India's tryst with caste

Sixty years after Independance, India's sizeable Dalit population is still awaiting the famed "tryst with destiny"

Prasenjit Chowdhury Kolkata

Fighting political opportunism, Dalits managed to get caste-based oppression included as a UN agenda against racism in the UN conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia held in Durban from August 31 to September 7, 2001. This official recognition helped provide global recognition to the problem, though within the dark world of casteism, academically refined arguments continue to be raised that question the equivalence between casteism and racism.

This equivalence is established by the fact that both draw their sustenance from social discrimination on the basis of descent and occupation. The practice of untouchability is the source of immense human suffering and the cause of gross human rights violations and of dehumanising and degrading treatment of 240 million people, including in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, Buraku people in Japan, and other communities in Senegal, South Mauritania. Those at the receiving end have suffered extreme violence, abhorrent conditions of work, degradation, exclusion and humiliation. Untouchability is a crime against humanity. That caste as a basis for the segregation and oppression of peoples in terms of their descent and occupation is a form of apartheid and a distinct form

of racism affecting victims equally irrespective of religion. Caste places restrictions on social and occupational

mobility which lead to a negation of humanity and the inability to exercise all human rights.

Constitutionally provisions have been made to protect Dalits, there is affirmative action, and recently the apex court punished those who harassed couples in inter-caste marriages. Constitution experts point out to the equality provisions (Articles 15 and 16), the abolition of untouchablility (Article 17), the

temple entry provision (Article 25), special provisions for an SC and ST Commission (Articles 330-342 and 46) that buttress India’s commitment to wage a battle against casteism.

However, these provisions and measures are not adequate as witnessed by the continuation of caste-based discrimination and exploitation. Sixty years after Independence has not left the lot of Dalits any much better. The reason is complex, but hints can be found in the pages of history.

In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his famous “tryst with destiny” apothegm:  "Due help should be given on economic considerations, and not on caste. Because, if we go in for reservation on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. And I want my country to be a first-class country in everything."

Before this, recall Mahatma Gandhi staging a fast unto death in September 1932. The issue Gandhi chose for this dramatic gesture was the announcement by the British government that it would grant the Untouchables (Dalits in today’s parlance) a separate electorate. The Untouchables for all the disgusting ways in which they were treated by the “caste” Hindus, were for Gandhi part of the seamless fabric of Hinduism. The fast was an argument clincher against Dr BR Ambedkar, the leader of the campaign for separate representation, who argued that here was a chance for the untouchables to break away from the dominance of “caste” Hindus. Ambedkar had to concede to what will remain in history the master of a moral blackmail, and the British government’s award was rejected. In return the promise given was that the untouchables would be given seats from those reserved for Hindus. untouchables got twice as many seats as they would have had under the award, but they were competing with the “caste” Hindus. The majority was fearful that 30 million untouchables would sweep off the vested interests of “caste Hindus” and a backlash ensued. Gandhi’s famous fast did not achieve anything for the untouchables, merely diverting them from the road to freedom and taking the fire off the issue.

In his mission to emancipate the Scheduled Castes from the oppression of Hinduism, Ambedkar in October 1956 led a mass conversion movement of about half a million people in Nagpur to Buddhism. The neo-Buddhist movement was a conversion movement primarily of the Mahars of Maharashtra, the community to which Ambedkar belonged. Ambedkar wanted fundamental rights under the system of “state socialism” with an appropriate structure for ensuring all rights for all people.

But the independent Indian state’s meretricious intentions for social equality and to leverage social justice through reservations can be evident through examples of a few exemptions. Take the prickliest issue first, that is job reservation and efficiency. According to a book titled A Handbook of Reservation for SC and ST (1990), compiled by two judges, BD Purohit and SD Purohit, all scientific and technical posts, in the Department of Science, Atomic Energy and Electronics have been exempted from reservation. Indian Airlines and Air India admitted of no relaxation or concession in qualification and experience while appointing pilots and high technical personnel. All scientific posts in the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the Centre for Chemical and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad had been exempted. So far in the IITs, IIMs and central universities, reservation was in place only for non-academic posts, and the teaching posts were exempted. Even some of the non-scientific and non-technical posts, like posts of private secretaries, personal assistants to the Prime Minister and other ministers, to the Planning Commission members and to the principal secretary and special assistant to the Prime Minister, have been exempted from reservation, because of “the exceptional circumstances and special nature”.   

In Part III on Funda-mental Rights (the part that makes special provision for Backward Classes), Article 33 seems to be a check on any possible attempt to introduce reservation for Backward Classes in the armed forces. The rationale behind such exemption is that the armed forces

cannot be tinkered to make any room for social justice and that is non-negotiable. So in effect, there is tacit concession that reservation is not a prudent policy

when it comes to jobs of some strategic importance.

 Reservations alone cannot deliver the end to caste-based discrimination. The political economist, CP Bhambhri, notes that the black elite were the only beneficiaries of US policies and that the dominant attitude of the white US citizen towards the Afro-American remains racist. Supreme Court of India ruled that the “creamy layer” among the reserved category should opt out of the caste-based privilege of reservations.

Beyond reservations, the state has not made headway in ensuring economic justice for Dalits. The state of education and health among Dalits remains abysmally poor. Forty-five per cent of Dalits cannot read and write in India. Over 80 per cent live in rural areas. They do not enjoy the mobility that their upper caste counterparts do. The population of Dalits in India is more than the total population of Pakistan and constitutes 16.48 per cent of India’s one billion. But they do not hold that proportion of India’s wealth and resources. Far from it. 

Caste-based violence, oppression and discrimination are alive and well. A leading English-language weekly recently brought out a profile of Dalits who are doing well. The best of them are not even in middle-management levels. Reservations have raised the hackles of the upper castes, who argue that they are poor and backward too and now need special protection because every other social group in India seems to have them. A member of the Constitution Drafting Committee had remarked: "I am prepared for the abolition of reservations, provided very Harijan (dalit) family gets 10 acres of wet land, 20 acres of dry land and all the children of Harijans are educated, free of cost, up to the university course, and give one-fifth of the key posts either in civilian or in military departments". Any takers?