What Hindutva constantly forgets about Gandhi
Hindutva’s recent Dalit outreach – which CSDS data say was successful in 2019 – draws on a foundation of a model of Scheduled Caste integration with mainstream Hinduism once perfected by Gandhi.
The last three days have seen much talk about how conservative Hindus who support the BJP think about Mahatma Gandhi. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat wrote pieces on Gandhi’s contribution on October 2, his 150th birth anniversary, one came across videos of BJP supporters defending his assassin Nathuram Godse, much like its MP Pragya Thakur did in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
The relationship of Hindutva and Gandhi – the most popular leader of modern India who constantly identified himself as a Santani Hindu – has been a difficult one. The one major difference in their approaches has been that Gandhi constantly worked for Hindu-Muslim unity and dialogue and wanted to be “fair” to the minority, as he considered “truth” as the foundation of his Hinduism. Hindutva, on the contrary, has been wary of Islam in India.
Yet, there is a major similarity too. Gandhi wished to reach out to the Scheduled Castes, as he strongly believed that their retention in the Hindu fold at a time of competitive proselytization was crucial for Hinduism as also India. He saw himself as a representative both of India and of Hinduism. On the other end of the political spectrum, organisations committed to Hindutva were also trying a Scheduled Caste outreach, hoping to organize Hinduism into a coherent whole by doing so.
Several names come to mind when one thinks of Hindutva attempts at Dalit outreach. The Arya Samajist Shraddhanand is the foremost among these: he organised many Shuddhis (purification ceremonies) of the Scheduled Castes to make them “touchable Hindus”, though the idea of purification may itself be an admission of “pollution” as a social fact. Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar himself worked among the then Untouchables in Ratnagiri.
In other words, the belief that Hinduism ought to reach out to the Scheduled Castes to retain them within the Hindu fold is common to Hindutva and Gandhi. The latter was, of course, more successful, as his stature far surpassed anyone in the Hindutva fold in his lifetime.
It is the Gandhian model of engaging the Scheduled Castes that has helped not just the Congress but also the BJP and RSS reach out to them.
This has been the alternative of the broadly Ambedkarite model of an autonomous Dalit politics steering clear of Hinduism and its overtures in modern times. Rather, such overtures were seen as paternalistic, and a top-down strategy of preventing Hinduism from being swept away by a subaltern assertion aided by the colonial state, which thought it important to keep the “natives” divided on grounds like caste and religion. However, the truth is that both these models entail engagement and negotiations with the state and social elites, using the population of the Scheduled Castes as a bargaining strategy. It would be safer to say that while Ambedkar was a hard bargainer, someone like Jagjiwan Ram – who was the Congress’ most prominent SC leader – was more amenable to reconciliation in the face of upper caste attempts at outreach.
The biggest challenge to the Gandhian model of SC integration with larger Hindu society came in the form of separate electorates for the then Untouchables in 1932. Separate electorates meant that only the Scheduled Castes who would have voting rights could vote to choose their representatives from among SC candidates. In these reserved seats, non-Dalits would not have voting rights. Ambedkar felt that this would help send “true” representatives of the Scheduled Castes to legislatures, for joint electorates would return pliable candidates winning on the goodwill of the Hindu majority to legislatures.
Gandhi saw in the move the permanent sowing of seeds of conflict between “upper caste” Hindus and the Scheduled Castes. He wasn’t wrong in his assessment. For, separate electorates granted to Muslims in 1909 were a reason for Partition, something historians generally agree upon.
If engagement across cultural divides is necessary for the healthy functioning of a democracy, separate electorates were official attempts to carve out closed, exclusive, communities. A candidate would have no need to engage with social groups other than her own. And a “normal” way of trouncing a rival candidate would be to resort to an exclusivist pitch.
Ambedkar had a point that truly assertive SC legislators would come only via separate electorates. But this logic applies only for a certain time. After that, democracy also needs representatives to engage not just with their community but other communities too, whose votes are also important. In the absence of this, exclusivist, hate politics can become normal.
Gandhi’s epic fast-unto-death made Ambedkar relent and the Poona Pact replaced separate electorates with political reservation. This would ensure Scheduled Caste representation, but with the need for candidates to reach out to all sections of voters. Ambedkar considered this distorted representation – as a “purely” Dalit agenda could lead to defeat now – but Gandhi saw this as true representation, in line with his belief that society was about reconciliation between diverse groups.
This made the Gandhian model of Hindu engagement with Dalits an alternative to the Ambedkarite model of autonomous assertion and hard bargaining. If the Congress could garner SC votes for decades after the Poona Pact, the BJP is a recent beneficiary of this model.
The BJP seems to have emerged as a party of choice for the Scheduled Castes if CSDS data on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls are to be believed. As many as 34-% Dalits voted for the BJP this time. If we add the entire NDA vote, 41-% Dalits voted for the NDA. This is substantial support within the first-past-the-post system. Of course, one cannot know for sure how Dalits voted – ours being a system of the secret ballot – but the BJP’s huge success indicates that the CSDS data may be closer to the truth.
In other words, the BJP has been able to mount the Gandhian model of Dalit outreach in a way that Dalits are integrated into the Hindu fold rather than steering clear of it. The integration now veers towards Hindutva rather than the composite culture model of the Congress for decades after independence.
What fringe voices backing Godse within Hindutva do not know is that the foundation of a Dalit politics other than the Ambedkarite model was laid most powerfully by Gandhi, and his fast-unto-death to avert separate electorates prevented the Ambedkarite vision from becoming the prime, or even sole, politics of the Scheduled Castes.
A visit to any village in north India – particularly to settlements of the leatherworking caste – still shows signs of the Gandhian discourse, something most within the intelligentsia miss either because they don’t travel enough or because they are resistant to alternative perspectives. The leatherworking caste – the mainstay of Dalit politics in north India – refers to itself as Harijan – a term popularized by Gandhi – in villages even to this date. The term Dalit is used more by urban, educated, middle-class Dalits. The popular survival of the discourse of Harijan is the living link of the Scheduled Castes with mainstream Hinduism fostered by Gandhi, amid the presence of an autonomous politics steered by the BSP in north Indian over the last few decades.
Hindutva, too, follows the Gandhian logic of integration when it reaches out to Dalits, even if it seeks to draw their support towards a Hinduism wary of Islam rather than Gandhi’s Hinduism that tried to reach out both to Islam and the Scheduled Castes.
The model for an SC politics willing to respond positively to a reconciliatory political outreach from above remains Gandhian at its core. For, it was most successfully followed first by Gandhi. It is no wonder that Sanjay Paswan, who was a minister in the Vajpayee government, chose to write a glowing tribute to the Congress’ Scheduled Caste leader Jagjiwan Ram -- the most visible figure of the model of integration rather than autonomy in Gandhi’s times -- in the form of a biography a few years back.