India is currently being embraced by talk of modernity born out of political rhetoric and sloganeering. For imparting momentum to a nation with India’s history, geography and diversity, the impact of progressive change cannot happen in pockets. A broad social and political uplift is necessary. Unfortunately, in today’s India, the government’s approach is not only far from holistic; it is also incomplete and flawed as it is combined with a deep-rooted cultural chauvinism. And these ideological undercurrents rely upon a reassertion of the hierarchy of the caste system and marginalisation of women and other minorities based on their faith, culture, sexual preferences, customs, eating habits, etc.
These are preferences and denominators that lie outside the domain of State control. The attempt by the marginalised to improve their lot often meets with resistance, even violence. In my state, a case that shocked me to my core was the rape and murder of a 17-year-old Dalit girl in Bikaner. She was studying to be a teacher when her journey was cut short by a physical instructor who allegedly raped and murdered her, and dumped her body in a water tank. Her shattered family has accused the authorities of being less than helpful, but then I am not really surprised by this attitude. The lives of the marginalised seem to count for less than those of the privileged.
Over the years, laws have been enacted to address social ills such as the Sati and witchcraft, protect child rights, prevent female foeticide and infanticide, and abolish untouchability and manual scavenging. These have been hard-earned victories in the face of entrenched superstition and beliefs going back centuries, and pushback against liberal state policies. These ideas are undergirded by even broader ones of a plural representative democracy, a gradual liberalisation of the economy, freedom of expression, movement and employment, and an enlightened regulation of various sectors of the economy.
India’s peaceful deployment of nuclear technology based on the de facto no-first-use doctrine, global collaborations in basic science and informal technology, and the promotion of alternative and non-violent ways to resolve disputes have gradually enhanced our reputation as a front-ranking nation in the world.
This soft, invisible infrastructure can neither be easily captured in numbers nor driven by a purely profit motive. To a large extent, it is the responsibility of the government and the ruling party to ensure that these values would continue to be defended in public utterances, actions and governance.
Unfortunately, that is not happening. Statements lauding the virtues of regressive social structures and exclusion of people belonging to certain castes and women from certain activities and religious practices have become commonplace, and are not followed up by determined government action to demonstrate that the so-called ‘fringe elements’ will not be tolerated. The fringe elements tell people what to wear, what to eat, whom to marry and what slogans they need to chant to prove their patriotism.
To my mind, one of the most important tenets of good governance is to foster a strong feeling of stakeholdership among the citizens. Divisive politics may perhaps deliver a win or to two for the ruling party, but when seclusion and alienation begin to take root in society, we do irreparable damage to our impregnable faith and confidence in this country’s pluralist ideals. The man who lost his life in Dadri on suspicion of storing beef was insulted in death because investigation showed that the meat in question was actually mutton. Who gave those murderers the right to enter his home and beat him to death?
With senior functionaries in the government voicing the belief that every Indian needs to express his or her patriotism and lifestyle in a certain way, perceived and actual subjugation will only intensify, eventually undermining domestic and international interest in India and diminishing the appetite for taking any further risk. The Reserve Bank of India governor has spoken about the public discourse climate in the country for precisely these reasons as this is the backdrop against which monetary policy — indeed, all policy — plays out. Yet, whenever the governor has uttered home truths, government spokespersons are quick to tell him off in menacing language couched as national interest.
In an atmosphere that browbeats opposition and dissent, even to the extent of classifying political dissent as seditious, crimes against the already disempowered are bound to rise. The data made available by the National Crime Records Bureau indicate that cases of rape against the Scheduled Castes and Tribes have been on the rise. Further, there is always the chance of under-reporting because the Scheduled Castes (SCs) suffer twice — first, at the hands of the criminals, and, then, when trying to access justice.
To take the example of the state of Rajasthan, it accounted for 17.1% of the crimes committed against SCs in India. In absolute terms, Rajasthan, with 5.67% of India’s population, reported 8,028 crimes against SCs in 2014, compared to Uttar Pradesh’s 8,075, where 16.5% of India lives.
The worsening numbers in Rajasthan — where the state government is politically and ideologically aligned with the central government — point out how grim ground realities are being papered over by glamorous industrial policy statements that are yet to pull investments into the state and create real employment.
Clearly, when our societal fault lines are allowed to be made larger and social cohesiveness purposefully dismantled, the ones who suffer the most are the underprivileged, downtrodden and the marginalised.
Sachin Pilot is president of the Rajasthan Congress Committee
The views expressed are personal