In Search Of Roots

Fundamentalism in India


When the human society had not yet started generating surplus production, there was no ideology that could control the relations between men and men. During the Neolithic revolution, man domesticated some beasts and made some wild seeds cultivable. The result was that mankind became able to produce more than it could consume. But where would this surplus go? The answer to this question consisted of three interrelated phenomena.

The first of these phenomena was the rise of the class society. The second was the emergence of the state and the apparatus of coercion. The third was the rise of religious and philosophical doctrines so as to make the process of coercion acceptable to all. According to Gordon Child, this process was completed during the period from 7050 BC to 4000 BC, although it is visible in Syria and Palestine from as early as 10000 BC. Towards the end of the neo-Iithic period, man learned the use of metals (copper and bronze), use of wheels and use of irrigation in agriculture. This brought about a revolution in production, gave rise to the growth, alongside those living on agriculture, of a class of handicraftsmen, led to exchange of ideas and paved the way for the formation of towns. When, at about 1000 BC, man learned the use of iron, it ushered in a big revolution. For example, in India, the vast Gangetic plains was brought under the plough and the Magadh Empire came into being. These revolutions did not keep the class relations unchanged. New class relations replaced old ones and these new relations were in conflict with the historically obsolete ones. This conflict was also reflected in religious and philosophical doctrines as well.

Now one may come to the topic of fundamentalism. Although ideas that have grown under some concrete economic and social conditions become obsolete under different circumstances, there remains an effort towards clinging to these ideas or philosophical and religious customs, which one may characterize as fundamentalism. Precisely for this reason, there is a conflict between fundamentalism and modernity in every age.

The emergence of the caste system in the Indian society predates the birth of Christ. But the caste system assumed a comprehensive shape possibly in the fifth or sixth century AD, after the collapse of the Magadh Empire. During the period of the Empire, the principal weapon of surplus extraction was the state, and after its fall, this role was played by the caste system. The Manusamhita was probably composed during this period. This system ensured that the ownership of the means of production and the management of the production process remain at the hands of the upper castes. Thereafter, the caste system survived for about fourteen centuries and served as the basis of Indian feudalism. But the system began to crack owing to the various internal and external interactions and conflicts that first emerged in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. The Manuist philosophy and mode of living did not fit in with the new developing capitalist system. But one section of the society has been working for ensuring the continuity of this system. The Manuist philosophy is the principal form of fundamentalism in India; it obstructs the expansion of democracy and suppresses the struggle of the depressed communities for equal rights over the ages. This danger has remarkably intensified after the enthronement of the Modi government. The death of Rohith Vemula, a bright dalit student, in Hyderabad was in essence an institutional murder, which is no less frightening than Rama's killing of Sambuka or Dronacharya's forcing Ekalabya to chop off his thumb. The danger has further intensified because the Manuist philosophy has formed an alliance with big capital. Those who have cultivated leftism in India cherished a belief that the caste system would be abolished automatically in consequence of the development of capitalism. This has not happened. On the other hand, corporate capital has used the identity suppression in order to depress the wage rates. This picture is not a purely Indian phenomenon. The USA is the principal seat of the capitalist system. But there the blacks and other suppressed identities have been struggling for as long as two hundred years for equal rights. Yet the blacks and others are victims of discrimination, suppression and tyranny in the USA.

After the introduction of the Neo-Liberal policy package in India, discrimination and tyranny against the dalits have grown in intensity. This policy regime has curbed the role of the public sector and the entire economic system has been handed over to big capital, domestic and foreign. Owing to the policy of reservation, dalits and adivasis had some opportunity of employment in the public sector and some people from these two communities were elevated to a humane standard of living. Neo-liberalism has no social responsibility; its aim is more and more profits. During 2005-2012, the GDP of India grew by 54%, while employment grew by only 54%. A major portion of new employment has been generated in the high-tech sector, where dalits and adivasis have fewer opportunities of entering. Only the contract or casual employments of the unorganized sector, where there is no job security or guranteed wages or decent housing facilities, are open to them. In consequence, notwithstanding the growth of capitalism, the division of labour remains largely similar to the Manuist division of fifteen centuries ago. But the struggle of the depressed for equal rights, started through the lights of Phule, Ambedkar, and Periyar, has not come to a stop. As a result of the opportunity of reservation received over more than six decades, an educated class too has been formed and members of this class, by using the constitutional provisions, has been trying to enter the medical, engineering and other institutions of higher learning. They have inherited Ambedkar's ideology, and have also been influenced by leftist ideas. The dalit organization, of which Rohith was a leader, did not confine itself to the question of reservation only, but also protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and the killing of Md Akhlak in UP. That is why it was made a target by the Sangh Parivar. The followers of Manu never wanted the untouchables and lower caste Hindus to get out of their control. After the coming of Islam and Christianity, many dalits and advasis were attracted to their pledge of equality and became converts. It is however another question that in India, these religions too could not transcend the identity of caste and converted dalits remained dalits, only losing their recognition as scheduled castes. The Sangh Parivar, in order to bring back those people into the Hindu fold, adopted the programme of ‘Ghar Wapsi’ and set ablaze the flame of communal violence all over the country.

The project of ban on beef eating of the last few years has shown how dreadful fundamentalism can be when it turns into communalism. The law enacted by the BJP-government of Haryana has reckoned cow-slaughter as a crime equivalent to manslaughter. Expansion of settled agriculture in India started after the domestication of cows and buffaloes. One major invention in bio-scientific surgery was castration of bulls and transforming them into bullocks. For purposes of tilling the land, the labour of one pair of bullocks was equivalent to five men's labour. Similarly, use of bullocks for driving vehicles improved the condition of transport; use of bullocks in oil mills, Persian wheels and threshing sugarcanes led to unprecedented growth in agricultural production. Production of surplus grew manifold. None of the pre-Aryan communities or the Aryan tribes that made these inventions was vegetarian in food habits. The Aryan tribes were indeed pastoral groups and beef was one of their principal food items. Even when they had already started settled cultivation and were composing the Vedas and the Upanishadas, beef was their faourite diet. But econmic necessity compelled them to impose some restrictions on beef eating. It is noteworthy that in the Mughal era too, some restrictions were there on cow-slaughter and beef eating.

What is today's situation? Now, of the amount of power used in agriculture in the whole of India, 5 % is animal power, 5% is human power and the rest, 90%, is mechanical power. As long as agriculture and the rural economy were dependent on animal power, there was some real basis for ban on cowslaughter. Today, under entirely different circumstances, there is no reason for strict enforcement of such a ban. Rather it would create a serious crisis for animal rearing as an economic activity. Female calves may grow into milch cows and produce milk. But what would happen to male calves? The use of bullocks has been disappearing. Many rural, poor families used to rear calves and when they grew up, sold them as bullocks. Particularly it was an economic asset to dalit families. What is happening over cowslaughter would land these poor families as well as the rural economy into a deep crisis. Moreover, this fundamentalist project has assumed the form of communalism and is about to destroy the secular fabric of the country. That is why the fundamentalism of Sangh-directed Hindutva has become the principal obstacle to the democratization and advancement of the Indian society.

Although on a minor scale, fundamentalist ideas among the religious minorities have been impeding social progress. The shariat law, which endorsed polygamy and tin-talak, was promulgated in a specific historical situation. These rules are discriminatory as far as man-woman relations are concerned, although there is little evidence that instances of polygamy and instant divorce (tin-talak) are frequent among the minorities. The rate of literacy among the Muslims is lower owing to various historical reasons (conversion of many poor low-caste Hindus to Islam, contraction of the Islamic system of education under British rule, discrimination against Muslims after independence etc). The rate of literacy among women is still lower. In this situation, it is easier for fundamentalists to stick to obsolete ideas. Yet democratic voices among Indian Muslims have embarked on the task of resisting fundamentalism on gender equality and other questions. The rate of population growth among the minorities is declining at least equally with the majority community. In India, the extent of the success of the majority community in fighting fundamentalism will make its impact on the minority community also. Moreover, if communal violence and discrimination stops or at least declines, the democratic voice within the minority community would be strengthened and fundamentalism would be cornered. In order to bring about democratic changes in respect of family and social relations in the minority community, reliance must be placed on the activities of the people of that community. Attempts to impose such reforms from above may be counterproductive.

Let us have a look at Bangaldesh. The Muslims of that country, over quite a few decades, have gone through important changes. There fundamentalism continues to exist and often takes the form of violence. Yet a strong force against fundamentalism has come to be built up there owing to the spread of literacy, expansion of public health and practice of democracy.

About three years ago, this writer was invited to deliver the Dr Ahmad Sharif Memorial Lecture in Dacca, and stayed in his house in the Dhanmandi area of that city. In his last testament, Dr Sharif expressed the wish that his dead body should not be buried, but rather be donated to the Medical College. His sons honoured the wish of their father, and Dr Sharif’s testament is preserved carefully in his residence. The memorial lecture delivered at the University of Dacca was attended by many professors, doctors, engineers, poets, writers, government employees and political activists. This shows in what great esteem he is held by the society of Bangladesh. There are those who think that it is not possible to live in Bangladesh without compromising with fundamentalism. They are either cowards or opportunity-seekers. One large problem before Bangladesh is the bossism of India. This bossism reached such a height on the issue of distribution of Ganga and Teesta waters that the fundamentalist forces got a handy weapon. Although some solution on Ganga water has been reached, that on Teesta is still pending. The more democratic public opinion is strengthened in India and is able to compel the government of India into setting up fraternal relations with neighbours, the more the movement against fundamentalism will be strengthened in Bangladesh.

[Courtesy : Deshkal Bhabna, 5 February 2016]

Vol. 48, No. 36, Mar 13 - 19, 2016