For the first time, north Indian Shudra/Dalit politicians are fighting an intellectual battle against casteist (so-called Hindu) texts, written by Brahmins in ancient and mediaeval times.
VOICES OPINION MONDAY, FEBRUARY 06, 2023 – 14:39
Written by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
Ramcharitamanas, written by 16th-century poet Goswami Tulasidas has now created a caste war in north India – particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Brahmins and Kshatriyas of that area treat the book as their spiritual Ramayana with reverence, but Shudras and Dalits find it problematic as it has derogatory couplets against them. Two Shudra/OBC leaders Swami Prasad Maurya (UP) of Samajwadi Party and Chandra Shekhar (RJD), Education Minister of Bihar, opened a conscious debate by demanding a ban on the book, as it dehumanises Shudra, Dalits and women. Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav also took a serious stand on this issue by strongly owning his Shudra background.
Though I do not support any book ban or book burning, it is necessary to critically examine the contents of books written by saints and sanyasis who hated food production as Shudra work and demeaned other artisanal tasks. Tulsidas used the words Shudra as an equivalent of an animal and condemned them to be suppressed forever. How can Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi children read this book with respect? It is good that the Shudra/Dalit political leaders have started scrutinising the books written by anti-production writers attacking and humiliating the productive masses of India and launched a literary liberation programme. It will enthuse young Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi youth in the country to fight for self-respect.
Addressing a press conference on January 29, 2023, former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said, “Am I a Shudra or not? I am not against Ram or any other Hindu divine figure, but can CM Yogi Adityanath recite those lines about Shudras from Ramcharitamanas?” When a journalist continued to pester him about the issue, he asked him to recite the lines if he knew them. The journalist recited those lines, which have this to say, “Dhōla gavāomra sūdra pasu nārī. Sakala tāḍanā kē adhikāri (a drum, an illiterate, a Shudra, a beast and a woman — all deserve punishment).” Akhilesh then asked whether it was not humiliating to Shudras, Dalits and women. He asked the journalist’s full name clearly to know his caste background, but the journalist avoided it. Akhilesh further said, “I will ask the CM (Yogi Adityanath) to recite the couplet in the Assembly, as he is a yogi.”Featured Videos from TNM
Earlier, the RSS/BJP forces tried to stop Akhilesh during his visit to a temple on the pretext that he must take action against his party leader. They were referring to Swami Prasad Maurya, who said that Ramcharitamanas insulted Shudras/Dalits and women and should be banned. The RSS/BJP forces have been behind Maurya in the name of hurting Hindu sentiments. They filed cases against him, but he stood by his stand. Replying to the attempt to stop him at the temple, Akhilesh said, “The BJP considers all Backwards (OBCs) and Dalits as Shudras.” In essence, he was saying that Ramcharitamanas humiliated all the Shudras, Dalits and women, even those in the BJP and those who voted for that party. But both RSS/BJP dwija (twice-born) leaders do not treat them as equals. Similarly, Bihar Minister Chandra Shekhar said, “The Ramcharitmanas is “a divisive text” like the Manusmriti and A Bunch of Thoughts of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) second sarsanghchalak (chief) MS Golwalkar.”
For the first time, north Indian Shudra/Dalit politicians are fighting an intellectual battle against casteist (so-called Hindu) texts, written by Brahmins in ancient and mediaeval times. The RSS/BJP want to use similar texts to construct contemporary Hindu nationalism and establish hegemony over all educational institutions. Most of those texts used the concepts Shudra and Chandala to denote the food producers and artisans – like leather workers, carpenters, pot makers, tillers of the soil, cattle grazers, shepherds and so on, as unworthy of respect. They were considered to be unworthy of education, employment in state institutions and respect in society. They were also not allowed to enter temples where the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas worshipped.
Contemporary categories like OBC and Dalit are used mostly for those castes and communities in post-independence India. But earlier, OBCs and Dalits did not carefully examine Brahmin books and hence never understood how they figure in them. The category Shudra, for example, is completely wrapped in book pages of ancient and mediaeval Brahmin writers without any referential understanding of the OBCs of India. During the nationalist period, the educated Shudras like Jats, Patels, Marathas, Kammas, Reddys, Lingayats, Nairs and so on thought they should claim Kshatriyahood but not Shudra status. The Shudra status was considered condescending and humiliating.
Most Brahmin writers and saints in ancient and mediaeval writings used concepts like Shudra and Chandala to portray them as unworthy people. This has happened historically from the days of the writing of Rigveda. Those writers never considered themselves Hindu. This concept of Hindu came into the Indian dictionary only after the Muslim writer Alberuni (973-1053 CE) wrote his book Al-Hind. But now, in all RSS/BJP media, Tulsidas has become a great Hindu prophet like Mohammed to Muslims. Anyone who critiques the prophet faces death. Two priests have already issued fatwas to kill Swami Maurya with financial rewards on his head. But this may not work if they do against Shudras and Dalits, who are now conscious about their status and abilities. Maurya called such seers terrorists.
The OBC Mahasabha members publicly burnt pages of Ramcharitamanas. They say that Tulsidas was against all food producers and artisans who built this nation to the present level. The RSS/BJP forces today claim this nation as a superpower. It is the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasi labour that brought the nation to this level and not because of writers like Tulsidas who abused them. But this is a new perception of India.
We know very well that book burning and banning are no solution to this negative literary heritage of India. A serious critique of them and repositioning the Shudra/Dalit position with new writing and discourse is the way forward. Mass involvement in this debate is very important. If this war escalates, the RSS/BJP division between Hindus and Muslims will be relegated to the background. The battle will be between the Shudras and Dalits on the one side and the Dwijas, who consider Tulsidas as their prophet on the other side.
After the RSS/BJP combine has come to power, caste relations have faced serious scrutiny, because the ruling forces want to reimpose those casteist texts in the social and political discourse. The Shudra/OBCs and Dalits have slowly realised that there is a new trap to their existence and future. Earlier, the OBCs and Dalits were only fighting around the reservation issue but the RSS/BJP have almost made that issue irrelevant with the privatisation of all jobs. They wanted to bring all the Shudra/Dalits under Dwija control by fixing their gaze on the Muslim enemy image under the Dwija leadership. The RSS/BJP want to finish the regional parties.
The regional parties all over India, except in Bengal and Odisha, are headed by the Shudra leaders who emerged after the Mandal revolution. However, a new battle line of Shudra/Dalits Vs Dwijas has been drawn, and this alone can put the RSS/BJP in a new fix.
All this new discourse around Ramcharitamanas and other classical Sanskrit texts would be because of the emerging organic intellectuals from the Shudra/Dalit communities all over India. Akhilesh Yadav and the Shudras and Dalits remember how Yogi Adityanath humiliated him when he washed the UP Chief Minister’s residence with cow milk and urine after he vacated, as Akhilesh is Shudra. Will he do this if he becomes the Prime Minister of India and starts living in the PM’s residence, where Narendra Modi is living now? With the issue of Ramcharitamanas, many cultural struggles of castes will take centre stage in north India.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author. His book The Shudras–Vision for a New Path initiated a major discussion among the OBCs as to why they should look back to their Shudra identity. Views expressed here are the author’s own.