There is joy in heaven when even one sinner repents. So goes the Christian prayer. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad may not be best placed to be greeted as a Christian sinner, but the good news is that it has repented. It has finally discovered that the curse of untouchability may have been the reason Dalits preferred to abandon the Sanatana Dharma and migrate to other more egalitarian religions. Who needs ‘ghar wapsi’ if the ghar you are being invited back to treats you like dirt?
No one should be surprised that many Dalits left Hinduism. Indeed the puzzle is that so many remained. There is a fundamental misunderstanding among the champions of Hindu nationalism. We are constantly told that Hindu religion is so tolerant that secularism is in its very spirit. You don’t need to contrast a secular India with a Hindu India. This tolerance is something of a myth, but not too far from the truth.
Hindu religion may be tolerant, but Hindu society is intolerant and inegalitarian. One may admire the contemplation of Advaita, but then how can one reconcile the contempt for the Shudra and the ati-Shudra with the assertion of a universal abstract Brahman? Hindu society mistreats the majority of its people. Even the Bhagavad Gita displays this prejudice when it contrasts the “virtues” of the two upper Varnas with the “mundane character” of Vaishyas and Shudras (Adhyaya 18, shloka 41-48). For all the spirituality and loftiness of the Vedas and Upanishads, the unassailable facts were of inhuman treatment of Dalit men and even more so of their women, who were treated as sex objects. Shudras did not do better. The Bahujan, the majority, were the losers in Hindu society.
Much of Hindutva ideology is propagated by the upper castes, particularly Brahmins. There is no discussion about how the lowly jatis felt about the mythologies and philosophies of Brahmanism. Jyotiba Phule was the first modern writer to articulate a trenchant anti-Brahminical message. Dr Balasaheb Ambedkar wrote tirelessly in a critical manner against the pretensions of Brahminical spirituality. Read his critique of the Bhagavad Gita and you will realise how different that great text of Brahmanism looks to the lower castes. He fought tirelessly against caste and Brahmanism. At the end of his life, he gave up his efforts at making fellow Hindus aware of the defect in their society and took his followers to Buddhism.
Mahatma Gandhi tried his best to convince Hindu society of the evils of untouchability. He did not want to break up the Hindu mass support for independence by dividing it on the untouchability issue as Ambedkar wanted to. Yet he failed to persuade Varna Hindus to abandon untouchability. They all paid lip service to his Harijan Seva programme, but the exploitation and contempt remained. India still needs SC/ST reservations even after 67 years because Hindu society is unreformed and unrepentant.
Hindu society was lucky that the Muslim rulers of India, through the six centuries that they ruled in North India, left the jati system undisturbed. They converted the untouchables but, throughout Muslim rule, Hindu society survived intact. Then the British did something much worse than conversion. They gave free access, regardless of caste, to modern education. This was revolutionary in a society where education was the monopoly of the top two jatis. A Shyamji Krishna Varma could never have been a Sanskrit scholar nor a Mohandas Gandhi a barrister if the British had not brought modern ideas and education to India. It was education more than Christianity which challenged Hindu society.
South India gained the most from this revolution. The anti-Brahmin movement, which the Justice Party launched, followed by the Dravida movement of the Periyar, has made South India very different from the North. It is the North which is still stuck in the past. It is the BIMARU states which are the strongholds of the Hindutva movement. South India has scores higher on the Human Development Index than North India.
The jati system fragments Hindu society. The VHP may dream of a Hindu nation, but to be a Hindu is to be divided and fragmented. That is what will save India from the VHP.