Millenial questions haunt various religious traditions, and their adherents are too often forced into the roles of apologist or antagonist. Islam is hounded by the questions of extremism and violence–of the past and present; Christianity deals with a history of the crusades and inquisition of yore, and church scandals today; Jews are bedeviled now by the Palestinian question; and Hindus, well, there is the caste conundrum.
A hierarchical system of caste based discrimination against those belonging to the “lowest” castes, often referred to as Harijans or Dalits, is still in play in parts of India, especially rural villages. Hindus too often feared to tread on this “untouchable” issue–one that is so contrary to the lofty ideals of a religion that speaks of an immanent and transcendent divinity that inhabits every being equally–or historical analogies and tortured explanations are proffered to explain what should not be.
Marking Human Rights Day and the sixtieth anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Hindu American Foundation released today a report that confronts the caste issue head-on. Hinduism: Not Caste in Caste–Seeking an end to Caste Based Discrimination is a groundbreaking, 172-page report, that states with brutal honesty that Hindus bear a special burden to denounce caste-based discrimination since some Hindu texts sanction the caste system. But in contending that caste is in no way “intrinsic” to Hinduism, the report is redemptive: the solution to the caste blight actually lies in a proper interpretation of authentic Hindu scripture. It is an admission, a renunciation and a call to action.
Caste-based discrimination is a serious human rights issue in the Indian sub-continent. Over 160 million people fall under the category of Scheduled Castes (SCs), the erstwhile untouchables, and still suffer from terrible discrimination. And, while untouchability has been outlawed, abuse and discrimination of SCs persist, particularly in rural areas of India. In 2008, the Government of India recorded 33,615 human rights violations of various types affecting SCs.
Hindus must acknowledge that caste arose in Hindu society, that some Hindu texts and traditions justify a birth-based hierarchy and caste-bias, and that it has survived despite considerable Hindu attempts to curtail it. Caste-based discrimination represents a failure of Hindu society to live up to its essential spiritual teachings and is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism itself. It represents a lamentable gap between the Hindu teaching of divinity inherent in all beings, and the failure of society to put that precept into practice in its dealings with fellow Hindus.
While many in Hindu society may have failed the SCs in the past , it is critical for Hindu leaders and the larger community to own up to the problem and address it. While we recognize, and salute, that much work is already being done in this regard by many Hindu religious leaders, organizations, and individuals, there is a need for a more forceful, coordinated, and concerted approach than has been undertaken thus far, given the sheer magnitude of the problem. In this connection, HAF presents statements from 13 prominent Hindu religious and spiritual leaders categorically denouncing caste-based discrimination as having no part of their teachings and practice of Hinduism. Several more leaders support our effort, but were unable to provide us with written statements in time for this publication.
HAF supports the reanalysis and subsequent rejection of any and all teachings that promote caste-based discrimination and birth-based hierarchy. Most such teachings are found in texts called Smritis, or books of ancient Hindu social law, which by their very nature and intent, are recognized to change with space and time and do not necessarily teach Hinduism’s eternal spiritual truths. Hindu religious and spiritual leaders must take the lead in ensuring that those parts of the various scriptures that promote notions of caste-based discrimination and a birth-based hierarchy are explicitly denied any authority in the minds of their followers. We hope that they work more actively to end discrimination, promote equality, and end birth-based hierarchies by ensuring that their followers put Hindu spiritual teachings into practice.
At the same time, traditional power structures in the caste hierarchy have undergone a substantial change, and any solution to the problem of caste-based discrimination must incorporate the new dynamic that has emerged in India. The urbanization and economic development of the country, the Government of India’s (GoI) reservation policies, and the sheer dynamics of representative democracy have wrought a sea change in caste dynamics since India’s independence in 1947. These factors have also lead to dramatic improvements in the social status of numerous erstwhile “lower” castes. Thus, while much remains to be done, especially for the SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs), the significant progress in the six decades since India’s independence must also be acknowledged and built upon.
We must also recognize that caste violence in India today is significantly driven by political and economic considerations and occurs not between “upper” castes and SCs but rather largely between the erstwhile “backward” castes and the SCs. For this reason, eradicating caste-based discrimination not only places a religious responsibility on Hindus, but also a secular responsibility on civic and business institutions, and a political responsibility on the GoI as well as state and local government and law enforcement. Effective implementation of police reforms and stringent law enforcement are critical in combating caste-based discrimination.
The movement for the emancipation of SCs is an important one. HAF is fully committed to the end of discrimination against all SCs, Hindu or otherwise. We are supportive of the vibrant Harijan and Dalit movement that has taken root in India today, are working with such groups today and seek to work with more in the future. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s greatest legacy consists not only in his authorship of the Indian Constitution but also the self-empowerment that he has inspired among the Dalits, as seen in the large number of secular, Dalit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are engaged in improving the lot of SCs in various parts of the country today.
The modern Dalit movement has been joined in the last decade or two by many Christian organizations, often supported financially from Europe and the U.S. HAF lauds those organizations involved in mitigating or eliminating human rights abuses, but is wary of the motives of those that seek to exploit the situation through anti-Hindu propaganda and that are driven primarily by conversion agendas. The presence of caste-based discrimination in Hindu society is one of the reasons that provides missionaries the ability to “fish in troubled waters.” This is why we argue that Hindu society has a great moral burden to act in a more determined and concerted fashion to end caste-based discrimination.
Missionaries are correct about the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in India, but their claims about caste-based discrimination being intrinsic to Hinduism, and that conversion to other religions is the only way to eliminate this problem, must be seen in the light of their vested interests of “harvesting souls.” Tellingly, conversions to Christianity have not led to an improvement in the situation of SC converts, who continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of “upper” caste Christians. We also present testimonials from a Hindu SC community leader in Chattisgarh affirming his pride in Hinduism and only demanding for an end to social discrimination, as well as an article on the plight of Christian Dalits by a well-known Christian interfaith activist.