On questions of fundamental and civil rights, the Republic of India is at variance with ancient India. Adherence to the Constitution should not merely be a legal exercise but must be accompanied by disowning of those portions of ancient texts that contradict the Constitution.

India is going bankrupt maintaining its gigantic bureaucracy and elected representatives in high style. Yet, when the time comes for governance and asserting the authority of the state, senior civil and police officials willingly become henchmen of village strongmen.

The Hathras District Magistrate, Praveen Kumar Laxkar, deigned to visit the modest dwelling of a Dalit family earlier this month not to offer condolences on the death of their daughter or promise action against the four Thakur men who had allegedly gangraped her – but to intimidate them. Worse, he permitted the brutalised woman’s dead body to be cremated, thereby destroying crucial evidence in a manner that would benefit the accused.

No last rites were performed for the Hathras girl nor was her family permitted to attend. The Allahabad High Court later demanded to know from the Uttar Pradesh Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar whether he would have allowed his daughter to be cremated the same way? If the question had been asked by a lesser person, the police officer would probably have shouted: “How dare you compare my daughter with a Valmiki’s?”

Traditional occuptions

The traditional occuption of Valmikis has been sweeping and cleaning. In the cities, the unblocking of sewerage pipes and cleaning of septic tanks is invariably carried out by members of this group.

The ancient Varna system separates the three twice-born (Dvij) groupings – Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaishya – from the Shudras who constituted the lowest rung. All ancient authorities concurred that caste was assigned to a person at birth and could not be changed; with each caste was associated a profession; and all castes were arranged in a hierarchy.

All the Dharma sutras and Dharma shastras asserted that the main task of the Shudras was to serve the twice-born (Apastamba Dharma Sutra I.1.1.7-8; Mahabharata, Shanti Parva 60.28). To assure their servility, they were assigned a low ritual status. While a number of sanskaras or rites of passage, from conception to cremation, were prescribed for the high-rankers, they were prohibited for the Shudras who were not permitted to chant Vedic mantras (Manu Smrti X.127).

They could recite the phrase “Namah Shivay” but were not allowed to prefix “Om” to it, notes P V Kane in his History of Dharmasastra.

Relatives of the Hathras woman mourn her death. Credit: PTI

If a Brahmin committed adultery or rape, merely a fine was imposed on him (Manu Smrti VIII.385). However if a Shudra had sexual intercourse with a Brahmin woman, he was to be executed no matter whether the act was consensual or not (Vasishtha Dharma Shastra 21.1). If a Brahmin reviled a Shudra, he paid a small fine (Manu Smrti VIII. 268) or nothing at all (Gautama Dharma Sutra XII.10). But in the reverse case, a Shudra’s tongue was to be chopped off (Manu Smrti VIII. 270) .

In the case of killing a Dvij by a Dvij , reasonable prayashchit (atonement) was prescribed. For killing a Shudra the prayashchit was the same as for killing a frog, cat, dog, mongoose, or owl.

As the Hathras case demonstrates, the practice of degrading the lower castes has continued into the present.

Oppression persists

In 1848, Jotirao Phule was insulted by Brahmins for being a part of a marriage procession notwithstanding the fact that he had been invited to it by his Brahmin friends. In school in the 1890s, Bhimrao Ambedkar was not allowed to sit with the other children inside the classroom. He had to bring a gunny sack from home and sit on it outside. In the 1910s, Meghnad Saha, who would grow up to become an internationally acclaimed astrophysicist, was not permitted by upper-caste fellow residents at the Calcutta’s Government Eden Hindu Hostel to dine at their table and participate in the annual Sarasvati Puja.

The economic exploitation and oppression of Dalits and crimes against Dalit women are facilitated by the low ritual status assigned to them. Just as the West is re-examining its colonial and slave-running past, India should also identify those parts of ancient texts that are now anachronistic. It should treat them as archives and disown them as living heritage.

Rajesh Kochhar is the author of The Vedic People. His email address is rkochhar2000@gmail.com.