Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Modi and The Art of ‘Disappearing’ of Untouchability

- Subhash Gatade
It is a story attributed to a famous Saint from Middle Ages – a votary of the idea of Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya (Brahma is the Only Truth, Rest is All Illusion). Once this gentleman was walking with his Shishya (disciple) on a road and suddenly a elephant appeared from nowhere and rushed towards this duo. Abruptly ending his discussion on Maya (illusion) the Guru instructed his Shishya to just run away to save himself. When both of them were at a safe place, the exasperated Shishya asked the Guru, why did he ask him to run knowing well that everything else is an ‘illusion’. Without winkling his eyelid the Guru said 'Gajopi Mithya, Palayanopi Mithya' (The elephant was also an illusion and our running away was also an illusion).
One does not know whether the famous sage had visited Gujarat or not but his influence seems palpable there at least among the ruling elite. If the Guru could ‘invisibilise’ the elephant calling it an illusion, here in Gujarat an age old problem like untouchability could be similarly ‘disappeared’ by terming it a matter of ‘perception’.
Appears unbelievable?
Perhaps you can have a look at a Gujarat government sponsored report titled “Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat”, authored by Centre for Environment Planning and Technology University (CEPT) University scholars led by Prof R. Parthasarathy, which calls caste discrimination a matter of “perceptions”.
In his blog "True Lies" senior journalist Rajiv Shah has provided detailed critiqued of the study.

To put in a nutshell this CEPT report is a governmental response to an exhaustive study titled ‘Understanding Untouchability’ done by Ahmedabad based NGO ‘Navsarjan Trust’ with the help of Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. (2009) which demonstrated with concrete data the wide prevalence of untouchability both in public and private spheres in interaction between scheduled castes (SCs) and non-scheduled castes (non-SCs), as well as within SCs: among the several jatis in rural Gujarat.  This report covered around 1,600 villages in Gujarat, did complete survey of these villages based on few parameters ranging from temple entry to the use of common well, and similar other factors. According to ‘Navsarjan’ out of the villages covered 98 per cent still practised untouchability.
It is important to note that the results of the Navsarjan study were widely covered by the media e.g. Times of India carried out stories based on the study for three days [‘No Temple Entry for Dalits in Gujarat’ (December 7, 2009), ‘Vibrant Gujarat? 98% Dalits have to Drink Tea in Separate Cups’ (December 8, 2009), and ‘Dalit Kids Shamed at Mid-day Meals’ (December 9, 2009)]. The media also raised questions on the state government’s tall claim of a ‘vibrant Gujarat’. A Gujarati version of the report ‘Aabhadchhet ni Bhal’ was also published for wider circulation.
Although it was not a first study of its kind, looking at the comprehensive nature of the work undertaken the Gujarat Government could have accepted its findings or at least looked at it more sympathetically. Perhaps it could have been taken up as a wake-up call so that the tremendous hiatus between all talk of ‘Swarnim Gujarat’ and the actual situation on the ground could have become more explicit prompting the government as well as members of civil society to take up sincere efforts to ameliorate the situation.
We can see that things did not move the way any sane and just person would have imagined.
Looking at the fact that the ongoing debate had the potential of putting a spanner in the well cultivated image of a Samras (harmonious) Gujarat under Modi, a panicky government asked CEPT to review and verify Navsarjan’s findings. In fact, the government seemed so keen to give a clean chit to itself that it adopted a two pronged approach to tackle the uncomfortable situation in which it found itself. Apart from commissioning the above mentioned study it constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the then minister for social justice, Fakirbhai Vaghela and secretaries of different concerned departments to refute the findings of the report. The government instructed its officers to get affidavits from scheduled caste village residents regarding non-existence of untouchability.
Commenting on the report Rajiv Shah says that:
“[t]he nearly 300-page report, ..far from being a review of “Understanding Untouchability”, is more of an effort to justify the evil practice.”
As opposed to the survey of 1,589 villages done by Navsarjan, the CEPT team was made to survey just five villages, dig out a plethora of caste-wise data on agriculture, irrigation, employment and distribution of government schemes but were instructed not to collect any data on “”caste discrimination” – a term used by them in lieu of untouchability. Rajiv Shah has also provided details of the fight activists had to wage to get a copy of this government report. All their pleas to get a copy of the said report were trashed on trivial grounds like revealing facts on untouchability would lead to “a sharp rise in the incidence of enmity in the rural areas” or would “create “possibilities of hurdles in the process of dialogue between different castes” and harm “homogenous atmosphere”. Ultimately the Gujarat Information Commissioner had to intervene so that activists could get a copy of the same.
The reluctance of the scholars to even mention the (Un)touchability word can be gauged from the observations  made by leading sociologist Ghanshyam Shah as well, who has also written a critique of the CEPT report ‘Understanding or ignoring untouchability? How Gujarat government-sponsored study examines discrimination in a ‘very casual way’’ (in CounterCurrents, Nov 13, 2013) :
..[i]n the scholars’ view (and that of the government) there is nothing wrong if the Dalits are forced to carry own vessels or are made to be served at fag end of the festivity. In fact, if the scholars are to be believed, Dalit elders advise the “younger ones” not to participate in village festivals like Navratri or Garba, celebrated in other localities, “for fear of possible quarrel with non-Dalits.” The youth agree in order to maintain social peace and order. To quote from the report, “Those Dalit youth who go there, do so as spectators and not participate in Garba…” 
He also adds :
“CEPT has completely ignored to study the practice of untouchability. Perhaps for them like the Government of Gujarat it is a non-issue. And, they have carried out mainly a socio-economic survey in five villages. The authors do not feel the need to argue why they have confined their study to socio-economic survey. Why have they not correlated socio-economic data with the presence or absence of untouchability?”
Photo: NaMo Nazi
Leading scholars who supervised the study are expected to at least know discussion on discrimination (article 15 of the Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any of them) does not cover the issue of untouchability ( Constitution has a separate Article 17 dealing with the practice of untouchability, declaring such practice as an offence punishable by the law) and their limiting themselves to just socio-economic survey and some superficial discussion on discrimination conveys a clear message that unwittingly or so they have maintained a silence over a blatant fact of lives of millions of people which is also understood as ‘apartheid of another kind’.
While the CEPT experts could not discover untouchability in the five villages covered, the Navsarjan team which toured these villages in June 2013 found how the dalits live under subjugation and a state of helplessness as they know that the government would not protect them if they assert for their rights. Ghanshyam Shah adds:
The CEPT study has failed to observe that in all these villages, it is obligatory for the Chamars and Valmikis to carry corpses of dead animals. In two villages Valmikis are not allowed to take water from the village well. They have to wait for others to pour water in their pots. In one village, SC members perceive that they experience discrimination in village panchayat and school. I wonder why Parthasarathy’s team has ignored these spheres.
In fact, an important omission from the CEPT report is that of Valmikis themselves, who are considered lowest in the social ladder under a Varnacracy. As opposed to these worst victims of untouchability, the report focuses on the Vankars, a “socially acceptable” Dalit community, a weaving class.
The omission of Valmikis in a report commissioned by the government cannot be considered inadvertent. Their still remaining confined largely to the work of sweeping and cleaning ; collecting and handling dust, garbage and filth of the cities, towns and villages to make them livable for other dwellers and in the process facing daily humiliations and even deaths by ‘accidents’ or getting afflicted with occupational diseases is a reality which cannot be ignored anymore. Perhaps the scholars might have felt that their sheer presence in a governmental report was anachronous to the media propelled image of ‘a best-governed state, occupying number one position in the country on ‘development’’.
And this is not the first time that the powers that be have tried to ‘obliterate’ the Valmikis out of their existence. Ghanshyam Shah tells us that:
“..state government filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court in 2003 claiming there was no manual scavenging in Gujarat. This was despite the published evidences documented by Praful Trivedi[Gujaratni kashtakatha, Mathe melu Uchkavani Pratha. Ahmedabad: Janpath Prakashan, 1996.] as well as by Mari Mareel Thekaekara[Endless Fifth: The Saga of the Bhangis. Bangalore: Books for Change, 1999.] and documentary film ‘Lesser Human’ by K. Stalin. The government reiterated its stand in 2007 in response to a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, which identified 12,000 manual scavengers in Gujarat]. In fact, the study was sponsored by the Gujarat Safai Kamdar Vikas Nigam (GSKVN), a Government of Gujarat Undertaking.” (-do-)
Perhaps this omission could be also because of the way Narendra Modi, looks at this occupation, which finds mention in his book ‘Karmyog’ where he calls it as some kind of “spiritual experience”.
Not very people know that it was the year 2007  when collection of Narendra Modi’s speeches to IAS officials at various points of time were compiled in a book form named ‘Karmyog’ and were published by the Gujarat government. Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, a top ranking PSU was roped in to fund 5,000 copies of the book. Sample one of his speech, where talking about the Safai Kamdars Modi exhorts:
 ”I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation….At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible to believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.” (Page 48-49, Karmyog)
Later Modi’s remark got published in the Times of India in mid-November 2007, which were translated and republished in few Tamil newspapers. There was a massive reaction of Dalits in Tamil Nadu for calling their menial job “spiritual experience”. Modi’s effigies were burnt in different parts of the state. Sensing trouble Modi immediately withdrew 5,000 copies of the book, but still sticked to his opinion. Two years later, addressing 9,000-odd safai karmacharis, (cleanliness workers) he likened the safai karmacharis’ job of cleaning up others dirt’ to that of a temple priest. He told them:
“A priest cleans a temple every day before prayers, you also clean the city like a temple. You and the temple priest work alike.”
With custodians of the state themselves having such regressive understanding it is not difficult to understand why untouchability is widely prevalent in Gujarat. While the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, mandates a special court and a special public prosecutor to deal with atrocity cases, but the state government says that it does not have any money for this.
The 23-page confidential report of the social justice and empowerment department (SJED) of Gujarat government submitted to state chief secretary and legal department in year 2005 revealed a shocking conclusion: The rate of conviction of cases under the prevention of atrocity act is in Gujarat is an appalling 2.5 percent, while the rate of acquittal is around 97.5. (Express 15 September 2006)
In fact a detailed and systematic study of 400 judgments done by Vajibhai Patel, Secretary of Council for Social Justice compelled the government to work on this 23 page report. This report tells us that utterly negligent police investigation at both the higher and lower levels coupled with a distinctly hostile role played by the public prosecutors is the main reason for the collapse of cases filed under the atrocities act. It is worth noting that he has meticulously documented these judgments delivered under this act since April 1, 1995 in the Special Atrocity Courts set up in 16 districts of the state. The study also blasts the common perception is that the inefficacy of this law is due to false complaints being lodged or compromises between the parties, in actuality it is a complicit State that has rendered the Act toothless.
Under The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, it is the duty of District Superintendent of Police (DSP) to appoint an officer not below the rank of DySP as an investigating officer for the offenses registered under the same act.
On 16 April, 2004, a question was asked to chief minister Modi in Gujarat legislative assembly:
“Honorable chief minister [Home] may oblige us to tell, is it true that the DSP is responsible for the appointment of an officer not below the rank of DySP as investigating officer in the offenses under atrocities act? The answer of our chief minister was shocking. He said: “No, but there is a provision under rule 7 (1) of SC/ST act, 1995 to appoint officers not above the rank of DySP to inquire into all cases booked under atrocities act. It is not the responsibility of DSP.”
Raju Solanki, a leading Dalit poet and human rights activist comments:
“The officer not above the rank of DySP” means he may be a PSI or PI and in most of the atrocities cases courts acquit the accused because the investigation officer is either PSI or PI.
And he concludes
” ..Gujarat is pioneer in many things: Navnirman movement (1975), Anti-reservation agitation (1981), and state-sponsored genocide of minorities (2002). Now, Gujarat has earned one more distinction in maiming, defacing and disfiguring The Atrocities Act.”
                                                                                                                     - Dalit Rights Gujarat
There are some protagonists of Hinduism who say that Hinduism is a very adaptable religion, that it can adjust itself to everything and absorb anything. I do not think many people would regard such a capacity in a religion as a virtue to be proud of, just as no one would think highly of a child because it has developed the capacity to eat dung, and digest it. But that is another matter. It is quite true that Hinduism can adjust itself… can absorb many things. The beef-eating Hinduism (or strictly speaking Brahminism which is the proper name of Hinduism in its earlier stage) absorbed the non-violence theory of Buddhism and became a religion of vegetarianism. But there is one thing which Hinduism has never been able to do – namely to adjust itself to absorb the Untouchables or to remove the bar of Untouchability. 
‘Invisiblising’ of dalits is a continuous process which gets bolstered through caste ridden state institutions.
The case of Nathu Vadla, a small village with hardly 1000 population was much in news during Panchayat Elections held some time back. The elections were to be held on the basis of 2001 data. Although the population of Dalits in the village was at least 100 and one seat was to be reserved for them, since the census data was not modified, the government had decided to hold the elections on the basis of 2001 census itself, when the SC population was nil. Gujarat High Court had to intervene and stay the elections in the village saying that it is ‘mockery of democracy’.
The question of no land even for burials rarely gets discussed. A report carried by ‘Mail Today’ in the first week of Feb, 2009 had thrown light on the issue. It tells us that dalits are not allowed to use common burial grounds and are often forced to use a part of waste land near the villages as burial grounds. Absence of any legal entitlement forces them to be pushed out of such lands by dominant upper castes. 
A survey conducted by Gujarat Rajya Grampanchayat Samajik Nyay Samiti Manch found out that ‘[o]ut of 657 villages in Gujarat, 397 villages do not have any designated land allotted for burial for dalits. Out of the 260 villages where land has been formally allotted, 94 have seen encroachments by the dominant castes and in 26 villages it is a low-lying area and therefore the ground gets waterlogged.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that when the question of burying the deads comes up, dalits share a strange commonality with the Muslims. Muslims share similar predicament when they find their graveyards getting encroached by the dominant classes.
If the dead dalits have no place of dignity in the state which has the audacity of claiming that untouchability is just a perception, one can just imagine the status of the living. One test could be house hunting as a dalit in Ahmedabad – capital of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in making.
The general experience is that if a Dalit approaches a upper caste builder for accommodation, he is either directly discouraged or tacitly denied. It is immaterial even if the Dalit belongs to a sound economic background. For the builders and real estate agents, selling property to even one Dalit family in a society becomes detrimental to sales. Perhaps it is a marker of the deeply entrenched Varna/caste mindset, which has supposedly received new lease of life after the 2002 carnage, one witnesses a unique trend in Ahmedabad where “only Dalit residential societies – around 300 of them” have come up in recent years. In a study done by the Express reporter he emphasised that it “.. not a matter of choice, but of compulsion.” (A Dalit? Go find a Dalit society D P Bhattacharya Ahmedabad, June 17, 2007)”
Posterity would remember NaMo for his many super-human or sub-human sounding feats.
The great hiatus which is observed in reality and the claims he makes in his speeches – earning him many a nicknames – has now reached a stage where he can now easily acquire a place in one of the book of records.
Today, his ‘Rambo’ like act at the time of Uttarakhand tragedy where he went in a huddle with his crack team and then sent 15,000 Gujaratis back to safety in one night – which was later called a ‘PR’ disaster – is largely forgotten.
It is really strange that neither his cheerleaders nor his critics have bothered to look at his unique feat of ‘disappearing’ of untouchability.
Perhaps it is time to join the chorus which seems to be emanating from the emergent ‘Hindu Rashtra’ of our times. Jaati Mithya, Asprishyata Mithya (Caste is an illusion, Untouchability is also an illusion).
Subhash Gatade is a New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist. He is also the author of Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India, and The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India.


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