M. N. Srinivas, India's famed anthropologist, said, “caste is everywhere the unit of social action.”
Human societies have been predisposed to hierarchies, but India is unique in notating caste as identity of people. Hinduism never had an egalitarian ethos, never aspired to being classless, casteless with all men being equal. Leave alone women.
Swarajya Magazine, July 2016: “Cows die. The carcass still has to be cleaned and used in some way ... Ergo, the people who can ensure this – Dalits and Muslims – have to part of this process.”
Self-proclaimed liberal discourse of the day relegates Dalits to people who can ensure the cleaning of carcasses. Others won't deign. Cleaning carcass stinks but casteist rot stinks worse.
Caste is a marker so entrenched and treacherous, even among educated 'liberals' who despite their pretensions seek endogamous marriages. Inhuman persecution of Dalits is leitmotif across India.
Reform over the centuries has mitigated some egregious practices like Sati, but there is a lengthy unflattering list that remains undone including hegemonic atrocities on Dalits.
Betterment can only come with both an unabashed recognition of status quo and an unequivocal acknowledgement of where we want to be.
A non-Dalit mess is the base on which India stands.
A polity that circumscribes its social thought and behaviour such that it dispossesses a section of its own of their basic human dignity, strips them of their rights and forces them into debasing and dehumanising acts for survival. Like reserving the butchering and carrying of human excreta, or euphemistically "night soil", by hand to one set of people, for millennia. They do that, and nothing else. Till date. Permanent reservations. Like the historical reserving of schooled education for Brahmins and royalty only. 100% reservation since Vedic times for thousands of years.
If discrimination still seems like fiction or hyperbole, here is something to chew on. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Bill was amended by Parliament to enlarge the list of offences to include, obstructing SC/STs from using places of public worship, educational institutions, healthcare institutions and common public resources. This was done in December 2015. Telling.
The Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 shows that over a third of Dalits depend on manual casual labour, 45% of those are landless. The last Arvind Panagriya report on poverty shows that 29.5% live below the Tendulkar Line versus 16.5% of the so called uppers.
Dr Ambedkar, said, “Equality may be a fiction but nonetheless one must accept it as a governing principle.”
A singularly most reformatory attempt, a revolution of law and radical set of guarantees were laid out for India decades ago. The Constitution of India. Most rebellious in its credo, it boldly defines an ideal state for society. It proposes fraternity, equality, liberty and justice, social, political and economic to all in a fractious caste riven society.
Yet, while every American knows that she has the right to bear arms, Indians barely know their Constitution. Schools shun reasoned caste-debate in classrooms where ethical behaviours can be instilled. Mythology glorifies Dronacharya, dwells not on Ekalavya.
Instead of celebrating the Constitution, revering it as the single most crucial definition of India that unites all Indians across schisms of caste, creed, gender, religion, it is consigned it to a piece of legalese.
Ayothee Das, social reformist, predecessor of Ambedkar said on being Dalit, “... those who, despite being subject to such indignities ... exert their bodies to labor in order to live, are indeed wise.”
Being Dalit though is absolute. There is no statistical yardstick, there is no “yours is bigger than mine.” Once an individual is a known Dalit, every transaction is a social marker as an untouchable, every step is a burden under the society's cross.
Armed with that, there is need to examine the two ends of the caste spectrum.
At one end is caste-based discrimination. Acts of age old feudal prejudice and bias intended to socially and economically marginalise, exploit and isolate sections of people. With discrimination, victims have little or zero control.
It is the perpetrators, the mindsets of India at large that need to to be addressed. No Dalit can fix caste bias as it is an affliction of the non-Dalits. This sickness in non-Dalits is the root cause of the problem.
Elitist attitude may vociferously lament loss of merit due to reservations but in reality, India has lost an incalculable quantum of merit and human potential for thousands of years due to socially sanctioned casteism.
The other end of the spectrum holds tools of state intervention. They can be used to remedy or reduce inequities caused wholly due to millennia of deliberate discrimination. One such key tool, a form of affirmative action for education and economic improvement is caste-based reservations.
Unfortunately, while reservations can create a most educated and well employed Dalit, it does nothing to cure the caste prejudice in a non-Dalit. For social equality to become a reality, non-Dalits need to be systematically educated on humanism, a discipline of education that they have denied themselves through generations of denying Dalits their humanity.
The state must intervene to inject some antibodies and upend the caste order. These need not be magic bullets but relentless prescriptions for social reform devised in consultation with experts and civil society. People must be nudged, shepherded, exhorted, pressured, mandated and legislated to relinquish caste.
1. Prepare a next generation that rejects casteism: Mandatory caste sensitivity training for all students and teachers from late primary through middle school, enforced by HRD. Have every student pledge to disavow caste, similar to the recent compulsory anti-sexual harassment training from WCD for all private and public companies.
2. Indoctrinate public officers with unswerving allegiance to equality of all: Mandatory periodic training of public officers on constitutional fundamentals. Police, public transport employees, teachers, lawyers and judges etc. Audit periodically.
3. Reward voluntary caste shedding by citizens: Incentivise voluntary annihilation of caste like civil marriage, dropping caste surname, inter caste marriage, adoption etc. Tax breaks, preferential benefits like loans etc.
4. Appoint right talent to social equality policies, programs: Appoint genuine visionaries and apostles for a casteless India to ministries, departments and commissions of HRD, National Commission of Scheduled Castes, Education and Law Enforcement. Use prompt and stringent law enforcement for incidents against Dalits to send a strong message.
5. Government sponsored propaganda: Frame a readable constitution for children and public alike and promote in schools and elsewhere. Advertisements and propaganda similar to anti-smoking campaings that exhort public against casteism.
Three score and nine years after Independence, when we already have the character and soul of the India sketched out in the Constitution, the time is ripe to go beyond tokenism. India can truly unite in diversity only when the state commits to expand an India for a few to an India for all.
The Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi has solicited public input for his Independence Day address, this August 15th 2016. If he were to pick one thing, just one, it should be to issue a loud and clear clarion call to non-Dalits to end caste discrimination while backing up the rhetoric with clear, committed, comprehensive programs for social equity and hence gift India freedom from caste.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.