- Hinduism is a living religion, and Hindus can reform their religion by the very act of living out the changes we seek.
The Indian-American community has been recently roiled by three lawsuits, which have shed light on deep divisions within the Hindu diaspora. One involves debates over the links between Hindus in the United States and Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism in India. Two other lawsuits involve caste discrimination and caste exploitation in U.S. workplaces. These issues, combined with the authoritarian and exclusionary politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, have forced me to confront my own identity as a Hindu.
My family in India belongs to a Scheduled Caste (SC). Scheduled Castes or Dalits, along with Scheduled Tribes or advisasis, are recognized under Indian law as communities which, due to their ascribed low status in the Hindu caste hierarchy, have long suffered oppression, marginalization and exclusion. Readers of American Kahani might know that, after the independence of India in 1947, the Indian government extended a host of affirmative action policies in education, employment, and housing to these groups. My family benefited from these policies and I had the privilege of growing up in a comfortable, middle class home in urban India.
I should say that my life story is not typical — Dalits continue to experience widespread discrimination. My own lived experience with caste oppression is, however, limited. Yet, I remember the all-too frequent snide remarks from my upper caste friends and neighbors — about how quotas in education and employment reward “meritless” SCs and STs; how government offices are inefficient because of “lazy quota people”; how airlines should not hire Dalit women as flight attendants because they “don’t know how to look pretty.”
And I remember how important it was to my family that we hide our caste. While my friends would comfortably talk about how their caste intersects with their food habits, religious rituals, music choices, and even their personalities, we were told to never bring up our caste in “mixed” company. ‘If you tell your friends who we are’, our elders would say, ‘they won’t look at you the same way’.
As an adult, I shied away from calling myself as a Hindu, acutely conscious of the patriarchy and exclusion embedded in many Hindu rituals. The brutal authoritarianism of the BJP government, carried out in the name of Hindus, made me recoil even further. The BJP’s own position towards caste is interesting. The BJP is a part of a group of organizations, led by the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS), which have been engaged in a sustained effort to reshape India into a Hindu majoritarian state. Seeking to create a binary Hindu/non-Hindu society, the RSS has argued that socio-economic distinctions within Hindus should be erased, and it has claimed to welcome youths from various castes, including Dalits. The BJP itself has assiduously courted — and gained — Dalit voters.
In the recent, hotly-contested state elections in the state of West Bengal, the party actively reached out to members of my caste community, perhaps the first time that this group was seen as a “vote bank”. (The BJP eventually lost that election to the incumbent party, the secular Trinamool Congress). However, despite Hindutva’s ostensible support for a united Hindu nation, the actions of the BJP and its allied organizations are unabashedly doctrinaire, divisive, intolerant of dissent, and violent. For example, the political ascendance of Hindutva has been accompanied by the rise of Hindutva vigilantes who have attacked and lynched Dalits. Moreover, the ferocity with which the ruling party has persecuted Dalit activists and scholars leaves no doubt about its repressive agenda.
These developments had made me reluctant to see myself as a Hindu. Yet, more and more, I realize that I am, by practice, a Hindu. I celebrate Diwali and other Hindu festivals. I have representations of the goddesses Durga and Kali in my home and my workplace. During times of stress, I look to them for strength and succor. My marriage ceremony was Hindu. I tell my child stories from Hindu epics. I am also acutely aware of the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi uses his support among Hindu-Americans of Indian origin as a source of legitimacy, something he and his party regularly tout to build up their stature.
Whether Hindus like it or not, whether we want it or not, our words and our actions are helping to shape the Indian and global trajectory of Hindutva. Like every religion, Hinduism is riddled with contradictions and complexities. There is much in its past, rife with oppressive practices, that I cannot bring myself to celebrate. Yet, it also has a long and well-documented history of debate and synthesis, which I cherish. Is it possible to be a Hindu and reject caste? For me, the answer is yes. Hinduism is a living religion, and Hindus can reform their religion by the very act of living out the changes we seek.
Can Hindus celebrate their faith and reject Hindutva? Absolutely. In fact, as the Indian republic faces an existential threat from leaders who falsely claim to act in the name of Hindu pride, I believe that Hindus, as the majority religion in India, have a duty to do so. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, was born into a low-caste family. One of the sharpest intellectual minds of the 20th century, he was a trenchant critic of Hinduism, and worked tirelessly to challenge the rigidities of the caste system. Even as he himself left the Hindu fold of his birth and converted to Buddhism, he promised active sympathy to those Hindus who were willing to question and change the religion’s dogmas.
While remaining clear-eyed about the roadblocks facing the country, Dr. Ambedkar articulated a remarkable vision for India — that it could, through sustained commitment, conscious action, and constant vigilance become a political and social democracy that provides liberty, equality, and fraternity to all its people. In calling myself a Hindu, by rejecting caste while recognizing my family’s experience with it, and by condemning Hindutva, I am lending support to that bold vision.
Bidisha Biswas is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University. She has written and spoken extensively on diaspora politics and U.S.-India relations. Biswas previously served as a policy advisor on South Asia to the United States Department of State. Her twitter handle is @Bee_the_Wonk.