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Mr. Bachchan, Caste And Being An Indian First

By Joseph D’souza

24 May, 2010

According to Bollywood star Mr. Amitabh Bachchan being an Indian first means not to believe in caste. That could be one great definition of being an Indian first and putting India first.

Yet when Mr. Bachchan told the census enumerators that he does not believe in caste and is an Indian first, did he unwittingly reveal the discomfiture the privileged castes feel in coming to terms with the caste issue in modern India? Surely it is the oppressed people who have the first right to determine if there should be a caste census or not. Their interpretation of present day life vis-à-vis caste discrimination needs serious consideration.

In his defense Mr. Bachchan pointed out that he was married to a Bengali, his brother a Sindhi, his daughter to a north Indian and his son to a south Indian. That qualifies Mr. Bachchan for being a pan Indian. We have not heard anyone in the Bachchan family marrying a low caste or a Dalit!

But he is right about marriage being an important indicator of caste bias. How many forward caste families in the nation can boast of marriage to a low caste or a Dalit or a Scheduled tribe? Dr. Ambedkar saw inter-caste marriages as one final way of doing away with the caste system. Are we embarrassed about the caste question in the census because there is nothing to show in our family line in relation to inter caste marriage?

For now the vision of an inter-caste married, mixed India of Ambedkar is a far away dream. We will wait and see when caste based matrimonial columns cease to exist. Till then caste enumeration should continue to protect those who are constantly humiliated and discriminated.

According to a recent research carried by Action Aid, untouchability is practiced in 80% of India’s villages. The Khap Panchayat’s continue with their discriminatory and unjust writ in north western India. The Courts of India pronounce judgment against the honor killing of the Khap Panchayats but our politicians from different parties end up publicly supporting the Panchayats. Our political parties whatever their hue continues in their hypocritical mantra of social justice. The devastation of the life, culture and land of the Tribals continues unabated. The State participates in this brazen exploitation.

Today as our great Constitution is in constant tension with unjust tradition and vote bank politics with lip service to the downtrodden a civil society struggle is necessary to ensure that not just social discrimination but the system that gave rise to it comes to an end. Mr. Bachchan and all who count themselves Indians first need to engage in this struggle and ensure that the present Constitution is not tampered with but it triumphs. Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar and others gave us a great Indian Constitution.

Mr. Bachchan could begin his struggle in his own home ground - the Bollywood film industry. In his entire career as a film hero he has never had the privilege of having a lead female Dalit star. Why is that? Why is there no major lead female Dalit star in our film and TV industry - the purveyors of our culture! Is it because of merit or lack of beauty or lack of talent that lead female Dalit stars are missing in Bollywood and the TV industry or because there is no proactive affirmative action to include the immense cultural talent of the Dalits?

How come America and Hollywood with its horrible racist experience can come up with a Whitney Houston starring with Kevin Costner or a Halle Berry with Pierce Brosnan or a Denzil Washington with a Julia Roberts? These are all hot attractive stars who have made successful movies which audiences the world over love.

Mr. Bachchan runs a film company, his company makes movie stars so this one job the Indian first can easily do.

Mr. Bachchan’s estranged family friends the Gandhis also are want to call themselves Indians first. This is the catch all Rahul Gandhi phrase: I am an Indian first.

The first family of Indian politics can claim to be Indians first on the religion issue. Hindu, Parsee and Christian-they have it in the family and perhaps this is why India trusts their secular credentials.

On the caste issue the nation watches. Robert Vadra is of mixed lineage. Rahul Gandhi sleeps and eats in Dalit huts but there is a dearth in the Congress party of Dalit and OBC leaders who can capture the imagination of the masses and stand on their own. There is no Dalit leader in the Congress in UP who can challenge Mayawati.

Who is Rahul Gandhi’s Dalit friend and competent confidante? We know who his other friends are. The nation waits for this genuine and open symbolism- in friendship and marriage. An Indian first.

Joseph D’souza is the International President of the Dalit Freedom Network (www.dalitnetwork.org) and based in Hyderabad India.