The insulted and the injured

By Kuldip Nayar

"I feel that no penance that the Hindu may do can, in any way, compensate for the calculated degradation to which they have consigned the depressed classes for centuries. But I know that the separate electorate is neither a penance nor any remedy for the crushing degradation they have groaned under." This is what Mahatma Gandhi wrote to the British government when it proposed to grant a separate electorate to the depressed classes - the untouchables. He was against a separate electorate for Muslims as well. But it was the separation of the shudra, the untouchable, from the main body of Hindus that he could not contemplate. He went on a fast unto death against the proposal. Rabindra Nath Tagore wore a black robe to register his support. Gandhi succeeded. But the person who really accommodated him was B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the depressed classes. (His birthday falls this week). The British gave in only when he accepted the 'Poona Pact', which reserved seats for his flock, with a joint electorate. The other gain from Gandhi's fast was that most Hindu temples were flung open to untouchables. This was in April 1932. After 68 years, the situation has not changed substantially. Temples remain open but the hearts of the caste Hindus are closed. Gandhi called an untouchable by the name of Harijan, son of God, to shame caste Hindus. But their conscience has irked them very little.

Untouchability is banned in free India. But the law is only on paper. A religion with caste as its social base is incapable of equality and fraternity. More than 20 crore people live without any dignity and honor. In fact, there is the religious belief that God has created shudra, the lower caste, as Manu says, to punish them for 'their sins' in the past birth. Discrimination has been consecrated and institutionalized. The social structure of Hindu society has got stratified. This is reflected in living, attitude and behavior. The countryside is particularly dotted with separate habitats, separate drinking-water wells and separate schools. Even when segregated, the untouchables are beaten at places for wearing clothes of good quality. They are beaten because they have used the utensils made of metals like copper and brass. Their houses are burnt for the unpardonable sin of purchasing land for cultivation. Over the years, reservations, also extended to government service, have survived because the 'Poona Pact' has been incorporated in the constitution. But the spirit of the pact - breaking the shackles of the caste system - which Ambedkar expected, is lacking.

There is no end to the agony and the humiliation of the lower castes, now called the dalits. The Blacks in the US are far better because the discrimination in their case is based on color. They can cross the segregation line. For the dalits this is not possible. Their exclusion is because of birth, which they cannot escape till death. Ambedkar was probably right when he said that the problem of untouchability was that of class struggle. It was not a case of injustice being perpetrated by one man against another. It was a case of injustice being perpetrated by one class against another. Indeed, the class and caste are co-terminus in India. As Law Minister, Ambedkar tried to deal with the reality when he drafted constitution's Article 15: "(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to _ (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public."

The constitution, which Ambedkar drafted, was egalitarian in tone and tenor. But he failed to instill in the minds of the upper castes the concept of equality and dignity. Probably no constitution can help people overcome their personal prejudice or religious bigotry. That was one of the reasons why Ambedkar was against reservations. He did not believe that a few seats in the legislatures or a few jobs in the government could improve the lot of dalits lagging far behind. The Hindu society as such must transform. "This means a complete change in the values. It means a complete change in outlook and the attitude towards men and things," he said. Reservations to him were like crutches. The lower castes must learn to stand on their own legs, he felt. Ambedkar reluctantly agreed to reservations only for a decade. But little did he realize that reservations would become a concession for automatic extension after every 10 years. Politicians, who represent the community, are content with the chaff, not agitating for changes in the Hindu religion from within for adopting a scheme of morality and ideal of justice. Even reservations are being cornered by the selected dalits. They have not even accepted the Supreme Court's verdict that the 'creamy layer among the dalits' should not be entitled to concessions. Caste Hindus must be laughing in their sleeves because the dalit leaders have reduced the battle against inequality and discrimination to a political game for reservations. They have accepted the status quo. For a pittance, the people on the periphery have been forgotten. Steps to ensure an equal status would have upset the apple cart of upper castes. The dalits have stopped short of that. Ambedkar had warned that "the political freedom means nothing and will disappear without economic and social freedom." His words have come true.

The dalits in free India are still at the bottom. Independence has only changed masters, from the white to the brown. Had the dalits made common cause with the other 'backwards' and the poor, they would have at least created some ripples in the society. It would have been a challenge to the supremacy -and smugness -of caste Hindus. In fact, the upper castes are taking away from the dalits even the credit for the few achievements they cherish. For example, they feel proud that the constitution was given to the nation by a dalit, Ambedkar. Their fear is that the Review Commission may dilute his contribution. "They do not want to accept that Dr Ambedkar was the framer of our nation's first constitution," says Dr Rahul Deepankar, a leading dalit intellectual. "The dalits fear that Brahminical power will once again take away their source of pride, as they have done in the past by naming Tulsidas as the original writer of Ramayana instead of Ravidas." Instances of similar nature must have alienated Ambedkar beyond hope. He said: "The old body must die before a new body can come into existence and a new life can enter into it. To put it simply, the old must cease to be operative before the new can begin to enliven and to pulsate. You must discard the authority of the shastras and destroy the religion of the shastra." He could not make any dent. Hinduism stayed impenetrable, with all its prejudices. After living practically his entire life as a dalit, Ambedkar came to the conclusion that he could get dignity or honor only by renouncing Hinduism. Ironically, he stayed a 'Hindu' although he embraced Buddhism. In the constitution, he had formulated, he had referred to Hindus as "persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion." EOM


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