April 13, 2014

Dalits, Elections… Ambedkar & Bhagat Singh

G Mamatha

HOWEVER we may wish, we cannot do away with some formalities, more so if they present with an opportunity to be in news. Formalities like Jaitley and Amarinder Singh greeting each other, Digvijay Singh and Sushma Swaraj exchanging pleasantries or Modi accompanying Advani to file nomination. Similarly, on every April 14, Ambedkar's birth anniversary, leaders cutting across political divisions rush to pay their tributes. We had already witnessed one such formality or ritual (as some of the political leaders and the parties they represent, in no way believe in the ideas of these departed leaders) observed during the death anniversary of Shahid Bhagat Singh and his comrades on March 23. One has to bear with these formalities, particularly during an election year. Another such formality (unfortunately converted as such and into a ritualistic exercise) is the release of an election manifesto. Election manifestos, thanks to the hypocrisy of the ruling class politicians, are losing their sheen. Despite this, they reflect the thought process and policy direction that a political party wants to take, once elected to government. We are aware of Dr Ambedkar's strong commitment and belief in social justice and his immense work for the upliftment of the dalits and other marginalised sections of the society. Bhagat Singh's ideas on the subject are unknown to many of us and are worth visiting, particularly in the background of the on-going elections, when all and sundry are claiming a share of his legacy. What makes the study more interesting is a glance of the election manifestos of the main political parties on the question of social justice, dalit empowerment, who is responsible for their woes and what needs to be done to overcome. According to Ambedkar, the Hindu Dharmashastras gave legitimacy to the doctrine of Chaturvarnya and the caste system. The infamous Manusmriti de-humanised the sudras and untouchables and created the greatest obstacle to any serious attempt at eradicating the caste system. Ambedkar even publicly burnt the Manusmriti on the occasion of his historical Mahad Satyagraha, for the right of untouchables to drink water from a tank in Mahad town in Maharashtra. According to Ambedkar, unless the dharmashastras were dynamited, castes would not be annihilated. Bhagat Singh, in an article published in Kirti, a Punjabi magazine writes: “Our country is unique where six crore citizens are called untouchables and their mere touch defiles the upper castes. Gods get enraged if they enter the temples. It is shameful that such things are being practised in the twentieth century...we are still debating whether the untouchable is entitled for the sacred thread or can he read the Vedas or not. We are chagrined about discrimination against Indians in foreign lands, and whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India. Given our conduct, do we really have any right to complain about such matters?” He also seriously engaged with the possible solutions to this malaise. “We (should) start believing that we all are born equal and our vocation, as well, need not divide us. If someone is born in a sweeper’s family that does not mean that he/she has to continue in the family profession cleaning shit all his life, with no right to participate in any developmental work”. He continues: “Here the basic question arises, how precisely can we solve this tangle? The answer is quite obvious; above all it needs to be settled for good, that all humans are equal without distinction of birth or vocation...ultimately the problem cannot be satisfactorily solved unless and until untouchable community themselves unite and organise...In principle, Councils and Assemblies are duty bound to ensure full and free access for all these communities to schools, colleges, wells and roads; that too not only on paper but by actually accompanying them to wells, schools, and get them admitted there. But can these legislatures, where a lot of hue and cry is raised even over a bill to ban child marriage, on the ground that it shall be a threat to their religion dare to bring the untouchables to their level on their own? No, never”. Such are the ideas of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh on caste discrimination and how to ensure social justice. Now let us look at the manifestos of the Congress, BJP and the CPI(M) and subject them to the litmus test to know who really has got the right to claim the legacy of these two idols. A significant promise made in the Congress manifesto is to 'ensure the passage of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2013'. What had prevented them from enacting such an act all these years, with all the atrocities coming to light every other day, like the incident in Tamilnadu few days back, is best known to them only. We cannot expect them to answer why their concern to prevent atrocities on dalits made them reduce the money allocated for prevention of atrocities in the budget this year. Another promise is that they will launch a 'special drive' to 'ensure all reserved posts are filled'. Of course, one cannot expect them to reason why they had failed in all these ten years to fill up all the vacant posts or point out who had prevented them to initiate such a 'special drive' during these ten years. Significantly the manifesto is silent on the enactment of a law to make it mandatory to allocate the requisite amount of funds under the SC Sub Plan and ensure that it is also spent for the purpose. The reasons are obvious as the Congress party is the culprit-in-chief for this failure. Who else should one blame, when they blatantly cut this year's allocations under SCSP by more than 44,000 crores! And remember, this is not a one-year feature but a phenomenon over all these years and if one would add all those monies that were denied to the dalits, it would become a colossal figure, denying the Congress party a place to hide. Another issue on which the silence of the Congress party speaks a lot about its attitude and concern towards dalits is legislating for ensuring reservations for dalits in private sector. The manifesto states that the Party is committed towards 'creating a national consensus on affirmative action for SC’s and ST’s in the private sector'. So much so, for the promise it had made in the previous elections about enacting a law for the same. Unfortunately for the Congress party, people do not have short memories. The Congress manifesto talks much about scholarships for dalit students. Reality as this year's budget shows is, they had cut the amounts allocated for post matric scholarships for dalits by over 400 crores. All these instances make us question the intentions of the Congress party, just as Bhagat Singh had asked: Will the Congress, “dare to bring the untouchables to their level on their own”? The answer once again, as Bhagat Singh himself had stated is: “No, never”. Now let us look at the manifesto of the BJP party, the principal opposition party, which had already declared its prime minister. The manifesto states that the “BJP is committed to eliminate manual scavenging”. Even at the cost of repeating, we are forced to recount what their prime ministerial candidate had stated about manual scavenging. “I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation…At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries”. With this kind of perverted thinking, can anyone expect them to 'eliminate manual scavenging'? Bhagat Singh says “No, never”. “BJP is committed to the eradication of untouchability at all levels”, says the manifesto. Dr B R Ambedkar says: “The system of untouchability has been a goldmine for the Hindus”. Can one expect the BJP with its Hindutva ideology do away with this goldmine? Particularly when the party is led in these elections by such a leader who talks about 'spiritual enlightenment', 'have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods' and etcetera? No, never. These apprehensions are not unfounded as the manifesto talks vaguely about resource allocations and reservations for dalits. Look at the language and we will easily understand: 'create an ecosystem for education and entrepreneurship', 'will ensure that the funds allocated for schemes and programmes for SC, ST, OBCs and other weaker sections are utilised properly'. Under the garb of this vagueness, the BJP has moved away from endorsing caste-based reservations. Similarly it does not promise anything specific about the SCSP. Going by the corporate backing to the BJP campaign, one can easily understand that both these issues will be pushed to the backburner. Another vague phrase to cheat the masses is Samajik Samrasata (social harmony) which is what the RSS terms it as. The deception to be noted here is, they talk about 'harmony' and not equality! Now let us look at the CPI(M) manifesto. It promises: “Enactment of a central legislation for Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes and for the Tribal Sub-Plan which will provide for Plan outlays at the Centre and the States equivalent to the SC population at the national and State level for the SCSP and the ST population at the national and State level for the TSP respectively; Establishment of a standing committee to monitor the implementation of the Plan with direct benefits for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; Enactment of a central legislation to provide reservations to the private sector for SCs and STs; Strengthening of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act with appropriate amendments to include expanded ground that constitute discrimination”. From this we clearly understand who stands where and who can really claim the legacy of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. The CPI(M) not only promises but also struggles to achieve what it promises, living true to what Bhagat Singh stated. He calls upon the dalits exhorting: “The capitalist bureaucratic combine is, truly speaking responsible for your oppression and poverty. Hence always shun it. Be on guard about its tricks. This is then the way out. You are the real working class...Arise and rebel against the existing order. Gradualism and reformism shall be of no avail to you. Start a revolution from a social agitation and gird up your loins for political and economic revolution. You and you alone are pillars of the nation and its core strength. Awake, O sleeping lions! Rebel, raise the banner of revolt”.