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Udhayanidhi’s ‘Eradicate Sanatan Dharma’ Call is What Periyar, Ambedkar Sought

Ram Puniyani |
India should look at how long caste has perpetrated itself, not at the words used to criticise an unjust system.
Prayagraj: People burn an effigy during a protest against DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin for his comments against Sanatan Dharma, in Prayagraj, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. (PTI Photo)

People burn an effigy during a protest against DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin for his comments against Sanatan Dharma, in Prayagraj, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. Image Courtesy: PTI

Hinduism is not a prophet-based religion, neither does it have a single book, nor is the word Hindu part of holy scriptures. This gives enough leeway to different interpreters and reformers to attribute diverse meanings to what Hindu religion stands for, even to the extent of defining it as not a religion but “way of life”. As such, it is a collation of diverse tendencies which can broadly be grouped under Brahmanic (Vedic, Manusmriti, with caste and gender hierarchy at the base) and the Shramanic (Nath, Tantra, Bhakti, Shaiva, Siddhanta) traditions.

The word Sanatan has been in use for “eternal religions”. The word Dharma is also supposed to be not easy to translate into English. It broadly stands for many things, the chief being religiously ordained duty. It also stands for spiritual order, sacred laws, the totality of social, ethical and spiritual harmony. In his book Why I am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor points out that Dharma can also be defined as “that by which we live”.

Intricacies apart, the word Sanatan Dharma has been used for Hinduism, particularly its Brahmanical version, which upholds caste and gender hierarchy. This is what BR Ambedkar meant when he said that Hinduism is Brahmanical theology. Hinduism is the root of Hindutva or Hinduness, which has manifested as Hindu nationalist politics. It, too, upholds Manusmriti and thereby the traditional caste hierarchy. In a way, Sanatan Dharma today stands for the caste hierarchy.

This is the backdrop against which we need to understand Udhayanidhi’s call to “eradicate Sanatan Dharma”. The Youth Welfare and Sports Development Minister of Tamil Nadu, and son of MK Stalin, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and DMK leader, comes from the tradition of Periyar Ramasamy Naicker, the pioneer of the Self Respect Movement, which calls for caste equality and eradication of patriarchy. He was scathingly critical of Brahmanical norms, which dominated society. Just before him, Ambedkar had overseen the burning of Manusmriti by his colleague Bapusaheb Sahastrabuddhe. As per Ambedkar, this text is the repository of caste inequalities. Ambedkar, pained by the hold of Brahmanism over society—now referred to as Sanatan Dharmic values—declared in Yeola, “I was born a Hindu; that was not in my hands, but I will not die a Hindu.”

Udhayanidhi has now said that Sanatan Dharma is a principle that divides people in the name of caste and religion…” He is merely repeating what Periyar and Ambedkar have said in their own ways. On his use of the words Sanatan Dharma, BJP spokesperson Amit Malaviya tweeted, “Udhayanidhi Stalin... has linked Sanatan Dharma to malaria and dengue…In short, he is calling for genocide of 80% population of Bharat who follow Sanatan Dharma.”

Malaviya is not only twisting what Udhayanidhi Stalin has said, he is also confirming that Hinduism is synonymous with Sanatan Dharma today.

Fact is, Udhayanidhi’s call is a call to eradicate caste and not people—and that is the spirit in which his remark has been popularly seen as well. When Ambedkar calls for the annihilation of caste, he does not call for genocide. Therefore, Ambedkar’s intentions and Udhayanidhi’s aspirations are the same. BJP leaders appear to be twisting his statement deliberately, since the DMK is part of the INDIA alliance of Opposition parties.

Home Minister Amit Shah has said in public meetings that the Congress party has disrespected Indian culture and Udhayanidhi’s words amount to “hate speech”. Truth is, talking about the annihilation of a system of inequality cannot be hate speech. What has been said is in tune with what Ambedkar and Periyar said—the main point being that Brahmanical Hinduism is presenting itself as Sanatan Dharma.

When Gandhi struggled to unite the country and worked against the practice of untouchability, he identified himself with Sanatan Dharma and Hinduism. For a few years after 1932, Gandhi made it his primary goal to work against untouchability, and pursue the rights of Dalits to enter temples. The diverse religious traditions of India, such as Buddhism, also identified themselves as Sanatan or everlasting. Today, the dominant tendency pursued by the RSS is to promote the word Sanatan for Hinduism to create a mix of Brahmanism and nationalism. Udhayanidhi, therefore, has deployed strong symbolism to explain the evils of the caste order. The charge of hate speech would not apply to the abolition of values that support caste hierarchy.

BJP leaders and spokespersons are trying to use Udhayanidhi’s statements as a pretext to attack the Congress party and the INDIA alliance without any substantive argument. To say that the Congress party never respected Indian culture is to level an empty charge merely for political mileage. The Congress party was part of a movement that united all Indians under the umbrella of Indian identity, while retaining respect for cultural differences. At the same time, it promoted reforms in society.

Shah has said of late that the Opposition wants power at any cost. “You have been disrespecting Sanatana Dharma and the culture and history of this country,” he said.

Fact is, India’s national movement upheld the best aspects of Indian culture as first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India, “She [India] was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”

The problem is not with the parties constituting the INDIA alliance. The problem is with the BJP and company, for whom culture is merely a Brahmanical past and everything that comes with it.

Indeed, the caste system has persisted for too long. The struggles of Ambedkar, Periyar and even Gandhi were great beginnings but were arrested halfway through—and some gains were reversed over the last three decades. The time has come to annihilate caste rather than bicker over the terminology used.

Truly, the word Sanatan has had a long journey. Starting with its use in Buddhism, Jainism and finally finding its place in the Manusmriti, it has come to symbolise Brahmanical Hinduism in the present times. Rather than nit-picking and making it a political issue, we need reforms for a society with equality, in tune with the Constitution of India. Besides, to be perfectly clear, Udhayanidhi’s remarks are not those of the INDIA coalition—whether the BJP can make it an election issue remains to be seen. Let us remember it did try to use Bajrang Bali in Karnataka, and fell on its face.

The author is a human rights activist. The views are personal.

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