The return of BJP to power in 2014 was the return centre-stage of the caste question. Not that caste had gone away. Far from it.But our public life had been unmistakably altered by caste radicalism in the last few decades. 1990s onwards, powerful and triumphant dalit voices – intellectual, literary and political – transformed the nature of our democracy such that questions of caste injustice and caste assertion could no longer be circumvented, passed over, as it was done in earlier decades, by both reactionaries and progressives.
Nor could the dalit and the low-caste subject be any longer portrayed as mere outcast or victim. She had come into her own as an autonomous and assertive political subject, sometimes even the ruler. Christophe Jaffrelot called this India’s silent revolution, and rightly so. What we see today with the rise (and imminent fall) of Hindutva nationalism is an attempt at a counter-revolution, nothing less.
The Counter-revolution – Targeting Dalits
The signs are easy to read. Right after Modi’s win began the so-called gharvapasi campaign of the Hindutvavadis, seeking to reconvert to Hinduism those who had earlier seceded in favour of Islam and Christianity. While the issue was pitched as an issue of religion, it was clear that at the heart of the matter was caste.Those who had left Hinduism for other religions in the hope of escaping their low-caste status were now being offered reservation in exchange for their return to Hindu society. But were they being offered a high-caste status?
Could a dalit Christian or a Muslim julaha be welcomed back into the fold by anointing him a new Brahmin – even as a gesture of high symbolism? In the name of God, no! S/he had to return as a dalit and a shudra. Ironically, all this while the BJP tried to make cunning inroads into Kerala’s communist strongholds by calling upon the Izhavas and the Pulayas to return to the cause of Hindu nationalism.
Then came the controversies around the release of the government’s socio-economic and caste data and around the question of poverty and birth-rates – all of which the BJP tried to pitch as a question of Hindu versus Muslim demographics, disabling any genuine nation-wide rethinking about contemporary sociology of India. Then we were treated to the anti-beef drama, putatively targeting Muslims but provoking dalit communities who consumed beef to forcefully respond by holding beef-festivals in public. This was followed by the Bihar elections. While Amit Shah sat in the backroom with constituency-wise break-up of caste data doing his cynical electoral arithmetic, the Hindutvavadis proclaimed a possible roll-back of the government’s positive discrimination policies, even invoking Ambedkar to argue that reservations were always intended as a temporary measure. The election results speak for themselves. But the BJP clearly did not learn its lesson, or rather if it had indeed learnt the lesson, it would no longer have been BJP.
The battle lines seem precisely drawn – between a Hindutva-based nationalism and a caste-critique that shows up the impossibility of Hindu unity (or indeed Muslim unity, if the recent pasmanda discourse is anything to go by). Ambedkar will be a symbol of this fight, but on the basis of a recognition that times have changed drastically.
So the BJP went on to incite, from the very top level of the government, systematic persecution of dalit students in Hyderabad University, a university that is known for caste-radicalism of both its students and teachers. Rohith Vemula died as a result, but instead of mourning the bright young man’s untimely death, the BJP went all out to disprove Rohith’s dalitness. Even his bereaved mother was not spared the embarrassment of having to publicly clarify the circumstances of Rohith’s birth and childhood. When it became clear that they were axing their own foot by what everybody now understood to be an undisguised anti-dalit campaign, the BJP took out its trump card – nationalism.
The Trump Card of Nationalism
Dissenting students were now labeled anti-national, and the whole might of the state executive and judiciary unleashed against them. In JNU, dalit students, poor students and Muslim students – all those who had fought their multiple social disadvantages to arrive at the country’s premier university and then had the temerity of adopting some shade of communism – were now all targeted as terrorists. Afzal Guru, Kashmir and the army were invoked, papering over the fact that some of the persecuted students in JNU too were dalits and had dared the Hindutvavadis by supporting the worship of Mahishasura (in an inversion of the traditional roles of gods and demons in Hindu festivals) and the eating of beef by those who chose to do so. As Rochelle Pinto says in her prescient piece, attention was successfully diverted from the question of caste injustice that had returned in the last few months to slap the BJP in its face. The caste question was sublimated as the national question.
The BJP and its various extra-parliamentary organizations now mobilized on the streets, outside universities, in the media and in the courtroom to teach the anti-nationals lessons in nationalism. Matters became clear as crystal in Gwalior a few days ago – where a meeting organized by the Ambedkar Manch involving an Ambedkarite professor Vivek Kumar from JNU was attacked by ABVP members, who went on to not only fire gun-shots at the gathering but even burn the Indian Constitution, perhaps to avenge Ambedkar’s burning of the Manusmriti half a century ago!
This is the place where I should dwell briefly on the question – why universities? After all, the BJP has always prided itself on its preoccupation with schools and primary education – in the time of Murali Manohar Joshi as much as in the time of Smriti Irani. Catch them young has always been the RSS motto. Why then this interest in universities and in higher education? This is because the Indian university today is no longer the Indian university of the 1970s – elite islands of higher education in a sea of mass illiteracy. India’s silent revolution has changed it beyond recognition.
The extension of reservation to higher education institutions in the last couple of decades has turned universities into a deeply diverse space with complex social dynamics and heightened social and political relevance – with lower-caste students, first-generation learners and vernacular languages challenging the erstwhile dominance of upper-castes in education. The late Sharmila Rege’s reflections on teaching caste in caste-ridden classrooms demonstrate this beautifully. Needless to say, since Brahmanvad was historically based on a systemic denial of knowledge, lower-caste claim to higher education shot the university through and through with unmistakable political charge.
After all, not for nothing did Ambedkar put so much value on education early on and at a time when communists thought of so-called bourgeois education as no more than mere means of coopting the proletariat! This new politicization of the university space – evident in Hyderabad, JNU, Banaras Hindu University and elsewhere – worry Hindutvavadis no end. Because today’s university is a volatile, charged, even dangerous place – where new questions are raised, academic common sense and established political ideologies challenged, traditional figures of authority brought crashing down and above all, new kinds of social interaction – including cross-caste and sexualized social interaction – become possible. The university is today a space of miscegenation – unregulated inter-mixing of peoples and ideas, in the classroom, on campus, in hostels. And if the Hindutvavadis’ love jihad discourse is anything to go by, they abhor miscegenation because it dissolves boundaries between races and castes and ideologies.
Today’s university on the other hand is precisely that, a space of miscegenation – difficult and fraught as it may be in terms of interpersonal dynamics – and achieves routinely what the Dr. Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration through Inter-Caste Marriage could never do, despite high monetary incentives offered by the state to promote inter-caste falling-in-love! In a way, then, in the eyes of the Hindutvavadi, the spectre of caste radicalism becomes one with the spectre of a morally and culturally suspect university space. Hence the fury.
Caste Radicalism as Anti-Hindutva
All this is well-known. My purpose in putting all this together in one place is to push for a specific conclusion that to my mind needs stating in no uncertain terms. To put it directly, we are at a point in our history where caste radicalism has emerged as the critical force that will fight the Hindu right and its version of oppressive nationalism. The battle lines seem precisely drawn – between a Hindutva-based nationalism and a caste-critique that shows up the impossibility of Hindu unity (or indeed Muslim unity, if the recent pasmanda discourse is anything to go by). Ambedkar will be a symbol of this fight, but on the basis of a recognition that times have changed drastically.
If Ambedkar had had to face the immense obstacle of having to critique nationalism at the height of nationalism’s legitimacy as the only imaginable form of anti-colonial struggle, today we are no longer so burdened. Nationalism has by now been de-naturalized. Nationalism is no longer the only available political idiom, nor is it the default mode of expressing freedom and love for land and country. Above all, nationalism has by now blatantly and unmistakably displayed the unthinkable cruelties and exclusions that it can perpetrate on people in the name of the nation, peoples both its own and others’, peoples both inside and outside – by mobilizing unrestrained statism and militarism. A caste critique of nationalism – even more than ideologies of self-determination, which always teeter on the edge of degenerating into counter-nationalisms and duplicating nationalism’s evils – is the way forward in today’s India.
Left and the Ethic of Solidarity
The left, which despite its commitment to internationalism (or perhaps because of it) always bowed to the legitimacy of the nation-form, must learn a few lessons from this potentially new critique of the nation. The left must also wear its secularist credentials lightly, because caste radicalism is not always and not necessarily secularist. If Periyar was an atheist, Ambedkar was a Buddhist and many dalit communities have fashioned across India a variety of heterodox religions. Also, the left must mitigate its traditional penchant for using the party-form as an instrument of taking over mass movements and mass forums. It should learn to support and follow rather than always appear to lead.
In other words, at a time when we do see the possibility of a broadly Marxist-Ambedkarite critique emerging, there needs to be a delicate and sensitive rebalancing of intellectual equations and political alliances. For today, in the face of a resurgent Hindu nationalism, caste radicalism is indeed the crux – perhaps even more so than in the 1990s. Rohith is the symbol of the moment – a young dalit who did not only talk of dalit rights but staked a claim to science fiction, the most daring launch of imagination if any, beyond all sociological and cultural limits. If the nation has sacrificed him, the sacrifice must not go in vain.
(The author is a historian based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi)