The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- No act of state alone can wipe out the world's oldest colour bar

Listening to that indefatigable crusader, K.B. Saxena, author of the Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, reminded me of an old story about the late Prafulla Chandra Sen turning up at Promode Dasgupta's funeral with the explanation that he tried not to miss any event connected with a fellow Baidya. The apocryphal tale highlights the complexities of a system that may be beyond the comprehension of Yozo Yokota and Chin-Sung Chung, the two rapporteurs appointed by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, as a result of intense international lobbying, to produce draft guidelines on Dalits.

It almost fazed even the English writer, Jan Morris, who bears the baggage of one of the world's most sophisticated class systems. Visiting a Dalit colony in Delhi with gloom and foreboding, expecting 'people made morose and hangdog by their status,' she was agreeably surprised to find them cheerful, welcoming and wreathed in smiles. 'Why not' Morris asks. 'They might be Harijans to the world outside, but were doubtless Brahmins to each other.'

That recalled another memory. A neighbouring family during a childhood holiday in Simultala was much taken by my sister's good looks and lamented that only the difference in caste prevented a match with the son and heir of their titled and moneyed house. Clearly, their ritualistically lower status did not rule out exclusiveness.

Of course, Baidya clannishness or rajbari snobbery are far removed from the plight of 170 million Dalits in which Washington, Strasbourg and Geneva are taking an interest. But the world's oldest colour bar, as the system has been called, doesn't exist only at the bottom. It's a pyramid whose upper tiers will collapse if the base is destroyed. The two cannot be delinked. Anyone who engages a Brahmin to perform a sradh, a marriage or some other puja is automatically, if tacitly, supporting the iniquities that doms and chamars suffer.

Here then is authority's inherent limitation. Saxena rightly claimed at the Delhi meeting I attended that India's three-pronged strategy for change is unparalleled in the world. But he also added, 'If only policy and laws could create society, we would have paradise here.' Instead, and quoting Saxena again, we 'nurture the illusion of being a superpower on the debris of manual scavenging'. The contrast says much about the perception of elitism. The precedent could not be more hallowed: ancient Greece was a democracy because all free citizens had the vote. The denial of that privilege to slaves made no difference for they did not count. Similarly, Israel is a robust democracy, but for Jews (preferably of Ashkenazi descent), not for Palestinians.

The Indian state, which now finds itself criticized by the American state department, the European Union parliament and the United Nations for maltreating Dalits, has not been inactive all these years. It has tried to stand the pyramid on its head, or, rather, stand part of it upside down. In certain situations the traditional top has been pushed below with the traditional bottom, giving the middle tiers enviable freedom. The instruments used to achieve this inversion are the official mechanism's three prongs ' protection, compensatory discrimination, and development. Apart from the Constitution, a raft of protective laws forbids customary practices and upholds social, political and economic equality.

Reservation in education and employment forms the central feature of compensatory discrimination. Development covers measures like land reform and redistribution. But perception matters more than theories. The four senior officials ' including V.P. Shetty, chairman of the Industrial Development Bank of India, and K.K. Kashyap, Maharashtra's former director-general of police ' who are accused of making casteist remarks may well be innocent. What the controversies demonstrate is that caste looms large in people's thinking. Many north Indians who call themselves something-or-other Kumar plead disinterest in a surname that reveals caste. But it is precisely because they are intensely involved that they have dropped it. Sensitivity at the top or middle, with 'backwards' insisting on various forms of compensatory privileges, will always prolong the system.

As we know, too, no act of state alone can wipe out perception. The Soviet pioneers discovered that when so many Russians ignored their dictum that god was an anachronism to be abolished by a certain date. Long before religion's triumphant official return with Boris Yeltsin attending the burial service for the murdered Romanovs, a Soviet worshipper in a St Petersburg cathedral reprimanded me for standing with my hands behind my back during the service. Respect even in the Soviet Union demanded that if hands were not folded in prayer, they should hang straight on either side as if on parade. If even Stalin's thought police could not purge Russian minds of traditional reverence, the task is infinitely more difficult in a country whose political parties thrive on exploiting sectarian allegiance.

There is no point in blaming Bharatiya Janata Party rule for washing away all pretence of the scientific temper that was Jawaharlal Nehru's ideal. The Congress has always harboured its influential obscurantist wing. Jayaprakash Narayan's total revolution took care to bypass those Bihar districts where his caste brethren were the biggest landowners. And the Bahujan Samaj Party's Vishal Brahmin Mahasammelan was caste politics through the looking glass.

It is the state's failure that few cases are ever filed under protective laws and fewer ' under 12 per cent ' lead to conviction. The Bombay high court's decision to order Shetty's release because the alleged offence was committed in a private office and not in public, resembles the Madras high court's acquittal in 1973 of 23 landlords accused of burning 43 Dalit men, women and children to death in their huts. The judge's rationale was that men of their rank would hire others to do their dirty work while 'keeping themselves in the background'.

The Shiv Sena wins elections by campaigning against protection. Uttar Pradesh's rulers drop a quiet hint to the police that they are not really expected to file cases. Land pattas do not lead to possession in Madhya Pradesh. Bihar and Rajasthan are openly casteist. Reservation is effective only in the lowest category of state employees, and then, too, mainly for lavatory cleaners. Saxena says reform is frustrated by political apathy, bureaucratic bias and ' more surprisingly ' civil society's apparently unrelenting hostility. No less surprising, he accuses the World Bank, economic liberalization and globalization of reinforcing prejudice. What is most shortsighted, however, is the reluctance of even liberal reformers like him to recognize the debilitating effect of protection.

The clamour to be recognized as Dalit was evident long before an official report acknowledged that reservations had created a vested interest in backwardness. Admitting that permanent privileges would make people think his brethren were 'a community of incompetent and inferior people', Jagjivan Ram still did not demand open competition. He was the cr'me de la cr'me of what another report called the creamy layer, meaning Dalits who corner privileges and treat their less fortunate kinsmen with the contempt of which they themselves complain, a process that is also called brahminization. The establishment 'also responds by co-opting certain elements from these oppressed sections in the power structure' is how the militant organization, Janhastakshep, puts it.

This is a major hurdle. Laws can deal with abuses, but neither the judicial nor the administrative machinery can cope with Uncle Toms. The danger is that they alone will profit from the international campaign, not the Dalit peasant languishing in his isolated village tola. The silver lining could be that in placing the government on the defensive in world forums, present moves might contribute at home to the tension that always accompanies political awakening and resistance to change. That long-overdue end of the complacent compact of the last 54 years might at last permit the emergence of true social reformers who are not interested in only feathering their nests, at home or abroad.

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