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Dalits face a new threat from India's Hindu nationalists.
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January 3, 2003
Broken People, Broken Promises
Dalits face a new threat from India's Hindu nationalists.

Stick-wielding Hindu mobs rampage through Gujarat last March. The riots left 2,000 dead.
Audiences in Bombay’s derelict Art-Deco cinema halls often hoot and whistle when their hero vanquishes a villain. Made to formula, Bollywood movies often end with the hero punching up a local thakkur, an upper-caste landlord, for the many injustices he perpetrated against the peasants during the preceding three hours. When the battered villain finally begs for mercy between sobs of guilt and remorse, the hero usually shows his softer side and reprimands the landlord. At this point, a police officer magically appears to handcuff the chastised villain and thank the hero for fighting the good fight: “Now the law will give him his punishment,” the officer says, as the curtain comes down to cheers.

But Bollywood is a fantasy.

In a 2,000-year-old hangover from one bad idea, India’s 250 million “untouchables,” who call themselves Dalits, and tribal people still endure crushing oppression and political manipulation from upper castes. The category of “untouchables” was officially abolished in India more than half a century ago, but despite affirmative action that has led to considerable gains for the group—two Indian governments have been led by Dalit parties—discrimination and persecution of Dalits are still rife. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of caste-based crimes occur in India each year. Very few of these are reported. Only a handful are ever prosecuted.

Caste conflict does not produce many soundbites or banner headlines. The stories of these silent sieges are buried in local newspapers and dusty police logs in remote Indian villages. They are about the grim, persistent denial of basic human rights to about 250 million people, and the regular but unspectacular injustices perpetrated against them by oppressors who consider them the lowest human life form. The dehumanizing nature of these crimes reveals more about the problem than sheer numbers.

  • India’s National Human Rights Commission reports that, in some areas, Dalits are still forced to live in segregated colonies and work in inhuman conditions. They are “denied the use of the same wells and the same temples as caste Hindus, and are even forbidden to drink from the same cups in tea stalls,” says Dr. K. Jamnadas, a leading Dalit activist.
  • In the aftermath of a 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, relief agencies were forced to mark their supplies of blood with the caste of the person it came from, or else people would not use them.
  • That same year in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, a low-caste woman named Sukhviri Devi was stripped naked and beaten to death by two upper-caste men. Her sin was to cross their path while carrying an empty pail—an inauspicious act. The attack occurred just days before President Clinton’s visit to the city.
  • In Bareilly, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a local official, Shabbir Ahmad, beat to death a low-caste teen-ager in 2000 for plucking flowers from his garden.
  • Last year in Lucknow, also in Uttar Pradesh, in a grotesquely medieval version of a classic romantic tragedy, a lower-caste girl and upper-caste boy were publicly lynched by their families, who were incensed at the “impure” relationship. Hundreds watched and applauded.

Even as many Dalits and tribals struggle for access to the full legal rights granted to them in 1950, they face a new and insidious threat from India’s Hindu nationalists—a threat that could subvert their fledgling political movement, unleash new waves of violence, and trap them once again onto the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy.

On October 15, as people all over India celebrated the Hindu festival of dusherra, five Dalits were arrested by local police in the Jhajjar district of the state of Haryana. Their alleged crime: killing and skinning a cow in public. (Cow slaughter, in deference to Hindu sensibilities, is banned in most of India.) When news of the arrests spread, a mob broke into the police station and lynched the five men in the presence of more than 50 policemen, city magistrates and government officials. Later, police admitted that there was no evidence against the men.

Ethnic tensions had been high in Jhajjar since 33 Dalit families converted to Islam sometime in August. Historically, many Dalits have converted to Buddhism, Christianity or Islam to escape the “badge of dishonor” orthodox Hinduism placed on them. Local NGOs and political parties charged that the attack had been politically motivated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, two Hindu fundamentalist organizations.

The attack brought into sharp relief the escalating tensions between Dalits and the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu nationalist movement that encompasses the government’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Sangh Parivar wants to unite all India’s ethnic groups against Muslims and Christians. In what has been described as a “war for souls,” the Sangh Parivar has launched an aggressive campaign to convince Dalits and tribals to surrender their traditional identities and follow mainstream Hinduism.

The BJP’s artful manipulation of Hindu-Muslim divisions brought it to power in 1998 as the head of a coalition government, but it has never won an absolute parliamentary majority. Suspicious of the BJP’s campaign for law based on Hindutva, an orthodox set of Hindu principles, India’s 250 million Dalits have found greater common cause with India’s 120 million Muslims and other minorities. Their alliance, thus far, has limited the BJP’s ability to further the Hindu nationalist agenda.

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The Sangh Parivar’s efforts to convert untouchables and tribals is a cynical attempt to fracture their sense of solidarity with Muslims. “The party wants to direct the combined force of this massive vote bank against Muslims and Christians, whom it despises, and transform secular India into a Hindu state ruled by Hindutva,” says Radhika Desai, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, who works with tribal communities in Gujarat.

The Sangh Parivar claims that their efforts to absorb these people “back” into Hinduism is an attempt to ameliorate the caste differences that have separated Dalits and tribals from mainstream society in the first place. But a closer look at the Sangh Parivar’s conversion programs reveals a different agenda. In recent years, it has begun to establish a network of religious schools and development centers across India’s remote and tribal areas.

Funded extensively by the Indian expatriate community in the United States, these schools are the Trojan horse of the Hindu right. Luring credulous and desperately poor Dalit and tribal youth with promises of education and social uplift, the Sangh Parivar preaches a radical version of Hindu supremacy that gains strength at the expense of Indian Muslims and other minorities.

Desai and others charge that the Sangh Parivar, leveraging the devotional fervor of these unsophisticated new converts, is using the former “untouchables” as shock troops in their violent anti-Muslim pogroms.

Evidence of this emerged after the March 2002 riots in Gujarat—riots that were widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar. The riots, which were retribution for an earlier attack by Muslims on a train carrying Hindu fundamentalists, left 2,000 dead and 100,000 homeless. Witnesses and investigators said the local BJP government and Sangh Parivar groups systematically trucked intoxicated mobs into Muslim areas, directing them via computerized lists to destroy Muslim property. Within hours, a state renowned for its ancient citadels and verdant hamlets lay blood-drenched, scorched and pillaged.

According to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, areas where large numbers of youth are enrolled in tribal development centers experienced some of the worst violence against Muslims. As smoke still billowed from burning cities and scorched fields, K.K. Shastri, chairman of a Sangh Parivar group in Gujarat, publicly praised rioters from an area where his group runs a tribal development center: “They have done an amazing job.”

“The irony of it all,” says Deepika Chadha, an activist in Gujarat, “is that the most backward community, the tribals, were being manipulated into battering the next most backward, the Muslims, at the behest of the most privileged.”

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Despite promises to the contrary, critics say, the converts from the Sangh Parivar religious schools are not treated as equals in their new faith. In an ingenious move designed to retain the basic principles of caste superiority, Dalit and tribal converts are assigned to worship only the minor gods of Hinduism, like Hanuman, the warrior monkey-king who served Ram, but not major gods like Ram himself. “Making tribals and Dalits worship a minor god who was a disciple of their own god is not a way of giving them a place, but a way of showing them their place,” Desai says. “It’s like Christian missionaries seeing new converts as somewhat unworthy of worshipping Christ and teaching them to worship Peter instead. It’s not conversion, it’s subversion.”

While aggressively pursuing its own “conversion strategy,” the Sangh Parivar and its allies are sponsoring state-level legislation banning religious conversion. Legal experts say that the legislation is written in such a way that it uses the Sangh Parivar’s definition of Hinduism to delegitimize Dalit conversions to Islam or Christianity, while allowing Dalit conversion to Hinduism. Recently the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is governed by a BJP ally, became the first state to pass such a law. More states are poised to follow, even though restrictions on conversion defy India’s constitution.

To curry support from the electorate, the Sangh Parivar is packaging its call for a homogenous Hindu identity around the age-old argument that divisions within Hinduism weaken India. It claims that it is protecting India and Hinduism, which it sees as synonymous, from the “foreign influences” of Islamic Pakistan, Communist China and the Christian West.

To further isolate Muslims and Christians, the Sangh Parivar is also pressuring India’s non-Muslim and non-Christian minorities—Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists—to embrace the Hindutva platform. In a sweeping and novel definition of Hinduism, the Sangh Parivar claims that all people and faiths with “roots in India” are Hindu. In this view, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are merely Hindu sub-sects.

The situation reveals the complex tessellation of caste and religion that is driving India’s increasingly ethnic politics. “The BJP’s main aim today is to try and gloss over historical differences within Hinduism and mold Hindus into a single vote bloc it can control,” Desai says. “But the Sangh Parivar’s vision is not of a faith where all are equal. It is of a faith where all others agree to abide by the orthodox rules of a select few. ... It is Brahminism revisited.”

Jehangir Pocha, a native of Bombay, is an international journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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