We have been seeing attacks on Christians and Muslims in India for the last few years. Several Indians are worried about it and fear for the future of democracy in India. People wonder what the logic of all these attack is. How can nearly 80% of ‘Hindus’ feel threatened by some 13% Muslims and some 2% Christians? Why are they being attacked?
No religion is a monolith. It is normally divided in sects, some more powerful than others, some rebels etc. Normally we refer to a religion by its dominant form. That is why we put inverted commas around the word Hindu. Rahul Sankrityayan defined this dominant Hinduism as having three characteristics:
- Belief in rebirth and karma theory. 2. Belief in caste system. 3. Taboo on eating cows and bullocks.
The relationship between 1 and 2 is obvious. You are born in a caste due to your deeds (karma) in previous birth. It thus fulfils one of the functions of religion, that is, to justify the inequality in society and explain why the rich can get away with misdeeds while the poor have to be ethical to gain better life in the next rebirth. The taboo on eating meat of cows came into being due to the spread of agriculture and the living bullock and cows became more useful that their meat. So agricultural communities and upper castes stopped eating beef whereas lower castes and tribals continued eating the old and the dead animals. This Hindu society came into being after Buddhism, around 300 years B. C. Both the belief in rebirth and taboo on beef owe their origin to Buddhism and Jainism.
Almost all the Muslims and Christians in India are converts from ‘Hindu’ society as defined above. Although Christians appeared in India almost immediately after the death of Christ and there have been Christians in India dating from 3rd century A. D., majority of conversions to Christianity occurred after colonialism, starting with the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498.
In that sense large scale conversion to Islam is older, starting immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th century A. D. It is interesting to note that the conversions occurred almost all over India with concentration in some regions.
Who got converted to Islam?
Majority of converts to Islam came from the artisan castes: weavers, carpenters, cobblers, petty traders and so on. We can see that majority of Muslims even today are engaged in these jobs and some newer jobs that have been created in the industrial era such as cycle and motor mechanics. Some communities of Muslims, like the Bohras have specialised in hardware trade.
Why have mainly these caste converted to Islam? Around the 8th century onwards a reform wave swept India in the form of Bhakti movement. A part of these were called ‘Nirgunias’ – those who believed in the formless God akin to Islam and Christianity. Most of the Nirgunia saints like Kabir, Dadu etc. belonged to these artisan castes. These castes had a relative freedom of movements and some of them got converted to Islam mainly through Sufism, whose philosophy/religion was closer to Nirgunia saints. Even today we can see the wandering Sufis relating with and sharing space with Nirgunias wandering sadhus. So majority of the Muslims are part of the working classes of India.
Who are the Christians in India?
Majority of the Christians are from tribal communities and dalits, with a concentration in the North East regions. Why did these communities convert to Christianity and not to Islam? Dalits probably could not because they had little mobility – they were and even today in many places are bonded in the village agrarian society. Tribals however were relatively free. It is argued that it is the taboo on pork in Islam that prevented these communities from converting to Islam. As in Muslim conversions, the Christians too are a part of the working classes in India. However a creamy layer has emerged in both these communities who are no longer part of this. Majority of the Muslim Jihadis come from this creamy layer.
Dependence of Indian society on these communities
These communities continue to survive because they provide some indispensable goods and services to the Indian society. Muslims poor provide mechanics and are small traders of fruits and vegetables in urban India. In rural India a lot of artisans – weavers, carpenters, leather workers come from this community. Often dead animals, particularly cows and buffaloes are handled by them.
Christian institutions provide services in the field of education and health. Historically some of our best modern schools, colleges and hospitals were established by Christian organisations. A large number of nurses and teachers come from them. And many Christians are skilled manual workers.
So why are Hindus scared of them?
Obviously not all Hindus, but mainly those upper caste Hindus who depend on the services of the working classes and get their wealth by exploiting them are afraid of them. But then which ruling class in the world has not been afraid of the working classes?
But here there is another challenge. Normally the ruling class rules by cultural hegemony, since they do not have the numbers. Only when seriously threatened they use violence. Now religion has always been part of this cultural hegemony. Conversions challenge this hegemony and an alternative religion which does not have the inequities of caste adds a weapon to these working classes.
Ambedkar’s role in empowering the dalits proved decisive. He fought at every level with an admirable determination and grit. His conversion to Buddhism and the reasons he gave for it are all valid for conversion to Islam and Christianity too. So these communities have emerged as a major threat to the ruling Hindu dispensation.
The situation today
Today this conflict has emerged as a civil war in India. It does not appear that this can be resolved by the liberal dispensations. Majority of liberals are upper caste Hindus who want to remain Hindus but want Hinduism without a caste system. A liberal says that s/he does not believe in caste. To which the dalit response is, ‘But I do not have that choice!’ Hindu reformists tried to create a version of Hinduism without the caste system over a thousand years and have not succeeded. Many religions like, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Lingayat religion emerged with this idea. But they all ended up as ‘caste’ themselves and had further caste divisions within them. This is true of Christianity and Islam too in India. Why so?
Caste in India is not just religion. It is integral to the organisation of rural agrarian community. When these newer religions came up the material condition of rural India did not change. So these new religious communities got absorbed in rural India’s caste system and division of labour.
It can be argues that today this society is breaking down but why does caste still persist? Dalit scholar Anand Teltumble argued that today practically all dalits are landless labour and they should organise as class. What is preventing them?
I can think of two historical reasons. The first is the animosity between Communists and dalit politicians. While there are mistakes on both sides I think it is the stand that the Communist led Girni Kamgar Union took on Dalit promotion in textile mills in Bombay that played an important role. The upper caste opposed because the worker has to put his lips to the broken thread and dalits were untouchables! Unfortunately GKU did not take a correct stand on this.
The other reason is the reservation policy in post independence India. Although it affects only a small percentage of dalits and tribals, it has created a caste identity politics and newer groups are demanding reservation. So now there is a new vested interest in retaining caste!
How can these situation change? What are the new factors? One can think of two sets of situation –The Indian politics and the world situation.
In India today the ruling party is virulently Hindu and it is uniting the liberal with other oppressed groups. Student groups of dalits and left wing groups are sharing platforms. A new reorganisation of radical forces is in the offing. This is joined by environmental and green groups too. The latter has a portion of the scientific community also with them.
This is reinforced by the international situation too. Melt down of 2008 is leading to the collapse of the current capitalism and forces of restructuring capital in the shape of fourth industrial revolution, World Economic Forum and so on are active. This in my opinion has created a revolutionary juncture. Revolution is on the agenda. Would it succeed this time in India?
As Arundhiti Roy said India awaits a revolution that should include ‘annihilation of castes’!
About the Author
T Vijayendra (1943 – ) was born in Mysore, grew up in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s.
Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left-wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left-wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last ten years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. In 2017 he spent a year celebrating the Bicentenary of the Bicycle. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving license nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel-based vehicle.
He divides his time between Hyderabad and organic farms at several places in India, watching birds and writing fiction. He has published a book dealing with resource depletion, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella, an autobiography and a children’s science fiction story on the history of the bicycle, apart from booklets on several topics. His booklet, Kabira Khada Bazar Mein: Call for Local Action in the Wake of Global Emergency (2019, https://archive.org/details/kabira-khada-bazaar-mein) has been translated into Kannada, Bengali and Marathi and is the basic text for the emerging Transition Networks in these language regions. His last book ‘Vijutopias’, which has 12 short stories, is an entertaining book full of hope and energy in these dismal times.
Published in Frontier, Vol. 51: No. 5, August 5-11, 2018