Caste and the privelegentsia
I have just finished reading Sagarika Ghosh's The Gin Drinkers. I know Sagarika well and I wanted to be at the British Council when her book was launched.
Unavoidable personal reasons prevented me from doing so. I read later that the release function was somewhat hijacked by the peroration of Dalit columnist Chandra Bhan Prasad. And I also read, my friend Suhel Seth's resentment at this.
I am firmly convinced that it is impossible to understand Dalit sentiment unless one is a Dalit himself. Those who have been unthinkingly garnering the benefits of the centuries old Varna system in India, cannot even begin to understand the centuries of discrimination against the numerical majority in India. If Gandhiji fought for the rights of the Harijans, he also understood the reason for their anger. During a public speech in London the Mahatma once said "I have the highest regard for Dr Ambedkar. He has every right to be bitter. That he does not break our heads is an act of self-restraint on his part."
In a wonderfully lucid essay, the noted legal luminary Prof Upendra Bakshi has cited the horrifying prescriptions against untouchables in the so-called sacred Hindu texts of Manu, Yagnavalky and Narada. For instance, if an untouchable merely mentions the name of a person of high caste "with contumely", he is to be punished by inserting an iron nail 10 fingers long in his mouth. If he causes any kind of hurt to a high caste person, his limbs are to be cut of. If he sits or tries to place himself on the same level as one of a higher caste, his buttocks are to be branded and gashed. If he attempts to read the Vedas, his eyes must be gorged out. If he attempts to hear the Vedas, hot oil should be poured in both the ears. And if he attempts to recite the Vedas, his tongue must be cut off.
Fortunately many of these, punishments have been relegated to the past. But attitudes take a long time to change. Recently, I was in my home town in eastern UP. As a result of our reservations policy, the key district functionaries were from the scheduled castes. Someone known to my family, who is from the upper castes, and is well educated remarked that little can be expected in terms of progress in the district if chamars are at the helm in every area!
It is true that there is a small minority from the scheduled castes, but the creamy layer, has perhaps disproportionately benefited from the policy of reservation. However, the existence of such a minority should not prompt us to throw the baby out with the bath water. I, for one, am convinced that the policy of reservations needs to continue for much longer in order to create a level playing field for those who have been at the receiving end of an unjust social system for so many centuries.
I often come across opinions which state that the principle of merit is being sacrificed at the altar of a politically motivated policy of reservations. This argument is perhaps the most hollow of all. Merit is not the monopoly of only the upper castes. They do not have an extra cranium in their brain which is the repository of merit. Merit is a by-product of generations of opportunities and empowerment and of education and exposure, which has been institutionally denied to the bulk of our population. To quote the argument of merit when an attempt is made to rectify the inequities of the past is tantamount to saying that those who have been the beneficiaries of a flawed system have the right to perpetuate it in perpetuity to the exclusion of all others. In any case even the premise that those who are excluded from the policy of reservations are more meritorious, is open to serious question. If so many meritorious people have been running our country for so long why is it that in so many key areas we are in such a mess?
Sagarika's novel, The Gin Drinkers is remarkable for the boldness with which it confronts the privelegentsia of India with all its insular hypocrisies, and even more significantly with its growing irrelevance in the face of the increasing empowerment of the hitherto ostracised masses of India.
I understand Mr Chandra Bhan Prasad had a run party of his own recently as a parallel event to The Gin Drinkers I would have liked to be present. And I would advise my friend Suhel, in his own interest not to refuse an invitation if it comes to him.