Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd | 15 Feb 2023
We must redefine the Shudra category as a dignified, productive force with a role in the political, social, economic and educational fields.
Members of Vishwa Sarva Sanatan Sangh previously protested against Swami Prasad Maurya. Image Courtesy: PTI
Members of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or Shudras have opened up a new anti-caste battlefront in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The trigger came from a doha or lyrical verse in Goswami Tulsidas’s famous epic poem, Ramcharitmanas, which says the Shudras, animals, drums and women should not be allowed near anything respectable—and punished if they cross boundaries. In this way, the Ramcharitmanas abuses the productive agrarian Shudras as people of animal status who do not deserve education and reputable employment.
Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Prof Chandra Shekhar, the education minister of Bihar, flagged off this battle. Now it has spread to Shudra-OBC and Dalit organisations. Chandra Shekhar said the Ramcharitmanas “spreads hatred” and discrimination against the non-elite or lower castes.
The idea is catching on like wildfire. Shudra-OBC leaders have burnt copies of the book, challenging the RSS-BJP’s Dwija or twice-born leaders, saints and sadhus. There is little role for productive work in their lives, which most Sangh Parivar members spend around temples and RSS organisations. Some saints from UP have issued “fatwas” to kill Swami Prasad Maurya for a price. In Bihar, there are demands to dismiss and arrest Chandra Shekhar, but he has refused to apologise.
However, book-burning and banning are no solution—the authentic way out is to rewrite Indian history to include the contributions of the Shudras.
According to the protesters against the abusive language in the Ramcharitmanas, India does not just belong to Dwijas or the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Kayastha, Khatri and Nania, who believe the Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi communities must live as second-grade citizens in Hindu society. The latter do not want their children to learn those ancient or medieval books that abused these identities. They are rejecting syllabi of the kind the RSS-BJP has designed and presented as the “New” Education Policy. They are rebelling against ideas that humiliate them in classrooms and beyond—for example, the books circulated and published by the Gita Press, which promote casteism and Dwija authority in modern India. The New Education Policy wants to systematically promote the regressive ideas in such books.
In Lucknow, several banners appeared with the caption “Garv Se Kaho Hum Shudra Hain—Say with pride, we are Shudras”. They are harking back to the term “Shudra”, which referred to food producers and artisans in ancient and medieval Sanskrit books written by Brahmin saints and priests. These writers imbued the term to mean that the Shudras were unworthy of respect and human dignity, starting with the Rigveda and expanding after that. But the Shudra term is being redeployed by the productive communities as a concept worthy of positive identity. This Shudra movement is like the Black movement in America to rediscover their humiliated past as a weapon to fight for equality.
The Shudras were construed as born of the feet of Brahma, an Aryan war hero given the status of the highest god, while the Shudras were turned into perpetually enslaved people. In the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Ramcharitmanas and so on, food producers and artisans were condemned to perform hard labour while kings, priests and saints were asked to shun food production and any other form of labour. But it is the labour-power of the Shudras that built this nation. Wealth cannot be produced by books that do not promote human equality and productive work ethics.
The RSS-BJP calls the Shudra and Chandalas (former untouchables) Hindus but does not go beyond making verbal claims. In practice, it denies them equal spiritual rights in temples or access to their Utopian visions of life after death. The power to control temples has remained in the hands of Brahmin priests, and the RSS never sought equal rights for Hindus of other castes—except the three elite classes—to enjoy this power.
Since the 2014 parliamentary election, the RSS-BJP forces have divided the Shudras into lower, middle and upper OBCs. It has mobilised them within the Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Bania voting blocs, which favour the BJP in every election. It did this to weaken the regional parties and strengthen its own power at the cost of the disadvantaged Shudra, Dalit and Adivasis. Make no mistake—even national wealth is being transferred to the hands of Dwija industrialists, as the Hindenburg report, published not from India but overseas, has exposed in the Adani Enterprises case.
The RSS-BJP combine wants to organise Hinduism precisely on the lines of conservative Muslim systems in, say, the Middle East, Pakistan or Afghanistan, where kings, dictators or religious figures control the wheels of power. That is why we hear of so-called religious “leaders” in North India issuing fatwas against Shudra leaders.
We must redefine the Shudra category as a dignified, productive force with a role in the political, social, economic and educational fields. Without mass mobilisation around this historical category, the productive status of the masses will get pushed back to Tulsidas’s time. This is why “Say with pride, we are Shudras” is the right slogan for these times.
When Chandra Shekhar put Manu Dharma Shastra, the Ramcharitmanas and the RSS’s ideological guru MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts in the same basket, clarity about this situation emerged. Promoting such knowledge will automatically make classical Shudra-Dalit enslavement the norm. Today, OBC-Dalit schoolchildren do not realise that the Shudra category refers to their productive, labouring parents. We need a new cultural battlefront to stop their modern enslavement.
Periyar Ramasamy started this fight in Tamil Nadu, unifying the Shudra-Dalit categories as Dravidians. The RSS-BJP plan is to break Dravidian unity and Shudra-Dalit-Adivasi unity by putting the Muslims up as enemies of Hindus. The Shudras and Dalits have bought into the RSS-BJP’s claims about a Muslim threat to the nation and voted them to power in Delhi and several States. But its undeclared agenda is to relegate the Shudra-Dalit forces to classical Brahmanical hegemony.
For all these reasons, India must start an intellectual battlefront by reading and re-reading Sanskrit texts. BR Ambedkar did this during his time, but the RSS-BJP are trying to co-opt his ideas by selectively quoting him on the minority question. A new discourse around the foundational books of the RSS-BJP—what they call Sanatan Dharma books—must also begin. Many Dalit scholars in North India do not want to enter this debate since they believe the Dalits are Buddhists and need not fight with Hindu religious ideology. But Shudra intellectuals and leaders have to fight this ideological battle.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Shudra leaders have realised that the New Education Policy reimposes the classical slavery of Shudra-Dalits in the garb of nationalism. Through it, the RSS-BJP regime wants to impose anti-Shudra and anti-Dalit books as sacred texts and lessons in schools, colleges and universities, where children and youth from these backgrounds study.
The slogan, “Garv Se Kaho Hum Shudra Hain”, shows a way out. Reuniting all productive communities, split into reserved (OBC) and unreserved Shudras, is necessary. If regional parties join this battle, it will signal definite hope for transformation. Once a historical category transforms into a category for social change—like the category ‘Black’ discarded ‘African-American’ and ‘Negro’—the Shudra identity will develop the next stage of social movement in India after the Mandal revolution. This new path is filled with hope, and Mahatma Phule, Periyar Ramasamy Naikar and Ambedkar are its guiding lights.
The author is a political theorist, social activist and author of ‘The Shudras: Vision For New Path’ with Karthik Raja Kuruppusamy. His next book will be The Shudras: History From Field Memories. The views are personal.