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  Books   23 Sep 2023  Legal life of caste explodes myths, gives unsung reform heroes due

Legal life of caste explodes myths, gives unsung reform heroes due

Published : Sep 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Sep 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Caste Pride may not have been intended about organised violence against dalits

Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India, By Manoj Mitta
 Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India, By Manoj Mitta

In the preface to Caste Pride, his magisterial study of caste in India, Manoj Mitta tells us that the book that finally emerged was far from his mind when he began his research. “Having written books on the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 and Muslims in 2002, my original plan was to complete a trilogy on mass violence in India,” Mitta writes. This time around, he intended to focus on the killings of dalits.

However, as he immersed himself in his chosen subject, he discovered how different arms of the Indian state — “investigators, prosecutors, trial judges and appellate judges — showed remorseless, blatant examples of caste prejudice. Caste Pride thus became a fabulously researched, cogently told story about the legal life of caste in our country, an engrossing account of “the legislative debates on caste-related enactments in independent India” as well as during colonial rule.

Along the way, he explodes several myths and tells the stories of many unsung caste reformist heroes. Mitta tells us how M.K. Gandhi, “for the longest period, lagged behind his followers and other contemporaries, including his adversaries, in recognising… even untouchability”. He narrates how, in 1913, at the peak of his legal practice before the Allahabad High Court, Motilal Nehru appeared on behalf of Brahmins accused in a case of Sati. B.R. Ambedkar, he reveals, “for all his brilliance in challenging caste… also appeared to have faltered more than once in his understanding of its legal aspects”.

Among other Indian National Congress stalwarts, G.K. Gokhale never directly raised the issue of caste or untouchability. Surendra Nath Banerjea and Madan Mohan Malaviya, both of whom had been presidents of the party, opposed the setting up of a committee to study untouchability. “The decision to keep social reforms out of the Congress agenda shaped the conduct of its members even when they acted as legislators,” Mitta writes.

Mitta’s scholarship is staggering, but he wears it lightly. Among the unsung heroes he writes about are legislators such as Vithalbhai Patel, Maneckji Dadabhoy, B.V. Narasimha Ayyar, Kalicharan Nadagaoli, Hari Singh Gour, M.R. Jayakar, M.C. Rajah, R. Sreenivasan, R. Veerian, S.K. Bole, G.A. Gavai and Thakur Das Bhargava.

One of the many reasons, he writes, that these men are not lauded and remembered as they ought to be for their reformist zeal is that they were either not part of the Indian National Congress or, even if they were, their convictions ran counter to the mainstream party consensus.

Their achievements, though, are towering. Dadabhoy, for instance, moved a resolution in the Imperial Legislative Council on Depressed Classes or untouchables. This resolution led to the first discussion in the national legislature on untouchability. Veerian’s efforts led to the Madras province producing the first law against untouchability anywhere in the country. It was, Mitta tells us, a “trailblazing legislation”.

Caste Pride may not have been intended about organised violence against dalits, but carnage and mayhem are entwined with the social injustice perpetrated against lower castes. After the formal abolition of untouchability in 1950, violence against untouchables took on the horrifying form of mass killings. In the searing final section of the book, Mitta offers us accounts of such murders, lynchings and rapes of dalits in Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu, Tsundur in Andhra Pradesh, Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe in Bihar, and the Khairlanji case in Bhandara, Maharashtra.

In each and every instance, the state machinery — in its various forms, from the police to the judiciary — appear complicit with the upper castes. Time and again, the untouchables, violated and killed, seem to have little chance of justice.

Caste Pride is a chastening, harrowing book about the deep iniquities that caste engenders even in modern India, about how the dice is still loaded heavily in favour of the dominant castes, and how gross miscarriages of justice can occur with impunity.

Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India
By Manoj Mitta  
pp. 596; Rs 999


Tags: book review 2023, caste pride, manoj mitta, caste injustice, india