus his major fast was a fast against Ambedkar himself, undertaken against the award of separate electorates to Untouchables. In contrast to Gandhi's romantic, anti-industrialism, Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Iyothee Thass and other great social radicals of the Dalit-Bahujan masses stood for science, education, industrialisation, seeking to give a concrete base to the ideals expressed by Ravidas and other sants of the medieval period. They refused to admit that the essence of Indian/Hindu identity lay in the spiritual realm; rather it had to be realised with a concrete achievement of equality. Phule had expressed this as "Bali Rajya" the realm of the mythical peasant king Bali, considered a rakshasa in orthodox Brahmanic tradition. Ambedkar, though he urged a revival of Buddhism to provide a moral foundation for the new society, saw it consistently in terms of the great French revolutionary values of "liberty, equality and fraternity".

Where Gandhi had idealised traditional society, Ambedkar was a modernist who called villages "cesspools" and laid the basis for planning in fields of irrigation and energy policy. The confrontation between Ambedkar and Gandhi was a defining event of 20th century Indian history. It was a confrontation between conservative romanticism and a rationalistic, equalitarian modernism.

Gandhi, who spent so much of his life trying to achieve Hindu-Muslim amity, would have been appalled at the slaughter in Gujarat. Yet, in many ways, his own ideals paved the way for the growth of Hindutva and the transformation of Ram-Rajya into the regime of terror that has made Gujarat a name of shame today. http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/2002/04/08/stories/2002040800271000.htm


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Published on:April 01, 2002
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