A question of caste
Two years ago, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee toured Gujarat after the national press and several fact-finding teams had established beyond a shred of doubt that his saffron brotherhood had made life hell for Christians in the BJP-ruled state. Not a word from the country’s chief political executive on the shocking incidents of attacks on people, targeting of churches or the burning of copies of the Bible. What we got instead from the PM at the end of his tour was the profound observation on the urgent need for a nation wide debate on religious conversions. When faced with an awkward situation, change the very subject of discourse or debate. That is the rather cheap but time-tested tactic that Vajpayee resorted to in the context of attacks on Christians. And that is what lesser mortals in his government are now trying to do with the Dalit issue.
An UN-sponsored, ‘World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances’ is to be held in Durban in August-September this year. Dalit groups propose to use this forum to draw global attention to the fact that even 50 years after the birth of the Indian Republic, we continue to heap shocking indignities on a section of our citizens. In virtually every village, town, city and metropolis of this cradle of an ‘ancient civilisation’. Dalits, for example, will tell the world that despite a law to the contrary, we still have 8,00,000 Indians whose job it is to clean up human excreta after more exalted Indians have heeded “nature’s call.” They will point out that around 160 million Indians continue to be treated as “so impure as to be untouchable”. Among numerous other narratives, they will cite the case of a high court judge from UP who refused to occupy his high chair until it was “purified” with holy water from the Ganges — because his predecessor was an “untouchable.” Or they might talk of the upper caste man who continues to be a sessions court judge in UP despite being charged with the murder of a Dalit youth.
How very embarrassing! On apartheid in South Africa we Indians occupied the highest moral ground and were in the forefront of the campaign of sanctions and boycotts. But we have, quite wisely, figured a way out of our own predicament. Dalits want the global community to acknowledge, and thereby condemn, caste-based discrimination, “as a distinct form of racism”. The official Indian position is ingenious: insist that caste has nothing to do with race, so how can you discuss it at a conference on racism? End of problem! For the rest, our netas and babus will maintain in Durban that caste is an “internal issue”. Our neighbour Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world, is more honest. It has no problem admitting before the global community that caste is an evil that must be fought. But we are different and that’s the subject of our cover story this month.
By now, Union home minister LK Advani has, hopefully, run out of all excuses and will soon grace the Liberhan Commission – inquiring into the demolition of the Babri masjid – by his august presence. A few months earlier, Advani’s saffron sister and Union minister, Uma Bharati, repeatedly told the commission she could barely remember what happened in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Just in case Advaniji, too, runs into a mental block, our special report this month could serve as a memory jog, starting with his 1990 rath yatra that in fact was a barely disguised call to arms.
Last month, some from among those actively engaged in the Talibanisation of Hinduism “retaliated” to the desecration of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by burning copies of the Quran in India. Retaliating to the retaliation, the fanatical Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) triggered protests in different parts of the country. Though the contagion was contained in good time elsewhere, in Kanpur it led to a full-fledged riot leading to serious loss of life and property. As will be evident from the report of a women’s delegation that visited Kanpur for fact-finding, which we are publishing in this issue, while fanatics and fundamentalists from both groups tried to engineer communal hatred, as good neighbours, ordinary Hindus and Muslims of Kanpur protected each other. But sections of the local police and the notorious PAC yet again betrayed their anti-Muslim bias. At the cost of sounding repetitive we cannot but warn of the dangers inherent in a situation where the country’s minorities lose all faith in the impartiality of the state machinery.