Equal Citizenship: A Long Way to Go

By B.G. Verghese

In his famous closing address to the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar warned that no country could live on the basis of one man, one vote alone. It was as important that each vote be of equal value to ensure equal citizenship so that social inequalities did not tear the state apart. He pleaded that scourges like caste be urgently addressed. Sixty years later, we have made some headway in that direction but, shamefully, have a long way to go. The excuses are many; but the grim reality stares us in the face.

Whatever the virtues of the Code of Manu in his time, caste can have no place in a modern democratic society. It is a pure evil, completely outdated, undemocratic, divisive and cast in stone as a divine ruling, a hereditary curse. It admits neither of liberty nor justice nor equality nor fraternity, the four foundational pillars of modern India. As a social more than a religious custom, caste spread to other faiths in India such as Christianity, Islam and Sikhism even if not so perniciously or pervasively. But nothing extenuates its continued practice despite Articles 14, 15, 17 (the abolition of untouchability) and other provisions of the Constitution.

This homily on human bondage follows innumerable reports of atrocities against Dalits in violation of the law and ordinary human decency which most often go unpunished. Caste discrimination is practised with impunity. It is a structural reality in sections of Hindu society, Bihar being a particularly bad case in point such that even a “progressive” like Nitish Kumar has singularly failed to address. The regressive land system and social structure that prevail in that state, and elsewhere, are based on caste. This has become an instrument of degraded politics of which none can be proud.

The latest report comes from Odisha (Indian Express, March 13). A report entitled, “New Generation of Dalits struggles with old state of intolerance” tells it all. They are denied entry into temples, given restricted access to water, made to work like bonded labour and perform  “traditional” chores or free or for a pittance and have their houses torched or are excommunicated if they protest. The police intervene on occasion but the “special courts” to try such offices are clogged. Justice is a distant dream for most of the increasingly-assertive new generation of dalits, many with education, who are seen as getting too uppity and stealing the jobs of  the upper castes who rule the roost. This is a recipe for civil war.

The questions thatmust be asked without beating about the bush is what are political leaders and social activists doing about these fundamental ills in our society. Is this not a form of most heinous corruption. Where are the protests, the candle light processions, the ostracism of defaulters that include hosts of humbugs posing as godmen,sants and leaders. Which political party has made this a living issue, devoted time to fighting it and punishing and, indeed, expelling rank casteists from its ranks. Not the Congress. Not the SanghParivar, including its most voluble sections or the BJP. Nor the Dravida parties that once fought caste but seem now to have compromised with it, as atrocities abound in Tamil Nadu. Where is Anna Hazare and the moral police and their ilk?

There is endless, empty talk and furious panel discussions about trivia, with every issue reduced to some mindless electoral calculus. Leaders are created by cheer leaders, if not self-appointed, but what has any one of them said on India’s horrific social contradictions? They are almost all of them part of the problem and not of the solution of which they have no care and lesser understanding.

Which political party supports the constitutional directive of a uniform civil code? On the contrary, the intelligentsia has ganged up to prevent any such legislation on the most fraudulent legal and political grounds that have no constitutional validly whatsoever. Strangely, the women’s groups are supine, bowing to male superiority in matters of property and inheritance which is what the UCC is really all about. The State, across parties, and Parliament have abdicated. Goa has a UCC thanks to the Portuguese. Has anyone looked at that and sounded Goan opinion on the question? Absence of a UCC denies Indians the right to be Indians as everybody, in matters of personal law, is slotted in little communal boxes but for the Special Marriage Act.

There is also little understanding of secularism, located in a deeply religious society, which has been reduced to vote-bank politics often devoid of ethical values. The larger and nobler constitutional value, Fraternity, has been elbowed out by a secular imposter that was smuggled into the Constitution during the Emergency with little understanding of what was being done and why, and with no debate.  Religion and the far wider concept of culture have been confused and sometimes conflated. There is no study of comparative religion or cultural appreciation, The KumbhMela is an extraordinary manifestation of faith, albeit ritual faith for most. But spirituality has become a casualty. Were that not so, caste and untouchability would have been effaced long back.

The educational system has not sufficiently projected a casteless society. There are still caste hostels in Patna University! Common schools should be promoted and why should dalit women not be employed to cook midday meals at schools.  Some parents might object but many, and increasingly more, would perhaps fall in line and should be denied other state benefits such as access to PDS, pensions, credit and so forth.  The National Integration Council remains a broken reed and represents the tokenism that passes for focussed policy and executive action.

Reservations have served a useful purpose up to a point but have become a crutch and are often abused. “Backwardness” has become a lazy criterion for advancement. Far better concentrate on skill formation and capacity building so that Dalit and other socially handicapped categories are enabled to qualify for higher and more responsible tasks. Remedial teaching could be useful and is being given. But more avenues must be found to give a greater push to the equalising principle.

The same must be said for other disadvantaged groups like tribals, Muslims and other minorities. The Sachar Committee report is still being tardily implemented and corrective action is all too frequently traduced as “appeasement” by Hindutva and related groups whose “cultural nationalism” represents a clear and present danger to an equal society. What has happened to the Equal Opportunities Act, more than a year after it was first bruited?Time is not on the side of the angels. We must hurry or face increasing strife and social upheavals that can only undermine progress and good governance and development.

Anybody listening?

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Assembly resolution deploring Afzal Guru’s hanging and demanding the return of his body to his family is a bizarre post-script to the former ISI Chief, Lt.Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi’s telling Pakistan’s Parliament that the Jaish was involved in …, bombing the Indian Parliament …”. Guru helped plan that attack. So here is Islamabad waging peace by formally endorsing cross-border terror.




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