At a time when the country has just witnessed a big Dalit uprising in the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled state of Gujarat against atrocities, the conversation is rife about the ways in which the country can end caste-based discrimination. On this front Rajya Sabha's nominated Member of Parliament Narendra Jadhav has emerged as a prominent Dalit voice who has been advocating for his proposed bill that seeks to eliminate the practice of caste implying surnames.
Jadhav is also an economist and an erstwhile member of the Planning Commission and he has given multiple policy inputs in making sure that India's financial decision making is just and fair to the most unprivileged sections of society. Scroll.in sat down with Jadhav for a discussion about the current Dalit movement and its antecedents in the history where he described how there's a silent revolution going on in the country that nobody has yet taken note of. Edited excerpts from the interview follow:
There’s turmoil across the social fabric of India as minorities feel threatened and there’s cow vigilantism on the rise which has resulted into attacks on Dalits. Is there some sort of caste conflict undercurrent here which is fuelling these incidents and the pushback from the Dalit community?
What is happening right now in Gujarat and elsewhere is really a reaction to the most unfortunate incident that happened in the recent past. The truth is that atrocities against the Dalits all across the country are getting a lot of media coverage. These atrocities have been taking place for years but there’s now a sizeable increase in the number.
The Una incident is a typical point of departure for this movement. After this incident, there has been a lot of discussion about Dalit atrocities in the media already. And as a reaction to the Una incident – which was of course, a heinous crime against humanity – Dalits are refusing to undertake the activities which were conventionally entrusted to them.
In fact, they went to the extent of putting cow carcasses in front of the collector’s office. But this should be seen as a reaction rather than a provocative action in itself. So, we are not talking about an anti-caste revolution. Dalits are coming up and responding to the violence of upper-castes.
The recent Dalit rally in Una announced that Dalits of the state will stand together against atrocities and won’t do the job of cleaning up carcasses. There’s a long history of Dalit struggle but this time, there’s a sense of a united uprising. Do you think that Ambedkar’s dream is finally going to come true with these push-backs?
Why should they be doing these things at all? It is a baggage of the caste system that we carry. We divided the society into four varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra and there’s an underbelly below Shudras which has thousands of castes who are clubbed as untouchables. So this four-fold stratification is further divided into caste system which has more than 4,000 castes and sub-castes and sub-sub-castes.
In this regard, Dr. BR Ambedkar correctly described the Indian social system as a system of graded inequality in the ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt. In the hierarchy of the caste system, jobs were earlier allocated depending on the caste in which one was born.
There was a big debate regarding this between no less than Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar about whether this system is division of labour. Gandhi defended the system by giving examples of UK and USA claiming that it’s simple division of labour. Ambedkar’s response to this assertion was phenomenal. He said that what we have is not really a division of labour, super-imposed on the division of labour is the division of labourers.
Division of labour has happened across the world but India is the only country where there’s a superimposed division of labourers. This was completely dependent on the accident of birth. So whether you become a scholar or a scavenger didn’t depend on your intrinsic talent or abilities, it depended on the caste you were born into.
But the conflict is not going to go away any time soon and as more Dalits realise the extent of atrocities, they are going to rise up and question the unchecked power and privilege of the upper caste communities. Should those who have monopolised much of the resources for the so called high born now be scared?
It was Ambedkar who made Dalits realise that it is because of the connivance of the so-called high-born, that they have perpetuated the system using the law of karma. The law of karma said you have to carry human excreta because you had done wrong things in your previous birth. This is something which was fed to us for generations.
I sincerely believe that the caste system in India is the most brilliantly administered scam in the history of human society. It is so intricate and well-designed that it has continued for ages.
What is happening now is a part of the response but it is not happening now. Ambedkar exhorted his followers to think about their position in society and question themselves about their human rights. The current struggle is a sign that those in power are very keen to perpetuate the traditional order of things while young Dalits are coming up and questioning this power. They have received education, at least a lot of them are now literate and they are asking for their human rights.
There’s a silent revolution going on in the country. Today, whichever way you look, you will find Dalits asserting themselves. Be it painting, sculpture or neurology, you will find a young boy or a girl trying to carve out a space for himself/herself. The political vacuum continues for them but Dalits are following Ambedkar’s call to educate, organise and agitate.
In this process, there’s an implicit conflict involved. These people are challenging the traditional order of society and those who want the traditional order continue to find it uncomfortable to deal with challenges coming from the underprivileged quarters. This is why there has been an increase in atrocities and violence against Dalits.
You just said that Dalits are slowly rising the ranks in fields like neurology and architecture which is a good sign. But there hasn’t been any report of upper caste people, for instance, joining the workforce for manual scavenging or cleaning sewers? Are Dalits forever going to be appropriated for the tasks that are considered ‘menial’?
It is very strange and surprising that so called high-born are asking or punishing Dalits for not doing their jobs. In 1929, Ambedkar gave a call in Maharashtra to stop taking the caracasses. The basic division was that the Mahar community was assigned the job of taking away the dead cattle. Ambedkar also belonged to this community. So it was the job of Mahars to skin and take the flush. The skin would be given to Chamars who would process it and make footwear and so on.
It was then that Dr. Ambedkar had made that appeal and it was followed by Dalits. In many villages, there were riots and social boycott of Dalits because they were not doing the menial jobs entrusted to them. The Dalits simply refused to do the dirty work for the upper-castes.
The current power-struggle is bringing out these reactions from the Dalit community and it is going to continue for a long time till we achieve social equality.
To achieve that end you have also proposed introducing a bill that aims to put an end to the practice of people using surnames in India. How do you think removal of surnames can end caste-based discrimination?
I propose to bring a private member’s bill in Rajya Sabha which will focus on dropping or deleting caste implying surname. I don’t think it will solve all the problems, it won’t. But it will be a giant leap forward. In all these years, the form of caste-discrimination has undergone a massive change.
Less than 100 years ago, in Maharashtra, Dalits had to carry an earthen pot around their neck to prevent their spit from falling on the ground. They also had to tie brooms to their waists to prevent their shadows from touching the ground. That kind of obvious form is gone now.
Now, it will be foolish to believe that the caste-system is gone. This has now acquired a sophisticated form and it resides in the minds of the people. It doesn’t show up in the raw and blood form anymore but it is always there. In this form, I believe, it is more pernicious than the earlier forms.
In the US, there was an experiment conducted where they sent identical resumes for some job opening. The resume was ideal and perfect but it was sent under different names. There were two groups of the names – the white sounding names and the black sounding names.
The proportion of people among blacks who got invited was miniscule while most of the white people were invited. This is how the mindset works. Similar studies have also happened in India for upper-castes and Dalits on a smaller scale and the results were no different.
In India, if you compare the conviction rates, the rate is much higher for general population while conviction rate for atrocities against Dalits is only 22% and that again varies from state to it. That is because a lot of people in judicial as well as the bureaucracy carry the caste bias they have to their duty.
To my mind, a very effective way to delete the surnames which indicate the caste. It is not the first time that this has been spoken about. Everyone from Periyar to Jagjivan Ram have spoken about this.
But nothing ever happened on that front…
Which is why I am trying to introduce a bill to change the situation. In southern India, people actually drop their surnames and suffix the name of the place they come from or simply choose a different name. What is the caste of Rajnikanth?
Earlier, in many parts, caste was the surname. Suresh Gopi, the great actor in Malayalam and Tamil films has dropped Nair from his name. There are umpteen examples of people dropping their surnames.
Even in the north, if you remember, after the Jaiprakash Narayan movement, lots of people dropped their surnames and chose neutral surnames like Kumar. Narayan advocated that actively. What we are talking about is dropping the surnames.
Did Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar ever discuss or debate this idea?
Of course they did but they were talking about opposite things. While Gandhi was asking his followers to go back to villages since he saw villages as a self-contained region based on self-reliance. Ambedkar called villages “cesspots” and he exhorted his followers to the leave the village and go to the city. Why?
Because, in a village you will always be identified by your caste. What you can do or cannot do will depend on the caste that villagers already know but cities afford you anonymity since people didn’t know these migrants and hence, their caste was hidden from the larger population.
There’s going to be a massive urbanisation in the next 20 years. With this urbanisation, one effective way is to drop the caste-based surnames. In one generation, we can relegate this discrimination to the past.
But you also support the caste-system for its diversity, if I am right? How does that fit in with this vision of having a casteless society?
Please understand that I am not against caste systems per se. Each caste has its own culture and traditions. That is a part of our rich diversity. I am not against that. The problem comes when you arrange that as a graded inequality and you force people to do things based on the accident of their birth rather than their capabilities.
It is not just in the society’s interest that we need to move beyond this discrimination but it is also in our country’s economic interests.
How do you think we can improve our economic situation by removing caste-based discrimination?
Just imagine how many Einsteins would have been born if everyone got the same access and opportunity to education. For a very long time, only about 3% of the people had access to education and if the British had not come, this would have persisted for even longer.
These 3% made the laws and exercised the laws and everyone else was kept out. In the shastras, there’s a punishment for shudras for listening to the vedas which is that molten lead should be poured in their ears. And if they have the temerity of studying vedas, their tongues should be cut. No wonder, Ambedkar said that to annihilate the caste system you have to put dynamite to the dharma-shastras.
But how did the British help make education more inclusive?
I am not here to talk about the good and bad they had done. Whatever their motivations may be, they did a very good thing by making education free and compulsory for the children of those enrolled in the British military. That is how Dr Ambedkar got his primary education because his father was enrolled in the British Army and as a part of that, Ambedkar got a chance to study.
Everyone blames Macaulay for many things but I am grateful to him. He was the first person to take education outside the confines of a temple and he kept it outside. His motives may be any, I don’t care about it. What I know is that a large part of the society which could not enter temples and were deprived of education suddenly started receiving education.
There is a lot of push by this current government to skill India and provide digital literacy but much of it seems to be on paper. What are some of the ways in which we can effectively uplift the socio-economic status of Dalits without being partisan and treating them like vote-banks like the governments traditionally have?
There are two things to be done. Dalits are not given the same level access to the judiciary. I gave the example of low conviction rates when it comes to crimes against Dalits but there’s a lot more to be done. Last year, the Prevention of Atrocities Act was strengthened, revised and passed by both the houses of the parliament. But we need a rigorous implementation of that act.
In some states, the conviction rate is as low as 3% and there’s always under-reporting of cases. It means that in 97% of the cases, the perpetrators of heinous crimes go scott free.
In 1975 and 1979, Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister came out with a very good scheme that was called Scheduled Caste Sub Plan and Tribal Sub Plan. Essentially, it meant that from the plan expenditure of the government they must earmark for Dalits and Adivasis which corresponds to their population in the total population.
Dalit population is 16.8% and tribal population is about 8.6% so they should spend that much amount from plan expenditure to uplift these communities directly. It was to be done for states similarly depending on their ratios.
So what happened after this scheme? Did it achieve expected results?
You won’t believe that in all these years, this scheme has never been implemented properly in letter and spirit. When I took over as a member of Planning Commission, the first thing I did was to check on this scheme and the proportion was 7% instead of 16.8%. And even in this earmarking, a large amount of money was siphoned off for non-Dalit purposes.
For instance, in Delhi, about Rs 700 crore were diverted to the Commonwealth Games. And this is not an exception, it is a rule. Out of 68 different departments and ministries in the central government, only one department had opened that subhead after 40 years of the scheme.
Even today, it is less than 10%.
On the other hand, many people feel that there is a lot of appeasement. Dalits are facing a double whammy as what is being announced or told to them is much more than what is actually reaching them. This is creating a kind of animosity between the general population and Dalits whereas on the ground, very little work is happening for their welfare.
This is actually quite interesting since debates around reservations always revolve around the idea of having a meritocracy and people advocate that educational institutions should get rid of reservations? What is your stand on this?
What meritocracy are we talking about? This is hypocritical. How do you compare a little boy whose mother is a sweeper and his father is a peon somewhere? He doesn’t have electricity at home. How do you compare him to someone who has not only had private schooling but coaching as well? And even though we know marks are not reflective of intelligence or capabilities, we still can’t let this false equivalence to perpetuate.
In our own enlightened self-interest, we must have reservations because if we don’t expand the gene pool, we can’t expect to make progress.
You have advocated extending them to the private sector as well but why do we have reservations in the first place and can we expect them to go away ever?
Reservations are needed because of the innate inability of our social system to be just and fair. Why is our system not just and fair? It is because of the caste-ridden mindset. As long as it is unjust and unfair, we need reservations. Have we come close to a system where we are just and fair? We have not.
There should be reservations in private sector jobs also. How private is really private? Aren’t we giving them all kinds of concessional land, electricity and tax concessions? I am not saying we are obliging them but we give huge loan waivers to the industrialists. And if private is not entirely private, I think as part of corporate social responsibility, we should expand and extend reservations to the private sector as well.
And this must be done in our enlightened self interested. When Ambedkar presented the final draft of the constitution, he gave a most brilliant speech which said the following:
On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.
In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value.
In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value.
How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?
How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?
If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.
Final question: what do you think about the appropriation of Ambedkar by political parties and especially the Bharatiya Janata Party?
Everyone is appropriating Ambedkar and what is wrong with that? First of all, we need to know that we have not recognised Ambedkar as a national leader. We have this caste-ridden mindset. We looked at him only as an emancipator of Dalits which he was, of course. But he was an intellectual colossus who was truly a national leader. His entire contribution needs to be seen in the enormity.
Dr Ambedkar awakened the social conscience of modern India. To brand him as a Dalit and a leader of Dalits, we have done a grave injustice to him. That is now changing as all political parties have understood this and now they are trying to recognise Ambedkar for what he was. But their motivations might be different.
It’s perfectly fine to recognise Ambedkar but I am saying that it should be done in the right letter and spirit. It should not only be symbolic, it should be substantial.