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.
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