By Yuthish Prabakar*
“Our struggle does not end so long as a single human is being considered untouchable on account of his birth”. – Mahatma Gandhi
Necessity is the mother of invention. Inequality is the mother of evils. In a utopian world, there would not be any discrimination on any lines, be it caste, gender or religion. But we live in a society that is far from being utopian. Across the world, discrimination exists along multiple threads, but what is unique to India, a deep-rooted evil is a discrimination based on caste. This has penetrated much more than visible to the ordinary city-dwelling citizen. The very fact that discrimination in the world’s largest democracy is predominantly based on caste rather than any other metric is a blot on the very fundamentals that this country was built upon.
Society is becoming more inclusive and so are the minds of the people that constitute society. Some warriors make this change happen. This article is the result of an interaction with one such eminent warrior, Mr. Chandra Bhan Prasad, the first Dalit columnist in mainstream media, and let us look what induces this caste divide and some measures to overcome this.
Does reservation propagate caste? Caste-based reservation is viewed down upon by people who have never been subject to oppression because of the family in which they were born. Look at it from the perspective of a Dalit human being. They have been asked to eat in separate utensils for centuries, asked to work menial jobs without due respect, despite being an equal citizen in the eyes of the Constitution. If there is anything that needs to change, it is the mentality of the upper-caste to keep the unfortunate ones under their thumb, unable to see them prosper and live equal lives. Reservation intends to bring the untouchables on an equal footing but the evil eye of the oppressors who wish to remain so is what hinders creating such an equitable society.
Does reservation disregard merit? This question is rendered moot when we consider the following situation. An upper-caste person who has had no societal evils thrust upon them and have had access to all the benefits and respects accorded by society competes with a lower-caste person who has had to fight all their life for a meaningful existence without any of these benefits from society. Using the analogy of a race, where these two persons have different starting points would better impress the ground realities upon a considerate mind. Reservation intends to equip people across sections of the society with equal capabilities and in a sense intends to improve the merit of the whole population rather than leaving the unfortunate few behind.
How then do we ensure that the Dalits can be accorded access to a better way of sustenance?
Enter Chandra Bhan Prasad. He had the first English Dalit column in a major newspaper and has used his innovative ideas to uplift the caste downtrodden. It all started in 1999, when Kenneth J. Cooper, an American journalist wanted to interview a Dalit journalist for an article. His contemporary and friend BN Uniyal was not able to find a single well-known Dalit journalist at the time. This prompted Chandra to initiate the Dalit Diaries to end the caste apartheid that was being perpetrated in the country at the time. Indian society was nowhere on creating a diverse workforce that included all sections of society. Dalits were just left out.
During a chance opportunity to interact with the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijaya Singh, Chandra proposed the idea of refraining from providing essential supplies to the 4500 odd SC/ST hostels in the state and rather enable SC/ST entrepreneurs to make business. His reasoning was simple, “Why should the government provide this for free when it could provide business for these entrepreneurs?” Digvijaya concurred and the state government ended up saving INR 80 crores while also encouraging the SC/ST businessmen in their ventures.
Chandra has always been a rebel. He joined JNU to pursue his Master’s in Arts in 1982 but was rusticated for three years and became a gun-wielding member of the Naxal movement, moving across villages in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to grasp the stark differences in living standards for Dalits from a metro like Delhi.
Chandra also proposed his theory on Dalit capitalism, an intriguing prospect. Dalits are protected by two institutions he says, governments and capitalists. Governments intend to uplift them and of course need their votes while capitalists would need their labour to make profits. Both these institutions do not have anything against the Dalits who have two choices – own land or work in factory sheds. Industrial India is good for Dalits, there is no discrimination as long as profits are made, and the business is healthy.
Dalit oppression is psychological, and society is not used to seeing Dalits succeed in their respective fields. Further, conflicts between Dalits and non-Dalits are almost always not personal, they are spur of the moment skirmishes and must do more with the society rather than the individual. An interesting thought Chandra had was that Dalits if rich are not subject to vitriol and are rather accepted as part of society, no questions asked.
Chandra has been a doer, his initiatives bydalits.com and Dalit Foods stand testament to this. Within 25 years of emancipation, Blacks in America were able to establish their brands. In India, even after 70 years of Independence and multiple steps by the government to uplift Dalits, there has not been a single Dalit brand. The time is ripe for them to step up and make use of this digitally connected world to sell quality products in this capitalist society where quality trumps inequality. Bydalits.com, an e-commerce entity has been set up with this very goal, to provide Dalit entrepreneurs access to markets and establish brands and their way of living.
Food and inter-caste marriages are two dark markers of the inequity and harshness directed at Dalits. Food touched by Dalits is not eaten by many even in the world of today. Chandra proposes to break these shackles by encouraging Dalits to become food traders and sell quality products which cannot be rejected by the market. The outcome was Dalit Foods, another of his e-commerce ventures.
Adi-Dalit Foundation spearheaded by Chandra again is a thinktank with experts from different fields and intends to ensure Dalits are finally given their due. As per the data from the thinktank, the total income of Dalits is roughly 50bn USD, roughly 2% of the Indian GDP. Ranked as a separate nation, the Dalit economy would be placed 79th in the world.
I would like to end with one thought-provoking encounter with an upper-caste male who visited a Dalit doctor for treatment. Pat came the reply, “He is an efficient and ethical man who treats patients very well. Isn’t that why I visit a doctor?”
Dalits are humans too, and they have innate capabilities that much the larger population. This is their golden age with the advent of technology they can leverage the best society has to offer and emancipate themselves from this oppressive society. Dalits do not have control over their finances and the governments, both Centre and state, must empower them by providing them opportunities to trade their wares rather than continually provide them with freebies for votes.
*Second-year student at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad