The Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya Wednesday was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and governor Anandiben Patel. Besides being the only woman on the stage, Patel was also the only Shudra present at the ceremony. Among the priests who performed the bhoomi pujan ritual, there was not a single Shudra — not even from Yadav, Jat, or Kurmi communities of UP, let alone from one of the Other Backward Classes and Dalits.
We can only predict this, since we do not know the name of all the priests who participated in the ritual — but Shudras, historically and even now, have not been given a spiritual right to Hinduism or trained in Hindu theological schools and colleges.
The construction of this upcoming Ram Mandir in Ayodhya would not have been possible, and the RSS-BJP would not have achieved their goal, if not for the participation of Shudras in Babri-Masjid demolition in 1992 and the subsequent BJP government formation in 1999, 2014 and 2019. It is Shudras and Dalits who are engaged in food production work in these hard Covid-19 times for the survival of all, including the temple system, but their work is not accepted as spiritually respectful and hence they do not get the right priesthood, even though they are considered as Hindus. This discrimination is purely due to caste. Around Ayodhya and elsewhere in UP, even the temple maintenance, food and resources come from the labour of Shudras and Dalits. The RSS-BJP defines all of them as Hindus. But they do not have the spiritual right to become a priest at the Ram Mandir and study in Sanskrit gurukuls even in the 21st century.
Ramayana, too, mentions the Varna dharma theory and lists the four caste categories — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Ram himself is known as a Kshatriya king; his guru Vasishtha as a Brahmin.
We do not know what the status of the Vaishyas was during the time of Ramayana. Most probably, they would have been cattle owners and grazers, while Shudras were ‘slaves’ assigned different tasks of production and were in service of the Dwija castes. At the time, there was no notion of one religion called Hinduism under which all four caste groups were clubbed together.
Even if we leave aside all other historical issues and opinions of modern writers, the RSS-BJP consider Hinduism as one religion, which includes all Shudras and Dalits. But what about their spiritual rights? If Ram belongs to all and if we have to fulfil, as PM Modi said, the dream of Mohandas Gandhi to bring about a so-called “Ram Rajya” in India, the inclusion of Shudras and Dalits is a must. When they were defined as Hindu and mobilised into what they called the ‘Ram temple movement’, caste-based assignment of duties in temples should have been abolished too, at least theoretically.
Denial of spiritual inclusion
Did the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ask for this spiritual inclusiveness? PM Modi, in his bhoomi pujan speech, said Ram was a believer in total equality and can be a source of modern development. His re-interpretation of Ram as a divine force and developmentalist is positive. In fact, Modi said Ram accepts both man and woman as equal. This argument goes against the theory of respecting parampara (tradition) that RSS ideologues have been propounding ever since the organisation was founded in 1925. The RSS has never talked about gender and caste equality.
But the RSS-BJP aren’t the only ones to be blamed. The Congress intellectuals, too, never allowed a discourse around equal spiritual rights on the pretext that they believe in secularism and hence do not go into religious affairs and that such issues must be left to the religious organisations. They, therefore, did not do anything to abolish caste in Hinduism and also in civil society when they were in power.
The Communist intellectuals also do not raise such questions under a false theory that they do not believe in religion, and believe in atheism. This again is a false argument to wash hands off the issues of caste and religious inequality since both West Bengal and Kerala, where they were in power for a long time, saw many of their leaders and cadres actively participate in Hindu religious activities. They have shut their eyes to the two major issues of India — caste and religion.
Denial of English education
These questions are passed off in the intellectual and party organisations because the national-level discourse is conducted by people largely belonging to five communities — Brahmin, Bania, Kshatriya, Kayastha and Khatri.
Earlier, there was a strong Sanskrit-educated force among these five communities but now there is a far more English-educated intellectual force among them. The vernacular voice in national and mainstream media on the topic of religion is largely invisible. Unless the debate is intensified at the national level, every ruling party, including the BJP, can take the Shudras and Dalits for granted.
Another problem is the absence of English-speaking intellectuals from Shudra communities, including Jats, Yadavs, Gujjars, Patels, even though there are a number of regional political leaders who want to manage votes and rule their states. They do not have a transformative philosophical and ideological agenda. This is a major deterrent because they are unable to impress or cater to the urban, English-speaking audience.
The RSS-BJP raise the issue of inequalities within Muslim society, particularly gender inequality, on all platforms. But Muslim intellectuals lack this courage to raise caste and other inequalities inherent in Hinduism.
Shudras today do not have the intellectual power because they have been historically denied education, which Brahmins and other Dwija castes held as their prerogative. They also did not acquire literary status when Persian and Urdu were dominant languages. They were kept engaged in production and services, and continue to be a resigned force when it comes to becoming modern intellectuals. They obeyed the priestly Brahmins earlier and now follow whatever RSS-BJP tell them today without asking for equal rights. This is a tragic status of a major productive community, which feeds the nation with its labour power.
Ram Mandir and equality
Ram Mandir is different from other Hindu temples. It is a temple that is being projected as historical and there is talk that it will become more significant than the Vatican of Rome and the Mecca of Saudi Arabia. According to Home Minister Amit Shah, the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya is the start of “a new yuga (era)” in 2020.
PM Modi has said that the figure of Ram at the upcoming Mandir will reflect justice more than any other divine figure in the world. If that is what this temple stands for, what about abolishing caste and gender inequalities in the spiritual and religious system that Ram represents? Why is there a total silence on caste inequality, particularly the representation of Shudra in the core team of priests who work at temples? It is the priests who decide what shloka should be recited and what etiquette should be followed inside the temple premises. Priesthood is an important position within religion and for attaining the status of spiritual command.
Will the RSS-BJP assure Shudras and Dalits that there will be Hindu theological school and college in Ayodhya where admission will not be based on caste but religious background alone?
The problem is that the mainstream media in India won’t allow this debate. The fact that most media organisations are run by members of mainly Dwija castes makes it all the more difficult for such a debate. They are also confident that there will not be a movement in India like #Shudra/DalitLivesMatter along the lines of #BlackLivesMatter.
To conduct a major movement peacefully at the national level, the Shudra/Dalit communities need a large number of highly modern, English-educated intellectuals who can take their space in today’s media. But where will they come from?
The author is a political theorist, social activist and author. Views are personal.