‘What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless... There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
These fiery lines from a speech delivered on July 4, 1852 in New York by Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had become a national leader of the abolitionists, rattled a predominantly White audience. The speech was delivered 10 years before slavery in the Southern states was abolished.
More than 80 years later, on August 14, 1931, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Columbia University and London School of Economics graduate, who was then leading a movement of the oppressed and exploited in India, met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time. “Gandhiji, I have no homeland,” Ambedkar told Gandhi, according to a transcript of that meeting. “No untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.” As expected, the Varna (caste) mindset that dominated India then did not take kindly to Ambedkar’s charge.
Douglass and Ambedkar, though widely apart in time and space, exhibit similar agony and anger through their words. Both challenge the dominant view of their times by asking why persons of colour or caste are not treated like humans.
As the 72nd anniversary of India shaking off the yoke of colonialism dawns, this question still stares us in the eye. Recall the ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech delivered by the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the midnight of August 14, 1947. He had proclaimed India as that country which had awakened to “life and freedom” after casting away the long “period of ill fortune” and beginning a new era.
No doubt, the lifeworld of India’s dalits has changed over 72 years. In his book, Dalits in India: Search for a Common Destiny, Sukhadeo Thorat, an economist and former chairman of the University Grants Commission, tells us that 17% of the Scheduled Caste cultivates land; about 12% in the rural areas and 28% in the urban areas are engaged in a business, albeit small; 57% are literate; unemployment has diminished among members of Scheduled Caste communities and their share in government employment has improved. Thorat cites these improvements as a reason for a decline in poverty and, to an extent, for the weakening of the practice of untouchability and discrimination in some spheres.
Yet, do these improvements fully represent the lived reality of dalits in India today? It is a fact that much more of the dalit experience remains unseen than seen. For example, the “institutionalised social injustice at the heart of the country,” as Arundhati Roy says in her book, The Doctor and The Saint, has not been dented. This social injustice has existed for millennia and it is this which permits, to this day, the “monster of caste” to thrive unchecked. Ambedkar rightly said: “Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster."
Consider hunger in India, of which reports paint a dismal picture, much at variance with the image of itself that India wants to convey to the world. A number of analysts tell us that India has failed to provide the most basic right of freedom from hunger. It lags far behind Kenya, Malawi and even war-torn Iraq on this index. But for Pakistan, all India’s neighbours – Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar – are better off on the hunger scale.
More troubling is the absence of outrage over one in 20 children dying before their fifth birthday in India; one of the consequences of hunger. A simple explanation for this silence is the complicity of elite-castes in perpetuating it. They are “hermetically sealed off” from the problem, to use another phrase from Roy. As she points out in The Doctor... “India's wasted and dying children are largely Adivasi, Dalit and Shudra.” Their primordial identity is not only the cause of dalit suffering but it is also the reason why hunger is ignored by the media.
It is the government's own admission that manual scavenging continues in India; and this is despite advances in technology and material progress. India has around eight lakh people – 99% of whom are dalits, 95% of them women -- engaged in the cruel task of manually cleaning waste, including dry toilets. There is no perceptible reduction in the prevalence of scavenging though it has been abolished and penalised by two legislations, one framed in 1993 and the other in 2013. India’s dubious distinction is that it is the global capital of manual scavenging.
Government agencies would have you believe that it is a lack of water and other facilities that perpetuates manual scavenging. This is not so either. The Resource Handbook to End Manual Scavenging, published by the International Labour Organisation in 2015, gives a more accurate explanation. It is the “endurance of cultural notions of caste pollution and purity and assignment of persons to the despised work based on their birth.” Therefore, caste inequalities, to which is added a layer of gender discrimination, are to blame.
Untouchability was one of the social evils abolished when India became a Republic on 26 January 1950. Yet, untouchability persists in very many ways throughout the country. The India Human Development Survey — the largest pan-Indian non-government household survey— reveals that more than a fourth of Indians say they continue to practise untouchability at home.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a crime is committed against a dalit by a non-dalit every 16 minutes, including four rapes a day and 13 dalits murdered every week. These figures do not include the dalits who are humiliated, stripped, paraded, forced to consume faeces, dispossessed of their land and the social boycotts and ostracism they are subjected to.
Even India’s institutions of higher learning are not free from such discrimination, as exemplified by the suicide/murder of trainee doctor Payal Tadvi, a tribal Muslim harassed by her “upper” caste seniors in a Mumbai hospital. Such instances are not few or far between either.
Last, but not the least is why the shadow of Keezhevenmani still looms dalits in post-Independence India? On December 25, 1968, in Keezhvenmani village of Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, the first mass crime against dalits took place. Dalit labourers—mostly women and children—were massacred because they had, led by communists, gone on strike demanding better wages. Their demand infuriated the dominant castes. They arrived in vehicles at the village and witnesses to the gory incident divulged intricate details to police and the judiciary. Yet, the perpetrators were acquitted in court on the specious argument that being ‘upper’ caste men, it was unbelievable that they would have walked to the village.
In light of the lack of justice in such crimes, it follows that they were repeated in Villupuram in 1978, in Tsundur in Andhra Pradesh in 1991. They occurred in Kumher in Rajasthan in 1992 and in Bihar in 1996 and 1997 at Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur-Bathe respectively. Even a cursory glance at mass crimes against dalits tells us that these are not exceptions but a norm.
Twenty five years later, a trial judge examining the rape of Bhanwari Devi, a Saathin who worked for the Women's Development Programme in Rajasthan; used the same logic to acquit the accused. He reasoned that “rape is usual” and “upper” caste men could not have “defiled” themselves by raping a “lower” caste woman.
When it comes to speaking out for dalits or other oppressed sections, neither the state nor its organs nor the rest of society have coloured themselves with glory. Caste atrocities, much like gender oppression or racial atrocities, have a specificity which transcends the binary of ‘state as perpetrator’ and ‘people as victims’. In fact, these crimes implicate the partisan role played by the people themselves.
Idea of Civil Society is Very Much in Vogue
The Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, prepared by the National Human Rights Commission in 2004, details the conduct of civil society as a force that undermines the authority of the state thanks to its deep ambivalence about where it stands: on the side of obscurantism or modernity. Not just that. The report says that civil society itself is a distinct beneficiary of the caste-based order and perpetuates existing and unequal social reactions. Civil society “represents the deep divide in social values, where people themselves wish to enjoy all rights and privileges which a democratic liberal society offers them, but are vehemently opposed to their being granted to the Scheduled Castes.”
The uncivil nature of civil society presents a unique challenge. It requires the discourse to go beyond merely demanding civil and constitutional rights to be implemented. It requires that the failure of the largest democracy to go beyond form, into substance, be acknowledged and overcome. A great gap exists in India between constitutional principles and practice. Correspondingly, an ideal that is diametrically opposed to those constitutional principles prevails in the country’s moral-ethical plane.
Everyone has to recognise that the purity-versus-pollution paradigm, which is the cornerstone of the caste system, sanctifies inequality as opposed to just legitimising it. Put another way, inequality is accepted in theory and in practice in India. Therefore, a legal constitution has no bearing on the ethical foundation of caste-based societies. Ambedkar had this reality in mind when he distinguished between a “political democracy” and a social democracy. The difference is what sets apart the ‘one person one vote’ norm from the ‘one person one value’ goal.
Subhash Gatade is in independent journalist based in Delhi. Views are personal.