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Untouchability and Modi's babus

R Parthasarathy
By Rajiv Shah
Recently, a prominent Gujarat-based activist handed me over a Gujarat government-sponsored report, "Impact of Caste Discrimination and Distinctions on Equal Opportunities: A Study of Gujarat", drafted in May 2013. Authored by a few CEPT University, Ahmedabad, scholars led by Prof R Parthasarathy, whom I know as a fine academic, I scanned through the report but was not shocked, as I knew it would simply reflect the mindset of the Gujarat government, especially when the issue involved is rather ticklish - untouchability.
It calls caste discrimination a matter of "perceptions", but so what? What does one expect from a government headed by Narendra Modi? Let me recall, in 2007 Modi got published some of his speeches he had delivered at the annual bureaucratic conclave, Chintan Shibir, in a book, "Karmayog", where he said, Valmikis cleaning up others' dirt was nothing but "an internal spiritual activity" which has "continued generation after generation." Indeed, I have reason to believe that, with this mindset, Modi's babus would have prevailed over Prof Parthasarathy and others on the issue of untouchability.
Having covered Gandhinagar Sachivalaya for nearly 15 years for the Times of India, I know how such reports are finalized. First, scholars are "sponsored." Once they prepare a report, the scholars are asked to come down to Sachivalaya in Gandhinagar to "discuss" out the report's contents threadbare. They are told to remove uncomfortable portions. In most cases, babus succeed in pushing in their viewpoint. In one instance, "Gujarat Human Development Report", initially prepared in 2001, had to wait for full three years, as the state babudom wanted the removal of certain inconvenient parts. Not everything could be removed, as the scholars involved were tough to handle - Prof Indira Hirway and Prof Darshini Mahadevia. But they admitted how babus succeeded in the removal of a chapter which compared Gujarat's "communal index" with other states. In yet another instance, it is already two years, but the State Development Report, a collection of scholarly articles on issues of health, education, employment and Gujarat economy, hasn't yet been allowed to be published. I have no experience of other states, but I am sure, the babudom everywhere is the same.
Now about the report, "Impact of Caste Discrimination…". Initially, the state government refused to hand it over to activists who wanted to know its contents. The declared intention of the report was a review of a 2010 study, "Understanding Untouchability", carried out jointly by Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and Ahmeadbad-based NGO Navsarjan Trust. "Understanding Untouchability" is a complete survey of nearly 1,600 Gujarat villages, with concrete data on how untouchablity prevails. The study arrives at its conclusions on the basis of tens of parameters ranging from temple entry to the use of common well. Activists filed a right to information (RTI) application to get the report, but it was rejected on the ground that revealing facts on untouchability would lead to "a sharp rise in the incidence of enmity in the rural areas". It was pointed out, handing over the report would also create "possibilities of hurdles in the process of dialogue between different castes" and harm "homogenous atmosphere". An intervention by Gujarat Information Commissioner Balwant Singh, one of the finest IAS bureaucrats who retired recently, finally helped activists get the report.
As one scans through the nearly 300-page report, it is clear that, far from being a review of "Understanding Untouchability", it is more of an effort to justify the evil practice. Prof Parthasarathy and his team were made to survey just five villages in depth (as against the "Understanding Untouchability's" 1,589 villages). They were made to dig out a plethora of caste-wise data on agriculture, irrigation, employment and distribution of government schemes. However, they refused to collect any data on "caste discrimination" (a term they use in lieu of untouchability) giving the reason that "opinion-based survey" is an unsound academic practice when people's behavior is involved. I instantly wondered: Do opinion polls, an internationally accepted practice, in the scholars' view (or the government's view), have no value? Instead, they used what they called "participant observation methodology" - based on what they had "observed" during their field level discussions - in order to interpret "discrimination".
And, what did the scholars "observe"? At one place, they suggest, it would be absurd to say why a certain social group doesn't attend a religious function or a marriage or a birth or a death event. If the report is any guide, the scholars seem to be "convinced" (or were made to be convinced?) that this type of discrimination is not unnatural. The explanation they give is rather curious: "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"! Indeed, it's a clear case of mixing up the dynamics of caste discrimination with family brawls. What made them "observe" this is not clear. They have not given any proof, through their "participatory observation methodology", to show how caste and family differences are similar.
The Valmikis, who are at the lowest rung in the Dalit social ladder, are not even mentioned in the report, even though they are the known to be the worst victims of untouchability in India, let alone Gujarat. Mahatma Gandhi called the Valmiikis' hereditary occupation of manual scavenging as the "shame of the nation". It is quite different that Modi sees in this occupation some kind of "spiritual experience". Not without reason, the scholars have no word on them. They don't even refer to the Valmikis once. Most of their "observations" are based on a more "socially-acceptable" Dalit community, Vankars, a weaving class. In fact, they declare hereditary occupation by Dalits as some kind of "social reality", which need not be taken as discriminatory. Changes occur in these occupations on account of "changing technology, knowledge and access to information and facilitation". Of course, the scholars don't say how "changing technology" has forced manual scavengers into the dangerous trap of gutter, which has led to the unnatural death of 86 Valmikis in a decade in Gujarat.
Scholars do mention a few cases of caste discrimination, but with the intention to undermine it. In Transad, one of the villages studied, they say, the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is patronized by the Patel community. As for the Dalits, they reportedly told the scholars that there is "no restriction" for them to enter the temple, but "they did not visit it." No further inquiry - a normal sociological practice - is sought about why they never visit the temple. In yet another instance, the scholars record, in a matter-of-fact manner, how Dalits remain "distance observers" at the time religious functions. But this is considered normal, as Dalits are allowed to observe their own festivals. The report says, "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." So, what's wrong if they do not participate in other functions?
At one place the report cites "continuing inaccessibility" of a new religious shrine, Ramji Temple, built in a Kherva, another village surveyed. At the inaugural function of the temple, the Dalits were asked to bring their own utensils for meal. "There was a call for boycott by Dalit youth as a sign of protest", the scholars say, but this was amicably "resolved" by the elders. After all, the Dalits were "bound by social transactions", the scholars insist, and therefore agreed to carry "their vessels to the feast while being served in the end." So, in 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…"
In Nava Nesda village, Dalits do not visit the Doodheshwar Mahadev temple, which is where Janmashtami and Mahashivratri are celebrated. Same is the case with Menpura, where the Dalits do not visit the Radha Krishna temple. Even then, scholars observe, in villages, "all festivals are celebrated in a harmonious atmosphere" - whether it is "Ganesh Chaturthi, Janmasthanami, Navratri, Diwali, Uttarayan or Holi." Nor do the scholars see anything wrong when, during marriages, Patels invite Dalits with their vessels. "They take meals in their vessels to their home and eat it there". In fact, scholars "observe", that it is "evident" that different festivals are celebrated "by different communities" in "their respective localities", and if the Dalits and do not mingle with non-Dalits, it is because they "do not want to create any tension between them and non-Dalits."



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