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Swami Shashi

The political Hinduism of Shashi Tharoor

By Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd | 1 May 2018

AT THE OUTSET of Why I Am a Hindu, the politician and writer Shashi Tharoor—a member of the Nair castes, and so a Shudra—writes that the book is in large part a response to the “intolerant and often violent forms of Hindutva that began to impose themselves on the public consciousness of Indians in the 1980s.” I am also a Shudra, part of what are now officially called the Other Backward Classes, and I wrote my book Why I Am Not a Hindu in response to the rise of Hindutva as well.

My book was published in 1996, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the struggle over the Mandal reservations. It was widely opposed by Brahminical forces, including Hindutva groups, and earned me many threats. No mainstream publisher agreed to carry it, and the book was finally published by Samya, a Kolkata-based imprint of the publishers Bhatkal and Sen. Kolkata was a safe place for such a book in those days, with West Bengal ruled by the Left Front. Bhatkal and Sen also had an imprint in Mumbai, but if the book had been published there, with Maharashtra ruled by an alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, it would have faced the book-burning squads notorious in the state at the time. Why I Am Not a Hindu was not widely promoted, but as word of it spread the book became a bestseller.

Why I Am a Hindu is on its way to becoming a bestseller too, but under very different circumstances. It has been put out by a prestigious publisher that which has not been shy with publicity. Tharoor’s argument is that Hindutva goes against what he sees as “the spirit of Hinduism,” but no Hindutva forces have raised any protest against the book, even as they are ascendant across much of the country.

Tharoor’s book is the very opposite of mine, and not just in its title. I said I am not a Hindu because of the inequality by birth of different communities within Hinduism, as enshrined in the caste system that pervades Hindu scripture, morality, ritual, social organisation—really the entire Hindu worldview. The very theory of caste goes against the fundamental principle that all humans are created equal. I also criticised Hinduism’s negation of the values and labour that go into productive work, which it stigmatises and reserves for oppressed castes, and the resulting maltreatment of productive communities, including Shudras and Dalits (my book referred to both under the collective term “Dalitbahujans”). Tharoor, by contrast, talks of restoring Hinduism “to its truest essence, which in many ways is that of an almost ideal faith for the twenty-first-century world.” He celebrates it as “a religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity; a religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious practice, even in regard to the nature and form of the formless God; a religion that places great emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity for reflection, intellectual enquiry, and self-study; a religion that distances itself from dogma and holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet offers an abundance of options, spiritual and philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from.”

Tharoor does not seem to have read my book, despite choosing a title that echoes mine. He does not engage with my arguments anywhere. He also ignores some far more important thinkers on Hinduism. Among Shudra writers alone, the tradition of critiquing the religion goes back at least to Jotirao Phule, the Maharashtrian social reformer whose 1873 book Gulamgiri, or “Slavery,” was a stinging critique of Hinduism and the caste system. In 1941, Dharma Theertha published The History of Hindu Imperialism, another serious assessment of Hinduism, and came to conclude that it oppresses all Shudras. Although Dharma Theertha was a Nair like Tharoor, he refused to describe himself as a Hindu.

How does Tharoor come to a different view of Hinduism than any Shudra writer of great prominence before him? Simply put, it is by not applying any critical or analytical thinking. His main strategy of persuasion is not argument, but repetition with rhetorical flourishes of a two-in-one premise and conclusion, stated already in the very first paragraph of the book where he describes Hinduism as “that most plural, inclusive, eclectic and expansive of faiths.”

The book’s first section, largely autobiographical and titled “My Hinduism,” is strangely silent on aspects of Tharoor’s own background, including his caste. It is also very selective in its citation of holy texts, while whitewashing Hindu history and sidestepping many of Hinduism’s sharpest critics. The second section, “Political Hinduism,” blames only Hindutva groups for mixing Hinduism with politics, pretending that Tharoor’s own Congress party has never had anything to do with that kind of politicisation. The third section, “Taking Back Hinduism,” disguises a proposed return to Tharoor’s “essence” of Hinduism as a step forward rather than back.

Tharoor admits that he does not write as a scholar of Hinduism, but it is obvious that he does not even write as a sincere autobiographer. That leaves him writing as a politician—a politician who wants to keep one foot each in two camps, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“WHY AM I A HINDU?” Tharoor asks. Because, he answers, “I was born one.” This raises the question: with what status was he born into Hinduism?

Tharoor’s account of how he came to his Hinduism includes autobiographical anecdotes—his father’s poojas, his mother’s stories—but excludes, except in a few very brief instances, any mention of his Nair roots. He never acknowledges that Nairs, originally from Kerala, are considered Shudras within the Hindu caste order. This lays the ground for Tharoor to completely omit the history of the Nairs, and of their struggle against the casteist discrimination long imposed upon them.

Traditionally, the basic work of Nairs, as of many Shudra castes, was agriculture, but the caste system that allotted them this work also denied them land rights. Over the centuries, Nairs moved away from their typically Shudra occupation, and under the influence of Brahminism entered into a unique relationship with the dominant Nambudiri Brahmins. Well into the nineteenth century, Nair women lived in sambhandham with the Nambudiri Brahmins’ younger sons. This was a form of sexual slavery, with the women denied marital rights and the men freed from obligation towards any children of the union, and it had full spiritual and religious sanction under the caste order.

Like other oppressed castes, under Brahminical hegemony Nairs were also denied the right to education. That restriction was loosened with the arrival of British power, but with that control over education in Kerala fell largely into the hands of Syrian Christians. In 1914, the Nair leader Mannatthu Padmanabha Pillai established the Nair Service Society, with a view to gaining educational autonomy. The organisation runs a number of institutions of learning to this day, and has been crucial to making Nairs the most educated Shudra community in India.

Pillai was a reformer of the Nairs, but not a reformer of society as a whole. In response to Nairs’ historical oppression and humiliation, the Nair Service Society chose not to reject Brahminical social organisation but to further Brahminise the Nair community. The organisation asserted that it was a Hindu group, and aggressively propagated the religion. Tragically, the Nair Service Society never helped in the upliftment of other oppressed castes. Instead, Nairs have participated in those castes’ continued persecution, and have played only a marginal role in anti-caste movements. Tharoor is a carrier of this legacy.

“I am the product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste,” Tharoor writes, recounting that his father dropped “Nair” from his name, “moved to London and brought his children up in Westernised Bombay.” He congratulates himself for how even after he entered the “caste-ridden world of Indian politics … I did not deliberately seek to find out the caste of anyone I met or worked with; I hired a cook without asking his caste (the same with my remaining domestic staff) and have entertained all manner of people in my home without the thought of caste affinity even crossing my mind.” He recalls his “own discovery of caste.” While he was at school, an older boy cornered him near the toilet to ask “what caste are you?” Tharoor replied, “I—I don’t know.” The other boy continued, “You mean you’re not a Brahmin or something?” Tharoor writes, “I could not even avow I was a something.”

Tharoor acknowledges that he holds a privileged position: in today’s India, only great wealth and social advantage, combined to permit a private English-language schooling, can allow anyone the pretence of being innocent of caste. In Tharoor’s case, it exposes his social ignorance, while his roundabout treatment of caste suggests an unease. If he had been a Brahmin, it is likely Tharoor would have owned up to it matter-of-factly. By disregarding his Nair heritage and his caste’s struggle against subordination in the Hindu order, he obscures how he came to be in his privileged position. As a result, he makes it seems as if caste can be shrugged off, where for the vast majority of Indians the attempt to break free of it has been, and is, a bloody struggle. To write in this way about the religion that created the caste system is unethical.

“It is difficult to pretend that Hinduism can be exempted from the problems of casteism,” Tharoor states at the start of a passage examining caste in general, yet taken as a whole that is exactly what the passage does. He writes that “many modern Hindus have grown up rejecting the discriminatory aspects of the caste system, while still observing caste preferences when it comes to arranging the marriages of their children.” Tharoor sees no contradiction between the two parts of the sentence. He says that “the rigidities of the caste system as we understand it today were introduced by the British in their desire to understand, categorise, and classify the people they were ruling, in order to control them all the better” yet also that historically “social mobility was relatively rare in Hinduism.” According to Tharoor, “the Upanishadic insistence on the unity of being, a divinity available to everyone … implies the equality of all souls and argues against caste discrimination,” but that “there is little doubt that many Hindus believed that the caste system had religious sanction.” He cites the Rig Veda’s theory of the creation of human life, where Brahmins are created from the mouth of Purusha, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet—the source of the caste hierarchy, with those falling outside these four varnas, Dalits and Adivasis, given the lowest standing of all. Yet, even as he profusely references this highly revered Hindu text by Brahmins, Tharoor maintains that “Hindu society may have maintained a distasteful practice”—that is, the caste system—“but no one can credibly argue that it is intrinsic to the religion.”

In fact, many have credibly argued that. The most prominent of them is perhaps BR Ambedkar, whose fundamental thesis, in works such as Riddles in Hinduism and The Annihilation of Caste, is that caste and Hinduism are one and the same, and if one dies the other cannot survive. Tharoor mentions Ambedkar just a handful of times in the almost 300 pages of his book, each time only in passing. Much of the analysis Ambedkar used to arrive at his conclusions relied on close readings of Hinduism’s holy texts, yet Tharoor does not address or challenge Ambedkar’s analysis even while extensively citing the Upanishads, Puranas and Vedas to defend his proposition that Hinduism is an “almost ideal” faith. The fact is that these texts never gave any rights to Shudras, let alone Dalits—who together form the majority of India’s population.

One of the most difficult texts for Tharoor to deal with is the Manusmriti, which promotes undisguised casteism. His approach is to try and play it down. “The Smritis are purely man-made and mutable,” he writes, and “no Hindu seriously argues that they must be observed to the letter today. (Indeed, it is debatable whether they were strictly followed even in the times in which they were propounded.)” If all Hindus are so dismissive of the Smritis and they were never really followed, and if the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads all uphold the equality of man as Tharoor claims, then how do we explain the fact that the caste system has existed for millennia, and continues to exist today?

The Manusmriti also sanctions discrimination against women, as other Hindu texts do as well, and Tharoor deals with this uncomfortable fact in a similar way. He cites a stray line from the Rig Veda to try and prove otherwise—“The wife and the husband, being equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect”—and points out that “Manu declared ‘where women are honoured, there the gods rejoice, but where they are not honoured, there all rituals are useless.’” If he had any knowledge of feminist discourse, he would have known that the problem lies exactly in Manu’s regressive concept of female honour. Tharoor goes on, “The strong position held by the polyandrous, property-owning Nair women in Kerala’s matrilineal society, the honoured position of Rajput women, who killed themselves en masse after their husbands fell on the battlefield, and the reverence accorded to women mystics like Mirabai and social reformers like Savitribai Phule, show Hinduism as accepting of women as figures of authority and respect. The fact that the Manusmriti says something does not preclude the possibility that throughout the ages, it was honoured in the breach.”

Tharoor’s use of Savitribai Phule in this way is a disservice to her. She dedicated her life to fighting the gender discrimination of Hindu society, and also its caste discrimination. But her views on caste, and those of her husband Jotirao Phule, find no place in the book. Just as he does with Ambedkar and other serious critics of Hinduism, Tharoor finds a way around them. He also apparently knows little of the intellectual legacy of Dravidian thought in south India, with its insistence on the equality of all human beings and the dignity of labour and labouring communities. The struggles of the Dravidian anti-caste icon Periyar Ramasamy do not figure in Tharoor’s story of his formative years. He does, later, at least touch upon Ayyankali and Narayana Guru, Malayali reformers who fought against the discrimination of the oppressed castes.

The figure Tharoor returns to most in defining and defending his Hinduism is Vivekananda, whom he reveres as “the magnetic-eyed saint with the majestic mien and marvellous oratorical skills, who did more than anyone else to place Hinduism on the world map in the late nineteenth century.” In one instance, he describes Vivekananda’s appearance at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in the United States in 1893, where “he articulated the liberal humanism that lies at the heart of his (and my) creed: ‘I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.’”

These were false claims of tolerance. Vivekananda did occasionally speak against caste discrimination, but for him to then also speak with conviction of Hinduism’s “tolerance and universal acceptance” he had to be just as blind to caste’s role in the Hindu order as Tharoor is. Even Vivekananda’s praise of Hinduism could not win him equality in caste society with the Brahmins who dominated the religion. Born a Kayastha in Bengal, and treated as a Shudra by Bengali Brahmins, Vivekananda never had the right to become a temple priest as a Brahmin could, just as Shudras are barred from this occupation today.

Tharoor describes how “nationalism—not just in the sense of overthrowing the foreign ruler, but in the sense of national reawakening—became a prominent theme in Vivekananda’s thought. He believed that a country’s future depended on its people, and his teachings focused on what today we might call human development.” Vivekananda proposed some reforms, but fundamentally the “national reawakening” he called for was a Hindu reawakening. It is no coincidence that today Vivekananda is embraced wholeheartedly by the same Hindu nationalists that Tharoor says he is writing against. Tharoor himself tells us, while listing historical figures he sees as key reformers and revivalists of Hinduism, that “many Hindus, notably Swami Vivekananda himself,” see Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, “as a Hindu reformer.” He forgets to add that this is not a popular view among Sikhs, but it is among Hindu nationalists, who see all of India’s religious minorities as straying Hindus.

In addition to Vivekananda, Tharoor lists Ramanuja, Adi Shankara, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and MK Gandhi as major figures of inspiration in a chapter titled “Great Souls of Hinduism.” With the exception of Gandhi, all of these men were Brahmins, and their efforts for caste reform never went beyond such things as allowing Shudras to enter temples and relaxing the ban on Brahmins crossing the seas. Unsurprisingly, these reforms only expanded Brahmin privilege, and brought Shudras further under their power. Gandhi was a Bania, and unlike Tharoor he was never shy about his caste. (The first sentence of the first chapter of his autobiography is, “The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers.”) He spoke against untouchability, but never against the caste system as a whole.

Tharoor writes, “my admiration for and pride in Hinduism outweighs my critical concerns, and I make no apology for this.” There is no questioning of Brahminical hegemony anywhere in the book, though at one point Tharoor notes, “Some Hindus reject the term ‘Hindu’ altogether as a description of their faith, preferring to speak of ‘Brahminism’, though this is used by some Dalits and others as a term of abuse against the Brahmins who have dominated the faith.” Just like that, he dismisses the whole tradition of thought that stems from the Phules and Ambedkar as nothing but slander.

THAROOR WRITES that his Hinduism “sits comfortably with the Nehruvian notion of Indianness.” And he insists, “I am a Hindu, and I am a nationalist, but I am not a Hindu nationalist. My nationalism is unquestioningly, all-embracingly, Indian. The Sangh does not speak for Hindus like me.” Tharoor uses this comparison throughout the book. On one side is the Hindutva of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its offspring, the BJP, and on the other is Nehruvian secularism. Even as Tharoor sets these up as opposing positions, what he actually does is find common ground between them.

Jawaharlal Nehru was ambivalent about his own Brahmin background, and pushed to enshrine secularism in the country’s constitution and institutions of government. For Tharoor, this implicitly stands in for the Congress’s position on Hinduism, and shields the party from any association with Hindu nationalism. “In India this claim to authenticity and rootedness has taken on a majoritarian Hindu colouring under the BJP,” he writes. But the full story is not so black and white, and the Congress’s history with Hindu nationalism and Hinduism—that is to say, Brahminism—is much more complex.

Nehru’s secularism could not change the structure of Hinduism or Indian society. Brahmins and Banias of his time, in the context of socialist revolutions sweeping across the world, saw that positioning themselves in favour of secularism was necessary to keep power in their hands. Brahminical forces continued to control even Nehru’s own Congress. Ambedkar pointed this out to Dalits and repeatedly clashed over the issue with the Congress and Gandhi, but Tharoor completely ignores this part of Gandhi’s and the Congress’s politics. Some of the more privileged Shudras did comparatively better—for instance, Vallabhbhai Patel rose high in the Congress, and became the deputy prime minister—and saw economic improvement in the long stretch of Congress government after Independence, but this upset many Brahmins and Banias. Shudras were slow to understand that the problem was in the continuation of the Hindu philosophical positioning of their status.

Patel, despite his high position, was not equal to the task of constructing a philosophical bridge between Shudras and the structures of power in the way that Gandhi did for the Banias. He was largely a muscle man, who mobilised Shudra force in the service of the Congress. It should be remembered that in 1949, after the ban on the RSS following Gandhi’s assassination had been lifted, the Congress passed a resolution allowing RSS members to join the party. This happened while Nehru was abroad, and had the backing of Patel and his supporters, but was reversed after Nehru returned. Today, Shudras do not see Patel as an icon, but the RSS does, despite his association with the Congress.

Patel is not the only historical Congress leader who sympathised with Hindu nationalist views. Bal Gangadhar Tilak advocated for the protection of cows, and for the conversion of Indian Muslims to Hinduism. Madan Mohan Malviya also made cow protection a political issue, and was a member of the nationalist Hindu Mahasabha, alongside Lala Lajpat Rai and others.

After Nehru died, the Congress’s secularism was compromised under Indira Gandhi, and then under Rajiv Gandhi, who did little to interrupt the rise of the RSS. Rajiv’s government allowed Hindutva groups to lay the foundation stone of a temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in 1989, in the run-up to an election. PV Narasimha Rao’s government watched as the mosque was demolished in 1992. Now, Rahul Gandhi is calling himself a Brahmin and visiting temples to try and gain voters. Tharoor is making a similar gamble, and it will only further weaken the Congress’ secular stance.

Even if we overlook Tharoor’s uncomfortable silences on Congress history, his embrace of Nehruvian secularism side by side with his Hinduism is not convincing. The major sources of Tharoor’s Hinduism—the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Smritis, the views of Adi Shankara, Ramanuja, Vivekananda and even Gandhi—are also major sources for Hindutva. And the overlaps do not end there.

In the second section of the book, Tharoor introduces Hindutva by summarising the views of some of its leading lights—VD Savarkar, MS Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya. When discussing Upadhyaya, Tharoor describes his concept of “integral humanism,” and shows how it is a subterfuge. He writes, “While demanding of Muslims and other minorities this subordination to, and total identification with, a Hindu Rashtra, Upadhyaya—while his reasons differed in both premise and approach—arrived at the same place as Savarkar and Golwalkar.” Later, Tharoor says that while “there is much that is troubling” in Hindutva, “not everything in the philosophy that I have sought to summarise is objectionable—and there is much to admire, for instance, in Upadhyaya’s humanistic thinking.”

While discussing Golwalkar, Tharoor criticises Hindutva historiography. He writes that, according to Golwalkar, “India was a pristine Hindu country in ancient times, a place of unparalleled glory destroyed in successive assaults by foreign invaders.” But when Tharoor describes his understanding of Hindu history earlier in the book—having already blamed British colonialism for the evils of caste, just as many RSS theoreticians do—he agrees with the worst of Golwalkar’s view. Tharoor writes:

As we have seen, Islam was initially a threat, and the attacks of Muslim invaders on temples and Hindu treasures, as well as the rape and abduction of Hindu women, in a number of episodes in the five centuries from 1000 CE onwards, led to a defensive closing of the ranks and the adoption of protective practices that entrenched restriction and prohibitions previously unknown in Hindu society. The protection of life, religion and chastity introduced rigidities into the Hindu practice: restrictions on entry into temples (to safeguard their treasures from prying eyes), child marriages (to win protection for girls before they were old enough to be abducted by lustful invaders) and even the practice of sati (the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) were all measures of self-defence during this turbulent period of Indian history, that developed into pernicious social practices wrongly seen as intrinsic to Hinduism rather than as reactions to assaults upon it.

Tharoor’s challenge to Hindutva involves no suggestion of any fundamental reform of Hinduism, and so is not a challenge to Hindutva at all. The RSS and BJP have shown themselves to be truly afraid only of Ambedkar’s path of change, which leads away from Hinduism, and not of the Congress’s take on the religion.

We should ask why a Congress politician like Tharoor would write a book like this. His vision of Hinduism avoids posing any challenge to his electoral base, and caters to groups such as Nairs that are moving closer to the BJP. Nairs are some of the better-off Shudra castes, along with Reddys, Kammas, Marathas, Patels, Jats and so on. The BJP and RSS are successfully wooing these groups by aggressively insisting that they belong in Hinduism. This trick can only work by pretending the caste system does not exist, just as Tharoor does. His book is a tool for the Congress as it pursues a similar strategy.

The tragedy of these numerically vast and economically strong groups is that under this approach they are still denied control of theology, philosophy, learning and social relations, which remain under Brahmin hegemony. No Shudra is admitted into Hindu priesthood, or into the Sanskritic schools that teach religious discourse. Their status is still subordinate. But Tharoor’s caste-blind scholarship does the most damage to the worse-off, largely non-agrarian Shudra castes classed as OBCs, and Dalits. Their condition can only improve from challenging Hinduism’s core values of inequality. The movement for reservations only gained ground because of their challenge from below, and their assertion of autonomy from Hinduism. Shudras like Tharoor, instead of using their position to empower the disadvantaged, are only further empowering the dominant castes that already hold spiritual, political and economic power.

THAROOR’S POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY and theology comes out very well in Why I am a Hindu. All dreams of a national revival (politicians today prefer the term “national development”) through politics that does not challenge Hinduism’s central place in Indian society are empty. What Tharoor proposes as a return to “true” Hinduism does not help the nation, but harms it.

Hinduism is constructed around a notion of the divine and virtuous as being completely separate from the material processes and resources needed for human advancement. In all the texts that Tharoor refers to, the gods do not engage in or respect human labour or production processes. The texts deal mainly with war and Brahmin morality, which negate the idea of the sanctity and equality of all human beings.

The Hindu religion centres itself on sanyasi values, and promotes activities that guarantee moksha rather than material wellbeing. Hindu economics involves, apart from bare sustenance, building temples, mobilising devotees, purifying so-called sacred rivers, and so on. Sanyasis—including many Hindutva rulers, such as Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh—do not understand and have no real agenda for family development, child education and productive employment in such things as agriculture and industry. The Hindu ideal of life involves vegetarianism and yoga, but never the labour of tilling the land, raising cattle or manufacturing goods and commodities.

Indian capitalism exists today because of Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi labour. Brahmins and Banias contribute hardly any physical work to it—mostly they are at the consuming end. Tharoor has no understanding of the lives of Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis, or of the relationship between production and morality. This is why he fails to see the serious contradiction between Hindu economics on one side and Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi economies on the other.

Shudras possess a productive philosophy—so far never worked into a theology—that is the opposite of the Hindu philosophy, and that operates among them every day. This philosophy evolved in Shudra societies in the process of doing productive work. History as Shudras remember it is full of the production and distribution of life-sustaining goods and commodities, and not of war and violence. This history and philosophy has allowed Shudras to sustain their lives and economy, and to continue to produce the things they do against all odds.

Brahmins have codified their philosophy and written it into books, but Shudras have not yet fully done this with theirs. The caste system traditionally reserved book-writing for Brahmins, and denied literacy to oppressed castes. Still today, there is an inferiority complex among the oppressed castes and a belief that they cannot write philosophical texts. Shudras of Tharoor’s kind have studied India only through Brahminical books, which have nothing to do with land and labour, but never through the culture and experience of the Shudra masses. His argument flows from the lives of Brahminic sanyasis and saints, but not from the real lives of productive Indians.

This is especially clear when Tharoor comes to the issue of gau raksha, or cow protection. He writes that the current government’s clampdown on the cattle economy “is not just about beef or the welfare of the cow, but about freedom. … Like many Hindus, I have never considered it my business what others eat.” That is good, but when Tharoor turns to the Brahminical structure of the cattle economy, he betrays his narrow-mindedness. He writes, “Upper caste hindus may worship the cow, but cows, alas, are not immortal, and when they die (ideally of natural causes), their carcasses need to be disposed of.” To think that it is ideal for a cow to die naturally is a sanyasi position. Those who depend economically on cattle accept that they have to sell aged and unproductive animals for slaughter to earn the money to buy and raise young animals. Tharoor recognises that the task of dealing with dead cows “has traditionally been left to Dalits, who for centuries and more have skinned the animal to sell its hide to tanners and leather-makers, disposed of its meat to Muslim butchers in the few states where it is legal, and buried or cremated the rest.” He says this “is a distasteful task to many caste Hindus, who are happy to let willing Dalits do it.” It is not surprising that caste Hindus are happy to let Dalits do what Hinduism considers impure work, but Tharoor must know that Dalits are still doing it not because they are “willing,” but because Brahminical society leaves them no alternative. Tharoor’s criticism of gau raksha offers the oppressed castes nothing more than a return to the old status quo.

Shudra philosophy is very clear that pure vegetarianism is unnatural, and that the people involved in the cattle economy have dignity, as do all productive workers. Brahminism, whether it is of the BJP or the Congress kind, is not going to make India great, but a productive philosophy can push the country to develop. The RSS and BJP’s ideology of gau raksha, and the entirety of sanyasi economics, can only be defeated through the philosophy of the country’s productive workers—not through standing by Brahminism like Tharoor does, feeling proud that he was born a Hindu from the feet of the Brahmin god. He has surrendered to Brahminism for the sake of political power. This surrender may keep him in the Congress now, but could also take him into the BJP camp as things unfold. His Hinduism suits him personally and politically, but it has no promise for the future of India. 

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a social scientist, academic and writer. He is the author of books such as Why I Am Not A Hindu and Post-Hindu India.

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