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Dalit Diary 1999-2003

By Harsh Sethi

20 July, 2004

Unapolegitic 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 is not.

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 India’s 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 country’s 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 Bhan’s 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 Singh’s 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 one’s money where one’s 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 Delhi’s ‘correct’ progressive circle. Surprisingly, one missed Chandan Mitra, the ‘supportive’ editor of The Pioneer.

The downside of Chandra Bhan Prasad’s 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 Singh’s stand condemned. One wonders what Chandra Bhan would make of the ongoing fracas between Mayawati and members of her mentor, Kanshi Ram’s 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 CBP’s 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. Rajshekhar’s 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, Pondicherry, 2004.