A Critical Assessment of HAF Report
Dr. Vijaya Rajiva
The HAF Report ‘Hinduism : not cast in casteism’ (Dec. 2010) is an admirable effort by a group of American diasporic Hindus to accurately depict the religion they respect and belong to. The motives of the authors and those associated with this report are therefore above reproach and ad hominem attacks are unjust and unfair. There are some good critiques of the Report and one that is especially relevant is that provided by scholar/intellectual Rajiv Malhotra whose work is familiar to most diasporic Hindus (A Critique of Hindu American Foundation’s Report on ‘Caste’ Dec.2010).
The Report is lengthy (173 pages) and is clearly written and divided into sections. The executive summary and the Introduction explain the Hindu American Foundation’s approach to caste and as well the criticism of caste by non Hindus. The remainder of the Report is an account of historical and contemporary attempts by Hindus, not only in India but also in the diaspora to both work to end caste discrimination and explain to themselves and the world at large that Hinduism is not linked to the social/historical phenomenon of caste
discrimination and that the human rights abuse present in society is not central to Hinduism.
This effort is admirable because it is one of the few systematic attempts by diasporic and possibly Bharatiya Hindus to provide a comprehensive (albeit limited) report on the question of caste in India and what it entailed. It might therefore be considered a first step in self education and can be fruitfully used for educational purposes both in schools and for the larger reading public (and to be presented before world bodies like the UN).
However, this can be done only after two things happen. First, the useful Critique put forward by Rajiv Malhotra must be seriously discussed and some of its recommendations must be incorporated into the Report.One of RM’s points is that the discourse of the Report is not cast in dharmic terms but uses the framework of Western thinking on the subject. Rajiv himself does not provide that framework. Sandhya Jain’s beautifully written article ‘Transnational Hindus’ provides a starting point.
Both Sandhya, Rajiv and other critics point to the mistake of conflating varna-jatti with the term ‘caste’, a Portuguese import which vaguely and generally speaking refers to race and ethnicity. Why is this a fatal flaw in the Report ? The Report wishes to end the discrimination and ill treatment of the Scheduled Castes ( the Dalits, formerly referred to as Untouchables) and the Scheduled Tribes ( referred to as Adivasis or Vanavasis).
This is their stated mandate.
But this leads them erroneously into the complex social arrangement of varna-jatti which
evolved and continues to exist without direct reference or links to the Scheduled Castes and Tribals. Hence, discussions of caste discrimination should be limited to those only.
The larger question of any links between varna-jatti and Untouchability is one that the Report at present is not qualified to answer. And therefore it adopts the Western
framework as a handy device. That has the advantage of not having to think the question through when one is in a hurry or mentally lazy, but the downside is a flawed exposition.
As the Report acknowledges, jatti (caste) developed out of the economic life of the country. The Vedas only broadly defined the 4 Varnas of intellectual-spiritual life,political life, commercial life and agricultural life. The jattis can be mapped on to this four fold division and in today’s India one’s varna or jatti has little or no connection to the occupation the individual practices.
While religious reformers and spiritual leaders down the centuries have opposed the ill treatment of the lower castes and those who fell out of this system (the Untouchables) they have not tried to tamper with the general jatti system of the country. The present writer has a brief article on the subject ‘ Gandhiji and the Caste System in his Village Republic’ (printed on this blogsite).
Hence, an economist approach can be taken towards the jatti system. Sandhya Jain mentions the economic component but focuses on the religious/spiritual life of Hindu Dharma. If the Hindu American Foundation wishes to sincerely explore the jatti system (and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity) they can and must attempt to incorporate her insights into their exposition of the jatti system. Sandhya does not explain the existence of Untouchability which floats about in that Dharmic world.
Seeking to explain that is also an urgent task both for her and the Diasporic Hindus.
This would strengthen not only our understanding of Dharmic Hinduism which is clearly under attack by outside forces that see it as an obstacle to their agenda but also provide a practical way out of the cul de sac in which the HAF has found itself. And this way out is not only for political reasons but also the practical way which can be found for dealing with the Hindu brethren who have been outside Hinduism’s pale.
In conclusion, the present writer would like to add the following : the Report acknowledges the ongoing work on behalf of the emancipation of the Dalits by government,by religious leaders and NGOs but does not mention the sterling work done by the Sangh Parivar. This is unfortunate because the Sangh, in addition to social consciousness also has a patriotic/nationalist dimension which should not be sneezed at, especially since the anti Hindu/anti Indian forces are ever present in the country and should be resolutely countered. Simply because these forces routinely refer to the Sangh’s activities as ‘communal’ the HAF should not fall victim to such propaganda.
Rajiv Malhotra has warned of the consequences of presenting the Report as it stands to the general public and the political forces and entities that are present in the U.S.
It might be advisable for the HAF to hold back the Report and revise sections of it.
As well the tone should be less of a mea culpa and more of a positive uplifting one. This is especially important for young readers who may feel discouraged at the mea culpa tone.
(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).
Editor's Comment: Was HAF a victim of a larger design?