Co-written by Ms. Akanksha Sharma and Mr. Skand Priya

I

The phenomenon of caste as we see it today has evolved historically and been shaped materially. It is also perhaps the most written about Indian phenomenon and, consequently, has generated a truly colossal amount of scholarship, and this shows the hegemonic position Caste possesses in the contemporary Indian society and politics. Though it has sustained successfully since its inception till date, it is not that it has remained unchallenged. From ancient times onwards, the victims of this demon have been raising their voices against its tyranny. Most interesting recorded accounts of anti-caste voices/struggles/movements have delineated from modern India from mid-nineteenth century onwards in nearly all parts of the subcontinent.

These anti-caste movements and their leaders have tried to understand and expose the genesis, mechanism and nature of Caste and have also in their own contextual vocabularies provided remedies for the disease. Some have tried to locate its origin in seemingly arbitrary racial terms, others in socio-political context, but, the arguments related to the solution for the victims of this phenomenon have largely been threefold, namely Upliftment, Identity Assertion and Annihilation. Upliftment here implies climbing the social ladder by the downtrodden and claiming high ritual status by employing the strategies of imitating social norms and caste rituals of those placed high on social hierarchy, what has also been termed and accepted as Sanskritisation by majority of scholarship. Identity assertion can be understood as strategy employed by the marginalised to claim autonomous identity within the caste structure to assert themselves at par with those placed high in it. Annihilation, the most radical idea, propounded by Ambedkar can be seen as an overall extinction of caste-based social structure by attacking upon the socio-cultural manifestations of caste together with the theological foundations of caste itself.

Among these anti-caste movements, Adi-Hindu Movement, which inherently was based on the idea of identity assertion, emerged in the then United Provinces in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century made up of urban Dalits (mainly chamars), who identified themselves with the original (Adi) pre-Aryan inhabitants of India, whom they saw as practising a form of Bhakti devoid of caste discrimination and which was reflected in the works of such saints as Kabir and Raidas. The urban untouchables of UP during the early twentieth century under the foremost leadership of Swami Acchutanand certainly carved an autonomous space for themselves within the caste structure so as to assert and raise their voices against all the caste-ridden injustices and aspire for a harmonious and just society. Crucially, the movement proved to be a considerable challenge for the Indian National Congress for the fact that the Acchuts (as the Adi-Hindus called themselves) rejected the idea of Non-Cooperation pointing towards benevolence of the British rule for the lower castes. They also created trouble for the Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha in their endeavour of consolidating a pan Hindu community in the communally charged environment of the late-1910s and 1920s by claiming and asserting a distinct and autonomous Hindu identity other than the one prescribed by the Samaj and Mahasabha.

swami acchutanand
Swami Acchutanand/Picture courtesy: velivada.com

On the occasion of the birth anniversary of Swami Acchutanand and the centenary year of the founding of Adi-Hindu Movement, We take this opportunity to critically engage with this greatly upheld episode of Dalit identity assertion and consolidation of Dalit consciousness in theoretical terms, so as to delineate and grasp the progressive aspect of the movement and its ideology. Together with this, we also intend to locate those nuances of the movement which proved critical for its failure and becoming moribund in the 1930s and the remnants of which can be seen in other upcoming anti-caste movements in the remaining twentieth century. Section II of the article deals with emergence of the Adi-Hindu movement in the context of changing material conditions of the untouchables and their responses to the new experiences in the urban setup. Section III tries to analyse the ideology of heterodox Bhakti as employed by the Adi-Hindus and the context specific meanings they ascribed to it. Section IV brings in the historical significance of the Adi-Hindus to analytical surface. It also engages critically with recent takes on the movement and proposes a way forward for better understanding the system of caste.

II

The most interesting aspect of the Adi-Hindu Movement was its emergence and pre-eminence in the urban setup. From the late-nineteenth century, untouchable caste groups had begun to migrate to bigger towns in UP where they could get better employment opportunities. There, these caste groups were absorbed in menial services either in municipal jobs or newly emerging industries. As compared to their past economic and social relations of work in the rural areas, the untouchables in the town were not just the servile labourers of the higher castes, they worked in the towns as paid workers. But, these changed conditions of the untouchables in the towns did not necessarily dissolve caste-based socio-economic inequalities. Caste was there in the villages as well as in the towns but within specific context. So, while on the one hand the changed relations of work created aspirations among those Untouchable labourers for economic upliftment, better living conditions and education; on the other hand, their socio-ritual status and the way higher castes perceived them had remained intact. And in this context, untouchables aspired to assert themselves and subvert the caste handicaps.

In the towns of UP, from the early-twentieth century onwards, untouchables started to move towards heterodox Bhakti devotionalism. There seems two reasons for this inclination of untouchables towards heterodox Bhakti in finding their idiom of self-assertion. Firstly, Bhakti propagated the idea of social equality, as through Bhakti one could attain personal communion with God and all caste related social statuses would become irrelevant. Secondly, there was no other viable option available to the untouchables. Although, there were other Shudra castes such as Yadavas, Kurmis and Kushwahas who were asserting higher statuses through their claims to ancient Kshatriya origins but such avenues were impossible for the untouchables. The message of social equality and denial of ritual hierarchy embedded in Bhakti gave the untouchables a means against disabilities and deprivations of their caste and in a way Bhakti was conceived as an egalitarian ideology which opposed the caste hierarchy.

While urban heterodox Bhakti re-emerged in the context of changing social experiences of the untouchables during the early-twentieth century, Adi-Hindu Movement emerged as a response to the new social and political developments which were affecting the untouchables from the early-1920s. Minimal material growth together with ever rising socio-economic and educational aspirations of the urban untouchables provided the context in which Adi-Hinduism evolved. Adi-Hindu ideology was formulated by a generation of literate untouchables for whom education was a highly valued qualification and they considered illiteracy to be an important causative factor for their domination by the upper castes and their material backwardness. Swami Acchutanand and other leaders of the Adi-Hindu Movement had intellectual understanding of caste and Hindu religious texts and they were educated in the avenues provided primarily by Christian missionaries and the social reformists like Arya Samaj.

By the 1910s, a group of literate untouchables, people like Swami Acchutanand and Ram Charan began to work for the cause of caste uplift. Some of them even joined the Arya Samaj which promised to facilitate the social uplift of lower castes by providing educational and material support and gave hopes for easing caste barriers by allowing untouchables to enter Hindu caste hierarchy through Shuddhi or purification. But, the vision of Arya Samaj of a reformed Hindu Society remained incongruent with the idea of an egalitarian and just society, as envisaged and emphasised by the literate untouchables, in as much as while the Samaj intended to expand and strengthen the Hindu fold as a response to the consolidation of the Islamic community in the context of the internationalist Khilafat issue; the strategies devised by the Samaj in this exercise especially their highlighting certain religious symbols of Hinduism and rallying upon the Vedas as the ultimate repository of truth, gradually disillusioned the concerned untouchables, who saw ancient Hindu scriptures as the bulk base upon which rests the structure of caste and foresaw the attempts of the Samaj to bring the untouchables in the Hindu fold as despicable act of making them conform to the Vedic Brahmanic rituals and keeping them in a state of servility forever. Thus, in the early 1920s the literate untouchables drifted away from the Samaj and started to propagate the idea that the untouchables were Adi-Hindus.

III

Soon afterwards, Acchutanand and other propagators of Adi-Hinduism presented their own and revised version of history of the subcontinent in general, and of the untouchables in particular, whereby claiming that the untouchables were the original inhabitants and rulers of the land who practised Bhakti and that during the ancient times a cunning foreign race namely Arya invaded the land, defeated and enslaved the guileless original race of India and deprived them of their erstwhile rights by introducing the system of caste. This revisiting of history by Adi-Hindu leaders on the basis of the sources other than related to the medieval Bhakti traditions was not without contemporary socio-political influences and prevalent intellectual currents, though they claimed to be creating and reclaiming autonomous space for themselves. The idea that the native untouchables were subjugated and converted to Brahmanical Hinduism can be seen as a parallel to Arya Samajist view of Hindus being attacked by and converted to Islam in recent past. The other notion of understanding the genesis of caste in racial terms was certainly impressioned by the British Colonial ethnographic obsession with caste-race dichotomy. And finally, identification of the ancient original inhabitants of India as practitioners of Bhakti religion was also influenced by and apt in the contemporary socio-political aspiration of the untouchables. What they perceived as empowering and liberating in the present, was best-suited for imagination in the past.

Our attempt here is not to delegitimise the autonomy of the voices of the untouchables for their socio-political aspirations and assertion, rather, the autonomy and progressive character of their struggle is definitely credited as the untouchables were raising their voices within age old caste-based exploitative structural fold, where even imagining the demand for rights had been restricted by the Brahmanical normative traditions. But rallying around a mythical past to reclaim autonomy and rights was certainly a strategy of very shallow character which could not sustain for long so as to attack the structure of caste as a whole.

Adi-Hindu ideology dissociated low caste status from menial occupations by challenging the imposition of specific low social roles on untouchables based on their ritual status. In articulating their demands, Adi-Hindu leaders claimed that the untouchables have been deprived the higher castes of their original rights to dignified living and rule through force and political machinations by. As ideological apparatus of the Brahmanical hegemony had convinced them of their low social status and exclusively undignified occupations, the untouchables, need look for alternative liberating cognitive and normative traditions. It is noteworthy that Adi-Hinduism did not criticise the exploitative character of caste system as a whole, rather its energies were directed mainly against occupational exclusion and towards socio-political aspirations.

Acchutanand highlighted the introspective dimension of Bhakti and gave this religious concept a new social significance. This introspection was of paramount importance not just in worshiping God and attaining personal communion but in leaving forever, the imposed and derived value system of Brahmanical Hinduism and finally in articulating an autonomous value system in evolving one’s own world view. Spiritual introspection would lead to self-realisation or self-knowledge which would finally enable the cultivation of independent and autonomous self-identity for the untouchables. Finally, this would lead to the emergence of a common sensible knowledge system exposing that the distinction between low and high was neither natural and pre-ordained nor grounded in eternal truth, but was socially determined and politically sustained.

In the spread of social reforms and the deepening of assertion among untouchables in the towns of UP, The message of Adi-Hinduism played a very significant role. Mainly it focused upon denying the religious rituals prescribed for the untouchables according to the norms of the higher castes and defied the low social duties and labour imposed upon them. During the 1920s, Pledge taking ceremonies to adhere to the message of Adi-Hinduism in surmounting caste barriers by various untouchable caste panchayat associations were in abundance in many towns of UP.

Together with the religious innovation and social reform gaining momentum among untouchables, agitation in the public political realm for their rights was also gaining ground. This simultaneous focus on doing better in everyday life and a political culture for civil rights and organised protests would have proved beneficial for the untouchables in their material gains and empowerment. But, by the early-1930s most of the Adi-Hindu leaders turned towards political bargaining within representative institutions leaving aside the culture of promoting mass organisation, action and agitation. This shift in focus from agitation to institutional politics costed Adi-Hinduism its radical character and by the mid-1930s, it lost the momentum at least in public political campaigns, though it remained alive through localised initiatives and continued Bhakti religious expansion among the untouchables.

IV

The strategic usage and emplotment of the term Acchut by the Adi-Hindus not as untouchable but as untouched certainly presented to the untouchables an idiom in which they could feel dignified and claim respectability, but it definitely could not and did not prove fierce enough so as to attack the system of caste itself and lessen its grip; annihilation altogether remained a distant dream. The setup of the movement in urban areas seemed to be optimistic for a while as it could have organised the urban poor within its fold, at least from across the marginalised castes as caste status remained a significant determinant of poverty and powerlessness and would have mobilised the downtrodden poor against the exploitation of resource-controlling upper castes.

Contrarily, only untouchable caste groups such as Chamars, Bhangis, Mehtars and Doms remained exclusive adherents of the heterodox Bhakti based Adi-Hindu ideology and their claims of assertion remained predominantly within the occupational arena. And it seems this was because of their urban surrounding that they chose to remain content with it, which would perhaps have not been the case, had it been based in urban-rural milieu. Hopefully then, they would have attacked the exploitative character of caste system as a whole.

Quite recently, Dalit political leadership and scholarship alike have emphasised upon evolution and consolidation of the Dalit consciousness with the beginning of Adi-Hindu movement. The argument of this line follows that Dalit consciousness has been an organising force and factor behind uniting the marginalised low castes and has empowered them in their struggle against caste Hindu exploitation.

The argument is, We feel, inherently two-fold problematic. Firstly, Dalit consciousness has never forged any cohesive pan-Dalit unity, and it simply could not as the logic of caste does not allow one caste to form organic unity with another, howsoever close they might be within the ritual and status hierarchy, and one must be superior to the other. In fact, the emergence, consolidation and decline of the Bahujan consciousness and identity in post-1980s Uttar Pradesh exposes the bluntness of such arguments that the rise of caste/castes-based consciousness may lead to gradual extinction of caste-based socio-economic inequalities. In the case of Bahujan identity, organic unity was impossible simply because the Shudra castes together with the Kshatriya have been predominant and most immediate oppressor of the Dalits.

Secondly, the rise of Dalit consciousness merely does no good against the caste structure, for the consolidation of one caste-based consciousness will naturally and necessarily give rise to aguish and resultant caste solidarity among the higher castes. Our emphasis here is not upon belittling the importance of caste solidarity, but what is required, we think, is not just a solidarity among members of one caste, rather an organic unity of the marginalised on the basis of the same interest that they share with the means of production collectively against the exploiters.

In fact, assertion itself does not serve anything if the system of caste remains intact or at times gets metamorphosed into a more consolidated one. We would go on argue that assertion within the caste structure is futile. Where then should be looked towards? The theoretical understanding of the genesis and mechanism of caste provided by a section of scholarship may help us finding a way forward. Anthropologist Luis Dumont has provided us with a methodology to comprehend how caste system works and sustains. In his opinion, it is the existence of complementary binary opposition of purity and pollution, legitimised by sacred scriptures of Hinduism, which sustains the caste structure and society. The existence of one is necessary for survival of the other. It is not to suggest that merely theological sustenance of caste explains it all and undoubtedly, the inception, shaping and reshaping of the phenomenon of caste have to be located in the context of ever changing relationships of political state, its agents of governance, dominant landed elites and toiling masses.

Ambedkar too, while analysing the structure of caste and pitching for its annihilation, brilliantly gave a call to attack the theological foundations of caste along with socio-political manifestations of it. And in this regard, Adi-Hindu movement definitely had necessary philosophic grounds to undermine and smash caste when they proposed and adhered to non Brahmanic cultural and normative traditions, but a deeper, fine and sharper understanding of caste itself would have brought colours. A parallel can be seen in this regard between the Adi-Hindus and the Dalit panthers of the 1970s who have left a legacy of culture of resistance which will keep on inspiring generations to come.

Ms. Akanksha Sharma is currently research scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

Mr. Skand Priya teaches history at Shivaji College, University of Delhi.


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