Written by Anshul Avijit
A hundred years back, in Ara Town School in Bihar, two pitchers of water were kept in the courtyard — one, for upper-caste, “savarna” Hindus, pure and noble, the other for the so-called “untouchables”, victims of the greatest social betrayal in human history. My grandfather, Babu Jagjivan Ram, an ace student of the school, one day drank water from the prohibited pitcher, then smashed it with a stick, and told the principal to keep only one for all students. There was outrage, blows, boycott, but the young Jagjivan Ram was insistent. He somehow survived the rebellion – my mother, Meira Kumar, says that it was a “miracle” that he didn’t end up dead — and went on to fight many more such battles throughout his political life. They can never be enough.
A hundred years later — after freedom, democracy, and a million pledges to equity — Indra Kumar, a nine-year-old boy from Saraswati Vidya Mandir in Jalore, Rajasthan, got killed for that very reason. Witnesses say he was also viciously abused as he was being beaten, as his ears were being torn and his eyes crushed. Death wasn’t immediate, it made him linger for 14 days more at an Ahmedabad hospital. Indra had dared to drink from the pitcher of Chail Singh, the upper-caste principal of the school, a man so driven by caste entitlement and hatred that it was only death, a hate-filled sacrifice, that could keep the tradition alive. To give a Dalit boy access to education, the historical preserve of the “dwija” or the “twice-born”, was bad enough; to have him obscure the boundaries food and drink was a cardinal transgression. The principal has been arrested, and FIRs lodged under the SC/ST (prevention of Atrocities) Act but like my grandfather used to say, “you can legislate laws, but how do you legislate on mindsets”?
In the early days of Babu Jagjivan Ram, the Dalits had to carry a spittoon on their neck so that the streets were not soiled by their indiscretion, and a broom tied on their back to automatically sweep the polluted pathway as they walked. Their shadow was a curse, not just in terms of a demonic presence, but like something truly repugnant. My grandfather was banished from his hostel in Benares Hindu University and was told to cook food separately; ultimately he had to move out, not only from the hostel, but from the city itself, completing his graduation from Calcutta. But many years later, in 1978, when he returned to Benares as the Deputy Prime Minister to garland the statue of former UP CM Sampurnanad, it appeared that little had changed. The statue was later purified with ganga jal by angry, abusive students, calling out the audacity of someone breaching the caste trenches.
There has been improvement in the past 75-years since Independence, qualitative change, with constitutional rights and laws, social reform, capitalism and political confidence. But one can also argue that despite the empowerment, the “mindset” has not changed and the “lowly Chamar” still needs to be shown his place. Meira Kumar argues that the caste system is about “voice”, since “the system filters those voices that should be heard, and those who should remain voiceless. At the moment, the Dalit voices are too feeble to be heard, too mild to be registered.” So, political power may not necessarily lead to social emancipation.
For example, there is the story of a Jatav MLA from Madhya Pradesh, some years back, who carried his own steel glass to avoid soiling utensils in upper-caste homes, a habit that won him much approval by the latter. Kumar also remembers a women MLA from northern state who lost the support of upper castes the moment she decided to take independent, sovereign decisions on appointments and funds distribution. And then there are the pitiful stories of many Dalit lawmakers who routinely touch the feet of upper-caste men and women, young and old, to reassure their fragile self-image that caste still thrives at the very heart of Indian modernity.
This vulnerability, of safeguarding caste as an immutable social space, can be arguably explained through the logic of pure-impure, arguably the central axis of the caste structure. By this logic, the customary privileges of upper castes, their purity and social purpose, can only be legitimised and maintained by their very denial at its opposite end. A suvarna can only exist if avarna does. One wonders, as we read about more and more instances of such atrocity, if the old order is not fighting back, empowering itself through the sacrifice of those who should be confined to the shadows. How many more nine-year-olds have to be killed before the “mindset changes”? One is not sure; after all this is the caste system, India’s grisly offering to humanity.
(The writer is National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress)