EARLY IN his career in the civil services, P S Krishnan received an entry in his confidential report that he would read out as the perfect summation of his career.
It read: “Undue partiality to depressed classes, strident advocacy of inter-caste marriages, uses his knowledge of Sanskrit to debunk religion, trusts the words of the villagers rather than village officers, acts in a manner that helps subversive elements.”
Till his last, Krishnan, who died in Delhi Sunday aged 87, remained partial to the depressed classes and worked towards the destruction of the caste order, relentlessly exposing its institutional manifestations.
He impressed upon all the importance of caste-based reservation because he counted caste as the primary social marker in Indian society and felt that reservations were necessary to end caste privilege.
Born in Thiruvananthapuram to an upper caste Hindu family, Krishnan studied at the Maharaja’s Science College — known today as University College — and was influenced by the progressive politics that prevailed in the erstwhile Travancore state in the 1930s and 1940s. Like many progressive-minded people of that generation, he never mentioned the caste he was born in, rejected the caste order in its entirety and worked tirelessly for the uplift of its victims.
In his memoirs, he speaks about coming across Babasaheb Ambedkar’s stringent criticism of caste as a child and his father endorsing those words. The anti-caste politics initiated by social reformers, Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru that found an outlet in newspapers like Kerala Kaumudi, left a deep imprint on him and shaped his outlook towards life.
Krishnan was selected to the IAS in 1956 and served in Andhra Pradesh. As a bureaucrat, he sought to take the government to the people, especially the Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and other oppressed communities. While working at the Centre, he was involved in formulation and implementation of many landmark enactments for furthering the removal of caste-centric inequalities.
In 1979, he was associated with the appointment of the B P Mandal Commission that recommended 27 per cent job reservation for OBCs in government. A decade later, he headed the social welfare ministry when the V P Singh government decided to implement the Commission’s recommendations.
He also worked on the formulation of other landmark legislation, such as the granting of Constitutional status to the National Commission for SCs and STs, and the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
Krishnan’s advocacy for social justice legislations made many of his fellow and superior officers believe he was a Dalit. In fact, he once recounted an instance of this confusion to explain the deep-seated prejudice of bureaucracy.
After listening to him speak at a meeting, a top bureaucrat told others in the room that Krishnan was very intelligent despite being a Dalit. When some officers pointed out that Krishnan wasn’t a Dalit, the same bureaucrat said this explained his intelligence.
Krishnan was a Constitutionalist and a believer in Ambedkar’s radical project of annihilating caste. However, he also drew energy from the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi and Karl Marx. He counted Swami Vivekananda among those who influenced him.
He believed in a tradition of social justice that also included radical bhakti poets like Sant Ravidas and Basaveswara. According to him, a dialogue within tradition, and among Gandhi, Marx, Ambedkar and Periyar, was essential to strengthen anti-caste politics.
Krishnan was also convinced that a social revolution could be achieved within the ambit of the Constitution. His method was not about engaging in polemics but working the system, identifying legislation loopholes and orders that allowed caste system to flourish. He campaigned for change, reading Budget papers and official documents closely to spot any fall in allocation for schemes targeted at the non-privileged. He would help in drafting laws, and then assist the state legally if the legislation was challenged in court.
Neetirajan, an activist-publisher from Chennai who published Krishnan’s memoirs ‘A Crusade for Social Justice’, describes him as “Ambedkar 2.0”.
Last month, Krishnan was hospitalised for a heart valve replacement. He told friends that he would be back. However, he died 5.30 am Sunday, leaving behind a legacy of commitment to justice.