IIT Madras’s banning of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle of students appears part of the larger design of the RSS ideological project of transforming the secular democratic Indian Republic into their version of an intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’. This ban has taken place on the basis of an alleged direction by the ministry of human resources development, consequent to an anonymous complaint against this study circle. Media headlines, of course, inform that the banned group has been accused of spreading ‘Hate against PM Modi’ and criticising the government. Leave aside the technicalities such as the Central Vigilance Commission’s instructions that ‘no action is warranted on anonymous/pseudonymous complaints’, such a ban strikes at the very root of our constitutional guarantees, negating the spirit of an ‘adventure of ideas’ in institutions of higher education and replacing our syncretic civilisational history with Hindu mythology.
Equality of the socially oppressed sections is part of our country’s efforts to move towards modernity. Despite decades of mouthing slogans against caste oppression, this curse continues to plague us. Notwithstanding reservations for the SCs and STs, their status continues to be dismal. They constitute the highest proportion of dropouts in schools, and their representation in institutions of higher learning and government services continues to be low. Some unofficial figures are, indeed, alarming. On an average, 13 persons from SCs are murdered, six are kidnapped or abducted, and 21 SC women are raped every week. A majority of the country’s agricultural labourers, urban destitutes and manual scavengers are from the SC/STs. Can a student body that raises such issues and speaks of awareness about caste violence be banned? On the contrary, we need to, as the Madras IIT students say, “confront caste hatred and politics head on as a nation”.
This, however, would be an anathema for the RSS, which seeks the ‘glorification of the Hindu nation’ by nurturing caste hierarchies as immutable under Hindu dharma. The late RSS leader, considered as the RSS guruji, Golwalkar had said in his book Bunch of Thoughts: “Brahmin is the head, King (kshatriya) the hands, Vaishya the thighs and Shudra the feet. This means that the people who have thus, four fold arrangement, i.e., the Hindu people, is our God.”
The last 25 years of economic reforms have vastly widened economic inequalities in our country. The share of the top 1% in the wealth of our households has increased from 36.8% in 2000 to a staggering 49% in 2014. According to the FAO report The state of food insecurity in the world, 2015, India is home to the highest number of hungry people — 194 million. As the size of the cake shrinks for the vast majority of our people, the scramble for their share sharpens exacerbating caste exclusion and hostility.
A study of the legacy of social exclusion in India is revealing: ‘Our findings suggest that social exclusion is not just a residue of the past clinging to the margins of the Indian economy, nor is it limited to people of little education. On the contrary, it appears that caste favouritism and social exclusions of dalits and Muslims have infused private enterprises even in the most dynamic sectors of the Indian economy’ (‘The Legacy of Social Exclusion,’ Sukhdeo Thorat and Paul Attewell, Economic and Political Weekly, October 13, 2007). The age-old institutions of social exclusion and caste oppression, communal prejudices and gender discrimination are becoming sophisticated in modern India.
No effort at building an ‘inclusive India’ can ignore this reality. Can pointing out such truths today be proscribed as ‘spreading hate against the PM’? It is time to recognise the reality that despite all the refinements and changes within castes and between castes that have taken place over the years, the basic structure of social oppression remains.
Mahatma Gandhi had coined the term ‘Harijan’ and appealed for a change of heart in our attitude towards social oppression. Amongst other giants of the powerful anti-caste movements was Jyotiba Phule. The Satyashodhak movement, which he had launched, has influence even today. Babasaheb Ambedkar, a tireless fighter against caste exploitation, had to finally ask his followers to embrace Buddhism to escape the caste injustices of Hindu society. The powerful Dravidian movement led by Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker roused strong feelings against caste oppression and untouchability.
Yet, despite such tall leaders and the powerful movements that they had launched, caste oppression still plagues us. Why? Mere appeals for a change of heart or behaviour, moral outrage or even a correct understanding of the social roots of such oppression alone will not eliminate this obnoxious system unless there is a radical realignment in the economic empowerment of these sections. It is precisely the contrary that this BJP government’s economic and social policies are engendering.
It is time to once again recollect the concluding passage with which Ambedkar had commended the draft Constitution for approval: “On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
Banning student study circles that discuss such issues is the surest manner in which the future of our secular democratic India will face greater peril.
Sitaram Yechury is general secretary of the CPI(M) and a Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal