Weeping for the Modern Caste-Hindu?

Jakob de Roover

Outlook recently published, on their website, Jakob de Roover’s reaction to “l’affaire Doniger”. In the article, de Roover cooks up a story to explain how the “deeply flawed” narrative of the caste system and the Hindu religion is responsible for the creation of Hindu fundamentalism.

What brings Hindu organizations to filing petitions that make them the butt of ridicule and contempt? Whence the frustration among so many Indians about the way their culture is depicted? Why is this battle not fought out in the free intellectual debate so typical of India in the past?

S. N. Balagangadhara

Nevermind the fact that the inspiration of this story is S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent University professor and beacon of caste-Hindu privilege blindness and arrogance (“how can we conclude from just 38 murders that caste discrimination exists in India?”), the story even in its isolation stands as a shining example of caste privilege apologia.

What comforts me is the prompt responses it received from Nivedita Menon (first published by Kafila and later by Outlook) and Prashant Keshavmurthy of McGill University.

The following is from Nivedita Menon’s article,

So let us imagine another growing child— not De Roover’s boy, but his sister. She hears (and retains) some other stories that the boy chooses to forget or ignores —the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man, the even more cruel abandonment of pregnant Sita, the Lakshman Rekha that she is called upon to observe every single day of her twentieth century life—imagine her excitement when on growing up and entering the world of scholarship, she comes across Indian feminist scholarship that attacks both Western Orientalist critiques of Hinduism as well as nationalist responses that reconstruct a Golden Age before “Muslim invasions”—for instance, Uma Chakravarty’s critique of the ‘Altekerian Paradigm’. Or Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Or Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s account of women’s Ramayanas in which Rama is a far cry from the ideal man. Village women sing “Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash’. Oh Ram, you have lost your mind. Molla, a Shudra woman in the 16th century wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, which the Brahmins did not allow to be read in the royal court. Chandrabati’s version that told the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view was criticized as a weak and incomplete text by the same arbiters of taste and morality.

Imagine this young woman trying to engage her sulky brother in dialogue as he rants about the denigration of Hinduism. Imagine the absolute lack of empathy from his side as he fulminates…

Imagine after this, the daughter of the Dalit woman who cleans the toilets of that young Hindu boy’s home. Imagine her excitement at learning, if she ever reached school, that one BR Ambedkar had torn apart the entire foundation of the religion so celebrated by the boy and his family. Or that Ranganayakamma had written a book called Ramayana The Poisonous Tree, saying we should reject it because it supports the powerful against the powerless. Or that EV Ramasami had deconstructed the story of the killing of Shambuka by Rama for daring to recite the Scriptures despite being a Shudra.

Imagine the fact that this girl would literally have been invisible to the sulky boy as the household spun silently around him on the labour of women and lower castes, as he prepared to go to America ‘for a few years.’

For De Roover and his ‘Hindu gentleman’, sexuality is not the problem, mention of caste discrimination is. By putting Christian distaste for both sexuality and caste in the same basket, De Roover is able to suggest that both critiques are tainted. But of course, some of us may want to take a more nuanced position, celebrating sexuality and attacking caste oppression, even if critique of the latter comes exclusively from ‘the West’, which of course, it does not.

And this one is by Prashant Keshavmurthy,

One doesn’t have to have read the theorist of post-colonial identity, Edward Said, to expect a modicum of reflexivity in the use of such categories of identity. Nor does one have to be familiar with the English poetry (that adapted an American Modernist minimalism by discovering its elective affinities with ancient Tamil poetry) and scholarship (bringing European Folklore Studies and semiotics to bear on pre-modern Tamil and Kannada literatures) of the founder of South Asian Studies in the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan, to expect a minimum of intellectual sophistication in not simplistically equating ethnicity with scholarly identity. So much for shallowness and theoretical poverty.

In the end I’d like to say that, de Roover’s Hindu Boy is not a fictional character, but a real one. I see him in my family, in my father, my cousins, neighbours, roommates, friends, on the social network, everywhere. He definitely exists and he is someone to be wary of, since avoiding him is not an option in India right now.


  1. arvindiyer says

    From an allied camp of those who ask in anguish “How can we conclude from just 38 murders that caste discrimination exists in India?”, another question that is asked with the same indignation is “How can we conclude from a casualty figure of 119 that there is majoritarian militancy in India?”, as the sharer of this link wryly laments.

  2. Karan says

    the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man

    That’s actually not how the story goes… the cruelty was in the fact that Rama and Lakshmana toyed with her emotions. But her nose (and ears) were slashed because she was attempting to kill Sita.

  3. Radi says

    I’ve seen, and continue to see many of these Hindu boys in my own family, much to my shame. I have argued with them often, only to be me with “you’re taking this all too seriously… just calm down, why don’t you? You’re such a killjoy.” And I still have that enormous unacknowledged privilege of being from a socially-privileged (even if middle-class-at-best) family with enough resources to get a good education and flee the country.

    I do what I can to directly help any such people I come across, on the rare occasions when I’m in India (because I can’t tolerate the climate there and never could, neither the natural one of too much sun and too little rain and far too much pollution, nor the social one of so much misogyny and other injustices), always to the distaste and disapproval of any friends or family members present – “what, you’re trying to change the world all by yourself? Why do you have to pay them even more than they are fleecing you for?”.

    I do what I can to support organizations working towards social justice, but it isn’t enough. It will never be. To all our shame.

    @Karan #2: Regardless of the precise circumstance, it is still undisguised cruelty to cut off a person’s nose and ears. What would Rama and Lakshmana have done to a man trying to kill Sita? They would’ve killed him.
    To disfigure Surpanakha for trying to kill Sita is embelmatic of an undisguisedly cruel attitude towards women in India, ancient and modern. She tried to kill Sita? Kill her her as you would any other. Why cut off her nose and ears? Just for cruel spite against a woman, that’s what.
    The Ramayana is cruel and misogynist through and through, as well as being self-congratulatorily preachy to the core. An awful story, and boring as hell, besides.

  4. Forheavensake says

    Radi, not sure which country you live in? or fleed to…but my experience in various countries tells me misogyny is not limited to any one country, and yes west included, it is just hidden. Ever sit among men to listen to how they talk about women? What I do find mission in the western countries is that concept of ‘woman as mother and woman as goddess.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *