Can Hindu conservatives make room for reform in religion?

Old school.
Old school.
Image: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
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Conservatism in social matters is a sort of Achilles heel. Caste oppression, untouchability, oppression of women and marginalisation of tribals are seen as central and inescapable when it comes to our social traditions. Defending tradition, which is an inherent conservative impulse, becomes difficult and allows our opponents to demonise us. We need to fall back on the thoughts and words of a great hero of modern conservatism, who is sometimes forgotten.

The archetypal English conservative statesman Benjamin Disraeli argued convincingly that it is not the case that conservatives want to preserve everything of the past. What conservatives seek to do is preserve the “best of our past,” not its worst aspects.

On this score alone, Indian conservatives in the past two centuries have had no problems with the position that Indian society has been in need of substantial, even foundational, reform. It is interesting to see how many of our genuine reformers have actually been in the conservative mould.

Rammohun Roy, who was by no means a radical revolutionary, set the stage. Roy was a political conservative who supported British rule. At the same time, he campaigned against sati. And his campaign had a Machiavellian cleverness about it. He took recourse to the argument that sati, in fact, had no scriptural sanction among the Hindus. This is not the place to deal with the arcane arguments made by him and his adversary Radhakanta Deb. It is the place, however, to note that appealing to earlier traditions, casting them with a pristinely ancient halo and leveraging the situation to jettison so-called more recent accretions to tradition is an argument that many conservatives have made.

Gandhi did something similar. While paying lip service to the so-called varnashrama doctrine, which presumably sanctioned rigid heritable caste differences, he did everything possible to sabotage caste and debilitate fatally its most extreme feature: untouchability. Some would argue that Gandhi’s patronising approach to Dalits, whom he referred to as Harijans, smacks of the hypocrisy that invariably accompanies the honeyed words of representatives of the ruling class. Cynics would argue that his attack on untouchability was a mere tactic of convenience designed to protect his vote bank. Conservatives know better. Frontal attacks on existing traditions run the risk of encouraging destructive Jacobins who, in this case, along with abolition of sati may resort to pulling down all Devi temples and abolishing the Bhagavad Gita.

Disraeli knew a thing or two. We need to make sure that even as we jettison the worst aspects of our past, we do it with care.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens has created a fascinating character called Dr Alexander Manette. Manette denounces the brutal aristocrat Marquis de St Evermonde. At the same time, Manette saves the life of the Marquis’s son, who has changed his name to Charles Darnay. Dickens was making the case for attacking the bad features of the French aristocracy, not for wholesale killings. As a matter of fact, the French revolutionaries did not follow Manette’s example. They discarded and destroyed without restraint. This resulted in all the baneful consequences of the French Revolution, which Edmund Burke so brilliantly exposed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The social reformers Mahadev Govind Ranade and Maharshi Karve were political moderates. And yet in their opposition to social practices like child marriage and discrimination against widows, they achieved much. One could even argue that they achieved much more in constructive terms than rabid rabble-rousers who criticised without offering practical solutions.

The most interesting attempts at social reform have come from some groups of so-called Hindu nationalists who are usually not given enough credit for this. The Arya Samaj not only allows but also encourages and enjoins its women adherents to participate in Vedic rituals, something that was taboo for traditionalists. The Arya Samaj also rejects caste. The same Samaj through its DAV schools encouraged English education as a liberating force. It is significant that the middle word in DAV, Dayanand Anglo-Vedic, is “Anglo.” Instead of being praised for these positions, virtually all the academic literature on the Arya Samaj produced by our university intellectuals remains focused on the so-called dark nature of the Samaj’s Hindu nationalism.

In recent times, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has recruited Dalits as volunteers to lay the foundation stones of Hindu temples. Again, it is easy to dismiss this as some kind of malevolent symbolism. Why not take the high road and actually appreciate it? Or is it simply the case that good reformist ideas are only palatable if they come from those who look down on anyone who calls herself a Hindu?

On the thorny issue of caste itself, two very interesting intellectual developments need attention. The first is a view that economists like R Vaidyanathan and historians like Chhaya Goswami have drawn our attention to. While it is true that the caste system is not what Disraeli would refer to as one of the better features of our social traditions, it is also the case that caste may be playing a valuable role as a lubricant of economically efficient networks and hence enhancing social human capital.

The astonishing successes of the Nadars of Sivakasi, the Gounders of Tiruppur, the Jains of Palanpur, the Marwari Banias of Rajasthan, the Bunts of Dakshina Kannada, the Dawoodi Bohras and the Patels of Gujarat and so many other caste groups in mobilising themselves for business development and growth would suggest that not all the effects of the caste system are necessarily undesirable. I for one am watching with great interest the recently formed Dalit Chamber of Commerce and rooting for its success in creating a strong network enabling this group of entrepreneurs to make their mark.

The second development is something that can only be called the reimagining of caste history. When a caste association consciously posits the existence of a glorious past, focuses on its great leaders and creates an aura of pride around the caste identity, this serves not only a political purpose, but it also moves society towards a greater acceptance of the equality of castes rather than the traditional assertion of hierarchies. It is in this light that we must see the efforts of someone like Mayawati to create monuments and parks celebrating Dalit leaders. In a curious way, this helps create a level playing field.

My friend, the learned historian Father John Alphonse Correia used to say that Indians drink in caste with their mother’s milk. This ancient malady, if that is what it is, seems to stay with us forever, even as it alters itself considerably. During the days of the Raj, the decennial censuses gave it a new contour. Castes tried to position themselves as higher in the gradation every ten years. Today, castes are running helter-skelter to position themselves as more backward than each other, to avail of quotas for dwindling government jobs. In either case, the phenomenon of caste itself seems to refuse to disappear.

Excerpted from Jaithirth Rao’s The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought with permission from Juggernaut BooksWe welcome your comments at