The British and the Nazis: The experience of the colonized

Jakob De Roover

Not so long ago I read an online exchange that went as follows: (a) “Indians are lucky to have had the British as their colonizers since the British at least had a moral compass, in contrast to the Nazi Germans.” (b) In reply, someone pointed out that the British colonizers were responsible for the suffering and death of millions of Indians, not only by killing and torturing people but also because of the Bengal famines of 1770 and 1943. (c) The author of the first statement (an Indian by the way) then replied that nothing happened in India under British rule that could ever compare to the Nazi concentration camps and the millions who suffered and died there; besides, he added, the British could hardly be held morally responsible for natural disasters such as famines.

I remember being angered by these statements but not being able to explain what was wrong with this contrast between the Nazis and the British colonials. Vaguely, I had a sense that the way in which the British dehumanized the Indians is of the same nature as the way in which the Nazis dehumanized the Jews, Gypsies, and other human beings. S. N. Balagangadhara’s recent post on this blog about the controversy concerning the statue of Subhash Chandra Bose opens a route towards addressing this issue: there is no experiential difference between the Nazis and the British colonials from the perspective of those who suffered at their hands

What does this entail? Well, if a people has experienced no significant difference between the acts of the British towards the colonized Indians and those of the Nazis towards the Jews, it is likely that there must be a structural similarity between these events. “But how could one equate the unequivocal horrors of the Holocaust with the record of British colonialism in India?” you might wonder. After all, the images of the concentration camps as the Red Army found them in 1945 are etched into our retinas: the gas chambers and the emaciated bodies, dead and living literally heaped together; the many movies and books about the Holocaust; these have become part of a collective memory shared by many. We hardly have such collective images of British colonialism in India, do we? Well, that is exactly the problem: whether written by British academics or their Indian colleagues, our historiography has mostly denied the experience of the colonized and thus denied access to it.

We need to look elsewhere for records of the images of British colonialism that will be permanently etched into our minds.  Since the British like to trivialize what they did as colonial rulers to human beings in other parts of the world, I want to share the experience of a continental European: the observations of Jacob Haafner, a Dutch merchant who was in Madras during the famine of 1781. Visiting Madras some years later, he mentions that the city still horrifies him because of “the terrible famine that the British had caused here,” whose traces he could still notice everywhere. This is a very long passage but, after reading it, I think you will understand why I wanted to translate it and post it here. These are the experiences that were later forgotten and denied:

“Even on the faces of the natives I thought I could see a kind of inner bitterness and deep sadness; it was as though they blamed every Englishman walking past them for the death of a father, a mother or a child. The hatred that I always had for the British seemed to grow even stronger here – walking among them felt like walking in a desert, surrounded by wild animals that can devour you at any time.

All the horrors that I had witnessed in this city once again appeared before my eyes. I remembered how the streets were teeming with living skeletons who, tormented by the worst hunger, were swarming around each other like ants. Especially here, on the big square, the worst of fear and despair flowed together, while wealth and abundance reigned inside the imposing houses. Nothing is as chilling to see as a slowly starved human being. The deep-sunk eyes, the hollow cheeks, the dilated nostrils, the curled lips showing teeth to their roots, the unkempt hair, the protruding sternum, the belly shrunk to the spinal cord, the shapeless kneecaps, the sharp bones, the nerves and muscles, only covered by the dry, wrinkled skin – all of this marks the doomed starveling. One saw thousands of such human beings walk around, young and old, man and woman. With their last strength, they had come to the square for alms from the rich, but the doors remained shut, so that one after the other collapsed. Dead bodies and those dying lay on top of each other as on a battlefield, from all sides one could hear the crying of the suffering; begging they raised their hands to the inhumane Englishmen on their balconies, who stood there revelling with their whores, and who made the hunger on the square even more unbearable because of the food they held in their hands – it was the image of the rich man and Lazarus, a shameful contrast with which no decent man can live.

Dying is nothing. But to see your wife, your children, your parents waste away from starvation, and see them die in terrible convulsions, that is more than dying. Oh! If only I think of the ghastly images that I saw in Madras, chills run down my spine. Never will I be able to forget them, the veil of time is unable to cover them, the sight of the thousands of human beings who died in terrible need still haunts me on sleepless nights.

But, one may ask, was it completely impossible to support these poor, innocent Indians? Were there no provisions in the city?

Oh yes! For those who had the money to pay the extortionate prices of the English and their agents there was food enough! The warehouses of the English Company and some English merchants were amply provided with all kinds of grains, sufficient to feed double the number of people who were then in the city and this for a longer period of time. The rich bought what they needed, but for the penniless Indians, who had left everything they possessed behind when they fled to Madras, there was no other fate but dying from hunger. No one cared. Their disastrous condition did not in the least impress the petrified hearts of the English, who made no attempt whatsoever to prevent the dying of these masses of people, and showed no compassion at all.

These Christians, who pride themselves on their humanitarian religion whose Founder embodied charity… alas, talking, singing or whistling they walked through the dead and the dying, with that rude and hurtful arrogance so characteristic of them. From their carriages and palanquins, they looked down on the perishing natives with a look of contempt, while the latter were lying in the dust, struggling with death, or convulsively breathing their last.

Seeing one’s comrades die on the battlefield without being touched by this, can be forgiven (the will to survive can make one insensitive temporarily), but to walk indifferently among thousands of moribund and dying human beings, that one can only do with the heart of… an Englishman in India. 

I paid close attention; sometimes I stood still for half an hour to observe the English passing by, and I cannot but declare openly that I saw no trace of compassion on the face of any of them, for the innumerable wailing beings lying on the ground before them. Even worse: I saw their ladies, those sentimental, tender-hearted creatures sit in their palanquins with the same cool indifference when they were carried right through this battlefield. Perhaps there were some among them who would faint at the sight of a spider or a mouse! Yes, I saw these European ladies strolling dauntlessly through this field of death, laughing, talking and frolicking with their company or lovers – shocking! 

And then the English are supposed to be a magnanimous nation of philosophers. Heaven knows how they got this name. In India, in any case, they are bloodthirsty tigers in human shape – if you really want to get to know them, you should go there.”

(My translation from Jacob Haafner, Exotische Liefde, Athenaeum, 2011)

A Statue for Bose: A Forgotten Question

S.N. Balagangadhara

There is a proposal to erect a statue of Subhash Chandra Bose at the India Gate and, expectedly, there are discussions about it. There are those who see the nationalism of Bose and then there are others who see a fascist in him seeking Nazi support. In the process of turning him either into a hero or a villain, I have yet to read anybody raise the following issue of importance.

In seeking Nazi support, is it possible that Bose was expressing our experience of colonialism, viz., that to us, the colonial subjects, there was no difference to be seen or experienced between what the British did to us over centuries and what the Nazis had done, were doing, and would do in the twentieth century? Is it possible that we could not differentiate between the British and the Nazis for the simple reason that there is no experiential difference between the two from the perspective of those who suffered at their hands?

That people do not seem to raise these questions in India while debating the statue of Bose is an indication of the impact of colonialism on us: this failure is a part of what I mean when I say that colonialism denies access to our experience. We cannot understand why Bose tried what he did. We fail even in asking this simple question…

Ironies of India: A scientific temperament as a prelude to conversion?

by Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover

Today, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of a (lack of a) scientific mindset among the Indian people is omnipresent in the media. Almost everything that goes wrong in handling the crisis has been blamed on the absence of ‘scientific temper’ and ‘rationality’ in functionaries and uninformed folks. There is a hidden irony here.

During the 19th century, conversion crystallised as a theme of discussion in colonial India within the framework of a massive missionary-cum-educational project. The kind of debates about religion that the British missionaries, officials and orientalists were familiar with — e.g., conflicts about true religion between Catholics and Protestants in the post-Reformation era, disputations between Christians and Jews during the Middle Ages and later, controversies about heresy and apostacy — proved to be of no help as models in India. Missionaries soon began to admit that converting the heathen into the true religion did not happen as quickly or thoroughly as anticipated.

Regularly ‘surprised’ or ‘baffled’ by the arguments of Indian scholars, the British made sense of their experiences using the only way they knew: “The heathens lacked the right way of thinking about religion”. They believed that the deficient state of ‘the Hindus’ made the latter blind to the falseness and corruption of ‘Hindu religion’ and ‘superstition’. Neither explicit proselytising and preaching nor debates about religion had generated the desired result, namely, removing this blindness and creating openness to Christianity.

British missionaries and scholars identified a specific deficiency even among ‘the most learned of Hindus’ — a defect in the latter’s reasoning on matters religious. The gist of their analysis consisted of the following points: the ‘Hindus’ have not studied their religions well; they do not consider conflicting opinions about religion as problematic; they fail to see that Christianity and Hinduism are incompatible and that different religions cannot be true at the same time; they merely accept the words of their parents and priests on their say-so and do not critically assess arguments based on oral testimony and tradition; they do not ask for — or even appreciate — evidence of various kinds (e.g., historical, geographical and scientific) in matters of religion; they cannot think rationally, logically or morally about their traditions, deities and texts; they never test the credibility of traditionally-received histories.

This deficiency in the ‘Hindu’ had to be addressed to find a way of making Indians ‘see’ the falseness and corruption of their traditions. Indians needed to be taught to think the right way. And that is what missionaries and colonial officials set out to do.

From reason to religion…

John Muir (1810-1882), a civil servant and orientalist, wrote an important work called Matapariksha  that compared Hinduism and Christianity in a series of Sanskrit shlokas to point out to learned Indians the inadequacies of the former and the truth of the latter. In his introduction, Muir noted that his line of reasoning ‘will seem familiar and natural to the Christian reader’, but not to the ‘learned Hindus, who are not accustomed to see such rules and principles applied to test the credibility of traditionally-received histories, and the merits of theological doctrines’. In his book he developed a dialogical model where the opponent is slowly and patiently countered and convinced. Before gaining the ability to reflect and debate about religion, the Indians should first learn to reason in a specific way.

Another figure, the missionary John Wilson, believed the Hindus and Parsis had not studied (their) religion well and were far removed from true learning. From Wilson’s perspective, then, the problem was clear: the natives never asked for ‘evidence’ and simply accepted the claims of their elders and priests. Hence, he was convinced that the dissemination of true learning and evidence (not only religious but scientific also) would prove to be the death of the local religions. According to him, science would have the impact of showing to the Indians that their sacred texts are incompatible with true and superior knowledge and, therefore, must be false and could not be divinely revealed. This way of reasoning entailed an obvious solution to the ‘problem’, also promoted by Wilson: true learning “is doing much to overturn the Hindu religion”.

Via the route of education

One of the significant results of the 19th-century interaction was a fixation on the need for instruction, education and reform of the Indian population. Whatever the specific motives and contexts of individual authors, whichever their preferred terms and descriptions, the 19th century saw the percolating of the idea that the deficient situation of the Indians was related to their ‘religion’ and needed to be remedied by education and reform.

‘Evangelism, education and salvation’, Mark Chapman suggests, ‘came to be understood as aspects of the same process, which did not necessarily require explicit acceptance of Christian doctrines’. The preoccupation was to teach Indians how to deal with religion and related aspects of society in a better way. Writings on this subject repeated a specific set of ideas: true learning and evidence will counter the attitude of simply accepting the claims of parents and priests; teaching science will show the incompatibility between scientific facts and ‘facts’ postulated by Indian scriptures; true learning is needed to overturn the ‘Hindu religion’ and teach ‘the Hindu’ how to question and then to reject his religion; Indians should be trained in historical consciousness so as to distinguish between myth, fiction and historical fact; they should also gain proficiency in basic skills of reasoning and the rules of evidence. As some authors explicated, knowledge, including the sciences, would thus function as the handmaiden of true religion. 

One fervent advocate of this approach was James Ballantyne, the Scottish orientalist and principal of the Government College of Benares for many years. He was known for his respect for the best in ‘Hindu thought’ and was critical of the methods used by Christian missionaries, who, too eager to multiply conversions fell into the ‘imprudences which attend an unenlightened spirit of proselytism’. In his Christianity Contrasted with Hindu Philosophy (1859), he proclaimed that one should pin one’s hopes on the dissemination of knowledge. Pondering upon the goals of the British educational efforts in India, Ballantyne described the process as follows:

“Shall our absolutely ultimate end, then, be the production of a first-rate engineer, or of a valuable revenue officer, or of an accomplished native magistrate? With this I am not prepared to be satisfied. My proposed end is the making of each educated Hindu a Christian,on principle and conviction. This end, as I propose here to indicate, implies everything that the amplest course of education can comprise. Let us trace the assertion backwards, — as thus. That a Hindu should on principle and conviction, embrace a religion which, like Christianity, bases its claims on historical evidence, presupposes not merely an acquaintance with historical assertions, but a cultivation of the critical faculty, so as that the force of the historical evidence may be intelligently felt. The immediate preparation for a critically intelligent study of history, is the study of Physical Geography.”

James R. Ballantyne, The Bible for the Pandits (London and Benares: James Madden and E.J. Lazarus & Co., 1860)

The goal of education in India was not to simply train the Indians in a profession, but also to make them Christian in ‘principle and conviction’. But embracing Christianity presupposes an acquaintance with ‘historical assertions’ and a ‘cultivation of the critical faculty’, so that ‘the force of historical evidence may be intelligently felt’, Ballantyne said, and this requires knowledge of a range of sciences.

This is the irony referred to in the title: in Europe, ‘religion’ and ‘science’ opposed each other. Locked in a seemingly endless battle, they allegedly became ‘mutually incompatible’. The irony in India is that the missionaries had to take recourse to science to convert ‘the pagans’ to Christianity. Thus, something strange occurs when Christians meet the pagans. (See Balagangadhara’s “The Heathen in His Blindness…”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (2nd revised edition, New Delhi: Manohar, 2005).)

Scientific temperament

Let us finish by briefly indicating some continuities from 19th-century colonial India to the Indians of today. Most notably, English-educated Indians adopted a new way of looking at their traditions, texts and practices, as the colonial educators had intended.

First, they accepted terms such as ‘idol worship’, ‘religion’, ‘superstition’, ‘cruelty’, and ‘priesthood’ as valid terms to describe and denounce traditional practices. The implication was that these practices required reform. This situation is so extreme that some Indians now ask ‘why should we cede control over the word religion?’ ‘Religio’ is a Latin word and ‘religion’ is its English translation. These are the terms the Europeans used to describe Indians. Who holds which control over what?

Second, sections of the Indian intelligentsia learned to view the content of traditional texts in a particular manner:

  • The texts were seen to comprise factual claims about the world. Some derided them because of their incompatibility with the facts of science and history; others defended them by looking for historical, archaeological, geographical, and scientific ‘evidence’. Here also, the attempt of the colonial educational project to make Indians see the conflict between ‘the facts of science’ and ‘the claims of Hinduism’ appears to have borne fruit.
  • The texts were also seen to found actions and beliefs. Indians accepted the Christian notions that actions embody beliefs and are ‘prescribed’ by ‘religious’ texts, which the Europeans feverishly translated and interpreted. The hysteria that surrounds Manu and his smriti is a good example.

Third, there is a firm conviction among educated layers that the Indian people lack something essential: the spirit of inquiry and reforms should throw off the stifling hold of tradition and superstition. As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India (1946), ‘the scientific temper’ and its ‘refusal to accept anything without testing and trial’ should become ‘a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen’.

This is even enshrined in Article 51A of the Constitution of India which declares it the fundamental duty of every citizen ‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. In other words, the stance that British missionaries and officials sought to introduce as a necessary step towards dissolving the hold of ‘Hinduism’ and civilising and Christianising ‘the Hindus’ has been declared a constitutional duty in post-Independence India.

Today, almost every educated Indian connects the impact of the pandemic on India with a lack of a ‘scientific mindset’. This pandemic has brought the absurdities and foolishness of all countries and people to the surface. There is not a single country that can claim to have handled this situation perfectly. India is no exception. Europe has seen absurd protests against mask-wearing, a fixation on going on vacation abroad, and scepticism about vaccinations almost on par with American stupidity. Yet, it is only the Indians who constantly shame each other as people ‘lacking in scientific temperament’. With generous help from the media and its fondness for sensational and salacious stories from the exotic East, peppered with tired tropes of funeral pyres, cow-urine and gatherings of half-naked sadhus.

As Balagangadhara put it:

“Colonization was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It was not a question of us aping Western people and trying to be like them. It was not even about colonizing the imagination of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they, too, would become ‘modern’, developed, and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers.”

S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012)

[Based on excerpts from a forthcoming book Religious Conversion: Indian Disputes and Their European Origins, under contract for publication with Routledge.]

How to Think about the Consequences of Colonialism? An example

S.N. Balagangadhara on June 2, 2021

Replying to the question: “(a) Do you mean Islamic colonial rule affected our attitude towards knowledge (how we learn)? And (b) How do we fix the colonial era bureaucracy?”

To begin answering these huge questions, we must look at the world in terms of “tendencies” (both social and cultural) at a high level of abstraction. An example of what it looks like.

What did Islam do? It destroyed native intellectuals in India (the Gurus, the prajnajivis) and replaced them with Pundits (as the Buddhijivis of India). The colonial rule forced the culture to go into a defensive mode: protect, preserve, and transmit the traditions and not allow a disintegration of the culture. The pundits succeeded in doing this through their ‘shastric’ ways of teaching, which, among other things,  consisted of building layers of walls that prevented the impingement of forces from the outside world. Neither of the two colonialisms destroyed our culture because of what our ancestors did and how our pundits conserved what they inherited.

But this conservation, which turns inwards in the process of protecting a culture, also inhibits emergence of novelties. All research introduces novelties and ‘the shastriya’ prevents this. While this was necessary during the colonial rule, today, it is a big hindrance. We need, to use a phrase current today, lateral insertion here: an insertion of questions and stories from the western intellectual traditions into a process of the shastric education that bows down to Saraswathi, the embodiment of knowledge. Without it, the ‘shastriya’ will go the way of all has-beens, sooner or later. The British colonial administration introduced its education system into this defensive attitude against the Islamic colonial aggression. It failed: not spectacularly but with a whimper. Our current education system sustains itself as a social parasite that generates more parasites upon the organism that our body politic is. When an organism is overwhelmed by parasites, the way it is today, the organism dies. So will the parasites. That is the future for India without changes.

The bureaucracy is a structure on which society has been built. If it is not destroyed, our society will disintegrate and fall apart. One cannot destroy a social structure through a ‘lateral entry’ of individuals and groups of individuals into that structure. It will absorb and crush such insertions in no time, as people are discovering only now. To use a biological metaphor, such a structure must be (a) destroyed through necrosis (by starving it of its lifeblood) and (b) by building an alternative structure at the same time (in the same place) as the necrosis itself. As the corrupt and inept bureaucracy begins to die, a healthy and new structure must begin to take over the functions of holding the society together. To understand how this is to be done, we need people who have made it their ‘job’ to study the structures and institutions in societies and cultures. Such people exist (a few in India but mostly abroad). We must draw in such people, make them do the research and feed their results to those capable of initiating such changes in the society. They exist too. The problem is to bring these people together, which, given the current state of Indian society, is next to impossible. We will continue to produce “mouse charmers” (instead of “snake charmers”) long after the world does not need people to write independent mouse drivers to use a mouse. Today, already, the OSes take care of using the mouse to navigate. But we are still busy creating IT institutions that teach our students to write bad mouse drivers and shout about our “soft power”.

The Paradox of Indian Students

S.N. Balagangadhara on June 2, 2021

Responding to the statement: “Indian culture lacks free independent thinking and discourages innovation.”

In order to think in a serious fashion about the current Indian situation, you better begin taking the comment seriously (with some nuance about ‘culture’ though).

In the first place, this is what the British discovered about Indian students a century after they introduced the English university education in India. By the time they left India, they concluded that the university education had failed here. Indian students, they discovered repeatedly, were interested in acquiring a piece of paper (the degree certificate) and not in knowledge or research. (Please read the book by Sashikala Srinivasan, Liberal Education and Its Discontents: The Crisis in the Indian University, Routledge 2018, where she talks about the British experience, among other things.) It would be correct to say that the education system of India (of the last 200 years) “lacks free independent thinking and discourages innovation”.

The problems, however, do not begin with the British: they encountered this when they introduced scientific education. It was there for almost 700 years before that: the Islamic rule generated and cemented this over centuries. In this sense, it is now a part of Indian ‘culture’, even though our culture is intrinsically inimical to this tendency. How do we know this? Almost every Indian student who goes abroad is capable of doing (and does) original and interesting research. Had they stayed in India, they would have been unable to do this. You need to look at the number of Indian researchers in industries abroad (or in scientific institutions abroad) to understand and be amazed by this.

Those small groups of individuals (small in percentages but huge numerically), who are forced to go abroad because of the twin problems of the inept bureaucracy and reservation system in India, flourish and do research abroad. Those who are forced to remain in India (mostly) are either third rate researchers (not all but most) or stop doing research because of how India has developed since her independence.

Thus, a thousand years of “lacking free independent thinking and discouraging innovation” weighs on Indian students. Most industries do not invest in R&D: think of the auto industry before the so-called liberalisation of Indian economy when every few years Ambassador and Fiat cars would change front grills and present them as ‘new’ models or what happened to the Indian smartphone industry when the Chinese, the US and the Koreans entered the Indian market. Indian managers, ex-students from the Indian education system, find that R&D reduces profit and is inimical to quarterly results. (But they talk the management bullshit of doing R&D.)

Researchers, who remain in India, become n-th rate business ‘managers’ and follow the IAS bureaucracy that leads research institutions in India. Illiterate and corrupt people become ministers of education and slavishly follow the clerks (namely, the IAS) because that administration shows the way to become rich for these politicians. Neither scientific education nor the Sanskrit education goes beyond the strict limits drawn by 1000 years of colonization. (Yet, Indians excel when they go abroad for higher studies.) That is why Indian education will soon resemble Black Africa of the 1920s and 1930s.

This degeneration of Indian education system (that began under colonialisms) also seeps very deep into society. Most business firms want to make a quick buck: Indian business has the reputation of being dishonest, cheats, liars, etc. abroad. (Contrast this with how the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. business is known.) Because it is the dream of the youth to become entrepreneurs and begin start-ups, the ‘astute’ businessmen are being overrun by people who want to make a million by beginning a start-up with a “‘game-changer’ business plan”. I have lost count of engineers setting up SMBs, sending good products in their initial batches but sending cheap and defective products once they got the contracts. Most also have gone bankrupt.

Just when China and others (even Vietnam) are following the path of growth, India is very rapidly retrograding. In both classical and scientific education, we are producing incompetent people. If we do not change these processes urgently, we will only be left with loudly shouting ‘make in India’ and cheering the reservation system on. Every other good and beautiful thing will begin to disintegrate.

Vratabhanga, Paapa and Adharma: Sabarimala and a Case of Justice in India

By M. S. Chaitra and Ashwini B. Desai

The recent judgement by the Supreme Court of India regarding the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple has generated an acrimonious debate in India. The secularists (a broad group including, feminists, liberals, leftists, …) believe that, if women of any age group are not allowed to worship Sabarimala Ayyappa, this action amounts to gender discrimination. Therefore, they believe it necessary to reform Hindu religion to ensure equality in worshipping Sabarimala Ayyappa.

In order to assess the claim about gender discrimination, one must examine what is believed about the rituals of Sabarimala Ayyappa. Every devotee knows that Sabarimala Ayyappa is ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’. That is, Ayyappa in Sabarimala follows a ‘Vrata’, namely a Brahmacharya of a kind. In Indian traditions, individuals often follow different vratas, which demand that the individual follows strict procedures of living in the world. For example, we are familiar with Rama, who was an ‘Ekapatni vratasta’: his vrata allowed him only one wife. In the same way, Harischandra was ‘Satyavratasta’; therefore, he was a truth-teller irrespective of the situation. In the same way, Brahmacharya is also a vrata. There are different kinds of Brahmacharya that are followed by different traditions. In case of Naishtika Brahmacharya, a vratadhari will not look upon women of a certain age, i.e. women of menstruating age, which is the case with Ayyappa.

This vrata is not ‘other’-directed but ‘self-directed’. That means Ayyappa does not have a problem with women. But because of his vrata, he will not look upon, meet and touch women of certain age. If one knows that his vrata is self-directed, how could this be a case of gender discrimination? Surely, Sabarimala Ayyappa can follow Naishtika Brahmacharya, if that is what he chooses.

In the agitations, one notices that women too are protesting the temple entry of women of a certain of a certain age group. Why do these women oppose enforcementof the law? Here is one way to make sense of their behaviour: if someone (like Ayyappa) follows a vrata, one should not disturb it. That means one should not wilfully bring about a vratabhanga (breaking the vow). For most people in Indian traditions, vratabhanga is a paapa and an adharma. Thus, women of a particular age do not go to this temple precisely because an Indian avoids disturbing the others’ vrata and thus becoming responsible for vratabhanga. No one belonging to the Indian traditions would call vratabhanga a ‘good thing’. Because it is an adharma, one does not consciously commit vratabhanga. A simple understanding of Indian traditions tells us that women do not go to this temple because it amounts to vratabhanga and not because of a male prohibitory order of Hindu religion; in fact, many people do not see this as a case of gender discrimination at all.

However, what happens when gender discrimination is alleged with respect to such a practice? In such a story it appears as though Ayyappa should seek ‘permission’ (whose?) before undertaking this vrata, which implies gender discrimination because he vows not to ‘look upon’ or meet women of a certain age group. Thus, the argument has to be that Ayappa’s vrata is bad or evil and, therefore, justice requires interfering in this practice to bring it to an end. This means that vratabhanga, which is considered as an adharma in our traditions, becomes ‘an attempt to enforce justice’ in the secularist arguments. Strangely enough, the Sangh Parivar, an organization which intends to protect and defend Indian culture, has fallen prey to the same story. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevaksangh’s  (RSS) executive body resolution and the subsequent statements by others have affirmed that not allowing women into this temple is unjust and must be reformed through dialogue in society. This essentially means Ayyappa’s vrata in Sabarimala is an unjust practice, and they want to reform people and their traditions such that vratabhanga rectifies the unjust and evil vrata that Ayyappa practices. That is, these organizations apparently believe that doing adharma is necessary to reform Hinduism and that encouraging people to do adharma and breaking vratas preserves dharma!

Further, many have argued that women have a right to worship and that women must, therefore, be allowed inside the temple. Though it is unclear what worship means in this case, the question remains: who has given this right and what exactly does it imply? In Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), God enjoins human beings to worship Him in the ways that He instructs them. No human being has the right to interfere in the worship of the other.  However, we cannot straightforwardly translate Semitic religions to Ayyappa even if the secularists (and the courts) believe that Ayyappa, by “excluding women of a certain age”, is giving unjust and evil instructions about how to worship him! From what other source might this right to worship be derived? To appeal to the Indian constitution or to the UN human rights instruments is to go far beyond the absurd: the Indian constitution (or any such secular document) cannot dictate how human beings ought to worship God. Therefore, in the case of Sabarimala, one cannot talk about the right to worship. One can still ask the question whether women have freedom to worship or not. Of course, they do have the ‘freedom’ to worship Ayyappa the way they have the freedom to worship anyone or none. But how do we know which mode of worship is to be followed? How do we know that vratabhanga is the mode of worship of Ayyappa?

The entire discussion seems to draw upon arguments that emphasize a need to reform Hinduism. The questions of the reform of Hinduism emerged in 18th– and 19th-century India when Christian missionaries were trying to understand India and deal with Indian religions. In Indian society, they saw a false idolatrous religion called Hinduism, corrupted over millennia.  For Europeans, most of the Indian ritual practices were corrupt and superstitious. While responding to such criticism, 19th-century reform movements like the Arya Samaj, Brahmo Samaj, Prarthana Samaj, etc. developed ‘criticism’ of Hindu religion. They had an action plan to reform it in the backdrop of what they saw as corrupt practices of Hindu religion. Today, scientists, courts, secularists, liberals, Hindu nationalists, etc. are all in a race to continue the reform agenda that the British had set. But this reform agenda is breaking India and her traditions. What we see today in Sabarimala is that one treats the vrata of Ayyappa as an unjust and evil practice and celebrates the vratabhanga of Ayyappa as a socio-religious reform. This is sensible only against the background of Europeans’ understanding of a false heathen religion that requires reform, which essentially requires the destruction of Hindu practices. Consequently, in contemporary, independent India, what we see is a race to destroy India and her traditions.  The irony is, this time the leaders of such activities are not Muslims or Christians but Hindus themselves!

Author details:

M. S. Chaitra is the Director and Fellow, Aarohi Research Foundation, Bangalore. Email:

Ashwini B Desai, is Research Fellow at Aarohi Research Foundation, Bangalore. Email:

Caste Atrocities? The Big Picture of the Supreme Court Judgment

by Sufiya Pathan

Opposition to the Supreme Court judgment on the Prevention of Atrocities (PoA) Act revolves around the premise that it is against the interests of the Scheduled Castes (SC). Does placing some checks on the non-bailable detention for a PoA charge of any kind (whether a serious charge or not), compromise the interests of the SCs? Why so? Does upholding SC interests require compromising the rights and interests of citizens at large? And if we do take this route what kinds of ripples are we setting off in society? Surely, these are the kinds of questions that we need to discuss in the wake of the judgment. Yet, the most widespread reactions that have emerged vis-à-vis the verdict are stories of misuse of the act from some corners and vulgar chest thumping from political parties falling over each other in their bid to “fight for the SCs” while really just fighting amongst themselves.

While the upcoming elections in some states and the national elections of 2019 appear to provide the immediate context for agitation against the Supreme Court’s decision, digging deeper reveals systemic problems and concerns about the long-term interests of the SCs for whom so many tears are being shed for their ostensible protection. This article points to at least three additional scenarios where we have to look closely to assess why we have a worrying structural problem on our hands. Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, the statistical picture provides no grounds to assume that SCs are subject to any more violence or crime than other segments of the population. Yet the very same statistics are used to project an image of India as a country ridden with caste violence and discrimination. Meanwhile, the continued set of attempts to build a picture of SCs as a uniquely and disproportionately targeted group in India is building a new type of resentment against the very same groups for whom protective measures have been spuriously justified. This does not bode well for India or the SCs.

Purported rise in atrocities against SCs

Figures have been bandied about in the Press about rising atrocities against SCs as the context for ‘SC anger’ (see, for instance, these articles in the Times of India and The Week). The simple truth is that this country does not produce any reliable documentation of atrocities against SCs. Why so? The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annually reports the total number of cases registered under the PoA and PCR (Protection of Civil Rights) Acts. As per legal definition, these are the only cases that qualify as ‘atrocities’. However, scholars and activists have always been dissatisfied at the ‘low level of reportage’ under these sections and have rejected these figures as unreliable measures of caste atrocities in the country. Yet, large figures are constantly quoted in the press and by caste scholars in relation to atrocities. How so? Very simple.

Since 1995 the NCRB was asked to report separately on the total crime faced by ‘vulnerable sections’ of society. Thus, total crime faced by senior citizens, children, women and SC/STs is recorded and reported annually by the NCRB. The established practice today is to take the total figure of crime against SC/STs and report it as ‘atrocities’. To reiterate, since figures under the PoA and PCR are considered low and therefore unreliable, in order to reflect a ‘truer’ picture, the total number of crimes against SC/STs are quoted as atrocities. You don’t have just yellow journalism to blame for this. Even the official website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment follows exactly this strategy in its annual reports.

There are multiple problems with such an approach that make it not just unreliable, but outrageously deceptive. To list just a few of the problems – these cases would include those where both victims and perpetrators belong to SC groups; they would include crimes that have no relation to caste and do not establish that the perpetrator even had any knowledge of the victim’s caste – a pre-requisite to making a case of ‘atrocity’; they would include categories of crime that could not logically be envisaged as ‘atrocities’. The need for special legislation covering caste atrocities was felt because it was seen as an especially obnoxious kind of crime. While it was never clear what exactly atrocities referred to, it was clear that the violence was disturbing not because of the volume of the crimes against SCs, but because of the special nature of the crimes.[1]

Yet, today, this rationale behind the PoA finds itself absolutely overturned, and all crime against SC/STs, regardless of who has committed the crime, is being categorized as atrocity. Remember that this route is taken because the statistics under PoA and PCR are considered low and, therefore, unreliable. Yet, if we take this route and deem any crime against an SC to be a measure of atrocities, we are faced with an even greater hurdle to understanding the basic claims about caste atrocities.

One of the basic claims about caste atrocities is that caste violence is extremely widespread and that lower castes face greater violence than any other groups in society. These statistics, inflated as they are, should be in a position to give some credence to this claim. Yet, if we study these statistics, we are forced to reject the claim as absolutely baseless!

How so? Some simple mathematics will tell us. The total number of incidents of crime against SCs in 2016 was 40,801. Of these, 5926 crimes were reported under the PoA act. The figure for total incidents of crime in India in 2016 is 48,31,515. The SC population comprises about 17% of the population. If 17% of the population faces 0.84% of the total incidence of crime, then 83% faces the remaining 98.16% of the crime in India. That means each percent of the SC population faces about 0.049% of total crime, while every percent of the non-SC population faces 1.18% of the total incidence of crime. Thus, non-SCs face about 23 times more crime than SCs.

Would we really want to support the claim that these statistics tell us anything significant about caste atrocities? Yet, scholars, journalists, activists, and government agencies, all use these statistics with impunity and with very little evidence of basic mathematical reasoning!

In all this bandying about of numbers, what is lost sight of is precisely the problems that the PoA legislation was framed to address in the first place. These statistics certainly do not help us understand what the problem of caste violence was or is, or explain anything that could help form solutions. Yet, our scholars and journalists, who ought to be engaged in helping us understand the problem, instead appear unable to show the mathematical skills of a 10 year old.

International attention

A Pew research study on ‘global restrictions on religion’ 2015 placed India fourth on its world-wide scale of ‘social hostilities’. India came in after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq, doing only negligibly better than these countries on its scale of social hostilities. Why so? Where is the kind of wide-scale violence that Syria, Nigeria and Iraq have witnessed in order to justify giving India this rating? Who in India has been subject to such systematic violence as the Christians in Nigeria, for instance? No need to go far for the answer. The report says, “Hindus were harassed in just 18 countries, fewer than some other groups. But the vast majority of the world’s Hindus (95%) live in India, where harassment of Hindus by both government and social groups was reported in 2015. Members of the lowest Hindu castes, also known as Dalits, often faced obstacles to [access] basic government institutions and services such as education and health care. The United Nations also reported systematic abuse of Dalits by individuals, and many of the perpetrators of these crimes were not prosecuted by the government.”

Since when does the be-heading of 100s of individuals belonging to a particular religious group put one country almost at par with another country where a section of the population faced trouble accessing government services? Besides, which section in India, except the moneyed classes, do not face difficulties accessing government services? Yet, this does not alarm either our political classes or our activists. India has systematically built up an international reputation for the abuse of its SC population, which for the most part is built on inflated numbers and reports like the one cited above – in other words, on thin air.

Yet, the UN annual report on religious intolerance 2017 relies on Pew as its source for India in order to press for international recognition of violence against “Hindus”, which basically refers to “caste violence”. Coming at the heels of the special attention paid to caste discrimination by the UN Special Rapporteur on minority rights in 2016, we can be sure India is going to hear more about this internationally.

So, here’s the deal. We in India have no reliable data to talk about caste violence. Yet, we loosely talk about it in puffed up figures that would not stand up to a child’s scrutiny. The world is listening in and such loose talk will cost India dearly.

Social unrest and anti-SC sentiment

While NGOs and intellectuals build their careers by shedding crocodile tears for SCs, and the political classes scamper for their votes, of greatest concern in the contemporary scenario is not India’s international image. Of greatest concern is that the kinds of policies that government after government is upholding vis-à-vis the SCs in the name of their interests is systematically building a dangerous anti-SC sentiment in the country. Legislation like the PoA Act was not built on the basis of popular SC campaigns or movements. In fact, even today, most of the so-called SC groups are really Marxist groups, not mobilisations based on any kind of SC movement.

But, for the first time in history, there is a popular movement against the PoA that was also directed against the SCs – the Maratha movement. No matter what kind of violence India has witnessed in the name of ‘caste violence’ so far, it has never been targeted at SCs as a whole. It was always particular jatis or clusters of jatis in particular regions that came into conflict with each other. Even though the PoA Act was never a plank to bring SCs together, it has become the plank that builds resentment against them as a whole.

Ironically, even government reports have warned against the effects of the PoA in society and how it was actually acting against the interests of SCs. A Karnataka government report in 2008 baldly stated how the PoA was affecting inter-community relations, especially in rural Karnataka: “Instead of developing a good relationship based on mutual dignity, a fear psychosis is making many people of the other sections to refrain from any transactions with the [SC] people, adversely affecting the livelihood opportunities for the poor village living persons dependent on farm labour.”[2]

While the Supreme Court verdict is seen as going against SC interests, it is perhaps the only time over the past four decades that anyone has dared to do anything that is really in the long-term interests of the SCs. The truth is that SCs are ordinary citizens of this country. There is absolutely no reason why upholding their interests should bring us in conflict with the interests of the Indian citizens at large. What will the ordinary citizens of this country choose to do when their long-term interests are being systematically trampled upon in the name of short-term gains by every power-wielding class in this country? The answer to this question will shape the future of India.


[1] Special Correspondent. ‘Rising Crimes against Scheduled Castes’. Economic and Political Weekly, XV:32, 1980, p.1336.

[2] Bhat, H.K. An Evaluation Study on the Atrocities and Compensation given to victims of Atrocities on Scheduled Castes in Karnataka– Report submitted to the Director, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Research Institute, (Government of Karnataka), Bangalore, October 2008, p. 345.


A Dictator Without Body and Mind – caste censorship in India

by Garima Raghuvanshy and M. S. Chaitra

Rohith Vemula committed suicide on the 17th of January. Since then protests have erupted across the country. International commentators, academics, and university students have raised their voices, demanding action and exclaiming horror against the caste system. Even though it has been abolished officially, intellectuals, Ambedkarites, and other activists assert that caste discrimination lives on in India. It persists, they argue, despite the fact that successive governments have introduced several laws and amendments that are specifically aimed at bettering the lot of the so called lower castes, and bringing an end to caste discrimination. Thus, the state effort to abolish caste and caste discrimination continues, and gains additional momentum every so often. The most recent example of this was the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill. The original bill was passed in 1989, the amendment was tabled last year. It was passed in the Lok Sabha in August 2015, while most opposition MPs were boycotting the parliament, and in the Rajya Sabha in December, while the house had been taken hostage by protests, this time against the death of a Dalit man in Punjab. Protest notwithstanding, the Rajya Sabha passed the bill unanimously, within minutes, and without debate. Let us consider some of the changes this amendment brings to the 1989 PoA (SC/ST) Act. Section 3 of the 1989 Act lists ‘Offences as Atrocities’, i.e., it lists those acts which will be considered caste-atrocities and will be punishable by law. The 4th part the amendment to section 3 is as follows:

Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe,-

(t) Destroys, damages or defiles any object generally known to be held sacred or in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes.

Explanation.––For the purposes of this clause, the expression “object” means and includes statue, photograph and portrait;

(u) By words either written or spoken or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise promotes or attempts to promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will against members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes;

(v) By words either written or spoken or by any other means disrespects any late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes … .

The 1989 SC/ST Act was aimed at curbing ‘caste atrocities’, the alleged reason for Vemula’s suicide. The 2015 amendment took this initiative several steps further, but in which direction? Let us consider the ramifications of only one of the three inclusions listed above. In keeping with (v), since the passing of this bill, Indian citizens are legally required to not disrespect certain persons based on their caste and vital status. How will this play out in Indian society?

Certain Kannada scholars have expressed serious objections to the writing of Valmiki, well known author of the Valmiki Ramayana. There are also several academics and intellectuals who have made careers out of criticising the ‘hegemony’ of the Valmiki Ramayana while praising the ‘subversiveness’ of other retellings. In Karnataka there also exist many ST jatis who consider Valmiki to be their Jati’s Guru. As per the 2015 amendment, if one criticises Valmiki’s writings for being a carrier of oppression, one may well be booked under this act. Similarly, a criticism of Krishna (assuming that he is a late person) can cause offence to the Golla community, and speaking ill of Vedvyasya can cause offence to the Besta community. Additionally, considering that rationalists have energetically insulted every guru from Shankara through Madhava to Ramanuja, this amendment might also make it more difficult to come out on the street calling gurus (those revered by SC/ST communities) ‘god-men’, ‘swindlers’ and ‘con-men’ without subsequently being accused of violating this act.  No longer can those who decry the ‘hegemony’, inhumanity, and oppressiveness of ‘mainstream’ Hinduism continue to denounce and criticize Hindu deities and sages without a possibility of legal consequences. This is absurd considering that according to the story of the caste system, it is precisely this ‘mainstream’ Hinduism that has imposed its dictates onto those at the margins.

The absurdity does not end there. We may well be on our way to formulating a list of individuals who cannot be spoken of except in praises. Since the amendment does not specify what constitutes ‘disrespect’ to a late person held in high regard by members of SC or ST communities, this may be the only route to safety. The choice, then, would be between speaking highly of departed SC/ST leaders, or not speaking of them at all. Unfortunately, even this option is not foolproof, since the law does not define criteria to determine which deceased person, whether SC/ST or not, qualifies for the category ‘late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes’. We have to conclude that the only foolproof way out is to either speak highly of all late persons who could have been held in high esteem by SC/ST communities, or not to speak of them at all. If this amendment was only absurd and not dangerous, we could brush it aside as another attempt at pandering by our politicians. Unfortunately, the absurdity of the law and its danger go hand in hand. We are forced to wonder, how could our law-makers pass such an amendment and make it into a law? We are forced to wonder how they could not see the fundamental contradiction this amendment poses to civil freedoms guaranteed by the constitution itself.

How can a law that disallows one to insult late individuals held in high esteem by SC/ST communities be considered a contradiction to basic civil freedoms? Isn’t humiliation and insult the most widespread and invisible form of caste-discrimination? As the story goes, indeed it is. But consider the case of a beloved Indian – M. K. Gandhi. Gandhi was a leader of many people and many communities. However, even as Indian school children learn to refer to him as “Mahatma” and “father of the nation”, even as his statues are erected in public spaces and government buildings around the globe, Gandhi is also called a pervert and a child molester, a lackey of the British, the cause for partition, and an old man with a walking stick, too feeble to take revolutionary measures in India’s struggle for independence. Whatever be the merits of Gandhi and his critics, the man on our currency has been amongst the many, many, prominent Indians who are revered by some and reviled by others. There are no laws that cordon him off as a deceased person held in high esteem by certain communities and hence above criticism. Indeed, until the 21st of December there were no laws that cordoned off anyone in India as above criticism, whether dead or alive. The creation of an SC/ST dead leaders’ club, which is given immunity from criticism, is a highly disturbing development.

Several individuals in India have been held in high esteem by some community or the other, or indeed, by all or almost all communities. Amongst the many dead leaders of India, Indira Gandhi is one of the better known women. Like all our leaders, she too has many titles and epithets, of which Iron Lady and Mother India are only two. Loved as she may have been by some sections in India, it was this Iron Lady who imposed systematic press censorship in India. During the Emergency enacted by Mrs. Gandhi between 1975 and 1976, newspapers were barred from reporting speeches by certain opposition leaders, freedoms guaranteed by the Indian constitution were suspended, and the press was heavily censored. As school children, it was during history classes that we were taught about this period of crisis in India. Of the many images in our text-book, one remains fresh in our minds – that of the front page of the Indian Express, entirely black, every single word of reportage made invisible by censors. Mrs. Gandhi had taken the first steps towards dictatorship – imposing censorship, disallowing criticism of herself, her government, and her policies, in other words, silencing voices of opposition. Thankfully, she did not succeed in becoming a dictator, though Indira Gandhi came as close as anyone in India has come to succeeding.

Now, forty years later, some of our leaders are again being held above the net of public dissent and criticism. This time, however, censorship is being imposed by our entire political apparatus.


When people are raised to a hallowed ground far above criticism, the ideas they put forward and fought for also leave the arena of debate and discussion. It is even more dangerous that the criteria for this immunity from criticism are based on caste and vital status. Our parliament has now put into place a law that dictates which ideas are ‘sacred’ and above dissent based almost solely on the caste of the person expressing them. Such a criterion, enforced by law, is, paradoxically, precisely what the caste system is supposed to be about – a system that enforces caste as the foremost factor in determining the value of a person’s words and deeds. It is a perverse state of affairs indeed that this description applies equally to the caste system and to the laws aimed at destroying it. Through the reservation system we have already had ‘positive’ discrimination based on caste for decades. However, this system applies only to people. With the passing of the SC/ST bill, our politicians have now created a reservation system for ideas. In an urgency to woo the fictitious ‘vote bank’ our politicians have created a piece of legislation which imposes a ban on our freedom to express ideas and to express dissent.

As Prof. Balagangadhara has said, it is completely unclear why one cannot insult some or other individual. Indeed, it is a cliché to say that even the devis and devas of India are not exempt from acid tongues and angry bhaktas. Surprisingly, the brigade of academicians who have campaigned for freedom of expression after controversies surrounding statements, books, and movies, are tight lipped today. Either it has not occurred to them that sooner or later they will also become victims of the terror that this law can generate, or, they have become parasites on the story of the caste system, without which their academic careers and conference invitations will dry up. In either case, their silence is another indication of their inability to think through events without taking routes prescribed by whatever fashionable ideology is doing the rounds at elite campuses in India and abroad.

This is the state of our intellectuals, whether or not they deserve that name. What about our politicians? In the wake of Rohith Vemula’s death, our politicians have begun a wild scramble, each trying to claim the title of ‘foremost friend and representative of Dalits’. As they race to microphones at protest sites in Hyderabad, Delhi, and Mumbai, the many Indians who watch from the sidelines are increasingly disillusioned by identity politics, which has progressively torn apart our society and our communities.

As Indians we are more or less aware that our politicians and ‘intellectuals’ are almost entirely bereft of integrity. However, this instance of their desperate dash for votes should alarm even the most cynical and jaded amongst us – particularly because the manner in which this bill was passed suggests that for our politicians the debate over caste has become a set of common sense maneuvers. In fact, by passing this bill they have made one of these maneuvers, namely, that no debate is possible in the debate over caste, into a law. Our leaders, beloved, dead, SC/ST or general quota, are probably turning in their graves, and we too should be squirming uncomfortably in our chairs.

Quite to the contrary, when the Rajya Sabha passed the SC/ST bill without debate, Derek O’Brien found it important to remark that this bill was passed “unanimously and not in a din.” The Deputy Chairman, P. J. Kurien, replied with a smile “How can there be a din? There is perfect calm and tranquility. Everybody is cool. A cool breeze is blowing. I don’t know where this breeze is coming from.” Is the unanimous, uncontested passing of this bill a “cool breeze” or the calm before a very violent storm? Our politicians, evidently, are quite content in not knowing. We can only hope that the Supreme Court will interfere and test the constitutional validity of such legislations. Until then, however, it is only safe to speak in praises or, to not speak at all.

Taking Rohith Seriously

by Jakob De Roover

When a person close to us commits suicide, we often struggle to make sense of the act and of the experiences that led to it. In the case of Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide, no such predicament appears to face the many academics, activists, politicians, and journalists commenting on it. No, they know what caused his step: the oppressive caste system and the caste discrimination of the Hyderabad Central University authorities. What is the evidence? The clarity of his suicide note, they say, which is “full of serious lessons for India’s caste-ridden society”: it shows how “the Hindu caste system still lives in the Middle Ages” and is no less sinister and monstrous than the Nazi regime. In an open letter, a long list of academics (arrogating the voice of “the global scholarly community”) suggests that caste discrimination pervades the premier higher education institutions in India and drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide. This type of account has inspired forceful protest, political campaigning, and disciplinary measures on the university campus where the tragedy occurred.

There is something bizarre going on here. When you make the effort of reading Rohith’s farewell letter, you will see it does not once mention caste, the caste system, or his status as an untouchable. Still, that is the one thing that commentators keep mentioning. Thus, they ignore, deny, and distort the experiences that Rohith tries to express in his letter. Instead of taking his moving words seriously, they simply appropriate his voice to rehash an age-old stale story about ‘the caste system’, which we have inherited from nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries and colonial Orientalists. Thus, these commentators reduce his entire existence – all his concerns, dreams, and deeds – to victimhood, to ‘being a Dalit oppressed by the caste system’.

Some argue that Rohith is clearly referring to the effects of caste discrimination, when he writes the following: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.” Now, what makes him experience himself as a monster? What prevented him from becoming the writer that he dreamt of becoming? One answer is: the oppressive caste system. But how does one establish that without adding all kinds of assumptions that may be there in one’s head but not in the world and certainly not in Rohith’s letter?

Another answer is much simpler: it is the life he had led the years before his suicide, which prevented him from becoming a science writer and made him experience himself as a monster. What life is that? That of a member of the Ambedkarite movement on one of the Hyderabad university campuses. To know what this kind of life looks like and why it prevents one from realizing one’s dreams, we need to go beyond the stale stories about ‘caste discrimination’ that the mainstream media keep repeating. We could start by examining what has actually happened on Hyderabad university campuses over the last decades because of the tyranny of Ambedkarite caste politics. We could start by showing some minimal honesty about the goondaism and terrorizing of students and teachers that occurred for many years, all in the self-interest of a small group of people who claim to be the representatives of the Dalits and whose life revolves around enforcing this status.

Some claim that Rohith’s letter describes his being an untouchable as a curse. Actually, he writes the following: “All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” Thus, he connects life being a curse and the fatal accident of his birth to childhood loneliness. It is unclear how that is related to being born in a particular jati. Anyone with some first-hand experience knows that children growing up in the many jatis today classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ are not generally lonely during their childhood. They play with children from their own and other jatis; they have friends; they have brothers and sisters; they are not alienated from other human beings. They are also generally not unappreciated children. After all, if this is the claim one wants to make, one would also have to suggest that parents and family members from the jatis in question generally do not appreciate their children (a claim that is hardly acceptable). So what then is the supposed link here between childhood loneliness and the oppressive caste system?

More evidence of caste oppression is read into Rohith’s concern that the value of a man is “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.” If one insists on interpreting this in terms of the oppressive caste system, one can always do so and reproduce all the clichés. But then one has to again add premises that are not there in the letter.

Why not understand this in terms of the words that Rohith himself uses? Then this passage appears as a profound reflection on the terrible form of identity politics that has developed in India. Being ‘a Dalit’ or ‘an untouchable’ has become the only central ‘identity’ for people like Rohith, because this is what is demanded from them, not by ‘the caste system’ but by the political institutions and ideological movements built around a particular story about Indian society. Just look at how Rohith has been treated since his suicide: he is endlessly presented as ‘an untouchable’ or ‘a Dalit’; he is thus being reduced to what certain people see as ‘his immediate identity and nearest possibility’. He is transformed into a thing that plays a welcome role in the political campaigns of Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi, Derek O’Brien, and in the ideological posturing of JNU academics and writers for The Hindu and similar newspapers. They have not taken his experience seriously and treated him as a mind. Instead, “in dying and living,” he has become an instrument for their own agendas.

The response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide and to his letter is indeed a symptom of a corrupt system, not the so-called ‘caste system’, but something very different: namely, the systematic corruption of politics, academics, and the media in India, which is so manifest in their reporting about, and responding to, the genuine problems in Indian society. Today, this system is doing to Rohith what has been happening again and again from the colonial era onwards: inflicting violence upon people’s experiences instead of making sense of them and rehashing moralizing ideology in the name of social science.

Paris, Mumbai, and the Terrorist ‘Assault on Freedom’


Garima Raghuvanshy and Jakob De Roover

On 26 November 2008, three days of bloodshed and horror unfolded in Mumbai as a group of terrorists spread across the city, indiscriminately murdering civilians and striking iconic locations. On 13 November 2015, the attacks in Paris caused a similar spate of death and destruction. Both attacks were carried out by Islamic terrorists and both were eerily similar in structure and strategy, so much so that the events in Paris are being described as a ‘Mumbai-style’ assault on European soil. For several Indians, the Paris attacks were a prompt to revisit what happened in Mumbai. To ask: How did we react? What did our leaders say?

Responses to both attacks denounced them as inhumane, cowardly, barbarous acts. Headline after headline from Mumbai has been recreated in the coverage of Paris: India must stop being a soft target, Mumbai’s stoic courage, Terror on our Doorstep … . However, despite all similarities, the Paris attacks took on a dimension that did not and does not exist in reactions to the Mumbai attack. While India and the rest of the world were horrified by the violence and terror caused by these criminals, the self-description of the terrorists – as avengers for the repressed Muslims of India, particularly in Kashmir – was hardly discussed, let alone accepted. There was no talk of a ‘War of Civilizations’, except by the American press. Barring a few exceptions, no columnist or commentator, no eyewitness, Mumbaikar or otherwise, described 26/11 as an attack on something integral and abstract. There are hardly any descriptions to be found of 26/11 as an attack on Indian values, or as an assault on the Indian way of life – not in 2008, and not in the seven years since.

On the other hand, the Paris attack is described as exactly that: an assault on European values, on the ‘universal values’ Europe has given to humankind, on the European way of life, and on the freedom that Europe embodies. Citizens, politicians, and the media may disagree on how to react to this assault, but they stand united in their descriptions of it. In this ‘conversation’, there is another partner – IS. While IS and the West resent each other, they seem to agree on many fronts. IS describes itself as an Islamic State; the West discusses a ‘Clash of Civilizations’. IS fighters describe themselves as religious warriors; the Western media air discussions on the problem of ‘fanaticism’ and ‘radical Islam’. IS describes concertgoers at the Bataclan as “hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice”; people in Paris organize a “giant orgy Republic Square”, proclaiming “Yes, we are idolaters and perverts.” IS says the Paris attack is meant to instil fear in the minds of people in Europe; for four days in November, all public events in Brussels were cancelled, shopping malls and streets and schools were shut down, and the city’s metro was closed – measures that caused a growing sense of threat and fear in the minds of adults and children alike.


We think that one avenue into developing a better understanding of recent events is to contrast Europe’s response to Paris with India’s response to Mumbai. These are two similar cases of violence, but they were and are experienced and described in two opposite ways.

Two statements suffice to illustrate the contrast. In 2008, the President of India, Pratibha Patil, said something seemingly obvious and yet profound about the Mumbai attacks: “This mindless attack is the work of those who have no regard for human life, and are pursuing a path of destruction.” In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, these were the words of Angela Merkel: “This attack on freedom is not only aimed at Paris. We are all targets, and it affects all of us … For that reason we will respond together.”

One attack is a “path of destruction” while the other is an “attack on freedom.” Why were these attacks experienced and described so differently in Europe and in India?

One part of the answer is clear – Indians did not accept the self-description of the terrorists. They did not enter into a conversation on the terms set by the terrorists. Instead, they understood the violence in radically different terms, and perhaps in the only terms that can break a vicious cycle whereby violence begets violence. Indians understood the attack in Mumbai as “a path of destruction,” not of values, but of human lives. The terrorists may believe many things about their actions and their role in the world, but Indians saw their actions as purely destructive – of the perpetrators and their victims. No way of life needed to be defended against some competing way of life – precisely because terrorism is seen as a path to destruction, not as representative of a conflict between two ways of life. On the other hand, Europe accepted the self-description of the terrorists, and thus, also the terrorists’ description of the events of 13 November. Why is this difference important?

First of all, the European reaction has led to the escalation of violence. In the name of freedom, a way of life, and the French nation, François Hollande declared war almost immediately after the attack. The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution urging all member states to fight IS in all ways necessary. Hollande’s promise of a firm and determined France is similar to some Indian reactions after 26/11. When the Indian government did not declare full-scale war on Pakistan, many of us felt a sense of shame and weakness. We thought back to 9/11 and America’s ‘War on Terror’, and to the subsequent absence of terrorist attacks on American soil. It had seemed that the USA was strong and capable of extracting justice, while we Indians were shamefully weak.

Seven years after 26/11, the disaster that was averted due to that ‘weakness’ is amply clear. Indians generally did not begin to see terrorism as acts in a war between two parties. In contrast, copying the American response after 9/11, Europe stated that the terrorists are waging a war and that we have to fight back by entering into this war. More and more countries now feel compelled to join this war. In the weeks following the Paris attack, France has bombed Syria, the United Kingdom and Germany have decided to aid French military strikes, and Turkey shot down a Russian jet over violation of airspace.

Second, we need to raise the question as to why this description of the terrorist attacks as an assault on freedom appears so obvious. Look at the plethora of other terrorist attacks in different parts of the world. Take the attacks in Mali, Iraq, or Boko Haram’s ‘scorched-earth’ campaign in Nigeria and Niger. Many of these are of a scale that Europe has not yet seen. For instance, Boko Haram’s campaign in Nigeria has killed at least 17,000 people and made more than 2.6 million others homeless in a period of just six years. Yet, these attacks are not characterized as some massive assault on a way of life and its values. Have the victim societies of these attacks described them in such a manner? If not, why is the notion of 13/11 as an ‘attack on freedom’ so self-evident to Europeans, and perhaps to the rest of the world? Clearly, this is only one way of understanding these acts of violence. Hence, it is an important question to ask if it is the best possible way.

Third, given the fact that Europe experiences the Paris attacks as a huge threat to the values of freedom and democracy, how strong can these values be in Europe itself? If the attacks acquire this status, it seems these values and the related way of life must be very vulnerable. This must be how Europeans experience the current state of their own way of life. Otherwise, how could 130 deaths in Paris herald the end of European freedom?

In the weeks following the Paris attacks, it seems the right answer to these questions is: “Yes, European values are indeed exceedingly vulnerable today.” But this vulnerability stems in large part from within Europe itself. Over the last weeks, European countries have taken extraordinary measures in the name of the threat to European values such as freedom and democracy, even while these measures undermine the very values that they aim to defend. The three-month emergency in France which threatens civil rights is just one example of this subverting of values. In Belgium, the head of the parliamentary commission on terror, a Flemish nationalist MP, made statements like the following: “I am not a jurist but more of a pragmatic. The jurists might disagree with me, but I think we have gone beyond the time of thinking ‘Can we do this or may we do that?’ We need to move towards a cult of security …” This is a perversion of values of freedom: denying them in the name of safeguarding them.

As S.N. Balagangadhara argues, this is precisely what terrorism does. The terrorists share the same moral intuitions and ideals that most of us share; they are part of a moral community. They also think it is deeply immoral when their child is maimed by a drone attack or when their father is beheaded by the Saudi regime. Yet, at the same time, they draw on the moral foundations of a community in order to transform their own crimes (maiming children and beheading aid workers) into exceptionally ethical acts. In other words, terrorism calls upon the shared ethics of a moral community in order not simply to justify crimes but to first convert them into praiseworthy heroic acts. This is the ultimate subversion of the foundations of a moral community.

And it is here that Europe seems to be disquietingly vulnerable. In response to terrorism, it begins to make very similar moves: it accepts that the terrorist attacks are not crimes but exceptional attacks on a way of life and its values, which require equally exceptional measures in response. Shockingly, these measures take the same form: they subvert the values and ideals of a community in the name of those values and ideals. We think this accounts at least partially for the experience that Europe has of the terrorist attacks as an assault on freedom and its way of life. It is Europe itself that transforms the attacks in this way (and thus indirectly joins forces with the terrorists). In this sense, terrorism indeed poses a tremendous threat to the European way of life, not simply because of the weakness of the ideals of freedom and democracy in today’s Europe, but because European societies are strikingly susceptible to the phenomenon that terrorism is.

The fact that Indian society did not respond to the Mumbai attacks in the same way shows that there is nothing inevitable about this susceptibility to terrorism. In order to find a new framework of description and a superior way of coping with terrorist attacks, we have to ask ourselves – why did Indians and Europeans experience and describe similar acts of violence in such dissimilar ways? This is a question that we have to answer together. Today, we can only state that India reacted differently, and that this reaction averted more suffering, more violence. We do not yet have scientific hypotheses to account for these two different reactions to terrorism. We need such hypotheses urgently, if our respective reactions are to be intelligible to each other. Only then can we compare competing ways of understanding and responding to such violence and assess these as alternatives to each other.

Nonetheless, we have some parts of the answer, incomplete fragments to take heed from. When we reflect on different reactions to terrorism in the world and on the different outcomes resulting from these reactions, we realize that seeing terrorism as an “assault on freedom” is a misdiagnosis bound to have disastrous results.