Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A much larger house on fire

About the time 50 Dalit houses were set ablaze in Gohana, the country marked 50 years of a law giving effect to the Constitution's abolition of untouchability. As if to rub it in, 25 more Dalit homes were torched the same week in Akola, Maharashtra, writes P Sainath.

06 September 2005 - Burri nazar walle, theri ghar mein ladki paida ho (You evil-eyed people, may girls be born in your homes).
Scrawled on the back of a lorry in Gohana, those words capture the soul of casteism in Haryana. Even while taking a crack at Dalits whose houses they had reduced to rubble, their oppressors couldn't fail to proclaim women to be a curse. (A view many of them clearly act upon. You can see that from Haryana's appalling sex ratio of 861. That was the worst among major States in the 2001 census.)
About the time 50 Dalit houses were set ablaze in Gohana, the country marked 50 years of a law giving effect to the Constitution's abolition of untouchability. As if to rub in the irony, 25 more Dalit homes have been torched in the same week. This time in Akola, Maharashtra.
Of course the Constitution banned untouchability. It was to give effect to Article 17 that Parliament passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. This was later made more stringent and renamed the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. Still the crimes went on. So, along the way, we brought in quite a few other vital laws. Like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. Crimes under this Act invite harsher penalties than similar offences would under the Indian Penal Code. Half a century into the process, we grapple with the very crimes the first of these laws sought to end.
Was Gohana 2005 a one-off aberration? We could then say: awful, but these things happen. And get on with life. The catch of course is that they happen every so often. And to the same people. Even a show of mandatory anguish - "what an atrocity" - doesn't begin to meet the problem. Not when the crime is systemic, societal, and structured. Not when a state disables its own citizens.
The countless reports on the subject over the years do not show discrimination against Dalits to be dying away. The many volumes of the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes make grisly reading. Crimes against Dalits and Adivasis have risen by the decade. By as much as 25 to 28 per cent in some periods. Yet the number of such cases ending in conviction of the criminals is dismal. Less than one per cent in some courts.
The events in Gohana and Akola are just a part of an ongoing crime against humanity. For that's what caste-based discrimination is. (But I'm still sure you'll see editorials that tell us these things are wrong because 'they send bad signals to investors.')
In Gohana, the dominant castes, the police, the state, all did their bit in bringing terror and ruin to the Dalit basti. (The police say that after a Jat died in a clash with some Dalits, the Jats `retaliated.') Fearing an attack, over 1,000 Dalits fled the basti. The police steered clear of the village while a mob of some 1,500 people burned around 50 Dalit houses to the ground. A thousand people had fled knowing an attack was coming. Yet the police claim they were clueless about it.
The Dalits here are Balmikis. That group is possibly the worst off within the Scheduled Caste fold. More so in terms of the humiliation it bears. In caste society's eyes, the Balmikis embody the worst forms of "impurity." They are `manual scavengers.' They handle and dispose of "night soil." (That's polite society's term for human excreta.)
Gohana's Balmikis had tried to climb out of that caste-imposed rut. They had educated their children. Got jobs outside their traditional role. Some even landed low-level government posts. And over years the Balmikis fought off the efforts of the Jats to extract begar - or forced labour - from them. Their relative improvement was itself a major provocation. This is consistent with attacks on Dalits in other parts of the country too. Doing better is a crime.
The mob in Gohana did not kill any Dalits. Partly because they had already fled. The focus, though, was on looting and on destruction of property. Dalits owning decent houses? With fridges and television sets? They had to be shown their place. Houses having gas connections were destroyed using the absent owner's LPG cylinders. The relatively good houses of the Dalits were an eyesore to their enemies.
Gohana's Balmikis had, against daunting odds, emerged from the depths of deprivation. They had created these houses and assets over decades. With a kind of effort that much of society might never understand. In these, they invested not just their money but their emotions, passion, dreams, and the future of their children. The death of those dreams, the destruction of those assets, was achieved in hours. Petrol cans and police connivance were all it took.
The State now offers each home Rs. 1 lakh as compensation. A fraction of its losses. Forget tending to the trauma. Note the manner in which the Dalits were `punished.' In true feudal tradition, an individual offence became a collective crime. A Dalit is alleged to have killed someone. All Dalits in his basti must pay the price. The due course of law gets dumped. The caste panchayat reigns higher than the courts.
It was in the same State a few years ago that police battered little Usha, also a Balmiki, in Jind. The girl, not yet in her teens, was helping her mother clean a local school. The school headmistress accused her of stealing a gold chain. Not content with thrashing the frail child herself, she called in the Haryana police. Meanwhile, the chain was found. The headmistress had merely mislaid it. The family got the girl back, unconscious, badly bruised and with teeth broken.
We could, of course, say "that's Haryana." And there would even be an element of truth in it. Except that the same prejudices work in many ways across most of the country. Chunni Lal Jatav, a survivor of the Kumher massacre in Rajasthan, once put it famously. "All the judges of the Supreme Court do not have the power of a single police constable. That constable makes or breaks us. The judges can't re-write the laws and have to listen to learned lawyers of both sides. A constable here simply makes his own laws. He can do almost anything." With state and society winking at him, he pretty much can.
And those committing crimes against Dalits know they have a great chance of getting away with it. State Governments have dropped countless cases filed against upper caste offenders under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. Kalyan Singh's BJP Government in Uttar Pradesh dropped such cases in thousands. A move quickly emulated by the Shiv Sena regime in Maharashtra. Later governments did not reinstate these cases.
In Tamilnadu, Dalits have been forced out of elected office even in reserved panchayats. In Melavalavu, the Dalit panchayat president's head was severed and thrown into a well. Dalits in Dravidian Land, an excellent book by Frontline's S. Viswanathan, paints a powerful picture of Dalit life in that State.
Oddly, whether it's Gohana, or Jhajar before it, discussion on these issues seldom links up to those other, ongoing debates. For instance, that on reservation. No link is seen between any of this and the debates on social justice. On present SC / ST quotas. Or on the call for quotas in the private sector. Gohana actually has people who gained, if modestly, from reservation.
Against huge odds, Gohana's Balmikis snapped their chains. They educated their children. This is not easy. In schools, their boys and girls face the taunts of `upper' caste peers. (Across the country, large numbers of Dalit pupils drop out of school to escape such humiliation.) First, society places them under inhuman handicaps. Then we demand a "level playing field" against them in jobs and education.
The children of manual scavengers and other poor people return each evening to homes without electricity. And so cannot study in the way other kids can. They go back to homes without good books. They cannot afford "tuitions." They have no "connections" to land them jobs or seats. In the face of these odds, their achievements are admirable. A true level playing field could actually tilt the balance in their favour. For it would start by ending their handicaps. But look at the fury stoked by the mere idea of private colleges setting aside seats for such people. (Never mind that the Supreme Court judgment allows such colleges to create quotas for rich NRIs.)
Yet, Gohana's Dalits have achieved something more. Dalits in Haryana are now stepping into the public space in a way not seen too often. And Dalit women appear to be in the forefront of the protests. There is a lot of pressure on the government to act. The Congress' own Dalit MLAs are in the hot seat. All this is good. Yet there is a much larger house on fire. If only we could see it.

© P Sainath, The Hindu

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A qualified freedom

India Together Editorial

For hundreds of millions of citizens, the pursuit of dignity and happiness remains an unfinished journey. Political parties are still busy interpreting freedom for the people, rather than simply giving it to them. As a result, the appearance of independence is strong, whereas in practice there is much more to be done. The India Together editorial.

01 September 2005 - There are many good things about an Independence day. Like others before it, the 15 August that passed us a fortnight ago brought cheer and national fervour to our citizens, old and young alike, and reminded us of the debt we will always owe to the founding fathers of this large, diverse and complex nation. But for large numbers of less fortunate citizens, who we are sure respect the day equally, it may also include a stark reminder of their lack of independence; their own pursuit of dignity and happiness remains an unfinished journey.
How independent are the majority of our people, really? Looking at some recent developments gives us a sense of where the nation is.

Small victories
Ever since 1947, the poorest citizens have not had the benefit of either a social or employment security system, not even at our meagre minimum wage levels. And since the 90s, we've become perhaps the only independent developing nation that both impoverishes millions of farmers and workers by exposing them to market forces - even developed countries don't do this to their farmers - and yet does not provide a minimum and statutory assurance of income security to cover them when their already low paying jobs are taken away by the same market forces.
But with the Employment Guarantee bill close to becoming law, there is now the possibility that at least one member of every rural home can demand employment at the minimum wage levels for 100 days a year, or unemployment allowance at the same rate if the government cannot provide work. Despite the criticism against instituting any form of guarantee, the EG bill is a first hard-won step forward in reversing this massive imbalance of due entitlements.
Two, government secrecy and corruption are well known, and cries against these are often raised in the public sphere in India. Entire books on the culture of secrecy and corruption have been written, sold, filed and buried. But since the Right to Information movement gained ground in the 90s - incidentally, this has its roots in the rights of workers to be paid their due wages for work - a few states have passed sunshine laws. In some states, citizens pressed ahead in using these laws and even broke new ground. But Central government departments and most State governments simply kept their files inaccessible to the regular public.
This year, that is about to change. A national Right to Information law is now on the statute books, and this time (unlike the 2002 version), the law promises to arm citizens nationwide and somewhat more uniformly. The rule-making process for this law is now on, and already there have been worries of high fees, dodgy enforcement commission appointments, and confusion in some states. The early years will likely see stops and starts in open government becoming a reality, but nothing can take away the fact that come mid-October, the nation will turn a new corner, and a new opportunity for our citizens to independently exercise vigilance over and exorcise secrecy from government will be at hand.
While these two developments augur better for the independence of our people than otherwise, any analyst of a democratising society will tell us it is too early to cry victory. In the meantime, our governments continue to hold out in other matters.

Battles still to be won
It is well accepted now that while television, print and the Internet have become media of choice and outlets for the better off in the country, radio is by far the one media that because of its nature (serves less literate and more literate alike), low cost, and local reach, allows citizens organisations to become independent broadcasters of locally relevant programming. This, in ways that high powered, advertising-dependent commercial stations or centrally managed government broadcasters will never be able to. In a nation with over 15 languages, over 300 dialects, and abundant cultural diversity, independent non-commercial radio may be a key outlet for the millions who voices are never heard in the same proportion in the public sphere that the voices of their better off counterparts are.
And not surprisingly, several non-commercial people's organisations are currently airing community radio programs in limited and paid timeslots on AIR stations - in Gujarat, Jharkhand, and Karnataka, to cite three. But purchasing limited government airitime is very constraining and they could do far better and grow their programming with their own radio licenses, subject as they will be, to the same laws of the land as other media organisations are. Yet, successive central governments have continued to deny them permissions. How this has come to be is a different story, but the fact is many of the independent societies we admire allow their citizens' organisations to run independent radio stations, whereas in India, we have outlawed non-commercial organisations other than educational institutions from radio.
Many of the independent societies we admire allow their citizens' organisations to run independent radio stations, whereas in India, we have outlawed non-commercial organisations other than educational institutions from radio. • RTI : hundred days and counting
• EGA bill in Parliament
Another domain of limited progress is local government in urban areas. It is somewhat well known that citizens' representation in urban municipal governments is very incomplete, and even lower than rural areas. To address this imbalance and to decentralise decision making on local affairs further to districts within cities (called wards), ward committees have been provided for in our law. If ward committees were instituted in the spirit of the Constitution's decentralisation amendments -- deepen their membership to allow citizen participation -- citizens would have a legal space to independently provide input and govern their own affairs, as opposed to otherwise. But governments in many states have not established these committees at all, or where set up they are loaded with preferred political appointees, who are uninterested in public service. That said, in some states, there are new efforts underway to create people's sabhas in polling booth jurisdictions and make ward committees actually work.

Understanding independence differently
These are a few observations; still there is a uniform thread that runs through many of these areas: an increasingly assertive people may choose different expressions of independence, whereas centralised government programs and plans simply offer them one of many expressions they might choose. Our leaders are still interpreting independence for the people, rather than giving it to them. Whoever is 'ruling' in Delhi or the state capitals is assumed to be acting with the people's mandate on all issues, even if the people who elected them only liked some portion of their agendas. This is a well-understood problem with democracies everywhere, but its manifestation is acute in India. Individual government policies that should be up for public debate are instead presented for up-or-down votes in legislative houses or local councils where dissent within parties is already restricted by law.
The appearance of an independent people and democracy is strong in India, but the practice is still woefully incomplete. The struggle for independence rightly focused on making the nation free of external shackles, but once that freedom was obtained the emphasis should have begun shifting in more concrete terms to the citizens, so that they could fully exercise their choices on their own. Some change is taking place, but fifty eight years after 1947 this incomplete evolution remains at the heart of an important distinction between the robust independence witnessed in many other countries, and the party- and personality-led version of independence in our nation.

© India Together