By Harsh Sethi
20 July, 2004
ideologues for a (literally) sectarian cause generate immense unease,
and nowhere more so than in the upper caste/class liberal/progressive/secular
circles. In part, this reflects a stylistic/aesthetic divide; since
people like us have abrogated to ourselves the privilege
to define what is proper/correct, we rarely appreciate an outsider
seeking to break into our ranks. More so when the terms of exchange
are not being defined by us. An Uncle Tom is acceptable, a Michael X
The actual divide
is deeper for, despite our claiming the dalit cause and
railing against the iniquitous Hindu (read Indian) social order, most
of us continue to cling to the myth of a plural and permeable
civilizational ethos wherein markers of birth, while discriminatory,
do not bind us to a fixed social position. This is why the term apartheid
to describe the social position of Indian dalits finds limited favour,
as do attempts to equate race to caste.
Chandra Bhan Prasad
occupies an unusual position in the Indian social/intellectual discourse.
Despite there being a number of prominent dalit intellectuals, Prasad,
as the introduction to this collection of column pieces by Robin Jeffrey
underscores, remains the first dalit commentator to have won regular
column space in a significant daily newspaper. Without quibbling
over the description of The Pioneer as significant, the
column did mark a welcome rupture in our news media. It is shocking,
though never admitted, that in 1999 there was not a single dalit in
the newsrooms of Indias media. For all our claims to affirmative
action and reservation, the sheer injustice of this fact has still to
be admitted by either our media or educational establishments. Many
of the articles in this collection point out how the leading intellectual
centres and newspapers in the countrys capital Delhi University,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Centre
for the Study of Developing Societies, and others have continued
over the years to flout constitutional obligations towards representation
for dalits, despite public funding.
If such is the situation
in our leading academic institutions, this when many of their faculty
claim to be progressive and argue for reservation, should we be surprised
at the rage suffusing dalit writing and commentary? Or the commonly
used epithets of manuvad and brahmanvaad? Equally, if our state and
society continue to stonewall all legitimate demands for representation
and justice, why is it illegitimate for spokespersons and leaders of
the dalit cause to seek redressal elsewhere be it the British
Raj earlier or the United Nations now? Hiding behind concerns of aesthetics
or nationalism will not suffice.
There is more to
Chandra Bhans writing. It is instructive that despite persistent
focus on the exclusion of the dalits from all spheres and attention,
his columns are not a litany of oppression stories. Taking his cue from
the US experience of affirmative action both to correct historical
wrongs and ensure representational diversity his advocacy to
the state and political parties is to take seriously their constitutional
commitments, if not extend them. Like Ambedkar, the most quoted thinker
in the collection, he argues against the impossibility of a civil society
unless a sufficient number of dalits get due place in all sectors of
society. He is a votary of extending reservation by caste into the private
sector, of helping create a strata of significant dalit entrepreneurs,
favours Digvijay Singhs Dalit Agenda and is willing to speak positively
of all individuals/groups/parties/and enterprises agreeable to move
in this direction.
In doing so he directly
challenges the votaries of merit and efficiency, pointing out the caste-biased
nature of their arguments. Once again, drawing from the experience of
the US media, he demonstrates that once an enterprise is committed to
diversity, it will redeploy resources and training to meet quality standards.
In brief, what he is most opposed to is tokenism and rhetoric, the unwillingness
to put ones money where ones mouth is.
What has most riled
the progressives, one suspects, is his tendency to club together the
secularists and communalists when it comes to the dalit question. He
also 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. Since many of us belonging to a certain
social strata are likely to fail such tests, we prefer to ignore him.
His article Welcome to a food festival extolling the uniqueness
(and virtues) of dalit food, listing at some length the guest
list, invites sociological scrutiny and provides a rare look at
Delhis correct progressive circle. Surprisingly, one
missed Chandan Mitra, the supportive editor of The Pioneer.
The downside of
Chandra Bhan Prasads framework is that since the gross truth that
he foregrounds is undeniable, it is difficult to discuss the implications
of his policy recommendations without encountering the charge of caste
bias. In the hands of a less skilful practitioner, the caste first framework
can and does become totalizing, the only litmus test of correctness.
Take his discussion on criminalisation of politics (p. 211-213) where
he ascribes a spirit of de-democratization to shudra consciousness.
Criminalization among dalits is thus explained away as an inevitable
consequence. Since a shudra-led society restricts the space for
democratic methods, even dalit parties can be no exception. Evidently,
Mayawati for all her ill-gotten gains, scams, and opportunistic politics
has to be contextually understood even as the Mulayam Singhs stand
condemned. One wonders what Chandra Bhan would make of the ongoing fracas
between Mayawati and members of her mentor, Kanshi Rams family,
ostensibly over control of trust funds and properties created by the
now incapacitated leader. Is pointing to similar depredations by other
(upper caste) leaders and parties an acceptable response?
There is also some
doubt over CBPs reading of Babasaheb Ambedkar, in particular his
understanding of the role of caste-based reservations as part of a larger
affirmative action programme. In one column piece, Prasad castigates
Jagjivan Ram for not walking out of the Congress when Ambedkar submitted
his resignation from the cabinet, claiming that had he (Ram) done so,
the trajectory of dalit politics would have been different. Later, he
praises Jagjivan Babu for most ensuring that dalits break into the otherwise
restricted job and education market. But is that not because he sought
to fight from within and follow somewhat flexible principles,
much like what CBP himself seems to be doing.
In the same vein,
take the discussion over US attempts to respond to the race question.
It is undeniable that the various civil liberties unions and the National
Council for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples lobbied over years (successfully)
to incorporate diversity in all spheres as a foundational principle.
This led to the government adopting policies in awarding contracts,
jobs and education which enhanced the proportion of coloured people
in different sectors, both public and private. So far commendable. It
is equally true that coloured people are overwhelmingly represented
in prisons, get disenfranchised and remain confined to the underclass.
Why does CBP not even mention this?
Readers of V.T.
Rajshekhars Dalit Voice will be familiar with the polemic between
Prasad and the editor of the magazine with CBP charged with being soft
on brahmanvaad. There are also significant differences between the positions
and analysis advanced by Prasad and other thinkers like Kancha Ilaiah
and Gopal Guru. Hopefully, this is reflective less of egotist turf battles
and more a search for autonomous dalit voices and politics.
Finally, a collection
of column pieces does not always make for a good book, unless effort
is expended to remove repetition and iron out the contradictions. Quibbling
apart, Dalit Diary demands a serious engagement.
DALIT DIARY 1999-2003
Reflection on Apartheid in India by Chandra Bhan Prasad. Navyana Publishing,