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Feb 09, 2023

Bhagwat’s New Spin on Caste Will Not Stem the Rebellion Against Texts That Insult the Shudras

The RSS/BJP intellectuals tell us today that texts like Ramcharitmanas are mirrors of our civilisation. Then where do the Shudras, Dalits, Adivasis and women exist, except for occasional humiliation?
Mohan Bhagwat speaking on the RSS's foundation day. Photo: PTI/File

The mainstream media has been trying to avoid entering the debate triggered by the ongoing Shudra rebellion against the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas, a Brahmin, for pleading with his God Rama to punish Shudras, Dalits and women, and equating them with animals and drums.

In the whole of Tulsidas’s 16th-century retelling of the Ramayana, there isn’t a single line that criticises – even by allegory – the Mughal emperor Akbar for the effect of his rule on the poor and downtrodden. But at several places, there are derogatory references to Shudras, equating them with animals. Tulsidas used the same language and methodology that Manu used in the 2nd century BCE against the productive masses of India in his time. 

Bihar education minister Chandrashekar and Swami Prasad Maurya of the Samajwadi Party (SP) have opposed the inclusion of such texts in the school and college curriculum – something the BJP regime in its ‘New Education Policy’ is pushing with a view to teaching students about India’s ancient culture and heritage. The debate they have triggered has introduced a ‘Shudra vs Brahmin’ dimension to the caste question in north India, hitherto confined to reservations and the economic accommodation of the oppressed castes in the governance.

The Shudra vs Brahmin debate has opened up the Pandora’s box of Sanskrit and Brahminic textual history and initiated a larger debate about India’s caste cultural civilisation. With SP leader Akhilesh Yadav taking a strong position on the question of Shudra identity, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) knows it is vulnerable on this account.

Speaking at a public meeting in Mumbai on the occasion of the Santh Ravidas’s birth anniversary last week, RSS head Mohan Bhagwat made an interesting statement aimed at salvaging the situation in North India. “The varna system was not created by God and everyone was equal before God,” he said, adding that “pandits were responsible for creating castes and sects”. 

The RSS has since tried to ‘clarify’ that Bhagwat was referring not to pandits as a caste but to ‘learned persons’ as a class. The Sangh is being disingenuous. We know that pandits in the Brahminic religious system even today are only Brahmins. We also know that the RSS has been a strong supporter of the varna system in its organisational literature for the past 98 years.

Earlier, in a 2014 meeting in Kerala, Bhagwat himself said, “The Sangh should not get into eradicating or opposing caste. Caste is a system that exists in society. It would remain until the society believes in it.” But who really believes in it? Surely, the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi society is not interested in the caste system. In fact, it is ‘Dwija’ society which is still interested in this system because it is the source of its power, privilege and spiritual authority.

It is from this perspective that Akhilesh Yadav has challenged Mohan Bhagwat to take his recent statement to its logical conclusion. “You have clarified [there is no caste] in front of God. Please also make it clear what is the reality regarding the caste system for human beings.” In other words, what are Bhagwat and the RSS doing at the ground level to remove caste inequalities? This is a serious and genuine question which cannot be ducked.

A question for everyone

Such questions about caste, untouchability and women’s inequality should be asked by everyone of us.

The Ramachariatamanas is a historical casteist text, just like the Manudharma Shastra, the Arthashastra of Kautilya and also Bunch of Thoughts by Golwalkar. 

A major political party in a big state like UP is asking why a Brahmin author sought to humiliate Shudras, Dalits and women – the main wealth creators of society. In Tulsidas’s time, Birbal, a Brahmin and Todar Mal, a Kayastha, were among Akbar’s top administrators.

When the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi peasantry was expanding agricultural land, the emperor’s administration was imposing backbreaking land rents on them. Yet Tulsidas is not asking his God Rama to punish the rulers but the Shudras/Dalits and women. Is it a crime to question or oppose such authors and their texts? 

Since the RSS/BJP want Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi students to study all ancient and medieval texts in universities, colleges and schools, should their parents not see how those texts portrayed their community? It is not just one Ramcharitamanas, but the whole range of Sanskrit texts starting with Rig Veda which treated the category of Shudra – the producers of food and of artisanal scientific work – as contemptible. What is surprising about political leaders challenging this?

Tulsidas composing Ramcharitmanas. Photo: bazaar art/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain,

After the questions raised by the Shudra movement started spreading beyond party ideology and posters saying ‘Garv Se Kaho Ham Shudra Hai’ and ‘Jai Shudra’ began appearing in UP. When even RSS/BJP Shudra/Dalit leaders and women slowly began to tilt towards supporting this movement, Bhagwat had to come out and make such a statement.

So far, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah have remained silent. Their dilemma is real. We know how they organised the lower OBCs – the non-Yadavs – in UP and came to power in the state. But then Yogi Adityanath, who is known for his caste arrogance, was made the chief minister. When he washed the CM’s official residence with cow urine after Akhilesh vacated it, how could the RSS/BJP imagine a caste war would not start in that state someday?

The humiliation of the Shudras and Chandalas and Adivasis in most classical Sanskrit books is not unknown. In the Ramayana, Shambuka was killed because he was Shudra. In the Mahabharata, Karna was not allowed to participate in Draupadi’s Swayamvara because he was a Shudra and Ekalavya was not allowed to learn archery because he was an Adivasi. More than anything, these sacred books say nothing about who was growing the food, grazing the animals and building the palaces that the authors described in those texts. Were they not Shudras/Dalits and Adivasis? How is it that they are not talked about? These books only tell us the story narratives of Kshatriya kings and Brahmin rishis as if they are the only persons who lived in India in those times.

If, as the RSS/BJP intellectuals tell us today, those books are mirrors of our civilisation, where do the Shudras, Dalits, Adivasis and women exist, except for occasional humiliation around some individual characters like Shambuka, Karna, Eklavya and so on?

Whose life should the students study in those books? Should they read about the ancestors of Yogi Adityanath and the priests and saints who are issuing fatwas to kill Shudras? No. That is not education. It is the process of 21st century enslavement for the Shudras/Dalits/Adivasis who are aspiring to human life in this constitutional democracy of ours.

The RSS/BJP intellectuals who are trying to impose these books should realise that Shudras, Dalits, Adivasis and women are not cows who will be content with some praise or some worship even as they are confined to goshalas without proper food and water. They will rebel in a manner that Indian history has not witnessed earlier. The slogans in UP – ‘Jai Shudra’ and ‘Garv Se Kaho Hum Shudra Hai’ – are signposts of that rebellion.       

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His latest book is The Shudras–Vision For a New Path, co-edited with Karthik Raja Kuruppusamy. He is now working on a book The Shudra Rebellion–History From the Field Memories.

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