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Dalits face a new threat from India's Hindu nationalists.
Plus: Indians in America fund the Hindu right.
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January 3, 2003
Broken People, Broken Promises
Dalits face a new threat from India's Hindu nationalists.
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.
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.
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.”
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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