It was with sadness and cynicism that I watched the unprecedented outpouring of paeans to Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary last week. Sadness because I believe that a country as young as India needs new heroes who come from public service and not just cinema or cricket, and these paeans reminded me of how few there have been since 1947. Cynicism because when I listened to political leaders fall over themselves trying to claim Ambedkar’s legacy, I saw shameless hypocrisy.
As someone who is sickened to the core that a job like manual scavenging continues to exist in India, I found myself wondering why the leaders who sang praises to Ambedkar last week did not show the political will to end this awful practice decades ago. Ambedkar’s home state Maharashtra is ironically the biggest culprit. The Census of 2011 found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging, of which 63,713 were in Maharashtra. Other states also allow the prevalence of this most repugnant of jobs, including Uttar Pradesh, that has been ruled for more than one term by a Dalit woman chief minister. The majority of manual scavengers are women and there could be more than a million of them since the Indian Railways spreads human excrement across the length and breadth of India. Now what is the point in singing praises to India’s most famous Dalit leader if we cannot stop the Railways from enforced manual scavenging?
This column has few heroes but Ambedkar is one of them. I admire him for his ability to have been able to see India’s warts and sores and evil practices at a time when every other political leader was wrapping himself up in the national flag. When Gandhiji saw rural India as idyllic and innocent, Ambedkar pointed out that India’s villages were ‘cesspools’ of superstition and casteism. He is right to this day. When every other leader of the freedom movement recommended socialism as the economic path forward, Ambedkar talked of capitalism. He was right. And today the most ardent supporters of economic reform are Dalit entrepreneurs who say openly that free enterprise is the biggest weapon against casteism.
It is my considered opinion that India is a poor country only because, instead of free enterprise, we have had a virtual economic dictatorship imposed upon us in the name of socialism.
Since this system was unable to create wealth or even begin to lift the poor (mostly low-caste) out of poverty, we had affirmative action in the form of reserved government jobs and admission to educational institutions. Is it not time to ask whether reservations have worked? Powerful rural caste groups these days have taken to burning public property and, in the case of Haryana, whole cities in their passion for reservations. When they take time off from violent protests, they say that all reservations should be ended if they cannot be included.
It could be time to take them up on this. Reserved government jobs and reserved seats in schools and colleges have become the excuse for governments to absolve themselves of their responsibility to build enough schools and colleges and an economy that creates real jobs. If there was not a permanent shortage of these most vital things, there would be no need for reservations. In schools and colleges reservations now come in so many categories that about the only children who find it hard to find admission are upper-caste Hindus. During the 2014 election campaign, I spent some time talking to students in Banaras Hindu University, who said they were voting for Narendra Modi because they believed he was the only political leader who had the courage to end reservations.
At the other end of the scale we have the sort of discrimination that forced Rohith Vemula to commit suicide. The ugly truth is that our institutions of learning have been turned into battlefields in which casteism has become a weapon to be used in different ways. The ugly truth also is that if Ambedkar were alive today, he would be deeply ashamed of the way that India has turned out despite his fine Constitution.
This is why the word ‘parivartan’ had such resonance in the last general election. We need new heroes, new ideas, new jobs, new institutions of learning and above all a new dream because the old one has been poisoned by cynical leaders who could not care less if young Dalit girls spent their whole lives cleaning uppercaste excrement. So the real tribute to Ambedkar would be not to build more memorials but to build millions more schools in which instead of reserved seats, discrimination against Dalit children would become a criminal offence. This is most important in rural schools because Indian villages continue to be ‘cesspools’. ‘Parivartan’ is more needed here than anywhere else.