Beyond Social Exclusion

By J.J. Roy Burman, Mainstream Weekly

The concept of Social Exclusion has been on the anvil of social sciences for over a decade or so. This is mainly so due to the mobilisations of the nation-states against embedded social inequalities. In a country like India, the drives against caste-based inequities, deprivations of the tribes and religious minorities have gained steep ascendance. The main idea behind such moves is that in order to combat such exclusions, the state must create and adopt inclusive policies—acts of positive discrimination and other affirmative actions. Constitutional provisions have to be devised so as to ensure social justice and a just social order.

In spite of the merit of this line of argument, there is a school of thought which believes that contingents like caste, class, tribe or religion-based inequalities do not operate in watertight compartments. The borders and margins between social groups are most often very hazy and this forms an impediment against group consciousness that might lead to social movements. Views opposed to it only result in obviating social facts and realities. It is a veritable fact that in a multiethnic situation like India where diverse groups have cohabited in close proximities for generations together, many traits of social inclusion have evolved over the time and have crystallised into deep-rooted traditions. These traditions are much more pervasive and have far greater bearings on the inter-ethnic relations than the state-induced policies. This paper presents a few illustrations of some such traditions linked to the castes, tribes and religious groups.

At the very beginning it must be stated that caste hierarchies have never gone unopposed which Louis Dumont failed to register in his famous treatise, Homo Hierarchicus. Caste-centred counter-hierarchical movements have existed in India since time immemorial. Buddhism is perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of anti-caste and anti-untouchability uprising. According to Buddhist sources, such drives were often not tolerated by the Hindu kings and a great deal of violence ensued. Hsuan Tsang, for example, provides many stories of violence, including the well-known story of the Shivite king, Sashanka, cutting down the Bodhi tree, breaking memorial stones, and attempting to destroy other images. Tagore also narrates in one of his dance-dramas the pious act of Ananda, Buddha’s principal disciple, to defy all social norms and accept water to drink from the hands of ‘Chandalika’—a Chandalini—a girl belonging to an untouchable caste that is engaged in cremating human corpses.

The conflict between Brahminism and Buddhism was seen as of the utmost interest to Dalits in particular, because it was in the process of defeating Buddhism that the caste system got solidified, and certain specific groups were particularly degraded and classed as ‘Untou-chable’. Thus Ambedkar argued that Dalits were, in fact, originally Buddhists who had been rendered untouchable and their being deprived of access to resources was part of the ongoing civilizational conflict. (Omvedt: 2003)

Bhima Bhai, a blind tribesman from Orissa, became a follower of Mahima Dharma (a sect founded by Mahima Gusavi in the nineteenth century) and popularised it among the masses. Mahima Gusavi preached a formless, unknowable, indescribable nirguna deity, and refused to form any organisation. He included Buddhist practices in organisation, for instance, begging for cooked food and holding a ceremony of confession, and did not recognise any caste distinction. Plenty of Dalits, tribes and OBCs of Orissa became followers of this sect. The sect in course of time posed a serious challenge to the Varna order. Mahima Dharma members even protested against caste strictures linked to the famous Jaganath temple of Puri. The temple is regarded as an emblem of Oriya identity.

The Bhakti movement in the medieval period of Indian history is marked by its progressive anti-caste anti-Brahminical position. It rose against the hierarchical ritual-centred, caste-based, patriarchal regime of a Sankritised Vedic culture. The Bhakti poets composed in regional language in order to deliberately break the liturgy and religious hold of Sanskrit. Lele (1982) has highlighted the anti-hegemonic tenor of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. To him, in spite of the conservative elements, the Warkari groups fought relentlessly against caste oppression. Lele refers to Jnanesvar’s thoughts in this regard. Zelliot too praised the positive role played by Eknath, a Brahmin by caste, in the Warkari movement in order to defend their rights and status of the untouchables in Mahrashtra. (Lorenzen: 1983)

Miller, D. (Hierarchy and Stratification amongst the Castes in a North Indian Village: 1977) has revealed in the study of Nilokheri village near Gurgaon in Haryana that there is not a single dominant caste in the village but there exist dominant caste-groups in each of the caste-centred hamlets. Further, the village as a whole has two prime factions—dominant and recessive—and each of them comprise of members belonging to both higher and lower castes.

The most interesting features of caste and factional politics is elucidated in Badri Narayan’s absorbing treatise, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation. (2009) It provides, with a plethora of illustrations, the lower caste metaphors used by the BJP to lure Dalit voters and the upper caste metaphors used by the BSP to attract upper or middle caste support during the State and parliamentary elections:

Earlier, when her (Mayawati’s) election strategy was to oppose the upper and middle castes, her slogan was ‘Tilak, tarzu aur talwar/inko maro joote char’. Roughly translated, it meant, ‘Give Brahmin, Vaishya and Khsatriya a beating shoes’. In 2007, when her strategy was to include them in her fold, the slogan was changed to ‘Haathi nahin, Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu aur Mahesh hai’; the holy trinity of the upper caste Hindus. The elephant reference was to the BSP’s symbol.

Apart from the Bhakti movement, Sufism and worship of the mausoleums of Muslim saints and Walis (revered ones) in the medieval period became enormously significant in the anti-hegemonic drives in the Indian society and in bridging Hindu-Muslim relations. Even as of now, the dargah of Muinuddin Chisti at Ajmer in Rajasthan is flocked equally by the Hindus and Muslims in large numbers. Similarly, Salim Chisti’s dargah within Fatehpur Sikri Fort in Agra is much revered by all. There are thousands of such dargahs, mazars and chillahs strewn across the country which bring people of many faiths together. The Pranami sect, of which M.K. Gandhi’s mother was a devout follower, does not believe in idol worship; rather it pays obeisance to a text called ‘Kuljamswarup’. This text, written in Devnagari script, contains pieces from the Gita, Quran and Bible.

The inclusive traditions are not confined to just Hindu-Muslim traditions but they exist in Hindu-Christian relations as well. Mother Mary’s church at Mahim in Mumbai is thronged in huge numbers by Hindu devotees during particular festivals and even otherwise. Boons are sought and candles lighted on fulfilment of wishes. St. Milagris of Goa and Laxmi Devi (deity) of Sindhdurg in Maharashtra are believed to be brother and sister by both Hindus and Christians. Followers of both faiths reach for the church and the temple on the occasion of their respective annual festivals.

With regard to tribe-caste Hindu symbiotic relations, the case of the Jaganath temple of Puri in Orissa appears to be an ideal illustration. The deities of the temple are believed to have been borrowed from the Savara tribe, who are preponderant in the adjoining districts of Berhampur and Gajapati.

In the State of Manipur, a very strong antagonistic relationship prevails between the dominant Vaishnavite Meitei people and the belligerent Tangkhul Nagas of the hilly Ukhrul district. Armed militant outfits of both the groups have fought pitched battles against each other. However, it is presumed that in the historical past there was a close alliance between the two ethnic entities and they share certain cultural traits that had political implications. The elements of the same are yet reminiscent in the Lai Haraoba celebrations,– one of the most important local festivals of the Meiteis. During the festival someone in Tangkhul costume must represent Nongpok Ningthou and Panthoibi—the divine couple—without which Kanglei Haraoba cannot be completed. On the last day of the festival a ritual known as Tangkhul Thokpa (appearance of a Tangkhul person) is indispensable. In some of the easternmost hill areas the presence of sylvan deities of the Tangkhul Nagas during Lai Haraoba is a common sight. (Goshwami: 2004)

Such instances of inter-ethnic inclusive traits between caste Hindus, Muslims, Christians and tribes are a frequent phenomenon in India. They help in sustaining healthy ties among competing groups and also dilute the social tensions to a large extent. These in fact are a dimension that sustains civilisations and the state-sponsored inclusive policies fade away in comparison. After all, folkways, mores, norms, lores, myths and beliefs play a much greater incisive and pervasive role in societies. It is thus imperative that more clarity is arrived at while projecting “Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies” by the international financial institutions and the state in the present scenario. The emergence of welfare states is not a very old phenomenon. Unfortunately, without recognising these features, the University Grants Commission has commissioned 32 Centres of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies in different universities all over the country and this is resulting in greater state interference on the one hand and reinforcing social and ethnic cleavage among communities on the other.


Goshwami, H., 2004, History of the People of Manipur, Imphal: Kangla Publications.
Lele, J., 1982, Tradition and Modernity in Bhakti Movement.
Lorenzen, D., 1983, Religion and Society among the Lingayats of South India.
Narayan, B., 2009, Fascinating Hindutva, New Delhi: Sage.
Omvedt, G., 2003, Buddhism in India; New Delhi: Sage.

(The author is a Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)



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