A spectacle of ‘repentance’ and symbolic inclusion

A critique of the ideological significance of a ritual of repentance performed by a top political functionary in Madhya Pradesh, and the nature of justice within its framework

Updated - July 29, 2023 10:03 am IST

Published - July 29, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘The goal of harmony sans equality only serves the purpose of upholding the status quo of unequal power relations’

‘The goal of harmony sans equality only serves the purpose of upholding the status quo of unequal power relations’ | Photo Credit: ANI

A video clip of an upper caste functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party indulging in indecorous behaviour — he was seen easing himself on a tribal man in Madhya Pradesh — that went viral after it was shared in early July, expectedly caused an uproar and led to protests in the State.

The government had to take action and it responded by invoking the National Security Act on the accused and bulldozing his home in an attempt to appear tough. But what caught the media attention, perhaps even more than the incident itself, was the ‘spectacle’, orchestrated shortly after the alleged incident, by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. In the full glare of the media, Mr. Chouhan performed the ritual of washing the feet of the victim.

The objectives of a ‘ritual’

The spectacle was meant to serve two objectives. First, to create powerful “counter-optics” in response to the video clip. Second, it was supposed to be a public act of repentance for the atrocity. However, the public performance of the ritual has divided public opinion. While supporters of the regime including Ministers lauded the Chief Minister’s act as one that restored the dignity of the victim, others dismissed it as a gimmick aimed at damage control in an election year.

The spectacle was not merely an electoral move. It has great ideological significance. The ritual asserted the ideal of samarasta or social harmony within the hierarchical caste-based Hindu social order. The concept of samajik samarasta or social harmony is unique to the ideological project of Hindutva and key to understanding its approach to the caste question.

Also read | After M.P. urination video, footage of tribal brothers being assaulted in Indore goes viral

It must be noted that while all other political projects anchor themselves within the concepts of equality (samata) or social justice (samajik nyaay), Hindutva is the only discourse which has chosen to develop an alternative conceptual vocabulary to address caste conflicts.

This innovation was necessitated by the need to balance the imperatives of uniting the hierarchical Hindu social order into an ethnicised whole while accommodating the claims of justice by the oppressed castes within a democratic context.

It is essential to critically examine the concept of samarasta to understand the ideological significance of the ritual that was performed by the Chief Minister and examine the nature of justice within its framework.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) derives its ideological worldview on caste from the Arya Samaj movement. The RSS constructs a fictional past —much like the imaginary ‘state of nature’ of liberal contract theorists — when the caste system was merely a division of labour which allowed for social mobility. However, over time, it degenerated into an ossified and discriminatory structure. The RSS blames colonialism, Marxism and ‘identity liberalism’ for the degeneration.

Given the primacy of shoring up social power within the RSS’s framework, they argue that the ills of the caste system can only be solved through social and not political action. Therefore, in this framework, fighting casteism is a matter of social reform and not justice. Politicising matters of caste conflict or undertaking caste-based mobilisation is considered undesirable as it undermines the goal of ensuring ‘Hindu unity’.

An age-old dilemma

The fundamental shortcoming of this framework is that it restricts the impact of caste to the ritual realm and does not have adequate resources to address the pernicious consequences of caste within the secular realm, i.e. political, educational and economic sphere. This dilemma surfaced in B.R. Ambedkar’s own career. He attempted to force the upper caste orthodoxy to engage in self-reflection and develop an internal moral critique through temple-entry movements and campaigns such as the Mahad Satyagraha. However, when those attempts failed, he shifted his political anchor from social reform to political justice by employing the language of rights to gain equality as citizens. He stopped appealing to the morality of the upper caste orthodoxy, and instead appealed to the rationality of the state to augment the power of the oppressed castes through political bargaining by ensuring representation.

It was this strategy of relocating the struggle against caste from the ritual to the secular realm and emphasising the political over the social which weakened the totalising grip of caste on society, and in turn facilitated ritual recognition as a matter of right. Reframing the discourse within the conceptual matrix of political power made the passage of protective and egalitarian pieces of legislations such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act and the Forest Rights Act possible.

A State that sees many atrocities

However, Hindutva does not possess the language of rights and equality. Therefore, while the symbolic acts of ritual elevation and inclusion may be morally important, they are inadequate because they are incapable of addressing the structural nature of caste discrimination by altering power relations. This is borne out from the case of Madhya Pradesh. The State has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of atrocities against Adivasis.

Moreover, within days of the Chief Minister performing the ritual, a string of cases of atrocities against Adivasis and Dalits recurred in the State. Interestingly, this time around, none of the victims’ feet were washed. It is apparent that samarasta or harmony offers only symbolic social inclusion and fictional harmony to the oppressed. In fact, the goal of harmony sans equality only serves the purpose of upholding the status quo of unequal power relations. Therefore, it is imperative to politicise caste; and interrogate it through assertions of equality and rights.

Anshul Trivedi is a member of the Indian National Congress

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