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March 29, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan

The value of a human life

Casteism has been a problem in India, and it continues to be so in certain quarters. No impartial observer will disagree with that statement. What I personally find ironic is where such attitudes are found: not only amongst the usual suspects, but amongst the angels, as it were, too.

Here I mean 'casteism' in the broad sense of the term, where people are discriminated against on the basis of some wholly arbitrary criterion which may have nothing to do with their contribution to society or worth to mankind. Incidentally, I have to confess my own failings in this regard -- I generally support, as a matter of principle, the causes of "lower-castes"; and I have spoken up for Rabri Devi in a previous column (Speaking of Women). I have now come to the sad conclusion that Rabri Devi and her husband Laloo Prasad Yadav are intolerable. Sigh! One lives and learns.

If I am not mistaken, there is a short fable by Count Leo Tolstoy by the title What is the value of a man's life? I vaguely remember something about angels and so forth -- I studied this in school quite a long while ago. But the upshot is the splendid moral that we are all born with equal rights as human beings. As of course, the American constitution grandly proclaims this, too -- something about the self-evident proposition that all men are born equal.

This is magnificent philosophy, you might say, but we are painfully aware that things have not been that straightforward in practice. To quote Kerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State, a fine short report with a strong left-wing orientation, here are some of the trials and tribulations faced by the so-called "lower castes" in Kerala a hundred years ago:

  • "They were tied or bonded to particular high-caste households for whom they were always on call as labourers or servants.
  • They lived on land owned by the master households and could be evicted at will if they displeased them.
  • They were forbidden entry into the main Hindu temples.
  • They were not allowed in the public markets.
  • Neither men nor women were allowed to wear shirts, blouses, or a covering cloth above the waist.
  • They were forbidden to come physically within prescribed distances of higher-caste members and could be punished by death for violating this taboo.
  • They had to use extremely self-debasing forms of speech when talking to members of castes above them.
  • They could not take water from wells belonging to other castes."

Things are rather better in most of India now, at least overtly, whatever people may feel covertly in the privacy of their hearts -- and by all accounts, there is plenty of communalism in people's minds. But overt casteism is, shall we say, unfashionable.

So far, so good. But where is casteism 100% visible? Surprisingly, it is amongst the self-proclaimed 'progressives' and 'secularists' of the English-language media. The very last people one would expect to show these biases, based on their pronouncements and frequent displays of righteous indignation. But consider the following facts and conclusions --  I have been studying the media carefully during the recent uproar about alleged atrocities against Christians. Also see Francois Gautier's February 1 article in theHindustan Times and my previous column, J'accuse.

In increasing order of 'caste', then, the media values these:

  • A dalit Hindu's life. On February 11, when several dalits were murdered in Bihar (reportedly by the right-wing Ranbir Sena), they were mere statistics. 21 dalits murdered, 12 dalits murdered, etc. Aren't these real people who had real names, and real lives and real relatives who mourn them?
  • An Indo-American man's life. On December 4, 1998, in Jackson, Mississippi, Charanjit S Aujla was shot to death by six sheriff's deputies (see ). Aujla, working as a clerk in a convenience store, was shot twice in the back of the head. A man with no prior criminal record, a husband and father who held a master's degree in education, Aujla was possibly the victim of racism directed at Indians -- after all, we are talking about the racist Deep South of the US. Not a single Indian newspaper reported Aujla's death. Nor did the Indian ambassador demand an explanation from the US government. Why not? Was Aujla the child of some lesser god?
  • A Hindu tribal's life. In the Observer of February 8, I read about the Reangs, a group of Hindu tribals who have been ethnically cleansed from Mizoram. According to this solitary report -- I have seen no other report on them elsewhere except the US state department's report on human rights in India dated February 26 -- 45,000 Reangs have been driven forcibly from Mizoram, with the active connivance of Christian missionaries. They apparently refused to convert, unlike most other tribals in Mizoram, during the recent conversion-spree that has made Mizoram almost 100% Christian. (The US report coyly blames 'sectarian strife' for 30,000 Reangs being in Tripura -- naturally they are unlikely to say American Christian missionaries were on a Taliban-like ethnic-cleansing spree.) The Reangs now live miserable lives in refugee camps in Tripura and Manipur. They tell stories of rapes, violence, murder, torture. But this is not news for the mainstream 'secular' media.
  • A Kashmiri Hindu's life. On February 14, 5 people were killed in Udhampur district. According to the Indian Express, "several members of the minority community, including a teen-age brother and sister and a five-year-old, were hacked to death by militants." The Hindu gave their names: "Ashok Singh, Maya Devi, Mohinder Singh (5), Inder Singh." All this in a short paragraph, in terse officialese. No details, no anguished breast-beating. On February 19, 20 Hindus were massacred. Again no response. I combed the Indian newspapers looking for the 'secularist' brigade's responses. Not surprisingly, none came from Shabana Azmi or Teesta Setalvad or SAHMAT. I have seen Asghar Ali Engineer express his horror; that marks him as a decent person.
  • A Christian tribal girl's life. In late January, there was a tremendous fuss made about how a teenaged tribal Christian girl and her brother were murdered in a forest. There were loud outcries about "yet another atrocity directed at Christians." I am sure the American ambassador took note. It was, of course, explicitly blamed on Hindu extremists. Until, that is, in a couple of days, it became clear that it was the girl's Christian tribal uncle who had murdered her. All of a sudden, nobody cared so much about the dead girl! The news item and the anguish disappeared. Odd, isn't it?
  • A Christian nun's life. In the celebrated Jhabua case, several Christian nuns were raped. This was condemned, rightly, as an assault on women's rights. But the religious angle (militant Hindus allegedly raping Christians) was played up in a big way, until it turned out that half of the alleged rapists were in fact Christians. At which point the media started ignoring the story. Another nun in Orissa was allegedly raped by a group of men who dressed up as women. Rediff carried a story on how this nun was refusing to eat or drink, and was praying non-stop. Then it turned out, on medical examination, that the nun had not in fact been raped and her wounds were self-inflicted or self-generated. There is a clinical term for this -- hysteria, where a person develops a physical symptom based on mental stress. Of course, one could wonder about the mass hysteria on the part of the media, too. Incidentally, there was an infamous murder of a nun in Kottayam, Kerala, a few years ago -- the Sister Abhaya case, where a nun was found drowned in the well of a nunnery. (Other dead nuns have turned up in wells periodically). Somehow, this has not been considered newsworthy. I wonder why.
  • A white person's life. It is big news if a white person dies in India. Of course, this may have some scientific rationale: it has been calculated that every resident of the US (of whatever colour) causes 35 times more damage to the planet's environment than a resident of India. Therefore 1 American = 35 Indians. So if the dead white person is an American, you have to give 35 times the importance to his/her death. But here too I see disparity. There was poor Christian Ostroe, a 25-year-old Norwegian tourist who had spent months travelling around India, learning kathakali for instance. He was generally sympathetic to Indian culture. This, and the fact that Norway is a relatively small nation, must have entered into the calculations of the Pakistani-funded terrorists who beheaded him in Jammu and Kashmir in 1994. For some reason, the Indian media was strangely reticent about this man's gruesome murder. No long eulogies, no condemnation of the explicitly Islamic-terrorist antecedents of the perpetrators. Shabana Azmi and SAHMAT did not see fit to notice Ostroe. Some whites are more equal than others, I suppose.
  • A white missionary's life. Graham Staines' murder has attracted tremendous attention. If Staines had been such a great champion of the poor -- as alleged by the press after his death -- why haven't we heard a peep about him all these years? I suspect Staines was just another missionary, doing some good, sort of incidentally, but with the main focus being on conversions. The deaths of Staines' young sons have been roundly, and correctly, condemned. But then why does Mohinder Singh (5) (see the bullet above about the latest massacres of Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir) not even deserve a paragraph for his short life, so brutally extinguished?
  • A Nobel Prize-winning white missionary's life. "Mother" Teresa has been lionised beyond all sense. The Marxists fell over themselves in their eagerness to provide a grand Catholic funeral for her -- I wonder who paid for all that pageantry: Indian taxpayers, surely not the Pope. The irony of the Marxists supporting a competing religion so lavishly must have been lost on them. There is also a dissenting opinion, for example from Christopher Hitchens writing in The Nation, a seriously 'progressive' US journal: see Ghoul of Calcutta and Mother Teresa on a Roll ( He wrote the book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (see also an interview with Hitchens at and consulted on the related film made for the BBC by Tariq Aziz, where the soon-to-be-sainted MT does come across extremely poorly. For some reason, the Nehruvian Stalinists in the Indian media have chosen to ignore the famously 'progressive' Hitchens. And why Baba Amte, who has done more good with no fuss, gets no Nobel Prize nor any press coverage is I guess not very mysterious -- he's a brown guy, and horrors, a darned devil-worshipping Hindoo [sic] at that!

Christopher Hitchens is a real secularist -- in that he objects to all religions. In addition to his objections to MT above, he recently participated in a Berkeley seminar, where he roundly criticised Buddhism; I have no doubt that he views all religions as undesirable. This sort of secularism -- equal objection to or equal support to all religions -- is acceptable. But the 'secularists' of India only believe in putting Hinduism down. That is probably why they don't like Hitchens.

The 'secular'-fundamentalist casteists in the English-language media put even Bill Clinton to shame in their thick-skinned hypocrisy. Doubtless, they will continue to indulge in their one-sided and casteist reporting, despite all their loud protestations about human rights and other motherhoods and apple pies.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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