Dr BR Ambedkar, in his Annihilation of Caste, emphasises that political progress is not possible without social reform: "An ideal society would be... full of channels for conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts" and democracy in essence is "...an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen." A fraternity.
His compatriot down south, EV Ramasamy, better known as Periyar, practised it vigorously through ground protests and activism. The ensuing mass movement led to the formation of political parties - the DMK, and subsequently the AIADMK and others, based on the social justice ideology of an egalitarian Tamil society. Social pressure led to political change in the state, and the legislating of reform.
However, Tamil Nadu, and even more so, India, show a chasm between constitutional values of justice, equality and fraternity, and ground realities. There has been low societal engagement by governments to bridge this, perhaps presuming that the constitutional mandate will inevitably lead to a fraternal society. In fact, legislation is a necessary but insufficient motivator- dowry, foeticide, endogamy, child marriages, minority and Dalit ghettoisation, sexual harassment etc continue their plague.
It is crucial for governments to socialise legislation that leapfrogs societal progress and grates against prevailing practices. Governments need to ensure that reform is not only advertised but is actually embraced by people, and that implies going beyond awareness creation and propaganda, into actual socialisation, and acceptance over time.
One such remarkable effort of the past was the cycling revolution of 1991, led by IAS Officer Sheela Rani Chunkath, the then District Collector of Pudukkottai. Implementing the National Literacy Mission across both the Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa governments, in one of the most illiterate, penurious districts of Tamil Nadu, she coupled mobility with literacy. Linking female literacy and cycling outcomes resulted in a social revolution by the newly literate, mobile, women. They formed co-operatives to own the very quarries in which they were bonded labourers earning a mere Rs 7 per day.
This makes the recent Tamil Nadu government order from the Rural Development Department instructing all grama sabhas on October 2, 2021, to take an oath towards gender equity and against social evils unprecedented. The first state to pioneer this, it is also a dire need with the recent increase in child marriages, foeticide and domestic violence due to COVID-19, and a series of sexual harassment incidents and rapes, in schools and beyond.
Proposed by Political Shakti to the Tamil Nadu Minister of Social Welfare and Women Empowerment, Geetha Jeevan, the pledge serves as a bridge linking the various legislations against social evils with the power of the people's will. Entire villages, en masse, as conscientious citizens will pledge upon the Constitution to treat everyone as equals, with dignity and respect. They will vow to respect the consent of women and girls, to shun dowry, prevent and complain against female infanticide/foeticide and child marriages. They will take an oath of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment (not to perpetrate or tolerate), to stand with survivors and initiate action against the perpetrators.
The next steps, already in progress, are to initiate this as a weekly or monthly pledge in all schools and colleges across the state, from Class 9 onwards. This will reprogram generations of boys when it comes to thinking about equality.
For many oppressed castes, women and transgender persons, equality has meant everyone but them, to paraphrase Langston Hughes. Rectifying this means that the social justice political agenda comes a full circle, and drives social change using government channels. State-backed initiatives around constitutional values, like the recent anti-caste pledge on Social Justice Day, which is the birth anniversary of Periyar, and this gender equity pledge starting October 2 can help smoothen an iniquitous and hence, inefficient society. After all, the arc of the moral universe is not only long but needs calculated interventions to curve towards a just society.
Tara Krishnaswamy is the co-founder of Shakti – Political Power to Women, a non-partisan grassroots group campaigning for more women MLAs and MPs. She is co-founder of Citizens for Bengaluru, a citizens’ movement for a sustainable Bengaluru.