A dalit (untouchable) was killed. His house was destroyed and his family, including a 10-year-old, was thrown out. The upper caste members did not like his audacity to hoist the national flag on the Independence Day at a disputed property, which they had appropriated forcibly.
The discrimination is the bane of India where the caste prejudiced Hindus constitute 80 per cent of the population. The story of this dalit came to light because one TV channel highlighted it. Otherwise, thousands of dalits undergo similar rigours every day. They face the arrogance and zulum (tyranny) of upper castes. And there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
More than 60 years ago, the constitution banned untouchability. The freedom struggle had promised to break the shackles of the caste system after independence. First prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru even deleted the column of caste from applications, registers and forms for admission to schools and entrance examinations. Yet, the caste considerations have not lessened. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, named the dalit, Harijan (bearing a sacred status). But the dalits found the nomenclature too patronising and preferred to be called dalits.
A social evil or whatever the explanation, the feeling of discrimination in the Hindu society has not abated. Even today a dalit bridegroom cannot ride a horse while taking the barat (wedding procession) to the bride’s place. Roads at many places are closed to the dalits. As for their habitation, they continue to live in slums in the urban areas and on the outskirts of villages in the rural areas.
Some who claim to speak on behalf of Hindus seldom endeavour to eliminate the discrimination against the dalits who are also Hindus. I have not seen the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticising the caste system although the party is all for the Hindu Rashtra (state). The party’s attention is focused on politics, not on social reforms. Its problem may well be the dictation by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group of Brahmins, the uppermost caste.
Unfortunately, the caste has penetrated the thinking of Muslims and Christians. The religion of both the communities forbids discrimination. They preach equality, but when it comes to practice, they are not different from Hindus. Both of them treat with contempt the dalits, who embrace Islam or Christianity to escape the caste hatred of Hindus.
However, there is a case for concessions to such dalits which former UP chief minister Mayawati, a dalit has suggested. But her fault is that she has gone beyond. She wants a quota in promotion of public servants. The demand has justifiably raised an uproar in India.
I think that whatever reservations, they should be given at the time of recruitment. Any reservation during the career will affect the morale of civil servants of other castes, who have come through a tough competitive examination. The dalits wanting to join civil services also take the examination, but the reservations give them an edge.
The two main political parties, Congress and BJP, are supporting Mayawati’s amendment because they have their eyes set on votes in the 2014 elections. The quantum of reservations has gone up because the quota has been extended to the Other Backward Classes (OBC). They too want reservation in promotions. Many others also want reservations. This is not possible because of a Supreme Court judgement. It has fixed 49.5 per cent as the maximum limit for reservations. Even if Mayawati’s amendment is passed by parliament, the court may consider it unconstitutional.
A constitutional amendment to introduce reservations in promotions is sought to be passed in the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha has already passed it despite the opposition by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party from the OBC.
It appears that the political parties in the opposition had their way when the ruling Congress party, after putting up a brave fight against the quota in promotions, caved in. True, the Congress did not have a majority in the Lok Sabha, but it could have mustered the numbers if it had stood firm.
The reservations have been spelled out in the constitution for the dalits and the tribals. But as the Supreme Court has pointed out that the benefits have been cornered by the creamy layer among the dalits.
So is in the case of OBC. The dalits and the OBC members should allow the advantage from reservations to go below. The problem is that the leaders, vocal as they are, manipulate to appropriate the maximum concessions.
My knowledge of law, however limited, tells me that the column of caste in the form that the census enumerators ask violates the basic structure of the constitution. They inquire about caste. On the basis of such information the economic benefits are distributed. This makes a mockery of the constitution. Its preamble says that the people resolve to constitute India into a “sovereign socialist democratic republic”. Democracy and discrimination do not go together.
My objection is also on another point. In the Keshvanand Bharti case, the Supreme Court has said that the objectives in the Preamble constitute the basic structure of the constitution. It means that parliament, although elected directly by the people, cannot alter the basic structure.
Surprisingly, the government does not realise the effect the introduction of quota in promotions will have on the bureaucracy, the sheet anchor of the administration. Divide and rule was the dictum of the British who held India in bondage for more than 150 years. The nation needs to be integrated, however strong are the forces to stratify it.
The introduction of quota in services is an important policy decision.
The government should have called a meeting of the National Integration Council, which is meant to discuss such problems. Caste is something that affects the nation on the whole. The country cannot be pushed back to the dark ages. Affirmative action, which America follows to give benefits to the black, is far better than the reservations which see no end of expiry. However, that is a different story, although Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a dalit, who outlined the constitution, agreed unwillingly to reservation for 10 years only.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian high commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.