A Hindu is not a Hindu because he accepts certain doctrines or philosophies, but because he is a member of a caste
(Hinnells & Sharpe, 1972).
Valmikis are considered lowest in hierarchy amongst the Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh and are also numerically insignificant in Uttar Pradesh. They have been Hinduised over the years but do not necessarily fit the Hindu religious order due to their past identity as Lal Begis.
Anthropologist Joel Lee has explored the transition of Lal Begis (or worshippers of prophet Lal Beg). They were earlier referred to as Bhangi, Chuhra, Mehtar and Halalkhor, and the Lal Begis of Lucknow mostly had Muslim names until 1947. The transition from Lal Begis to Valmikis has also meant them being adversely accommodated in the cultural and political worlds of Hinduism. However, their accommodation in Hinduism is fragile at best, and caste overwhelms the logics of temporal inclusion.
Dominant castes like the Thakurs neither consider Valmikis Hindus nor equal citizens; equality for Valmikis in the eyes of the Thakurs and other upper castes is simply against their ideas of Hindu civilisation. The distinction of touchable-untouchable provides the ideal-typical basis for conceiving and practicing caste hierarchy.
Hindu democracy and the ideal of Ram Rajya do not hold the promise of equality and justice, and the case of Hathras has only reiterated this reality. The alleged gang-rape and murder of a 19-year-old Valmiki girl followed by a forced cremation by the state administration without the consent of her family, are manifestations of Hindu democracy and its morals in ideal praxis. The struggle of the Valmiki family in Hathras to counter the tyranny of Thakurs and the Hindu state – despite being a numerical minority in the village with limited political and economic resources – tells us the story of resilience and hope.
Dalit politics and movements are often reduced to ‘identity politics. A negative concept, identity politics is generally used in Left and liberal circles to highlight the impossibility of universals and the nature of particularism that movements revolving around identity face.
Ambedkarite movements revolving around caste identity do have universal logics. Their struggle against caste order and violence have both material and cultural dimensions of emancipation; these struggles also hold the promise of recovering a lost humanism from amongst the caste Hindus.
Why does the burden of reforming caste Hindus and recovering the “human” from within them fall invariably on the caste considered untouchables? This is not necessarily a moral choice for Dalits but is associated with their politics for dignified life and freedom. The faith of the marginal castes in law and constitutionalism despite limited justice tells us about the major role marginal groups play in the civil repair of caste and Hinduism.
For classical sociologist Max Weber, modern bureaucracy was the rationalisation of human behaviour, and rationalisation was itself a creative human activity. However, the bureaucracy of Uttar Pradesh defies all logics of rationalisation and standards of conduct. That bureaucrat appointments are not void of caste loyalty is common knowledge, and rationality therefore results in one acting in favour of caste/political masters. Law and order is thus reduced to the interest of the privileged.
In my book Civility against Caste (Sage 2013), I have presented cases of caste violence and the political and economic power of dominant castes that affects bureaucracy, and denies justice to Dalits facing violence. In the Hathras case, the bureaucracy, however, has done the worst of all – threatened the family of the victim, burned the body of victim without her family’s consent in front of national media, denied rape. Worse, even allowed the Thakurs to hold a rally in support of the accused. Such performance of inhumanity and ensuring its national telecast not only normalises vulgar Hindu incivilities but also celebrates the carnal bestiality of caste-Hindus.
Violence against ‘untouchable’ castes has been increasing manifold over the years and so have organised protests. The confidence of the dominant groups that oppress the Scheduled Castes has grown, and the turning point has also been the Supreme Court verdict of 2018, which attempted dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. This was followed by the use of brute force against protestors. At least nine Dalits were killed in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The court created a non-existent problem and finally solved the (mis)judgment by withdrawing the order, but much damage has been done since.
Civility against caste
UP is now the ideal Hindu democratic state after Gujarat. While Muslims are generally under siege in an ideal Hindu democracy, the fault lines of caste cannot be dormant for long; caste is an insurgent Hindu quality. After all, there is no Hinduism without caste and there can be no caste without untouchability.
The acculturation of Lal Begis into Hinduism is a recent transition of the last few decades and is not irreversible. Numerically marginal castes like the Valmikis generally avoid radical Ambedkarite posturing; that does not mean they lack anti-caste sensibilities. The risks involved in challenging caste are too many and playing along with the Hindu identity provides both security and some form of adverse inclusion. The Valmiki struggle in Hathras and the Ambedkarite consolidation that followed against the state apparatus are amongst several radical examples which constitute the project of civility against caste.
Suryakant Waghmore is associate professor of sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. His forthcoming co-edited book with Hugo Gorringe is titled Civility in Crisis (Routledge 2020). Views are personal.