Home Reflections Is the Hindutva movement casteist? – Part 2

Is the Hindutva movement casteist? – Part 2

by Garima Raghuvanshy

Continued from Part 1

Opposing proselytisation = Casteist   

The Hindutva movement is widely and correctly described as being anti-proselytisation. In arguments that criticise the movement for being casteist, Hindutva’s anti-proselytisation stance is used as proof of its casteist nature.

A few questions follow from the equation of being anti-proselytisation with being casteist. How does opposition to conversion = casteism? One of the answers readily available in academic and popular discourse is that conversion out of Hinduism is a means to free oneself from the shackles of the caste system. This was also what various Christian denominations in India have promised their lower caste converts for centuries. The same rationale of conversion as an escape from caste was behind the mass conversions of Dalits into Buddhism led by Dr B R Ambedkar, and the same argument is given for conversions to Islam as a protest against caste and its violent inequality. Given this link between conversion and emancipation from caste, to oppose, discourage, or disallow conversion out of Hinduism, particularly of/by lower castes, is to oppose their efforts to break free from caste oppression.

However, this premise of the communalism = casteism argument, namely, the link between conversion out of Hinduism and freedom from caste, is itself highly problematic. To begin with, there is the very long and complex discussion, right from the earliest European studies of India, about what caste is and whether it is a religious practice of the Hindus. While Orientalist discourse on India developed such that the dominant story today is that caste is a Hindu institution and has basis in Hindu scriptures, there is as yet no consensus at all on any number of important questions such as the link between Hinduism and caste, the rules and structure of the caste system, and wherefrom this “system” draws its legitimacy and authority such as to fundamentally shape the lives of India’s millions. To add to this, there is a growing body of work which argues that what we know about the “caste system in India” is result of the European experience of India, and exists in that experience only. That the caste system as it is spoken of today, is not Hindu, and does not exist in India.

Lack of clarity on caste notwithstanding, even if one is willing to accept the idea that conversion is an escape from caste, another problem arises. Caste is widely acknowledged to have become a part of Indian Islam and Indian Christianity and is seen to have been so for many centuries. As such, conversion to these religions will not and cannot be an escape from caste. Proponents for extension of reservation benefits to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims make precisely this argument – that lower caste converts to these religions continue to face caste discrimination within their own communities and face the same oppression and lack of access to opportunity as their Hindu counterparts. The idea that conversion out of Hinduism is an escape from caste, in fact, contradicts academic and popular knowledge about caste in both Indian Islam and Indian Christianity. If we then take away the premise that conversion = freedom from caste, Hindutva’s anti-proselytisation stance no longer relates to caste and caste discrimination in any way and cannot be seen as evidence of the movement’s casteist nature. As such, the movement’s opposition to proselytization could be criticised for going against freedom of choice and freedom of religion (and even this criticism is not without complex problems), but it cannot be used to characterise Hindutva as casteist.  

The confusions and contradictions underlying the use of Hindutva’s anti-proselytisation stance as evidence for its casteism leads us to a larger, more fundamental problem, namely, that there is a pervasive confusion about caste and the caste system in academic and popular discourse. 

Confusion about caste

Caste and the caste system in India have been discussed for centuries. Early travellers, merchants, missionaries, Orientalists, colonial officials, Hindu reformists, gurus, Indian and foreign intellectuals, academics across the world, journalists, and activists have all had something to say about the “social structure” of India. To provide any meaningful overview of these discussions, much less to put forward a critique, is beyond the purview of this article and my own abilities. Nonetheless, without going into the complex history of how caste has been spoken of and written about, when we examine the conclusions of the received story about caste as they are used in discourse on the Hindutva movement, inconsistencies and gaps become visible, and it becomes evident that there are cracks in the wall. For those who would like to dive deeper into these cracks and discover the underlying structural problems, there is seminal work being done on the received story of caste and the caste system, it can be accessed here. In this article, however, I hope to illustrate simply that the cracks are there. In itself that is enough here because it alerts us to the question: If there is a fundamental confusion about caste and the caste system, how much can “Hindutva is casteist” tell us? In order then, to zoom in on one of the conclusions of the received story on caste and how it is used in discourse on Hindutva as casteist, I’d like to use an example from Ornit Shani’s Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence in Gujarat.

In her book, Shani situates the communal violence of the 1980s in Gujarat within a historical context spanning almost a century. Telling the history of Ahmedabad, and in lesser detail, also Gujarat, Shani touches several times on the social and economic status of an important Gujarati community, the Patels. She links the rise of the Patels to several developments: Maratha rule in Gujarat which appointed Patels as revenue collectors; land reforms enacted by the British Raj which benefitted the Patels greatly by suddenly turning them from tenants to landowners; large scale migration into Ahmedabad during the city’s industrialisation; the advent of textile mills; and finally, India’s independence and subsequent land reforms by the Indian government which further cemented land ownership of higher castes and of the Patels. Shani identifies each of these developments as an important event which changed the socio-economic position of different castes in Gujarat and particularly in Ahmedabad. As a result of these socio-economic shifts, Shani writes, “The Patel caste, shudras by Hindu law, emerged as an economic and political force, and was able to attain the savarna.” (Italics in original). In her book, Shani uses savarna as “a generic term for upper-caste Hindus (also referred to as twice-born or Caste Hindus)”.  Shani goes on to discuss the ultimate development that lead to the particular caste and communal tensions of 1980s Ahmedabad: Caste-based reservations. About the impact of caste-based reservations in Ahmedabad, Shani states;

With the growing class fissures among and between castes it gradually became apparent that the widely perceived harmony between the ‘cosmological’ Hindu order and everyday reality was breaking down. If, for example, the relatively low-status upper castes in the walled city had previously been able to justify their self-representation as middle-class, this was no longer negotiable in the context of the mid-1980s.

It is interesting to note however, that though caste-based reservations were the ultimate in a long series of developments, the Patels, shudras, as Shani points out, had already been able to “attain the savarna” decades before caste-based reservations, especially for shudras or OBC communities, were enacted. With this in mind, let us consider Shani’s reference to a “‘cosmological’ Hindu order” and her claim that post-independence events led to a breaking down of the harmony between this “order” and everyday reality.

Leading up to post-independence events, particularly reservation, were many other developments, such as change in the ruling power (Maratha rule in Gujarat), reforms by the ruling power (land reforms by the British Raj), and economic developments (the rise and fall of the textile mills in Ahmedabad). Surely, change in ruling powers, reforms, and economic development would have been a fairly recurrent feature not only of Gujarat, but also of the many other regions and polities of the Indian subcontinent. This is a reasonable assumption considering that the Indian subcontinent has a documented history going back several centuries which speaks of the rise and fall of dynasties and of the region’s importance in the global economy as a centre for trade and manufacturing. We are then bound to raise certain questions.

There have been several political and economic upheavals through the history of the Indian subcontinent. The administrative and economic changes that enabled a shudra or lower caste community such as the Patels to “attain the savarna” through economic and political success were surely not the first instances of such change. Such changes would have taken place innumerable times in the history of the subcontinent and, as indicated by the rise of the Patels, communities must have held alterable positions along the purported “hierarchy” of the caste system, and would have risen or fallen along this “hierarchy” depending on whether or not they thrived as a result of the political and economic changes taking place around them.

When communities could rise or fall in caste hierarchy by virtue of economic or political success or lack thereof, how then could any cosmological Hindu order have had a sustained, “widely perceived harmony” with everyday reality? Surely, it must have been clear all along to people in the subcontinent that there is a good amount of disharmony between the supposed “‘cosmological’ Hindu order” and everyday reality. In what contexts, then was this cosmological Hindu order remembered and considered relevant, if at all? What relation, if any, did it have to how people actually lived and interacted with each other?

Unfortunately, the possibility and impulse to raise such questions are often foreclosed by an idea pervasive in academic and popular discourse; that caste is at once remarkably rigid and remarkably flexible, allowing it to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances (2 decades of economic liberalisation and urbanisation in India is said to have eroded almost completely some of the foundational, characteristic elements of caste). What this idea indicates, in fact, is a concealed lack of clarity about caste and the caste system. Because we do not possess any significant depth of understanding about what caste and the caste system is, it becomes possible and imperative to, on the one hand, “update” its salient features and characteristics continuously, and on the other hand, go about discussing what is considered unquestionable, namely, the impact of caste: hereditary oppression and inequality. It is this lack of clarity about caste and the caste system that allows Shani and other scholars to write about developments such as Patels “attaining the savarna” through economic and political success while simultaneously referring to the enduring, and supposed arbitrary caste system based on birth, which Hindutva purportedly seeks to uphold.   


Focused only on arguments used to criticise Hindutva as a casteist phenomenon, one could conclude that such criticisms of the movement build a weak case for the indictment they hand down. The natural next step would be to say we need to build a stronger case by doing better, more in-depth research, by gathering more and better evidence. However, as this article has tried to point out, on one level, criticisms of the Hindutva movement as being casteist betray a blindness towards the larger reality of what is happening in India today. They feign ignorance of the social and political impact of caste-based politics in the country. But on another, more fundamental level, this discourse illustrates that while we indict the Hindutva movement of being casteist, within academia and popular discourse itself, there is no clarity whatsoever about what caste and the caste system are. When we do not know what caste and the caste system are, branding the Hindutva movement “casteist” cannot and does not further our understanding of the movement in any way. Instead by giving the impression that we have arrived at a correct diagnosis of what Hindutva is in India today, such discourse forecloses possibilities of asking better questions and ultimately of developing actual insights on the movement. Thus, the task at hand is not to find more and better ways of and reasons for saying that Hindutva is casteist, but rather, to examine how much this description actually tells us about the movement. If on examination we find it to be a dead-end, doors are open for us to head out and discover new and promising directions for the urgent, important work of understanding what the Hindutva movement is and its impact on the India of today and the future.


My sincere gratitude to Dr Prakash Shah, who has guided me through the many drafts of this article, kindly giving me so much of his time and the benefit of his expertise over the long period I took to develop this into something coherent. A big thank you also to Dr Sufiya Pathan whose sharp insights on earlier drafts of this article enabled me to tell the grain from the chaff.

The article was first published in Pragyata.com.


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