Newsletter Jan – Apr 2007

Critique of the Sri Sri Ravishankar Foundation Conference on Caste

The Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Foundation held what they called a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Conference’ on 9th March, 2007 in Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, aimed towards ending ‘the distorted practice of social discrimination on the basis of one’s birth’. The meeting was very well attended with over 5,000 people and on the stage with SS Ravi Shankar were roughly forty representatives from different caste groups and associations. That the conference drew on the well-publicised process of healing adopted in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid is telling, given that there has been no alteration in the hold of the upper castes on every sphere of life and governance in India. At the meeting, Ravi Shankar argued that ‘being born in any particular caste should not be a curse and that caste by birth is not sanctioned by religion’. Yet the refrain of the evening was that ‘atrocities against Dalits have been overemphasised by the media’ and that it is necessary for the Dalits to put away the blame, anger and hatred because “reform cannot happen out of anger or hatred”. Apparently, what emerges from Ravi Shankar’s understanding of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ is that reconciliation must be achieved without the truth!

The booklet distributed at this event and brought out by the Sri Sri Ravishankar Foundation is titled ‘The Heritage of the Dalits: those who stood by the Dalits’ is equally revealing. In its own words it seeks to show that, ‘whatever the abuses committed in the name of caste, not only the idea of equality has always ruled supreme in the minds of India’s sages, but also that many of India’s most revered saints and philosophers came from the lowest strata of Indian society’. To rediscover this ‘Hindu’ heritage is clearly articulated in relation to Dalits converting to other religions, which they pronounce as having ‘achieved little of significance’! It also says that in the name of reform and upliftment, today’s political and social systems are pitting one against the other, sowing hatred and perpetuating a sense of rejection from the past’. The cover of the book expresses the old strategy of a very inclusive Hinduism – a Rishi, Shiva, Vivekanand, Mahavir, Buddha and others with Ambedkar at the centre.

By stretching truth, using mythology and weaving pure fiction it tries to convey that caste was a benign business guild, or a ranking that was not hereditary but one based on individual values. It calls for a return to the golden ancient age before caste was ‘corrupted’. The book is purposefully ambiguous and extremely contradictory on the nature of the caste identity. It condemns inequality in the abstract but does not condemn the caste system and further is completely silent on the material bases of caste. It seeks to counter what they term as an overemphasis by the media on stories about ‘atrocities committed in the name of caste’, and talks of how Dalits need to accept ‘Vedic wisdom’. It focuses on stories of upper caste ‘goodness’ and ‘tolerance’ of Dalits. The ways in which the different Gods, sages and individuals are described through their personal backgrounds and lives are represented in a way that serves the above goal. For example, two-fifths of the write up on Ambedkar is about the role of his Brahmin teachers in his education, as also that of Maharaja of Baroda who paid for his higher education. This benevolence of ‘upper castes’ to ‘lower castes’ also informs many other narratives in the publication.

The hollowness of the vision and the process was amply evident in what some of the representatives of caste associations said at the gathering. For example, the representative of the Vaishya Samaj said they pledged to do whatever SS Ravi Shankar asked them to do... and then proceeded to announce an award of One Lakh Rupees to a Dalit social worker! The representative of the Brahman Samaj declared that the person who cooks in his house was a Muslim, and went on to claim, “I have helped lots of Dalits and women”! The Bhumihar Brahmin Samaj representative declared in a spirit of ‘reconciliation’ that the Dalit Samaj will be the top caste within the Brahmin caste!

The only critique to these came from Udit Raj, President of the Indian Justice Party and leader of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations. In response to the repeated plea from Ravi Shankar to ‘not dwell on the past,’ he asked, ‘we can put away the past but how will we put away the present?’ Many at the gathering said that SS Ravi Shankar will drink the poison like Shiva did to protect people from the poison of casteism, but Udit Raj said that was not enough, ‘Everyone has to drink the poison’. ‘Wounds have to be removed, not healed.’ He also pointed to the irony that ‘we don’t get any upper caste donations or volunteers for the Dalit movement, even from those who have donated and volunteered here for SS Ravi Shankar’.

The booklet, attempting to be politically correct, tends to mention gender with class and caste and Mirabai is called the ‘first feminist’ for refusing Sati when her husband died because of her devotion to Krishna! Save for this lip service there was nothing from any of the leaders at the session or in the booklet that addressed the ways in which caste hierarchy and patriarchy are inextricably linked.