By Ram Puniyani
“I exist in all beings. Whatever their name or colour, all have the same ability and deserve the same respect. All are my own. No one is superior or inferior based on the scriptures. What the pandits say is a lie. We have lost our way by getting entangled in this imagination of superior and inferior castes. This delusion has to be done away with.” These are the words of Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak or chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party and numerous other organisations working to turn India into a Hindu nation. He was talking on the occasion of Saint Ravidas Jayanti.
Swami Prasad Maurya, a leader of backward classes in Uttar Pradesh, latched on to Bhagwat’s remarks and re-emphasised his call to revise Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, which has passages that belittle the Dalits and women. On the other end of this debate, the conservative Shankaracharya and others defended the caste system, calling it god-created and saying Bhagwat should not blame Brahmins. To save face, the RSS finally sought to clarify that by “Pandit”, he means scholars and not members of Brahmin castes.
In the entire controversy, we can find the Hindu nationalist stable’s attempts to woo the Dalits and other excluded sections of Indian society. The RSS has been in a constant dilemma on this front. On the one hand, it wants to maintain the pre-modern status quo regarding caste and gender. But it also wants to win over these sections to gain the numbers that can back its political and social agendas. It is in this light that we can look at the changing statements from the top echelons of the RSS regarding caste over the years.
Recall that one factor that prompted the formation of the RSS was the struggle of downtrodden sections to break the shackles of landlord-Brahmins. The Non-Brahmin Movement, which started in the pre-colonial movement, contested the hierarchical caste-based order and demanded equality and justice. Movements of this nature became a significant factor that prompted the social and caste elites to band together and form the RSS and other such outfits.
The initial position of the RSS was articulated by its second chief, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. He upheld the Varna-caste system and eulogised the Manusmriti. His book, We or Our Nationhood Defined, portrayed the past as a golden era. For him, the holy scripture was this book, and it defended the caste system as based on “scientific” principles. Organiser, the unofficial RSS mouthpiece, presented it in these words on 1 December 1952: “If a developed society realises that the existing differences are due to the “scientific” social structure and that they indicate the different limbs of the body social, the diversity [i.e., the caste system] would not be construed as a blemish.”
Later, another RSS ideologue, Deendayal Upadhyay, also a president of the BJP, put forward the ‘integral humanism’ construct. Many from the Sangh Parivar say integral humanism guides their politics. As per Upadhyay’s book, Integral Humanism, “In our concept of four castes [Varna system], they are thought of as different limbs of Virat Purush [Primeval Man]. These limbs complement one another, and even further, there is individuality and unity. There is a complete identity of interests, identity, and belonging. If this idea is not kept alive, caste can produce conflict instead of being complimentary. But then that is a distortion.”
These articulations consolidated the base of the politics of the RSS-BJP among sections of the Hindu population. When the RSS felt these ideas had been adequately established, it began propagating that all castes are equal. In this direction as well, they published three books. Written by RSS ideologues, these texts argue that Islamic atrocities during the medieval period resulted in the emergence of untouchability and lower castes. These books are “Hindu Charmakar Jati”, “Hindu Khatik Jati”, and “Hindu Valmiki Jati”.
Sangh Parivar leaders claimed these castes came into existence due to atrocities by so-called foreign invaders and did not exist in the Hindu religion earlier. According to the RSS leader Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, “Islamic atrocities” in the medieval era led to the emergence of untouchability. He also said, “To violate Hindu swabhiman [pride] of the Chanwarvanshiya Kshatriyas, foreign invaders from Arab, Muslim rulers and beef-eaters, forced them to do abominable works like killing cows, skinning them and throwing their carcasses in deserted places. Foreign invaders thus created a caste of charm-karma (dealing with skin) by giving such works as punishment to proud Hindu prisoners.”