We, the unequal

Equality before law must be accompanied by equality in social practices and in the eyes of god.

Written by Ramachandra Guha | Published:January 30, 2016 12:11 am

India-759

The two fundamental axes of social inequality in India are caste and gender. Caste distinctions were central to orthodox Hinduism. Their influence was so pervasive that they carried over even when people converted to faiths based on more egalitarian principles. In India, Muslims and Christians also practised (and often still practise) caste-based discrimination.

As for gender, Hinduism is notable for having many women represented in its pantheon. However, while there are women deities, until very recently there were no women priests. Successive shankaracharyas have argued that women are not authorised to read or interpret sacred texts. In Islam, the discrimination is arguably even greater, with no women priests of course, and often, segregated worship as well. The religious texts of Hinduism and Islam are also heavily loaded in favour of patriarchy. No doubt, through selective quotations from the Quran or the Vedas, one can claim they respected or even revered women, but taken as a whole, there is no question that Hinduism and Islam are both religions where men are held to be superior, and thus mandated to dominate family, society and community life.

A major challenge to religious discrimination was the bhakti movement. Poets such as Tukaram and Eknath in Maharashtra, Kabir and Mira in north India, and the Alvars of the Tamil country, preached (and practised) what we might call equality in the eyes of god. In the orthodox tradition, scripture was interpreted only by authorised male priests; while low castes were excluded from places of worship. The bhakti movement challenged this orthodoxy by arguing that individuals did not need priestly instruction to forge their own path to the divine. In approaching god, said (or sang) the bhakti poets, personal devotion and faith mattered more than social status or family position. I have been reading a fine book on the 15th-century bhakti poet, Narasinha Mehta, written by the literary scholar Neelima Shukla-Bhatt. A living presence in his native Gujarat, where his poems are still read and his songs still sung, Narasinha was also a considerable influence on Mahatma Gandhi. He composed “Vaishnava Jana To”, Gandhi’s favourite hymn, and also first used the term “Harijan”.

Gandhi took these traditions of heterodoxy further and deeper. Through the 1920s and 1930s, he campaigned against untouchability, evoking horror and anger among sants and shankaracharyas but much support among modern-minded Hindus. Meanwhile, from the other end of the social spectrum, Ambedkar was conducting his own heroic struggle against caste discrimination.

In the 1930s, many temples opened their doors to Dalits. The process accelerated after Independence. In a vast majority of Hindu temples today, Dalit and Suvarna worship together. Belatedly, Hindu priests have granted that in the eyes of god, all Hindus are equal.

But, as recent events in Sabarimala and the Shani temple show, the same broadmindedness has not been extended to women. And, as the controversy over the Haji Ali shrine in Mumbai demonstrates, Muslim women also do not enjoy equal rights when it comes to patterns and forms of worship. In the eyes of god, as interpreted by mullahs and pandits, men are still the superior sex.

Dalits may have largely won the battle in the domain of religion, either by acquiring the rights every other temple worshipper has, or by following Ambedkar and converting to Buddhism. But in the realm of everyday social practice, they continue to face grievous discrimination. It used to be claimed, or believed, that caste discrimination was relatively less active in the cities. But as the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula showed, this may not really be the case. In the science faculties of an elite Central university, men and women are still being judged by which caste they were born into.

Meanwhile, gender discrimination is also pervasive in everyday life in India. Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar all lived and worked for an India where women and men would be fully equal. Yet, 70 years on, deep inequalities of gender persist: In the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the bus and train and plane, and on the street. In all these spheres, women are denied dignity, respect, education, employment, promotion, and voice. They are often subject to horrific violence too.

There are three kinds of equality a modern, tolerant, humane society should strive for. Two I have already spoken of: Equality in the eyes of god, and equality in everyday social life. The third, of course, is equality before the law. The Constitution of India assured equality before the law to all citizens regardless of age, caste, gender or religion. It further allowed for affirmative action for Dalits and Adivasis to compensate for past discrimination against them. Much later, an amendment to the Constitution mandated affirmative action for women in local bodies, likewise an acknowledgement that history and culture had discriminated against them.

There is, however, one aspect of the law in which gender discrimination persists. This is the domain of family and personal law. The personal law reforms of the 1950s (the handiwork of Ambedkar and Nehru) gave Hindu women far greater rights than they had previously enjoyed. But they left Muslim women untouched. Customs like polygamy and triple talaq, which are completely repugnant to a democratic sensibility, are thus still legally valid.

In any case, equality before the law does not have much meaning unless it is accompanied by equality in social practice. And, in a society where believers far outnumber atheists or agnostics, equality in the eyes of god likewise remains an ideal worth striving for.

All three forms of equality are important, each feeding into or influencing the other. All three must be pursued patiently, and simultaneously. India desperately needs a gender-sensitive common civil code that brings all citizens under its ambit. Indians need to press the managements of the country’s temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras towards less discriminatory practices, so that women can enter and worship in any part of a shrine, so that women can, if they so wish, become pujaris, mahants, maulanas, imams, priests and bishops too.
Legal and religious reforms are important, but in the context of caste and gender discrimination, the reform of individual and collective behaviour may be more important still. The treatment of Dalits and women in India falls shockingly short of what the Constitution-makers hoped, and what any sense of decency or morality expects. To be sure, our claims to being the world’s largest democracy are vitiated by the venality and corruption of our political leaders. But they are vitiated far more by the everyday behaviour towards Dalits by upper-caste Hindus, and towards women by men of all castes and religions.

 

Guha, a Bangalore-based historian, is author, most recently, of ‘Gandhi Before India’.

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  1. A
    Aap
    Jan 30, 2016 at 3:01 am
    One need to analyse in depth. The so called western culture uplifting women is being rejected by women and they are looking for ways to go back for peace in personnel and social life.
    Reply
    1. A
      Aap
      Jan 31, 2016 at 3:42 am
      What is right or wrong doesn't matter to some writers. The story must be worthy of selling. Irrespective of source if people are unbiased they would find solution to humanity. Good attempt to hide behind your failures. You can keep blaming Islam Hinduism Christianity, Sorry you failed to make it.
      Reply
      1. S
        Sirius
        Jan 30, 2016 at 12:44 pm
        Mr. Ghulam: Poor defense ! It becomes hard to believe your arguments and accusations if you cannot demonstrate a case (e.g., stan, Bangladesh) in which the same conditions never existed, and the nations did better than India ! Contrary to your arguments, far from being victimized, minorities and reserved categories have excelled in your 'beloved' nation. Some credit must be due to the 'majority-general' for facilitating that . Ask yourself, was that possible two hundred years ago, when the rulers were minorities or Europeans ?
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        1. H
          Haradhan Mandal
          Jan 30, 2016 at 10:25 am
          "they carried over even when people converted to faiths based on more egalitarian principles ". Two BIG truths of India and its society are pronounced in one sentence. 'carried over' and 'more egalitarian policies'. Please be ready to be 'burned alive' :) . You also said that people may quote many 'pious and noble things' from Holy books - but these are UTTERLY useless as it could NOT educate the 'EDUCATED' ones on the 'GEMS' - written inside the Holy books. Vidayasagar and Raja RamMohan Roy of Bengal were devout Hindu and Brahmin themselves. They were opposed TOOTH AND NAIL by the then 'Brahmins' of the Hindu society and their follower/supporter upper caste Hindu zamindars. They wanted to 'protect Hindu Religion' from destruction by these two reformers. Please note that they are not ICONS as much as Swami Vivekananda is.
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          1. M
            Modi-midi
            Jan 30, 2016 at 12:10 pm
            Today, Guha is our(brahmin filths') , COMMIE, NAXALITE, ANTI-NATIONAL.
            Reply
            1. K
              Kavi
              Jan 30, 2016 at 9:16 am
              Another pressute trying to divide the society with twisted facts and false propaa. The Pressute must be one of the slave dog of Italian mafia.
              Reply
              1. K
                K SHESHU
                Jan 30, 2016 at 7:20 am
                Equality before God depends upon interpretation of scriptures of religions. While male readers of scripture quote some selective parts the feminine scholars give different evidence. When there is no uniformity in interpretation, how does equality before god exists? Also, law has been intrepreted differently by different lawyers on same cases. We have seen higher courts striking down lower court's verdicts. Uniformity is absent here too. If uniformity in perception is possible, only then equality of all genders and castes is possible.
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                1. M
                  Mavala
                  Jan 31, 2016 at 6:10 am
                  Have you considered that your so called upper castes feel cheated when they lose out on opportunities due to " tragedy of birth"
                  Reply
                  1. A
                    Archpagan
                    Jan 30, 2016 at 1:21 pm
                    Entire Hindu society had been 'dalit' under 1000-year long Mohammedan-Christian domination. I see no 'dalit' now in India, but 'neo-dalits' and 'neo-Brahmins' only. Moghul/Afghan rulers prevented all Hindus from ridding on horseback, using musical bands or wearing shining dress. Some powerful Hindus learn it from Mohammedan masters and applied the same to weaker sections to ert their social hierarchy. That is now called caste oppression. During British era 95% of the potion was fully or partially dependent on agriculture. Of them 30% were landless farmers. The exploitation of landless laborers by land-owning farmers came to be known as caste oppression. In reality, professions like agriculture or fighting was open to all castes over the ages. There was never any machinery in place to enforce that people follow caste-based trade only. A potter’s son used to learn pottery from his father/ clansmen as there was no ‘medical college’ for him to learn medicine and others had little scope to learn pottery as there was no engineering college to study ceramics.This can hardly be called discrimination. Untouchability was practiced purely on hygienic ground, without theological foundation. It is untouchability that saved our tribal people from extinction. That is why it is ‘officially’ practiced in respect of Jaroas of Andaman. It is time we throw History books written by Mullah -Missionary-Marxists to the dust bin.
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                    1. A
                      Archpagan
                      Jan 31, 2016 at 4:24 am
                      Aryan Invasion is a fiction created by the Mullah-Missionary-Marxist combine imposing their own History and bias upon our character with a view to legitimizing their imperialist design and proselytizing objectives. Recent genealogical studies has totally demolished the theory. In the absence of state-sponsored universal education, which was unthinkable in the ancient world, casteism originated through evolutionary process; it was not created by any Hindu 'Holy Empire' or 'Caliphate'. Shashtras only tried to explain its origin. Casteism protected Hindu society over the ages by creating a self-sustaining and self-governing system independent of the competence of the rulers. That’s precisely the reason why Hindu civilization survived while the Roman and Greek civilization could not. Other societies practiced slavery till the other day, which was far more inhuman.
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                      1. A
                        Archpagan
                        Jan 30, 2016 at 5:58 am
                        It is because of reservation that 'in the science faculties of an elite Central university, men and women are still being judged by which caste they were born into'. Why call it 'gender-sensitive common civil code' instead of 'secular' civil code - your most-loved word?
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                        1. A
                          Archpagan
                          Jan 31, 2016 at 6:23 am
                          Thanks Ramesh. According to Hindu concept mankind is divided into various groups on basis of varna, jati, gana, rasi, gotra etc. Jati and gotra are acquired by birth, varna , rasi and gana by the time of birth, others by action. According to my horoscope, I am tularasi, viprvarna, rakshas gana etc. But my jati is gopa, gotra maudgalya. I am an atheist, although I respect my remote ancestors who compiled the Vedas, Puranas and epics or identify myself with characters depicted therein. That' s why I am a Hindu. Our present government also practice discrimination by categorizing its employees into Group A, B, C.
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                            Arun
                            Jan 30, 2016 at 11:48 am
                            In the 1930s, many temples opened their doors to Dalits. -
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                            1. S
                              sarjit singh
                              Jan 31, 2016 at 12:55 am
                              Mahatma hi was primarily interested in preserving his leadership exclusively and preventing the number of Hindus from dwindling. It "shook hi to his core", when in London in 1931 Dr. Ambedkar, who being a Dalit, claimed to be leader of the Dalits. hi wanted Dalits's cause to wait until India got freedom. So did Nehru. They both followed the same strategy "to make promises". For the Sikhs, the promises were repeated about six times before 1947; but after Independence Sikhism was treated as part of Hinduism. hi tried this trick on Mr. Jinnah but failed. Even when India gained freedom, Mr. Clement Attlee, the then Prime Minister of Britain, erted that hi's roll was considered minimum. The British left because of the changed atude of the Armed Forces, RIN and RIAF. Then holocaust followed.
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                              1. K
                                Karunakaran
                                Jan 30, 2016 at 4:33 am
                                The current central Government is an utter failure. The economy is in terrible shape. This is despite the fact that the crude oil price dropping by 75%. Inflation is terrible. Instead of his fixing his Government's probelms, the dokhlabhai wants to inflame the pions of the community against the Nehru-hi family. What the poor people need is jobs, affordable food and services. But the dokhlabhai's focus is on the Nehru-hi family. Who to blame? The dokhlabhai's lack of education? His lack of confidence? Or just the love for caste and cow politics?
                                Reply
                                1. C
                                  COL. SN
                                  Jan 30, 2016 at 2:39 am
                                  No equality before law.Used to FOOL people .Standard phrase is LAW WEILL TAKE ITS COURSE__ 10/25/20 years or life which directly means FOR RICH. On drop of the hat neta. and rich RUSH to court and get HEARING. Other cases wait for years. Convicted RICH does not get jail even under the pretext of TOO OLD to go to jail. ADJPURNMRMNTS to favour LAWYER and rich is a routine . .Judicial Reforms means NOTMORE THAN THREE ADJOURN!ERNT and not JUDICISL COMMISION..
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                                    Aditya
                                    Jan 30, 2016 at 12:07 am
                                    We need to talk more on these issues without prejudices. We have to build consensus otherwise we will fell short of creating modern and reasonable society .
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                                      Datta Tembhekar
                                      Jan 30, 2016 at 2:50 am
                                      This is known to almost all Indians now that castes are the bane of this society. Individually asked, each citizen will probably agree that this must be removed. Question is how. All our knowledge till date suggests that we must stop using the caste in all govt and social platforms. Within 10 years caste will be gone. But this will take tremendous sacrifice from all, specially political parties and so called intellectuals. Until then, talk and more talk. Action??????
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                                      1. d
                                        dv1936
                                        Jan 30, 2016 at 12:50 am
                                        What is the bane of India's consution. Why reservation?.
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                                          Ghulam Muhammed
                                          Jan 30, 2016 at 12:19 pm
                                          @Sirius Talk of our own country, India. Diverting the focus to other countries will not solve our problem of rank pathological insidious discrimination on communal and religious line. Better face the hard facts and reposition our beloved nation to an inclusive and just society.
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                                          1. G
                                            Ghulam Muhammed
                                            Jan 30, 2016 at 6:55 am
                                            1. There is no priesthood in Islam. The Ulama having studied Islam are defacto but not dejure leaders. Between two Muslims, one of them by mutual consent becomes Amir/Amira. Absence of women is more of a logistical problem than a theological one. (Will government give extra FSI to Masjids to accommodate women praying in mosques?). No doubt in Islam too, patriarchy is highly visible in practice but Sharia takes equality between men and women very very seriously and not as afterthought. Men and women do differently in their natural endowments. Islam takes that difference into account and mostly 'advises' different courses of action and thought to bring harmony. Islamic history is replete with women excelling practically in all walks of life. So commentators should not be confused with or interpolate current practices with the entire body of Sharia.
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