The Working Class Dimension

'Hindu' fear of Muslims and Christians

T Vijayendra

Christians and Muslims in India are under attack. Several Indians are worried about it and fear for the future of democracy in India. People wonder what is the logic of all these attacks. How can nearly 80% of 'Hindus' feel threatened by some 13% Muslims and some 2% Christians? Why are they being attacked?

No religion is a monolith. It is normally divided in sects, some more powerful than others, some rebels etc. Normally one refers to a religion by its dominant form. This is why inverted commas are put, around the word Hindu. Rahul Sankrityayan defined this dominant Hinduism as having three characteristics: 1. Belief in rebirth and karma theory. 2. Belief in caste system. 3. Taboo on eating cows and bullocks.

The relationship between 1 and 2 is obvious. You are born in a caste due to your deeds (karma) in previous birth. It thus fulfils one of the functions of religion, that is, to justify the inequality in society and explain why the rich can get away with misdeeds while the poor have to be ethical to gain better life in the next rebirth. The taboo on eating meat of cows came into being due to the spread of agriculture and the living bullock and cows became more useful than their meat. So agricultural communities and upper castes stopped eating beef whereas lower castes and tribals continued eating the old and the dead animals. This Hindu society came into being after Buddhism, around 300 years BC. Both the belief in rebirth and taboo on beef owe their origin to Buddhism and Jainism.

Almost all the Muslims and Christians in India are converts from 'Hindu' society as defined above. Although Christians appeared in India almost immediately after the death of Christ and there have been Christians in India dating from 3rd century AD, majority of conversions to Christianity occurred after colonialism, starting with the arrival of Vasco de Gama in 1498.

In that sense large scale conversion to Islam is older, starting immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the 6th century AD. It is interesting to note that the conversions occurred almost all over India with concentration in some regions.

Majority of converts to Islam came from the artisan castes: weavers, carpenters, cobblers, petty traders and so on. One can see that majority of Muslims even today are engaged in these jobs and some newer jobs that have been created in the industrial era such as cycle and motor mechanics. Some communities of Muslims, like the Bohras have specialised in hardware trade.

Why have mainly these castes converted to Islam? Around 8th century onwards a reform wave swept India in the form of Bhakti movement. A part of this were called 'Nirgunias'—those who believed in the formless God akin to Islam and Christianity. Most of the Nirgunia saints like Kabir, Dadu etc., belonged to these artisan castes. These castes had a relative freedom of movements and some of them got converted to Islam mainly through Sufism, whose philosophy/religion was closer to Nirgunia saints. Even today, one can see the wandering Sufis relating with and sharing space with Nirgunias wandering sadhus. So majority of the Muslims are part of the working classes of India.

Majority of the Christians are from tribal communities and dalits, with a concentration in the North East regions. Why did these communities convert to Christianity and not to Islam? Dalits probably could not because they had little mobility—they were and even today in many places are bonded in the village agrarian society. Tribals however were relatively free. It is argued that it is the taboo on pork in Islam that prevented these communities from converting to Islam. As in Muslim conversions, the Christians too are a part of the working classes in India. However, a creamy layer has emerged in both these communities who are no longer part of this. Majority of the Muslim Jihadis come from this layer.

These communities continue to survive because they provide some indispensable goods and services to the Indian society. Muslims poor provide mechanics and small traders of fruits and vegetables in urban India. In rural India a lot of artisans—weavers, carpenters, leather workers come from this community. Often dead animals, particularly cows and buffaloes are handled by them.

Christian institutions provide services in the field of education and health. Historically some of India's best modern schools, colleges and hospitals were established by Christian organisations. A large number of nurses and teachers come from them. And many Christians are skilled manual workers.

Obviously not all Hindus, but mainly those upper caste Hindus who depend on the services of the working classes and get their wealth by exploiting them are afraid of them. But then which ruling class in the world has not been afraid of the working classes?

But here there is another challenge. Normally the ruling class rules by cultural hegemony, since they do not have the numbers. Only when seriously threatened they use violence. Now religion has always been part of this cultural hegemony. Conversions challenge this hegemony and an alternative religion which does not have the iniquities of caste adds a weapon to these working classes.

Ambedkar's role in empowering dalits proved decisive. He fought at every level with an admirable determination and grit. His conversion to Buddhism and the reasons he gave for it are all valid for conversion to Islam and Christanity too. So these communities have emerged as a major threat to the ruling Hindu dispensation.

Today this conflict has emerged as a civil war in India. It does not appear that this can be resolved by the liberal dispensations. Majority of liberals are upper caste Hindus who want to remain Hindus but want Hinduism without a caste system. A liberal says that s/he does not believe in caste. To which the dalit response is, 'But I do not have that choice!' Hindu reformists tried to create a Hinduism without the caste system over a thousand years and have not succeeded. Many religions—like, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Lingayat religion emerged with this idea. But they all ended up as 'caste' themselves and had further caste divisions and sub-divisions within them. This is true of Christianity and Islam too in India.

As Arundhiti Roy said India awaits a revolution that should include 'annihilation of castes'!

Vol. 51, No.5, Aug 5 - 11, 2018