Home English Carrying the legacy of Manu and Gandhi – How the upper castes have shaped the India we see today.
English - Social - July 1, 2021

Carrying the legacy of Manu and Gandhi – How the upper castes have shaped the India we see today.

Brahminism seems too hard-wired into Indian nationalism and the truncated Indian state it gave birth to. Brahminism implies not only the Brahminical ideas but the social structure it is built around – the caste system. The Indian National Congress was formed at the initiative of Alan Octavian Hume, a Liberal Scotsman. The early leaders of the organization were mostly Liberal upper-caste Hindus but there were also Muslims, Christians and, most notably, Parsees. Though they could hardly rise above the interest of their class -the middle class- and, by that token, mostly higher castes, many of them believed that caste and gender inequalities ought to go. Men like Gokhale were of opinion that social reform must precede political independence. They rightly saw India had much to learn from the West besides science and technology. This has been eloquently stated by Surendranth Banerjea, one of the founders of Indian nationalism, in his A Nation in the Making: ” But we cannot remain wedded to the past …Move we must, in this onward journey, assimilate from all sides into our character, our culture, our civilization, whatever is suited to our genius and is calculated to strengthen and invigorate it ..”

This forward-looking progressive vision of Indian nationalism would be swept away when Mohandas Gandhi with his atavistic vision captured the party to turn it into an instrument for mass mobilization against the democratic reforms set into motion by the British. Gandhi was a prophet of darkness whose entire endeavour was directed at protecting caste hierarchy threatened by the development of market forces, new English education and, political reforms that the British were introducing by phases. He was an unapologetic defender of the caste system or Varnashrama which for him was the ideal arrangement for revolving social conflict by keeping men with different abilities at their divinely ordained places. His “Hind Swaraj” is not the ‘self-rule’ of the early moderates but a new political order based on varnashrama, and not on the Western concepts of equality, liberty, rights and fraternity. For him to destroy varnashrama is to destroy the foundation of Indian history and doom its future. His Nai Talim or New Education is an elaborate system of caste-based occupational education where the pupil need not learn anything unrelated to this specialized education, or rather a mockery of it. Gandhi did his best to undermine the Montford Reforms as it would require democratic accommodation with Dalit, Muslim, Christian and tribal legislators elected to the state assemblies. In the early 30s, he was alarmed by the growing shudra and Dalit assertion. They were demanding access to water, education, social space and what is more ‘ annihilation of caste ‘, Gandhi came up with movement against untouchability, primarily to keep the Dalits in the Hindu fold while denying them equality, upward social mobility or guaranteed rights. He was stubbornly against conversion, not only to Islam or Christianity but even to Sikhism which brought him into a spat with Rabindranath Tagore who strongly defended a Dalit’s right to convert in order
to reclaim his human dignity.

After the Round Table Conference, the British conceded the Dalits a separate electorate, giving them two votes – one to elect someone from their community and another the general candidates. Gandhi saw in it a conspiracy to divide the Hindus. To stall this very humane provision empowering the Untouchables, he started his fast. It was the worst kind of blackmail against Ambedkar and Dalits on behalf of conservative caste Hindus whose vested interest he served. The nationalist press ( read Savarna press ) whipped up anti-Dalit hysteria and sympathy for the Mahatma who had staked his life to undo the mischief of the foreign rulers. Ambedkar had to give in to this undemocratic and inhuman demand as he was deeply concerned about the future of the Dalits in the comic Brahmin Bania Raj under the Congress. Gandhi’s devious agenda to disempower the Dalits( and also Muslims and Christians) came out most scandalously after 1937 elections. Of the total 148 Untouchables ( Dalits ) elected to the state assemblies,78 were elected on a Congress ticket but not one of them was given any ministerial portfolio. Mr Khare, the Congress Prime Minister of the Central Provinces was taken to task for accommodating Angibhoj, a well educated Dalit. His crime according to Gandhi was ‘to raise such aspirations and ambitions in the untouchables.’ As a consequence, Angibhoj was relieved of his position. The reservation in jobs that Dalits and tribals still enjoy is owing to the safeguards devised by the colonial government against all the vile machinations of Gandhi and his followers.

After the Independence, the Dalits became the full citizens of India by a constitution written under the auspices of the colonial government and piloted by Dr Ambedkar, a Dalit. As Dalits became more assertive, they began to face horrible atrocities reminiscent of those against the Blacks after the Emancipation. The Indian state, now nominally a democracy, functioned on the template prepared by Gandhi and the conservatives surrounding him. Nehru who saved India from a Gandhian apocalypse, however, had very little understanding of caste. As attested by Discovery of India, he had a sneaking admiration for Brahminism. Besides, as an upper caste leader, at heart, he was well aware of the danger of empowering Dalits or taking any measure to ensure their security. An incident, in an ugly manner, revealed Nehru’s attitude to casteism. In September 1949 India raised the matter of the segregation and other disabilities faced by Indians under the apartheid regime in South Africa. When the General Assembly was still in session, Rau ( make no mistake, a proper Brahmin ) India’s permanent representative to the UN proposed a compromise. In his ‘private and secret’ conversation with the SA counterpart, he confessed ” the feverish attempts in his country to destroy all caste inequalities .. in actual practice amounted to discrimination against the erstwhile ruling castes such as Brahmins “.He also pointed out most of the Indians who went there as indentured labourers were from the shudra and Dalit castes and therefore ‘ did not belong to the best type ‘.So he proposed a compromise formula – to offer citizenship to “.. a small number, say 10, from the cultured and best type of Indians ( read upper caste) “.In reality, India offered a casteist solution to the Apartheid which alas, was turned down by the Apartheid regime. Now as the Foreign Affairs ministry at that time was under Nehru, was it possible without his tacit consent?

Caste atrocities in their nature are not different from racist violence. When Berwa, a Dalit activist based in New York, approached the UN to redress caste-related violence, Mrs India Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, got angry. Since then all such attempts were opposed tooth and nail by the Indian government arguing, rather speciously, that caste does not come under race. Recent genome studies prove that caste has a strong element of what previously called ‘ race ‘.That apart, the UN document makes it clear that racial discriminations come under the ones based’ on descent ‘ or birth. Isn’t caste discrimination based on one’s birth? Now, why were the Indian authorities so apprehensive about caste oppression coming under racial discrimination? Because it would bring pressure on the Indian state to dismantle caste and make it accountable to the UN for caste-related discriminations and violence. The Indian elite, carrying the legacy of Manu and Gandhi, must resist such a possibility to buttress Varnashrama forms the basis of the Indian Republic. As with all their democratic pretensions, the USA and Australia have been white republics, India, even more egregiously, is a Brahminical one.

Author is Bhaskar Sur, Kolkata based Anti-Caste Activist

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