Outcastes of Hindu apartheid

Viramma - The Untouchables

August 14, 1998

No enlightened Hindu would deny that Hinduism has been guilty of one immeasurable infamy: the subjection until the past few decades of about a fifth of its own adherents to a form of apartheid making the South African version seem positively benign. Hindu apartheid had a religious sanction incomparably more elaborate than South Africa's. India's so-called Untouchables were deemed to be expiating by their social ostracism sins committed in a previous life; by absolute submission they could expect rebirth into one of the "clean" castes.

The British, fearing high-caste wrath, did little to challenge this state of affairs. The Indian nationalists, however, took a strong line against untouchability, which was outlawed soon after independence. Policies of positive discrimination have been pursued by Indian governments, involving the reservation of many opportunities in education and in public-sector employment to what the Indian constitution calls the "scheduled castes". Many members of these castes are now wealthier than many members of the higher castes. But the bulk of Untouchables remain at the bottom of the Indian social heap, pursuing their traditional occupations and agricultural labour in serf-like conditions. The two books reviewed here help one to understand the situation of the scheduled castes today.

The Untouchables is a clearly written, concise history of the social and political development of the Untouchables from the 19th century onwards, assessing how much progress they have made towards genuine emancipation. Viramma is the life story in her own words of an old, Untouchable peasant woman from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, originally translated from Tamil and published in French, and now translated into English.

Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany throw into sharp relief a number of points contradicting conventional views of the Indian caste situation one finds both in India and in the West. For example, the worst enemies of the Untouchables are often assumed to be those castes, especially the Brahmins, at the top of the caste hierarchy. In fact, these authors show, the ferocious mass killings of Untouchables that occur regularly in some rural areas of northern India are often the work of castes such as the Yadavs and Kurmis low in the caste hierarchy. These lower-caste Hindus are essentially waging a ruthless struggle with Untouchables over control of land. It is ironic that political parties dominated by such lower castes are often blithely portrayed in the Indian and Western media as rebels against age-old caste oppression.

Hindus of the "clean" castes entertain considerable fear of a mass Untouchable conversion to Islam, which would, of course, hugely strengthen the political weight of India's 12 per cent Muslim community. Mendelsohn and Vicziany note that this fear is ill-based. There have been very few such conversions in the past two centuries; even the attempts of some Untouchable leaders like B. R. Ambedkar to convert Untouchables to Buddhism have had very limited success. Unsurprisingly, Mendelsohn and Vicziany find that Indian governments' policies of positive discrimination have largely benefited only a small elite of the Untouchables, already better off than the rest of the community and hence able to take advantage of reserved opportunities in education and public-sector employment. The authors argue that to achieve more substantial progress positive discrimination needs to be extended into the private sector.

For this, the authors believe, an India-wide alliance is needed between political parties representing Untouchables, the lower castes and Muslims. In this respect they find little comfort in the careers of present-day Untouchable leaders such as Kanshi Ram, Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan. These politicians are characterised by ruthless opportunism when it comes to political alliances. Mayawati, for instance, formed a government in Uttar Pradesh state with the collusion of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), much of whose support is from high-caste Hindus. This idea of a giant anti-high-caste alliance is also endorsed by many of those keen to defend the secular basis of the Indian constitution. It seems plain that to curb the growth of the BJP, the obvious obstacle to Hindu political unity should be exploited: caste divisions. Yet much of the material in Mendelsohn and Vicziany's book indicates that such divisions are not the weak spot of Hindu nationalism they are often assumed to be.

As already noted, those most sharply at odds with Untouchables over land rights are frequently the lower Hindu castes. Besides, these castes also seek positive discrimination in their favour in education and employment. No wonder the BJP is able to win large support from both lower castes and Untouchables by promising to defend their often-competing interests. What these authors overlook is that using caste-consciousness as an instrument of social reform increases caste egoism, competition between castes and disunity rather than stable political alliances among those seeking social reform.

Is there any other way forward? The authors are critical of the Indian communists for their attempt to mobilise the poor politically by appealing to class rather than caste differences. In their view, the rhetoric of class enables persons of high-caste origin to dominate even the communist parties. The authors acknowledge that in West Bengal and Kerala, states where communists have often ruled, more has been done than elsewhere in India for Untouchables in terms of literacy and land rights, but there, too, they remain at the bottom of society. Very true.

Yet a decisive challenge to this situation requires much higher government spending on mass schooling, healthcare and nutrition; and radical land reforms are also essential. No Indian government, even if it is run by Untouchables, will adopt such policies unless its ideology repudiates the existing property system, which calls for a class-based, not caste-based, outlook.

The central mystery is why the Untouchables remain faithful to Hinduism. Viramma's autobiography throws a powerful light on this puzzle. Viramma, an Untouchable landless labourer now in her mid-sixties, has slaved all her life for the barest of livings on the broad acres of a quasi-feudal lord, the "Grand Reddi".

Although clearly a brave, spirited woman, she is frightened by the refusal of her son, like others of his generation, to show age-old subservience to the high castes. Viramma is illiterate. Yet her account is extraordinarily rich in the details of religious observance; Hinduism steeps the lives of "outcaste" Untouchables in elaborate religious ritual, hardly less than that of Brahmins. Moreover, because Hinduism is so decentralised and endlessly flexible, Untouchables can and do fashion Hinduisms of their own without fear of anathemas from any religious authority. Hinduism has historically crushed Untouchables; but its flexibility now offers them ways out within Hinduism.

A very striking feature of Viramma's life story is the power of her language: graphic, full of references to characters and episodes in the Hindu legends and vivid folk expressions. And yet it is all fully credible as the discourse of an illiterate person. How pallid and feeble even the street-level parlance of the West seems by comparison! One reason for the contrast could be that Viramma's life has had little scope for frivolity: sickness and death are ever present, and only three of the 12 children born to her have survived. She also lives in a pre-consumer society, where language has not been trivialised by TV advertising. Viramma's story gives more insight into Indian life than most English-language bestselling novels by the likes of Salman Rushdie.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Viramma: A Pariah's Life

Author - Josianne Racine and Jean-Luc Racine
ISBN - 1 85984 817 6 and 148 1
Publisher - Verso
Price - £40.00 and £14.00
Pages - 320

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