The other day in Parliament, Kumari Selja accused a Gujarat Dwarka mandir of asking her to reveal her caste during a visit in February 2013. At the time she was a Union Minister in the UPA government. Instead of declaring it offensive and un-Indian if true, the BJP ridiculed her claim as one simply made to “grab Rahul’s [Gandhi] attention.” Arun Jaitley trotted out from a temple visitor’s book her quite complimentary comments about the temple and the way it was being managed. Ms. Selja was accused of alleging “manufactured discrimination.” She clarified the incident occurred not at the temple for which she had written those remarks but at another.
The story as told by Ms. Selja had a ring of plausibility. The priest of the temple for which she had penned her praise confirmed that donors there are still asked to provide their caste along with other information for the purpose of record keeping; but the temple didn’t ask for Ms. Selja’s caste for her donation because she was a VIP. Obviously, the incident happened at another temple. That confirms for one and all that at least in two temples at Dwarka she could have been asked her caste but it happened only at one. And she remained silent probably because she didn’t want to raise a ruckus at the time, perhaps afraid of exposing her own government of the day for not providing leadership on the issue of caste discrimination.
Of course Ms. Selja should have spoken up at the time of the incident in 2013. She should have used her power and position to publicly challenge the despicable practice of asking for the caste even if the temples did so only in the case of donors. That she should have done the courageous thing to expose the continuing darkness around the caste issues at the time and that she didn’t do so is quite regrettable. But that doesn’t justify the politically partisan and absolutely dismissive stance of the BJP government. As soon as the troubling facts were made public – even though it was done in a parliamentary debate some two and half years after the fact – the politicians should have condemned the practice. United – preferably in the voice of the Prime Minister – the elected politicians should have used this whole sordid episode to urge the lifting of continuing prohibitions on entry of any Indians in the temples throughout the country. Sadly none of that happened. And in some parts of the country the ugly reality of such prohibitions continues in fact, if not in law.
Unfortunately, the Indian diaspora has carried the caste in all its ugliness with us to where ever we have settled. Many of us continue to be more or less but definitely afflicted by its sinister impact upon people’s lives. Those at the ‘lower’ end of this horrible hierarchy continue to suffer prejudice and discrimination at the hands of other Indians while all of us contend with the usual trials and tribulations and sometimes racism in our adopted lands. The caste divisions among us waste energy that could otherwise be used in better integrating into our societies.
The close to seven decades of self rule and legal extinguishment of caste in India hasn’t rendered it even remotely irrelevant. It hasn’t withered away. One must admit that the successive Congress and the BJP regimes have done little to fight the caste system. On the contrary, they have fuelled the fires of identity politics resulting in high levels of caste consciousness stunting the growth of social equality and solidarity. That consciousness can be a positive force if used to erase prejudice and discrimination and engender equality, inclusion and fairness. But that is not how it has often been used. It has been abused by vested partisan interests to create an increasingly divided polity where common good plays second fiddle to political advantage.
It was this partisan pursuit of political advantage that initially drove the BJP’s ill thought out response to Ms. Selja’s belated allegation. Had public good commanded its absolute loyalty, the BJP would have treated her very serious allegation with the utmost respect it deserved, making her cause their own. The BJP should remember what all Indians know – whether we admit or not – that in this case Ms. Selja is not the enemy; the still rabid and extremely abhorrent caste system is!