October 21, 2002


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Amberish K Diwanji

Why should any Dalits stay Hindu?

First, the good news! The Supreme Court recently declared that any Hindu, regardless of his caste, has a right to officiate as a priest, either at temples or at ceremonies. Finally, the Supreme Court has annihilated millennia-old birth-based caste rights and privileges, thereby clearing the final hurdle, since all other professions/vocations are already open to all people, irrespective of caste.

Yet, laws are meaningless if not implemented, and India is notorious for that. Now it is imperative that anti-caste groups get all the major temples of India to open up the job of priests to people of all castes. This will not be easy and there will be resistance from various vested interests, often in the claim of protecting Hindu tradition or some such stuff. But the battle against caste needs to be raised to another level: to having priests in all the temples of India and the world: whether Tirupati, Puri, Vaishno Devi, Ujjain, or the millions of smaller temples. We need priests to be drawn from all castes to perform the rituals and rites at all the ceremonies. It is certainly a step in the right direction.

There is also very, very sad news, and one that my many critics who responded to my previous article would do well to note. There was this horrible report of how some Dalits were killed for trying to skin a dead cow (the news reports insist the cow was already dead, the culprits claim it was alive when the attempt to skin it was made) in Haryana. The role of the local police in trying to stop the mob from lynching the Dalits remains confused and unclear. But what is clear is that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's local unit is claiming that the lynching was to save the cow and actually wants the police not to arrest those involved in the lynching. Is the VHP protecting those who killed Dalits? Is it any wonder no Dalit group ever takes the VHP seriously?

Now, what message does this horrendous lynching send out? That, for the so-called upper castes, a cow's life is more important than that of Dalits; that a dead cow was worth five Dalits? Is this acceptable? Where is the justice in this? Where was the need to kill five Dalits?

If after this gruesome crime when some Hindus turned against Dalits, the latter decide to convert to another religion and seek safety within that religion, what will the VHP and all those who oppose conversion say? How come no other Hindu in the village (including the local VHP chaps) thought it necessary or important to save the Dalits? Does this not prove that some Hindus (especially those lousy VHP sorts) simply do not see Dalits as fellow Hindus? Yet, these very same Hindus holler and shout when Dalits convert? What utter hypocrisy? Why do they care? Is it because they are scared of Islam? And why shouldn't the Dalits convert? Why?

Please read the column my friend Varsha on the same subject. And then understand why millions of Dalits just hate Hinduism and Hindus. Maybe now some readers who are strongly against conversion will now understand why it keeps on taking place.

Amazingly, most (though not all) of those who wrote in to flay my earlier article were mostly upper-castes; but that the few who actually said they wanted the right to convert without interference from the government were (mostly) from the lower castes. And after this dastardly killing, why should any Dalit stay a Hindu? Can anyone answer this question? What gives that pathetic outfit called the VHP even the right to demand a ban on conversion? The fact is that the VHP only cares for the Dalits and Adivasis because they don't want them to convert; the fact is that most VHP members strongly believe in the caste system and hate the Dalits and Adivasis, perhaps as much as they do the Muslims.

To get back to my previous column: let me put the record straight. I am not against Brahmins or upper castes; I am against casteism as perpetuated by some such persons, who are from the upper and middle castes. It is a complaint against believing and perpetuating the concept of high and low, of purity and pollution, of privileges enjoyed by some and denied to others, and of the rights of some people to convert without let and hindrance, but not, repeat, not under undue influence (If the Dalits in Haryana now convert, the only influence is the outrageous and unacceptable behaviour of the so-called caste Hindus who attacked and killed them). It is to the eternal credit of many Brahmins and upper castes that they were and are in the forefront of the fight against casteism; such men and women are only to be lauded.

My previous article was a complaint at how even today, while many view conversions with suspicion; yet they also baulk when it comes to bestowing rights upon those denied privileges by Hindu society. Perhaps this is best surmised by the fact that it was finally the Supreme Court that opened up the posts of temple priests to all; how is it that in all these decades, Hindu groups did not force the government to bring in a law in Parliament demanding such a right for all castes?

Second, as has been pointed out, it is very true that today, casteism is also, and increasingly, perpetuated by the so-called middle castes like the Jats in Haryana and Rajasthan, the Thevars in Tamil Nadu, etc. No one denies it, and proof comes from the fact that the Dalits and Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh have ganged up against the middle castes like the Yadavs (there is also a political angle to these coalitions). This aspect was mentioned in my previous article, but in the heat generated, I guess few cared to read it. The word Brahmin is used in the generic form for those who believe in the outdated notions of Brahmin superiority. It is not used to hurt individuals.

The tragedy is that as the middle-castes Sanskritise (to use M N Srinivas' famous phrase to describe the social mobility of the so-called lower castes towards the so-called upper caste habits and values), many of them also acquire the prejudices that the so-called upper castes held or hold - notions of high and low, purity and pollution, and (economic) privileges and denial. This even as many so-called upper castes, especially in urban areas, willingly discard their caste prejudices, or at least try hard to do so.

Some of the other reasons for this animosity between the middle-castes against the Dalits and Adivasis have much to do with politics and economics: mobilizing along caste lines, rights over land and water for farming, and the battles to join government service, perhaps the ultimate symbol of Sankritisation. But while such feuds are part of a developing society, in India, the caste system adds a religious dimension to an economic and social struggle, which only makes it worse.

Finally, many have written in of wrong doing and suffering at the hands of the Dalits. As one reader asked, how can one be sure that there will be no discrimination under a Dalit raj? The simple answer is that if there is, many will protest against it as I do now. The fight is against injustice and discrimination, not against any specific group. Right now, since the Dalits and Adivasis are at the receiving end, the fight is on their behalf.

Amberish K Diwanji

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