April has brought to national focus the anger and despair of Dalits across the country. It was an unpremeditated response to an order of the Supreme Court which is being perceived as a dilution of a stringent law that promises justice to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and punitive action against offenders. The Centre has predictably filed a review petition, though the prevailing mood is by no means conciliatory. The instantaneous and widespread agitation has unequivocally revealed the embers of Dalit disquiet underneath our polity.
A few days after the manifestation of this fury, the nation observed the 127th birth anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar, the most forceful champion and icon of the socially deprived and the uncompromising critic of caste-ridden Hinduism. The proximity of these two events might be a coincidence but it resonates with deeper meanings and messages. Ambedkar always feared, in the context of Indian Independence, continued prevalence of injustice to the Dalits as it would be the rule of the majority community. As the Chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly, he used all powers of persuasion at his command to provide ‘Constitutional morality’ to delegitimise traditional religious morality that has, for centuries, stifled and exploited the most vulnerable sections on the basis of caste. He reminded rather prophetically that “democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”.
Sixty eight years after adopting the Constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens of India, many of the anxieties forcefully and insightfully articulated by Dr Ambedkar remain as significant as ever. How can people, divided into several thousands of castes, be a nation, he wondered? It was clear to him that India at the time of Independence was not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word. The underpinning of such an integrated society is the ideal of fraternity, which he defined as a sense of “common brotherhood of all Indians” giving unity and solidarity to social life.
Elucidating this point he further asserted that “without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint”. As the first Law Minister in Nehru’s Cabinet, Dr Ambedkar, unable to pass the Hindu Code Bill, realised rather painfully that any socially progressive legislation would be blocked by those who wanted the comfort of the status quo. This finds eloquent expression in his resignation speech: “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu society untouched, and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
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Dr Ambedkar knew exactly the shape of things to come in independent India. Having travelled from the days of Nehruvian state socialism to an unabashedly globalising capitalist economy, Ambedkar’s concerns have an even more ominous ring today. In the name of economic growth are we not building “a palace on a dung heap”? The new mantra of economic development at any cost naturally aggravates the social and economic differences and tensions.
That the Indian society is getting increasingly fragmented even as the nation is straining at the leash to become an economic superpower (or at least an Asian lion) is not unexpected. Capitalism has no mind of its own to care about equality, liberty and fraternity. In such times of obsession with economic growth, the state has an inherent responsibility to act as countervailing force and mend the social fabric and ensure social development and economic growth travel in the same direction.
It is not that the country lacks legal safeguards or development agenda to achieve this goal. The various laws that seek to protect the SCs and STs from exploitation do espouse high ideals. Both the Centre and state governments earmark in their budgets relatively impressive funds for various welfare and development programmes. Constitutionally guaranteed reservation for education and employment has no doubt made a mark. But the social and economic justice that is due to the Dalits and tribals is still elusive as vouched by empirical facts as well as statistics.
The narrative of the development of SCs and STs is blemished by recurring instances of rape, corruption, exploitation, exclusion, denial of justice, displacement and deprivation. A crime is committed against a Dalit every 16 minutes and on an average 1,500 Dalit women are raped every year. Where is fraternity? And without fraternity, equality and liberty are barren clouds as Ambedkar admonished long ago.
Why should this traumatic drama continue unabated? Why is it that these laws and programmes are so soullessly implemented? Is it because the state machinery is inherently inept or is it being manipulated by caste and class biases? Seventy years is a pretty long period for correcting inhibiting attitudes and self-defeating administrative mechanisms. If we as a nation have any respect and genuine commitment for the Constitution and its lofty vision, the state ought to move towards realising political, social and economic justice to the weakest sections. That calls for a deep introspection to find the root of apathy that accompanies law enforcement and development administration.
Apathy betrays a lack of faith in the overarching objectives. And this lack of faith is the by-product of the commitment or lack of it among political parties. The state never feels the need for any genuine compassion, compulsion or commitment to the cause of Dalit and tribal welfare, though episodic affirmations and overdrives are visible in abundance as part of political and intellectual theatricals. What is lacking woefully is a sense of urgency to accelerate social transformation that makes the episodes of rape and exploitation, violence and injustice a shameful chapter of the past. It has to be implanted in the DNA of civil and police administration with an uncompromising political will that should manifest itself defying the gravitational pull of the caste and class composition of the political parties.