By Walter Ferndes
The same day in late May witnessed two important events. The Indian Space Research Organisation successfully tested a retrievable satellite and the Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Tejpal was assaulted for accompanying some dalits who wanted entry into a temple. On the following day newspapers had first page headlines on the satellite. Very few papers reported the attack on dalits and most of them relegated the news item to a three-inch column in an inner page. That symbolises the contradictions in our society. On the one hand we boast about the country’s achievements in space and in other areas and even claim that we had aeroplanes and inter-continental flying machines 5,000 years ago. On the other hand we refuse to treat a big section of our people as human beings. The glory of the country is judged by GDP not by human growth.
That caste attitude extends also to colour, as seen in the killing a Congolese tiol by some hoodlums in Delhi a few days before the above incidents. There were many such incidents elsewhere for example in Goa and an auto driver spitting on a Tanzanian young man and stripping of an African girl in Bangalore. But we refuse to call it racism. General V. K. Singh is reported to have dismissed them as minor incidents blown out of proportion by the media. In the past he had reportedly said after an attack on dalits that the government cannot act every time someone throws a stone at a dog. The foreign minister expressed sorrow about the killing of an African but did not call it a racist attack. She is reported have added that India cannot be racist. Some other leaders regretted the incidents because they bring a bad me to India not because they violate the human rights of Africans.
All of it hides a deep racist feeling and colour and caste consciousness in our society. One has only to see the marriage advertisements in the newspapers. The demand is invariably for a “fair convent educated girl”. Caste is mentioned at times but in most cases it is hidden in neutral terminology. Colour is never far from our minds. Most of our literature and digital media present evil as black and good as white. Day in and day out commercials advertise facial and body products to give us a fair skin. But we keep proclaiming that we are not racist or race conscious. When Africans were attacked in Goa the Chief Minister of the State is reported to have claimed that it was the result of their bad behaviour. When challenged he defended himself by saying that he was only “giving expression to the general feeling in his State” about their behaviour. That statement is not far from what some fundamentalists in cities and even the police in Delhi say about women from the Northeast attracting the attention of men through their dress and “non–Indian” behaviour. The victim is the culprit. It implies that the attacks will not stop till the victims change their behaviour or colour or both.
When the evil cannot be hidden, denial mode is the norm. It takes forms such as the claim that the caste system was introduced by the colonial regime, that missiories brought witch hunting with them, that sati is the result of Muslim rule and that no such evil existed in ancient India. Such talk takes other forms too. When, for example, an Indian (normally from a domint caste) is attacked in a western country, the media react violently against the “attack on an Indian”. When a dalit is attacked in India, it becomes a “minor incident.” A rape in a city becomes a tiol issue. But hundreds of dalit girls raped all over the country become only statistics if reported at all. Some like Cynthia Stephen even report that, in a few villages in Tamil du most dalit girls are raped by domint caste landlords but such cases are not reported, nor are other cases of rape or stripping in Rajasthan, Harya and elsewhere.
The situation of dalits is expressed not merely in atrocities but also in daily life, income being one of them. While in India as a whole around a third of the population lives below the poverty line, even according official statistics their proportion among dalits is more than 60 percent. Only around 60 percent of dalits are able to enter class one but 80 percent of those who enter drop out before class 4 and become child labourers. Around 70 percent of child labourers in the country are dalits and tribals. There are reservations for them at school and in government and public sector jobs but only an elite among them can avail of them since the rest cannot afford the type of education that the jobs require. As a result, many reserved posts remain unfilled but persons from the domint castes use the fact of reservations to make propaganda that dalits and tribals deprive the remaining groups of jobs. Tribals and dalits are around 60 percent of people displaced, not rehabilitated and further impoverished by what are called tiol development projects. Looking at the mercy petitions coming to him, the late President Dr Abdul Kalam asked why 80 percent of people on the death row are dalits, tribals and Muslims. The powerful can afford costly legal battles. The poor have no such recourse even when they are falsely accused.
The effort of some dalits to enter a temple was intrinsic to their fight for equality and one knows that it is going to be long. The powerful will not share economic and other power with them because the riches of many of them depend on the poverty of these communities. However, one cannot give up hope. One can perhaps learn from women’s fight for equality, that gender-based equality requires change of attitude both of men and women. Similarly, caste and racial equality cannot be achieved without persons from the domint castes and classes joining their search for equality. This long process requires sustained advocacy. Domint groups need to support peaceful social change even from a selfish perspective. If these groups feel that atrocities on the weak continue and that peaceful change is not possible, they may view violent struggle as the only altertive left to them. That cannot be encouraged. Change is more important from a justice perspective. People working for human equality need to join hands for social transformation and a just society.
Dr Walter Ferndes is Senior Fellow at North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.