No, Dalits are often oppressed

The recent incident in Jhajjar, Haryana is an appalling example of the casteism in some parts of India. Five Dalits were lynched on the grounds that they had killed and skinned a cow. Now there is controversy over whether they actually killed a cow, or merely skinned a dead cow. But the interesting question is: is the life of a cow, alive or dead, greater than the lives of five humans?

It would seem that to some people the answer would be a strong “Yes.” What scripture on earth could possibly make such a claim? Not the scriptures of Hinduism I know. On the contrary, I would say that people making this claim are not Hindus, and that their act is entirely un-Hindu. As one of the most liberal and undogmatic of religions, Hinduism does not impose such a lop-sided equation.

People who make such claims are referring to such outdated texts as the Manusmriti, which is a highly prejudiced document. In reality, smritis were written by many, and were merely treated as someone’s opinion. The Manusmriti, as Madhu Kishwar pointed out once in an article in Manushi, has about as much sanctity as a potential Madhusmriti, which Ms Kishwar herself could write. In fact, it was the British who claimed that the Manusmriti was the law-book of the Hindus. It was no such thing.

Yet, otherwise well-meaning people turn a blind eye to real atrocities. Dalits are often prevented from drawing water from wells. There are many places where Dalits still have to drink from glasses reserved for them. Dalits have been forced to eat feces or drink urine. Backward caste women are raped and paraded naked. Tribals find their women preyed upon, and their lands taken from them. None of this is acceptable in a civilized society.

No wonder that a lot of Dalits, tribals, and backwards are easy prey for the conversion activities of Christians and Muslims. If Hindu society truly cared about its so-called lower castes and took better of care of them, then conversion would not be an issue.

All this implies that the mindset of some large percentage of Hindus has not improved with time, despite the various rules and regulations that prohibit caste-based discrimination. If this is so, it is because the leaders in the Hindu community, both the religious leaders and the thought-leaders, have failed to make it clear that casteism is effectively a sin. It is uncivilized. And it is wasteful, as it wastes their talents.

A hundred years after Gandhiji started his programs for uplifting his Harijans, the fact that we still have so far to go is distressing.

Bindu Raghavan is a software engineer in India.

Yes, if all take responsibility

Hindu society is not flawless. There are problems, and I have consistently supported affirmative action and reservations; however, there is also a victim-complex trap that people fall into. It has become fashionable for certain classes of people to run around shouting about oppression. No doubt there are awards to be won and livelihoods to be earned thus.

But all this ignores several facts of life. Nobody can oppress you unless you allow them to. There has never been any group of people that has voluntarily relinquished power. If something is perceived as being “given” as charity to a group as compensation for past sins, it is corrupting for both the giver and the receiver.

How do you get around all this? The only answer is for the oppressed groups to reach a point where they deserve, and can demand, equality. For this, they have to stand up for themselves, and refuse to allow oppression. Yes, it is a tall order, but I can give you at least one example in India where this has worked, and I see no reason why it cannot be replicated elsewhere.

The example is from Kerala. Many people are surprised to know that Kerala was once incredibly casteist, leading Swami Vivekananda to term it a madhouse. The various subcastes rivaled each other in oppressing whoever was below them. But today Kerala is, at least overtly, the most egalitarian state in the country. Nobody feels that they are inferior to anyone else, regardless of caste or wealth or education. How did this happen?

It was the result of the work of an extraordinary saint, Sri Narayana Guru. He was an orthodox Saivite Vedantin, but he was perhaps the most revolutionary reformer Hinduism has known in a century; yes, greater than Gandhi. For his liberating message to the lower castes was that Hinduism was theirs too, and they could well re-appropriate it from the upper castes that tried to keep a stranglehold on the religion.

When they were prevented from worshipping at orthodox temples, the Guru got them to build their own temples. When they were prevented from attending orthodox schools, the Guru got them to build their own schools. The Guru exhorted them to use education to progress; to use unity to gain strength; and to use hard work to gain wealth. And this they did.

This is the missing lesson. Once you refuse to be oppressed, once you improve yourself to deserve equality, nobody can take it away from you. It is not charity, it is pure commonsense on the part of the others. Those who whine about oppression need to understand and practice the Guru’s extraordinarily liberating message of self-improvement and self-help..


Rajeev Srinivasan considers San Francisco and Kerala his two homes. His columns also appear in Rediff on the Net and The Sunday Observer.

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