The opening days of a new year are appropriate for raising a broad question or two. As a nation and a people, are we Indians becoming kinder over time? Are we getting to be more equal, more accepting of one another, less hierarchical, more understanding of persons with disabilities? More understanding also of the needs of the air, rivers, forests, and mountains that sustain us?
Answers to such questions require patient, open-minded research. Yet impressions can be shared, not necessarily as conclusions but as subjects for discussion.
On the question of our natural environment, sadly there is little room for debate. Treating the Himalayas as divine and therefore indestructible, and demanding swift and comfortable access to holy sites located on remote heights, we are building wide roads and tunnels that have already caused visible damage to mountain and man alike.
As for the people nourished by our natural habitat, for what we may think of as India's society, it could be argued that, despite the troubling polarization of which everyone is aware, many Indians are less separated today from one another than they used to be.
The state undoubtedly influences Indian society, of which Hindus form a preponderant share. Over the decades, haven't India's current ruling party, the BJP, and the party's parent, guide and ally, the RSS, both dominated at birth by India's Brahmin minority, become steadily more open to non-Brahmins, to OBCs (Other Backward Classes), and to Dalits?
When a Dalit from Uttar Pradesh, Ram Nath Kovind, became India's president in 2017, and again, five years later, when an Adivasi woman from Odisha, Droupadi Murmu, took the top post, both nominated by the BJP, these positive gestures at the apex of the Indian state gave a fillip to the idea of equality within India's Hindu world.
Kovind was not India's first Dalit president. That place in history belongs to Kerala's K. R. Narayanan, who was in that high office from 1997 to 2002. However, Narayanan belonged to the Indian National Congress, not to an avowedly Hindu organization.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's frequent reminders of his OBC background, as well as the gradually rising percentage of middle caste, low caste, or "outcaste" Hindus among the BJP's legislators and ministers (both at the centre and in BJP-ruled states), can also be seen as indicators that Hindu society is willing to be led politically by men and women not born into the so-called high castes. In other words, Hindu society has become willing to salute the low castes, even as horrible cruelties daily occur on the ground we occupy.
This can be seen as progress. However, this stride towards political equality has not been accompanied by any acknowledgment of the wounds caused by our society's hierarchies, exclusions, and cruelties. It is good that the hefty Dalit and OBC numbers across India are being acknowledged, as are OBC and Dalit claims to a share in political leadership. But there is no admission of earlier social oppression or current cruelty, let alone penitence about either.
More than 100 years ago, in 1921, when India was revolting against alien rule, the following words were uttered in Ahmedabad by someone born into a so-called Hindu high caste:
What crimes for which we condemn the Government as Satanic have we not been guilty of towards our untouchable brethren?... We make them crawl on their bellies; we have made them rub their noses on the ground; with eyes red with rage, we push them out of railway compartments - what more than this has British rule done? (Speech on April 13, 1921; Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 19, p. 572)
It is only when Hindu society admits the wounds that Dalits and other "low-castes" have received, the wounds of which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spoke in 1921, wounds that continue to be inflicted in 2024, that we can legitimately speak of everyone's dignity in Hindu society.
Five years ago, in February 2019, Prime Minister Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers or safai karamcharis to, as he put it, thank and "honour" them. However, Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai KaramchariAndolan, was not impressed. Wilson said that the minds of the prejudiced had to be cleaned, "not our feet, Mr. PM!"
The second glaring weakness in this acknowledgment of the significance of the lower castes is that the social/political alliance for the sake of which the acknowledgment is being made excludes India's Muslims and Christians. In fact, the alliance is being sought in order to put Muslims and Christians in their place. The claim is that putting Muslims and Christians in their place is the best way of securing solid Hindu support.
The line addressed to the lower castes is this: "You will have prominent places in our governments. And you can enjoy domination over India's Muslims and Christians."
Two appealing incentives! But will real or lasting bonds be formed as a result? For Hindu society to rise above hierarchies, an honest admission of the harshness which the privileged inflict and the oppressed experience must accompany offers of a share in political office.
Moreover, if the BJP and the RSS, including Mr. Modi, wish to be really bold and forward-looking, they should appeal not only to the so-called lower castes of Hindu society but also to India's Muslims and Christians.
"The world is a family. All Indians are a family. Everyone in India, Dalit or Brahmin, high-caste or OBC, Hindu or Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist, Christian or Atheist, has equal rights. We will defend everyone's rights."
Members of the BJP and the RSS should ask themselves if they can rise to accept a stand like this. They have thankfully accepted the political equality of Hindu society's lower castes and India's Adivasis. Some of them should now consider the logical if difficult next step.
An inclusive society based on the exclusion of some sections is an impossibility.
(Rajmohan Gandhi's latest book is "India After 1947: Reflections and Recollections")
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.