Broken People Broken Promises
Dalits face a new threat
from India's Hindu nationalists
by Jehangir Pocha
In These Times magazine January
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 lowcaste teenager 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
Iynched 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. t (Cow
slaughter, in deference to Hindu ~ sensibilities, is banned in
most of t India.) When news of the arrests t spread, a mob broke
into the police station and Iynched 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
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
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'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
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
"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
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,
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.