Posted by: Vikram | October 27, 2014

Disillusionments with India’s Dalit and Left activists

         Hinduism is a deeply hierarchical, oppressive religion. – Nivedita Menon (Professor at JNU)

   The Earth, bearing upon her many different peoples, speaking many languages, following different dharmas as suit their particular regions. Pour upon us a thousand-fold streams of bountiful treasures to enrich us, like a constant cow that never faileth. – Atharva Veda

For as long as I remember being politically conscious, I have identified with what I would call India’s activist left on all social issues, and many economic ones. I was led to them through my explorations of the writings of contemporary scholars of India, many of whom belong to this activist left. In fact, this blog was originally setup to discuss and understand many of their writings. Indeed, many of India’s grass root activists identify with leftist politics and they continue various struggles against tremendous odds. Needless to say, many of them are close to these scholar-cum-activists and their partnerships form a rich network of resistance against aribtrary policies and decisions of an increasingly undemocratic society.

I had a simple way of thinking about religions and social problems. I thought all religions had ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points, and that modern reform would simply correct the bad points and override religion in those matters. This seemed to be clear when one talked about Hinduism, the ‘good’ was the tolerance and openness, the bad was the notorious caste system, with the bad being comprehensively overridden by the Indian Constitution. I thought of the other religions in a similar way. Growing up in India, Islam was another religion one was exposed to. In Islam, the good (according to me) was the clear definition of God and his message, the bad was the intolerance to other religions and ideas of God.

Since I thought I knew Hinduism pretty well, I set out to fill the gaps in my knowledge about Islam, and understand why exactly it was the way it was. My readings revealed something that startled me. There actually were actually significant arguments to be made in favor of Islam being a tolerant religion. So there was no ‘bad’ , one just had to look at things from a different perspective. Similarly, what I thought of as being ‘good’, was actually much more complex, with a large number of interpretations of what Islam means and how God is to be thought about coming from various Muslim traditions.

While this meant I understood Islam better, it indicated to me that perhaps I did not understand Hinduism all that well. What if, from a different viewpoint, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ could be inverted from the way I thought about them ? Just like it had happened with Islam. And of course, this did turn out to be the case. There are Hindu texts that clearly try and establish the superiority of one sect, or one school of thought over all others. There were Hindu kings who were not at all tolerant. And on the other side, there are Hindu texts, stories and movements that emphasize equality of all humans before God.

What animates the Hindu right wing troll is the obsessive quest to define that irredeemable ‘wrong’ in Islam, and other religions, that in his/her mind renders Hinduism superior. This is done for various reasons, but most of all for vengeance, vengeance for a fake, rubbish narrative created by European colonialists that belongs to the dustbin of history. But sadly, the same desire for vengeance seems to manifest in the writings of many activists. The project of Constitutional equality, a national vision for the establishment of which many so called ‘savarnas’ (among other Indians) laid down their lives is turned into a hate fest. Where the goal is to show that ‘Hinduism’ is unequivocally a degrading, decadent philosophy, irredeemably flawed due to a hierarchical social order. The inconvenient facts about how Jatt Sikhs treat Dalit Sikhs, hierarchies among Muslims across India and Buddhists in Ladakh and Tibet are brushed aside as side-effects of Hindu ancestry or proximity.

     Inequality is the soul and philosophy of Hinduism. – United Dalit Students Forum (JNU)

Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted. – D.D. Kosambi

The same academy that has deconstructed the colonial mythology of timeless Hindu-Muslim rivalry and the same activism that courageously challenges the demonisation of Islam as intolerant, accept the colonial narrative of a “deeply hierarchical, oppressive” ‘Hinduism’ almost without question. Its as if humiliating those who call themselves Hindu will make Indian society equal. No wonder then, that the right wing is ascendant today. Between an unjust humiliation and a fake pride, people will usually choose the latter.


  1. Another example of the kind of revisionism that even reputed people like Prof. Menon can indulge in appears on this thread. The author, and later Prof. Menon in her comments, get almost all their facts about the history of Sanskrit literature and north Indian scripts wrong, but that does not stop them from constructing an elaborate polemic on this false foundation.

    When several readers point out there mistakes, their response is to simply call them names. Some of the “gems” on the thread are:

    1) That the Devanagari script only became popular for writing Hindi and related languages after the “late 19th century” (completely ignoring the centuries worth of attested use of Devanagari, Kaithi, Gujarati, Gur Mukhi and other closely related scripts in North India).

    2) That Panini’s contributions to modern generative linguistics were nothing that could not have been taken from any other contemporary grammar.

    3) That ” most of the mathematical and astronomical” works in Sanskrit were simply “adapted” from earlier Chinese works!

    I do mathematics for a living, so I found the last two rather jarring. I asked the author and Prof. Menoon for explicit references to the Chinese sources of Aryabhata’s work on trigonometry, Brahmagupta’s work on algebra, and Bhaskara’s work on continued fractions, while providing him with citations to Panini’s work in modern linguistics papers.

    As you would expect, my comments with these inquiries were never published.

    The impression I have been getting from Kafila over the last few months is that there is precious little separating many of their contributors from the right wing revisionists who would assure us there were aeroplanes in the Vedas, as least as far as methods of “research” are concerned. Perhaps the only difference is in the hue of their flags.

    • Hello Ahannasmi, I apologize for the late response. I agree with you on the point that not much separates the extreme ‘left’ ideology that manifests many times on sites like Kafila and Sanhati from the extreme ‘right’ that organizations like the VHP represent. The only difference is that the extreme left has a prestigious stage and access to sharper intellectual tools to make its case, while the extreme right has focused more on creating a political presence in large parts of the country, and is much coarser in its articulation.

      Frankly, these days I am very skeptical of the work of academics. However, I do feel that some of the younger faculty in US universities are producing work that is more intellectually rigorous and less bound by ideology. Audrey Truschke and Munis Faruqui are some of those whose work I am really enjoying reading these days.

      • “The only difference is that the extreme left has a prestigious stage and access to sharper intellectual tools to make its case, while the extreme right has focused more on creating a political presence in large parts of the country, and is much coarser in its articulation.”

        Sir, you have forgotten another major distinction between extreme left and extreme right in this country. The extreme left has set up a massive military machinery of death squads that forcibly occupies large portions of this country and carries out massacre on a daily basis. As for “coarse articulation”, I don’t know if there can be much nuance in the message sent by massive posters of Stalin that are displayed proudly in every CPI(M) office across India. They openly put up their Stalinist dictatorship ideal along with a well trained, heavily armed militia regularly carrying out massacres to achieve that ideal. How much more coarse does the message from the Indian left have to be?

      • Srivastava, you are correct about the left advocating violent means to achieve its political goals. The Indian right has made much more strategic and targeted use of violence than the left. But overall, it has been confident that it can achieve political power through democratic means, whereas the left has either lacked the confidence or the discipline to do so.

        That being said, there are plenty of rightist movements around the world (especially the Middle East) that have setup armies to overthrow the government and take power. I think this difference of attitude towards violence is more a matter of the specifics of the Indian condition than a major ideological difference between extreme right and left ideologies.

        Regarding coarseness, I was referring specifically to the academic/intellectual sphere. At the ground level, the language of the right is as nasty as that of the left.

  2. I can’t agree with a lot of your analysis here Vikram; though I understand your views. I do hope however I am not one of those leftist that have caused you to become disillusioned 😉

    • Thanks Conrad. Perhaps I am wrong to use the label leftists.

      Would like to know your opinion regarding the work of Nicholas Dirks and Susan Bayly on the caste system if you have come across it.

      • Its been some years since I read both; I liked the theoretical thrust of Dirk’s work, as I subscribe much more to the neo-Hocartian theory of caste that he has than the traditional Dumontian one. I had several problems with his book ‘Castes of the Mind’ though I think there is much to his arguement that what we understand by a lot of current and modern Hindu practises were really priveleging forms of Brahminism which benefited from being codified and adopted by the British colonialists as THE way to understand Indian (non-Muslim) society and as somehow the essence of Indian culture, philosophy etc. As you attest there are a number of different streams of Hinduism that existed which didn’t get this kind of patronage and so were relatively neglected. Many of my academic friends who teach on South Asia, regard Dirk’s work on this topic very highly, I don’t quite share their enthusiasm but I am not a specialist on this area.

        Susan Bayley’s work, I found disappointing; I don’t think she really managed to use her historical inquiry to shine lights on the major conceptual and epistemelogical arguements on the theory, practise and the development of the caste system and I also don’t think it was well written.

        The single best introduction IMO remains Declan Quigley’s “The Interpretation of Caste” though it also is not perfect but its the best single-volume study I can think of; though I haven’t kept up with the literature over the last 6-7 years or so.

      • Not very familiar with neo-Hocartian theory, but some early glances seem to indicate that even he would have an issue with sweeping statements like ‘Inequality is the soul of Hinduism’ and ‘Hinduism is a hierarchical, deeply oppressive religion’.

        In fact, Hocart seems to make the point that analogs of the caste system as described by colonial officials and sociologists/historians were found in Europe as well with all the attendant inequalities and social discrimination.

  3. Neo-Hocartian theory on caste stands in contrast to the influential Dumontian view which dominated anthropology and sociology for much of the 1950s an 1960s. For Hocart, kingship and the figure of the king was at the centre of social organisation and it was the king along with the ruling class that set stratification which was then given an ideological justification – unlike Dumont and many other earlier Indian scholars who had a Brahmminical centred view of caste where it was ritual purity rather than secular power that determined the ranking and nature of the caste system. Dumont’s view that it was in the realm of the sacred and that the priest rather than the king determined social order had much to do with the concept that caste hierarchy is intrinsic to Hinduism, as he saw as specific to post-Vedic Hinduism and not something replicated in the same way in other global religions.

    I think this view is empirically and historically wrong; though the view that Brahmins rather than secular rulers really underpin the caste order is a popular one even amongst Hindus today. I think the dominance esp after colonialism of the Brahminnical world-view as far as Hinduism is concerned contributed a lot to this and I think Dirks makes a good point here. Certainly in the pre-colonial period both caste as a form of social organisation and beliefs about caste were much more fluid. This is sadly not the case today, as very conservative and orthodox interpretations of Hinduism seem to be dominant and is a phenomenon that is a carryover from the colonial period.

    Not sure why you feel the need to debate the nature of Hinduism with reference to Hocart; since I thought you were inquiring about works on caste as a social and historical phenomenon. That is a separate debate but it is worth pointing out that Hocart never studied India – he was a specialist on Polynesia and Sri Lanka where he did most of his fieldwork and on which most of his published work concentrates. I also don’t know what you read by him but I would recommend if you can get it his short volume on ‘Caste’ published in 1950, its hard to get hold of and not in print so you might need to go to a library. Dirk’s earlier book “The Hollow Crown: an Ethno-history of a South Indian Kingdom” is an excellent application Hocartian theory to the Tamil kingdom of Pudukottai. Another good application is The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, PRestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village” by Gloria Goodwin Raheja. I would also recommend, “Misconceiving the grain heap: a critique of the concept of the Indian jajmani system.” by CJ Fuller.

    Also I wouldn’t rush to so conveniently just blame leftists or Dalit activists for statements like inequality being the ‘soul’ of Hinduism; you have a right to disagree with this of course but these are hardly new critiques or statements but were originally made by thinkers like Phule and Ambedkar; who were much more abusive towards Hinduism than what most critics are today. But it grew out of their own experience and understanding of Hinduism, which was rooted in their social reality. One can disagree with it but I wouldn’t dismiss it so contemptuosly, even though I personally don’t think it is an accurate representation either.

    • Conrad, I am sure if a Harvard University professor said something like “XYZ is an oppressive religion.” they would face some amount of censure from their peers. And if there were groups in Oxford going around saying “Inequality is inherent to XYZ”, they might even be charged with hate speech.

      I think there is a deliberate failure to acknowledge that Phule’s and Ambedkar’s understanding was also conditioned by colonial knowledge production. On another blog, Dipankar Gupta was boasting that Dirks could not defend his argument in front of a JNU audience.

      This gives a clue as to what kind of environment exists at such places.

  4. I think that is only partially true, you only need to look at the kind of statements made by Samuel Huntington about Islam to see what a Harvard professor can get away with eg ““Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

    And this is by a Professor who freely admitted he knew no Arabic and had never even read the Koran when he wrote his seminal book on the Clash of Civilisations.

    Given the predominantly liberal ethos of Western academia, I think the key factor would be whether you are deliberately attacking another group to cause conflict or severely critiquing a group you belong to yourself for purposes of bringing about change. Many feminist scholars for example are heavily critical of their own religious traditions seeing their religions are predominantly patriarichical and misognynist but I don’t think they would be censured for ”hate speech” (not by anyone sensible anyway.

    Not sure what you mean by Phule and Ambedkar’s work being conditioned by colonial knowledge production; almost all thinkers of that generation were heavily influenced by colonial discourse whether we are talkig about Raja Ramohan Roy and Dayanand Sarawasti or Gandhi and Nehru – the reactions and responses intellectually were very different but the heavy influence of colonialism and its mental impact were inescapble.

    Also not sure what you mean by making that point about Dipankar Gupta; since I don’t know what his critique or problem with Dirks is. I think Dirks’ work has its flaws and its fair to criticise him for that.

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