New Delhi: Tamil Nadu youth welfare and sports minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Udhayanidhi Stalin’s remarks on sanatana dharma have kicked up a political storm. Stalin’s criticism of sanatana dharma has led to multiple stalwarts in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party claiming that the Dravidian leader had called for a “genocide” of the Hindus.
At the crux of the political battle, however, is a deeply rooted disagreement between ideologues of Hindutva and social justice politics on one level, and historical differences between the Hindu orthodoxy and 19th-century reformists on another.
On Saturday (September 2), speaking at a conference titled ‘Sanatana Ozhippu Maanaadu’ [‘Sanatana Abolition Conclave’] organised by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association to critique the concept of sanatana dharma, Udhayanidhi Stalin said, “I congratulate the organisers for calling the conference as ‘eradication of sanatana dharma’ instead of ‘opposing sanatana dharma’…”
“There are certain things which we have to eradicate and we cannot merely oppose. Mosquitoes, dengue, corona and malaria are things which we cannot oppose, we have to eradicate them. Sanatanam is also like this. Eradication and not opposing sanatanam has to be our first task,” he continued.
The statement triggered a backlash from the BJP rank and file, with its IT cell head Amit Malviya interpreting Udhayanidhi’s remarks as a “call for [the] genocide” of sanatanis, who he claimed comprise “80% [of the] population of Bharat”.
Union home minister Amit Shah, while speaking at an election rally in Rajasthan, took the matter up to challenge the newly-formed INDIA opposition bloc.
“The son of a chief minister [a reference to Udhayanidhi, who is also the son of Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin] has called for the eradication of sanatana dharma … For vote bank and appeasement politics, these people have called for the eradication of sanatana dharma. This is an insult to our culture, history and sanatana dharma,” Shah said.
The DMK leader quickly responded to say that his statement was being twisted.
“I never called for the genocide of people who are following sanatana dharma. Sanatana dharma is a principle that divides people in the name of caste and religion. Uprooting sanatana dharma is upholding humanity and human equality,” Udhayanidhi said in a statement.
“I am prepared to confront any challenges that come my way, whether in a court of law or the people’s court. Stop spreading fake news,” he continued to say, before adding that sanatana dharma was “responsible for many evils”.
In fact, the Tamil Nadu minister had elaborated on his ideological challenge to sanatana dharma in the very speech that the BJP picked up for its attack.
“What is sanatanam? The very name is from Sanskrit. Sanatana is against equality and social justice and nothing else. What is the meaning of sanatana? It is eternal, that is, it cannot be changed; no one could pose any question and that is the meaning,” Udhayanidhi said.
He continued: “What did sanatana do to women? It pushed women, who lost their husbands, into the fire [the erstwhile practice of sati]; it tonsured the heads of widows and made them wear white saris; child marriages too happened.”
Udhayanidhi contrasted sanatana’s “rigidity” with Dravidian ideology, which he said strived to establish equality and fraternity.
“Our kalaignar [former party leader Karunanidhi] brought a law enabling people belonging to all castes to become archakas [temple priests], our chief minister [Stalin] has appointed people who have completed archaka training as priests at temples; this is the Dravidian model,” Udhayanidhi said.
“What did Dravidam [the Dravidian ideology followed by the DMK] do? It gave fare-free travel to women in buses, gave Rs 1,000 monthly assistance to girl students for their college education,” he added.
Since the war of words, Udhayanidhi has refused to back down, intensifying his attack on sanatana dharma and the alleged discrimination embedded within its doctrines.
Although the matter has become yet another polarising political issue, the disagreements between the BJP’s Hindu nationalist politics and Dravidian ideology go back far in history.
Sanatanism: Ambedkar’s view contrasts with the Hindutva groups
Sanatana dharma is often credited for defining the caste system in India, allocating duties, occupations and roles to communities. Critics say that sanatana practices speak about eternal laws but in effect have institutionalised discriminatory caste practices and sustained brahminical hegemony in Hindu society. For Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Sanatanism is the “ancient name for militant orthodox Hinduism”. In 1943, he wrote: “The Antisemitism of the Nazis against the Jews is in no way different in ideology and in effect from the Sanatanism of the Hindus against the Untouchables.”
Hindutva orgnisations have invoked sanatana dharma to standardise Hindu identity in recent times, often ignoring the diverse religious practices across India. Anti-caste organisations have naturally opposed such standardisation by Hindutva forces and have critiqued it for perpetuating casteism in the modern era.
The BJP may have interpreted Udhayanidhi’s remarks according to its own political convenience, but it has also opened a pandora’s box. The saffron party that was often called a “Brahmin-Bania” party for a long time has made concerted attempts to shed this tag under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Hindutva and anti-caste politics have historically remained inimical to each other. The perception that Hindutva is inherently brahminical and discriminatory had kept the Dravidian, Ambedkarite and Mandal parties away from the saffron umbrella for a long time.
However, Modi weaved a political narrative around nationalism and development that could supersede these contradictions. The BJP under the leadership of Modi has taken care not to run into these contradictions in the political sphere, choosing to popularise Hindutva by mostly fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment than anything else.
In fact, the BJP’s recent victories have been attributed to the party’s successful attempts to win over a substantial section of OBC and Dalit communities, for whom caste discrimination has been a lived reality. By intensifying its attack on Udhayanidhi, who spoke against the inherent casteism of sanatana dharma, the BJP may risk giving inadvertent prominence to the social justice rhetoric that has trumped Hindutva multiple times in the past.
Precisely because of such possibilities, Udhayanidhi has refused to back down against persistent attacks by BJP leaders. Against such a backdrop, the most interesting response has been of Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai. Unlike Malviya and Shah, Annamalai was much more cautious in attacking Udhayanidhi, carefully choosing his words in saying that sanatana dharma was actually “misinterpreted” by the DMK leader and that it wasn’t as discriminatory as portrayed.
Annamalai defended sanatana dharma as “egalitarian”, in what was a clear effort to downplay its perceived equivalence with brahaminical hegemony in southern states. He didn’t portray Udhayanidhi’s remarks as a call for a genocide like the national BJP leaders did.
The BJP is aiming to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu, and its state president well knows that any overt Hindutva messaging can only be detrimental to its prospects.
Moreover, the concept of sanatana dharma was given its shape by the Hindu orthodoxy in the 19th century, as a movement against reformist organisations like the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj, which questioned regressive practices such as sati, idol worship and child marriage.
The Hindu orthodoxy formed organisations like the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal, Sanatana Dharma Rakshini Sabha and the Lahore Sanatan Dharma Sabha to contain the growing influence of reformist organisations. These groups mostly attempted to homogenise – and even standardise – Hindu identity according to the doctrines of sanatana dharma.
The BJP and the RSS have since then looked up to these groups as mentors, and their present advocacy of Hindu practices resembles the efforts of the 19th-century Hindu orthodoxy, despite Modi-Shah’s political outreach among OBC and Dalit communities.
Reformist organisations like the Arya Samaj and Radha Soamis, or even the Ramakrishna Mission, have evolved into different entities from their 19th-century past. The contradictions between the orthodoxy and these groups have flattened out increasingly in the contemporary era, with many of these organisations finding themselves closer to the BJP than any other party.
Yet, if the BJP persists in its efforts to standardise Hindu identity by emphasising sanatana dharma, the historical differences between the two may again become significant.
Similarly, 19th-century social reformers like Swami Vivekananda and Narayana Guru, both of whom are frequently invoked by the Sangh parivar as messengers of Hinduism, spoke and acted aggressively against casteist practices in sanatana doctrines – exactly what Udhayanidhi’s criticism of sanatana dharma hinged upon.
Speaking to The Wire, the author of the recently released book Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom, Govind Krishnan V. said:
“Vivekananda considered the social and economic oppression of the Kshatriyas and Brahmins over the so-called lower castes the main reason for India’s decline and downfall from one of the leading civilisations of the world. In a series of speeches delivered in South India after his return from the West, Vivekananda called for the destruction of all caste privileges and of untouchability.”
“This had a huge influence on the first non-party mass movement against caste, the Ezhava movement in Kerala. There is a good deal of similarity between Narayana Guru and Vivekananda’s views on caste, especially since they were both vedantists. Vivekananda seemed to believe that caste will eventually disappear from India. He says caste distinctions are an obstacle to India’s progress and would eventually disappear as democratic ideas advance,” he added.
However, casteist practices have anything but disappeared and remain deeply entrenched in even present-day India in its society and its politics. Udhayanidhi’s remarks have gone ahead and drawn the spotlight back on the seminal issue, which has been the historical reason for oppression, violence and deprivation.
It appears that the BJP’s persistent attack on the Dravidian leader was also forced by the fact that he unveiled a book titled RSS’s Role in the Indian Liberation War at the same Sanatana Abolition Conference. The book highlighted the assassination of Gandhi and a picture of a man licking a shoe in its cover.
The pages inside were blank entirely, where Udhayanidhi drew three big zeroes, pointing towards the minimal role of the RSS in India’s independence struggle against the British.
During the ‘Sanatana Abolition Conference’ yesterday, @Udhaystalin also unveiled a book titled ‘RSS’s Role in the Indian Liberation War’.
The first page depicted someone licking a shoe, while the second page showcased the assassination of Gandhi.
The rest of the pages were… pic.twitter.com/zNq77jYxja
— Siddharth (@DearthOfSid) September 3, 2023
In Gujarat, the faultlines around sanatana dharma’s proponents and opponents have come to a flashpoint in Batod, illustrating how disputes continue to prevail in even Modi’s home state – a laboratory of Hindutva. Reports say the controversy surrounding a mural placed on the base of the largest statue of Hanumanji in Salangpur by the Swaminarayan sect is intensifying and the media has been barred from visiting the place.
The issue could be more problematic for the BJP as it tries to appropriate Ambedkar and push out its own version of Dalit politics. One of the most influential communities seen as supportive of the BJP, the Lingayats in Karnataka, have also got complex views on the subject.
When coupled with the Rohini commission on the sub-categorisation of OBCs submitting its findings and the U-turn by the Modi government on the Bihar caste survey in the Supreme Court, this is a faultline that can have a tectonic effect on India’s electoral politics.
By attacking Udayanidhi Stalin, reflexively and unthinkingly, the BJP courts not only marginalisation in Tamil Nadu, but also risks tying itself in multiple knots in the rest of the country.