In her now-famous speech, Smriti takes on treason but dodges caste

  • Zia Haq
  • Updated: Feb 26, 2016 09:56 IST
HRD minister Smriti Irani speaks in the Rajya Sabha, in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

If it is still not obvious, human resource development minister Smriti Irani has shown -- over the course of two grating speeches -- she could be Modi government’s ‘destroyer’ inside Parliament. She can take the fight to the enemy’s camp.

On Wednesday, Irani had rubbed it in with a high-voltage, combative speech. She went ballistic again on Thursday again, pounding Congress’s Ghulam Nabi Azad and CPM’s Sitaram Yechury.

The minister’s brash, abrasive style seems to be working. She has somewhat scuppered the Opposition’s plans of punching the Modi government in the face on the issues of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide and, then, the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student union.

Let’s count her successes. On Wednesday, she attacked treason. Rather than sound apologetic, she made it plain. The NDA will not tolerate dissent of a certain kind, much less treachery. The larger message was to make it clear that the Modi government stands for a muscular, hardline nationalism. Jingoism isn’t a bad word here. She announced the limits of tolerance: anything said or done against the state would not be tolerated.

On Thursday, she defended Hindutva equally well. She read out from the JNU document (stamped by the university registrar) which referred to a festival organised by students named “Mahishasura martyrdom day”. Mahishasura is a demon that Hindu Goddess Durga slays. She said such festivals in the university depicted Durga as a prostitute who enticed Mahishasur into marriage before killing him. “Every year, thousands of Durga puja pandals are erected showing her in a bad light, in a sexual position.” Sullying Hindu Gods and Goddesses would not be tolerated either. Great going so far.

Read | Jaitley invokes Indira, Rajiv to turn tables on Congress

Yet, when it came to caste, she was mealy mouthed. In fact she deftly sidestepped any serious thoughts on the issue of rising caste discrimination in institutions of higher learning. This reveals the BJP’s ambivalence towards Babasaheb Ambedkar. The BJP has appropriated Babasaheb Ambedkar, the constitutionalist, not Ambedkar, the anti-caste Dalit icon of social justice.

Irani insisted Vemula’s death was not a political issue, but it had rather been used as a “political tool”. Quite to contrary, casteism is, by all means, a legitimate political issue.

Ambedkar’s idea of social justice is to be most comprehensively found in his Annihilation of Caste (1936), a speech he was to deliver at the 1936 Annual Conference of the ]at-Pat Todak Mandal (Organization for the Destruction of Caste) at Lahore, but was prevented from making because it contained a harsh attack on Hinduism.

With traditional Hindu society’s “teleologically” fixed of idea of what was good, caste violates an individual’s right to decide and choose. Ambedkar believed that social discrimination of the sort witnessed in India’s caste system could not merely be neutralized through policy or what he called “paper rights”.

Through his very phenomenal description of caste and the concept of impurity, Ambedkar showed how lower caste Hindus faced social boycott and had to constantly erase their existence. Even stepping on their shadows is deemed impure. Yet, their labour was needed by society – to clean night soils and remove dead carcasses.

Caste turns division of labour into “division of labourers”. A cobbler could not become a teacher even if had the skills. His or her ascribed identity under the caste system meant he or she was fit to be only a cobbler, nothing else.

In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar makes no mention of any ‘public good’, such as reservation or affirmative action, which he thought of much later. Instead, he asked for social reform to precede all political reforms. In that speech, which he later published as a book, he called for “social endosmosis”, not quota. Social endosmosis, an idea which he borrowed from his mentor John Dewey, was about melting rigid identities through social intercourse and mingling of upper and lower caste, so that there is a diffusion of identities.

Ambedkar wrote: “There should be varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. In other words there must be social endosmosis. This is fraternity, which is only another name for democracy. Democracy is not merely a form of Government.”

Vemula’s suicide note proves Ambedkar’s prophesies . Therefore his death is a political issue, no matter what Irani says.

Read | Doctor who declared Rohith dead contradicts HRD min Irani’s claim

Carefully picking her words, the minister kept referring to Vemula’s suicide as a “child’s death”, although Vemula was a 26-year-old Dalit man who alleged discrimination. The use of neutral phrases such as “child’s death” was to erase all insinuations of casteism from Vemula’s death.

Irani’s assertion proves what Ambedkar had presciently warned: that political reform can only result in a new government, but not a new society. A Dalit’s suicide, arising from caste politics, therefore is always a political issue.

Irani did not explain why her ministry failed to handle the situation in Hyderabad University. Her ministry made no intervention to resolve the row over Vemula’s suspension and the agitation it sparked.

Vemula’s tragic suicide note weren’t just the emotional last lines of a Dalit. Vemula in fact was articulating, moments before his death, the essential problem of caste as seen by Ambedkar: a social hierarchy where one’s birth decided one’s moral worth in society. That’s why in his suicide note, Vemula writes, twice : “My birth is my fatal accident.”

Vemula was restating Ambedkar’s idea of social justice, based on the rather simple idea that every individual was equal to everyone else. To put it differently, a society is just if it treats everybody equally based on their inviolable, equal moral worth -- which he or she needn’t earn. The HRD minister was effectively shielding herself from a caste debate by refusing to acknowledge the political nature of Vemula’s death.

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