The HAF Report on Caste & Its Implications:
A Critique from Members of the Hindu Community and Hindu Groups at Large
A Brief History
On August 7, 2010, Hindu American Foundation (HAF) made an invited presentation at the Eighth Biennial International Conference of the World Association of Vedic Studies (WAVES). HAF BOD member and presenter, Swaminathan Venkataraman, commented prior to his presentation that many Hindu community members will be very upset with his presentation, and that he would be ready to run away after his presentation. Many critical comments were made by scholars, and WAVES participants decided at the end of the Conference to set up a group of scholars to prepare a proper position paper on Jaati, Kula, and Varna to inform the community and society on true issues related to caste.
HAF ignored the advice of 100+ scholars at the WAVES conference to observe restraint and obtain wider collaboration and consultation before issuing any such report.
Instead, in December 2010, HAF released a “human rights report on caste” entitled “Hinduism: Not Cast in Caste.” The report is problematic on several counts. Without due regard to the huge gains made in ending untouchability and caste-based discrimination in India, this report skirts dangerously close to creating an uproar within the Hindu community, especially in taking the discussion outside India and to non-Hindus who constantly look for excuses to intervene in Hinduism’s affairs. This danger is compounded by HAF’s stated intention to use the report as a briefing document for US Congress, the media, and the educational system. Additional substantive issues regarding the report are detailed below. It is important to note that all Hindus, including our Acharyas, the community at large, scholars and community leaders critical of the HAF report, etc., overwhelmingly agree that caste-based discrimination and social practices of untouchability, etc., have no place in Hindu society today. Hindus are unified in supporting the ongoing work and efforts of Hindus to eradicate such social evils.
Many Hindus—including key community leaders and scholars—have been outraged by the nature of the HAF report and its dangers to the cause of Dharma. Many critiques were written and shared with HAF in hopes of persuading HAF to withdraw the report and work with the wider community in rewriting the report if at all HAF still insisted upon issuing a report. Further, earlier endorsements of the HAF report by prominent Hindus were also withdrawn as more people came to learn about the full content of the report and the associated issues. For example, Dr. N.S. Rajaram withdrew his earlier endorsement once he became better informed and subsequently circulated a strong criticism of the report.
HAF has remained opaque, secretive, and intransigent despite being contacted by several well-meaning individuals and groups to open up the process and include the views and opinions of the larger community. HAF’s sole argument against the report’s critics that HAF has the right to publish its own report is an odd position given HAF’s claim to be a community advocacy group. Indeed, it was not the right of HAF to write reports that was contested by the critics but only the propriety of the report and its purposes—challenges HAF has not addressed in substance to date. Also, HAF’s claim that critics of the report are bent upon destroying HAF is simply wrong. Most of the report’s critics are Hindu community leaders who are / were strong supporters of HAF’s previous good works. They are simply shocked and sorely disappointed that HAF persists in this project that is detrimental to Hindu interests.
The furor and controversy over the report has reached the highest echelons of Hindu society, including many of our most prominent and revered Acharyas. In addition to Swami Dayananda Saraswati (Convenor of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha (HDAS)), Dr. Pranav Pandya (Head of All World Gayatri Pariwar (AWGP)), Sri Puthige Swami of Udupi, and Swami Ramdev have issued letters calling upon HAF to withdraw the report and to reach consensus among all Hindu leaders before issuing any subsequent report. These letters are appended. Pujya Pejavar Swamiji (another one of the heads of the Udupi Matha, renowned for his tremendous social work on behalf of Harijans) has also expressed displeasure about the HAF report.
Over the past 4-5 weeks, several community leaders suggested various initiatives to bring about collaboration and consensus on the issue of the report. This included a proposal by the World Association of Vedic Studies (“WAVES”) to host a conference where HAF and other community members could discuss issues related to caste and the HAF report. Unfortunately, HAF refused to participate in this conference if the HAF report was going to be a topic of discussion. HAF also rejected and / or ignored many other similar overtures. This has continued to alienate an increasing number of people within the community, and raises suspicion over the motivations of HAF in preparing this report and any quid pro quo.
Not only has HAF rejected such overtures from within the community, but also HAF has shockingly defied the expressed wishes of the Acharyas. In fact, in a recent India Abroad article, in discussing Swami Dayananda’s letter to HAF, the Managing Director of HAF said that HAF “was under no obligation to fulfill [Swami Dayananda’s] request.” Is this an appropriate stance for a self-styled Hindu advocacy organization? The only thing that HAF has done is to remove the full text link of the report on its web site (while leaving online key elements of the report, including the Executive Summary, Endorsements, etc.) and stating that the report has been temporarily removed from the web site while “final edits” are being incorporated.
Below is a summary of some of the key critiques of and concerns regarding the HAF caste report.
The Political Implications of the Report
The very issuance of “a human rights report on caste” by a Hindu advocacy group is deeply problematic. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the HAF report calls caste-based discrimination “a uniquely Hindu problem” and that HAF is positioning this report as a briefing paper for the US government, international bodies, the mainstream media and the educational system. The report does not define “caste-based discrimination” or explain how it is purported to be a “human rights issue”.
Whatever good intentions may be behind the report, such a report will undoubtedly be exploited by anti-Hindu groups (including Christian evangelists, Western powers fearing the rise of an emerging superpower in India and anti-national elements within India) to weaken Hindus politically. The definition of any caste problem and its “solution” cannot be dictated by Westerners who do not have an understanding of the ground realities in India; Hindus who want to do actual good in this area should work within Hindu efforts inside India to eradicate social ills within Hindu society.
This report will only fuel the alarming spread of evangelism and conversion by missionaries who equate Hinduism primarily with caste in their propaganda. UK evangelists are already attempting to legislate against alleged caste discrimination within the UK. The issuance of such a report by a Hindu body will facilitate the calls for UN and foreign intervention in the affairs of India / Hindu society under the ruse of protecting human rights. For example, measures to explicitly denounce caste (and Hinduism by implication) have already been proposed by Navi Pillay of the UNHCR. The report will just be extra ammunition in the arsenal for such moves. It will lead to an exponential increase in sending foreign government representatives under the banner of “human rights” to the interior regions of India, causing concern for the national security of India. It is significantly notable that Indian government has already (at least in the past) objected heavily the inclusion of caste-based discrimination as a human rights abuse by the UN Human Rights Council.
Further, the HAF report can and will be used by others (especially by those who have interest in deriding Hindus for conversion purpose) to undermine the significant progress made by the Hindu community and the government of India in eradicating caste-based discrimination. Untouchability is already being addressed in a vigorous and sustained manner in independent India. Harijans now enjoy tremendous political power, and India’s caste-based reservations system is one of the most robust forms of affirmative action in the world. Even abuse on the basis of caste identity is a non-bailable offense.
Calling caste a “uniquely Hindu problem” also makes all Hindus and Hinduism itself culpable and implies that the easiest solution available is simply to become a non-Hindu. This is exacerbated by the fact that the report offers no basis for comparison to the rampant discrimination within Christianity and Islam (e.g., the violent Shia vs. Sunni divide in Islam and the de facto segregation in Christian churches in India and America, etc.) It is irresponsible to author an analysis on such a complex issue of purported intrareligious discrimination without doing a comparative analysis of many religions—particularly when such a self-incriminating endeavor is being undertaken by a Hindu advocacy organization!
Substantive Flaws in the Contents of the Report
We note only a few of the major substantive issues related to the HAF report here.
Reforming / Recasting Hinduism
HAF has been brashly announcing with this report its intentions to recast Hinduism for the 21st century (headline in a Guardian column about the report by one of HAF’s officers). The report terms caste-based discrimination a uniquely Hindu problem and calls upon Hindus to re-analyze and reject certain scriptures that, according to HAF, promote birth-based hierarchy and / or caste-based discrimination. There is an implicit presumption that Hinduism is also a “religion of the book” like Christianity and Islam and that thus the current practices of Hindus are essentially because of Hindus following these select scriptures. Nothing could be further from the truth! To add to this, HAF then calls upon Hindu Acharyas to explicitly deny authority to various Hindu teachings that, according to HAF, promote caste-based discrimination (without specifying what such teachings may be). It is not clear which scriptures HAF has in mind, but it is an astonishing act of hubris for HAF to arrogate to itself the adhikara (authority and competence) to decide which portions of Hindu scriptures are valid are not. As is very clearly stated in the Srimad Bhagavatam (7.11.7), the interpretation of the smritis is to be undertaken only by people who have complete knowledge of Vedas and are enlightened.
Further, in calling for a Hindu “priesthood” open to all, regardless of birth, HAF ignores the long and complex historical basis of practices of the various mathas, sampradayas, paramparas and temples that comprise Hindu religious life, which are not amenable to change by presumptuous diktat from afar and by groups that have no connection with them whatsoever. There also seems to be a lack of awareness that purohits / archakas from every section of the Hindu community are being trained in many parts of India and remarkable public acts of affirmation in the internal reformist and empowering traditions of Hinduism are being undertaken. Such initiatives evolve from within the traditions of various sampradayas and paramparas and cannot simply be adopted as a political policy position.
It is also troubling that much of the HAF report reflects views of assorted groups that are anti-mainstream Hinduism. Navya Shastra is a virulently anti-traditional Hindu group based in the US. The policy statements of Navya Shastra – a group that explicitly calls for the creation of a new Hindu scripture and / or a comprehensive reinterpretation of the existing Dharmashastras – are adopted as HAF’s own throughout the report; some prominent Navya Shastra members have specifically called for excising the Ramayana and the Mahabharata from Hinduism because of their alleged caste biases. While it would not be fair to attribute the views of NavyaShastra to HAF, it is also troubling that HAF’s Human Rights Coordinator recently called the Ramayana a racist narrative in the context of calling for reinterpretations of Hindu sacred texts.
Analytical / Factual Errors
The report is rife with factual / analytical errors, too numerous to detail herein. Hardly anything is written about the fact that crimes against SC / ST have been steadily dropping or otherwise showing the improvements being made by India in addressing issues of discrimination. Also, it is irresponsible to simply list incidents and various statistics without explaining how they have been independently verified, authenticated or vetted by HAF. In fact, many of the incidents of caste violence documented in the HAF report are not supported by any particular citations. As we all know, working with data and making sense of various reported statistics requires rigorous analysis to provide meaningful information and interpretation. The report has pages and pages of alleged caste violence incidents without offering any valuable context or analysis of the raw data (or even whether the raw data is valid).
The numerous positive values of jaati / kula (including to the poor and those of “lower castes”) have not been given any consideration to balance out the report objectively. On the other hand, the report praises as a great “reformer” of Hindu society Periyar (E.V. Ramasamy Naicker), whose DMK movement has been virulently anti-Hindu.
Finally, the causal link between caste-based discrimination and the supposed culpability of Hindu Dharma and Hindu society has not been properly established in the report. After all, even if a crime is committed, it does not mean it is necessarily motivated by caste. Moreover, there is no historical proof that the Smritis (including the Manu Smriti) (which HAF holds culpable for the ills of caste-based discrimination) were ever the law of the land. It is wrong to blame Hindu society, Hindu Dharma, and Hindu Shastras for law and order issues in India (especially for social ills that mostly came to prominence during the time of Islamic and British colonialism of India, when Hindus were largely disenfranchised). As for modern India, issues of legal enforcement and police abuse should not be conflated with religious persecution of the underprivileged in Indian society.
Since all efforts for meaningful dialogue with HAF have failed, it is unfortunate that critics have no option but to make Hindus all over the world aware of the grave dangers of this report. (While the initial report is not available on the HAF web site at this time, copies are readily available on the web and can be procured upon request.) HAF supporters, members, and donors need to know what is at stake, as does the larger Hindu community whose interests are affected by the report.
The Board of Directors of WAVES has decided to hold a conference on Jati / Varna / Kula: The Indian Caste System sometime during the summer of 2011. WAVES will be inviting wide participation in the discussion of this sensitive and complex issue. It is the hope of the conference organizers that this conference can be one of several steps to move towards consensus and collaboration on the issues related to caste in India today.
Swami Ramdev’s Letter to HAF
Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s Letter to HAF
Puttige Matha’s Letter to HAF
More posts by this author:
- Summary of Major Issues with the HAF Report on Caste
- Ram Sidhaye’s Critique of HAF Report
- Kalavai denounces Hindu American Foundation Report
- Call For Papers-Conference on Caste System
- Aditi Banerjee’s Critique of HAF Report