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Home > India > News > Columnists > Sunanda K Datta-Ray

When Rahul became a Gandhi


May 12, 2008

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No matter the sneers, Rahul Gandhi's [Images] gesture of dining at a Dalit village in Amethi was of undeniable symbolic value. At the risk of offending votaries of the other Gandhi, I will even compare its propagandist (in the best sense of the word) impact with the Mahatma's retort to those who questioned his decision to set up house in what was then called a Harijan colony, "Are you to deny that these are not children of my God?"
 
That question comes to mind as I read of an eight-year-old Dalit girl set on fire in a Mathura village for crossing a road used by the upper castes. Or the 600-metre wall that segregates Dalits in a Madurai village. Or the horrors inflicted on a Delhi University M Phil student and her siblings. The list, shaming the image of Shining India, goes on. Very little seems to have changed since 1975 when Britain's Minority Rights Group (Jayaprakash Narayan was a sponsor) wrote, "India is one of the few countries today where a section of the society is regarded by others to be so inherently inferior that it is polluting to other humans: untouchable."
 
Conventional wisdom holds that affluence is bound to dilute and eventually wash away the degrading rigours of the caste system. That money will eradicate a pernicious relic of the dark ages. That is the rationale of the special privileges that were introduced for ten years but have become entrenched in our system. The justification is that once the Scheduled Castes are sufficiently uplifted to rank with the supposedly higher castes, there will be no further occasion for discrimination. But though India might be booming, prosperity does not seem to have had the civilising effect that politicians had expected in 1950. Why?
 
One obvious explanation is that life cannot be viewed only through an economic telescope in a land where, as somebody said, people don't cast their votes, they vote their caste. Man does not live by bread alone. There is nothing to suggest that Kanaklata Rani, the Delhi M Phil student, is poorer than Om Prakash Grover, her landlord. Yet, she felt obliged to conceal her caste which when exposed, subjected her to atrocities.

Clearly, culture ranks high among the other factors that account for a person's responses and actions. And that leads to a second dimension that is usually ignored. All the reams of literature on the subject, the reports of committees and commissions, concentrate on the victim. They consider ways and means of improving the status of the underprivileged. Better education is expected to mean better employment, which, in turn, will ensure social acceptance.
 
But it doesn't happen that way because the formula ignores the pride and prejudice of the person who does the accepting. Kanaklata Rani is very likely better educated than the Grovers. That does not make her more acceptable to them. So, it's the Grovers of India at whom attention must be directed even more than at the Kanaklatas.

Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the Jewish question in France [Images] was really a Gentile question. Jawaharlal Nehru applied that thesis to Hindu-Muslim relations, seeing majority communalism as the real peril India faced. His analysis is not universally accepted nowadays because Muslim militancy has also emerged as a factor, but the evidence suggests that money does not improve a Dalit's standing in the eyes of the so-called Forward Castes.
 
It's they who must be the target of reform. A Tamil Nadu police officer was once quoted as saying, "If we take this (anti-untouchability) law seriously, half the population of Tamil Nadu will have to be arrested. In any case, the police have better things to do than go poking their nose into the private affairs of the people."

Note the grim twofold message. First, half the population of Tamil Nadu, that is, all or almost all non-Dalits, exercise some form of caste prejudice. Second, the police regard human rights offences that also violate the law of the land as a 'private affair' rather than a public crime.
 
Though well-conceived to start with, in practice, reservation has encouraged political exploitation, victimised meritorious students and invited allegations of a 'creamy layer' and 'vested interest in backwardness'. Meanwhile, the Thakurs, Pandits and Yadavs of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and the Brahmins of the south continue to wallow in brutal ignorance. Rahul's gesture alone may not educate them, but it's the sort of example brutes and bullies who are not otherwise open to enlightenment might take some notice of.

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