North Beach turns into ideas
The decision was deliberate. I wore a starched kurta churidar pajama because it had given me a distinct identity. Plus, with the "end caste" discrimination badge in place at the second button, anxious mediapersons could easily approach me to learn about India's caste system. The party had just begun. Carpeted by clean sands and accompanied by a cool breeze and the musical sound of the tides, Durban's North Beach was a unique host, where the Indian ocean appeared to have transformed herself into a willing waitress, sprinkling waters at regular intervals. Most of the guests, middle aged, young and adolescents alike, were drenched, as if waiting to be drowned in sleek scotch bottles. Most were casually dressed, some virtually quasi-dressed and many telling nature: "you sent us this way".
Organised by the WCAR Secretariat, it was called "The Media Party", where all the 1,100 mediapersons registered here were invited. Since each was allowed to take guests, many young faces had sneaked in. It is this section which had challenged the ocean tides in such an amazing display of youthfulness and life that I wondered, "Do we need the famous South African coal to run our turbines?"
Anna Laxmaih, Vinay and another colleague Shyamala had decided against joining the party. I was accompanied by Chakrapani Ghanta, a lecturer of Sociology at Hyderabad. Since everything was free, I decided to honour the Jamaican rum and beef, apparently reared in Zulu land. The milky floodlights were amazing and equally amazing was the lighting system. The lights would go off slowly but come back in a flash, turning night into day. My legs spread on one chair and my plate and glass on another, I was comfortably placed, enjoying a memorable evening. Meanwhile, Chakrapani had disappeared into the wind and I was left alone. Offers came to join in the dancing but each time people approached, I declined. The party was for food, drink, dance, music, friends and organised for the tired journalistic fraternity. Hardly any place for ideas.
Then, at about 10 at night, came Dino Kritsiotis, a law professor in London. He wished me and, certain of my Dalit identity, posed the crucial question with which we had been confronted for the past 10 days. "Please explain to me, and explain convincingly, how caste discrimination can be more vicious than racism," he asked. I explained everything, land holding patterns, occupational rigidity, education, history, the Dalits' demographic location and elaborated on the minutest of details. I wanted to "convert" him but he was only half convinced. "How can they identify someone as a Dalit and then discriminate, you all look alike?"
As I had learnt over the days, I flashed out the ultimate weapon in my armoury, In Search of a Dalit Journalist, the masterpiece authored by BN Uniyal in 1996. In a more persuasive tone, I posed, "There are a quarter of a billion Dalits in India but not a single Dalit journalist in any of Delhi's media establishments." The professor's mouth remained half open for several seconds, his eyes glued to mine. "Is it true," he asked? "Read the piece," I replied. "Can I now be allowed to equate casteism with racism," I asked?
Then, I repeated my story: the easiest thing to know about an individual in India is his/her caste and difficult to accept if he/she happens to be a Dalit! Meanwhile, a young Black girl from USA, who was standing nearby and listening to our conversation, joined in, wishing to know more about caste. Since she too was a journalist, I turned to her and said, "Among a quarter billion Dalit population in India, there is not a single Dalit anchor or news reader or news editor." She was at a loss and probably thought, "This gentleman must be exaggerating." Or so I thought from the look on her face.
While we talked, a few more people gathered. There was a white lady from Durban, who had been to India for three months but hadn't met a Dalit. We sat down on the sands and the dialogue turned into a monologue. "You know, there are newspapers which have been in existence for over five, seven and even 10 decades but have never published a lead article written by a Dalit on their edit pages," said I. "Tell me, can racism ever become or was it ever as brutal and vicious as the casteism that one finds in India?"
While the party was still on, I thought of BN Uniyal, who wasn't there in Durban but could smile back home for having given us an instrument with which to define caste-based discrimination. North Beach had turned into ideas and the final word from me: "Think of Dalits and think of them. If the intelligentsia practises apartheid, then make your own judgment about landlords and the industrialists."