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Some things never change

While Indian democracy completes yet another cycle of elections, a report in Hindustan Times about the discrimination suffered by Dalit children and women in schools, childcare and health centres in Madhya Pradesh has shaken us all, writes Sachidanand Sinha.

india Updated: May 11, 2009 22:07 IST

While Indian democracy completes yet another cycle of elections, a report in Hindustan Times about the discrimination suffered by Dalit children and women in schools, childcare and health centres in Madhya Pradesh has shaken us all. However, such discrimination is not new: last year, we read about how Dalit customers are discriminated against at teashops in Tamil Nadu, once a bastion of the anti-Brahmin movement. Once these incidents are brought to the notice of the government, the elitist high-caste dominated bureaucracy sends fact-finding teams and appoints inquiry commissions. But the local officials see these incidents as minor aberrations. Instead of bringing the culprits to book, they are at best sent on ‘transfer punishment’.

In the last 30 years, I have witnessed various forms of discrimination against Dalits. Sociologists tell us that modernisation will bring about social change. Yet with every passing year, the frequency, forms and styles of discrimination have only increased. In fact, it has found a new lease of life in the overarching politico-cultural ideology of Hindutva. This ideology has underlined the return (or rise?) of Brahminical theocracy. It is also said that inequality goes down with development. For example, Dalits tend to do well in the developed pockets of India. This, I am afraid, is not entirely true. Empirical evidence shows that the landed, educated and salaried sections, who predominantly come from the high castes and dominate the Indian bureaucracy, are well-off in all regions, irrespective of whether they live in developed or under-developed areas.

The structures of dominance in the hierarchical social order of India have thus remained intact, notwithstanding minor modifications. But why has the process of modernisation failed to change the lives of so many? Political sociologists say the dominant social groups capture and appropriate both traditional and the rational-legal orders, be it the State, government, bureaucracy, schools, universities, hospitals and even the judiciary. The failure of the modernisation project is indeed located in the story of how these institutions, which were created to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable segments, have become ineffective. The question is how did they become ineffective?

Notwithstanding the social and political struggles for equality unleashed by the Dalits in the 20th century, it was the State that negated the gains of social and political movements. No matter which party/ideology formed the government, the dominant social groups have denied the gains to the Dalits. This was done in three ways since 1947.

First, the dominant social groups adopted a patronising stance towards the deprived sections. Aided with liberal and radical instruments, they wanted to remove social and economic inequities. This started in the years following Independence and continued in the later years because the dominant castes were confident that even if the traditional structures of discriminations were demolished, their control of the economic, social and political resources would keep them miles ahead of the rest. The result was that India failed in implementing land reforms and land ceiling acts in different parts of the country. Access to education through reservations went without a hitch till the fear or lack of confidence in retaining the traditional edge over Dalits, preferably in professional education, took over. In the name of excellence, new structures of dominance were created in the educational sphere. India is perhaps the only country in the world to have created multitudes of educational institutions that corresponded with various social groups, thus creating social segmentation in this sector.

The process of political co-optation, in the name of nation- building, quelled the radical postures of Dalit movements. The structures of Brahminical ideology based on hierarchy and untouchability were thrown out of the window, but were never fully given up.

Second, the two-faced profile of the high-caste dominated and elitist bureaucracy deliberately excluded Dalits from harnessing the benefits of social, political and economic inclusive policies of the State. To illustrate this point, let’s discuss the educational infrastructure of the country. The principle of taking primary schools to every locality has been profitably used to create spatial and social segmentation and seclusion on caste lines given the social morphology of Indian villages. There’s also a marked difference in both the quality and quantity of schools available to different castes. Instead of recognising that every child must attend a primary or elementary school which is multi-ethnic and multi-caste, the decision-makers thought otherwise and this gave a fillip to discrimination.

Third, the weakening of the constitutional and institutional safeguard mechanisms, particularly those constituted for Dalits. The authors of our Constitution believed that the dream of an independent and progressive nation could not be fulfilled without adhering to the principles of equality and social justice. Equal opportunity cells or SC/ST cells have been established in various universities, colleges and government institutions. In addition to these, there are national panels on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and in the civil and high courts. But none of these institutions is allowed to work independently, someone or the other tries to protect the interests of the dominant castes/group overtly or covertly.

These three problems have operated singly or simultaneously in time and space. What has made the Brahminical ideology return or rise can be seen directly as a consequence of the fragmentation of the Dalit movement, both ideologically and politically. The return of Brahminical ideology has been necessitated by the high castes. It is being used as a multi-pronged weapon to deny any future gains to Dalits because the upper castes are afraid that the Dalits might succeed in their struggle for equality. This development has taken place after the Emergency, which saw the rise of the backward classes to the echelons of power. The ideology of Hindutva is geared towards cementing political alliances against Dalits and Muslims. The Other Backward Castes may prove to be just pawns in this whole project.

Sachidanand Sinha is Faculty and Associate Dean of Students, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi