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US Conference Explores
India’s Dehumanizing Belief System

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Stockton, California, USA

When he took the stage at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, to speak to a diverse audience of concerned Americans about caste, B. D. Borkar defined the cultural phenomenon on which the June 2015 conference focused by invoking renowned Dalit civil rights advocate Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

“Where is the caste?” Borkar asked in his keynote address.

Paraphrasing Dr. Ambedkar, he said, “Caste is a notion. Caste is a psychological state of mind. Which is there in the mind, it is playing havoc in the Indian social system. Not only in the Indian social system -- in Indian political system, in Indian educational system, in Indian economical system.”

Borkar, who serves as National General Secretary of India-based civil rights group Mulnivasi Sangh, was preceded by a multi-ethnic collection of speakers who represented four of the world’s major religions.

Fr. Joshua Lickter, a Christian priest, set the tone as the first speaker, saying, “As you listen to various speakers today, you’re going to notice a common theme emerge: belief influences behavior.” Enlightening the audience, he stated:

“We’re going to be hearing a lot today about India and how Brahmanism has created a caste system there that encourages behavior that oppresses the majority of India’s population -- Dalits, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and others. Oppressed because the Indian government embraces a belief system that dehumanizes entire people groups. Belief influences behavior, and in India right now that belief manifests in behavior that targets entire segments of the population with persecution and oppression. It silences any voice that dares try to speak out against that oppression because belief influences behavior. Well, today, we’re going to be speaking out against that kind of belief.”
 
Caste, a system of hereditary social stratification endemic to India for several thousand years, is intrinsic to Brahmanism, the fundamental belief system of Hinduism.

Speaker Pieter Friedrich, taking the podium at the June 20 conference, noted that Hindu preacher Mohandas Gandhi declared: “To abolish caste is to demolish Hinduism.”

Citing creation stories from Hindu religious texts like Manusmriti and Rig Veda, Friedrich explained how both teach that humans were created in four distinct categories of increasing inferiority. Manusmriti, considered the social code of conduct for Brahmanism, details how the body of a god, Brahma, was broken into four pieces, with Brahmins (the highest caste) created from his head and Shudras (the lowest caste) from his feet.

Modern India is home to a sixth of the world’s population, but over a third of the world’s poorest people are Indians, according to a 2012 World Bank report. In 2011, 723 million of India’s 1.25 billion citizens reportedly lived on less than $2 per day. In 2013, the National Planning Commission “estimated that subsidised foodgrain entitlements will cover 67 per cent of the population,” meaning two out of three Indians live in such desperate poverty that they depend on the State to provide their daily bread.

Such widespread poverty correlates closely with caste.

“The imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of birth into a particular caste remains very much a part of rural India,” reported Human Rights Watch in 2001.

More recently, in July 2015, the country’s Soci-Economic Caste Census reported that “about 670 million Indians in rural areas alone live on Rs.33 [$0.50] per day.”

The vast majority of India’s population, meanwhile, is legally labeled as either low-caste or outcaste. These people are officially designated into three separate groups -- Scheduled Caste (SC; Untouchables, now known as Dalits), Scheduled Tribes (ST; indigenous tribal people, known as Adivasis) and Other Backward Classes (OBC; Shudras and other disadvantaged groups) -- and, according to the United Nations Development Programme, constitute “about 65 per cent of the Indian population.”

The largest of these groups, the OBC, make up “31.5 percent (rural) and 38.2 percent (urban) of entire poor population,” as reported in 2003 by the Delhi School of Economics, while a 2012 report by Columbia University’s Program on Indian Economic Policies identified at least 34% of those in the three disadvantaged categories as living in poverty.

At the Stockton conference, Harinder Singh declared: “Caste system, in today’s terminology, it’s a legal apartheid.” The CEO of the Sikh Research Institute elaborated: “Apartheid basically means where a minority rules the majority by figuring out legal means. And that’s what they have done. They have figured out legal means to do that in India through Gandhi, through Nehruvian politics, through other measures, and now through Hindutva politics.”

Although the Indian Constitution outlaws the practice of “untouchability,” where certain people are treated as social outcastes, the country’s Central Government implicitly affirms the caste system by registering citizens according to their ancestral caste status.

India’s most recent census, conducted in 2011, was the first to demand citizens declare a caste status since the country gained independence from the British Empire. Citizens are incentivized to legally affiliate as low-caste or outcaste by accepting an SC, ST, or OBC label in order to receive benefits from the State’s reservation system.

Harinder Singh suggested the Indian State deliberately perpetuates caste segregation, even among non-Hindus, by using benefits as inducements. “They play minorities against minorities,” he said. “So they give special exemptions to different minorities in India. So what a Sikh minority, quote unquote, gets, a Christian minority will not get, or a Parsi minority will not get, or a Muslim minority will not get. So what happens is you’re always looking up to the master: ‘What will I get? What can my community get?’ Caste is oxymoron to Sikhs, caste is oxymoron to Christians, caste is oxymoron to Muslims, but everyone in India has a caste because we have become unauthentic because we are looking for particular handouts from the government.”

Describing other ways in which policies of Hindutva (a politicized Hindu supremacist ideology that all are Hindus and non-Hindus don’t belong in India) are being enacted in India, Harinder Singh referenced beef bans in India, where the slaughter and sale of beef is criminalized in as many as 24 of India’s 29 states and possession is punishable by years in prison in five states.

“So you can kill a guy and get five years in prison,” said Harinder Singh, “or you can eat beef and get five years in prison.”

Meanwhile, referencing India’s recent National Yoga Day, he noted: “Every major yogic element in India has been convicted of rape. And they want to make this a nationalized thing. Forcing people to do yoga in the name of exercise. It is no exercise, it is a religious doctrine.” Emphasizing that advancement of such policies is not unique to a particular political party, he warned: “This has been going on, regardless of who the government has been.”

Hindutva policies have mushroomed outside of India’s borders, Harinder Singh claimed, and supporters of the ideology (which, through a family of organizations called the Sangh Parivar, promotes India as a Hindu nation and views non-Hindus as foreigners) are finding financial and moral support abroad.

“In America, they are so active,” he said. “Vajpayee came here under the first BJP government. He went to 80 cities in America. He collected 76 million dollars, which was collected in the name of India Relief Development Fund. Sun and Microsystems are funding them. That money was used to do what happened in Godhra, killing the Muslims.”

He added: “Those ideologies are pairing up with those extreme-right ideologies in America.”

Referring to Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who massacred 77 people in 2011, he said, “You should see the analysis of the manifesto of the same thing happening in Europe, when [Breivik] went on a killing spree and how he identified with RSS ideas.” The RSS -- or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- is a multi-million member, all-male, uniformed Hindutva-based social organization.

Harinder Singh stated: “You should look at the treaty which RSS signed with Nazi Germany as to how we should eliminate minorities in the West and in the East and how we should come together to form a new empire of a pure race.”

Speaking as president of the Indian American Muslim Council, Umar Malick agreed with Harinder Singh’s evaluation, saying, “There is now an ideological partner right here in the US … There was a report released by Hindu American Foundation (HAF), who are essentially apologists for the Hindutva and the Parivar. They released a report saying, ‘Not cast in caste’ — essentially saying it is not as bad as it looks.”

“Caste is a form of racism,” Malick stated, but the HAF report, released in 2011, seeks to deny the existence of caste-based discrimination in India (while reaffirming the practice of caste). “Obviously, India has a vested interest in that not being recognized as an issue,” he explained. “You may be aware that several times attempts have been made to bring the issue of caste to the U.N., which was thwarted by Indian government.”

Jada Bernard, an advisor to Organization for Minorities of India, took the stage to question whether caste-based discrimination is still an issue, saying: “We wonder if casteism is still an issue in India. A lot of people will say ‘yes’ very loudly, and then there are a lot people who will say ‘no, it’s not an issue.”

Calling attention to his own black skin, Bernard went on, “Before I get into it either way, one thing that seems familiar to me is that we have a similar discourse here in America. In the 1960s, as firehoses and police dogs were turned on my ancestors who advocated for change, the white general public was asked: ‘Do you think that coloreds are treated differently, do you think that coloreds are treated less than humans, do you think that coloreds (that’s the term that they used) are being disenfranchised, are mistreated by this government, by this society?’ And most of them said ‘no.’ At the time that we saw Jim Crow laws and lynchings, most of this country sat by and said, ‘There’s no real problem, they’re over-sensitizing it, they’re playing the victim.’ And it sounds so familiar when I hear India have the same discourse, and wonder if Dalits are still a victim of the caste system. My question is where is the caste system going next?”

Religious movements in India have historically focused special attention on disassociating from the caste system. Although Islam and Christianity both forbid the practice of caste, several religions indigenous to India, including Buddhism and Sikhi, were founded with an explicit denial of the caste system.

Dr. Ambedkar, a US-educated Dalit who led mass movements in India to protest caste by burning copies of Manusmriti, violating its prohibitions against interdining and intermarriage, and opposing caste segregation of public places, believed that conversion out of Hinduism was the only guaranteed path to escaping caste.

Famously declaring “I will not die a Hindu,” he converted to Buddhism in 1956.

However, Malick suggested at the Stockton conference that the adoption of Hindutva policies includes a denial of religious freedom, saying, “Caste and the denial of religious freedom goes hand-in-hand.”

Ambedkar, he noted, “saw conversion as a means of emancipation, not for no reason because he knew reform of Hinduism is a mirage.”

Six Indian states currently have active laws, nicknamed “anti-conversion laws,” which criminalize religious conversion to non-Hindu religions without first receiving government permission.

“Anti-conversion laws prevent people from converting out of Hinduism,” said Malick. “Harassment of individuals or intimidation of individuals and groups that seek to break out of this shackle is also done through institutional form. Coerced conversions -- this is where the Ghar Wapsi comes in -- where there are vulnerable communities or people who can be preyed upon, they are also … coerced into this.”

Ghar Wapsi (or “homecoming”) ceremonies are mass conversions of minorities to Hinduism which seem to be largely state-sponsored. Members of Parliament like Yogi Adityanath are associated with organizing such events, at which Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs are “reconverted,” in the terminology of organizers.

Participants, however, do not appear to be “reconverting” entirely voluntarily as many allege they were threatened with violence and loss of government benefits if they refused to identify as Hindu.

“There is no separation between Hinduism and the Indian State,” said Bernard, pointing to the Ghar Wapsi ceremonies. Noting that violence against minorities by Hindu politicians parallels the experience of the African-American community, he said: “Mr. Narendra Modi was deemed the Butcher of Gujarat after his state-sponsored genocide … killed thousands of Muslims. He was then subsequently elected to Prime Minister of India after being banned from the United States for ten years, being the only world leader ever to be denied access into the United States. Electing Narendra Modi, to me, seemed so familiar because I grew up in Louisiana where David Duke, a Grand Master Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, was an elected official and a legislator, and he was allowed to make policy concerning how my ancestors were treated.”

Addressing the psychological ramifications of the caste system, Bernard said Indians are conditioned to accept and practice caste, asserting: “The outcaste in India is so reminiscent of the black lives here. We have a ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign because America does not know that Black lives matter. America has never treated Black lives as if they matter. We’ve always conditioned the mind of the general public to accept the slaughter of the descendant of the African slave, and in the same way the Indians have always been conditioned to accept when the Dalits are brutalized.”

Fr. Lickter, a priest from the Anglican Church in North America, implied that killings by white supremacists in the United States, such as the 2012 shooting of six Sikhs at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and the 2015 shooting of nine African-American Christians at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, are manifestations of casteism.

“Is there any difference,” he asked, “between that kind of belief and a belief system that creates four different castes of people on a national level? A belief system that declares one third of the Indian population as Untouchable -- less than human. How is this any different than the belief system that results in apartheid or white supremacy?”

Friedrich, representing The Sikh Information Centre, didn’t see a difference, noting: “Brahmanism is a branch in the same tree as Nazism -- both are rooted in the philosophy of Aryanism. Dehumanization of others, social stratification and segregation, and belief in a supreme and pure race are key Aryan principles.”

Identifying portions of Manusmriti terming high-castes as “Aryan,” Friedrich said that Gandhi not only referred to Hindu scriptures as “Aryan sacred books” but also claimed: “Aryanism would have been a better descriptive word than Hinduism.”

Touching on Nazism, Friedrich described a passionate love affair between Brahmanism and pre-eminent Nazi activists. For instance, Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi leader who planned the Jewish Holocaust, proudly carried a copy of Bhagavad Gita at all times and noted in his diary that caste was “the salvation.”

Alfred Rosenberg, operating as the regime’s chief propagandist under the title “Commissar of Supervision of Intellectual and Ideological Education,” was enamored of the Hindu scriptures specifically because of their teachings about a caste system. Friedrich, reading from a National Socialist manifesto by Rosenberg, said the Nazi ideologue wrote:

“Indo-Aryans separated themselves from the dark alien peoples they encountered. The institution of caste was the outcome of this instinctive aversion. Varna means caste, but it also means colour. The fair Aryans thus linked themselves to an acceptable image of the human type … According to this opposition of blood and blood, the Aryans evolved a worldview which, for depth and range, cannot be surpassed by any philosophy even today.”

Tracing a historical link between the Nazi party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the organization in which Prime Minister Modi began his public service career at the age of eight, Friedrich said, “The RSS was founded and fostered on distinctly fascist principles shared with its early leaders, M.S. Golwalkar and B.S. Moonje, and other Hindutva advocates like V.D. Savarkar. It was openly inspired by the principles of Aryanism it shared with the Nazi Party and its model imitates Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts.”

Bernard, who was disgusted by the election of Modi, had harsh words when he spoke as though to India, saying: “I think that your country is archaic in the way that it treats the low-caste and the outcaste. I think that the lynchings and the brutalizings, I think that it’s archaic. I think that it’s outdated, I think that it’s barbaric, I think that it must be stopped. I think that it’s wrong.” Apathy didn’t strike him as an option, however, as he further remarked:

“I also think that it’s wrong to stand by and do nothing. These old ways of almost crucifixions, these lynchings -- these lynchings that go on India have gone on for too long … The black family and the Dalit family have these things in common, that they’ve been victims of the same propaganda, the same oppression, the same system. Being born ‘less than’ simply because that’s how God made you. For the American black, God made us like this, so this is what it is. For the Indian who was born Dalit, it’s karmic, karmic repercussions. But for me, I say it must be stopped.”

One man, a Californian Sikh living near Stockton, came to Lickter’s mind as an example of someone who refused to stand by and do nothing.

“As we speak, a man’s belief is influencing his behavior,” said Lickter. “Bapuji Surat Singh Khalsa, a man who hungers for justice in India, is fighting back against an oppressive government, in accordance with his beliefs, by not lashing out in violence against his oppressors. Instead, he’s taking this hunger for justice upon himself.”

Surat Singh has been on hunger-strike in Punjab, India since January 16, 2015 to demand release of political prisoners. Lickter stated: “He believes that even his oppressors are his brothers, his neighbors, and his faith prevents him from bringing violence against them unless it’s absolutely necessary. And so, instead, what does he do? He starves himself to show solidarity with those who starve for justice in India.”

Comparing Surat Singh to the Good Samaritan in a famous parable by Jesus Christ, Lickter said that when a man in the parable was attacked and left in the gutter for dead, religious leaders passed by with stuck-up noses and refused to help.

“They believed that if bad things happen to you, it was your own fault,” said Lickter. “They believed that any misfortune that occurred to someone was the result of getting what they deserved and to try and help or interfere would cause some sort of disruption in a divine, karmic economy, and so they don’t even think about helping their neighbor in need.”

But then a passing Samaritan, considered by the Jews as a member of a hated race, believed the beaten man should be treated as his neighbor and so saved him even though, Lickter said, “Samaritans in this culture were Untouchables.”

Thus, noted Lickter: “The problem isn’t with belief, it’s with what you believe.”

“Any belief,” he said, “that says one race, class, or caste of people is endemically superior to others can have dangerous, horrific, social side-effects and it needs to be challenged. Belief influences behavior. We see that in the Charleston shootings, we see that in the Sikh Gurdwara shootings, and we see that in the 1984 Sikh Genocide in India, and sadly we still see that in India today.”

Harinder Singh echoed that sentiment. “There is a battle of ideas, of beliefs,” He told the Stockton audience, who hailed from as far as the eastern coast of the U.S., Canada, and India.

“I challenge you to utilize your religiosity to identify and change the policies which affect the bottom, the wretched of the earth, which it is called, and the bottom today is anyone whose religious and political rights are not being addressed.” He believes defining and preserving identity is crucial to opposing oppression, stating: “You will never win the war just by identifying the enemy. You have to know and identify who you are.”

Noting the need for “a lot of intellectual work on the ground,” especially “in terms of making people realize who they are,” Harinder Singh concluded: “You have to replace the existing system with something much more meaningful, something much more dignified. That work, sitting in outside countries, is our work.”

While Friedrich claimed dehumanization is a key principle of Aryanism, Malick stressed the humanity of those who suffer caste-based discrimination.

“These are real people,” said Malick. “We are not talking about some abstract thing. Millions of people are, on a daily basis, facing the brunt of the oppression and all that happens in the name of caste. And it is upon us, those that are in a better position, those that have the ability, those that have the access, means, to bring those issues of the ones that are oppressed to the corridors where it can make a difference. And obviously that accentuates a need for a united front that includes all of the minorities and oppressed, including Dalits, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims.”

The issue is one of inequality, he explained, noting that Hindus are as equal as all others and any effective change must reject a worldview “granting an entire community as not worthy of being considered equal.”

The work of persuading India to accept the truth of human equality struck all the speakers as a monumental task, especially considering the generational conditioning of the culture. As Bernard noted: “The psychology of racism runs deep.” He suggested, however, that real change begins with oneself, saying, “The psychology of racism is something that we must uproot in ourselves, and in our families, and in our communities, and it’s only when we start there that we’ll actually be able to chop away at this huge giant that is the Brahmanist system.”

Friedrich agreed, saying, “Since change starts within, we must ask: ‘Is there Brahmanism in our own hearts? Where do we find Aryanism in our hearts? How do we view ourselves as superior and treat others as inferior?’”

Hypocrisy is the chief attribute of Brahmins, claimed B.D. Borkar at the beginning of his speech. Describing how he was gifted an English-language copy of the Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, he referred to a passage in it that quotes Sikhi’s 16th-century founder, Guru Nanak. Calling on Brahmins to “renounce your hypocrisy,” Nanak denounced their shows of piety and ritual purity, declaring:

“The sacred marks are on their foreheads, and the saffron loin-cloths are around their waists; in their hands they hold the knives – they are the butchers of the world! Wearing blue robes, they seek the approval of the Muslim rulers. Accepting bread from the Muslim rulers, they still worship the Puranas. They eat the meat of the goats, killed after the Muslim prayers are read over them, but they do not allow anyone else to enter their kitchen areas. They draw lines around them, plastering the ground with cow-dung. The false come and sit within them.”

After the six speakers spoke, they participated in a discussion panel moderated by Dr. Amrik Singh, a professor at Sacramento State University, who stated: “Our belief systems make us what we are. So, all humans are created equally, including Brahmins … It’s the ideology, not human beings -- human beings, all are created equally.”

A collaborative effort, the conference, formally titled “Ideological Dimensions of Caste Violence and Coercive Pan-Brahmanism in South Asia,” was jointly sponsored by Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation (BRASF), Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), Backward And Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF), and Mulnivasi Sangh.

Introductory and closing remarks were offered by Bhajan Singh (OFMI), and the responsibilities of master of ceremonies were shared by Steve Macías (OFMI) and Mohan Ram Paul (BRASF). Nanak Singh (BRASF) was also intimately involved in ensuring the success of the conference and local businessman Mike Boparai generously contributed a dinner so all could break bread together at the conclusion of the evening.


[Courtesy: Ofmi. Edited for sikhchic.com]
July 16, 2015
 

Conversation about this article

1: Lakhbir Singh Nar (Birmingham, England), July 16, 2015, 2:55 PM.

I have been a victim of taunts at school and outside in the community, mainly through those narrow minded Sikhs who still delve in caste. Some gurdwaras are even established around caste affiliations, even though it is directly and unequivocally against the whole idea of Sikhism. I belong to the Ravidassia community and a bill to make caste discrimination illegal through the British government has been made but not yet passed. We are seen as the minority where in reality we are the majority. Modi was the wrong man to become Indian prime minister if you take into account the history of the man. India and Indians in general around the world need to wake up regarding these caste ideals as they are oppressive. Most people in the world do not see Indians in this light, but there is a deep lying racist thought of the so called higher castes. I can see the same problem within other countries throughout the world - be it class or colour discrimination. It has to be defeated in order for humans to progress as a race.

2: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), July 16, 2015, 4:22 PM.

Lakhbir Singh ji, I assure you, you have many friends in the Sikh community. Above all, the Guru is with you. We are all together in this struggle. Do not stop your efforts.

3: Rup Singh (Canada), July 16, 2015, 5:37 PM.

@1: "I belong to the Ravidassia community and a bill to make caste discrimination illegal through the British government has been made but not yet passed." Seems like you want to associate with a caste but don't want to be discriminated against because of it. That is against the Guru's teachings, is it not? How will you escape the caste system if you still want to be associated with it? And why not a bill to ban the caste system? I'm sure it will be much, much easier in England than in India. Perhaps if passed it could start a movement in India. Where I live there are two gurdwaras that go by so-called caste names, Ramgharia and Ravidas. The Ramgharia one won't let non-Ramgharias become members of management - even though all Sikhs and others can and do attend. Not sure about the Bhagat Ravidas one. Also the Bhagat Ravidas one does not have a Nishan Sahib, but their own flag, even though they have Guru Granth Sahib. Also as stated in the article minorities are played against one another, but another fact is that within the minority the haves are played against the have-nots. The reservation system made sure that only a few of the so-called lower castes got an education, jobs, political posts, thus further dividing them. Will a rich lower-caste marry a poor one, or even be friends? This caste problem is huge and can't be solved that easily. As long as the people will identify themselves with a caste and continue taking advantage of government programs available to them, it will never stop. As Sikhs we have to clear the darkness of our personal beliefs with the light of Gurmat.

4: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), July 20, 2015, 11:01 AM.

I am all for exposing India's oppressive cultural and religious practices, but to be honest, I am quite suspicious of where such criticism comes from. I would like to focus on some problems I have with this article with the hope that it presents a different side that some of us may not have considered. The points mentioned in this article are absolutely true, however the fact that some of the speakers in this article are from religious communities (such as Christian and Muslim) that have considered India to be ripe for conversion should be acknowledged. I have a very difficult time reading about Muslims complaining about discrimination when the two neighboring Muslim majorities treat their minorities as little more than animals. The pattern is so prevalent that one could argue that if India was a Muslim majority country the same system of discrimination would also exist there. We as Sikhs should also be wary of Dalit supremacist groups because these groups misrepresent and malign Sikhism. These organizations are so focused on increasing their own power and representation that they consider egalitarian religions such as Sikhism to be a threat to their goals. As I said earlier, the points that are raised are true, but we should be careful about where they come from. I do not think I would have the same reservations if the speakers were scholars and academics.

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India’s Dehumanizing Belief System"









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