“Quest for Equity: Reclaiming Social Justice, Revisiting Ambedkar” was the title of an international conference hosted by the government of Karnataka in 2017. The five-volume Quest for Justice, edited by Aakash Singh Rathore, presents 54 papers selected from the more than 350 that were read at the three-day event. Taking in biography, history, law, economics and contemporary politics in India and the world, the volumes have been organised under five themes: political justice, social justice, legal and economic justice, gender and racial justice, and, religious and cultural justice.
Social Justice — begins with Ambedkar’s view of the social and its underlying values, noting especially his engagement with religion and its role in constricting the idea of justice. The succeeding papers consider the gains made by the dalit movement amid the continuing intransigence of caste society in India and its neighbourhood.
The excerpt below is taken from Meena Dhanda’s paper “Made to Think and Forced to Feel: The Power of Counter-Ritual”.
Every new religious tradition in its inception very likely begins with transgression of existing norms. New rituals are designed to demarcate boundaries. In time, the element of transgression vanishes and what remains is a common ritual. One can take, as an instance, the anti-idolatry religious rituals devised by the Arya Samaj. These are geared by a democratizing impulse, one of incorporation. Initially, these challenged the priestly mediation between God and the people, but gradually these rituals produced other priests.
Contrary to newly minted religious rituals, the transgressive counter-rituals, for example, burning the Manusmriti, beef-eating festivals, or worshipping Mahishasura, are deliberately exclusionary. They are staged protests necessarily engaging the sufferers of casteism, and as protests, they have the potential to remain transgressive. The former type of counter-ritual, the Arya Samaji one, has to reinvent the threat against which it stands as a pseudo-rebellion. The latter type of counter-ritual, which is born of imminent threat, is deliberately limited in scope. Only those who directly bear the brunt of prohibitions can feel the power of transgression, and therefore, there is no pretence of democratizing participation beyond the affected.
Protests can move from the cultural to the legal sphere. Dr Goldy George, an Adivasi academic activist, reported a few months ago:
Durga pooja and Dussehra may be a day of celebration of Brahmanic Hindus of India. But not for the Adivasis. It is also the day when their ancestors/gods are killed and their killing is being celebrated. But not anymore. A case has been slapped upon people who celebrate Mahishasuravadh. For the first time in the history of India, the Adivasis have asserted culturally against the celebration of Mahishasuravadh.1
In the last few years, counter-rituals of mourning the ritual kill-ing of Mahishasura and Raavan have emerged ectopically within university settings.2 These are meant to challenge Brahmanical history and are mainly commemoration rituals. Speaking against ‘cultural imperialism of Hindutva’, Digree Prasad Chauhan, a leader of Dalit Mukti Morcha, says,
we need to break such shackles of slavery that killed our ancestors where the killers are worshiped. All those who were killed may it be Eklavya, Mahishasura, Ravana, Shambhug, Bali, Holika are our debtas and such moves needs to have a complete stop for all times. Moolnivasis [indigenous people] have to be affirmative about what their true history is.3
My second example is of a festive ritual—Holi, which has become the subject of Dalit and Adivasi women’s protest. The myth underlying the festival is from the Bhagavata Purana, of the Asura king (a demon according to hegemonic Hindu view) Hiranyakashipu who asked his sister Holika to kill his son Prahlada whom he feared due to his excessive devotion to Lord Vishnu. Holika has a cloak that can save her from fire, but when she sits with her nephew Prahlada on the fire, a wind blows off the cloak and wraps it around the boy who is miraculously saved while she is burnt by the fire. Holi is celebrated as the victory of the good (devotion to God) over evil (powers that can be used to become equal to God). A bonfire with an effigy is burnt, and the next day, dry and wet colour is sprinkled on people in riotous abandon. Often, bhang is consumed and there is a licence to touch people in the process of applying colour.
Protesting Dalit and Adivasi women question the founding myth. Was it not possible to think of Holika as having been forced to sit on the pyre by her brother? Was it not possible to think of her as having sacrificed her life to protect her nephew? If so, should we be celebrating at all, or rather, should we not be mourning her death instead?
To understand the significance of the protest, I briefly note an influential anthropological understanding of rituals. Victor Turner writes in The Ritual Process:
Society ( societas) seems to be process rather than a thing—a dialectical process with successive stages of structure and communitas. There would seem to be—if one can use such a controversial term—a human “need” to participate in both modalities. Persons starved of one in their functional day-to-day activities, seek it in ritual liminality. The structurally inferior aspire to symbolic structural superiority in ritual; the structurally superior aspire to symbolic communitas and undergo penance to achieve it.4
Turner describes Holi as a ritual of status reversal, with the ‘blunt speaking and rough doing’ of structural inferiors noted by the anthropologist McKim Marriott.5 Sexual improprieties are noted, but not from the point of view of the women who are violated. Although, Turner does remind us that through this ecstatic behav-iour, there is ‘the stressing, not the overthrowing of the principle of hierarchy’.6
For Turner, within certain rituals, the ‘liminality of status reversals’ provides a ‘pseudo-structure where all behavioural extravagances are possible’.7 He adds the ‘liminality of reversal did not so much eliminate as underline structural distinctions, even to the point of (often unconscious) caricature’.8 He surmises: ‘Cognitively, nothing underlies regularity so well as absurdity or paradox. Emotionally, nothing satisfi es as much as extravagant or temporarily permitted illicit behaviour. Rituals of status reversals accommodate both aspects.’9
Thus, we see on this account, the ‘reasonableness’ of every-day hierarchies is reinstated after festivities of status reversals are over. But something more serious is taking place in the protests against the ritual burning of Holika—a counter-ritual is emerging. The challenge to Holi, advanced by a section of women students in a top-ranking Indian university, goes like this: ‘Why does Brahmanical-Patriarchal India celebrate the burning of Holika? An Asura Bahujan woman? What is Holy about Holi?’10 By staging the protest every time Holi is celebrated as a festival of colour, they mark the casteist and misogynist colour of the festival of Holi.
1. See George (2017).
2. See Pathania (2016: 267–9) for ‘iconic politics’, including the celebration of ‘Asura week’ in Indian university campuses.
3. Cited by George (2017).
4. Turner (1969: 203).
5. Cited by Turner (1969).
6. Turner (1969: 188).
7. Turner (1969: 202).
8. Turner (1969:189).
9. Turner (1969:189)
10. These are questions from a pamphlet distributed in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016.