B R Ambedkar often expressed how the Indian village was the setting for the discrimination of Dalits, and that they should migrate to cities. Dalits do suffer from the myriad oppressions heaped on them by dominant castes and along with other marginal sections of society, have migrated to cities, towns and kasbahs and settled mostly in slums. They constitute about 17 per cent of the country’s urban-dwelling population. In Uttar Pradesh, slum dwellers constitute about 14 per cent of the urban population, according to the 2011 census. Most of them are poor and from marginalised sections.
Slums have emerged as sites for the practice of Hindutva politics. We are habituated to viewing this section of people as subjects who desire and demand houses, jobs, ration cards, medical treatment, etc. But they also aspire towards creating small temples in their bastis, where they can assemble, worship and share their joys and sorrows (sukh-dukh) with their neighbours. With economic betterment, slum dwellers are also aspiring for religious empowerment. Dalits and other marginalised people residing in slums are becoming increasingly aware of their religious identity as Hindus.
The RSS and its various affiliates enter slums through running schools, organising medical camps, etc. RSS shakhas are also expanding their footprint among the urban poor by giving them a “Hindu” identity. Small Hindutva organisations with various names such as Hindu Yuva Vahini and Hindu Rakshak Sangh have been working in the juggi-jhopari colonies in various UP cities.
These two types of organisations have differing strategies. On the one hand, the RSS and some of its affiliates are working among the urban poor through “sewa” and “sahyog”. On the other hand, various small Hindutva outfits are trying mobilise these slum-dwelling populations through an aggressive Hindutva discourse. The RSS-generated discourse is aimed at reshaping their identity as “Hindu Nagrik”, by inspiring them to imbibe and perform various Hindu sanskaras. In contrast, the other organisations are trying to produce a proud identity as Hindus among Dalit slum dwellers.
The tone and tenor of these two Hindutva-based campaigns is producing two different political cultures. These may overlap, but they also diverge into two streams of Hindutva identity. The first positions itself as a “soft Hindu” identity, while the second is a proponent of an aggressive Hinduism. At times, the RSS looks uncomfortable with the presence and growing influence of these smaller, aggressive Hindutva outfits. The Sangh appears to have some difficulty in handling these groups. One may find conflict and contestation between these two streams of Hindutva politics.
Both kinds of outfits help to create a political ambience that likely helps a party like the BJP. But they are producing two different kinds of Hindutva subjectivities: The first wants to appropriate the communities in these slums within its own Hindutva frame; the second does not tolerate any difference in identity and culture.
It is certainly the case that only a thin line separates the two political cultures emerging in the slums of UP. But both these strands are working separately. Some people, who form the backbone of the smaller groups, may have been part of an RSS shakha at some point in their lives, but they have now evolved their own ways of functioning.
At one point, slums were considered a space for radical Ambedkarite and Left politics. That appears to be changing in UP. From the initial years, when Kanshi Ram used these sites to evolve Bahujan politics, they are now turning into Hindutva spaces.
The transformation of these social locations from the BSP’s “blue” to saffron is taking place at a rapid pace. Since Hindutva groups use religious identity as an important axis of social, political and cultural mobilisation, they have managed to link the economic aspiration in UP’s slums with religious empowerment.
Today, in the slums, one can view well-organised programmes featuring chants of the Sunder Kand Path and Hanuman Chalisa. The RSS is also working towards building small temples dedicated to Hindu deities.
Both types of Hindutva organisations see religious conversion as a threat in these societies and view their work as antidote to the same. They claim that their efforts are strengthening Hindu society.
This article first appeared in the October 17 print edition under the title ‘Saffron in the slums’. The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad