One-sidedness is the characteristic disease of our times. Most controversies are constructed on the “either. . . or” pattern. So, either the Dalits, or their tormentors, are wholly right. The problem with this approach is that it falls short of the truth. And nothing that does, helps.
Mayawati was right when she argued in Parliament that the oppression of Dalits issues from a casteist ‘mindset’. But she offered no insights into this diagnosis, which is typical of the political discourse at the present time. Words are culled from their historical context and wielded as jargons. There is one thing common to the Dalits and their gau-rakshak antagonists. Neither party understands the ‘mindset’ that perpetuates Dalit-ness on the one hand, and its repugnance in the eyes of their oppressors, on the other. While attaining a proper understanding of this phenomenon is optional for gau-rakshaks, for the Dalits it is the very peg on which their destiny hinges.
For centuries, certain trades have carried less respect and certain others, outright opprobrium. Most of us even today deem domestic work (considered ‘drudgery’) normal for womenfolk or servants, but awkward for men to be seen doing. Priests in every society disdain to do any useful labour. The Greek distinction between labour and work is significant here. All human activities that (a) involve the human body and (b) sub-serve mere subsistence, amount to labour. It was unbecoming for a member of the Greek polis — or, “citizen”— to labour. Free citizens had to get private work done by slaves or servants. Athens did not grant labourers and slaves the right to enter or participate in the affairs in the polis, or political space.
Until the dawn of the modern era, human beings were seen and valued, all over the world, in terms of their occupations. It was assumed as axiomatic that those who plied inferior trades (working with leather, scavenging, etc.) were also inferior, even polluting, human beings. Ambedkar knew this only too well. It was this that made him despair of ever ‘equality’ being realised as an operative principle in our society.
Ironically, the abrupt superimposition of democracy on our society only aggravated this inherited ‘mindset’ problem. The builders of Indian democracy did not address such issues. So we have a democratic State, behind the façade of which lurk pre-modern notions of trade-based ascription of opprobrium to human beings. Societies across centuries have linked a person’s trade to his worth. A poet, for instance, is arbitrarily assumed to be a noble being. Those of noble birth are deemed sensitive, refined, honest, and so on. A chamar, on the contrary, is ipso facto an inferior creature, incapable of nobility and unmindful of personal dignity. This is the root of the ‘mind-set’ problem. Not even the most credulous will believe that ‘cow-protection’ is the basic agenda of gau-rakshaks. The plight of cows in this country would have been vastly different, if there was even a modicum of compassion, much less, reverence, for the cow. The agenda at work is that of underscoring the worthlessness of Dalit lives.
Democracy unfurls the ideal of equality before this inegalitarian mindset. I sympathise with the gau-rakshaks too. Has anyone ever bothered to educate them that the life of a Dalit is at least as precious as the skin of a dead cow? Merely berating cow vigilantes, by itself, will not mitigate the degradation in which Dalits continue to languish. The primary issue is the presumed worthlessness of Dalits. Cow-protection is a mere fig-leaf.
It is not only protection from those who terrorise them that Dalits need today. They need to emerge from their Dalit-ness. Why should Dalits live off dead animals? This too is caste-ism of sorts. The goal of Indian democracy should not be the mere protection of Dalits against atrocities. If our democracy is to be authentic, we must move relentlessly towards — in Ambedkar’s words — the “annihilation of caste”.
Dalits must leave gau-rakshak vigilantes to skin or otherwise dispose of dead cows. They can, and must, learn to do better things. The worst misery in today’s world is economic deprivation. And the only valid response to such oppression is development leading to empowerment. The tragedy of Dalits is not only that they are orphans of the State, abandoned to battery and assault. Their seminal tragedy is that they are, willy-nilly, complicit in a scheme of things that consigns them to the limbo of social degradation. Dalits need to see in the oppression and injustice inflicted on them an invitation to emerge from Dalit-ness and to prove that they are inferior to none.
Today there are clear signs that human genius has begun to blossom in this socio-cultural wilderness as well. The merit chasm in academics between upper caste and Dalit children has narrowed down in recent years. Education, not the skin of dead animals, holds the key to their future. It is not enough to assert that Dalits don’t need pity. For these words to carry conviction, a mindset change must take place in Dalits. Self-development is the alternative to being pitied or despised. The circumstances are propitious as never before.
If the available opportunities for empowerment are fully availed, the Dalits of today could liberate the gau-rakshaks of tomorrow. Victims have been, for the most part, agents of transformation in history. There is, after all, no worse mental slavery than deeming the life of a fellow human being cheaper than the skin of dead animals.
Valson thampu is former Principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi