On caste numbers, what censuses reveal and hide
The representation of Dalits as always being “included” in a timeless “Hindu majority” is thus a product of the late colonial period. Majoritarian ideas depend on numerical figures — election results, census data — that conceal as much they reveal
Majoritarianism requires amnesia. In the aftermath of victories by the Bharatiya Janata Party in several elections this year, commentators have sought to understand the role of Dalit voters. Yet, recent efforts by the party to appeal to these groups emerge from a project that has been a century in the making. The idea that Dalits should be considered part of a Hindu majority — an idea taken for granted in today’s political calculus — is a result of late colonial developments. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was not at all common sense that Dalits in some way belonged to the Hindu fold. In everyday speech, Dalit caste titles and the word Hindu were often used as mutually exclusive terms, signifying contrast; as officials in Chhattisgarh noted, for example, “to call a man a Hindu conveys primarily that he is not a Chamar.” When British officials classified Dalits, for administrative purposes, as Hindus by default, many Hindus found the move offensive. In 1901, census officials noted that Hindu enumerators had “the greatest objection to returning [a Dalit] as a Hindu by religion.” The reluctance of Hindu census workers to classify Dalits as their coreligionists was observed in every census from 1881 to 1911.
Nor were Dalits necessarily eager to be counted as Hindu. Many Dalit communities had nurtured their autonomous sacred traditions for generations, centred on their prophets and gurus. In the songs of the popular Lal Begi tradition — which stretched from Lahore to erstwhile Calcutta and south to Pune and Hyderabad — many Dalits differentiated themselves explicitly from Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. When Arya Samaj activists such as Amichand Sharma attempted in the 1920s to persuade Lal Begis that they were Hindu, they found their listeners unconvinced, asking questions such as, “If we are Hindu then why do Hindus not touch us?” Dalit followers of the Satnampanth in central India, whose 18th century founder had images of Hindu deities thrown onto a rubbish heap, were likewise incredulous when British officials told them they would be counted as Hindu in the imperial census. Some, as a 1911 census official reported, “actually objected to being so classed.”
It was only in the 1910s and 1920s that Hindu nationalists began making inclusive overtures toward Dalits in earnest. Swami Shraddhanand, the Arya Samaj leader who also held positions in the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, championed the cause, exhorting fellow Hindus to abandon the practices of untouchability and instead to offer fair treatment to their “shudra brothers.” In a 1924 pamphlet, Shraddhanand also made clear the reason for the campaign: “If all untouchables became Muslims, then these will become equal to the Hindus, and at the time of independence they will not depend on the Hindus, but will be able to stand on their own legs.” In another pamphlet, he warned: “If the seven crore untouchable women and men of India… become Christian… the Aryan race will remain politically in mortal peril.”
For early exponents of Hindutva, then, the goal of outreach to the “untouchable” was to forestall Dalit autonomy and protect Hindu numbers. Admitting the tenuousness of Hindu claims to constitute a majority of the population of British India, and concerned at the prospect of the vast Dalit population asserting its own religious interests, Shraddhanand and other Hindu nationalists extended a welcoming hand to Dalits precisely and explicitly in order to secure a Hindu political majority. The “fear of small numbers” — to use social scientist Arjun Appadurai’s apt term for the diagnostic anxiety of majoritarian movements across the globe — motivated Hindu nationalists’ efforts to curtail untouchability practices and bring about achhutodhar or “untouchable uplift.”
The instrumental and calculative character of Hindu nationalists’ engagement with Dalits, then, has been present from the beginning. Likewise, evident from this early moment — if slightly better concealed by its authors — is the central contradiction of this approach. Even while seeking to imagine Dalit inclusivity, many Hindu nationalists routinely undermined their own efforts by simultaneously attempting to preserve savarna supremacy. Shraddhanand vigorously advocated the opening of schools and well to Dalits. At the same time, in his writings, he endorsed his forebear Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s admonishment not to eat food prepared by Dalits. In English-language journals and Hindi-language pamphlets, Arya Samaj writers described the “revulsion” and “ghrina [disgust]” that they felt toward the Shudras and Dalits among whom they took up “dharm prachar” or propagation of religion. In a tract aimed at Dalit sanitation workers, Amichand Sharma addressed his audience as “brothers” even as he insisted that they descended from the union of Brahmin women and Shudra men and that their labour of sweeping and excrement removal was a consequence of their ancestors’ “bad deeds.” Even among the activists most committed to enlisting Dalits for the Hindutva cause, caste contempt was never far from the surface.
It was only in the 1930s, after the Poona Pact ratified the Hindu nationalist framing of the caste question, that the British classification of Dalits as default Hindus began to gain wider credibility with the public. The representation of Dalits as always being “included” in a timeless “Hindu majority” is thus a product of the late colonial period, an illusion obtained by ignoring the archive of Hindu nationalism’s own first generation and silencing Dalit voices in history. Majoritarian ideas depend on numerical figures — election results, census data — that conceal as much they reveal, in the past and in the present.
Joel Lee teaches anthropology at Williams College, Massachusetts, United States. He is the author of Deceptive Majority: Dalits, Hinduism, and Underground ReligionThe views expressed are personal