Can caste distinctions among Hindus rise to the level of Human Rights Violations as alleged by “Hindu-Amerian Foundatiion” (“HAF”) and their Christian and U.S based Human Rights Watch allies?
Seshachalam Duttta, Ph.D.
Edited and slightly modified by Shree Vinekar
The Hindu-American foundation (HAF) has published a report on Caste Discrimination in India without ever defining what exactly they mean by this, which evoked a storm of protest from Hindu Intellectuals here in America and in India. The reaction of the writers of the HAF report and HAF officials to the criticism is extremely Un-American, let alone compatible with the Hindu part of their ethics. They have forgotten the American part of their identity which would require them to accept the criticism in the sense “disagree without being disagreeable”. They could have taken the criticism in the spirit of democratic right of dissent. Instead an associate of Mihir Meghani of HAF talked down to Sandhya Jain, a renowned Indian journalist by saying, she is “talking from both ends of her mouth”. Such profanity and diatribe doesn’t prove their (HAF’s) case but shows undignified, vulgar, and uncouth conduct in an otherwise serious debate. Rajiv Malhotra, a well meaning person for Hindu causes received similar treatment. Many called for the withdrawal of the report. For my part, I assert the right of HAF to express their view point but ask them to accept the criticism with dignity and modesty, and make it a part of the document by providing honest, cogent and convincing rebuttals that would be acceptable to informed Hindu thinkers. I too supported HAF in the past by becoming a donor and admired some of the Hindu causes they advanced like the Textbook revision of California Schools. To call this HAF report a landmark document, however, is mere indulgence in self flattery in the light of enormity of literature on the subject.
Turning to the debate on Caste in Hinduism, it goes back to centuries and we have published three articles on the subject in www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com during 2009 and 2010 and also an article on Indian Secularism,- as to how it was distorted by Caste in India. Criticism of the Varna goes back to the times of Adi Shankara who wrote Maneesha Panchakam equating the Brahmin to Chandala (the dog eater). There is not much meat in the dog to eat but obviously some did eat it then as do some people of the world do so even now. RSS dedicated 85 years for a single ideology of Sanghatana of Hindu Society which means removal of caste and language barriers, although without success for Hindus at large.
The serious criticism of the report by HAF results from the objection to the message of Human Rights Violation through Caste prejudice in India. The challenge to this report is: Are there human rights violations in India in any form, let alone caste based? What Human Rights are violated in India? Does every social prejudice rise to the level of Violation of Human Rights? If, hypothetically, a Brahmin says that he is superior to people of all other Hindu castes what right is violated, unless the assertion translates into immediate material benefit for him at the cost of inflicting sizeable disadvantage for others? This is the centrality of the debate we should address now. To give an American parallel, Jewish people believe that they are the chosen people of God and hence they are born at a higher level. Evangelists seem to agree. Is there is a Human Rights Violation in this assertion? If not, then the assertion that Brahmin is of superior birth and twice born is no different. In order to evoke the issue of Human Rights, at least some of the rights guaranteed and guaranteeable by the State have to be violated. The phrase “Human Rights” attained currency during the cold war era attributing the suppression of fundamental rights by the totalitarian governments. Failure of law enforcement in any individual litigated cases does not fall under this category. HAF document starts with the accusatory assertion that widespread Human Right Violation by caste based discrimination and birth based hierarchy exist in India. The HAF report is mainly challenged on this mendacious statement alone.
Flatly we assert there are no human rights violations in India, Period.
Let us compare the existing Human Rights status in the U.S and India. It will show the mole in the eye of the Human Rights watch groups of USA and their new ally in HAF. Until well after 1967 more than half the states in the United States had miscegenation laws forbidding the marriage between different races. Such laws were to be repealed in Alabama as late as in the year 2000 and not surprisingly 45% of Alabama citizens voted against the repeal of the law. In contrast, India never had forbidden marriage between any caste groups or races or religious groups. Civil Rights legislation gave affirmative action privileges to “Blacks” in 1965 passing the bill by only one vote majority in the U.S Senate, which thank “God” gave equal treatment to Blacks aka African Americans on paper. In a bitter fight Republicans tried to nominate Robert Bork to the Supreme Court who held the view that the “Civil Rights Legislation” was “unconstitutional.”
At no time voting rights of any groups or gender were abridged in India since its independence in 1947 or after the formation of the Indian Republic in 1949. All under-developed communities including tribes and former untouchables were given special treatment in employment and education for the past 70 years with no political opposition. India has been far ahead of the US in implementing affirmative action and is not satisfied with lip service or hypocrisy in this area. Legislative quotas were established for the representation of the backward castes. In the U.S, by contrast, residents of District of Columbia which has higher population than that of Delaware, or Rhode Island or Connecticut cannot elect their own Senator. Why (?), because the population of the District is heavily black and if permitted that would add two unwanted black senators to the Congress. We should tell these bigoted groups in US who preach Human Rights to India to shut up and not talk about Human Rights in India with Indians and Hindus. They can only be noisy and impress the uninformed people in the West by using such bombastic words and phrases.
The HAF report has several flaws in detail. The proverbial Devil is in the details of the report. Dalits is a derogatory and inflammable epithet initially deployed by Southern Baptist evangelists and missionaries in India. Dalits or Harijans do not belong to a caste; it is a political term. Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes are categories in the Governmental schedules and thus called because how they are reflected in these schedules; these are not all erstwhile “untouchables” as distortedly stated in the report, but by law they (Dalits) are free to integrate into the rest of Hindu groups except they have incentives to keep their identity separate for the Governmental benefits and reservations, and quotas.
Another anomaly of the report is titling the HAF Report as “Hinduism –not cast in caste”. With all the breast beating over the evils of Caste system among Hindus in this report, there is a section of the report addressing caste discrimination among Christians by Benjamin. What is the issue here: - Caste in India or caste in Hindu Society? Do the writers know that Khatri Sikhs marry Khatri Hindus or Khatri Sikhs not Aurora Sikhs? And, there are untouchables among Sikhs with whom they share food but with whom they do not intermarry? In some parts of the world a Sunni washes his hand if he had to shake the hand of a Shia as noted in the publication of ‘Shia Revival'. These are the subjects for social reform and not the issues for the Human Rights Groups to interfere with. However, they seem to arrogate themselves to deliver judgment on other Nations and HAF has seemingly happily joined them.
The HAF report talks of the Human rights of women in India particularly the so-called Dalit women. The report relies on shoddy statistics of the so called Human Right Groups and billion dollar Evangelist propaganda machine that 30,000 Dalit women were raped in India. The report tends to show, if the number is anywhere correct, that the members of highest caste (Brahmins) raped the lowest! This is the unconscious memory of the Whites in America who routinely raped their “negro” slave girls and women for centuries and they are projecting the same paradigm, they are familiar with in their own culture and history, on India. Are there no rapists among the Dalits? What is the statistical breakdown of such number. Poverty is predominantly an issue of class not caste.
Let us look at the facts of the status of women in India.
Government action protecting women went to the opposite extreme as in, say, the justice in Alice in Wonderland—“sentence first and verdict later.” Treatment of Ambati brothers in Bangalore is a case in point. All it takes in India is for a woman to call the police and lodge complaint and instantly everybody cited in the report is arrested. Dr. Ambati from Andhra Pradesh was an exceptional prodigy who graduated in Biomedical Sciences from Johns Hopkins at age 17 and became a physician at 21 and finished Neurosurgery specialization at Harvard. He married a girl in Bangalore and returned to India. He was honored at Andhra University and while attending the ceremony, on the report of his estranged wife, police arrested him and took him to Bangalore. She named her brother-in-law, father-in-law and mother in-law in the complaint. The police arrested all the four, seized their passports. Even though they were all employed in the U.S and the cause for legal action was in the jurisdiction of New York court, it took several weeks to get them released, this in spite of the fact that the Prime Minister of India honored Ambati by receiving him. After two years in courts it came out that the father-in-law of Dr. Abati was demanding ransom who was then arrested and charged. The noise created by mendacious activists in India is driving the Government to illogical extremes. I have other horror stories from unpublicized cases in Bangalore where the police arrested the father and the mother of bridegroom on the simple complaint of an irate daughter-in-law and police demanded bribes to let them go! Now if HAF wants Governmental action to protect the women and minorities; what sort of action they have in mind? They seem to live in distant past divorced from grass-root reality.
Let us look at the status of woman India and compare it to that in U.S for the edification of HAF and Human Right Activists. In 1970 fifty percent of medical students and graduates in India were women. When this writer taught at an American medical school in 1970, there were only two girls in a class of hundred medical students. In 1967 there was not a single woman gynecologist within a radius of 30 miles of the University of Illinois (Urbana). HAF trustees are mostly physicians and should better know the status of women physicians in India. If they care to look into the Journal of New England Medicine of 1967-70, they can find how Americans treated their women medical graduates. Women were discriminated in admissions into Medical Schools with elaborate justifications. Then, when they were admitted they were discouraged to go into specialties like Surgery and Gynecology. Letters to the Journal report how women residents in gynecology were asked to do abortions in residency programs in New York. In 1965 women could not get a credit card on their own without co-signing of their applications by their husbands. So, HAF, please don’t preach Indians on how to treat their women!
The report brings in the statements of several modern Hindu religious leaders in support of their document. Several, who did not care to read it withdrew their endorsements which would have had no weight even if they did not, for the bulk of Hindus would not care any way. The one such holy man that I know is Chinna Jeer Swami from Andhra. His statement of “equality” of all Humans is restricted to Vaishnavites only. Not unlike the phrase “all men are created equal” meant only the white men for many scores and decades in the US. I have written about his promoting Yajnas in the U.S. on www.sookta-sumana.blogspot.com in great detail. He has a huge entourage who came to perform Yajna and they would not eat food served by Non-Brahmins. The latter are not allowed even to touch the cooking vessels. Such practice of “untouchability” is not illegal in America but should not be tolerated by Hindus giving them the status of Acharyas. Endorsement of HAF report by people like them is purely hypocritical. May be their followers would be fooled by such endorsements but those who know the characters will discount such endorsements as mendacious. If HAF report can stand on its own feet, why in the world does it need endorsements by such people?
Finally, HAF report raised the alarm of several critiques that it could be taken advantage of by anti-Hindu Evangelists. I too have some concerns about it when they start quoting Bhagavat Geeta with no legitimate purpose but to make Hinduism the religion of the book. The document starts with the Verse in Geeta Sammoham Sarva Bhooteshu Naame Dweshiosti naa priyaah: Meaning that in Shri Krishna’s words, “ No one is dear to me nor do I dislike any one.” For a Muslim, Allah is God of Justice and Mercy and for a Christian, God is God of Love. I did not see any comments by the Acharyas on this verse in HAF report. If God doesn’t care for any one and no one is dear to him, why anybody should worship Him. This is excellent opportunity for Evangelists to brainwash Hindus by crying out all the time ‘God loves you—God Loves ya—Jesus Loves you’. This verse was not presented in proper context. All the author should have done, was to read into Geeta further to find whom God loves.
For instance, Geeta Chapter 7 verse 17
Teshaamjnanee nityayukta ekabhaktir vishishyate/ priyohi jnaaninotyartham aham sacha mama priyaah meaning I am supremely dear to a man of wisdom as he is DEAR To ME.
Again Chapter 12: Verses 14 to 20 ends with the phrase Sa me Priyah (such person is dear to me) , similar thought is emplied in verse 13 also.
The central theme of Geeta is Bhakti (Devotion to God). Krishna says, “Sarvadharmaan Parityajya Maamekam Sharanam Vraja/ Aham Twaam Sarva paapebhyo mokshayishyami, Maa shuchah. Restore faith in me I will save you from all sins, do not grieve.” According to Ramanuja Tradition this is the message (Charana Shloka) in Geeta, meaning you need no further reading. I am astonished that Jeer Swami missed it. So I ask the HAF: Don’t try to impress us by bringing these Acharyas. You may Join the Human Rights group but dare not take them to my birth Country, my motherland, (Matrubhumi) to pass judgment on my people. And, never to punish my people. India is quite capable of delivering justice. Remember my country is not a Banana Republic to be pushed around by HAF or by their newfound friends in the U.S.