Recently, after my speech at the Leicester Vichar Manthan on how a truly Dharmic society promotes the idea of unity in diversity, a Bangladeshi friend was surprised when I said I have had a lot of close Muslim friends since my childhood. The latter was probably a direct questioning of the former (and of someone who could adhere to such an orientation) that may have had its doubters in the audience at Leicester as well. In an age of hard-Right ultra-nationalism in many parts of the world and the rise of certain radical elements from the fringe Right in India, it is understandable to disregard the fact that India has always been about a coming-together of disparate identities and ideas, not only post 1947 but for millennia. In this context, it was surprising when one middle-eastern friend went so far as to categorize the entire nation of India as `bigoted’ to my great dismay and protest. It is easy for people to homogenize a nation’s thoughts and orientations and, in doing so, being unfair to its people. For him and for various others, I am sure it is tough to understand how a modern `Hindu’ and an Indian could argue on the nuanced point that Indian pluralism is non-negotiable, given what they see as a recent surge of Hindu-identity politics in India. It is exactly because being Hindu and an Indian naturally makes you inclusive and pluralistic…if you are true to the foundational ideas of India and even what can be regarded as `Hinduism’, which I argue is a highly recent and amorphous term.

Before moving any further, I would just like to highlight some subtle differences in my usage of terms from what is regarded as conventional. When I just speak of Dharma, it is not in the religious context but rather as more – as the natural order and balance in society, sustained by values that uphold the multiplicity of voices and perspectives within it. When I speak of what we usually call Hinduism, I would rather call those sets of values and ideas broadly Vaidika Dharma or Sanatana Dharma, a way of life and not quite a modern religion even, since there was no one homogeneous religion called Hinduism before the eighteenth and nineteenth century and all there was were sects and schools of philosophy. If the Persians are to be believed, Hindus are those living to the east of the Indus river, and therefore as some would say, it almost signifies a cultural or even civilization connotation for the Indian subcontinent. But that debate is for later. In this article, I would rather not delve on that.

Having got that out of the way, let us look at the foundations of India.

Let us look at the idea of India.

After the fall of the famous Indus Valley Civilization in the second millenium BCE, the Vedic period set in. This period was marked by the composition of the large collection of hymns that today constitute the Vedas (and from which Vaidika Dharma gets it names). Several waves of Aryan migration from the Middle East are said to have led to the intermingling of the cultures of the Aryan tribes and pre-existing religious cultures to give usVaidika Dharma or Sanatan Dharma. Many scholars have worked over this, over the years, and there seems to linguistic as well as cultural aspects that show us this intermingling, or atleast hint at it.

It was an age of India in flux.

In his book The Roots of Hinduism, Finnish Indologist Dr. Asko Parpola writes

The fact that even such uncommon Indus symbols as the palm squirrel, which have a narrow pictorial meaning, find a natural and fitting explanation within a Dravidian linguistic framework is a hopeful sign. As we have seen, a number of Dravidian-based rebus interpretations [where one sound can have two meanings, like the fish and star homology min] interlock with external linguistic and cultural data, making sense within ancient Indian cultural history and the Indus civilization. The interpretations restrict themselves to ancient Indian astronomy and time-reckoning and its associated mythology, the chief deities of Hindu and old Tamil religion and the fertility cult associated with fig trees. These contexts enable some progress to be made in spite of difficulties, and suggest possible avenues for future progress. Although our knowledge of Proto-Dravidian vocabulary, especially compound words, is deplorably defective, it nevertheless allows some cross-checking.

Parpola, Asko. The roots of Hinduism: the early Aryans and the Indus civilization. Oxford University Press, USA, 2015.

Social structures evolved with stratification eventually being almost hardwired and polities changed form and hands. During the Vedic period, women enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life, as per
Sujata Madhok in her work Women: Background & Perspective and R.C. Mishra in Women in India: towards gender equality. Works by ancient Indian thinkers such as Katyayana and Patanjali suggested that women were educated in early Vedic period, as highlighted by Katyayana in Varttika and by Patanjali in Ashtadhyayi 3.3.21 and 4.1.14.

The important place of women in ancient Indian society and culture is evident from their primary place and role in the Itihas, the epics of that age. In this picture, we see an episode from the epic Ramayana where Sita is seen to be conversing with Hanuman in Ashoka Vatika, even as her sentries are fast asleep nearby. Besides the epics, females seers and philosophers like Gargi and Maitreyi played a major role in society, in this age.

Gender pluralism was definitely a priority for society in early and even later Vedic periods, which saw the emergence of rituals that had the pre-eminent role of the women of the house in rituals such as Yagnas. Indologist, philogist and scholar of Sanskrit literature Patrick Olivelle points out in his book The Āśrama system: The history and hermeneutics of a religious institution that originally, women were allowed to undergo initiation and study the Vedas. For instance, in the Dharmasutra of Harita, it is mentioned that:

There are two types of women: those who become students of the Veda and those who marry immediately. Of these, the students of the Veda undergo initiation, kindle the sacred fire, study the Veda, and beg food in their own houses. In the case of those who marry immediately, however, when the time for marriage comes, their marriage should be performed after initiating them in some manner.

Olivelle, Patrick. The Āśrama system: The history and hermeneutics of a religious institution. Oxford University Press on Demand, 1993.

During the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, Gautam Buddha and Mahavira propagated the Śramaṇic philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism respectively.

Emperor Ashoka was a champion of secularism and Indian pluralism. Today, we have the famous Ashoka Chakra in our Indian flag and an adaptation of the lion capital as our national emblem. In this picture, we see a temple and the location where Ashoka’s daughter stayed when bringing the sacred Bo Tree to Anuradhapura. This is significant as it’s part of the tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

These traditions rose in prominence with state patronage, including the famous conversion of Ashoka to Buddhism after the Kalinga war. Ashoka stated some memorable words on pluralism and tolerance in the Rock Edict XII issued by him

The beloved of the gods, King Piyadasi (Ashoka), honors both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honors them with gifts and honors of various kinds. But the beloved of the gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause.

And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion. Therefore contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. The beloved of the gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

Those who are content with their own religion should be told this: the beloved of the gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honors as much as he values that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. And to this end many are working – Dhamma Mahamatras, Mahamatras in charge of the women’s quarters, officers in charge of outlying areas, and other such officers. And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows and the Dhamma is illuminated also

Translated by Ven S Dhammika

This was a period of interactions with the Middle East, Mediterranean and South East Asia, primarily by trade and cultural exchanges. The role that Indian mathematicians played in later Arabic mathematics and the presence of Indian cultural motifs in temples in Thailand and Cambodia is well-documented. Sanatana Dharma made a resurgence under the Gupta Empire, whose gender pluralism is best seen by the fact that
its founder Chandragupta I ruled the kingdom jointly with his queen Kumara Devi, and even more so with the ideas and writings of thinkers such as Adi Shankara. Politically, the Yuezhi, Greeks, Scythians and other Central Asian people made their way into India, primarily by conquest. Even today, one can see Greco-Buddhist art, a cultural syncretism between classical Greek culture and Buddhism, near, or in parts of, India. Zoroastrianism was established in India in the 8th century as Zoroastrians fled from Persia to India in droves, after the fall of the Zoroastrian Sasanian dynasty and the subsequent ascendancy of Iranian Muslim over the Zoroastrians (in society, politics and trade), where they were given asylum.

India, as we know it today, churned, still very much in flux.

After the age that saw the rise and fall of the Vardhan empire besides the tripartite tussle between the Palas, Gurjara-Pratiharas and Rashtrakutas for Kannauj and the emergence of important South Indian kingdoms like those of the Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and Pallavas, it was the Rajputs clans who administered most of north India.

Statue of Krishna and Arjun at Kurukshetra, which is an important place in Indian history. This is near Thanesar from where King Harshvardhan, patron of scholars from all major religions of that time, ruled. It is also near Tarain, where Prithviraj and Muhammad Ghori fought, and Panipat, where the three famous battles of Panipat took place. It is also an important place for Muslims and Sikhs, with Sheikh Chilli’s Tomb complex (with two tombs, a madarsa, mughal gardens and various subsequent feature) and the four Gurudwaras – Gurdwara Raj Ghat Patshahi Dasvin, Gurdwara Teesari Patshahi, Gurdwara Chhevin Patshahi and Gurdwara Siddh Bati Patshahi. Pahili

This was until the raids of Mahmud Ghazni weakened the states immensely, before Muhammad Ghori defeated Prithviraj Chauhan in 1193 AD at Tarain and Jaichand (Gahadavala) in 1195 AD in Chandwar. There are many who say that the Indian society back then had been infested with the termite of caste and sectarian differences. While this may have been true in places, it was not as prevalent as it is made out to seem. For instance, Peter Jackson in his book The Delhi Sultanate : a political and military history published by Cambridge University Press in 2003 writes that unlike popular belief that the warriors composing armies back then only came from the Kshatriya varna, there were also Vaishya and Shudra varna soldiers.

Muhammad Ghori’s conquest led to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate that saw the rise and fall of the Mamluks, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyids and Lodis. Even then, there wasn’t a religious monolith that came to be in India. While the Ahoms ruled much of modern-day Assam, the Vijaynagara kingdom saw its heydays in the south of India. The Assamese people were the perfect example of pluralism in their embracing of disparate traditions. Today, Hajo (in the Kamrup district of Assam) stands out as a major religious centre for Hinduism (with the Hayagriva Madhava Mandir complex, founded in 1583 AD), Buddhism and Islam (with the place of pilgrimage known as ‘Pao Mecca‘ or a ‘Quarter of Mecca’). In the fifteenth century, Sikhism was born with Guru Nanak, who spoke the word of God, as he saw divinity, in all the four directions, as part of his journeys known as Udasis.

Sikhism was born in the fifteenth century with the teachings of Guru Nanak. Subsequent centuries saw the growth and consolidation of the religious order in India. This has its fair share of ups and downs, from the sacrifices of Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur to the heydays of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the birth of the Khalsa. In this picture, we can see a congregation partaking Prasad on Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s birthday at the Gursikh Sabha in Canada. This picture was shared by Canadian politician Andrew Scheer. 

In Bengal, royal patronage was given by Muslim Sultans to saints and seers of Sanatana Dharma such as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Druvananda’s Maha Vamshabali states that Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, the first Sultan of Bengal, rewarded many Hindu chiefs, zamindars and officers for their support and service to him. The pluralism inherent in society in Bengal and particularly the respect given to Hindu officials was so high that in 1397 Maulana Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, a Firdausi Sufi, complained in a letter to Sultan Ghiyath al-Din A‘zam Shah, third Sultan of the Ilyas Shahi dynasty of Bengal:

The vanquished unbelievers with heads hanging down, exercise their power and authority to administer the lands which belong to them. But they have also been appointed (executive) officers over the Muslims in the lands of Islam, and they impose their orders on them. Such things should not happen.[

Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, Maktūbāt-i Muz̄affar Shams Balkhī (Persian MS., Acc. no. 1859, Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna), letter 163, p. 509. See also S. H. Askari, “The Correspondence of Two Fourteenth-Century Sufi Saints of Bihar with the Contemporary Sovereigns of Delhi and Bengal,” Journal of the Bihar Research Society 42, no. 2 (1956): 187. Askari’s translation

To be fair though, the pluralism in this regard was more due to need and convenience at some points. The Bengali nobles constituted an experienced and proud class of administrators who knew the people, the lands and how local administration had been historically managed. Even if the Indo-Turkish ruling class may have wanted to recruit foreign administrators from the Middle East or northern India or the Middle East, Bengal’s physical (and, in some places and times, political) isolation from those areas led to the powerful Hindu Bengali nobles being maintained in positions of local authority.

The flux lines, the churning in Indian society, just got stronger with the birth of another religion and various other kingdoms, identities, ideas and movements in history, rising and falling, emerging and fading.

Caste dynamics and the realities of social stratification were, however, quite present during the Delhi Sultanate. In his Fatawa-e-Jahandari (`Rulings on Temporal Government’), Zia al-Din al-Barani, a courtier in the courts of the Tughlaq Sultans, wrote about racial hierarchies within the Muslim community. al-Barani speaks of “aristocratic birth and superior genealogy being the most important traits of a human“. However, there was a certain breaking of hierarchies as well in some phases of the Delhi Sultanate. Alauddin Khilji, for instance, stated that the khot (village headman) and Balahar (a menial caste of village watchmen) should be treated on par, when it came to taxation, as mentioned in the Tarikh-i-Firozshahi. Gender was also an area where the Sultanate period did not see a lot of pluralism.

Nur Jahan was the Mughal Empress and queen-consort of Mughal emperor Jahangir.
She was the only Mughal empress to have coinage struck in her name. Though the Mughal period saw some regressive practices when it came to women, some women leaders came to the fore, including Nur Jahan and Razia Sultana. Being a Shi`a woman from an immigrant Iranian family, it is remarkable that Nur Jahan lead an empire which had a Sunni sovereign and a population that was predominantly non-Muslim. In this picture, you can see Nur Jahan’s tomb in Lahore.

The position of Indian women in society deteriorated during this period, as per R. C. Mishra in the work Women in India: towards gender equality. The purdah system and Jauhar were some of the practices that emerged in this period. However there were also Muslim female rulers such as Razia Sultana, Chand Bibi and Nur Jehan who went down as history as some of the most well-known rulers in the Indian subcontinent.

The role of caste and gender, and associated social stratification and dynamics, ebbed and flowed, rose and fell, with the rise and fall of the dynasties and kingdoms.

In 1526 AD, the king of Ferghana – Babur invaded what was the then-Lodi dynasty with its seat of power at Delhi, after defeating Ibrahim Lodi at the First Battle of Panipat. He followed this up with his historic win over Rana Sanga and his Mewari Rajputs. The early Mughal emperors such as Babur himself and his son Humayun had a distinct approach to politics and society that remained inherently alien to indigenous people in some ways (for instance, Babur is said to have introduced the style of Timurid chancery in India, as per Zakir Hussain’s Some Original Tughluq Documents and their Significance published by the Indian History Congress in 1989). However, even in this time, there is evidence that they followed an inclusive and pluralistic approach. For instance, as per a royal farman (proclamation) by Humayun, lands were granted to the Hindu Jangambaris of Varanasi, as per Abdus Salam’s Asar-i-Banaras (1959) and M.A. Ansari’s Administrative Documents of Mughal India (1984). Things changed significantly after a Pashtun Sur named Sher Shah Suri drove Humayun out of India and established the Sur dynasty with its seat of power in Sasaram in modern-day Bihar. In the years of Humayun’s exile, his son Akbar was brought up in Kabul, learning to fight and hunt. Although he could not read or write, his thirst for knowledge was significant and made him ask someone to read to him, as per the Akbarnama.

Fatehpur Sikri was Akbar’s capital and the place of birth of the order known as Din-e-Illahi. Even today one can see the Ibadat Khana were Akbar, his courtiers and scholars would sit together in rumination about matters of faith, philosophy and religion. In this picture, we can see a painting of a festival in Fatehpur Sikri in 1885.

Akbar won Delhi from the Surs and lost it to the Hindu general of Adil Shah Sur – Hemu, who proclaimed himself as a Hindu emperor. This was short-lived as he was defeated soon after at the Second Battle of Panipat. However, what is more important to note here is that Humayun’s exile and Akbar’s early days planted the seed for a more tolerant approach of the Mughal emperors. As per Satish Chandra’s A History of Medieval India, Akbar’s early days were spent in the backdrop of an ambience in which liberal sentiments were encouraged and religious parochialism was frowned upon. Be it the verses of the Persian poet Hafez or the teachings of Chaitanya and Guru Nanak, be it the influence and tolerant outlook of his Shia tutors or his desire to be seen more as a king than a descendant of an invader, Akbar built on these personal experiences and knowledge to synthesize and develop a pan-Indian, pluralistic and tolerant outlook of the nation (for as close to modern-day India was his kingdom, in terms of form, as it has ever been since the days of Ashoka). Akbar promoted tolerance of all faiths in his kingdom. He encouraged debates on theological and philosophical issues and even built an Ibādat Khāna (“House of Worship”) at his capital in Fatehpur Sikri in 1575 AD. In those times, there used to be a tax on non-Muslims called jizya, which Akbar repealed as well in 1568 AD.  Not to forget, Akbar went on to found the syncretic religion Din-i-illahi in 1582 AD. The religion drew from Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. While some argue that it was more a political system to establish unity in plurality than a conventional religion and had not more than 20 adherents at any point in time, its establishment was a major move towards pluralism and tolerance by a Mughal king.

Akbar’s son Jahangir may have had the Sikh guru Arjan Dev executed to the great dismay and anger of the Sikhs in the country, but his grandson Shahjahan set a high standard of religious, social and linguistic pluralism. He even introduced Hindi as a court language in his reign, and openly advocated for tolerance of all religions. Shahjahan’s son Dara Shikoh followed in his father’s footsteps. He was inclined towards finding a common mystical language between Sanatana Dharma and Islam, and even completed the translation of fifty Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian.
His famous work Majma-ul-Bahrain (“The Confluence of the Two Seas”) was devoted to a revelation of the mystical and pluralistic affinities between Vedantic and Sufi speculation. It is unfortunate that the struggle for power led to his execution by Aurangzeb, who was infamously known for his vindictive and ruthless religious bigotry, and one can only wonder the course of Indian history had Dara Shikoh become king instead of Aurangzeb, in whose reign custom duties on adherents of Sanatana Dharma were doubled, temples were destroyed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike were executed and construction/repair of temples was forbidden! This not only led to numerous rebellions (by the Jats, Marathas, Pashtuns and Sikhs), I believe it led to an irreparable damage to the pluralistic fabric of Indian society that had its effects on India for the next few centuries.

Shivaji was one of the greatest Maratha rulers in history. Shivaji carved out a kingdom out of the declining Adilshahi Sultanate of Bijapur and was crowned Chhatrapati (monarch) of his realm at Raigad in 1674 AD. Even though he was a king who fought the Mughals and other Muslim kings, his secular credentials are noteworthy. There were several Muslim soldiers and generals in his army and also supported men of faith of Islam, such as Baba Yakut of Kelshi. French missionary Francois Bernier also mentions how he was lenient to captured French missionaries, even saying,`The Frankish Padres are good men’

The next century or so, especially after 1707 AD when Aurangzeb died, the Mughal power waned and the Marathas and Sikhs became powerful. The Marathas conquered vast swathes of India and even came up to Delhi. But the more interesting aspect of this age has to do with how even in this fluid, largely stateless political environment, social factors and stratifications were neither as rigid nor as absolute as could have been the case, given the political realities of the time. Some of the previous casteless segments of society grouped themselves into caste groups, as anthropologist Susan Bayly puts it

What happened in the initial phase of this two-stage sequence was the rise of the royal man of prowess. In this period, both kings and the priests and ascetics with whom men of power were able to associate their rule became a growing focus for the affirmation of a martial and regal form of caste ideal. (…) The other key feature of this period was the reshaping of many apparently casteless forms of devotional faith in a direction which further affirmed these differentiations of rank and community.

Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1

However, in 18th century, Indian merchants, soldiers and tribal populations often ignored these ideologies of caste, as per Bayly. Most people were seen not to treat caste norms as absolutes but rather were seen to challenge, negotiate and adapt these norms to their circumstances. This was one of the many times that Indian society had seen the need for, and then initiated, major reforms from within, in a highly natural and organic way. This was, in this case, done by masses often to maximise assets and protect themselves from losses. State apparatus may have been fragmenting and rights and well-being of people was decentralized to smaller social units, but the duality of emergence of new structures and renegotiation of older ones presented an interesting opportunity as well as challenge to Indian pluralism.

To this mix of somewhat-simmering caste and religious realities, that had turned dormant for a while, the European colonial exercise put a generous sprinkling of religion- and caste-based divisions. This was for political convenience and in conformity with the principle of divide-and-rule by them. Not only did they encourage differences between kings and state-powers but also entrenched these differences in constitutional laws. The word `Hindu’ was used for the first time in a census exercise and formalized to refer to a disparate and eclectic mix of ideologies, schools of philosophies and sets of rituals. Al-Biruni’s Tarikh Al-Hind, among other texts of Delhi Sultanate period, may have used the word “Hindu”, but even therein he had included all non-Islamic people such as Buddhists, and retained a certain ambiguity of being “a region or a religion”. As per noted historian Romila Thapar, in her book The Tyranny of Labels, the ‘Hindu’ community occurred as an amorphous ‘Other’ of the Muslim community in the court chronicles of that period.

Sati was a funeral custom where a widow immolated herself on her husband’s pyre or take her own life in another fashion shortly after her husband’s death. After sustained campaigning against sati by Hindu reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Christian missionaries such as William Carey, the provincial government of Bengal banned sati in 1829 AD. A general ban for the whole of India was issued by Queen Victoria in 1861 AD. This was one of the positive developments on the social front in the British Raj, which broke a regressive age-old tradition.

It was only when the European colonial powers came to India that the term was used formally. As per Gauri Viswanathan’s work Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief, in early colonial era British Indian court system and Anglo-Hindu, the term Hindu referred to people of all Indian religions as well as two non-Indian religions: Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Even after, be it in the twentieth century personal laws or the works of The Asiatic Society, `Hinduism’ encompassed most of the religions that had sprung up from India and included Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism, Jainism and even Sikhism. This was a period, however, that saw, atleast on paper, equality of all religions (though their divide-and-rule policy was as prevalent as ever). The British Empire sought trade and commerce, with a policy of neutrality to all of India’s diverse religions. In 1864 AD, the British Empire eliminated all religious jurists and clergymen from the socio-political framework, when it came to official and legal matters, since the interpretations of texts and religious documents varied among the various scholars and schools of philosophy, and this made the process of justice inconsistent and even corrupt. The tendency of outright homogenization of laws for all religions was actively resisted by people and the British were cognizant of this. For instance, the Preamble to Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 reads

For several years past it has been the cherished desire of the Muslims of British India that Customary Law should in no case take the place of Muslim Personal Law. The matter has been repeatedly agitated in the press as well as on the platform. The Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind, the greatest Moslem religious body has supported the demand and invited the attention of all concerned to the urgent necessity of introducing a measure to this effect

The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937 Universal Law Publishing, New Delhi; pp 3-7. THE MUSLIM PERSONAL LAW (SHARIAT) APPLICATION ACT, 1937 ACT No. 26 OF 1937, Government of India

This did help in providing for space and freedom to the various religions in India to function as they deemed fit but it still remains a contentious subject, particularly with regards to a Common Civil Code in the country. For instance, some members of the Islamic feminists movement in India claim that the issue with Muslim Personal Law in India is the misinterpretation of the Quran that has been historically done and is ongoing, as Sylvia Vatuk states in Islamic Feminism in India: Indian Muslim Women Activists and the Reform of Muslim Personal Law. Goa, where there is a Uniform Civil Code, has been doing fairly well when it comes social harmony. However, let that be for another essay, since I would not like to dilute the topic of this one; that of India being inherently pluralistic.

Goa is the only Indian state that has a Uniform Civil Code. This applies the same legal code for all people of the state, irrespective of religion, caste, gender or class. Historically this comes from the Portugese code that was in place in the state. In this picture, a Goan woman is cleaning and removing the consumable parts of an oyster from its shell.

On the caste front too, the legacy of the Colonial period is mixed. Although the varnas and jatis had origins much before modern times, the caste system as it exists today was the result of developments during the post-Mughal period and the British Raj regime, which made caste organisation a central mechanism of governance and administration. In the 1881 census and thereafter, ethnographers used caste (jati) headings for counting and classification of people in British India. As per Nicholar Dirk in his book Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of New India, the 1891 census included 60 sub-groups each subdivided into 6 racial and occupational categories. There were some British officials who criticized these exercises as a way of caricaturing the realities of caste and caste systems in India. This was even more problematic since the British officials would often use census-determined jatis to decide which group of people qualified for which jobs in government and who would be unreliable for the same! This kind of entrenched casteism further deepened caste lines and led to the need for urgent positive affirmation post-Independence, in India. The colonial period first marked the systematic use of caste in official communications and society in a manner that deeply divided society.

However, this also did lead to a greater discussion on the realities of casteism and how to alleviate the problems of the lower castes in society. Even today, casteism and positive affirmation is a big point of discussion in Indian society and politics. I personally believe that we need a nuanced discussion on this, which respects intersectionality of identities and socio-economic realities of all the castes. I am not one for the blinding pace at which caste realities and reservation as a political tool is being used by various political parties for petty gains in electoral politics. The Indian general elections 2019 did give a sign of change in that caste did not play as much of a role as it once did, particularly in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (albeit the Bharatiya Janata Party did try to win the non-Jatav Dalit and non-Yadav OBC votes to defeat their opposition Mahagatbandhan in many parts of places in Uttar Pradesh). I know caste remains a problematic point of discussion and yet I am hopeful for India as it discusses and addresses this key aspect of Indian society.

Gender pluralism was promoted by various thinkers and groups in the colonial period. During the British Raj, Indian reformers such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Ram Mohan Roy  and Jyotirao Phule fought for the advancement and interests of women. British women, even wives of missionaries, such as Martha Mault are still remembered for pioneering the education of girls in south India. Laws such as the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 and Child Remarriage Restraint Act of 1929, along with the emergence of women leaders like Rani Lakshmibai, Kittur Chenamma and Begum Hazrat Mahal showed the gradual movement of women into a more empowered and prominent space in society for the first time in a long time, arguably since the Vedic times.

India, thereby, came full circle, back to its pluralistic roots, over time, with the contributions of Vedic society, the Mauryas and Guptas, the Mughals (especially Akbar), some colonial contributions and now on to contemporary Indian society and state.

India, as truly pluralistic, when it came to religion, caste and gender.

The question is: has it truly?

I would argue that is not so entirely. There is a lot that needs to be done.

There are apprehensions about the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the centre when it comes to religious harmony. There are problems with the way in which appeasement is being used as a political tool in the country, particularly to use minorities as a vote-bank, particularly by parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Indian National Congress (INC). There is the problem of polarization that has claimed so many innocent lives over the years. There are problems of representation of minorities, with the recently concluded Indian general election not having more than 26 Muslim MPs elected out of 543 seats!

Caste has played a prominent role in Indian society for centuries. It has led to the systematic subjugation of certain communities. Even today, they have lesser representation and support than other communities. In this picture, the local low-caste people in Kumarakom in Kerala are washing clothes.

There are apprehensions about the discussion around reservation and a certain vacuum of political leadership of the SC/ST/OBC communities (last seen in the heydays of Kanshi Ram and Jagjivan Ram and sometimes seen these days in the work of Mayawati, Siddaramaiah, Meira Kumar and Ramdas Athawale) in many parts of the country. Yes, caste dynamics may not have played as big a role in these elections and there may be an aspiration class cutting across various social barriers, but my question is: has the dismal state of the SC/ST/OBC communities even today been addressed and resolved? There are problems with villages in Tamil Nadu that still have, or till recently had, walls separating the Brahmin and backward class sections of a village. There are problems of there being a lack of translation of opportunities into upliftment of these communities, even though our Prime Minister and President are from backward communities.

There are apprehensions about women safety and empowerment in a number of cities, towns and villages across India. Even today a Nirbhaya happens in a `modern city’ like Delhi. Even today women have to fight for their rights from common office spaces and structures to representation and leadership positions. Even today, the LGBTQ community has to shy away from public spaces and discussions due to the whole moral policing brigade. If the artisans of Khajuraho and ancient Indian society had no problem with these aspects of human life and society, then why is the perennially nostalgic and often revisionist section of society and political leadership apprehensive of taking that plunge into acceptance, tolerance and pluralism?

India needs to evolve, nay India actually and truly needs to come into its own and back to its pluralistic roots.

Having gone over a lot of aspects and nuances of the story, I believe India is the instantiation of the pluralistic concept, the latest and maybe last of the truly pluralistic polities in history. We cannot jeopardize this idea, this reality, this shared history and existence. We have come too far to let this fall to politicking.

We need Indian pluralism and a pluralistic India for a brighter future of humanity!


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