Thursday, March 19, 2009

Book review: Why I Am Not a Hindu

"Why I Am Not a Hindu" by Kancha Ilaiah

"Hinduism has never been a humane philosophy. It is the most brutal religious school that the history of religions has witnessed. The Dalitbahujan castes of India are the living evidence of its brutality."

The author, Kancha Ilaiah, is a "Dalitbahujan", a group which includes India's lower castes like farmers and the "untouchables". Ilaiah (sounds like "Isaiah") refuses to lump Dalitbahujans in with Hindus: "What do we, the lower [castes, or Dalitbahujans], have to do with Hinduism ...? [The Dalitbahujans of India] have never heard the word 'Hindu' - not as a word, nor as the name of a culture, nor as the name of a religion in our early childhood days. We heard about the Turukoollu (Muslims), we heard about Kirastaanapoollu (Christians), we heard about Baapanoollu (Brahmins) [the priestly caste] and Koomatoollu (Baniyas) [the merchant class] spoken of as people who were different from us. Among these four categories, the most different were the [Brahmins and the Baniyas]. There are at least some aspects of life common to us and the [Muslims and Christians]. We all eat meat, we all touch each other. With the [Muslims], we shared several other cultural relations. We both celebrated the Peerila festival. Many [Muslims] came with us to the fields. The only people with whom we had no relations, whatsoever, were the [Brahmins and Baniyas]. But today we are suddenly being told that we have a common religious and cultural relationship with the [Brahmins and Baniyas]. This is not merely surprising; it is shocking."

So begins Ilaiah's broadside against Hinduism and "Hindutva" or Hindu-ness, the ideology of the Hindu right. In the book, he argues that Hinduism, with its focus on upper caste gods, values, and culture, is a patriarchal and fascist religion and worldview. Furthermore, Hinduism should be considered the sole preserve of the upper castes - despite efforts by the Hindu right to draw the Dalitbahujan masses into the Hindu fold (in a subservient position of course) to increase their numbers and gain unity and strength in the fight against Muslims and Christians. Ilaiah identifies the Hindus as the ancestors of the Aryan tribes who were supposed to have invaded the subcontinent from the north a few thousand years ago, and the Dalitbahujans as the ancestors of the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent prior to the Aryan invasion. (He even attempts to explain Hindu sexism by proffering literary evidence tending to show how "all women, including Brahmin women, were treated in the same demeaning way because they were seen to share the same genealogical origins... because most of the ancient Aryan invaders were men and they must have married the native Sudra-Dravid women. They must have had sex with such women and must have treated them as the equivalent to Sudra slaves.")

Ilaiah explains that India today is in the sad state it is in owing to Hinduism and Hindus - meaning, again, the upper castes - which are still the ruling elites in India. During British occupation upper caste Indians were made into a comprador class: a segment of an occupied society that receives benefits and rewards from the occupier in return for collaboration. By the time India gained independence from Britain, "an all-India 'upper' caste elite - the new bhadralok (the 'upper' caste combine) - was ready to take over the whole range of post-colonial political institutions... each institution was made the preserve of the 'upper' caste forces, with Brahmins being in the lead in many of [them]." Even the anti-colonial, nationalist movements were hegemonized by the Brahmins and their upper caste allies, a process which was made possible "because the British colonialists themselves saw a possibility of manipulation of institutions, parties and organizations if they remained in the hands of the so-called upper castes... Consciously or unconsciously, the British themselves helped to construct a 'brahminical meritocracy' that came to power in post-Independence India."

"In post-colonial India, in the name of Congress [Party] democratic rule, the Hindus came to power both at Delhi and at the provincial headquarters. Parliamentary democracy in essence became brahminical democracy. Within no time the colonial bureaucracy was transformed into a brahminical bureaucracy. The same brahminical forces transformed themselves to suit an emerging global capitalism. They recast their Sanskritized life-style to anglicized life-styles, reshaping themselves, to live a semi-capitalist (and at the same time brahminical) life. Their anglicization did not undermine their casteized authoritarianism. All apex power centres in the country were brahminized and the power of the bureaucracy greatly extended. Because of their anglicization quite a few of them were integrated into the global techno-economic market. Such top brahminical elites were basically unconcerned with the development of the rural economy because it would result in changing the conditions of the Dalitbahujan masses and thus new social forces might emerge. Thus the anglicized brahminical class also became an anti-development social force."

Even the Indian Communist Party did not escape upper caste domination. "Notionally the Communist leadership was trying to portray itself as an integral part of the masses and to stress that it was no different from the people. But in reality the Dalitbahujan masses remained distinctly different in three ways: (i) the Communist leadership came from the 'upper' caste - mainly from Brahmins; (ii) they remained Hindu in day-to-day life-styles; and (iii) by and large the masses were economically poor but the leaders came from relatively wealthy backgrounds. The masses came from Dalitbahujan castes, and these castes never found an equal place in the leadership structures. Even in states like Andrhra Pradesh and Kerala, where non-Brahmin movements were strong enough to influence the society, the pattern held good... All over the country, the Brahmin population has become leaders in all spheres of socio-political life. They never remained part of the masses. Thus even the Communist movement started functioning in two separate camps - the 'upper' caste leader camp and the Dalitbahujan cadre camp."

"What Hinduism has done is that through manipulative hierarchization, even in the socialist era, it has retained its hegemony over the managerial posts in the urban centres. In every industry the working masses are Dalitbahujans whose notions of life and work are non-Hinduistic [that is, they value labor and practical knowledge over leisure and religious knowledge], whereas, the entrepreneurs and managers of the factories - the directors, supervisors, engineers - are Brahmin, Baniya or Neo-Kshatriya [the warrior caste]. As a result, there is a total cultural divide between the managerial class and the working class. If some factory workers starve or if workers get injured or die because of an accident, the managers do not feel for them because there is no social relationship between them. They are separated not only by class but also by caste. Thus the worker's suffering or death is seen as that of the Other." Hence India's putrid wealth divide: divisions were first cut into society by caste, and now have been cemented by class.


As an interesting aside, Ilaiah argues that the "persistent theory that human beings are by nature, selfish or iniquitous or the scope for selfishness is removed only when inequality is reduced (as was done in some of the former socialist systems) and its obverse: the theory that human systems do not survive if inequalities are totally removed, both these theories can be disproved by any systematic study of Dalitwaadas [Dalitbahujan communities], where there is no negative cut-throat competition and no withdrawing into lethargy."