Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat has caused yet another storm by calling for the caste and the varna systems to be thrown out of Hinduism “lock, stock and barrel”.

At a book release event in Nagpur on October 7, Bhagwat criticised the inhuman treatment meted out to “some of our own people”. He declared, “This sin has happened and it must be atoned for.”

The speech drew a variety of reactions. Some have welcomed it, some are looking at it with circumspection and others are dismissing it as yet another smokescreen to cover up the disturbing situation in which India finds itself.

Of course, there is much to agree with in Bhagwat’s statement. Should we abolish the caste system? Yes – sooner than later.

So, why view it with scepticism? Here was an opportunity for Sangh supporters to showcase Bhagwat’s statement to silence the critics who accuse the organisation of being Brahminical.

Ironically, the speech has already resulted in a case being filed against Girish Kuber, the editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta, and the paper’s Nagpur reporter Rajeshwar Thakte by Sangh members angry that the publication had said that Bhagwat mentioned Brahmins in his speech though he had not specified any caste.

It is true that Bhagwat did not single out any group when he called for the atonement of sins committed in the name of caste and varna – but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief could not have been referring to anyone other than members of the upper castes.

By raising a hue and cry over the misreporting of Bhagwat’s speech, the followers of the Sangh have unwittingly fallen into a trap. If they say he was not referring to Brahmins, they must explain to whom he was referring.

There could be two proximate causes for Bhagwat’s decision to attack casteism – and at this time. The Sangh has specific inputs about growing unrest among Dalits about the attempt to enfold members of the lower castes into the saffron vote bank. The Sangh also fears a possible surge in religious conversions of Dalits, particularly to Buddhism.

An event in Delhi on October 5, attended by Rajendra Pal Gautam, a minister of the Aam Aadmi Party in that state, saw 10,000 Dalits embrace Buddhism.

BR Ambedkar’s great grandson Rajratna Ambedkar told a television channel that at the annual Dhammachakra Pravartan Din programme at Nagpur on the same Vijaydashami day, over five lakh Dalits had converted to Buddhism.

While new adherents embrace Buddhism every year in Nagpur on Vijaydashami day in commemoration of BR Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism there in 1956, the number of five lakh new adherents seems like an exaggeration. Generally, the Nagpur event sees a few thousand people converting to Buddhism.

Still, as if that was not enough, Rajratna Ambedkar claimed that about 10 crore Dalits will convert to Buddhism in 2025, the year when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh celebrates its centenary.

Dalits have much to be angry about. Over the past few years, there have been prominent instances of atrocities against Dalits across the country, from Dalit tanners being flogged in Gujarat’s Una town to the rape and murder of a Dalit girl in the town of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh.

The National Crime Records Bureau reported that crimes against Dalits had increased by 9.3% in 2020 over the previous year. In March, Union Minister Ramdas Athawale told Parliament that 1,38,825 cases related to crimes against Dalits were filed across the country between 2018 and 2020.

While atrocities on Dalits have been occuring from much before the Narendra Modi government took over at the Centre, what is markedly different in the post-2014 incidents is the complete silence from top Bharatiya Janata Party and Sangh officials about these crimes.

If the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was sincere about improving the lives of Dalits, it would have focused on caste equality if not on caste annihilation from the beginning. However, instead of equality (samata), it kept emphasising cohesion (samrasta). Many in the Sangh parivar defend the varna system as a scientific way to ensure the smooth functioning of society.

A telling example of the Sangh’s ambiguous attitudes to Dalits is its ambivalence on the policy of reservations for members of marginalised groups in educational institutions and government jobs. It has, at times, very magnanimously called for the reservation policy to be continued “as long as Dalits themselves don’t call for an end to it”.

But Bhagwat himself was in the news when he purportedly called for a review of the reservations policy just before Bihar Assembly elections last year.

The Sangh’s equivocation about Dalits is also evident in the disjunction in the the positions it has taken on members of marginalised castes compared to Muslims. While it has long demanded that Muslims set right the so-called historical wrongs committed by their “forefathers” against Hindus, this is the first time that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh called for atonement of sins committed against Dalits in the past.

Still, as some have pointed out, if Muslims must pay for “historical atrocities” against Hindus, perhaps this demand must also be extended to members of the upper castes for repressing Dalits for centuries.

As a consequence, it is difficult to view the atonement call as anything beyond a safety valve to let out the growing pressure of Dalit disenchantment with the Hindutva project.

Clearly, it will take concrete implementation on the ground of the Sangh’s ideas for sceptics to believe that Bhagwat is speaking from the heart.

If the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s intentions are sincere, all doubts will vanish.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.