Saif Ahmad Khan
The caste system which is situated at the very heart of Hinduism rebuts its tall claims of tolerance. Hinduism is generally known for its open and dynamic nature which has been heavily praised and has often been cited by public intellectuals including Fareed Zakaria for being responsible for the growth and survival of democracy in India. On one hand, we’ve had maverick religious reformers who have weeded out evils and superstitious from the Hindu faith thus making it appear more attractive, inclusive and tolerant but on the other hand, the continued existence of the rigid and repressive caste system has not only institutionalized intolerance within different sections of the Hindu community but has also jeopardized Hinduism’s claims towards being a tolerant faith. This is somewhat similar to Islam’s claims to universality which appear weakened and morbid when one sees the situation prevailing in its two holy cities, namely, Mecca and Medina where Non Muslims are not allowed to enter.
The phenomenon of castes and sects is not specific to the Hindu faith as we are all aware of the existence of Catholics and Protestants in Christianity and Sunnis and Shiites in Islam. Protestants emerged in opposition to the Catholics and were seen as religious fundamentalists who rejected the primacy of the Pope and pressed upon the infallibility of the Bible. The two sides were embroiled in a number of bitter battles including the Thirty Years War in the Holy Roman Empire and the French Wars of Religion. The split within Islam has existed since the massacre of Karbala. While Shiites emphasize on the divine right of the Household of the Prophet to rule over the Muslim community, Sunnis remain critical of the approach. But the reason why the Hindu caste system is more worrying than sectarianism within Christianity and Islam is because in Hinduism there is scriptural sanction for the caste system. Castes have been a talking point in a number of scriptures including the Rig Veda and Codes of Manu whereas the divisions in Christianity and Islam have not happened due to scriptural sanctions but because of difference in opinion regarding the interpretation of the scriptures.
The persecution of the untouchables and the slavery imposed on the Shudras has no parallel in human history. Their condition was for more abysmal than the Afro-Americans in the United Sates or the bonded labourers of the Roman Empire. They did not have the freedom to profess an occupation of their choice nor did they have the right to reside freely as they were pushed outside cities to stay into ghettoes where they resided for centuries. They also did not enjoy the freedom of worship as they were not allowed to enter temples. The Hindu society’s crusade against casteism has been an old one. Over the past decades, two fundamental approaches have risen while tackling the menace of casteism. The first approach is the Ambedkarite approach. Ambedkar chose to alienate the Dalits from the orthodox upper caste Hindus by portraying them as a minority within a majority and tried to take them away from the fold of Hinduism. The second approach is the Gandhian approach. Gandhi pitched for Dalit rights by rejecting scriptures and by trying to get rid of untouchability as a whole from Hinduism.
I personally feel that while battling casteism, the triumph has been that of the Gandhian approach. Dalits haven’t ceased to be a part of the Hindu community and attempts are being made to integrate them into the mainstream by rejecting strict adherence to the scriptures. The second big issue is that of affirmative action. Due to the iconoclastic views of Dr Ambedkar, he was often at loggerheads with Mr Gandhi. This opposition to Gandhi was strange because Gandhi enjoyed such a towering stature within the Congress that his moves were hardly met by voices of dissent. During the Second Round Table Conference in London, Ambedkar proposed the idea of having separate electorates for Dalits. Gandhi opposed the idea as he felt that this would lead to irreparable divisions within the Hindu community. Ambedkar’s plea for separate electorates was accepted by the British and Gandhi undertook a fast from a prison in Pune in opposition to the move. The standoff came to an end with the signing of the Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar where Ambedkar gave up the demand for separate electorates in place of reservation of some constituencies for Dalits.
Looking back I feel that Gandhi’s fears have been proven correct. Identity politics of caste has taken a very detrimental toll on the Hindu community and today, it stays far divided than it ever was. Ambedkar’s scheme of affirmative action has failed to solemnly resolve the problems faced by the Dalits. Even after having a cumulative reservation bank of 22.5% along with the Scheduled Tribes, only 11.1% of the SC’s and 4.6% of the ST’s are employed in Group A Services of the Central Government. Out of the 93 Secretaries of the Government of India, there is not even a single Dalit. By churning out these statistics I don’t intend to reignite the debate of doing away with reservations. I am for it but there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way it is being implemented in this nation because the benefits of reservations aren’t flowing down to the Dalits as in most of the cases, seats reserved for the depressed classes stay vacant. It is this error which has to be overcome.