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Gujarat govt-sponsored study justifies caste discrimination an issue of perceptions

By Rajiv Shah 
A Gujarat government-sponsored study, “Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities”, put out in May 2013, has sought to give the impression that issues of caste discrimination in Gujarat “are largely related to perceptions”, suggesting these should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt. At best, it underlines, caste discrimination is an issue related with “past practices involving a historically determined context”. Carried out by a team of experts led by Prof R Parthasarathy of the CEPT University, Ahmedabad, one of its declared purposes was to “review” a report, “Understanding Untouchability”, one of the most comprehensive surveys on untouchability carried out ever in India, involving 1,589 Gujarat villages and 5,462 respondents.
The Gujarat government decided to sponsor the review of “Understanding Untouchability” following widespread unease in the state corridors of power following three news stories in the “Times of India” on untouchability in Gujarat – “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). All three reports were largely based on facts which were to later become part of “Understanding Untouchability”, already in the process of being finalized. “Understanding Untouchability” was officially released a few days later – on January 27, 2010.
From the very outset, Parthasarathy and his team seem to undermine the authoritative nature of the “Understanding Untouchability”. For instance, they say, the report was prepared by the Navsarjan Trust, an Ahmedabad-based Dalit rights NGO, yet they refuse to mention the organization or experts behind it. They casually mention that the report is based on “diverse set of practices defined by an international team of experts” without recalling that it was sponsored by Robert F Kennedy (RFK) Center for Justice and Human Rights, and the authors included David Armstrong, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Department of Political Science; Christian Davenport, University of Notre Dame Kroc Institute for Peace Studies; Amanda M. Klasing, RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights; Martin Macwan, Navsarjan Trust; Manjula Pradeep, Navsarjan Trust; Sushma Vania, Navsarjan Trust; Allan Stam, University of Michigan; and Monika Kalra Varma, RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.
Now, about the scale of the study by Parthasarathy and the team. As against the Navsarjan report involving a survey of 1,589 Gujarat villages and five times as many respondents, the state-sponsored study was carried out in just five villages – Khavda in Kutch district, Kherva in Surendranagar district, Nava Nesda in Banakantha district, Transad in Ahmedabad district, and Menpura in Kheda district. Even then, it seeks to question the methodology, saying “public opinion” survey in “Undertanding Untouchability” is an “inappropriate method for community-based surveys, especially with regards to the socio-economic factors and qualitative/subjective issues under scrutiny”. Hence, the decision of the Parthasarathy and team to go in for what it calls “participant observation methodology” – based on what was “observed” by field level observers.
Ironically, while the CEPT University team rejects what it calls “numerator analysis” of the Navsarjan Trust’s report, saying it has a “high possibility of over-reporting or biased reporting”, it resorts to the same quantitative methodology in order to arrive at conclusions regarding educational status among different castes as also caste-wise distribution of government-sponsored schemes, including free uniform, books and scholarship among children, and disbursement of midday meal scheme. It also uses the same quantitative method to identify occupation and wages. In fact, as one scans through the CEPT University study, one feels that the scholars accept caste discrimination as something almost normal to Indian or Gujarati society, which should not necessarily be questioned.
One has only to offer quotable quotes to prove this. Thus, while referring to the reference of discrimination against Dalits in “Understanding Untouchability” during participation in social and religious functions, Partharasarathy and the team justify it by saying, “It is very important to understand social transactions at the overall village level as well as amongst different social groups such as which members participate to what extent in the marriages, birth and death events of the other communities. Even two families of the same community might not be participating in each others’ events while there would be some considered more intimate or acquainted with from other social groups.” This is a clear case where either the scholars deliberately mix up dynamics of caste discrimination with family affairs.
It is well-known that caste has played a major role in forcing a section of Dalits – the Valmikis – to pursue a particular occupation, of scavenging others’ dirt. Shockingly, the CEPT scholars appear to even justify this, saying, it is a “social reality” that “many traditional families in rural India … still follow their conventional livelihood patterns through the form of enterprise might have changed with changing technology, knowledge and access to information and facilitation.” The scholars could have as well added, but do not, for some strange reason – that changing technology has forced the manual scavengers into the dangerous trap of cleaning gutter, which has led to the death of a large number of Valmikis. Not once do they recall the plight of the Valmikis in their 300-odd page study.
Not that the scholars do not mention cases of caste-based discrimination, but there is a clear effort to undermine it. Giving the example of Transad village, they point towards how a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva has the Patel community as its main patron. As for the scheduled castes (SC), they told the scholars that there was “no restriction” for them to go there, but “they did not visit this temple.” Nor did the SCs “visit” another temple, Ramji Mandir, situated in the Patel faliya. Further, SC people were found to be “distance observers” at the time of Holika Dahan ritual on the eve of the Holi festival.
Yet, the scholars seem to believe, all this is something absolutely normal, as seen from the following quotation: “Dr BR Ambedkar, Father of Indian Constitution, has assumed a great significance for the Harijan community who celebrate his birth anniversary by carrying out a procession through the village. There is also an Ambedkar Chowk in the Vankar vaas which is an important place for congregation. A very interesting observation of the field investigator in Transad was that the Harijan community as a whole was not found to be very religious and visiting public temples like others. Usually, there were very small private shrines in their hamlets”. Here, it is not clear why the scholars do not mention the reason for the obvious clout of the Dalits in Transad – they form 31 per cent of the village population!
At one place the study cites “continuing inaccessibility” of a new religious shrine, Ramji Temple, though saying it is part of the “social dynamics” of Kherva village. The scholars give in some detail the instance of how SC households were called to bring their own utensils during the inaugural function of the temple. “There was a call for boycott by SC youth as a sign of protest”, the scholars say, but this was thankfully amicably “resolved” by the elders. After all, the Dalits were “bound by social transactions”, and agreed to carry “their vessels to the feast while being served in the end.”
Here, the scholars see nothing wrong if the Dalits are forced to carry their own vessels or are made to be served at fag end of the festivity! In fact, if the scholars are to be believed, senior SC fellows advise “younger ones” not to participate in village festivals like Navratri or Garba, being celebrated in other localities, “for fear of possible quarrel with non-SCs.” And here the scholars add on a positive note: “Those SC youth who go there, do so as spectators and not participate in Garba…” And, as in the case of Transad village, in Kherva, too, the scholars celebrate, Dr Ambedkar jayanti is observed as a “community specific festival celebrated by SC when they carry out procession through the village”!
The scholars mention how in Nava Nesda “people belonging to SC and Vaghari communities” do not visit the Doodheshwar Mahadev temple, even though here “during the Hindu calendar month of Shraavan Janmashtami and Mahashivratri are celebrated.” Same is the case with Menpura, where “people belonging to the SC community do not visit the Radha Krishna temple”, which receives “major contributions from the affluent households.” Even then, they comment, in the village, “all festivals are celebrated in a harmonious atmosphere” – whether it is “Ganesh Chaturthi, Janmasthanami, Navratri, Diwali, Uttarayan and Holi.” Nor do they see anything wrong when, during marriage, Patels invite “Harijans” with their vessels. “They take meals in their vessels to their home and eat it there”.
The scholars conclude, it is “evident” from these descriptions that “celebration of festivals by different communities is confined to their respective localities and especially SC and non-SC usually do not mingle apart from remaining spectators.” But all this happens, they scholars conclude, because the elderly members of the SC community “do not want to create any tension between them and non-SC.”

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