Intimations of a Bahujan Counter-Tradition and the Hindu Right

This post should be read as a sequel to my earlier post of 16 July, which had discussed the discourse of “Hindu Unity” and questions  before the struggle against the Right. That post had ended with the claim that the struggle against the Hindu Right is not so much about what we understand as “secularism” as it is about the reconstruction of a larger  Bahujan counter-tradition, the search for which was  already on.

Cover of book Mahishasur – Mithak va Paramaprayen [Myths and Traditions],ed. Pramod Ranjan
I should begin with a caveat, or more correctly, an amendment to a position I adopted in the earlier post. In that piece, I had used the terms “anti-majoritarian” discourse and “anti-majoritarianism” to refer to the the larger discursive formation against the Hindu Right. I used that expression largely because I went along part of the way with Abhay Dubey who uses it in his book, to which that piece was a response. However, that expression assumes that there is only one “majority”  or only one way of imagining majority in this country. More importantly, it concedes a certain “natural pre-givenness” to the project of Hindu unity as though that were a self-evident fact. The only thing that makes the project of Hindu unity appear so “natural”, it needs to be underlined, is that it is backed by “tradition” and “religion” in a way that say a class notion of majority is not. If we assume that the dominant tradition is the sole tradition, then this term could make sense but as the  stirrings of a renewed search for a Bahujan counter-tradition, especially in North India, come into view, it gives us a sense of another possible way of imagining “majority”.  It should be underlined here that this renewed search today does not emerge out of the blue from nowhere but draws on the work of earlier medieval thinkers and social/ religious reformers not just in the North (for instance Kabir, Ravi Das and Nanak) but also from Phule, Ayyankali, Sri Narayana Guru, Periyar, Iyothee Thass and many others in the South in more recent times. There is one difference however: rather than use the negative descriptor “Non-Brahmin”, the present search is more explicitly about the production of a Bahujan identity. Ambedkar of course, remains a continuous reference point in this discourse.

Before we proceed, it might be interesting to see these two short clips. In the first, Dalit activist Bhanwar Meghwanshi who joined the RSS and the Ramjanmabhoomi movement at the age of 13, talks now after the bhoomi pujan for the Ram temple at Ayodhya, about his complete disinterest in the issue.

Meghwanshi, whose autobiographical account is now available in English as well (I Could Not Be Hindu, Navayana, 2020), responds to the bhoomi pujan and why Dalits in general are likely to be uninterested in it. His book is worth reading, for it shows that it is not just a question of what RSS might strategically want to do by drawing dalit-bahujan masses into the fold but also that deep-seated prejudices in Hindu society also structure the behaviour of the organization’s own people. In the clip, he talks of how Dalits who are never allowed entry even into the temples in their own villages, are unlikely to be hugely thrilled by the building of another “grand” temple for Ram. What does bhoomi pujan mean, what can it mean, he asks, to people who have no bhoomi (land) even to live? In the book, Meghwanshi talks of the great excitement with which he as a young RSS recruit went to to Ayodhya to do kar seva in 1990 all ready to die and kill for the glory of Rama and there certainly must be many young dalits in that place today where he was at that time. All this simply underlines that there is nothing “essentially Hindu” or “essentially anti Hindu” about being Dalit, though assimilation within the fold comes at great cost – that of continuing subordination as Meghwanshi realized later on.

The second clip is of Laxman Yadav, a powerful voice of the emerging OBC intelligentsia, who teaches in Delhi University, speaking after the same bhoomi pujan ceremony.

In this scathing critique – not only of the Hindu Right but of OBC politics and leadership as well – Laxman Yadav speaks without any illusions. He is unrelenting in his criticism of the OBCs becoming Hindutva’s foot soldiers (along with dalits and adivasis) during the Gujarat carnage or demolition of the Babri Masjid, being short- changed continuously by the RSS/ Hindutva leaders when it came to sharing resources and power. In his tirade against caste oppression, he invokes names of Lalai Yadav, Jagdev Babu or Ram Swarup Varma – names yet unheard of outside the circles of the new Bahujan intelligentsia – to say that it is time for the OBCs to claim 90 percent of share in “dhan, dharti aur rajpaath” (wealth, land and rule/power). In both Meghwanshi and Yadav, there is a clear recognition that all this preoccupation with Hindutva, temples and spirituality has only kept the bahujan masses away from demanding their fair share in land, wealth and power. In a sharply self-critical mode, Yadav underlines the difference of the OBCs with the Dalits who have fashioned an independent discourse and have Ambedkar and the Constitution as their banner, while the majority of OBCs remain in the thrall of Hindutva.

It should be stated at this point that this struggle is not about secularism. It never was. All the figures listed in the begining were fighting the battles for their own emancipation and these were struggles internal to the constitution of Hindu society where some modern secular ideas were put to good use but that is about all. Likewise both Meghwanshi and Yadav are fighting their battles against the Hindu Right’s politics but we need to be clear that these are not battles that can or should be assimilated into the “secular/ communal” binary. Doing so not only misreads the actual significance of the struggles but also raises all kinds of questions as to the intention of secularists, with apprehensions of appropriation of these struggles for their purposes.

The quest for reconstruction of Bahujan counter-traditions however, becomes clearer in other domains – far away from the world of immediate politics.

The Mahishasura Tradition

Indeed, as the cover of the book (Mahishasura: Mithak va Parmparayen [Myths and Traditions], edited by Pramod Ranjan) , indicates, a large part of it is about the search within the world of myth and counter-tradition. The cover image is of a “Bhainsasur Smarak Mandir” (Buffalo-Demon Memorial Temple) in Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, which is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. This particular book is a collection of articles, mainly by Bahujan intellectuals, that takes the myths around the figure of Mahishasura – the “Buffalo demon” – as its point of departure for an exploration of a suppressed counter-tradition.

Many readers might remember that when the regime turned its attention on JNU in early 2016 leading to a wholesale attack on “anti-national” activities in the university, one of the key things mentioned repeatedly, first by the RSS mouthpiece Organizer (November 2015), then by the Delhi Police in its FIR and finally by the Education minister Smriti Irani in parliament, was that Mahishasur was venerated and worshipped in JNU. Much of the churning around this issue, brought up the larger question of what the “asuric” traditon so repeatedly invoked in the Puranas really was: Who were the asuras – the demons? Why was the mythical figure of Mahishasur considered so dangerous by the Hindu Right?

So, far away from the hurly burly of electoral politics there began a serious exploration that in turn drew from the work of careful archiving and documentation by bahujan intellectuals – dalit-OBC-adivasi intellectuals – working entirely in the vernacular languages and not in spaces recognized as “scholarly”. Among those who this book openly acknowledges its debt to is the name of Moti Ravan Kangali and his wife Chandralekha Kangali who devoted their lives to excavate the Gondi and other traditions, their thought and their culture and published many books around these themes. What this search has revealed is that the Mahishasura tradition was not simply a feature of Bengal, where Durga Puja is celebrated with great fervour (Durga being the goddess who slayed the demon king) but extended beyond to the adivasis of Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar who identified with the buffalo asura king. Indeed, even more strikingly, it revealed that the tradition actually extended from the Gond adivasis of Chhattisgarh to large parts of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka – Mysuru itself being supposedly named after Mahishasura. It is fascinating that there are populations who still identify themselves as “asura” today.

Interestingly, some of the essays, especially the one by Sanajy Jothe on the “philosophy” of the Gonds,  connect the evidence thus collected with the work of Marxist scholars like D.D. Kosambi, D.P. Chattopadhyay and Gail Omvedt to draw some larger conclusions about the prevalence of counter-traditions that seem to tie up well with  their own research. Jothe in fact makes claims about the  “materialist” nature of Gondi “philosophy”, its “Lokayatik” features, its matrilineal history and far greater role of women in these communities. Some of the propositions may be quite speculative but they are certainly no more so than the fictiveness and speculativeness of Hindutva claims. The search for this counter-tradition leads to another interesting dimension that goes straight to the heart of the Puranic retellings and reappropriations of the asuric – where from vighnakarta [creator of obstacles] Ganapati (and ganapatis)are appropriated into the pantheon as vighnaharttas [remover of obstacles] (ref DP Chattopadhyaya). Whatever be the case, the confrontation with myth and the Puranic becomes central in a very significant sense. Thus, in Jothe, in Pramod Ranjan’s introductory essay and in Anil Kumar’s contribution, the nature of speculations always remains close to certain protocols of evidence and never acquires the dimension of the fantastic that Hindutva narratives produce on a regular basis.

A New Moment

This is not the place to summarize the arguments of the book or of the larger body of work, only some of which I am aware of. The point of this discussion of the Mahishasura issue is to underline that this moment inaugurates a new phase in Bahujan discourse which picks up the challenge from where the early twentieth century thinkers had left it.

As is well known, the rising tide of nationalism actually ended up suppressing all the voices of internal social reform during the anticolonial struggle, central to which were the questions of caste and gender. The caste question remained marginally active at the regional level in some Southern states but was completely eclipsed in the North by the overpowering force of upper-caste – and Hindu Mahasabha – dominated nationalism. Even where it remained, both in the South and in Maharashtra during phases like the Dalit Panther movement, it was still a voice of cultural protest and critique; it never became a counter-discourse of power. And unfortunatelly, when it did, in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission in the North, it remained purely at the electoral-political level with virtually no programme or alternative vision of its own. It can be argued that that was precisely because it had not developed a sense of Bahujan counter-tradition and could do little beyond building Mayawati’s statues. In its stead, both the BSP and the SP now want to compete with Hindutva by building Parashuram’s statue, which only goes to show that the hegemony of upper caste Hinduism/ Hindutva was never quite challenged within.

One of the essays in the Mahishasura volume (Anil Kumar) actually poses this theoretical question of consent and hegemony via Antonio Gramsci but certainly now a whole new body of work has to emerge which alone will open possibilities of the narratives of counter-tradition. One of the key issues to tackle will indeed have to be that of this all-important question of hegemony and the “ideological apparatuses” through which hegemony is actualized not just as  “ideas” but as material practices. Clearly, that is the  whole burden of Laxman Yadav’s intervention in the clip above, where he confronts the masses of OBCs who act as Hindus rather than demand their share in wealth, land and power. Clearly, this lining  up of the bahujan masses behind Hindutva is what makes it possible for critics to argue that “anti-majoritarian discourse” under-estimates the power of RSS mobilization.

In conclusion, I want to underline that the struggle for cultural transformation is a long and arduous one, especially for social groups that do not belong to hitherto powerful or dominant sections of society. Its success or failure cannot simply be read off election results in one or two elections. It is something  that takes shape over the long term by producing alternative narratives and fashioning a new common sense.

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