Even as Dalit politics takes centrestage in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections and the Dalit vote portends to be a key determinant of who forms the next government, India’s urban upper castes remain steadfastly indifferent to Dalit issues other than when they show up as protests at their doorstep.
Unlike in the pre-1947 era, when eradicating casteism was an important strand of both the freedom struggle and many Hindu reform movements, most savarnas today believe that there is little more that they need to do to redress three millennia of injustice against Dalits. Discrimination and violence against Scheduled Castes (SCs) are seen as an embarrassing relic of the past best left to the police and courts, while Dalit demands for economic justice are something for politicians and government to address.
Metropolitan liberals are more likely to embrace #MeToo and LGBT causes or even anti-racism than get involved in repairing the appalling legacy of caste. Combating casteism is neither cool nor a moral priority.
There are three reasons for this. First, thanks to our Constitution and progressive laws, the most abhorrent forms of casteist bias have been criminalised. Second, overt casteism is no longer visible in the anonymity of our cities; atrocities directed at Dalits are largely of rural provenance. The third and perhaps most important reason why the socially privileged feel absolved of any further responsibility for fighting casteism is the policy of reservations. Mandatory quotas in universities, government jobs and elected offices are seen as having done enough (and indeed too much in the eyes of many) to create secure pathways for SCs to achieve upward mobility.
However, while the SCs are undoubtedly much better off than they have ever been, they still badly lag the rest of the populace. One fact alone is telling: Their mean age of death in 2014 was estimated at 48, compared with 60 for their high-caste peers. Despite making up a sixth of India’s population, there are virtually no Dalit names in our boardrooms, sports fields, news channels, newspaper by-lines, or cinemas.
Despite this grim picture, many believe that with all the enabling conditions now in place it is simply up to the Dalit community to pull themselves up. In a 2017 survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Azim Premji University, nearly half the upper-caste people polled said the reason Dalits lag behind other groups was due to a “lack of effort”.
The contrast with the battle against racism in South Africa, Brazil and the United States could not be starker. In all three countries, growing fractions of the white population, particularly the young, actively police racism in any form and forum and backing for civil rights, affirmative action, workplace diversity, and black empowerment is now woven into the social fabric. (One crude measure visible to even a casual visitor is the number of African-American faces on US television screens — despite being only an eighth of the population.) Perhaps more important is what is happening at the everyday level as racial boundaries blur — be it in business or romantic relationships.
This is by no means to suggest that racism is a thing of the past in South Africa, Brazil, or the US. But the overall response of the white community in these countries in atoning for their iniquitous past is light years ahead of India’s upper castes.
What these societies have recognised is that government and the laws can only dissolve overt and violent forms of bias while quotas are but a limited enabler of socio-economic advancement: Formidable but subtle barriers remain to previously-oppressed groups making headway.
This applies to Dalits in India as well. Most Dalit students are first-generation school-goers, their English is often weak and their mostly poor, rural origins ill prepares them for urban settings. Their self-esteem is typically badly dented by daily brandings: Being seated separately at school, served food in different utensils, and being singled out to sweep classrooms and toilets.
Put them in campus and corporate contexts where proxies for caste such as “community” and “family background” are slyly deployed, and preference given to the command of English and social ease afforded by a high-caste background, and it is no wonder that Dalits struggle. Those that make it into higher education face daily roadblocks as the spate of suicides by lower caste students such as Rohith Vemula testifies. Dalit students, who take longer to finish degrees, are disparagingly termed “uncles”. Most experience humiliation in examinations and interviews. Hostels and workplaces remain segregated, and Dalit students and co-workers are socially isolated. Even the commonplace of jati stereotypes — business-minded Marwaris, wonky Tambrahms — can be degrading: What career pigeon-hole can someone from a Dalit lineage lay claim to?
In short, modern urban India does not give Dalits an equal shot at success. Dalits remain subject to the sorts of casual slights that most would be livid about if directed, say, at Indians abroad in a racial context. Filling this black hole in our social consciousness cannot be the job of government — upper caste society needs to raise its own awareness and sensitivity to bias.
Heightened attention to “soft” discrimination must be underpinned by owning up to our moral responsibility for the bequest of caste bigotry. Countries as different as South Africa and the US are facing up to their shameful histories in the classroom and in clear-eyed depictions in museums, monuments, and films such as the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. One of my most searing memories is of being shown around the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg by a middle-aged Afrikaner guide who minced no words as she explained the exhibits depicting her community’s unforgivable treatment of their black compatriots.
In India, by contrast, there is an undercurrent amongst high-caste Hindus that caste prejudice was somehow a “distortion” of a benign division of labour. There is zero credible scriptural or other evidence for this self-serving spin — and much to support varna ideology as deliberately rationalising and shaping underlying power and economic equations in ancient India. And yet, the Hindu right conveniently distorts this harsh history even as Hindu gurus who could speak out forcibly against the shabby heritage of varna divert themselves instead with faddish causes such as cleaning rivers.
Moral responsibility and amplified sensitivity will amount to little without tangible support for Dalit economic advancement. Private sector companies, schools, and colleges have resisted extending reservations to them. But they can achieve a lot without government diktat by sponsoring affirmative action programmes that reach out to Dalit youth, help prepare them for higher education and jobs, and ensure supportive environments for them to succeed. The lot of African-Americans has ameliorated not mainly through US government action and quotas but by concerted initiatives taken by businesses, private universities, non-profits, and society at large.
India’s battle against caste discrimination remains tragically incomplete, sullying our status as a civilised liberal democracy. The thwarting of rising Dalit aspirations is stoking popular anger which social media and charismatic young leaders such as Jignesh Mevani and Chandrasekhar Azad are channelling into political action. If India’s privileged classes keep looking to government and politicians and do not step up themselves to respond, justice for Dalits may only be achieved in ways that fracture India’s stability.
— This article first appeared in the January 9, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Black hole in our consciousness’