While speaking on the birth anniversary of the medieval anti-caste reformer Ravidas, on 5 February, Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and a Chitpavan Brahmin, claimed that a few pandits had been misinterpreting Hindu scripture to propagate caste supremacy. Everyone was equal before god, he said. It led to a backlash on social media. Demanding that Bhagwat apologise, many Brahmin users posted a verse from the Gita in which the Hindu deity Krishna says that he created the four varnas. The ecclesiastical leader Nishchalananda Saraswati accused Bhagwat of not studying scripture, arguing that the caste system was fundamental to Hinduism. He was right. Brahminical literature, including the Gita, the Manusmriti and the Rigveda, provides scriptural support for caste. Bhagwat could not defend the indefensible, so attempted obfuscation instead. A day after his speech, the RSS claimed that, when referring to pandits, he had meant scholars, not Brahmins—who, thanks to their historical monopoly over education and Hindu rituals, are usually considered synonymous with the title.
Bhagwat’s comment came amid a war of words over the Ramcharitmanas, a seventeenth-century epic by the Brahmin poet Goswami Tulsidas. The remark was meant to be a conciliatory gesture towards the Other Backward Classes, whose representatives were leading the criticism of the text, but was undercut by Bhagwat’s fellow Brahmins. The caste system has remained an Achilles heel for the RSS and its electoral arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Sangh ideologues, such as MS Golwalkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Dattopant Thengadi, wanted to preserve caste, but the RSS’s purpose was to unite Hindus as a political monolith. It sought to resolve this internal contradiction by projecting Muslims and Christians as the enemies of all Hindus.
This strategy has been key to bringing the BJP to power and hegemonising its political ideology. The BJP has been able to conflate criticism of its politics of hate with criticism of Hinduism. In an attempt to court BJP voters in the current political environment, opposition leaders such as Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee publicise their Brahmin identities, while even Bahujan leaders often bear Hindu symbols during election campaigns. This approach has not worked, since the BJP is usually able to present itself as the authentic voice of Hinduism and its opponents as “fake” Hindus. In this context, the debate over the Ramcharitmanas has been an unprecedented attempt by OBC leaders—who, far from being external critics, represent the majority within the Hindu fold—to question the Hindu identity that the BJP has so effectively weaponised.