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‘Michael X, The Desperate Sectarian’

By S Anand

08 September, 2004
India Seminar

When most magazines, journals and newspapers in India that carry a book reviews column maintain a calculated indifference towards a book titled Dalit Diary 1999-2003: Reflections on Apartheid in India, more so when such a title comes from a publisher exclusively devoted to exploring caste-related issues, it was heartening to see Seminar feature a prompt review of the book, that too written by the journal’s consulting editor . That said, as the publisher of the book, and as someone who engages with issues of caste politics, it becomes necessary for me to take issue with certain points the review raises.

Harsh Sethi begins his review by calling the author Chandra Bhan Prasad an ‘unapologetic sectarian ideologue’. So someone who exclusively and stridently articulates a dalit perspective on issues of culture, society and politics in a context of stringent and systematic dalit exclusion in a majority of urban and rural spaces in India gets labelled ‘sectarian’ in a patronising tone. While appearing to appreciate and tolerate an ‘outsider’ breaking into ‘their ranks’, Sethi puts Chandra Bhan firmly ‘in his place’ by labelling him a sectarian. He goes on to call Chandra Bhan a Michael X and not an Uncle Tom. Michael X? Sethi obviously meant Malcolm X, and the error presumably is inadvertent. However, postponing judgment on whether the error was inadvertent or was born out of ignorance, readers must reflect upon the copy-edited, proofed, printed word for what it means in a journal meant for the serious, reflective reader. Suppose, just suppose, a dalit, say Chandra Bhan, had made the mistake of referring to Malcolm X as Michael X, what would the brahmanical upholders of meritocracy say in the context of serious opposition to dalits seeking their share in various privately-held centres of mediocrity?

To move on, Sethi writes at one point: ‘He is a votary of extending reservation by caste into the private sector, of helping create a strata of significant dalit entrepreneurs, favours Digvijay Singh’s Dalit Agenda and is willing to speak positively of all individuals/groups/parties/and enterprises agreeable to move in this direction.’ Sethi does not seem to have read the book carefully, nor does he seem familiar with the Bhopal Conference of 12-13 January 2002 when the Bhopal Document was issued. At no point does Chandra Bhan Prasad talk simplistically of ‘extending reservation by caste into the private sector’ as Sethi puts it. On the contrary, Chandra Bhan’s framework, which found expression in the Bhopal Document, recognises the need for dalits, the state and civil society to go beyond the framework of reservation, and usher in a new agenda that would ensure dalit presence in public institutions without talking the language of reservations. For this Chandra Bhan draws from the policy of ‘diversity’, as followed by federal institutions and the private sector in the US, and discusses its implementation in India.

The foundations for the Bhopal Document lay in a series of articles carried under the Dalit Diary column in The Pioneer between 4 February 2001 and 8 April 2001, when Chandra Bhan compared the situation that obtains in racism-torn US and casteism-ridden India in terms of representation of social minorities in various public institutions (reproduced in the book, pp. 100-125). This series impressed the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh and led to the Bhopal Conference. There was nothing called ‘Digvijay Singh’s Dalit Agenda’ as Sethi terms it. After Chandra Bhan takes pains to demonstrate how IBM, Microsoft and Hollywood have ensured a significant presence of blacks and other social minorities without invoking the term affirmative action or reservation, it is sad that even an apparently sympathetic reader like Sethi wilfully misunderstands and misrepresents Chandra Bhan as ‘a votary of extending reservation by caste into the private sector.’ Then the final nail from Sethi: Chandra Bhan ‘is willing to speak positively of all individuals/groups/parties/and enterprises agreeable to move in this direction.’ Chandra Bhan is projected as so indiscriminate and desperate that he will go along with anyone who agrees to his agenda. Even if we presume that Chandra Bhan, and symptomatically a large section of excluded and misrepresented dalits, are indeed that desperate, what role do the ostensibly sympathetic pro-dalit observers like Sethi have in driving them towards this desperation?

Sethi, who seems to have reservations over the use of the term apartheid to characterise the invisibilised discrimination against dalits, remarks that from the perspective of ‘progressives’, Chandra Bhan ‘gets irritatingly personal – asking individuals as to the number of their dalit friends, whether they eat in dalit houses, hire dalit employees, and so on.’ Not ever having dalit friends nor having dalits on your dinner guest list is reflective of the apartheid that prevails in urban India. Practitioners of untouchability might find it ‘irritatingly personal’, but those at the receiving end would simply see it as extremely political, and just call it ‘apartheid’, not a question of dalits not belonging to certain ‘social strata’.

Towards the end of the review, Sethi collapses a set of writers under one presumed category of ‘dalit’ – V.T. Rajshekar, Kancha Ilaiah, Gopal Guru and Chandra Bhan Prasad. Sethi and his readers must note that V.T. Rajshekar, editor of Dalit Voice, is not a dalit. He is an OBC of the powerful Shetty caste, though he edits a fortnightly that claims to be the voice of dalits. As for Kancha Ilaiah, he has always openly stated his non-dalit OBC identity. In fact, his powerful book Why I am Not a Hindu is subtitled ‘A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy’. To not know that VTR and Ilaiah are not dalits, and that this is the cause for the essential rupture between Chandra Bhan’s and their positions – reflective of the larger contradictions and turf wars between dalits who suffer at the hands of OBCs in rural India – is on a par with the reference to Michael X early on.

Drawing the attention of readers to the fact that there are differences between Chandra Bhan’s position and arguments and those of VTR, Ilaiah and Gopal Guru, Sethi notes: ‘Hopefully, this is reflective less of egotist turf battles and more a search for autonomous dalit voices and politics.’ Why should he make such a comment? Why should he even suggest that these could be egotistic turf battles? Would he suggest that of the differences Partha Chatterjee has with Ashis Nandy? Why such patronising condescension when it comes to these ‘outsiders’?

Finally, the book under review is subtitled ‘Reflections on Apartheid in India’ and not ‘Reflection on Apartheid in India’.

Read Harsh Sethi's Review






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