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The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s tribulations over caste

The RSS wants BR Ambedkar on its side, but on its own terms. The Sangh has been trying hard to appropriate him, mindful of his iconic status as a Dalit leader, but has had patchy success. DEEPAK JOSHI / INDIA EXPRESS ARCHIVE
01 April, 2020

DAVID C MULFORD, then the US ambassador to India, sent a confidential cable to Washington, DC in 2005, titled, “Socioeconomic Future of Indian Dalits Remains Bleak.” This was a status note on the condition of Dalits in the country. Ram Nath Kovind, the current president of India but then a Bharatiya Janata Party MP from Uttar Pradesh, was interviewed by American diplomats, and told them that open discrimination against Dalits had reduced dramatically in the preceding decade. However, he also predicted that caste-based discrimination would exist for at least the next fifty to one hundred years in India. Kovind suggested that since the Hindu religion condones caste, it would take longer for the Indian government to end caste discrimination than for the US administration to eradicate racial discrimination in its country. The true basis of discrimination was economic in nature rather than caste-based, he argued, as the haves discriminate against the have-nots and use the caste system to perpetuate differences between economic groups. Comparing the caste system to the trade guilds in feudal Europe—in that certain groups performed specific jobs—Kovind said that under the caste system persons acquire their trade at birth, while the guilds allowed job mobility. Caste factors were used to protect jobs and livelihoods more than anything else.

While Kovind was right that caste discrimination would remain for a long time, his reading of the nature of that discrimination was grossly inadequate, as events have frequently borne out.

In March 2018, Pradeep Rathod, aged 21, was allegedly murdered in Timbi village in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district. Police reportedly found that Rathod, a Dalit, was killed because he was riding a horse, which did not go down well with the upper-caste people of the village. In another incident, a Dalit man was beaten up by a group of “unidentified” men with lathis, and forced to say “Jai Shri Ram,” “Maa Kaali ki jai” and “Bholenath ki jai,” allegedly for tearing posters of Hindu gods outside the houses of his own community members in Muzaffarnagar’s Purqazi area and sticking up BR Ambedkar’s pictures instead. The beating, which was caught on camera, showed the Dalit man wearing a helmet, begging for mercy. In early October 2017, the news agency ANI reported that a young Dalit was thrashed in Limbodarai village in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar district because he was sporting a moustache. In a video, the victim, 24-year-old Piyush Parmar, claimed that upper-caste men beat him and his cousin because they did not like a moustache on a lower-caste person.

A simple Google search saying “Dalit youth” throws up page after page of accounts of such atrocities. Dalits are sometimes attacked for merely eating food in the presence of upper-caste men or for sitting on a chair. While north Indian states such as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan feature regularly in these reports, Gujarat, from the west, also comes up. From the south, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu hit the headlines frequently for attacks on Dalits.