Vol. XL No. 34 August 21, 2016

Fight on, for Social Justice

G Mamatha

Caste has been playing a very dominant, debilitating role in our society since long. “Turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster”. Recalling these words of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, one can say that the condition of social justice in our country is woefully bad. Rising instances of caste discrimination, untouchability, attacks on dalits and adivasis reflect this situation. Caste rigidities have made the lives of dalits and adivasis difficult. Killing of dalit bridegrooms if they marry upper caste girls is seen across the country, from South to North. The recent instance of gruesome murder of a dalit couple in Uttar Pradesh over a debt of Rs 15 depicts the manner in which the lives of dalits are treated.

In the 70th year of our Independence, this is the condition of the most marginalised sections of the country. The prime minister had delivered his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort. It was a 94 minute long address and seems one of the longest addresses delivered by a prime minister on an Independence Day. Another record for Modi to treasure. The only spoiler for the grand occasion for photos was that even the finance minister and defence minister of the country fell asleep during the speech, along with the chief minister of Delhi.
One should have come prepared for hearing such a long speech as he had requested all the people of the country to contribute their ideas for his speech. Nobody knows how many had really responded and how many ideas were taken into consideration during the drafting of the speech. But hearing the speech, one can only say that it utterly failed to address the issues and concerns facing the common people.
While the prime minister was addressing the nation, in his own state, Gujarat, dalits joined by many democratic minded, justice seeking citizens organised a huge rally in Una. The national flag was hoisted there by Radhika Vemula, mother of Rohith Vemula, along with the father of one of the young men who was flogged by the cow vigilantes. Thousands of people gathered there to express their anger and resentment against the growing attacks on the dalits and other underprivileged sections in the society. They had openly challenged the Gujarat model of development – a chest thumping achievement claimed by Prime Minister Modi. Their concerns, not surprisingly, were absent in the prime minister's address.
One of the main claims of the prime minister in his address was that he and his government immediately reacts to the concerns of the citizens and ensures that decisions are implemented and grievances redressed. The Una rally once again exposed the hollowness of his claims. It took more than a year for the prime minister to respond to the vigilantism of 'gau rakshaks'. And that too, a very calculated response. The prime minister called those 'gau rakshaks' attacking dalits as anti-socials. Not those who had attacked and killed Akhlaq or other Muslims. He is silent about them. Of course, he spoke about 'dalit brothers' on an earlier occasion in a ‘town hall' meeting and in Hyderabad, a few days back. “If you have to attack, attack me. Stop attacking my Dalit brethren. If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers”. Rohith Vemula would have been really thrilled and the dalits in Saurashtra crying, on hearing this. With these words, he tried to project himself as not only a pradhan sevak, but also a pradhan rakshak.
The delayed response need not surprise us, as even after the death of Rohith Vemula it took weeks for the prime minister to dramatically wipe a tear from his eye, upon the loss of 'Bharat mata's child'.
It is not without reason that there was a delay in responding to the attacks on dalits and staying silent on the attacks on religious minorities. Remember, it is the very same person, who was talking about 'pink revolution' in the country – the simile referring to the slaughter and export of cow meat. He vowed to put an end to this 'revolution' and take upon himself the sacred duty of cow protection. It is these words that buoyed the 'gau rakshaks' and brought them into action. He let them create havoc, after the fire lit by them had burnt everything it was intended to burn, the prime minister appears on scene condemning them and shedding crocodile tears. All this is reminiscent of yesteryear Hindi and regional language films, where the police enters in the last frame after the hero exhausts himself.
The prime minister in his address talked about, or rather, had a brush with social justice. He talked about social evils like untouchability and putting an end to them. This, is the responsibility of the 125 crore citizens of the country, according to him. His approach to deal with them is: “The government and the society together will have to steer through the social conflicts...all of us will have to fight against the social evils”, by rising “above social evils in our own behaviour”. So he advocates a 'behavioural therapy' to deal with social issues. Change of attitudes, behaviour is needed, but there should be a basis for achieving it.
In our country, 21 percent dalit families live in houses with thatch or bamboo roofs, 78 percent live in one or two-roomed houses; only 35 percent have a drinking water source within the house and 41 percent have no electricity. 77 percent of dalits still use firewood, crop residue or dung for cooking. And 66 percent do not have toilets. Now to get an idea of their economic condition, let us compare their spending capacity with the upper caste people: in rural areas, a dalit household spent 38 percent less than an upper caste one in 1999-2000 and 37 percent less in 2011-12, as per NSSO data. In urban areas, the gap was a massive 65 percent in 1999-00 and 60 percent in 2011-12. None with their right sense of comprehension will argue that dalits are spending less because they are saving more! Spending capacity is a reflection of their economic condition. These statistics more or less capture the continued economic and social backwardness of dalits in our country.
In spite of these grave limitations, a positive feature is that many dalits are coming forward to study. Here the influence of Ambedkar, who exhorted dalits to get educated, should be noted. Between 2001 and 2011, the share of people attending college increased by a staggering 187 percent for dalits and 164 percent for adivasis. About 83 percent dalits in the 6-14 age group attend schools. It is for this reason that we find many first generation learners among the dalits today. Rohith Vemula too was a first generation learner and indeed he had encouraged his mother to complete her graduation course along with his brothers. Access to education brought in awareness among the dalits and also exposed them to injustices. The upper castes were unable to digest this new sense of awareness and assertiveness. In order to 'put them in place', they increased their oppression and at times violent attacks as we are witnessing now.
Thanks to the neo-liberal policies and disinvestment of public sector units, employment opportunities for the newly educated dalits became scarce. With nearly a quarter of youth unemployed, dalit youth face deeper frustration. Take the case of Ashwin Chamar, who has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and has done his second BA in Hindi, in 2006. But he makes a living as a mason, after having failed to get a job. There are many such instances, where educated dalits are forced to take up employment that is below their educational qualifications. Many  times they are forced into 'traditional occupations' like safai karmacharis and such other occupations. Besides this, dalits lack access to land and whatever little land is in their hands, it is always under the threat of forcible land grab and eviction. Together with this we find increasing inequalities in the society, where the poor are getting poorer, while the rich are getting obscenely rich.
To top all this, we find reports of violence against dalit women everyday – rape of dalit women and girls (often it is gang rape) and increasing cases of atrocities. Gujarat also has one of the lowest rates of convictions for the crimes committed on dalits – 5 percent against a dismal national average of 20 percent. There is a widespread practice of discrimination, wherein dalits are even denied access to government schemes. In many villages like Dagavadiya, during the Navratri festival there are separate garbas, for the upper castes and OBCs, and for the dalits. And then, as chief minister Modi himself was on record, equating manual scavenging with a 'spiritual experience' bestowed by God and an occupation that dalits are happy to perform.
It is in this background that we are witnessing an assertion of dalits in Gujarat. Fed up with injustices committed upon them all these years and seething with anger at the brazenness with which the upper castes are going about after committing these crimes (like shooting a video and uploading it on the social media platforms), they have now come out to resist. They have watched how 80 percent of the MPs were absent in the parliament, when it was debating the attacks on dalits. They noticed the absence of the prime minister. The hollowness of most of the political parties has also been noticed by them. They have come to a situation where it is felt that 'enough is enough'. It is for this reason that they decided not to skin the dead cows and stated, “If it is your mother, it is you who have to take care of her”. The 'freedom march' they had organised from Ahmadabad to Una is a reflection of this bold assertion – an expression of resentment and resistance.
The BJP government in order to suppress this assertion apart from using force is trying to benumb people, so that they cannot think and just follow them – in the real sense. But history has other lessons to offer.  All the rulers who had made similar attempts to date, have bitten dust. As the adage goes: 'You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time'. PM, please check your watch, the clock is ticking.
There is a poem by Bertolt Brecht, ringing in ears.
'General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.
General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think'.