Civil Society: In equal measure


By Susan Visvanathan - Courtesy Mydigitalfc


At a seminar in Jawaharlal Ne­hru University organised by sociologist Anand Kumar, most participants argued that while caste seemed to be disappearing, the dalits have not been able to liberate themselves and their condition remains pitiable. Rape is probably the biggest most visible index of their continuing degradation, as they are targetted by not just dominant castes and upper castes, but also by those in uniform who are their active predators. Further, as Dr Prashant Negi of Jamia Millia Islamia pointed out, we also have to look at dalit absence in most professional fields, be it high government posts or top positions in multinationals and private companies.

Dalit leaders themselves have not been able to look after the poor in their community. The middle castes are enjoying privileges from reservation today, but dalits who have largely been without modern education have remained outside the echelons of administration and academics. The real test of democracy comes with access to health, education and employment.

Caste and class have for decades been conjoined as historical representations of how India lives with the accident of birth. Yet, we can no longer leave it at that. The new avenues of employment have meant that people have had the opportunity to climb the ladder and in some institutions which are supportive, the aspect of their comfort zone lies in their being treated equally by all others in the organisation. Where they are discriminated, if they are educated, they are able to go to higher authorities. As is well known, there is caste among christians, muslims, jains, and the bengali and malayali marxists, all of whom have their dalit members.

In such circumstances, where there has been social revolution and the varna-jaati scheme has been upturned, historically, we see that there is a creation of new elite, through the marginalisation of the older ones. This is quite visible in Tamil Nadu, for instance, where the brahmins secret themselves in ivory towers at home or abroad, for fear of abuse from so-called lower castes.

Of course, the lower castes remember how badly they were treated in the old system, where they were forced to do certain kinds of work, and kept at a distance. Even a glance from the upper castes, contemptuous and threatening, could be so debasing.

Women get such treatment quite often from men, regardless of caste, as it is the custom in traditional north India, to spit, when a man sees a woman, as she is thought to be similar to worms. It is for this reason, that women are called dasus, whereever they are.

Renowned anthropologist and feminist scholar Leela Dube’s lifelong work was to understand why servility was seen to be the condition of women in India, because she was seen to be like the earth, and the man the plough. Caste distinctions are made more abusive, since women are thought not to have a caste, since everything passes in the line of men. If she is a bearer of sons or a sister or a daughter, she may receive some benefits from the upper caste men she is associated with. Sociologist George Mathew’s work on Panchayati Raj, over the years, showed that women were controlled by their husbands in ventriloquist situations even where women had legal authority in the panchayat as elected leaders.

What happens to those who do not have any power? Sometimes, the ‘poor brahmin’ for instance, might find that he or she is completely out of the system, as the Maharashtrians showed the Tamil clerks what it meant to be Indians in Pune or Mumbai in the 70s. The UP bhaiyyas, the subject of violent treatment, were also in the news for a decade. The contemporary means of legitimating abusive behaviour involves arbitrarily pounding the upper castes or the lower castes, when there is a surge of power that “We are now the new overlords, so do what we say!” KL Sharma coined the term ‘downward mobility’, in this context, many decades ago.

Who can be lower than the lower castes? These are those rightful citizens or vagabonds who do not fit in any caste category, and will unfortunately be pulverised by the state and other citizens for saying, “there is no caste”. This happens, because the state incumbents are presently traditionalists, and believe that only those who believe in reincarnation, and the logic of birth participate in the grammar of a new karmic citizenship. Clearly, reservation is a right as much as it is a shackle, a social label as much as a theology



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