This August 15 shall be remembered as the day when one part of this ‘independent’ population demanded independence, writes Bishwadeep Mitra.
August 15, 2016: This day, this year, a new history is beginning to take shape. A history, which is inclusive. An alternate history, whose roots are too deep to be ignored, and yet they are often cropped and pruned. A history, which tells the sombre tale of India at war with herself. A war they don’t tell you about. And a war that the Indian State has been waging for the past 70 years, ever since the transfer of power took place. It has proudly but secretly continued the legacy of its predecessor. As Arundhati Roy said, “Since 1947, there has not been a single day where the Indian Army has not been deployed against its own people.” And the war is not always seen on the streets. It is not always conspicuous. This day witnessed the usual zealous celebrations of Independence Day, which reverberated every corner of every street.
The ultra-nationalist outfits’ raging love for their motherland echoed the nationalist rhetoric with ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai!’ But the curfew in Kashmir continued to burn. And thousands of Dalits on the streets of Gujarat chanted ‘Hum kya chaahte…!’
The screams of Kashmir echoed in Gujarat on August 15, after four Dalits were brutally beaten and stripped for skinning dead cows in the town of Una on July 20 by self-proclaimed Gau-Rakshak samitis. With the ever-increasing tide of violence and brutality against Dalits and minorities in the country, since the NaMo government came to power in 2014, the Una tragedy was the final drop of water in the communal dam of the BJP and its large uncontrollable family. The movement that followed after the incident has been unprecedented in the history of mass uprisings of this country. But what do we mean when we say that this particular battle is unprecedented and revolutionary? To answer this, we need to go back to the fundamental politics of Hinduism and the inherent hierarchical structure residing in it: caste. This will bring us to the next important question on the veneration of cow in India. Why and how has the cow become sacred? Combining these two questions might lead us to understanding the alternate history that the Dalits have created.
Caste System: Classification of LabourWhat is caste? Although this discourse has been in the academic rhetoric for long, it needs to be asked time and again, because caste is the primary economic keystone of Hinduism, which bifurcates to its cultural implications rather than the opposite. A caste is a class of people who pursue the same occupation. The four varnas of Hinduism are occupation-based which people have practiced for generations i.e. a Brahmin’s son will be a born Brahmin and will continue on in the same occupation as his father. The top-most in the pyramid are the Brahmins, the divine interceptors of God. Once God comes into the picture, the Brahmins attain absolute authority because ‘against the divine reason there is no human reason, and against the justice of God no terrestrial justice holds.’
The other three varnas include Kshatriyas (the warrior class), Vaishyas (businessmen, artisans and farmers) and Shudras (labourers). Dalits comprise that part of the population which is completely out of this varna system – the forgotten people, the ‘impure’ people who live off ‘impure jobs’ such as skinning dead cows, working in leather tanneries and cleaning latrines and sewers. Segregated and alienated from the society, every Dalit has lived through centuries of oppression, torture and denial to basic human rights. They are the people whose very survival is so that they can continue to do the ‘impure’ jobs for the other varnas.
This hegemony of exploitation narrates the tale of classification of labour, where a labourer (in this case, a Dalit) is given just the means to survive.
Hinduism normalises and legalises this economic hegemony via the Brahmins. The concept of reincarnation is a carefully calibrated strategy of maintaining this hegemony.
If you start wondering why things are the way they are, the answer is right there: because you committed a sin in your previous life whose consequences transcend to the next. Everything is predetermined. Hinduism laid bare, is an extremely careful, calculated and cunning invention of the then powers-that-be to preserve and perpetuate the social, political, economic, cultural, and therefore religious hegemony – a slave society in its most virulent form. It is only this practice of the caste system that cuts across almost all the Hindu traditions and sects. Caste system is the only constant among all the variables of this slave rule. Its implications range from being covert to overt. Professions practised by Dalits have always been looked down upon in our society and even after centuries, chamar (leather tanners) is slang in India. This is one of the scores of abuses, which are used till date in a ‘secular’ state like ours, a benign but sharp instance of Hindutva cultural imperialism. Along with the understanding of caste, central to Hindutva politics today is the worshipping of the cow. The socio-economic conditions leading to it are of utmost significance in the contemporary political scene of the country.
Rise of Hinduism and Veneration of the Cow
Every religion has politics behind it and politics is driven by the instruments of power used by the ruling class to perpetuate its reign. Hindus consider the cow to be a sacred and pure animal. Why? The official reason was that the cow was an ever-giving animal representing life and Mother Nature on earth who are ever-giving too. To dig deeper and to find the socio-economic conditions leading to the decision to sacralise the cow is what might give us the correct answer. B.R.Ambedkar in his book ‘The Untouchables: Who They Were and Why They Became Untouchables?’ extensively discussed why the cow was deemed holy one fine day in Hinduism, while previously the religion had provisions of consuming beef and that Brahmins were invited to different households to consume the same. What was the turning point in history whose natural culmination is the Gau-Rakshak Samiti? The answer may be found in Hinduism’s struggle for supremacy over Buddhism that continued for almost four long centuries.Buddhism was against any kind of animal sacrificing in the name of religion. That it had no particular reverence for the cow was one of the major reasons behind Hindu priests becoming staunch vegetarians from regular beefeaters. Ambedkar assumes and rightly so, there was a deep hatred against the Brahmins and Hinduism in general among the population, because of the extensive consumption and killing of the cow, which was an important animal in the agrarian economy of the country.
To regain the lost influence, foothold and a higher moral authority in the country against the Buddhists, the Brahmins went one step further denouncing the sacrifice of cow – the sacrifice of an important agricultural tool hiding behind the garb of religion and divinity.
It must be noted that it is the natives of this agrarian economy (Indus Valley Civilisation) who would realise the importance of the cow. The Aryans who invaded the Indus Valley Civilisation continued to consume beef on a massive scale, as they came to be venerated. It is because the cow was deemed sacred in the Vedic times, Ambedkar points out, that it was slaughtered for the purpose of food and rituals. There was a time in the Hindu society when every other person used to consume beef as the lawmakers of the religion had made provision for it in their own prescribed constitution.
How did the Untouchables get the name and how is it related to the cow? Ambedkar provides a hypothesis in coherence with all the facts, as we know them. He theorises the ‘Untouchables’ as the Broken Men and makes two assumptions about them:
(a). “In a tribal war it often happened that a tribe instead of being completely annihilated was defeated and routed. In many cases a defeated tribe became broken into bits. As a consequence of this there always existed in Primitive times a floating population consisting of groups of broken tribesmen roaming in all directions…Untouchables are Broken Men belonging to a tribe different from the tribe comprising the village community.”
(b). “Broken Men were the followers of Buddhism and did not care to return to Brahmanism when it became triumphant over Buddhism”.
The remnants of the erstwhile Buddhism were a thorn in the throat of the burgeoning Hindu society. This aversion towards Hinduism coupled with a majority of the population becoming either vegetarians or non-cow eaters polarised the society at an unprecedented scale. While the broken men continued to consume beef (as did the Buddhist Bhikshus), Brahmins and non-Brahmins desisted from doing anything related to slaughter of the cow.
Here, there might be some room for conjectures. Dalits never came to be a part of the caste system precisely because they consciously chose not to. Segregated and alienated, their means of survival began to get associated with the remnants of the dead cow, along with the ‘impure’ jobs of cleaning sewers and waste as the rest of the society culturally condemned the same. This large unruly family of the ruling party (VHP, Bajrang Dal and so on) are but the only natural outcome and consequence of the seeds planted many centuries ago.
In the Hindutva symbolic order, the cow has come to represent the abysmal jargon of repression in violent contradictions to the reasons it is venerated for. Behind the veil of religion and rationale, lie 400 years of suppression and the Hindutva legacy of establishing itself with both covert and overt support of the administration.
The BJP government is filled with ironies. When a person is murdered for consuming beef (or goat), allegedly by one of the Gau-Rakshak Samitis, and the argument was whether that person had actually consumed beef or not, it would be safe to conclude the hypocrisy of the system is at its zenith in the largest ‘secular’ ‘democracy’. Narendra Modi had been silent all the while about the increasing violence against minorities in the country. It was only on August 8 (after the Dalit Pride March started) that he disowned the Gau-Rakshak Samitis and said that most of them are fake. Again, the only point worth noting is hypocrisy. It reminds us of the proud campaign of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, where it is the duty of every citizen to keep his country clean, and the government suffices the damage control by giving environmental clearances to all industrial projects and investments, while allowing thousands of tonnes of poisonous substances to be discharged into the sea. A cultural façade of cleanliness over the decaying regime of neo-liberal feudal economy. Disowning Gau-Rakshaks won’t dissolve the fact that India is yet to learn how to be secular. Modi’s inaction against the rising tide of violence and disowning of the local cow-vigilantes cannot be believed and vested in together.
The pledge by the Dalits in the Una Pride March not to touch cow carcasses or perform any of the ‘impure’ jobs is a severe blow to the archaic economic structure of this upper caste Hindu state. That they disagree to act out their pre-determined roles of just thriving and then being forgotten, is but the shadow that looms over Hinduism at large.
How will the economy survive if a huge part of the population consciously refuses to be exploited and challenge the age-old feudal regime?This is what brings us to the next pertinent question: The question of land, which is central to the agenda of neo-liberal ‘Development’. India is a country where capitalism proliferated but within the confines of the feudal structure. When the British came, all they did was enforce a pre-determined structure of capitalistic economy on the prevalent and functional contemporary feudal regime. After they left, the same old hybrid structure of feudalism and capitalism resumed. While the urban metropolitans reek of capitalistic excesses and proliferation, the rural areas are the abode of the still functional feudal regime. Deregulation of land and selling of the same to corporations has been the stance of every government that has come to power since the Indian market was opened to free trade in 1991. The upper caste ‘Hindutva Coup’ amalgamated with the neo-liberal economy demands lands for corporate sharks, both foreign and native. Corporate fascism cannot survive without land as it pumps the economy with jobs. Jobs are to be manufactured, for which industry is primary. And for an industry to be built, the utmost significant criterion is availability of land. With Dalits giving a one-month deadline to the Hindutva agents to return their lands (otherwise they would go on a Rail-Roko Andolan) is a threat to the very oxygen of the neo-liberal agenda of development. This stance of the Dalits hits deep inside the fortress where feudal hegemony and neo-liberal capitalism conflate.
Today, Dalits have challenged the very seed, which gave birth to the cabal of corporate fascism, nuclear nationalism and Hindu communalism. It is not much of an irony when we see the same colonial laws and colonial rhetoric continue to be used against Indians by Indians.
Criminalising Dalits by the present State sounds much like the criminalising of tribals by the British. It is the State that is to be accounted for and not one particular party. The mind of a Hindu upper caste heteronormative male is working harder than ever to suppress the questions and the voices that demand freedom. While Kashmir rests and ponders over its wounds, Dalits take up the baton of freedom deep inside the belly of the Hindutva laboratory and ask who is free!
This August 15 shall be remembered as the day when one part of this ‘independent’ population demanded independence. And that demand calls for the abolition of this poisonous caste system, slavery and ultimately the disruption of the extensive network of feudalism and capitalism.
Photo Credit: Javed Iqbal