27 September, 2005
Strange as this might sound, several constituents of Indian society are turning abnormal. Unnoticed by sociologists, this exceptional phenomenon is taking place on a mass scale.
This phenomenon was foreseen by no less than Pt Jawaharlal Nehru. Who argued: “Sir George Birdwood has said: ‘So long as the Hindus hold to the caste system, India will be India. But from the day they break from it, there will be no more India. That glorious peninsula will be degraded to the position of a bitter East End of the Anglo-Saxon Empire.’ With caste or without it, we have long been degraded to that position in the British Empire; and, in any event, whatever our future position is likely to be, it will not be confined within the bounds of that empire.
But there is some truth in what Sir George Birdwood said, though he probably did not look at it from this point of view. The break-up of a huge and long standing social organisation may well lead to a complete disruption of social life, resulting in absence of cohesion, mass suffering and the development on a vast scale of abnormalities in individual behaviour, unless some other social structure, more suited to the times and to the genius of the people, takes its place. Perhaps disruption is inevitable during the transition; there is enough of this disruption all over the world today. Perhaps it is only through the pain and suffering that accompany such disruption that a people grow and learn the lessons of life and adapt themselves anew to changing conditions.” (Discovery of India)
Sociologists have not yet been able to explain why a Dalit bridegroom riding a horse is stoned. Normal human behaviour demands that a wedding procession be cheered, unless there has been violent tension between the bridegroom’s family and those who stone the procession. But in Haryana, Rajasthan and western UP, in an otherwise harmonious social situation, a Dalit marriage procession is often stoned should the bridegroom decide to ride a horse. The elderly, children, women and men all join in the melee. A Dalit wearing sunglasses cannot safely walk the streets of a Tamil village.
Urban non-Dalits aren’t exceptions either. Ask a liberal newspaper editor to choose between allowing a Dalit writer to write on his opinion page or be shot dead and it is quite possible that for a fraction of a second, he might consider the latter option. A liberal captain of Indian industry, a post-modern Bollywood filmmaker and a subaltern academic don might just turn out to be like the editor in their own ways, with a few exceptions.
This too is Gohana, innately violent.
Indians have a stereotyped image of the “standard” Dalit: ill-fed, dry skinned, sunken eyed, half bent, with a broom in hand, or a piece of farm equipment. Affirmative action through government jobs has produced about five million Dalit/tribal households, or about 25 million Dalit individuals, who spend over Rs 300 billion annually. Most of them, therefore, have transcended the stereotyped Dalit image – they are now well dressed, fairly well fed, and have a glitter in their eyes. But in the eyes of others, these are “unusual” Dalits.
This image of the unusual Dalit, therefore, hurts non-Dalits. And the feeling accumulates. It requires a spark for violence to erupt. The Jats of Gohana are actually victims of their own preconceptions. The inhabitants of the Dalit homes in Gohana, it was rumoured, possessed televisions, refrigerators and music systems. The killing of a Jat youth provided that spark. Lest “abnormality” take its toll, the Jats burnt and devastated the Dalit locality. This act restores some “semblance of normalcy” in their scheme of things.
The urban India of the Brahmins has other reasons as well as other ways of restoring “normalcy”. They did not expect job reservations to create a class of Dalits who would head for the dance floors of swanky hotels or zoom past on designer bikes. It would amount to misusing job quotas if Dalit women were seen buying Kanchipuram silk sarees.
According to their point of view, a Dalit CEO, editor or news anchor would, therefore, misuse his or her privilege should affirmative action for Dalits be introduced in the private sector. The Brahmin would, howsoever enlightened, be agonised by the mere sight of an unusual Dalit.
There is a special place for Pt Nehru in modern Indian history. Not only because he was India’s first prime minister, but also because he introduced a modicum of decency to the freedom struggle and became a symbol of modernity, science and industrialisation.
If Pt Nehru is indispensable to modern Indian history, how then can we ignore his views on the caste question, particularly when he had anticipated happenings such as Gohana? As foreseen by the great man, “mass suffering” and “abnormalities” are a reality today as the caste system is breaking down. India therefore must rise, and remedy the situation on a priority basis.