In our series, “Sensations of Religion,” students from Dr. Richard Newton introductory religion class explore the difference people make with “stuff” in discourses pertaining to religion. The second piece in our series questions the terms of debate regarding “cow vigilantism” in India. Elizabethtown College student Anushka Katikaneni uses comparison to explore why limiting religion to core values misses the ways and things people protest.
In 2017 a memorandum was sent to the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, and the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani. The memorandum was given to the Office of Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry of Gujarat by one of the four Dalit victims of the Una flogging incident which took place the year prior. It said that Dalits would “renounce the Hindu religion in large numbers” if the problems of the Dalit community were not addressed.
To put this into context, in July 2016, seven members of the Dalit community were flogged in public by “cow vigilantes” for skinning a dead cow. The victims and some of their family members were tied to a car and beaten with iron rods, and dragged to the police station of Una, a town in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district. The perpetrators of the crime accused the victims of slaughtering the cows. It was later found that the cows were killed by lions usually seen in the area, as the Gir district is a part of a lion sanctuary. Several protests by Dalits followed the incident, including several attempted suicides, as the video of the incident was circulated on the internet. A similar case was reported on August 15, 2017, in the village of Kasor, Gujarat where a man and his mother were flogged for skinning work.
Considering the demands of the Dalit community presently, appropriate measures regarding the social positions and treatments of the Dalits have not been taken by the government, leading to further unrest within the state. The individuals working under the government are most likely of a higher caste than the Dalits. What we see here is not just religion in terms of its core values. It is the current social and political situation and how the religious and cultural context factors into people’s thought processes, which in turn affects other people. In popular settings, we tend to separate all these variables in boxes, but there is a constant interplay between social situations, religion, and politics in any given society at any time period. In this case, the cow vigilantes are Hindus and the Dalits are also Hindus.
Religion is being exploited to carry out the agenda of those in considerable power over others in the society. According to Rev George Oommen (2005, 113), a professor at United Theological College in Bengaluru, India, religion has been and is being used by “conservative right wing and fundamentalist elements for the consolidation of political power.” This ends up preying on minorities like Dalits and “further the deprivations and disempowerment they face.” The concept of Hindutva is fundamentalist and fascist in nature, promoting a Hindu way of life and core cultural values by way of a Hindu majority. As Oommen writes, it “maintains traditional Brahminism [and sustains] the exclusion of the traditional minorities who have been continually at the margins of the Hindu society. This includes people such as Dalits, Tribals and others.” All this takes place under the brand of Hinduism and may appear to be so, but has more to do with social and identity politics of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) than it has to do with the one’s core views about God.
The Hindu nationalism we see in the case is not unlike the white nationalism that African Americans have faced and face today. Though many white people follow some form of Christianity, the “core value” of lovingkindess does not necessarily apply to their treatment of black people. Instead, many used the Bible to justify slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws. An example of this is the interpretation of Christian scriptures in which the origins of slavery stem from Noah’s curse on Ham (Morrison 1980, 18). Noah was inspired by the divine, and Africans were descended from Ham’s son, and therefore his predictions were just. This treatment of African Americans by white people allowed the latter to remain in power and retain that power over time.
Similarly, the Dalits were and still are exploited by societal constraints. They continue to be at a lower socio-economic level with continuing family occupations such as skin trade for leather. Those belonging to a higher caste would not be willing to perform such jobs still, and at the same time condemn the practice. This can be seen by the activities of the self-titled gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) and the effects it has had on the Dalit community, such as harassment and the lack of better jobs. The Hindu nationalism at play also points to the Hindu majority that implements this system without reform to remain in power. When considering the community of Dalits renouncing (abandoning) the Hindu religion, we have questions to ask. How is this of any significance? What point is the Dalit community trying to make?
From how I see it, the Dalit community is making a statement by wanting to renounce the Hindu religion in large numbers. It is a way of saying, if being Hindu means marginalizing people based on ancestral jobs and societal bounds one cannot break out of, then we don’t want to be Hindu. It then also allows them to not be subjected to the treatments Dalits usually are because Hinduism would not be their religion anymore and they would no longer be Dalits. Parallels from this can be drawn to the Black Nationalism that Malcolm X had at one time promoted–a separate state for black people apart from white Americans as a way to remove themselves from the bounds of segregation. This is also similar to the ideology behind the Moorish Science Temple of America. Founded by Drew Ali, the idea behind the MSTA was to refer the origin of the black community to the Morroccan Empire (Varda 2013). By doing so, they aimed to avoid the discrimination they would face otherwise.
Additionally, the Dalits are critiquing the thought process promoted by the current political state in the country that is particularly held by the conservative Hindus, especially those who are of a more privileged background. At the same time the Dalit activist groups protesting the flogging incident claim to be taking a moral rather than a political stance, calling out the problem as the treatment of minority groups. Making the situation “political” would shift the focus to the back-and-forth empty criticisms between the BJP and the Congress.
As beginniners in the scholarship of religion, there is a tendency for us to think of religion in terms of core values, but do those who believe in these “core values” always apply them to all aspects of their life? We see from this case study and its parallels that religion is not always about the core values one believes in, but rather the power dynamics that come with the social location of an individual within a society. An effect of people having power is the use of religion to justify the oppression of minority groups. Those who respond to these situations by way of social activism may attempt to abandon the identity that leads them to be oppressed in the first place. By giving up their previous identity and perhaps adopting another, they may not be subject to the same treatment by the oppressors, allowing them the chance to a better lifestyle.
**ed. note, How might the coverage below benefit from the insights presented in the post?
Morrison, Larry R. 1980. “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830.” Journal of Religious Thought 32, no. 2: 16-29.
Oommen, George. 2005. “Countering Aggressive Majoritarian Constructs of Nationhood: Dalits and Hindu Religious Fundamentalism in India.” Journal of Theologies and Cultures in Asia, 4: 113- 130.
Varda, Scott J. 2013. “Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple of America: A Minor Rhetoric of Black Nationalism.”Rhetoric and Public Affairs 16, no. 4: 685-717.
Anushka Katakaneni ’18 is a Biotechnology major and a Religious Studies minor at Elizabethtown College. She recently was inducted into the Alpha Mu Chi chapter of Theta Alpha Kappa: The National Honor Society for Religious Studies