As the country faces the coronavirus crisis, there are conversations about the new post-pandemic social order and the circumstances that would shape it. Only a few days ago, we remembered B R Ambedkar on his 129th birth anniversary. Today, it is apt to look again at the dominant social order and the institutions of power, patronage, property and prestige that it has created.
It is sad to see news of caste-related atrocities even during the current crisis, when the society is expected to show social solidarity. The news of a Dalit couple being beaten mercilessly went viral recently. They were assaulted because they refused to sell the land that was rightfully theirs. A video was made of the incident, with caste-related slurs hurled on the couple. Making such a video and spreading hatred requires audacious belligerence on the part of the oppressor. This is the result of a social process, and political intervention alone cannot address this prevailing sentiment.
Social distancing was suggested as one of the precautionary steps to contain the virus. However, in a society like ours, where traditional social prejudices and hierarchies are deeply embedded, discriminatory practices can masquerade as social distancing. Thankfully, voices emerged from the depressed classes from all over the world and the WHO has had to finally replace the phrase “social distancing” with “physical distancing”.
This is an opportune moment for scholars, thinkers and activists from the Dalit community to brainstorm on a roadmap for the emerging Dalit narrative. Raising difficult questions is the need of the hour. Ambedkar himself has not become a subject of intellectual inquisitiveness. Restricting his colossal personality merely to a maker of the Constitution or as a leader of the depressed community is a massive dent to his legacy. His scholarship and deeply meaningful interventions in gender studies, anthropology and economics must also be studied and pursued dispassionately. Policymakers and intellectuals from the Dalit community and beyond must together evolve a mechanism to undertake robust research and produce scholarships on the relatively unexplored dimensions of Ambedkar’s thought.
On the political front as well, April 14 (Ambedkar’s birth anniversary) and December 6 (his death anniversary) must be occasions for more than rhetorical symbolism. The so-called Ambedkarite politics is losing its sheen and traction among the subaltern masses. Parties with a focus on individuals and families like the BSP and LJP have no meaningful contribution left to make.
The future of Dalit assertion needs to be primarily focused on representation — real-time representation at key decision-making positions, which has not happened despite making affirmative action a constitutional commitment. Justice C S Karnan, a Dalit judge, was reprimanded by the court, after he made accusations of caste discrimination and corruption against fellow judges. On the other hand, no questions were raised when a group of Supreme Court judges came out and held a press conference against the prevailing processes in the apex court. It is the social capital of the upper caste, under the modern euphemism of a “network”, that acts as a safety net emerging from caste-based camaraderie. The mainstream media has the same story. It is next to impossible to locate a subaltern voice in the fourth pillar.
There is an urgent need to get over the phenomenon of “behalfism”. No one is entitled to speak on someone else’s behalf. For effective representation, having a voice is a prerequisite. For many years, the cause of the subaltern communities was under the custodianship of the upper-class elite. Let us resolve, in the month of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, to ensure social diversity at our workplaces.
This article was published in the print by the title ‘Ambedkar, In Our Crisis’, The writer is assistant professor at Patna University and visiting fellow at the India Foundation
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines