Diwali, perhaps the best-known Hindu festival, is celebrated annually by people of all faiths in India, a country known for its cultural and religious diversity. But this time, a group of Dalits (scheduled castes once known as "untouchables") has decided to boycott this festival's celebrations.
India’s 200 million-strong Dalit community is an “integral part” of Hindu religion and attempts to “misguide” them will trigger a strong backlash from the country's Hindus, top religious organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has told Sputnik.
“Those who are trying to divide the Hindu religion on Diwali will face a strong response from the Hindus. Diwali is the festival of every Indian,” said Vinod Bansal, the national spokesperson of VHP.
The VHP is an ideological ally of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allegedly played a prominent role in the demolition of Babri mosque in the Indian city of Ayodhya in 1992.
“Everyone knows that the opposition is trying to whip up artificial fears in the minds of the Dalit population. The Dalits have remained socially and economically backward despite the Congress party staying in power for 70 years,” remarked Bansal.
Dalits and Ancient Hindu Mythology
Citing the Hindu epic Ramayana, the VHP official further remarked on the role of the sage Valmiki, who had originally composed Ramayana, in the Hindu god Lord Rama’s victory over the mythological demon King Ravana. Diwali is celebrated annually by Hindus also to mark the victory of Rama over demon King Ravana, which has been documented in the Ramayana.
Composed between 500 to 100 BC, Valmiki is thought of as an ancestor by many members of India’s Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) community.
“Diwali is incomplete without the participation of Dalits, Valmikis,” Bansal stressed.
In ancient Hindu religious texts, Dalits are classified as people belonging to the lowest layer of society.
Critics of the Indian caste system blame the nationalist Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP, for further promoting the caste system in the country in recent times, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014.
Dalits, an Integral Part of Hinduism
An umbrella group of Dalit and allied outfits earlier this week had issued a call to boycott the Diwali festivities. Spearheaded by the Landless Conflict Committee, the appeal is in response to increasing instances of “harassment, exploitation and starvation” among Dalits.
“Apart from unemployment and the exploitation of Dalits, the women in the community are facing unprecedented sexual crimes from supporters of the ruling party,” Delhi State Legislator Jaikishan, from the main opposition Congress party, told Sputnik.
“Be it the Hathras gang-rape incident or many others, the Dalits are not being treated equally by the BJP and its supporters,” he complained, referring to the sexual assault and subsequent death of a 19-year-old girl allegedly raped by four upper-caste men in Uttar Pradesh in September.
Bhumiheen Sangharsh Samiti, Reservation Bachao Andolan, Valmiki Jan Utsav Committee, Baba Saheb Ambedkar Veer Sena and All India Mazdoor Samiti are among other Dalit outfits that have endorsed the Diwali boycott call this year.
‘Why Should Dalits Celebrate Diwali’
Professor Kancha Ilaiah, an anti-caste activist and the Director of the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Hyderabad-based Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU), opined the Hindus must “wholeheartedly” accept Dalits as part of their religion and accord them the same respect as they do to Brahmins, the upper caste priest community.
“The problem is that Dalits are not defined as Hindus. That’s why you see many of them converting to Buddhism and Christianity. With the advent of Hindu nationalism, the Dalits have found themselves further marginalised from the mainstream,” the veteran academic told Sputnik.
He further highlighted that many Dalits living in the southern, non-Hindi speaking states had been converting to Christianity to “escape from Hinduism”. “Many Dalits in Maharashtra state, on the other hand, have been converting to Buddhism,” he noted.
“Once you start defining nationalism in the name of religion, the Dalits are by default marginalised,” reckoned Ilaiah, referring to the ideology of Hindu nationalism that has been openly espoused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders.
The anti-caste activist further argued that he didn’t advocate the celebration of Diwali because it was a “celebration of violence”.
In large parts of southern India, Diwali is celebrated to mark the killing of Naraksura by Lord Krishna, another Hindu God mentioned in the epic Mahabharata. Ilaiah argues that Naraksura wasn’t a demon as portrayed by “upper-caste” Hindus in the southern states.