If I did not have an SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (a law meant to prevent Dalits from being harassed or victimized by non-Dalits in one form or the other) case filed against me a year and half ago in the nearest police station by my well-meaning Dalit student friends, merely because when in an official position, I attempted to prevent them from being deliberately provocative towards believing Hindus from communities other than the one to which they belonged, perhaps I would’ve been in a state of doubt.
The animosity and the viciousness with which caste-based agendas on either side of the divide are pursued and the basis of it being personal rather than political is what makes it an eye-opener to me. It also makes you wonder if a law should actually exist in its current form where someone is guilty even before he or she is able to prove himself/herself innocent even in a deeply casteist and sexist society like ours. It gives the oppressed a false sense of power without altering their real situation while it enables the more cunning ones to manipulate the law for personal gains.
The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act must be used with caution and in situations where the occurrence of an “atrocity” could be clearly established. The tendency to use it as a weapon to threaten those who disagree with you is not only frivolous but also leads to questions with regard to the efficacy of the Act itself. Even as I write this piece, untold violence is being perpetrated against poor Dalits either because of their caste or class or usually both—because they do not have the means to fight back. They are the one who need this Act in order to use the state machinery to defend their lives and meager sources of survival. I’m surprised when an Act of this magnitude is used because I belong to a certain community and I need to be put on the defensive for that reason.
I’ve never been reminded so many times in my entire life as in the past three years by so-called “lower” caste students and sometimes “friends” (I say “so-called” because nothing says that they are “lower” than me in any sense of the term) that I belong to the “Reddy” community—a once-upon-a-time powerful landowning caste in Andhra Pradesh, though my parents themselves come from lower middle class backgrounds and were “modernized” to the extent that they saw the way out of a life of dependence and sycophancy through higher education. My parents are generous people who always supported minor opposition parties no matter what. Something of that tendency I’ve inculcated: this is that I always must take a marginal position, at times for its own sake. In fact I’m convinced that, that’s the one position worth defending if anything at all.
I exactly feel like how white liberals feel when confronted by black anger and suspicion with regard to their motives. The government’s agenda is a colonial one. It has to keep the castes divided and prevent them from uniting across class and gender lines which in fact is the only reality that matters. There is no reason to believe that all Dalits who make it to higher positions in the administration or the government are friends of the poor Dalits. Absolutely no basis whatsoever! The rich blacks are no friends of the poor blacks, either. There is no reason why reservations in jobs should be given to rich Dalits or to those who have benefited from it once, while there are millions of poor Dalits who need to be brought into the mainstream. Obviously this is not how the Dalit “haves” think. Like members of any other community they want more for themselves and their kith and kin. Why should they care for the have-not Dalits or any other have-nots for that matter!
The eminent historian Burton Stein in his remarkable A History of India (1998) makes the point taking the larger view of where India has failed as a nation owing to its communal politics; Stein uses the word “communal” in a broad sense to include “religious, linguistic and ethnic affiliations and loyalties.” The reality of casteism, whether among the upper castes or among the Dalits, has only benefited a small section of people while relegating the others to the backwaters. We continue talking about caste without addressing the need to end casteism. Let me quote Stein to make my point:
“The failure to free Indians from bigotry, poverty and oppression, after all the high hopes, ideals and claims, can make a half century of freedom from foreign rule appear ignoble. Community rhetoric, whether in linguistic or subnationalist, caste or Hindu-ness terms, has only increasingly served the classes that were formed by capitalism under colonial subjugation. The reasons for the failure to destroy communalism can be found in the use that was made of the ‘community’ idea by the colonial regime and its nationalist opponents alike. ‘Community’ was divested of its historic political, social, economic and cultural attributes in the course of the twentieth century; it remains a decorticated monstrosity, a husk of meaning, open to manipulation by conflicting groups and classes, most especially the godmen/politicians of the Indian petty bourgeoisie. The Indian nationalist movement chose not to contest class oppression; hence the ideal of ‘community,’ recast as ‘communalism,’ has become merely a rhetorical shell, though a flourishing one.”
Bigotry is not a privilege of the upper castes nor are Dalits in established positions incapable of it. Unfortunately supposedly serious activists in India—Dalit and otherwise—have this horrible tendency to tell the oppressed what they want to hear instead of making an effort to understand them and enter into a dialogue that could bring greater clarity on real issues. This habit of trying to make a constituency at the expense of truth which is the basis for real dialogue is a terrible thing. When Derrida talks about “difference” he means the ability not only to distinguish oneself from another but also the need to challenge preconceptions which is the basis of any ideology. It’s unethical to tell people what they want to hear. The cause of truth is furthered when you tell people what might be missing in their argument.
Gandhi says somewhere that a man who loves the truth has no friends. For all his numerous faults as a politician, if Gandhi is a Mahatma, it is because he stayed in that friendless position to the end of his life. Those who were nearest to him were often tired of his tendency to “autocratically” pursue the truth as he saw it. Therefore, Gandhi’s dissenters could accuse him of a lot of things but never of being untruthful. This is one of the reasons why Gandhi could maintain credibility until the end of his life, though more or less his career as a politician had come to an end at some point in the early 1930s. A real activist must be a friendless person in the Gandhian sense of the term and must adhere to some sense of truthfulness to oneself and to those around one.
It’s unfair to uncritically take the side of those who are in oppressed positions because you make it look like oppression is a static condition. This romanticizing of the downtrodden classes is a horrible thing. They are as human as the rest of us when it comes to using power for larger social goals or abusing power to serve private ends. In what way are Dalit leaders such as Mayawati or A. Raja representative of politicians who could be role models to those who belong to other communities or their own for that matter? Therefore caste cannot be an excuse for individuals to justify acts of omission or commission. We have to see individuals and groups for what they are and not for what claims they make about themselves. Casteism like racism is an evil whether it operates through the exclusivist thinking of the “upper” castes or the reverse casteism of the Dalits.
The oppressed have their elites and their opportunist agendas are clear as daylight. Is it fair that a civil servant or someone in a government position who has already benefited from the policy of reservations should continue to benefit from it through his children and grandchildren? I think it’s an unethical and dangerous thing that divides the nation and causes feelings of bitterness in others. We should work towards ending institutionalized inequalities along those lines as well. As much as I think that social justice is important I’m convinced that reservations that give more power to someone who is already a beneficiary of positive discrimination is doing injustice to the social order and the nation itself. The policy of reservation or affirmative action that I whole-heartedly endorse is that 50% of everything across the board, whether public or private, should be given to the poor and to women. That’s the way we can avoid a potential civil war in the making.
Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently working as an Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.