Why Gandhi Lost And Ambedkar Won
By Shivam Vij
06 December, 2004
gentlemen, who happened to belong to what the Constitution of India
calls "Scheduled Castes" and "Scheduled Tribes",
got together and built a building called Gaurav Apartments in the east
Delhi locality of Patparganj. About two-third flats in Gaurav Apartments
are occupied by Dalits and 'tribals'. The remaining flats remain vacant
as upper caste (UC) individuals are forewarned about this by (UC) property
This is the true
nature of caste discrimination: it operates via exclusivism. We won't
live with you, we won't eat with you, and we won't socialize with you.
So it should not be surprising that such marginalisation extends to
the job market. A businessman who refuses to rent a flat in Gaurav Apartments,
would he ever give a job to a Dalit at his office? Unlikely. He will
say that "they" lack "talent", are not educated
enough, and so on.
The reason why we hardly see Dalits around us, or in public life, is
that we have kept 'them' away from 'us', and continue to do so. Reservations
in government jobs and institutions of higher education,
however, created a small Dalit middle class and did what had never happened
before: made some Dalits and UC's participants of the same social universe.
I saw this personally
in two cases, cases that gave me this perspective and helped me reject
the anti-reservations anger of the people around me. In my school in
Lucknow I had a classmate, Abhijeet Yadav, whose father was a bureaucrat
who had obviously benefited from post-Mandal reservations. Although
Yadavs are a middle castes (OBC's), the classroom had a prejudice against
him, expressed in the all-encompassing term 'chamaar'. Abhijeet was
not a 'chamaar', but that was exactly what he was called whenever he
would enter into a brawl with someone in class. Our ignorance about
the difference between a 'chamaar' and a 'Yadav' was matched by our
ignorance about our own castes, Many of us found ourselves asking our
'progressive' parents as to what castes we belonged to. I, for one,
turned out be a Khatree. I never understood what it meant.
By the time we gave
our board exams, we had matured enough to realize that we just can't
do this to Abhijeet, for reasons of political correctness or the fear
of a backlash from a bureaucrat, if nothing else. But by then Abhijeet
had been harassed enough (in typical public school method) to not only
turn into a bully but also dropped his surname in the high school examination.
He must have thought to himself: if my classmates in an elite missionary
school can do this to me, my surname on the mark sheet would always
beget discrimination and prejudice. Such a clash was happening because
it was the first time we were coming in contact with someone who was
suffering, in the twentieth century, from the sanction given by Manu
to the caste system. Abhijeet's turning into a bully was a way of saying,
'I refuse to become a victim figure'.
This was a failure,
too, of the education system: our textbooks never told us much about
And then, a neigbour
of ours sold his house. The entire colony was saddened that the new
occupants belonged to the caste of 'mochees' or cobblers. Both husband
and wife were in government jobs, obviously reserved for them, but the
gossip in the street was that one of their kin was still a mochee. Someone
went to the previous occupants and regretted: "Kin ganday logon
ko apnay makaan de diya hai. Why have you given the house to such despicable
The family in turn
could smell this. They decided to throw a party. This was their way
of finding out who was casteist and who was not: there were some who
made polite excuses and did not attend. But as the family's acceptability
in the locality grew, everyone made amends by visiting them and calling
In both cases, the
entry of 'low' caste individuals and their families into the (UC) "mainstream"
took place because of reservations in government jobs. Before this could
adequately happen across India, the Indian state decided that jobs and
resources were to be transferred to the private sector. Jobs in the
private industry, even in the highest levels of the organized sector,
often depend upon who knows whom. When you move in your own society,
you think you never discriminate against anyone else.
So how do you solve
the problem of Dalits? Indian industry, despite its pretensions of corporate
social responsibility, is unlikely to take initiative. Unlike American
corporations that believe in "diversity", hire and train individuals
from minority communities (including immigrants from India), Indian
industry is unlikely to volunteer. The government must step in, as it
intends to do very soon.
The Congress party
has obviously learnt from its past mistakes in promising reservations
in the private sector. The Congress once dominated over Indian politics.
We had a virtually one-party regime. The Congress would ideally embrace
all political aspirations within itself, thus becoming a microcosm of
Indian society. That explains the presence of Nehru and Patel in the
same party, in the same government. But the Congress failed to do this
with Dalits and ST's in northern India. Christopher Jaffrelot (India's
Silent Revolution, Permanent Black, 2003), meticulously shows how the
Congress in north India failed to raise a Dalit leadership, and remained
dominated by UC's.
This led to the
rise of caste-based parties such as those that we identify with Mayawati,
Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Laloo Prasad Yadav. Gandhi called them 'Harijans'
or the Children of God. They found it condescending, and coined the
term 'Dalit', meaning oppressed. Instead of UC's stooping down and offering
tea and sympathy, caste was pre-destined to be challenged from bottom-to-top.
In the end Gandhi lost and Ambedkar won.
The urban elites
of north India detests 'low' caste leaders, calls them names, and accuse
them of being casteist. If the same elites refuse to live in an apartment
full of Dalits, then that's not casteism. This is why Mayawati keeps
calling everyone 'Manuwaadi', because everyone is Manuwaadi. The statues
of Ambedkar that she keeps installing all over UP, earn scorn from the
elites. They say it amounts to squandering public money. But for Dalits
these statues symbolise power and social security. These statues across
UP are vandalized every time Mayawati goes out of power. When Dalits
over India are brought for a BSP rally to Lucknow, they are immensely
proud to see the gigantic Ambedkar statue at the Ambedkar Udayan, grandly
seated exactly like Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. In her
rallies, Mayawati declares, "Main chamarin hoon. Main chamaar ki
beti hoon. I am a chamaar. I am the daughter of a chamaar." She
chooses to use the derogatory term 'chamaar' as a matter of political
assertion. To hear this is a moment of great pride for her Dalit "votebank".
She is appealing to them to use the ballot to elect a chamaar like them
into power. Although realpolitik has forced her to become less radical,
there was a time when Mayawati's pet slogan was "Tilak, tarazu
aur talwaar/ Maro inko jootay chaar!" My translation: 'Curse be
upon the Brahmin, Baniya and Kshatriya castes.' Identity politics at
its best. (My personal admiration for Mayawati also has to do with her
self-appointment as 'Behen', or sister, when it would have been so easy
to construct her as a 'mother goddess' in a mother-fixated nation. But
the elites simply dismiss her as BMW, Behen
and Laloo symbolise political empowerment of 'low' castes, without which
you would have had, by now, a million Naxalite mutinies in Uttar Pradesh
and Bihar. But economic empowerment continues to elude large masses
of Dalits. The story has just begun.
(Shivam Vij runs
the ZESTCaste mailing list: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ZESTCaste/
Contact: shivamvij at gmail dot com.)