A signal achievement of the Indian elite in recent years has been to take caste, give it a fresh coat of paint, and repackage it as a struggle for equality. The agitations in the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences and other such institutions were fine examples of this. Casteism is no longer in defensive denial the way it once was. (“Oh, caste? That was 50 years ago, now it barely exists.”) Today, it asserts that caste is killing the nation — but its victims are the upper castes. And the villains are the lower orders who crowd them out of the seats and jobs long held by those with merit in their genes.
This allows for a happy situation. You can practise casteism of a visceral kind — and feel noble about it. You are, after all, standing up for equal rights, calling for a caste-free society. Truth and justice are on your side. More importantly, so are the media. Remember how the AIIMS agitation was covered?
The idea of “reverse discrimination” (read: the upper castes are suffering) is catching on. In a curious report on India, The Wall Street Journal, for instance, buys into this big time. It profiles one such upper caste victim of “reverse discrimination” with sympathy. (“Reversal of Fortunes Isolates India’s Brahmins,” Dec. 29, 2007.) “In today’s India,” it says, “high caste privileges are dwindling.” The father of the story’s protagonist is “more liberal” than his grandfather. After all, “he doesn’t expect lower-caste neighbours to take off their sandals in his presence.” Gee, that’s nice. They can keep their Guccis on.
A lot of this hinges, of course, on what we like to perceive as privilege and what we choose to see as discrimination. Like many others, the WSJ report reduces both to just one thing: quotas in education and jobs. No other form of it exists in this view. But it does in the real world. Dalit students are routinely humiliated and harassed at school. Many drop out because of this. They are seated separately in the classroom and at mid-day meals in countless schools across the country. This does not happen to those of “dwindling privileges.”
Students from the upper castes do not get slapped by the teacher for drinking water from the common pitcher. Nor is there much chance of acid being thrown on their faces in the village if they do well in studies. Nor are they segregated in hostels and in the dining rooms of the colleges they go to. Discrimination dogs Dalit students at every turn, every level. As it does Dalits at workplace.
Yet, as Subodh Varma observes (The Times of India, December 12, 2006), their achievements in the face of such odds are impressive. Between 1961 and 2001, when literacy in the population as a whole doubled, it quadrupled among Dalits. Sure, that must be seen in the context of their starting from a very low base. But it happened in the face of everyday adversity for millions. Yet, the impact of this feat in terms of their prosperity is very limited.
The WSJ story says “close to half of Brahmin households earn less than $100 (or Rs. 4,000) a month.” Fair enough. (The table the story runs itself shows that with Dalits that is over 90 per cent of households.) But the journalist seems unaware, for example, of the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. Which says that 836 million Indians live on less than Rs.20, or 50 cents, a day. That is, about $15 a month. As many as 88 per cent of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (and many from the Other Backward Classes and Muslims) fall into that group. Of course, there are poor Brahmins and other upper caste people who suffer real poverty. But twisting that to argue “reverse discrimination,” as this WSJ story does, won’t wash. More so when the story admits that, on average, “[Brahmins] are better educated and better paid than the rest of Indian people.”
Oddly enough, just two days before this piece, the WSJ ran a very good summary of the Khairlanji atrocity a year after it occurred. That story, from a different reporter, rightly suggests that the economic betterment and success of the Bhotmange family had stoked the jealousy of dominant caste neighbours in that Vidharbha village. But it ascribes that success to India’s “prolonged economic boom which has improved the lot of millions of the nation’s poorest, including Dalits.” Which raises the question: were other, dominant caste groups not gaining from the “boom?” How come? Were Dalits the only “gainers?”
As Varma points out, 36 per cent of rural and 38 per cent of urban Dalits are below the poverty line. That’s against 23 per cent of rural and 27 per cent of urban India as a whole. (Official poverty stats are a fraud, but that’s another story.) More than a quarter of Dalits, mostly landless, get work for less than six months a year. If half their households earned even $50 a month, that would be a revolution.
Let us face it, though. Most of the Indian media share the WSJ’s “reverse discrimination” views. Take the recent Brahmin super-convention in Pune. Within this explicitly caste-based meeting were further surname-based conclaves that seated people by clan or sub-group. You don’t get more caste-focussed than that. None of this, though, was seen as odd by the media. Almost at the same time, there was another high-profile meeting on within the Marathas. That is, the dominant community of Maharashtra. The meeting flatly demanded caste-based quotas for themselves. Again, not seen as unusual.
But Dalit meetings are always measured in caste, even racist, terms. This, although Dalits are not a caste but include people from hundreds of social groups that have suffered untouchability. The annual gathering in memory of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on December 6 in Mumbai has been written of with fear. The damage and risks the city has to stoically bear when the noisy mass gathers. The disruption of traffic. The threat to law and order. How a possible exodus looms of the gentle elite of Shivaji Park. (In fear of the hordes about to disturb their polite terrain.) And of course, the sanitation problem (never left unstated for it serves to reinforce the worst of caste prejudice and allows “us” to view “them” as unclean).
But back to the real world. How many upper caste men have had their eyes gouged out for marrying outside their caste? Ask young Chandrakant in Sategaon village of Nanded in Maharashtra why he thinks it happened to him last week. How many higher caste bastis have been torched and razed in land or other disputes? How many upper caste folk lose a limb or even their lives for daring to enter a temple?
How many Brahmins or Thakurs get beaten up, even burnt alive, for drawing water from the village well? How many from those whose “privileges are dwindling” have to walk four kilometres to fetch water? How many upper caste groups are forced to live on the outskirts of the village, locked into an eternal form of indigenous apartheid? Now that’s discrimination. But it is a kind that the WSJ reporter does not see, can never fathom.
In 2006, National Crime Records Bureau data tell us, atrocities against Dalits increased across a range of offences. Cases under the Protection of Civil Rights Act shot up by almost 40 per cent. Dalits were also hit by more murders, rapes and kidnapping than in 2005. Arson, robbery and dacoity directed against them — those went up too.
It’s good that the molestation or rape of foreign tourists (particularly in Rajasthan) is causing concern and sparking action. Not so good that Dalit and tribal women suffer the same and much worse on a colossal scale without getting a fraction of the importance the tourists do. The same Rajasthan saw an infamous rape case tossed out because in the judge’s view, an upper caste man was most unlikely to have raped a lower caste woman.
In the Kumher massacre which claimed 17 Dalit lives in that State, charges could not be framed for seven years. In a case involving a foreign tourist, a court handed down a guilty verdict in 14 days. For Dalits, 14 years would be lucky. Take contemporary Maharashtra, home to India’s richest. The attention given to the Mumbai molestation case — where 14 arrested men remained in jail for five days after being granted bail — stands out in sharp contrast to what has happened in Latur or Nanded. In the Latur rape case, the victim was a poor Muslim, in Nanded the young man who was ghoulishly blinded, a Dalit. The Latur case was close to being covered up but for the determination of the victim’s community.
The discrimination that pervades Dalit lives follows them after death too. They are denied the use of village graveyards. Dalits burying their dead in any place the upper castes object to could find the bodies of their loved ones torn out of the ground. Every year, more and more instances of all these and other atrocities enter official records. This never happens to the upper castes of “dwindling privileges.” The theorists of “reverse discrimination” are really upholders of perverse practice.