The labeling of the Hindutva movement as casteist leaves a lot to be desired.
The Hindutva movement is at an unprecedented position in India today. Led by the charismatic Narendra Modi, the movement’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the 2014 and 2019 general elections with an absolute majority and is currently in its second term at the helm of the central government. In the patchwork-coalition politics of India, this absolute majority was a feat unseen in decades. Since 2014 the movement’s growing support base has rallied behind Modi’s government as it aggressively executes a series of controversial promises (think revocation of Kashmir’s special status, the Ram mandir (temple) in Ayodhya, and the Citizenship Amendment Act) in the face of protests and sometimes, uproar and strife across the country. In what commentators have dubbed “a struggle for the soul of India” the Hindutva movement seems to be enjoying a significant edge. This fact is not lost on its critics, and alarm bells have been ringing the world over. Articles, op-eds, reports, and academic work have poured out in criticism of the movement for decades now.
Judging by the growing heft of the Hindutva movement, these denunciations, expressions of concern, and annual reports on India’s lack of religious and journalistic freedom have not achieved much in countering the movement. Simply put, the liberal response to the rise of Hindutva doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps for good reason. Apart from raising alarm bells, the steady rise of the Hindutva movement in India also raises some pressing questions for the movement’s critics. While the party’s sweeping electoral victories in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha (the Indian parliament’s lower house) elections show definitively that the BJP has successfully built a national following, these victories also underscore one of the most pressing and confounding anomalies facing experts and commentators on the Hindutva movement, namely, its popularity amongst Dalit and Other Backward Class (OBC) voters.
An anomaly to be addressed, a diagnosis to be re-examined
The BJP is the political wing of the Sangh Parivar, which has played a pivotal role in the Hindu nationalist or Hindutva movement in India. The movement itself is described as, among other things, a Brahmanical, upper-caste phenomenon that seeks to consolidate Hindus into one community while still maintaining prevalent caste discrimination between different groups.
In the face of this description of the Hindutva movement and its political arm, the BJP, being upper caste and casteist, the fact that the movement has become significantly popular amongst Dalit and OBC communities is a striking anomaly. The 2014 and 2019 general election results in Uttar Pradesh offer proof. Uttar Pradesh (UP) is heralded as the state where the political power of Dalits and OBCs came into its own. It is home to regional caste-based parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), both of whom have achieved repeated electoral success, with SP leader Mayawati being celebrated as the face Dalit political power and being projected as a possible Prime Ministerial candidate. Even so, in the 2014 and 2019 elections voters in UP, including Dalits and backward castes, swung sharply towards the BJP and away from the BSP and SP, both of which exist with the explicitly stated objective of working for the rights and upliftment of lower castes. This electoral success of the BJP, replicated across the country in both general elections, brought to fore in very concrete terms what a majority of academics and intellectuals across the world have been pointing out and expressing concern over; Hindutva has successfully won over Dalit and OBC communities. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this raises a pressing anomaly: How can a movement criticised for being Brahmanical and casteist become the choice of those it seeks to oppress?
Several explanations of Hindutva’s popularity amongst Dalit and OBC communities have been put across by academics, intellectuals, and commentators the world over. Most of these refer to outside factors, such as a crisis in Dalit politics, and the effect of globalisation and India’s economic liberalisation on Dalits. However, there are also one or two explanations which locate reasons for Hindutva’s popularity amongst Dalit and OBC communities within the movement itself. Interestingly, across all explanations, descriptions of Hindutva as a casteist phenomenon remain unshaken. I will argue that this is part of the reason why criticisms of the Hindutva movement have failed to make a dent; Because most descriptions of the movement are hardly insightful to begin with.
“Co-opting” Dalits and OBCs and the “true intentions” argument
Almost every discussion of Dalits, OBCs and Hindutva describe the movement as having “co-opted” these communities. Such discussions accuse the Hindutva movement of only paying lip-service to Dalit and OBC interests while in reality it is opposed to their true upliftment out of the inequality and humiliation of the caste system. The problem with this description is that it implies access to the true intentions of the Hindutva movement, and that too within a wider political and social environment where all political parties and ideological organisations say the same thing: that they condemn caste discrimination, seek to improve the lives of Dalits and OBCs, and are working for their upliftment and access to opportunity.
Common ways in which intellectuals and academics have “accessed” the “true intentions” of Hindutva are by referring to the movement’s history and by noting that almost all its leaders and important officials have been and are upper-caste. For instance in his Hindu Nationalism: A Reader Christophe Jaffrelot, refers to speeches by several people considered important to the development of the Hindutva movement in general and the Sangh Parivar in particular. Without going into the content of these speeches and what they might contrarily indicate, one can identify a basic problem with the “true intentions” argument. In India today, activists, experts, and commentators have assigned “casteist” as a tag to almost everyone and every organisation, including upper-caste intellectuals condemning caste discrimination (eg., here and here) and upper-caste leaders of anti-caste movements and organisations. When seen within this larger context, the “true intentions” argument for describing the movement as casteist only tells us that the Hindutva movement is casteist in a particular way, as are, for instance, Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party.
With the exception of Dalits and to a lesser extent OBCs, if all those who have publicly taken a stance against caste discrimination are actually/always suspect of being casteist (which is what one would expect if one takes the received story about India and the caste system seriously), then describing the Hindutva movement as casteist by claiming access to its “true intentions” does not tell us anything about the movement except that it is par for the course in a society and culture deeply permeated by the discriminatory caste system.
In itself, this is not nearly enough to prompt a re-evaluation of descriptions of Hindutva as casteist. However, taking the “true intentions” argument seriously will compel us to conclude that at least when it comes to being casteist, far from being on an extreme end of the discriminatory spectrum, Hindutva lies alongside a majority of its staunchest ideological rivals and critics, many of whom are seen as the last hope of a secular, egalitarian India, as the last embankment against the onslaught of the very Hindutva movement, they share space with as actual/potential casteists.
Opposing caste-based reservation = Casteist
A link commonly made in academic and popular discourse on caste is that opposition to caste-based reservation is in itself a casteist stance. One of the bases for criticisms of the BJP and Sangh Parivar is that their opposition to caste-based reservations exposes their casteism.
Without going into the explicitly stated stance of the Sangh Parivar and its many organisations on caste-based reservations, let us accept that the Sangh and the BJP have been against caste-based reservations in the past. Over the last three decades, however, things have changed. As Christophe Jaffrelot has pointed out, the political wing of the Hindutva movement has accepted the inevitability of reservations for SCs and OBCs. Given the caste-based politics of India, the BJP has actively supported caste-based reservation, at least since the 1990s. As Jaffrelot quotes, in its 1999 election manifesto the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition led by the BJP, promised that “If required, the Constitution will be amended to maintain the system of reservation [. . .] We are committed to extending the SC/ST reservation for another 10 years. Reservation-percentages above 50 per cent, as followed by certain states, shall be sanctified through necessary legislation measures.” The BJP’s acceptance of the inevitability of reservations and the resultant break from its ideological moorings (given the Sangh Parivar is against reservation), is by no means an exception.
In the caste-based politics of India, all parties and organisations operate on the basis of political expediency rather than fidelity to ideological standpoints. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the Mayawati led BSP has often built electoral alliances with Brahmins despite its roots as a Dalit party. These Dalit-Brahmin alliances were completely contingent on the party’s “social engineering” plan, which dictated which castes it sought to woo and changed from election to election. In 2002 when the BSP ran an anti-upper-caste campaign its election slogans included the following: Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, Inko maaro jutey chaar (roughly translated, it means: Brahmins, Vaishyas, and Kshatriyas, beat them with shoes). In contrast, in 2007 when the party ran a sarvajan or all-community campaign, one of its slogans was: Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, Inko pujo barambaar (roughly translated it means: Brahmins, Vaishyas, and Kshatriyas, to them pay your respects). In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Mayawati again attempted to cobble together an alliance of Dalits and Brahmins. Thus, as any observer of Indian politics will know and as both the BJP’s and BSP’s political opportunism shows, ideological volte-faces are an everyday feature of Indian politics. Pretty much like its political wing has bowed to the reality of caste-based politics, sometime before 2010 the Sangh Parivar too created the Anusuchit Jati-Jamati Arakshan Bachao Parishad, which roughly translates as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Reservation Protection Assembly. There is little information available about this organisation, however, and it has not been possible to find its website online.
While the BJP repeatedly emphasises its active support for caste-based reservations, these proclamations are received by most of its critics with suspicion. The underlying assumption is that though Hindutva is wooing Dalits and OBCs, promising and pushing for reservations, is all this in good faith?
The problem with this question is, how can we tell? The Congress Party enacted several policies and decisions with the explicitly stated objective of improving the lives of Indian Muslims. Was the Congress’ pro-Muslim agenda in good faith? Ambedkarite and OBC politicians have promised time and again to work for the upliftment of all SC or OBC communities. Are these promises made in good faith? Commentators have argued that the Congress Party used the Muslim vote bank but did nothing to improve the lives of India’s Muslims. Mayawati rose to prominence as a Dalit leader but, after coming to power in Uttar Pradesh, she has been widely criticised for having focused only on the welfare of Jatavs, a sub-caste of Dalits to which Mayawati herself belongs. As a result, the BSP has become a Jatav party rather than a Dalit one. Similarly, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), ostensibly an OBC party, brought political and economic gains almost exclusively to Yadavs during its tenures in the Uttar Pradesh government, and today the SP remains a Yadav party, unable to gain the trust of other OBC communities in that state. Thus, whether or not political parties speak or act in good faith, and why, can be a larger question about Indian politics, but to be meaningful it must go deeper than simply raising suspicions of insincerity.
The BJP may never be able to convince critics of its good faith regarding caste-based reservations, but the party has made strong statements to convince the Indian electorate about its stance on Dalit and OBC interests. After coming to power in 2014, the BJP government restarted an endeavour by its predecessor (a Congress-led government), and in 2015 it moved a bill in parliament proposing amendments to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 (commonly referred to as the SC/ST Act). The SC/ST Act makes a range of offences coming under the rubric of caste atrocities punishable. One of the many notable changes the BJP’s amendment sought to bring to the SC/ST Act was to disallow the possibility of anticipatory bail for any person accused of committing a caste atrocity. This effectively made complaints filed by SC/ST persons sufficient grounds to immediately arrest a non-SC/ST person, who would then have little to no ability to secure bail.
The ensuing Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015 was passed by Parliament, in the upper house within minutes and without debate. However, it was soon challenged in the Supreme Court on grounds that the Act violated Constitutional guarantees to personal liberty and equality before law. In March 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that anticipatory bail could not be barred to those accused under the SC/ST Act. It expressed concern over misuse and abuse of the stringent provisions of the law. The BJP government responded by urging the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling. When the Supreme Court refused to do so the central cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved an amendment bill that would bypass the Supreme Court’s ruling on the amendments of 2015. Within a week the bill was passed by parliament, nullifying the apex court’s ruling earlier that year and delivering the changes promised by the BJP. In 2019 the Supreme Court recalled its March 2018 ruling.
The BJP government’s rapid, deft, and determined manoeuvring in response to the controversy over the amended SC/ST Act clearly indicated that the BJP, the political wing of Hindutva, an allegedly upper-caste movement, is as determined as almost every other political party in India to extend reservations, protection under a special category of criminal offences, social welfare benefits, and political visibility to Dalits and backward castes and that it will make exceptional efforts to do so.
Returning to the link discussed at the beginning of this section between being against caste-based reservation and being casteist, the question arises: if being anti-caste-based-reservation is casteist, and even if we accept descriptions of the Sangh Parivar as being casteist for this reason, does the BJP’s active wooing of Dalits and Backward Castes by offering them benefits and reservations transform the party into a non-casteist organisation? If yes, it is no longer possible to describe the BJP as casteist, at least for this caste-based reservation-related reason. If not, then this contradicts the link between being opposed to caste-based reservation and being casteist, since supporting caste-based reservation does not seem to have any impact on the description of the BJP as being casteist.
Manipulation of Dalit and OBC culture as a strategy to successfully co-opt these communities
One explanation for Hindutva and the BJP’s popularity amongst Dalit and OBC communities is that the movement has successfully made itself attractive to these communities by manipulating their culture and icons. One of the many who make this claim is Badri Narayan, an academic and expert on the movement who writes frequently in the public domain about Hindutva and Dalits. In his book Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation Narayan discusses the manipulation of Dalit culture;
… ambivalence in the collective memory provides a fertile ground for the reconstruction and recreation of the collective memory of different castes for the politics of power. It is interesting that the emancipatory Dalit memories that are being reinvented and reinterpreted by BSP and other Ambedkarite political groups and the creation of saffron Dalit memories by the BJP are being done through the same strategies and devices … But the difference between the strategies of these two kinds of political forces lies in the result, as mentioned earlier. In the process of political mobilisation, one produces racial communal politics which empowers a powerful section of the society, while the other tries to provide opportunity to the powerless Dalits in the power and welfare politics. 1 (emphasis added)
Without going into Narayan’s comfort with manipulation of Dalit culture right away, an obvious question arises from his general argument: why is manipulation by the Hindutva movement successful as against the many other manipulations of Dalit and OBC culture? Here “manipulation of culture” explanations run thin. References to the shifts in India’s economy post liberalisation and the creation of a new aspirational Dalit middle-class, or the attraction of an explicitly “Hindu” agenda for Dalits who continue to see themselves as Hindu and not Buddhist, oppressed, or working class, as Ambedkarite and Left politics would have them see themselves, offer some context but hardly scratch beyond the surface. Largely, the question as to why Hindutva’s cultural manipulations are more successful than others remains unanswered.
Regardless of the reasons for this success, Narayan’s work effectively shows that manipulation of Dalit and OBC culture is what political parties and ideological organisations do in order to woo these communities. Discussing the focus and content of election campaigns, Narayan notes that before caste was an important part of the electoral discourse, there was a meta-language “promising the fulfilment of basic needs” 2, which was used to address all “small communities”.3 With the advent of caste-based politics, Narayan writes, Dalits and backward caste communities find themselves at the centre of attention from political parties across the spectrum. This has given several communities the power to negotiate for more benefits, affirmative action, and political visibility. However, Narayan also notes that political discourse, especially when aimed at Dalit and backward caste communities, remains limited to appeals to caste pride, while addresses to middle-class audiences (whom Narayan identifies as mostly upper caste) are focused on development-oriented issues such as infrastructure and healthcare. Thus, manipulation of local heroes, stories, songs, and culture take precedence in winning elections, particularly in rural or semi-urban areas, while issues of infrastructure, education, healthcare, or agriculture, take a backseat.
Narayan’s work is unique in that it makes explicit what remains implicit in most other works. As he shows in his book, the cultural manipulation undertaken by the BJP and other Hindutva organisations is by no means unique to them. It is, in fact, common practice in the vote-bank politics of India. As such, while the “cultural manipulation” explanation of Hindutva’s popularity amongst Dalits and backward castes claims to tell us something about the movement, it actually tells a larger story about the broader social and political scenario in India today. The kind of token politics evidenced in this ubiquitous strategy of cultural manipulation is further compounded by the responses it generates in intellectuals and academics. What Narayan takes exception to is not the cultural manipulation of Dalits or OBCs, but rather one cultural manipulation, namely, manipulation by Hindutva organisations such as the BJP and RSS. At one point he also expresses regret that Left organisations are missing opportunities to use Dalit and backward caste culture to mobilize these communities towards their own particular brand of politics and ideology. In his book, Narayan asserts that the particular manipulations of Hindutva organisations lead to racial communal politics, while manipulations by organisations and parties from other political standpoints result in the empowerment of Dalits in welfare politics. Because it remains largely implicit, this assumption regarding the differing end results of manipulation of Dalit and backward caste culture is never justified in the discourse on the Hindutva movement. Such is its assumed credibility that even where it does become as explicit as Narayan makes it, the assumption is still not put to any test for its verity. While Narayan and other scholars might well be correct in questioning the impact of Hindutva strategies and actions on Dalit and OBC communities, the assumption that the culturally manipulative strategies and actions of Ambedkarite and other political groups have brought power to Dalits and OBCs in welfare politics, on the one hand, remains highly debatable and, on the other, presumes that welfare politics and any such “power” in it leads to an actual and sustainable improvement in the lives of lower caste communities as a whole. Both, this assumption and presumption, remain unexamined and are perhaps some of the most important questions facing India today.
Meanwhile, choosing one manipulation over another, intellectuals and scholars such as Narayan remain limited to hinting at the impact of this kind of cultural manipulation on Dalit and backward caste communities. They seem unable, or maybe are unwilling, to examine the larger social and cultural ramifications of such politics, even as their own work offers some very clear hints.
The article was first published in Pragyata.com.Notes
- Badri Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009), 36.
- Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva, 154.
- Narayan, 154.