How to be free of caste
As India marks the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar this week, it must acknowledge the pervasiveness of discrimination and confront it head-on
This year, India has sponsored the observation of the birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar at the United Nations for the first time. The Permanent Mission of India to the UN shall commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of the Dalit icon on April 13 at the UN headquarters, a day before his date of birth, with an international seminar on ‘Combating inequalities to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’. A note circulated by the Indian mission says that the “national icon” remains an inspiration for millions of Indians and proponents of equality and social justice across the globe. “Fittingly, although it’s a matter of coincidence, one can see the trace of Babasaheb’s radiant vision in the SDGs adopted by the UN General Assembly to eliminate poverty, hunger and socio-economic inequality by 2030.”
Juxtapose this with a recent report on caste-based discrimination by the United Nations Human Right Council’s Special Rapporteur for minority issues that has stung the Indian government, provoking it to raise questions about the lack of “seriousness of work” in the UN body and the special rapporteur’s mandate. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, would definitely not be pleased. Nor are the Dalit rights activists in India and abroad.
Precept and practice
This is the most recent example of India’s hypersensitivity on discussing the caste issue at any UN forum — the objections raised by the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in Geneva to the March 2016 report of Special Rapporteur Rita Izsák-Ndiaye of Hungary. Her report characterised caste-based discrimination as that based on “descent”, labour stratification, untouchability practices and forced endogamy and said that this was a “global phenomena” that impacted more than 250 million people worldwide — largely in India, but also in countries as diverse as Yemen, Japan and Mauritania. Her report cited India’s National Crime Records Bureau data to highlight that there were increasing atrocities against Scheduled Castes — an increase in reported crimes of 19 per cent in 2014 compared to the previous year. The report mentions that despite legislative prohibition of manual scavenging, the state has institutionalised the practice with “local governments and municipalities employing manual scavengers”.
Earlier, during the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, when there was a major effort by Indian NGOs to include casteism on the agenda, the Indian government had vehemently opposed it. Ashok Bharti, chair of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations, recently told a Web publication: “The whole government suffers from a mindset of the upper castes, that are victims of their own guilt and will therefore try to hide their faults.” He said that if the Indian government had done so well in supporting Dalits, “why have there been thousands of cases of atrocities in the past 25 years? How many perpetrators have been punished? If domestic pressures and remedies do not work, internationalisation was a viable option to seek improvement in the status of Dalits.”
The lesson from all this which India must learn is what the then UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diène of Senegal, said a decade ago to the international conference on ‘Human Rights and Dignity of Dalit Women’ in November 2006 at The Hague: “You have to go beyond the law. You have to get to the identity constructions. How, over centuries, the Indian identity has been constructed. All forms of discrimination can be traced historically and intellectually. One of the key strategies of the racist, discriminating communities is to make us believe that discrimination is natural, that it is part of nature, and that you have to accept it. This is part of their ideological weapon and it is not true. Discrimination does not come from the cosmos. Caste-based discrimination can be retraced and deconstructed to combat it. Please engage in this ethical and intellectual strategy to uproot what is building and creating the culture and mentality of discrimination.”
Even 68 years after Independence, Dalits and Adivasis continue to face mind-boggling social discrimination and spine-chilling atrocities across the country. One in four Indians admits to practising caste untouchability in some form in their homes — this shocking fact has been revealed by a mega pan-India survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland, U.S. Indians belonging to virtually every religious and caste group, including Muslims, Christians, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, admit to practising untouchability, shows the India Human Development Survey (IHDS-II) of 2011-12. Mere tokenism and lip service will not do. India needs to jettison the centuries-old dehumanising baggage of caste stigma once and for all. It should have nothing to hide but see the reality as it is and confront the issues involved head-on.
Towards a transformation
If India has to move ahead to a caste-free nation, the need is for an all-embracing, inclusive pan-India social movement of social and cultural transformation. Ambedkar showed the way: “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.” In fact, the Dalit political vision today not only encompasses the most oppressed, exploited and marginalised sections of the caste system but also other sections which took on the Brahminical hegemony in 1970s and 1980s — the backward castes and Adivasis. The Dalit political vision has now moved beyond the rhetoric of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the factions of the Republican Party and the decorative Dalit politicos in the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United) et al or even the low-caste-based Maoist organisations. New social movements like SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) in Gujarat, NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan) in Madhya Pradesh and MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan) in Rajasthan among others have fundamentally broadened the Dalit political vision.
The suicide of Rohith Vemula has exposed why attempts to co-opt Ambedkar as a ‘Hindu reformer’ cannot succeed due to inherent ideological contradictions. The challenge posed by the Ambedkar Students’ Association at the Hyderabad Central University to the Brahminical hegemony of Hindutva represented by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is in the very logic of the Dalit political vision.
Now, integrating social and cultural transformation with an economic alternative is critical. Our tryst with destiny can go on and on. But let us grab this moment of truth. So that we can “redeem our pledge”, which has remained unredeemed for more than 68 years, to make conditions for the last men and women representing the Adivasis and Dalits, the marginalised and poor people of India to give unto themselves what is truly theirs. That is the challenge before the people of India.
Suhas Borker is Editor, Citizens First TV (CFTV), and Convener, Working Group on Alternative Strategies, New Delhi.