Bulldozers, caste and communalism dictate identity in the Hindu Rashtra
Dalits are Hindus at election time but at other times and at places other than the polling booth, the Dalit boy at Rae Bareli must still lick the upper caste boy's feet from heel to toe
Neither anger nor sadness but a sort of numbness gripped me as a bulldozer was brought into focus, its giant fingers crashing on the roof, scratching the walls and probing deep into the entrails of the house. Within minutes the house was a heap of rubble.
It was impossible to reconcile this image with the bubble taking shape in my mind. The year was 1995. Frank Wisner, one of the most charming of the US ambassadors, looked at me in bewilderment and, without change of expression, pressed the intercom for his counsellor: “I am sending you someone with a case that with tickle you.”
The counsellor was tickled. My daughter was keen to get a US visa stamped on her passport (She had been invited for a seminar in New York) and she was keen to surrender the documents which gave her permanent residence in the US, where she had spent eight years in the groves of academe.
A visa stamped at last on her Indian passport, with an elevated self esteem she went about her duties as a social worker in some remote part of the state which Yogi Adityanath now administers as its Chief Minister. It was once my home state too.
The return journey from her place of work, was in a jam packed second class compartment. She found a seat next to a family having fruit for lunch. The man, a kindly soul, offered her an orange.” Abhi mood naheen hai.” (Thanks, but I don’t feel like having an orange.) The man persisted: “Le lo beti, hum koi mussalman naheen hain.” (Take it, daughter, I am not a Muslim.)
Pride in an Indian passport and the reality of the new emerging India must have hit her like a rifle shot.
I returned to some more bulldozing accompanied by a cacophony of speakers supporting or opposing the spectacle. Then, at Prime Time, Rishika Baruah of NDTV came into focus anchoring a carefully compiled catalogue of atrocities against dalits. The first episode is in Rae Bareli. A group of upper caste boys have encircled a boy from one of the lower castes. The leader of the gang, in jeans and a t-shirt watches the boy being beaten by his friends. Then as a grand finale, the leader, seated on a large high stone, stretches out one leg. The gang then invites the lower caste boy to lick their gang leader’s foot from heel to toe.
The next scene shows a man in shirt and trousers being instructed by middle aged men to lie on his stomach and rub his nose in a circle marked in chalk for clarity. He apparently had the temerity to stand on a stones outside the temple to watch a show.
The third incident shows a girl with a thali full of puja items being turned away by the priest from the temple where she has come to make an offering because of her examinations the next day.
The piece-de-resistance is the bridegroom who comes riding a horse. Before the bridegroom is received by his bride and her family, the village influentials encircle him. One of the village superiors leaps to the height of the horse and administers an almighty slap on the bridegroom’s face, even as the bride watches in horror. How dare a dalit come riding a horse? Oddly this rare focus on dalit atrocities is not backed up by screaming discussants on a long leash.
Provide an instance of hijab in schools, beef in a refrigerator, love jihad and such like provocations: this is the stuff channels instantly divide their screens into four, six or eight windows. From the very start, discussions are a cacophony, with two priceless mullahs thrown in, speaking out of turn.
The hoopla that attends coverage of subject of a communal colour is singularly missing in Rishika Baruah’s impressive catalogue of atrocities against dalits. Each one of the episodes would have yielded a sober discussion on social inequity, the barbarism it can lead to. Remember the dalit girl of Hathras – raped, murdered and cremated under police protection past midnight without as much as informing the girl’s parents. M. N. Srinivas, the great sociologist, asked the pithy question which cannot be easily answered. “What is Hinduism without caste?” Scholar, S. S. Anant introduces another complexity: the three upper castes have relative stability in their enclaves.
The lower castes who are subdivided into a hierarchy of a hundred sub castes live under a firm stipulation: in times of distress they may descend to take up the occupation of those below them but they may never ascend even a notch.
All of this material is like the categories of Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal among Muslims in feudal times. These categories were recognized but treated like family secrets not to be shed light on. Likewise caste during elections is thrashed to smithereens, divided and subdivided into a hundred categories to fulfil electoral needs. But once elections are over, the subject which defines so much of our lives is tucked away in the mind’s most dark caverns.
It has to be left undiscussed because one half of Hindu society does not wish to place its warts before a mirror; the other half can’t imagine a social order without caste. Caste, in other words is an ancient social habit, inextricably woven into our lives. Communalism is a political project which helps contain caste to some extent. The fear of Muslim as an enemy image may result in Hindu consolidation but only politically. Socially that upper caste boy in Rae Bareli still gets the lower caste boy to lick his foot.
On another scale, embers left behind by caste-communal friction can prepare the ground for Savarkar’s or the RSS’s idea of Hindu nationalism. That will also require Kashmir on a boil forever, relations with Pakistan on torrid heat always and Hindu-Muslim enmity, in perpetuity. Are we ready for it? Or should we defuse issues by setting up a permanent dialogue towards Hindustan?
( The writer is an independent columnist. Views are personal)