Only the caste identity matters — the identity that was supposed to have become irrelevant long ago.
We are all set to have a dalit President. It doesn’t matter whether it is the bookies’ favourite Ram Nath Kovind or the liberals’ choice Meira Kumar. It will be a dalit. That’s all we care about.
We have reduced the highest position of the country to a rudimentary dalit versus dalit fight. Seventy years after Independence, when we promised ourselves equality and justice for all, we find ourselves on a parallel path where we nurture inequality, and dish out sops instead of justice. It buys us power in a deluded democracy.
Just as we use gambling tokens in a casino and pretend it’s real money, we use gambling tokens in our democracy and pretend it’s real democratic choice. So it’s not a contest between a right-wing lawyer-cum-politician who believes in a Hindu India where Muslims and Christians are outsiders versus a liberal former IFS officer and politician who was India’s first woman Lok Sabha Speaker and believes in a secular India. It’s simply dalit versus dalit, and may the one hoisted on the biggest muscle win.
There is something revolting about selecting a presidential candidate that gives out a hugely hypocritical message purely for electoral gain. Given our vote bank politics, no party can risk opposing a dalit candidate. So the ruling BJP’s choice of dalit candidate is quickly matched by the Opposition’s dalit candidate. Only the caste identity matters — the identity that was supposed to have become irrelevant long ago.
So as we ready the presidential palace for a dalit First Citizen, less fortunate dalits continue to clean shit and die in hellholes as manual scavenging continues. We have had two laws against manual scavenging — in 1993 and 2013 — and several court directives, yet manual scavengers or safai karamcharis continue to live and die in the gutter. There is hardly any attempt to rehabilitate them, instead they are employed as cheap labour with no perks or benefits, no security of income or even of life. And no one is punished for breaking the law prohibiting manual scavenging. And hardly anyone is punished when the safai karamchari chokes on sewage or dies inhaling toxic fumes inside a sewer or septic tank.
We talk glowingly of Swachchh Bharat, Sundar Bharat and boast of toilets across the country, yet forget to mention that toilets are usually dry latrines which are cleaned not by a flush but by miserable men and women who clean out the shit with their hands — the manual scavengers. Swachchh Bharat? Sundar Bharat? Really?
And let us not forget the dalits who are lynched on any excuse. Because they do their job of skinning dead cattle. Or because someone says they are thieves. Or because they dream of dignity. Or because they aspire for the little pleasures that upper castes flaunt. Or because they dare to love outside their caste. Any excuse is good enough to beat, rape or kill a dalit.
Will that situation on the ground change when we have a dalit in the Rashtrapati Bhavan? Will the dalit girl whose brother has eloped with an upper caste girl be saved from her upper caste rapists? Will the dalit child not be asked to clean the school toilet ever again? Will the dalit villagers who contaminate the upper caste well by drinking from it be saved from their upper caste killers? Not likely.
Not surprisingly, in a new inequality index released this week, India ranks close to the bottom. Because once we stop caring about our fellow citizens’ basic right to equality, the brutal callousness pervades every sphere. In this Commitment to Reducing Inequality index by Oxfam and Development Finance International, India crouches at 132 out of 152 countries. The index ranks countries according to their government’s commitment to reducing inequality. India presents “a very worrying situation,” says the report, “given that the country is home to 1.2 billion people, many of whom live in extreme poverty.”
And poverty is a violence in itself. It stands right there along with religious violence, caste violence, gender violence and other brutalities hovering over you, robbing you of your freedoms, reducing you to a little lump of fear. So is it surprising that hundreds and thousands of Indians seek to leave this country that speaks so grandly of equality, justice and freedom?
According to the recently released International Migration Outlook 2017, Indians rank among the top asylum seekers in other countries. Other reports mention how India has the highest number of adults planning and preparing to migrate — a whopping 4.8 million people. A large number of them, I suspect, are fleeing a country that may not be at war, but is not at peace either. It does not give them the dignity they deserve, and fails to protect their rights that our Constitution guarantees.
Equality is not just an ethical need, it is also a very practical need. In the 21st century, people will not accept the lack of equality, justice and democratic freedoms for too long. The manufactured sectarian hatred and majoritarian violence we see around us prepares the ground for counter-hatred and counter-violence. In our rainbow country made up of many religions, cultures, languages and personal choices, ignoring pluralism is dangerous. Disregarding constitutional guarantees is extremely unethical. And perpetuating inequality through tokenism is criminal.
So as we trample over human rights, ignore the severe inequalities, disregard our vow of equality, justice and democratic freedoms for all and hoist the caste flag on the presidential palace, we do ourselves more harm than good. Because we accept tokenism as a viable alternative to real democratic rights.
And it’s our acceptance that gives the token legitimacy. Just like in a casino. We accept what each token stands for, and so we play. If we just wave the tokens aside and say no, these cannot stand in for real democratic freedoms, justice and choice, the tokens become useless. When that happens, we would be forced to deal with real equality and justice. And perhaps we would be able to access real democracy.