ON India’s Republic Day last month, the customary wall-to-wall coverage of the celebrations were practically wiped off TV screens by a protest taking place in a small town in Maharashtra state. A band of women was making a spirited attempt to get into the sanctum sanctorum of a popular temple that deifies the planet Saturn as the god Shani, whom the Hindus propitiate with oil to ward off evil. The group, led by an upper caste woman, was hailed as a champion of women’s rights and portrayed like the suffragettes who chained themselves to the railings in London to get voting rights for women in the last century. It made for an interesting spectacle.

It also reflected the mindset of the ruling media stars and other pundits engaging in the inflamed discussions on this episode that not one person taking part in the futile debate referred to a more egregious exclusion. Today, 67 years after India adopted its progressive and liberal constitution, the underclass is still not allowed to enter temples. The Dalits or Untouchables, who fall outside the rigid varna or caste system still cannot come near most temples much less invade the sanctum sanctorum. Horrific acts of barbarity are inflicted on this segment which accounts for 17pc of the population. As recently as October 2015, a 90-year-old Dalit man was attacked with a pick-axe and then set on fire by an upper-caste man for trying to enter a temple in Uttar Pradesh.

In the panel discussions on the agitation, spokespersons for the ruling BJP and its ideological parent, the Hindu supremacist RSS, dilated at great length on the importance of tradition and the reason why women are kept out of certain Hindu shrines. Among these worthies were young women professionals turned politicos who were the loudest in decrying the protest.
The Dalits, who fall outside the rigid caste system, still cannot come near most temples.

For many Indians the campaign to break religious taboos is clearly of no import and irrelevant to the current nature of the struggle against the politics of fascism that is stifling freedom of opinion and open debate. But it is critical to remember that the creed that drives the ruling saffron regime is rooted in Hindu orthodoxy and its many prejudices, primarily that against women and the lower castes. Since it came to power in 2014, the BJP has played an extraordinary shrewd hand in trying to diffuse the upper-caste image of the party and RSS. Much as it may hate Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar for his scathing indictment of the Hindu religion, the party has neatly appropriated him just as they have now claimed Mahatma Gandhi who ironically was assassinated by an RSS member.

Ambedkar drafted India’s constitution and became the country’s first law minister but Hindu chauvinists remember him for this unequivocal denunciation of a religion that consigns Dalits to the abused fringes of society. “Though I was born a Hindu, I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu,” he said when he found that his cherished constitution could not free the country from casteism and along with over a 100,000 followers converted to Buddhism. So, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi now goes about garlanding the statue of Ambedkar, the RSS and its organisations continue to attack Dalits. Admittedly, it is a bias that cuts across party lines and is practised socially, too.

Nowhere is the conflict as clearly defined as on the campuses of prestigious universities. Hyderabad, in particular, has seen violent clashes between Dalit students and ABVP, the student wing of RSS, on such issues as beef festivals that were organised by Dalit and left-wing organisations to highlight an alternative viewpoint to the mainstream discourse on what the nation should be eating. Many Dalit groups along with other Hindu communities reject the Hindu proscription on eating beef that is now being pushed aggressively.

A tragic outcome of the simmering tensions between Dalit students and the saffron brigade was the suicide of PhD scholar Rohit Vemula — one of several in recent years — at Hyderabad Central University last month. While it is not always possible to ascribe clear reasons for an individual act of desperation the fact is Rohit, leader of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, had been hounded by ABVP and suspended at the goading of BJP politicians. The death of this gifted, sensitive youth was a wrenching moment for the nation to once again reflect on the ills of a society that persists with harassment and persecution of Dalits.

For the BJP, however, it was yet another occasion to play its trump card: branding any discourse that it disapproves of as anti-national if not seditious. Thus Rohit, says a BJP party leader, was “indulging in anti-national activities” because the ASA had organised a protest against the ABVP attack on the showing of a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar communal riots of 2013. He was also “a supporter of terrorism” because ASA organised a meeting on capital punishment in the wake of the hanging of Yakub Memon. Recently, the hub of liberal thought, Jawaharlal Nehru University, erupted as the president of the students union was arrested on charges of sedition after some students shouted anti-national slogans. The attack on JNU has long been in the making since the ABVP has never been able to take control of its students’ union.

As the ABVP flexes political muscle across universities to rein in students and faculty who it terms anti-national, they could do well by brushing up on what Ambedkar wrote decades ago: “You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build a nation, you cannot build up a morality.” But then, they seem to draw inspiration from a much older work, Manusmriti, the ancient Hindu law book which RSS’s most influential ideologue Guru Golwalkar held up as the ideal. That 2nd-century divine code says the killing of a woman, a low-caste person or an atheist is no sin.

It would appear that this primitive code continues to permeate the thinking of 21st-century India. All three categories continue to be at high risk.