Recently, the National Council of Hindu Temples (NCHT) and the Hindu Council UK criticised the British government’s call for a public consultation on caste. UK’s citizens have till September 18 to reflect if caste should be banned by law or not. In a report released by Subramanian Swamy in London, the NCHT ascribed this initiative to a “colonial conspiracy”. This report is in tune with the views of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who has declared, “Castes play the same role in Hindu society that furrows play in farms, and help in keeping it organised and orderly”.

There is a long tradition behind this argument. Deendayal Upadhyaya, the Sangh Parivar’s influential ideologue, wrote in Integral Humanism (1965), “society is self-born’’ and forms an “organic unity” inherited from a caste-based antiquarian arrangement that should not be disturbed: “In our concept of four castes, they are thought of as an analogous to the different limbs of Virat-Purusha. These limbs are not only complementary to one another, but even further, there is individuality, unity. There is a complete identity of interest, identity of belonging”. Here he refers to the varna system as a social model and regrets that it has lost its fluidity with the multiplication of jatis.

Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, was the first Hindu reformer who endeavoured to rehabilitate the Vedic caste system by endowing this varnavyavastha with meritocratic dimensions. He maintained that hereditary jatis did not exist in the Vedic times but children were placed in different varnas according to their qualities. Through such reasoning, he legitimised a hierarchy imbued with anti-individualistic values — once in a varna, a man and a woman remained in it.

Unsurprisingly, the Arya Samajis joined the Sanatanists to form the Hindu Mahasabha in 1915, in spite of the latter’s social conservatism. One of them, M.M. Malaviya, the founder of the Banaras Hindu University, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna posthumously in 2014-15, aspired to restore the antiquarian system founded on heredity. “Functions assigned to each class as its jati-dharma, were specialised by different families as their kuladharma and were faithfully and efficiently performed for the well-being of the whole society, which was thus served by the classes and families composing it, as an organism is served by its constituent organs,” he argued.

This discourse reflects an organicist worldview which has informed the Hindutva social project — but it was not confined to the Sangh Parivar and the Hindu Mahasabha (an organisation that was a part of the Congress till the late 1930s). Mahatma Gandhi’s views on caste were very similar in the 1920s. In 1920, he wrote in Young India, “Caste has saved Hinduism from disintegration. But like every other institution it has suffered from excrescences. I consider the four divisions alone to be fundamental, natural and essential. The innumerable sub-castes are sometimes a convenience, often a hindrance. The sooner there is fusion the better… Interdrinking, interdining, intermarrying, I hold, are not essential for the promotion of the spirit of democracy”.

Gandhi’s subsequent views on caste varied, but his initial take on the subject gave conservative Congressmen room to manoeuvre at the expense of progressive minds. In the 1920s, in Gujarat, Vallabhbhai Patel countered Indulal Yagnik when the latter asked Congressmen to work for Dalits. Another Congress conservative, K.M. Munshi, eulogised the varna system through his Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. In 1950, he declared, “We, who are blinded by an admiration of the social apparatus of the West, fail to realise that chaturvarnya was a marvellous social synthesis on a countrywide scale when the rest of the world [was] weltering in a tribal state”.

Soon after, C. Rajagopalachari claimed that jati (not varna) was “the most important element in the organisation of our society” and argued that professional mobility would destabilise the complementarity of social functions at the village-level, making economic development more difficult Another contradiction in the legitimation of caste pertains to the untouchability question: It makes the fight against this social curse more difficult. At the Nagpur session of the Congress in December 1920, during which Gandhi seized power over the party, a resolution condemning “the sin of untouchability” was passed for the first time because of the Mahatma’s determination. But no action could be taken because of resistance within the party. The conservative Congressmen did not support Swami Shraddhanand’s ambitious initiative on that front in the 1920s and in 1929, the party gave Malaviya the charge of reflecting upon the issue of untouchability. Three years later, Gandhi had to return to it in reaction to Ambedkar’s growing influence.

The Mahatma rejected one of the provisions of the 1932 Communal Award that Ambedkar had obtained from the British — a separate electorate for the Dalits. For Gandhi, such a scheme would break the unity of the Hindu society: “[The Harijans] are part of an indivisible family… There is a subtle something, quite indefinable in Hinduism which keeps them in it even in spite of themselves. And this fact makes it imperative for a man like me, with a living experience of it, to resist this contemplated separation, even though this effort should cost life itself,” he said. Gandhi did not ignore that the social integration of the Dalits in the caste system was taking place “in spite of themselves” and was hierarchical, but he saw these dimensions of society as late perversions of an ancient order that could be restored to purity by social reform.

The fact that even Gandhi was not prepared to support Ambedkar’s fight against untouchability is a reflection of his deep attachment to a form of social organicism. But the poor record of the Congress’s fight against untouchability after the Poona Pact had also much to do with the resistance of the declared conservatives. In 1933, Malaviya fought against a bill on the opening of temples to the so-called untouchables. The text of a bill on temple entry, also submitted in 1933, was never put to vote. Similarly, when Dalit members of the Madras Legislative Council introduced a Temple Entry Bill in 1938, Rajagopalachari, the Congress chief minister, asked them to withdraw it.

Sixty years later, in spite of the Constitution, democracy and reservations, the hierarchical view of society finds expression in the defence of caste and reassertion of categories like pure and impure. Yogi Adityanath ordered shuddhikaran (purification) of the CM’s office in Lucknow before entering it and Musahar Dalit families of Kushinagar received soap and shampoo to clean themselves before attending one of his meetings. And 6,000 km away, in London, the Hindu Council UK partly attributed the initiative of the British government mentioned above to the Indian Christian Dalit lobby in the country.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.