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Calamity And Prejudice

By Subhash Gatade

28 January, 2005

There's something even an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale and a tsunami that kills over 1 lakh people can’t crack : the walls between caste. ..That’s why at Ground Zero in Nagapattinam, Murugeshan and his family of four have been living on the streets in Nambiarnagar. That’s why like 31 other families, they have been thrown out of relief camps. …
( Indian Express – 7 Jan 2005)

There are some protagonists of Hinduism who say that Hinduism is a very adaptable religion, that it can adjust itself to everything and absorb anything. I do not think many people would regard such a capacity in a religion as a virtue to be proud of, just as no one would think highly of a child because it has developed the capacity to eat dung, and digest it. But that is another matter. It is quite true that Hinduism can adjust itself... can absorb many things. The beef-eating Hinduism (or strictly speaking Brahminism which is the proper name of Hinduism in its earlier stage) absorbed the non-violence theory of Buddhism and became a religion of vegetarianism. But there is one thing which Hinduism has never been able to do – namely to adjust itself to absorb the Untouchables or to remove the bar of Untouchability.
– BR Ambedkar
(Quoted in ‘Holy Cow and Unholy Dalit’ Siriyavan Anand, Himal, Nov 2002)


‘Tsunami can’t wash this away : hatred for Dalits : In Ground Zero, Dalits thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies, toilets, …’.The main news in one of the leading newspapers revealed it all. The centuries old prejudice against the ‘lower communities’ was perfectly intact despite an unprecedented tragedy called Tsunami. The report had details of the way Nagapattinam, one of the worst affected district in Tamilnadu, was coping with the changed situation.

Apart from the regular information about the relief work undertaken and graphic details about the plight of the victims the reporter had presented the flip side of relief which normally remains out of focus in any such coverage of natural calamity. It described the way in which dalits were discriminated even during relief distribution after the infamous Tsunami. It told how ‘doors were being slammed in the face of the Dalit survivors here.’ The role of the government which ‘instead of ‘ensuring justice, was reinforcing the divide’ had also come under scanner.

It had details of how Dalits from 63 affected villages from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu were facing the brunt of the powerful Meenavar fishermen (a Most Backward Class): being thrown out of relief camps, pushed to the rear of food and water lines, not being allowed to take water from UNICEF facilities and in some cases not even being allowed to use the toilet. ( Indian Express January 8, 2005)

It does not need an expert’s grassrootbased study to know that Nagapattinam is an exception. A roundup of the various relief camps can reveal to any concerned observer that the division between the dalits and the rest of the populace sanctified by religion and legitimised by the graded hierarchy masquerading as tradition despite more than half century of living as a republic, runs quite deep. And the treatment meted out to the dalits was a ‘logical outcome’ of this.

Interestingly while the said paper continued with its exclusive story and even wrote an edit on the same theme asking the government to take action against the perpetrators of injustice to the dalits, the rest of the national media preferred to gloss over this aspect. Possibly the silence maintained by the others was in tune with the understanding expressed by the local district collector who ‘did not want to disturb the social equilibrium’ at this crucial juncture. A social activist present there indignantly told the reporter ,”..No one is willing to take up the matter at the field level as this could complicate things.” It appeared that they did not want to precipitate friction between the two castes by trying to address it during this crisis. Ofcourse

It could be also be said that when an unprecedented tragedy was unfolding before their own eyes these ‘wathchdogs of democracy’ did not want to add to the emotional burden of their already anguished readers / viewers with a routine matter like caste discrimination. Perhaps they were true to an extent that the inbuilt caste and gender based discrimination with its incessant violence in our society has become so common that it has started appearing ‘normal and routine.’

And this despite the fact that the dalits in Tamilnadu as in rest of the country were facing the brunt of caste oppression never seen before.It is only in recent times that we have been witness to some of the worst atrocities against them. Ranging from the killing of five dalits in Jhajjar, Haryana supposedly for skinning a dead cow to the forcible consumption of urine to three dalit youths in the recent incident in Abohar, Punjab; ranging from the killing of two dalit youths in Saharanpur, U.P. last year for winning a cricket match against the upper caste people to the branding of two dalits Murugesan and Ramasamy with hot iron rods and forcing them to feed dried human excreta to each other in Thinniam, Tiruchi district, Tamilnadu we have been witness to incidents after incidents wherein the people who consider themselves above the dalits in caste hierarchy have tried to wreak havoc on them to reinforce and perpetuate their ageold dominance in a brutal manner.

Ofcourse it need be underlined at this juncture that the growing atrocities against the dalits in recent times should not be construed as their continued submission to the dictats of the varna people in any manner. Rather it is an indicator of the fact that they have risen in rebellion at various levels and have challenged their dominance in all fields of life. For an outsider the revolt may appear disorganised and suffering from clearcut direction, ‘experts from the academia’ may castigate these subalterns for their ‘opportunist leadership’ which has turned them into ‘vote banks’, but all this criticism notwithstanding it is a fact as clear as sunlight that Dalits at various levels have refused to take it lying down. They have decided to chart a new path under the guidance of the thoughts of Dr B.R. Ambedkar or for that matter Marxism-Leninism. And this assertion has a long history.

Anyone familiar with the social history of Tamilnadu must be aware that the first massacre of Dalits in post independence times took place in Tamilnadu only (village Killevanamani, district Thanjavur) wherein more than 35 people mostly women and children were burnt alive by the marauders belonging to the locally powerful upper caste gentry way back in 1969. The pretext for the massacre is worth emphasising. The dalits and other oppressed people from adjoining areas had waged a powerful struggle for better wages and the upper caste landlords found it impossible to break the unity and solidarity of these people. And they preferred the shortest route of killing them and compelling them to surrender before their might.The way judiciary responded to this heinous massacre also shows how the various institutions of state have connived in the maintenance of the varna statusquo. The session court had then set all the accused free with a specious argument that since they belonged to upper caste it was not expected that they would have gone walking to the dalit hamlette.

An incident from the same Tamilnadu which happened two years ago is also indicative of the changed ambience. As Siriyavan Anand elaborates in his article ( Himal, November 2002) :
“On 7 September, Sankan, a dalit, was drinking tea with a friend at a shop in Goundampatti, Nilakottai taluq, Dindigul district when he was attacked by six caste Hindus. He was verbally abused and beaten up, after which an off-duty constable urinated in his mouth. Sankan had earned the wrath of the caste Hindu gounder community because he had aggressively pursued his right to a piece of land of which he had been cheated..”

It is true that repression breeds revolt and it engenders further repression. Same can be said of the forward march of the dalits interspersed with brutal atrocities as a last ditch attempt by the priviledged sections of our society to put the clock back. Ofcourse it is a marker of the ‘insensitivity’ and ‘inhumanity’ which gets ingrained in everyone’s minds vis-à-vis this supposedly great institution called caste that even a collosal human tragedy precipitated by a natural calamity does not compel them to rethink their archaic notions.


“[U]ntouchability, is a kind of disease of the is a mental twist.. I do not know how my friend is going to untwist the twist which the Hindus have got for thousands of years unless they are all sent to some kind of hospital.’ Dr B.R.Ambedkar , 1954 (Quoted in Bhagwan Das, 95 :53).

The plight of the dalits trying to come to terms with life alongwith other sections of reminded one of a few of the headlines which appeared in the mainstream newspapers around three years ago. These reports communicated to the layreader how post Gujarat quake relief and rehabilitation work had at places bypassed the dalits and the Muslims. There were reports about the siphoning of the relief material to the relief camps inhabited by the non dalit or upper caste hindus and how consciously these sections were left out of its ambit in many cases.

One thing is very clear in all such cases. Giving the exigencies of the situation no action would have been taken against neither those Gujarat people involved in discriminating against the dalits and Muslims nor one can expect any action against the Nagapattinam gentry which humiliated the dalits. It would once again vindicate what the n number of reports brought out by the National Commission of SC and STs or the National Human Rights Commission or independent groups committed to the defence of human rights have been repeating ad infinitum. Their has been no divergence of opinion among them about the fact that the different institutions of the state ranging from the police to the judiciary have rather preferred to look the other way or have connived with the powers that be in saving the guilty when dalits and other oppressed sections were humiliated or were subjected to violence.

It is clear that whereas the state has formally abolished ‘Untouchability’ vide article 17 of the Constitution and has forbidden its practice in any form and made it punishable and despite its providing number of safeguards to protect it from all types of exploitation and ensure its allround development, the situation on the ground keeps reminding one of the bygone era. All of us are aware that Article 15 the constitution has mandated that 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 general public. But one has no other option but to concurr with the view of the ex justice of the Supreme Court Mr V.K. Krishna Aiyar that the laws formulated for the protection of the dalits have been effetively been turned into ‘paper tigers’.

The ‘Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes’ (NHRC, 2004,Delhi) rightly underlined the way the ‘state has failed in this respect’ on ‘several fronts’. According to the conclusions of the report the state has failed on ‘several fronts’. These are ‘failure to effectively implement the laws relating to atrocities against SCs and STs’ which is ‘reflected both in respect of preventing violence from taking place’ as well as in the ‘inability to punish perpetrators of violence after the crime is committed’; ‘failure to act against its own agencies involved in the commission of violence ;’ failure to strengthen the watchdog institutions’ etc. ‘The failure of the state vis-à-vis mobilization of caste Hindus in favour of social democracy embedded in the constitution and various laws and state policies’ can also be considered palpable which has ‘created ambivalence in its intentions and contradictions in its actions’ .

.The Sixth Report of the National Commission for SCs and STs (1999-2000 and 2000-2001) had expressed its deep sense of dissatisfaction over the way all these measures are implemented. While commenting that "..the number of cases registered under Prevention of Civil Rights act and SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) act has been showing downward trend.. as a healthy development "it exposes the way this reduction in no of cases is achieved . According to the preface, " But from its reviews with various state governments the commission is of the view that a large number of cases go unregistered, mainly because of the reluctance on part of the police officers to register the cases and also because of lack of awareness among the members of these communities about the provisions of these acts.
In addition, there are delays in investigation, collusion with offenders and manipulation of witnesses and evidence which all contribute to reduce the effectiveness of these protective legislations." (See Preface Page II) In the same vein it tells us that in most of the states neither the meetings of the monitoring and vigilace committees are held regularly nor any special courts are set up to deal with cases of dalit atrocities.
It also adds: " The question of setting up exclusive special courts, particularly in the states having large pendency, needs serious consideration of the government. The rate of convictions in various states ranges from 5 to 10 percent and it is necessary to examine the reasons for such low convictions rates and for taking urgent corrective action."(ibid) According to the commission ," The apex court has held that the Special courts cannot directly entertain the cases under these acts, without following commital proceedings. It is, therefore, necessary to amend these acts suitably to authorise the special courts to admit cases under these acts directly."(ibid).
One can go on mentioning the various schemes or the affirmative action programmes run by the government supposedly for the empowerment of the dalits and also give details about the systematic manner in which a conscious attempt is on to deny what is due to them. One would be surprised to know that not only thousands of posts which are meant for them especially from the upper class category have been lying vacant for years together but there are thousands and thousands of people belonging to the non dalit category who have manipulated jobs meant for these sections by procurring ‘false certificates’ and the concerned authorities are sitting over this despite repeated complaints by the aggrieved people. The seriousness of the phenomenon of false certificates can be gauged from the fact that the last two annual reports of the National SC and ST Commission ( since bifurcated) have devoted a chapter each to discuss the gravity of the situation arising out of this.
This makes it crystalclear that the state has to show firm political will , get ready to make amends to ameliorate the situation and move beyond pious rhetoric if it is serious about the commitments it made with the ‘other people’ exactly 54 years back while promulgating the constitution. But one cannot expect that their would be any radical departure from the way in which the state has been functioning.
The question naturally arises what is the way out for the dalits and all those forces who are fighting for the human rights dalits ? How does one address this typical situation where we have before us a state which has decorated its statue books with many a dalit friendly laws to showcase it to the civilized world and effectively sitting over them.
The message is clear that unless and until there is pressure from the people to implement the laws or correct the infirmities inherent even ‘hundred Tsunamis cannot the break the wall of prejudice’ between the communities. But whether the much trumpetted ‘civil society’ is ready for it !
“.. you were born where you were born and faced a future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society, which spelt out with a brutal clarity, in as many ways as possible, that you are a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence ; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
-James Baldwin, the African-Amercian writer, “Letter to My Nephew On the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”
( Quoted in ‘We, the other People” K.G.Kannabiran, The Hindu)

For an outsider it may appear surprising how the ‘social nausea’ ( to quote Ambedkar) refuses to subside even in times of calamity also. But for someone who is familiar with the Indian social fabric the ageold doctrine of exclusion legitimised and sanctified by the Brahminical ideology culminating in such behaviour is a ‘routine matter’. There is need to understand that incidents of such nature (as witnessed in Nagapattinam) demonstrate how this ideology of purity and pollution has permeated deep down the social fabric our society. Discrimination on the basis of caste even while faced with a calamity is a logical outcome of the common sense which gets built up in such an ambience.

Ofcourse many people when confronted with such incidents of denial of basic human rights to the dalits and the institutionalisation of such practices prefer to comfirt themselves with a feeling that it is basically a ‘rural phenomenon’ They churn out statistics or give examples to demonstrate that how villages have become cesspools of backwardness and how they are the prime perpetrators of atrocities against them. A closer look at the situation makes us clear that this formulation is not true. Even a layperson can understand that a particular social phenomenon with a centuries old history does not seize to operate on physical boundaries. Even our Metropolies exhibit this discrimination in myriad ways. A leading social thinker rightly underlines the fact that the prevalence of untouchability which impacts the dalits in its most brutal manner can be considered an added proof of the much much tommed ‘unity in diversity’ theme of our ‘great nation’.

The fact is that a large majority of the people who have not yet shed their varna mindset do not want to concede this simple fact. They do not want to recognise that the doctrine of exclusion is an all pervasive phenomenon simply because they themselves are ‘beneficiaries of the caste based order.’ They have an interest in ( to quote the Report on Prevention of Atrocities against SCs and STs ) perpetuating “[t]he existing unequal social relations” and have “[f]rustrated attempts to democratize the society because through the customary arrangements the dominant castes are assured of ‘access to cheap labour’ ; ‘social control over people’; ‘priviledged position with regard to development resources’. Obviously they are not bothered with the clear exposure of the the deep contradictions in social values which are for everyone to see wherein while they are ready ‘to enjoy all rights and privileges which a democratic liberal society has given them’ but deny the ‘same very rights and privileges to the SCs’.

The benefits accruing to them for not recognising this reality are palpable. May it be the denial of seats to the dalits in academic institutions or the deliberate attempts to deny the benefits due to them vis-v-vis the programmes of affirmative actions or the refusal of the police to even register cases against their perpetrators etc they are the sole beneficiaries from this. If the behaviour of the state leaves much to be desired the ‘civil society’ loaded with its varna mindset does not at all come out in flying colours. It is part and parcel of the conscious attempts to exclude them from all seats of power or privilege.

We are repeatedly told that the Indian society has been quite forthcoming in imbibing new ideas and new technologies and assessing opportunities resulting from the same. Our being the third largest humanpower of scientific and technological personnel is also trumpetted from rooftops. Rulers of this country in recent times have also been clamouring for ‘superpower status’ on the basis of these strengths.

But the alleged readiness our society to accept liberal or progressive ideas from all corners of the world to shape its own lives does not get reflected in its conscious attempts to weed itself of the structured hierarchy which is in existence since ancient times. Our intelligentsia may sing paens to our ‘glorious past’ and but has never been forthcoming in addressing the real problems faced by the disprivileged. Infact a close look at the social composition of our educational and different academic institutions or for that matter the different media houses which are inhabited by them makes it evident how they have remained inegalitarian till date.

We can call ourselves modern but with the continuance and perpetuation of outdated customs, traditions and the ever widening gap between our personal and social lives we have demonstrated once again that we have yet to come out of this ambivalence between modernity and tradition.
The wee hours of the 21 st century have presented before us a difficult task, the task of reordering our society which denies social equality to others and which exercises control over bodies and lives of other people.

All of us have been witness as well participant in the campaign to help the victims of Tsunami at some level or the other. We have demonstrated how people not only belonging to different faiths or denominations but also wearing their atheism or agnosticism on their sleeves came together to help affected people. But it is a moot question why ‘Tsunami faced by the dalits daily’ has escaped our attention till date.

( Subhash Gatade, M.Tech from BHU (1981) is a writer by profession and social activist by choice. Regularly writes for Hindi, English and Marathi newspapers and magazines. Edits a hindi journal ‘Sandhan’)

- Subhash Gatade, B 2/51, Ground Floor, Rohini 16, Delhi 110085, 011-27872835 email : [email protected]











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