Untouchability Is No 'Internal Matter'

Had there been a conscientized dalit journalist accompanying the president to France, we could have seen a different kind of reaction - not one of panic, guilt and embarrassment that one saw - to what the French media had reported.


Which Indian blood's would not boil on reading the Le Figaro headline: 'An Untouchable at Elysee Palace'?

K K Katyal, pontificating in his weekly column in The Hindu ('The President and the press', 24 April, 2000). Of course, the blood of the entire media contingent that accompanied president K R Narayanan to France in April would have boiled. They would not, however, be offended that untouchability is still a fact of life in India. There was collective consensual 'anger' because the French media had touched a raw nerve; it had, unintentionally perhaps, drawn international attention to an inescapable social reality in India that the upper-caste controlled media here would best like to wish out of existence by denial. Whatever the routine agenda-bound diplomatic achievements of Narayanan's France visit, the repeated references to the president as an 'untouchable' and the Indian media's holier-than-thou reporting of the same have inadvertently helped the dalit movement in this country which has been working towards getting the international community, especially the United Nations, to treat caste as a source of human rights violation, akin to race-based discrimination.

For instance, the 'National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights', which began on 10 Dec. 1998 and concluded at Chennai on 18-19 April, 2000 with a two-day 'national public hearing' on atrocities perpetrated against dalits all over the country, intends precisely this. Among the demands listed in its 'national campaign manifesto' are that the UN should "urgently recognise that 'dalit rights are human rights'; urgently appoint a special rapporteur or working group on the practice of untouchability in Asia; urgently take steps to include caste discrimination in Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination." This is not to say that the French media referring to the Indian president as an untouchable will directly facilitate a realisation of the above demands. Of course, the French papers - Le Figaro, Le Monde, and France Soir - would have had their reasons to play up the news in a sensational manner and they certainly would not score points for 'sensitive' reporting. Yet, it is fact that upper-caste Indians assume a high moral ground to any 'foreign' report that (for whatever orientalist reasons) exposes the realities of caste-based discrimination in the country. The editor of Le Figaro, Michael Schifres, did offer a personal apology to Narayanan for unintentionally having hurt him. And Seema Mustafa, reporting for The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle, noted self-congratulatorily that "the apology comes after the media accompanying the president reported extensively on the matter. The official reaction initially was to downplay the incident lest it mar the final message of the presidential visit" (20 April). Seema Mustafa also reported how the Indian mediapersons asked the French if the western media would today take kindly a reference to a black as 'negro/nigger'. The thrust was that the French papers should have used the politically correct 'dalit'; to which the French journalists replied that such a term would not have made sense to their readers; and understandably so. And what does Seema think is the moral of this story? "(C)learly, the foreign office has to work extensively to correct French perception of India."

The reaction of Katyal, who reported Narayanan's visit to France for The Hindu, is much the same. He talks of how we must ensure that "such perceptions of India abroad" must be corrected, and how "the Paris episode would serve a useful purpose if it sensitises the foreign office to the need for a close look at the state of press relations abroad and to undertake an overhaul." It does/ did not, however, occur to either Katyal, Seema or other upper-caste/ class journalists that such "episodes" call for a greater need for both Indian society and the state to take stronger measures to tackle caste and untouchability practices in India; the need to ensure that the press in India performs a more useful role in exposing the untouchability and caste discrimination; the need to set an agenda to cast out caste. (Katyal, of course, consoles himself with "Untouchability is an offence in India", but he - like most secular-liberal Indians of various hues - appears wilfully ignorant of the limitations of mere statutory provisions that render social problems like untouchability or domestic violence an offence.)

We may safely assume that there was no dalit among the media delegates who were rewarded a 'foreign jaunt' (as it is known in journalistic circles). (Refer journalist B N Uniyal's article in The Pioneer, 'Wanted, a dalit journalist', on 1 Nov. 1996. Not much has changed since.) Had there been a conscientized dalit journalist accompanying the president to France, we could have seen a different kind of reaction - not one of panic, guilt and embarrassment that one saw - to what the French media had reported.

But then, soon after his return to India, Narayanan, who had apparently not responded while in France, punctured the Indian media's morally superior line by pointing out that the French newspapers' description of him an as untouchable was only a reflection of what the Indian media had been writing about him. Narayanan referred to how in the last three years since he became president the Indian press has been keeping the issue alive by writing about it 'day in and day out'. "I am used to this for a long time. I am used to this kind of publicity in the Indian media, of being an untouchable in Rashtrapathi Bhavan." (23 April, Deccan Chronicle). Even this did not force a rethink among Indian journalists. Katyal in his edit-page reflections preferred to dwell upon what the PR department of the foreign office should have done, and should be doing in the future, to avoid such episodes.

The mere fact that today a dalit is the symbolic head of the Indian state does not mean that all the dalits of the country have been 'liberated', have attained their full human rights. In fact, Narayanan even as the president of the nation, would have (had) to contend with some amount of discriminatory practice in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Here one must remember that Indira Gandhi, at the height of her power as prime minister, preferred not to press the issue when she was not allowed entry into the Guruvayoor temple for not being a 'hindu', despite having married Feroze Gandhi in a 'hindu' ceremony. Renowned musician K J Yesudas cannot still enter that temple despite being a great bhakta. The mother of a brahman (no less) friend of mine who sought to have darshan of the Kanchi Shankaracharya was turned away because she was a widow and the very sight/ seeing of her would 'pollute' the pontiff. (These incidents had nothing to do with the BJP. There is a need to acknowledge that post-independence India has been unofficially prescribing to hindutva and the BJP has only made it the official credo.)

However, the Indian state and the caste hindus who control the state apparatus have perhaps been most eloquent in condemning apartheid in western societies while at the same time being wilfully blind to the apartheid that is practised here-in villages, dalit-wadas stand separated from the main hub; we also have all-dalit villages. And it is the state and the brahmanical social order which play a crucial role in keeping these physical separations intact by arranging for separate borewells and even separate housing facilities for dalits. Urban centres fare no better. Newspaper advertisements which say 'house for rent... only for brahmans' are commonplace and are not seen as an expression of the equivalent a racist attitude by caste hindus. (Indian journalists cannot be expected to write in their columns how there is an urgent need to legislate against people who place such advertisements/ or ask such questions of prospective tenants.) People, once born into a caste, are either content or are forced to live, breathe, eat, defecate, marry, fuck, give birth and die that caste. As Ambedkar says, 'hinduism' is perhaps the only religion where birth-based inequality is scripturally backed, has divine sanction. Whereas in the West today the demand for more black and women judges is not something that is mocked at, but is an accepted method of correcting historical wrongs, in India the mere suggestion that we need more dalits and women in the judiciary is seen as a joke by the upholders of 'merit', which is a mere euphemism for birth into an 'upper-caste' household. It is this culture of brahman-friendly meritocracy that has produced judges who declaim, as in the Bhanwari Devi case, that 'an upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman'; and not surprisingly, the supreme judicial authority of the country declared hindutva to be 'a way of life' (after all, it is a way of life for the judges who pronounce such verdicts as caste hindus and not simply as judges). And when journalists report such 'episodes' as the one in Paris, they report as caste hindus who would prefer to treat such matters as an 'internal affair'.

While Indian journalists would themselves not be too keen to report untouchability practices, our media does wake up to the documentation of the same - say, the two-tumbler system - by a foreign newspaper or broadcasting agency. Take, for instance, a page-one report in The Indian Express (March 23, 1999) on US reactions to a CBS TV programme 60 minutes, which "took a scathing look at the practice of untouchability" in modern-day India. The report, datelined Washington, pointed out that "In 15 minutes, the CBS cameras captured the shame of India: the daily ritual humiliation that millions of so-called untouchables undergo far away from the elite, who are in denial." The TV story anchored by Christiane Amonpour, an American-Iranian CNN reporter, reportedly had some "disturbing footage" of women lifting human excreta, dalits in Tamilnadu not being allowed to draw water from public wells, etc.

An Amonpour report on CBS is more likely to make it to the front page of an Indian newspaper than a similar report by a rural stringer. It is the same indifference of the largely upper-caste controlled Indian media that led the dalit political leader, Dr K Krishnasamy of the Puthiya Tamizhagam, to resort to highlighting the plight of Tamilnadu's dalits in international fora in 1999 in the wake of the caste clashes in the state. He had invited the wrath of the local media for "arranging visits" by foreign media personnel to come and look at the atrocities perpetrated on dalits in Tamilnadu. (And for all one knows, the CBS story by Amonpour might have originated with a Krishnasamy invite.)

Such reactions are of a piece with the general reaction of caste hindus to any non-'swadeshi' attempt to take a hard look at caste or gender oppression in India. Katherine Mayo's polemical tract, Mother India (1927), was reviled by upper-caste 'nationalists' because it was inspired by 'imperialist' motives. While M K Gandhi dismissed it as a drain inspector's report and several upper-caste women's movement members vehemently opposed Mayo's thesis, Kovai A Ayyamuthu of the Self-Respect Movement of Tamilnadu, a comrade of Periyar E V Ramasamy, was alive to the incidental positive fallouts of Mayo's work and rebutted the brahmanical charges against the book in his 'Mayo's Charges: True or False' (1929). Of course, Ayyamuthu and his fellow Self-Respecters were also quick to point out that Mayo's "book was written with an overbearing attitude and with the intention of strengthening white dominion over the world. Undoubtedly, her intentions were to strengthen the iron hold of the British over India. I too condemn Miss Mayo's ill motives, her sinister intentions..." (qtd. in Mrinalini Sinha 1998, 295). More importantly, we also have textual evidence of a dalit reaction of those times to Mayo's work. Bhagat Ram, a representative of the Audi Achhut [Depressed Classes] Sabha of Ferozepur Cantonment, Punjab, praised Mother India, corresponded with the author and was extremely critical of the 'nationalist' attacks on the work (Sinha 58).

On 31 August, 1982 Dr Laxmi Berwa testified to the UN Sub-commission on Human Rights and began his speech thus: "Today is a big day in the history of millions of Untouchables when their concern is raised in a world body like the United Nations Human Rights Sub-commission. Many of you who are not familiar with the Indian caste system must be wondering who these Untouchables are. As one of them I would like to tell you what it is like to be an Untouchable in India" (Barbara Joshi 1986, 136). And what was the 'official' Indian reaction to the testimony? The Indian official in Geneva reminded Dr Berwa and the UN that 'it is an internal matter' (See Editorial, Indian Express, 7 October, 1982). And the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, told Berwa's US-based organisation (VISION - Volunteers in Service to India's Oppressed and Neglected) that "It does not help for those who are living in affluence abroad to comment on situations about which they have no knowledge" (qtd. in Joshi, 137). (Note that the hindutva agenda is largely funded by NRIs.) The same year, Kanshi Ram, then president of BAMCEF, represented dalits and other minorities at the International Conference Against Discrimination in Osaka. Barbara Joshi, a 'foreigner', in her Untouchable!: Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement (1986) notes that in 1983 a coalition of dalit organisations "supported further UN testimony, this time by Shri Bhagwan Das, an Indian Supreme Court lawyer and pioneering Dalit publisher and activist. Das subsequently addressed the 1984 World Conference on Religion and Peace at Nairobi, Kenya, much against the wishes of the official Indian delegation at the conference" (136).

For an illustrative and definitive marxist response to the question of caste and untouchability we must look at what E M S Namboodiripad had to say of the Poona Pact in his History of the Indian Freedom Struggle. "[T]his was a great blow to the freedom movement. For this led to the diversion of the people's attention from the objective of full independence to the mundane cause of the upliftment of the Harijans" (qtd. in Gail Omvedt 1994, 177). Nehru, the man who made love to 'modernity' in India in public, was also rather impatient with the such 'side-issues'. When Gandhi announced his fast at Yeravada against the 'communal' Ramsay Macdonald Award, Nehru was upset that Gandhi should choose "a side-issue for his final sacrifice - just a question of electorate. What would be the result of our freedom movement? Would not the larger issues fade into the background...? ... was our movement to tail off into something insignificant?" (Autobiography qtd. in Chatterjee 1986, 131).

While the right-wing hindutvawadis are quite unperturbed by such issues as caste, untouchability and women's oppression, and are rather clear in their stance that they need not be resolved/ tackled since they are part of 'hindu culture', the secular-liberals are prone to official/ quasi-official disavowals of the same. 'Modern' secular-liberals of different hues and upper-class hindus and muslims continue to trivialise these issues despite post-Mandal politics and the anti-caste dalit movement. And their treatment of the same - as most recently illustrated in the secular-liberal/ upper-caste reactions to the Paris episode - is only more discreet, unnoticeable and less crude vis--vis the hindutvawadis'. Nehru and Namboodiripad, Katyal and Seema Mustafa, are, in fact, to be counted among the critics of hindutva. But it is their selective appropriation of modernity that makes them feel embarrassed when 'non-modern' issues such as caste and untouchability are raised in public fora, especially in international fora. There has thus been an indefinite postponement of issues and a refusal to confront them, unwittingly reinforcing the grand hindu narrative of 'unshakeable stability and continuity through timelessness' (sanatana dharma).

We must remember that another site of modernity, parliament, was in session at the time of the Paris episode. However, the issue never figured in parliament. Neither did the Opposition MPs seek to question the apparent unpreparedness of the foreign office nor did the dalit MPs seek to make a point about the non-diplomatic implications of the French press coverage. This is only reflective of the reluctance to publicly discuss caste, though privately we are content to lead lives which are largely overdetermined by caste; caste is deemed an undesirable element in the modernisation project, though modernity is negotiated by the 'upper' castes always by retaining caste benefits/ privileges. Modernity is rendered caste-compatible, but ever so discreetly. The dalit movement demands that Indian society has to be decasted - with dalits being the only people who have no caste (avarnas), being outside the pale of caste. However, ironically, the assertion of jati identity, the emergence of 'caste consciousness' among hitherto suppressed caste groups - what the liberal-secularists and leftists would label 'casteism' - has become a pervasive social phenomenon. And despite this heightened (sub)caste consciousness, the hindutva defenders of caste system, who also parade as votaries of modernity and liberalisation, oppose caste in the census (something the inaugurator of western modernity in India, the British, had no problems with). The left-liberals, too, oppose such an exercise. The overall, operative logic here is: retain caste but officially deny it. Have a dalit as president but keep saying: he is president not because he is a dalit, but because he is a great scholar, a great diplomat, a statesman... so much so that the travesty becomes the truth. As if an overdose of modernity can render dalitness/ caste invisible. And when the reality explodes in your face, through some French paper's headline, it is time to begin the charade all over.

There is no escaping the fact that a brahman president would not have acomplished what Narayanan has. The hindutva dispensation at the Centre has been troubled by having a dalit for president. Narayanan has time and again spoken his mind on issues which he has deemed significant. Be it in his 'note' to the government and the brahman chief justice of the country, A S Anand, drawing attention to the fact that there is a need for better and proportionate representation of dalits and women in the judiciary, his observations about what should not be done with the constitution, his republic day-eve address where he raised his voice about the condition of dalits, women and adivasis and about the 'privileged classes getting tired of affirmative action', or his gentle reprimanding of the president of United States of America during a banquet dinner, Narayanan has proved that it is not merely incidental that we today have a dalit as the president. It is also not merely incidental that, on the other hand, we have a brahman prime minister in A B Vajpayee presiding over an unabashedly regressive agenda. Unlike his predecessors who were more in the news for their countless visits to temples (at the expense of the state), for falling at the feet of self-styled babas and acharyas in public forums, and for presiding over vedic sammelans, Narayanan has brought respectability and meaning to the office he occupies. Our dalit president has been vocal about issues which the privileged castes of our country refuse to acknowledge. And the BJP-RSS would certainly be working on what the next president should not be. S/he would not be a dalit.


Nehru, Jawaharlal. Cited in Partha Chatterjee (1986) Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? OUP, New Delhi.

Berwa, Laxmi. In Joshi, Barbara (1986): Untouchable: Voices of Dalit Liberation Movement; Zed Books, London.

Namboodiripad E M S. Cited in Omvedt, Gail (1994). Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial in India. Sage, New Delhi.

Sinha, Mrinalini Ed. (1998): Selections form Mother India, Katherine Mayo (1927), Kali, New Delhi.

(anand, madras-based journalist-activist, can be contacted at ands@ambedkar.org)

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