The Politics of Caste in Conversion
Posted September 13, 2005
By Sandhya Jain
September 11, 2005
The recent Supreme Court judgment discouraging additions to the list of religious minorities and the Central Government's failure to arrive at a consensus over the Women's Reservation Bill provide an occasion to debate the meaning of caste and religion, and their usage as instruments of reservation benefits.
From the time of the British Raj, caste has been used to berate Hindu society and has acquired negative connotations in public discourse. Though political parties canvass mass support through caste affiliations, political discourse labels it illegitimate. Even constitutional affirmative action for underprivileged castes is used to put upper caste Hindu society in the dock, though efforts are on to extend the use of caste for political ends. At present, organised religious minorities have launched a virtual crusade for the benefits of caste-based reservations. We need to examine the merits of this quest in terms of the genesis of caste and its applicability to those who have seceded from the Hindu fold.
Caste, the Portuguese name for the Hindu jati and gotra, is simply the organising principle of ancient Indian society. It was the means by which diverse groups in society were integrated and mutual conflicts resolved, on the matrix of an evolving dharma. Both caste and dharma emphasised heredity because ancestry (gotra) was imperative as the spirits of the ancestors had to be invoked in all social sacraments (samskara) to establish the individual's worthiness to receive the sacrament.
Though apparently restrictive, all groups accepted the heredity principle and "created" ancestries and fabled origins as they progressed in life. The Mundas of Chotanagpur, who were originally organised into exogamous sects called Kilis, changed their Kilis into Gotras. Thus Sandi Kili became Sandil Gotra and Nom Tuti Kili evolved into Bhoj-Raj-Gotra. The Koch tribes of Assam metamorphosed into Bhanga-Kshatriya or Rajbansi, and claimed affinity with Rajputs.
Caste or jati is rooted in the tribal concept of gotra. Sociologists have traced the origins of the Barabhum royal family in eastern India to the Bhumij of the ancient Gulgu clan. The early forts of the Barabhum rajas were at Pabanpur (near Bhula, burial ground of the clan) and Bhuni, where the royal (tribal) Goddess Koteshwari had her sacred grove. But when the Bhumij chiefs claimed Rajput status, they shed their tribal affiliations by renouncing the clan ossuary at Bhula. A similar process was discerned among the tribal Bhumij of Baghmundi and the Manbhum Bhumij. The Bhumij are organised in patrilineal exogamous clans (gotras) affiliated to ancestral villages where the clan ossuaries are located. Gotra is thus the organising principle of tribal societies and the key constituent of Hindu social identity.
Given this reality, the question arises whether individuals and groups who have renounced their Hindu identity should get the benefits of a caste identity. Today, amidst mounting evidence that SC/ST reservations in educational institutions are being surreptitiously cornered by non-Hindus, some are asking why individuals who reject their Hindu identity should retain their caste names and thus mislead society.
It is well known that both Christianity and Islam systematically wiped out the traditional religion and culture in the lands where they spread. Christianity humbled Europe through untold brutality, and the Pope's talk of Europe's "Christian roots" cannot disguise the truth that the religion is a cruel imposition of only 2000 years. As for the genocides against the native peoples of North and South America, Australia, and the enslavement of Africa, the less said the better. Islam, similarly, triumphed by wiping out traditional communities (including Christian) where it became dominant.
My point is that both these religions have shown zero tolerance for even vestiges of the old religions in regions where they came to have sway. Both have periodically launched movements against "heretics" and resisted the liberalisation of dogma. While Islam today has the tabligh movement to cleanse Muslim adherents of old practices of their former faith traditions, Christian clergy are engaged in battle with the modern god called "secularism".
Tolerance of, or co-existence with, old faith identities is therefore ruled out in both religions. In India, they do not even respect the right of the Hindu community to remain the majority community, and persist with aggressive attempts at conversions, vitiating the atmosphere all over the country. It therefore makes little sense to permit so-called Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims to garner reservation benefits intended to overcome social disabilities of Hindu society. If erstwhile Dalits find that Christianity and Islam mistreat them, they must approach appropriate judicial forums for redressal of their grievances or come back to the Hindu fold.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has rendered a sterling service by discouraging the trend towards listing distinct religious groups as "minority communities". Indeed, as Swami Dayanand Saraswati pointed out in his reaction to the judgment, there are sound reasons why we should reject the classification of minorities on religious grounds. What is happening is that in India transnational religions with enormous numerical, economic and political clouts are claiming privileges as minorities.
India's religious minorities have access to the enormous resource base of their global co-religionists, yet seek benefits that should go to more needy and deprived sections. The Vatican in Rome caters to the interests of Catholics, while the World Council of Churches in Geneva looks after Protestants. The 2.1 billion-strong Christian community constitutes one-third of the world population, and its clout and reach extends beyond national boundaries, as does that of Islam. Adherents of these transnational faiths, therefore, cannot legitimately be designated as minorities.
The Supreme Court rightly feels that classification of groups as minorities is "a serious jolt to the secular structure of constitutional democracy". Not only would it generate "feelings of multi-nationalism in various sections of the people," but it would hinder national integration. The judgment should serve as a stepping stone in the direction of abolishing the category of minority in the Constitution. The educational and cultural rights of all groups can be protected by equal laws for all educational and cultural institutions-it is time to level the playing field.