The Scourge Of Bias Legislation hasn't changed mindsets. Discrimination on caste lines is still a reality.

By Davinder Kumar

"I do not want to be reborn. But if I have to be reborn, I should be born an untouchable, so that I may share their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts levelled at them, in order that I may endeavour to free myself and them from their miserable condition." - M.K. Gandhi

Fifty-three years after independence, it's still a curse to be born a lower caste. A grim reminder of this came last fortnight when Congress MP Vayalar Ravi discovered that the head priest of Thrissur's Guruvayur temple had ordered a purification ceremony after his son was married there. The priest claims to have been prompted by the fact that Ravi's wife is a Christian. But Ravi, who belongs to the obc Ezhava caste, has accused the priest of practicing untouchability and political parties representing the community are up in arms.

That this could happen to a senior politician who was once the state's home minister demonstrates the persistence of the social evil of untouchability. Instances abound.

In August, Bharthari Prasad, a scheduled caste (SC) judicial officer, approached the Supreme Court after the Allahabad High Court dismissed his petition challenging the UP government's order compulsorily retiring him. The reason he incurred the wrath of the government was because he refused to contradict press reports saying his successor A.K. Srivastava had 'purified' the court premises with 'Ganga jal.' In a special leave petition filed before the apex court, Prasad's counsel Surya Kant described his compulsory retirement as "clearly mala fide being accentuated with caste bias". The case is expected to come up for hearing before a bench headed by Chief Justice A.S. Anand later this month.

Untouchability and caste discrimination exists not only among illiterate ruralfolk but at the highest levels of the bureaucracy and government. ias officers, superintendents of police and income-tax commissioners have all complained of discrimination. These officials have not been promoted, have been labelled corrupt or subjected to harassment because of their caste.

Allegations of discrimination (denial of promotion and harassment through transfers) and practicing of untouchability against SC officials keep pouring in. In the two years beginning '98, the National Commission for SCs and STs received a whopping 14,889 complaints countrywide. Similarly, in the last two years, 345 such cases were reported from the ministry of finance and 221 from the railway ministry. All this shows that despite the government's clamour, untouchability continues to flourish.

"We must admit honestly that the fight against untouchability has not succeeded. Gandhiji's approach was that people on their own should give up this practice. But this hasn't percolated to the people," says Sailesh Bandopadhyaya, secretary, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi. Adds joint secretary B.S. Parsheera of the sc/st Commission: "Considering the kind of complaints we get, one can say the country is still grappling with the curse of untouchability. Sometimes the discrimination takes place even at the level of administration. It is a very common practice among states to divert the funds meant for welfare of SCs and STs for other purposes. This is just one example."

The records at the National Commission for SCs and STs, which enjoys the powers of a civil court while investigating complaints of discrimination, show even senior ias and ips officers are not spared this ignominy. For instance, take Anil Kumar, an ias officer from Haryana currently under suspension for allegedly misappropriating funds in the construction works that were executed when he was deputy commissioner of Rohtak last year. Kumar claims to have been victimised by chief minister Om Prakash Chautala as he had refused to order recounting in the Rohtak constituency during the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in which Chautala's father Devi Lal lost by a slender margin. Fearing further adverse action from the state, Kumar has obtained anticipatory bail. The officer now lives in Chandigarh and shuttles between home and the commission headquarters at Delhi's Lok Nayak Bhavan to get the suspension order revoked.

Similarly, ips officer J.C. Kaushal is engaged in a protracted battle with the Himachal Pradesh administration. He has been denied his promotion and harassed because of his caste. The commission called for all the records from the state and subsequently found that Kaushal's allegations were true. It observed that Kaushal's annual confidential report was deliberately tampered with and subsequently he was denied the post of deputy inspector general of police which he deserved. But Kaushal's battle is far from over. The state has not implemented the commission's verdict.

R.S. Harit was the chief manager (rates), Northern Railway, before he was retired without pension and gratuity in '92. He alleges caste discrimination. Chargesheeted by the railways for official misconduct in '92 and denied his promotion and subsequently retirement benefits, Harit approached the commission. The chargesheet against Harit was declared invalid but he still awaits relief. "Right since 1985 when I was placed under my juniors in the panel for the divisional railway manager's post, I suffered throughout in my career for being a Dalit," he says. "The chargesheet was served to me around the time when I was due to be promoted as chief commercial manager. Perhaps many didn't like the idea of a Dalit rising to such a high post. Untouchability's become all the more rampant today."

So does this mean Indian society has failed to root out untouchability and caste discrimination? Explains political psychologist Ashis Nandy of the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies: "These examples do not indicate that we are back to square one. In fact, what it shows is that despite vast improvement in the overall situation, we haven't progressed in many areas during the last few decades."

It appears that reservation has invited a backlash. The popular perception is that undeserving candidates are being given jobs - and now being promoted - at the expense of upper castes. Says Nandy: "As far as discrimination at the workplace is concerned, reservation in jobs is one of the reasons behind the negative attitude towards the Dalits by upper castes. But, we will have to pay the price for the oppression of Dalits which went on for ages."

Discrimination at the workplace manifests itself in various forms. Employees who have come in through the reservation quota are seen by their upper-caste colleagues as lacking in intelligence and professional skills. This is ascribed to their lower-caste background. Agrees Yogendra Singh of Jawaharlal Nehru University: "It is the regressive tendencies of upper castes who look upon the issue politically."

In fact, SCs occupying powerful positions are not insulated. B. Sayama Sudha, deputy commissioner of income-tax, Hyderabad, has petitioned the commission that despite an impeccable track record in service, adverse remarks were entered in his 1998-99 annual confidential report to block his promotion. This, he claimed was because he is a Dalit.

In October last year, five Dalit officers of the Madhya Pradesh State Civil Services approached the commission to petition against the state government's decision to review the recommendations of the departmental promotion committee. The committee had shortlisted 14, including these five officers, for promotion to the ias cadre. But the state government ordered a second review and the five SC officers feared that their names would be dropped to accommodate upper-caste contenders. The commission upheld their complaint and ruled out a second review. Says Kameshwar Paswan, vice-chairman of the commission: "Untouchability has acquired a different form today. At the workplace, Dalits are belittled and their sentiments deliberately hurt. The SC and ST employees are often made objects of ridicule in government offices. It is shocking to note that none - not even ias officers - have escaped this bias."

Untouchability and caste discrimination persists because of a deep-rooted regressive social attitude. The reservation policy was introduced to undo this. It may have strengthened them politically but in government services, they continue to be insulted and humiliated. And according to those who deal with problems faced by the Dalits, it is a long struggle ahead. Asserts Paswan: "If somebody asks me why have reservation, I say, until a Dalit makes it to the seat of Shankaracharya, reservation will remain in this country."

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In the two years beginning 1998, the National Commission for SCs and STs received nearly 15,000 complaints from around the country.
A Kerala temple priest does a purification rite after an Ezhava's marriage.
"If somebody asks me why have reservation, I say, until a Dalit makes it to the seat of Shankaracharya, reservations will remain in this country."

The Ten Worst Ministries

MINISTRY: Cases1998-00*

Finance: 345
Railways: 221
Human Resource Devp.: 95
Defence: 94
Information & Broadcasting: 80
Health & Family Welfare: 72
Communications: 67
Industries: 62
Tourism & Civil Aviation: 56
Home Affairs: 54

*Cases registered with the National Commission for SCs & STs

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