If Hindus are in danger in India, it is because of its caste system

A man rides his bicycle past volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) taking part in Route March in Mumbai (File image)
Image Credit: Reuters

Hindu nationalist groups have skilfully built a discourse that Hindus are in danger in a ‘secular’ India, thus there is a need for a reassertion of Hindu identity and making India a Hindu nation. To build this ‘Hindu Khatre mein hai’ discourse, they have been blaming the high birth rate among the Muslim population and increasing conversions to Christianity by missionaries.

These half-truths, no doubt have created an illusory vulnerability among a large section of Hindus in India even though the ever-increasing Hindu population is more than one billion and continues to be 80% of the country’s total population. Not only that, Hindus have been in total control of the economic and political power of the country since its creation in 1947.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother ship of Hindutva forces, has achieved remarkable success in projecting Muslims and Christians as existential threats to Hindus in India. At the same time, the Brahmin male-dominated RSS has done everything to protect and preserve the evils of the 3000 years old caste system among Hindus. The RSS is so committed to caste hierarchy that it had opposed India’s modern constitution as it had wanted Manu-Smriti to be the basis of its fundamental principles.

India has miserably failed to integrate Dalits, tribal groups, and lower caste groups into the mainstream. Many of them are increasingly feeling disillusioned and losing hope of gradual social transformation as the upper caste dominated Hindutva forces occupying the center stage in the country have reversed the process

– Prof Ashok Swain

The strong belief of the RSS in the laws of Manu does not allow it to accept India as an inclusive secular state where every citizen has certain rights irrespective of caste, religion, or gender. While it expands with the help of tokenism its social base across caste divisions for political reasons, it still does everything to preserve social segregation among Hindus and the domination of upper caste over lower caste, Dalits, and tribal population. It is even opposed to reservation for these historically oppressed groups in government jobs and educational institutions.

Though the Indian constitution bans discrimination based on caste it does not abolish the caste system. Even there are definitional differences, there is a lot of similarities between caste inequality and oppression with racial inequality and oppression. However, while the rest of the world, particularly the West feels ashamed about racial inequality in societies India is probably the only country in the world where caste-based inequality is forcefully justified in the name of religion.

A divided society

Hindu caste system is a social structure that divided different groups into four major caste categories and keeps Dalits (untouchables) and tribal groups (indigenous population) outside of it. Brahmins and other upper castes constitute less than 20% of the Hindu population in India. India’s caste system has evolved into nearly 3,000 castes and 25,000 subcastes.

As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution was very right in saying: “As long as caste in India does exist, Hindus will hardly intermarry or have any social intercourse with outsiders and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.” Marriages among Hindus tend to be a sanctified ritual solemnised by families, so marriage as an institution continues to strengthen the caste system. Though inter-caste marriages are allowed within Hindu Marriage Act, only 5.8% of Indian marriages were inter-caste as per the 2011 census and there is no change to the trend in the last 40 years. Even, among the Hindu diaspora marriages outside caste is rare.

A rigid caste system

Marrying outside established caste boundaries continues to remain as a dangerous taboo as it can lead to social or community shunning and in many cases inter-family/clan violence and even so-called ‘honour’ killings. As the United Nations Population Fund estimates 5000 women and girls get killed by their family members in India every year. There are many cases where lower caste men also get killed by their upper caste in-laws.

Besides marriage, the other areas which are dominated by the caste system are religious worship and food. With the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, religious places and the food habits have taken the center stage of political discourse and with it, as the National Crime Records Bureau data reveals the rate of crimes against Dalits has increased significantly.

Caste hierarchy and oppression

The violence against lower castes and Dalits have become so common in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh that it does not even get media attention. This violence is most of the time associated with the victims’ caste hierarchy and dependent upon their resistance to or opposition towards accepting caste domination. Rape is often used as a weapon to continue caste oppression, and at least four Dalit women are raped every day in India. Women from tribal groups are subjected to atrocities even more.

While there has been the international condemnation of targeting minority Muslims in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, the other social group which continues to receive the wrath are Dalits, as they are usually sanitation workers and perceived to be unclean and carriers of the coronavirus.

India’s caste violence

The National Dalit Movement for Justice reported a 72% increase in the attacks against Dalits during the lockdown period in April and May 2020 compared with the same two months in 2019. Dalits are being killed more by caste violence than the coronavirus. The return of Dalits and lower caste migrant workers to their villages have intensified the upper castes’ attacks on them due to increasing competition over scarce resources.

India has miserably failed to integrate Dalits, tribal groups, and lower caste groups into the mainstream. Many of them are increasingly feeling disillusioned and losing hope of gradual social transformation as the upper caste dominated Hindutva forces occupying the center stage in the country have reversed the process.

In the 21st century, it will be foolhardy to expect that these oppressed caste groups, particularly Dalits will continue to accept discrimination. Instead of creating bogeys of Islam and Christianity, India’s Hindutva forces need to look within and end the regressive caste system.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden.

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