The curse of casteism, October 14, 2000

A recent issue of Outlook magazine has an article on the insults that Dalits, the former untouchables and today's 'barely tolerable' castes, continue to face despite decades of attempts to annihilate this vicious scourge.

The magazine mentions how one particular judge at the Allahabad high court, on being given his chamber on the court premises, had it "purified" because the previous occupant was apparently a Dalit. A learned judge, who will sit in judgment on cases that may have a Dalit as an accused, has shown his prejudice. Can we expect a fair judgement from him?

On one hand, it must be admitted that in many cases, the evil of casteism has come down in India. In cities, the previous divisions that were observed by the so-called higher castes are no longer followed, Dalits today can be seen in various professions and at high levels, and India's first citizen is a Dalit.

But to say that because President K R Narayanan is a Dalit implies that Dalits are equal to other Indians is a bit like saying that because India had a woman prime minister for about 17 years, there is no discrimination against them. The truth is very different.

Today, 53 years after Independence and 50 years after the adoption of a grand Constitution, which categorically promises equality to its citizens, it is perhaps important for us to wonder why this happens.

Why does casteism in its most blighted form of inequality, of the concept of purity and impurity, continue to bedevil the minds of the so-called upper castes?

One reason is that the 'struggle' against casteism no longer exists. There is no effort to actually wipe out this benighted practice. Today, all that exists in the name of fighting casteism is reservations in some educational institutes and in government jobs. These are continuously under attack as being against "merit". But those who argue against reservations cannot explain why after so many years reservations are still needed, or what other action can and must be taken to wipe out casteism.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that the Indian state has simply given up its fight against casteism. When Dr B R Ambedkar had mandated reservations for the Dalits and tribal people, he had said it should be for a period of 10 years. He earnestly believed that in 10 years, casteism would cease to exist. He was wrong, and upper castes continue to prove him wrong.

If we wait for casteism to die a natural death, we may have to wait another millennium, or at least half a millennium. History has shown that if society is left to itself, equality among the people diminishes as does liberty decline. That is why corrective action is called for from time to time, and the price for keeping this liberty and equality for all (casteism denies this liberty and equality to some people) is eternal vigilance, eternal struggle.

But today in India, the state, the government, the establishment, and worse, the liberals of the so-called upper castes, have simply given up the concerted fight. No doubt there are symbolic gestures, but as explained above, while symbolism has its place, it can never be a substitute for genuine effort.

What else can explain the fact that today, outside the Jaipur High Court stands a statue of Manu? Manu, the greatest enemy of humanity, of liberty, equality and fraternity for all, and whose Manusmriti condemned millions of Indians to generations of servitude and deprivation. What are the Rajasthan government, the Indian government, and the people doing? How could this statue even come up?

The very fact that some lawyers actually had the temerity to erect this statue shows that they were acutely aware of the Indian state's impotence to stop them. And besides some token resistance, there has been no sustained movement to remove the statue.

To make matters worse, the Indian government follows policies - overt and covert - that actually recognise the existence and reality of caste. Let me give an example. As a college student, I stayed in the college hostel, run by the government of Maharashtra. There were many staff members, all of who had quarters within the hostel building.

When the staffers joined, they start at the bottom as room cleaners and over the decades rose to become watchmen or even clerks. All such hostel staffers were eligible for promotions except one. These were the people who cleaned the bathrooms and toilets. There were two men doing that, and they were condemned to stay at that job, regardless of the number of years they served. There was no other job, no promotion, no avenue available to them.

And to designate their different class (caste?), while all the other staff members wore a white coloured uniform, these two men wore blue.

Now, if such an employment methods, practiced by the state government, do not actually institutionalise casteism in modern India, then what else does? How can the government actually carry out an employment practice that actually segregates the toilet cleaners from the rest, never promotes them, and refuses to consider them as part of the mainstream employees?

India would do well to emulate China. On Chinese trains, each coach (or two) has an attendant. This attendant does all the jobs for the coach under him or her. This includes checking the tickets, cleaning the toilets, and serving food and water to the passengers! He or she is totally responsible for the coach and the passengers.

Imagine the impact on casteism if instead of keeping three people to do three jobs per coach, we had one person do them all. India needs to do something revolutionary to help bury the curse of casteism. The state needs to take the initiative to do something dramatic to ensure that the issue brought to the front and tackled the way it should be.

Let us remember that casteism is something that the 'upper castes' believe in, not the so-called lower ones. And thus, as Mahatma Gandhi had said, it is the upper castes who have to fight this prejudice. And unless the 'upper castes' actually do that, casteism will not disappear.

India will then be condemned to enter the 21st century in a few months time with the prejudices of the 19th century.

Amberish K Diwanji

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