Caste Is More Relevant to Indian Politics Than Ever

New Bollywood movie has sparked anti-Muslim hatred and is being watched by Hindu audiences. In the name of India’s Hindu majority, hijabs are banned in one Indian state and Muslims attackedYou can pray publicly in New Delhi. A hardline Hindu supremacist, infamous for his anti-Muslim comments and for policies that demonize or exclude Muslims, wins a second term as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. This victory can be seen as a strong endorsement for the ideology. Hindutva.

The belief that India is not a secular nation, or even multi-religious, but an intrinsically Hindu country, is the central platform of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the “Hindu majority” invoked by supporters of HindutvaTheir agitation against Muslims, and other minorities is not an isolated group. Actually, the group is extremely stratified. Elite groups of Hindus are able to exploit the vulnerability of those who have been marginalized for their political ends.

Hindu unity may be just a façade. This means that while the Hindu-Muslim binary is an acceptable framework for Indian politics discussion, it cannot be straightforward.

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The complex Indian caste system must be understood in order to fully appreciate the subtleties of Indian politics. At three thousand years old, this system of organizing Hindus by their professions and obligations is the world’s longest running hierarchy and probably the most rigid. There are approximately 3,000 major castes with as many as 25,000. The top is Brahmins who are intellectuals. At the bottom, Shudras, or menials, are the sub-castes.

Lying outside this system are the Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”) and the Adivasi (indigenous tribes), together totaling 350 million people, or just over a quarter of India’s population. Although they represent the lowest socio-economic status in India, Hindu nationalists view them as useful soldiers against Islam.

“Hindu nationalism is led by the upper castes and their incitement of all Hindus against the Muslim minority is a ploy that enables them to keep their grip on Hindu society,” says the welfare economist Jean Drèze. “It makes it all the more difficult for Dalits and other exploited groups to question their own oppression by the upper castes and revolt against it.”

The political manipulation of India’s caste system

However, it is possible that Hinduism will be more popular than other religions for those in disadvantaged areas who are not part of the caste system. Some temples in Hinduism are restricted to Dalits only. No surprise Dr. Bhimrao RAMji Ambedkar (1891-1956), revered Dalit leader, was the chief of the Indian constitution-drafting committee and urged all Dalits to become Buddhists.

The idea of HindutvaThis would seriously weaken the country. Mass conversions of Dalits have been made. Indian law has been taken to block Hindus from leaving India.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu Nationalist organization and parent of the BJP is making extensive but late efforts to include Dalits as well as Adivasis into the Hindu fold. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, told a gathering in January that the caste system was “an obstacle to Hindu unity.” Last year, he also said “we consider every Indian a Hindu.”

The RSS uses such language to make Dalits feel more accepted by a society that previously excluded them. Dalits are told that they are “the real warriors of Hinduism.”

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The next step is conversion “into active anti-Muslim sentiments,” says Bhanwar Meghwanshi. Meghwanshi is a Dalit-rights activist today. He was previously a member of the group and wrote a book about it entitled You Couldn’t Be Hindu: The Story Of A Dalit In the RSS.

“We were trained to hate Muslims,” he says, “so we could be [RSS] foot soldiers in anti-Muslim riots.” (Tellingly, the great majority of those arrested in the 2002 Gujurat riots were from Dalit and other disadvantaged groups.)

Its middle initial is, ironically, for swayamsevak or “self-reliance,” when the RSS is heavily reliant on Dalits and Adivasis to do its dirty work during periods of communal violence.

Problematizing the situation is the fact, that Muslims are also divided by castes in a manner that is similar to the Hindu system. Indian Islam is not without its challenges. Ashrafs (nobles), ajlaf(commoners), arzals (“despicables”).

The political manipulation of disadvantaged castes will continue so long as they refuse to see that they are “simply pawns in the middle,” being led by “oppressor castes,” says Suraj Kumar Bauddh, an anti-caste activist and the founder of Mission Ambedkar. “Whether they are Hindu lower-caste communities, or Muslim lower-caste communities, they are only told to kill and die, to gain acceptance within either fold.”

The existence of a ready supply of expendable fighters can only exacerbate India’s spiraling religious tensions. Now more than ever, Dalits, Adivasis—and disadvantaged Muslims—must reframe the political debate.

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