We, the other people

By K. G. Kannabiran

THE SAGA of ``the other people has not ended. It is shifted to the international arena. They do not appear to be part of ``we the people''. Serious efforts to bring these ``the other people'', who are rotting as non-persons in a caste-ridden society, to the status of persons were on for some time prior to Independence. The people emerged from subjects to citizens after August 15, 1947. After the coming into force of the Constitution all of us attained a political status with well-defined rights. The most articulate representative of the other people wrote into the Constitution human values and gave it a human face. There was recognition in the Constitution that for the other people to truly become ``we the people'' specific safeguards and positive measures were necessary. Caste was not abolished by the Constitution. Provisions were made to treat all castes on a par with each other. But the other people, even after 50 years, have remained ``the other people''.

Constitutions and Gods have always been good. The problem has always been with the interpreters, lay and judicial. The Constitution makes untouchability an offence. And it persists. Bonded labour and child labour come from the ranks of the Dalits. Both the practices have been made penal and abolished by the Constitution and yet they persist. The entire administrative, judicial and political systems are still exercised by the ``upper'' castes despite large-scale movements against these hegemonic practices. A few are allowed to climb the social order as political leaders or as judges in the subordinate judiciary or as High Court Judges. In education and Government employment, the Constitution has introduced reservation as a principle of ensuring equality for the Dalits. The present ruling party at the Centre attacked reservation as the prime cause for diminishing merit and efficiency in administration, and by stoking the anti- reservation stir brought down the Government headed by Mr. V. P. Singh which stood for reservation and secularism. Thus the bogie of reservation blown out of all proportion with the reality at the ground level has created a feeling of hatred for the Dalits among the middle class intelligentsia. The rights the Dalits secured after prolonged litigation appear to offer them a quasi- freedom and a teasing illusion that they are reaching the stage of genuine acceptability into the social order as equal members. It is more difficult to fight this teasing illusion than to fight downright subjugation and the status as non-person.

In the rural areas, violence against the Scheduled Castes continues unabated. Recognising this, Parliament enacted the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, a law creating special offences which were made triable by special court. Look at the practices which continue to exist and which Parliament has identified as offences under the Act. Very few of us would have gone through the definition of ``atrocity'' in the Act; nor would many of us have heard about or witnessed the indignities to which Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are subjected continuously. Where social reformers have failed a Constitution may not succeed unless the words in the Constitution are transformed into deeds. Section 3 enumerates 22 categories of atrocities which are made punishable. Unless we read the enumeration of the atrocities set out, we may not be in a position to understand why Ambedkar wanted to get out of the Hindu system, why the Scheduled Castes want the conduct of upper castes to be made an international issue.

The law was intended to afford speedy justice, the component of speed was to act as a deterrent. The lebensraum provided by the law to evade, defeated the law without any necessity for open defiance. The assault on Dalits is legitimised by the acquittal of assailants in courts. The offences under the Act were made triable by a Special Court whose presiding officer shall be a sessions Judge. This is entrusted to the Special Court for purposes of speedy trial, an aspect of Article 21 of the Constitution. This was interpreted by the apex court to mean that like all other criminal offences it should pass through the committal proceedings before a magistrate. This enactment now remains only in the statute book and will slowly fall into desuetude. All this is achieved without the help of a loaded jury system as in the U.S. Thus we have laws, constitutional provisions showcased to tell international bodies through the obliging Attorney-Generals that the caste of the Dalits cannot be equated with race.

James Baldwin, the African-American writer, in one of his essays ``Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation'', sets down the condition of the Blacks which is no different from the untouchables in India. He points out to his nephew, ``you were born where you were born and faced a future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society, which spelt out with brutal clarity, in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.'' This is what the caste system tells the untouchable. The slaves were not transplanted in the United States to give them democracy. The promise of democracy was not made to them. In India, despite the grandiloquent declarations in the Constitution, birth and descent is the criteria. The identification of this targeted collective of 160 million is not difficult; nor is it the issue. Racial discrimination targets the Blacks for trying to rise above the subservient status allotted to them. They and the Dalits are needed for the performance of hard labour in the fields and for performing menial chores. They should be, to better function in their allotted status, quarantined and rendered invisible. Every society has such collectives who are targeted for such discrimination and violence and the perpetuation of such a collective can only be by descent. The principle of power is at issue and not some sociological definition or description of caste which does not tally with the meaning of race.

The 160 million Dalits are demanding that untouchability and other forms of discrimination based on descent practised in India be equated with or included in racial discrimination and other related intolerances. Arguments based on sovereignty to bar scrutiny of obnoxious and obscurantist practices violating human rights and dignity are irrational. Identification have never been an obstacle to employing discriminatory practices and violence against Dalits.

The caste system in India and the hereditary untouchability and the irrational and violent conduct these practices engender are crimes against humanity under the International Criminal Code.

(The writer is national president, People's Union of Civil Liberties.)

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 9, 2001
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