Braj Ranjan Mani
(First published in 2009)
The image of India is that of a democratic, multicultural, inclusive society. But more often than not, appearances are not reality. India is a republic—a secular, socialist, democratic republic—where millions of children, women and men remain demoralised, enslaved to the powerful, crying out for fundamentals of life. Fragmented along fault-lines of caste, class, gender, ethnicity, region and religion, each marginalised group is characterised as a “minority”, but together they form an overwhelming majority.
The notion of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ in India is deeply misleading. It is an elitist, hegemonic construct which enables the vocal minority, the ruling class, to pigeon-hole or ghettoise the oppressed majority into different categories of minorities or weaker sections. Children, women, dalits, adivasis, other backward classes (OBCs), Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and other ethnic-regional communities who account for 90 per cent of the total population are presented as minorities.
Every other religion other than Hindu is projected as minority, alien, foreign originated, and hence un-Indian or less national than the authentic Indian-national Hindu religious culture. The Hindu hardliners even portray them as anti-national if they have not been Hinduised enough, because everyone living in India, according to their perverse logic, is or has to be a Hindu. The militant Hinduism has a history of targeting other religions—Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism—but its worst bite has always been reserved for its own supposed co-religionists such as dalits, adivasis, OBCs. The devious concoction of “Hindu majority” has been a very effective ideological tool in the hands of the caste elites which they use to drive a wedge between each of the minorities/ weaker sections, and pit them one by one as per the exigencies of changed situations against the imaginary majority, thus keeping the marginalised majority divided and demoralised.
After half a century of democratic existence, India remains not just pluralistic, but also deeply divided, inequalitarian and intolerant. The world’s biggest democracy is also the world’s biggest theatre of injustices, exclusions, indignities, curtailments of life, liberty, and creativity of millions of its citizens. India’s record in denial of human rights and human development to a large number of its citizens is appalling, and easily one of the worst in the world. The spectacle of “deepening democracy”—the poor casting their votes on empty stomachs, in tattered clothes, hoping against hope of a life with dignity—is not able to arrest the rising tide of livelihood crisis, malnutrition, suicide and hunger deaths, and innumerable examples of brutality, dehumanisation and breaking down of human spirit in everyday life.
It is apparent that the ruling class is not interested in changing the conditions that make poverty so widespread, that fester the vicious circle of hierarchies, oppressions, and social violence. Technology-driven high growth is now generating resources that can make poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy history in a decade or two, but the entrenched interests that have acquired a vice-like grip on our democracy will continue to sabotage this possibility. Democracy has merely become the abuse of statistics.
The matrix of domination
In India, socio-religious and cultural logic of discrimination is provided by brahmanism. Brahmanism is the socio-religious and ideological engine of caste, the matrix of domination in Indian society. Caste and brahmanism flourished and played havoc for centuries, dehumanising and disintegrating a large majority of people as “lower castes,” “savage tribes,” and “untouchables.” Caste is a vicious form of social stratification based on the brahmanic system of hierarchical differentiation between human beings, in which those with supposed access to knowledge and spirituality dominate and exploit those who are bound to the materiality of production and a life of labour. As it is based on the belief that there are innate, biologically and psychologically based, differences among human beings, it celebrates and reinforces the idea that those born in higher caste or gender (male) are inherently pure, intelligent and worthy of respect; and those born in lower caste or gender (female) are inherently impure, stupid and worthless.
In other words, caste is a system of institutionalised discrimination with a strong racist and sexist element. Race, class, and gender—the fundamental axes of an oppressive society—are interlocked in caste-brahmanic system which makes it a permanently organised force of discrimination and domination.
Phule, the nineteenth century social revolutionary, saw caste and brahmanism as a colonial system of enslaving women and productive majority. Ambedkar, the great hero of the caste-oppressed, described caste as “a diabolical contrivance to suppress and enslave humanity” and brahmanism as a negation of the spirit of equality, liberty and fraternity.
This quintessential racist-sexist ideology was given a moral halo and religious gloss under the name of Varnashrama Dharma in one brahmanical text after another. The Vedic-brahmanic celebration of power, violence and oppression is usually drowned in fantastic elaboration on some stray ethical verse, didactic phrase or abstract philosophical proposition cut off from their proper context. So much so that even the greatest of modern pundits (such as Gandhi, Nehru and Radhakrishnan) and many progressive minds (including some socialists) remain enthralled by the philosophical grandeur of brahmanical Hinduism.
The Upanishadic metaphysical unity of atman (the self) with brahman (the divine) is proudly paraded as the glorious Hindu spirituality without bothering to understand how such ideals were interpreted in the real world where mind-boggling corruption and cruelties festered just beneath the veneer of the sublime and the beautiful. The fact that in order to identify atman or brahman, atman has to be separated from the empirical self betrays the utter irrelevance of such ideals in real social life. But the elites just see the outside beauty of the brahmanic philosophies and the “harmony” of the Varnashrama Dharma which supposedly provided a peaceful means of absorbing numerous groups within the Hindu society. Such writer-thinkers, as they mostly come from the brahmanical background, seldom bother to unravel their Dharma, the masterly moral code, and “open the trap doors of the great monuments of ancient Hindu intellectuals” and “enter into the dark cellars” of differentiated hierarchies and social cruelties.
The true colours of caste-brahmanism, calling the bluff of its elitist defence and apologia of all kinds, can be better understood by the stories of Shambuka, Sita, and Eklavya in the epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Shambuka, Sita, Eklavya are not just fabled characters. They are few in the epics; there must have been millions in the real life. Shambuka’s annihilation and Sita’s humiliation at the hands of Rama (who is revered as the Maryada Purushottam, the Man Supreme of Ethics), and the embodiment of an ideal teacher Dronacharya’s demand of Eklavya’s right thumb are just the symbolic tip of the iceberg of how the caste elites while monopolising all forms of knowledge and power, did not hesitate to eliminate rival talents with utmost brutality. Any one who threatened the supremacy of the caste elites was swiftly deprived of his life, or rendered ineffectual. The thing to notice is: characters like Rama and Drona remain the official upholders of the Indian morality. Gandhi, the father of the nation, wanted to bring back the mythical Rama-rajya, the regime of Rama based on Varnashrama. And the National government under Nehru instituted the Best Sports’ Teachers award in the name of Dronacharya.
Dominance survives resistance
Oppression generates resistance. There has been a long tradition of resistance against it. Beginning with the autochthonomous rebellions, multifaceted shramanism, Buddhism, various heterodoxies, the Natha-Siddha iconoclasm, the medieval Bhakti radicalism, Sufism, Sikhism and similar anti-ascriptive movements and ideologies challenged, sometimes directly and sometimes covertly, the dominance and discriminatory caste culture. This anti-caste, anti-brahmanical tradition has played a significant role in socialising and humanising Indian culture, a fact that has been erased in the elitist meta narratives which project the dominant and discriminatory tradition as the shaper of the wonderful Indian unity in diversity.
However, the equalitarian counter-tradition was never able to decisively subdue the forces representing caste and brahmanism, which kept changing their form under pressure from frequent eruptions of popular protests throughout our troubled history but without forsaking their basic dominant design. Caste and brahmanism continued to hold their ideological-cultural dominance. Fragmentations of caste, kinship, and village continued to institutionalise discriminatory hierarchies, sanctified by the brahamnic scriptures the majority was forbidden to read. Brahmanical precepts and prescriptions went on to become social attitudes and cultural common sense.
Hindu makeover of brahmanism
Contrary to the popular notion of a liberal, tolerant, inclusive religion—concocted and disseminated by the caste elites—Hinduism is a mere euphemism for the caste-centric Vedic-brahmanism which was earlier known as Sanatana Dhrama or Varnashrama Dharma. Caste is the soul of Hinduism without which it cannot survive, a fact that Gandhi, a great champion of Varnashrama and Hinduism, constantly underlined. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or Sikhism, this caste-centric religion, if it can be called so, came into existence as a particular form of social domination.
In a move of far-reaching consequences during the colonial rule, dalits, adivasis, and OBCs—the victims of brahmanic politics who had their own multifarious religio-cultural traditions—were included in the category Hindu. The British and Indian ruling class thrust upon them brahmanic scripture-based Hinduism as their religion. Colonialism, though it is not often understood, was based on the collusion and convergence of vested interests of the foreign and Indian ruling classes. As the British found in caste and brahmanism a very potent instrument to keep the Indians divided and subjugated for exploitation, the colonial rulers, like the caste elites, had an entrenched interest in consolidating brahmanical caste relations. This brought the foreign and Indian exploiters together to promote brahmanic Hinduism as the religion of all Indians other than Muslims and Christians. This brand new Hinduism got a new religio-cultural makeover on the strength of the Orientalist scholarship (which came up with many exaggerated or imagined things about the so-called Hindu religion and spirituality, especially essentialising the “other-worldly” India with spirituality in stark contrast to the “materialist” West) along with mischievous, fanciful interpretation of the rediscovered brahmanic literature by both Western and Indian pundits.
The brahman and allied intellectuals superimposed some egalitarian features and humanist ideals culled from the indigenous non-brahmanic socio-religious traditions as well as Christianity, Islam, and the emergent Western democratic ethos on their crude, hate-filled and caste-centric religion. This “syndicated Hinduism” or neo-brahmanism was then flaunted as liberal, tolerant, and uniquely assimilative of indigenous and foreign elements. Presenting their religion of caste and discrimination as noble, sublime, and the national religion of India, the caste elites succeeded in befooling the lowered castes who were gradually made to accept Hinduism as their religious identity. This was aided and abetted by the partisan pundits and opinion-makers, both Indian as well as Western.
Nexus between neobrahmanism and national politics
This neo-brahmanism in the avatar of Hinduism became the cultural-ideological foundation of the so-called nationalist politics. Despite differences of expressions and emphases, both the communal nationalism (Tilak-Savarkar’s militant Hindutva) and the so-called secular one (represented by Gandhi and Nehru) shared an incestuous relationship on the issues of caste and brahmanism. Its various corrosive, anti-people orientation not only dogged the colonial India, rendering the struggles of the caste-oppressed, especially the emanciptory movements of Phule, Periyar, and Ambedkar as divisive and anti-national, but after the independence regained a new lease of life under the brahmanical Congress, dashing the hopes and aspirations of the oppressed majority. This exploitative politics is buttressed by the cultural capital and the production and dissemination of knowledge which remain in the hands of traditionally aggressive castes which do not want human rights and social justice for the majority.
Caste-brahmanic mindset still overwhelms India. It dominates the domain of culture, knowledge-production, the media and academia.
Understanding and overcoming the oppressive present
To cut a long and complicated story short, caste and democracy, brahmanism and human rights cannot go hand in hand. Therefore, the first and foremost step towards an exploitation-free India is to understand the continuing hold of caste consciousness, brahmanic mindset, patriarchal values, and utter indignity of labour, all of which are interlocked , together forming a formidable matrix of oppression that continues to produce, reproduce, and maintain various injustices and inequalities despite the claims of deepening democracy.
The contemporary crisis has to a great extent been imposed by the cultural ideology of brahmanism and its functions through structured institutions like caste, class, patriarchy, religion and nation state.
The theory of one nation, attractive in appearance but oppressive in reality, was promoted by the dominant caste groups led by the ideology of brahmanic Hinduism, curtailing the aspirations and natural evolution of several independent nations/nationalities in this sub-continent.
Brahmanism that modernised itself and got a new lease of life during the period of British colonialism has subsequently, especially after Independence, entrenched itself as Hinduism in state, politics, governance, economics, culture and continue to dominate and divide the people into imaginary majority and minorities to discriminate and persecute members of other religions like Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, etc. In the name of religion what is attempted by the Hindutva forces is not the affirmation of faith, but the vicious power politics of polarising communities one against the other like Hindu vs. Muslim, Hindu vs. Sikh, Hindu vs. Christian, Hindu vs. dalit, Hindu vs. adivasi, etc. in order to maintain the brahmanical dominance.
The politics of brahmanism and its culture of intolerance have already played havoc, more so in the recent years by unleashing communal tensions, killings and riots which have destroyed the fabric of peaceful co-existence resulting in communal fascism leading to mass murder and xenophobia. The massive anti-Sikh violence of 1984, the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002, and the recent killings and persecutions of Christians in Orissa, among hundreds of lesser onslaughts and everyday violence against the “anti-national minorities” show the true colours of the protagonists of both the soft and hard versions of Hinduism.
As the neo-brahmanism has recently colluded with the forces of neo-imperialism on the common bond of aggressive all-round privatisation, it has further marginalised and excluded the historically disadvantaged communities, bringing livelihood crisis, acute malnutrition, farmers’ suicides and workers’ hunger deaths, forced migration, and large scale displacement, etc.
The ongoing onslaught on the people of Kashmir and the north-eastern region, and the way the Sikh aspirational struggles were sought to be suppressed and later given a twisted and criminal perception, is the ploy of the Hindu nationalist forces in response to their legitimate demand for self-determination. I would have dwelt more on the Sikh nation’s struggle against efforts to marginalize the community through both, annihilation as well as assimilation, but this audience knows perhaps even more than I do about such machinations of the official Indian nation state.
Contrary to brahmanical culture and ideology, several indigenous cultural streams have promoted an inclusive social vision with emphasis on the dignity of individuals and community, collective ownership, collective life, celebrating harmonious relationship with nature and commitment to an exploitative-free world from the beginning of Indian civilisation.
There is need to re-dedicate ourselves to a new freedom struggle to end all forms of domination, oppression, exploitation and achieve the human liberation and a life with dignity for all.
Without deconstructing the brahmanic mind, without breaking the spell of a dharma which is synonymous with caste, India cannot become a social democracy, it cannot guarantee human rights to its dispossessed citizens. This calls for an intellectual breakthrough, and a liberation struggle based on the unity of all the oppressed. Human rights and liberty are not given, they are taken, and it applies to Indian democracy.
[Courtesy: Voices of Freedom, 2009]