Can’t be a superpower as long as untouchability exists

In a number of ways, Gandhiji was different from other freedom fighters and leaders of the time. One difference was that he gave equal importance to one more fight along with the struggle for independence, and that is, the emancipation of those ostracised as “untouchables.” Gandhiji’s work against untouchability began in South Africa around five decades before our independence. After his return to India, an incident at his Kochrab Ashram near Ahmedabad shows us how much importance he gave to the concept of equality between castes. The year was 1915. Thakkar Bappa, a close associate of Gandhiji, sent a Dalit by the name of Dudha Bhai to live in the ashram. Everyone in the ashram, including Kasturba, was opposed to this, and this was specifically due to Dudha Bhai’s status, as deemed by the caste hierarchy. Gandhiji made it clear that Dudha Bhai would not leave the Ashram. Anyone who was not comfortable with this was free to leave. He was informed that no one would agree and that even the funding for the ashram might stop. Gandhiji was undeterred. He was ready to shift his ashram to the Dalit basti, he said, even if it meant that his ashram would have only two members, namely Dudha Bhai and himself. Finally everyone turned around, except Gandhiji’s sister Gokiben, who left Kochrab as a result of her brother’s firm stance, never to return.

Why did Gandhiji give so much importance to the removal of untouchability, or discrimination based on caste? Let’s reflect on that for a moment. I think it is because the freedom he was fighting for was not just political. He did not merely want a different set of people in the corridors of power. Freedom for him meant freedom for each and every citizen of India. A freedom that could only be born from genuine equality, and the protection of the dignity of every Indian. Untouchability was clearly incompatible with his vision of freedom.

Working together

Today, many of us have a vision of what our country should be, what it can be, what India’s rightful place in the world is. Many of us dream of India becoming a superpower. But can this ever happen in a country where society is so fractured; where walls divide us? Can we ever achieve our vision if we don’t believe in a shared social good? A common vision?

What do I mean when I say shared social good?

Public property is a shared social good, a street or a road is a shared social good, our public health system is a shared social good. Unfortunately we are so fractured that we don’t see all this as ours. No wonder we throw garbage on our roads because we don’t really see the road as ours. We are not interested in our public health system because we don’t really see it as ours, which is why it is in a shambles. We can have a shared common goal, or a shared vision, only if we as a people are one.

Our forefathers who wrote the Constitution of our country, led ably by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, have clarified and laid down their vision for us — a vision of a country where all are equal. Where brotherhood and fraternity are pillars of our Constitution. Our leaders have shown us the way. They have laid down laws that tell us that discrimination based on caste and religion is illegal. Now, we have to find place in our hearts to follow them. We also have to find place in our hearts to accept that discrimination between people is against the very concept of humanity.

To be a cohesive team, and to have a common, shared vision, we have to start by first accepting that we have built up differences, walls, barriers. Then, we have to start working towards removing these differences. For example, there are umpteen housing societies all across the country which don’t sell houses to either Dalits or Muslims or Hindus or Christians or Sikhs, or to people from a different caste. This kind of petty thinking has to be done away with. And perhaps a great way to start making amends and moving in the right direction is to start with our children. Let us not sow the seeds of separation in our children. Let us not teach them the lessons of differences that we have been taught. And maybe if we stop practising these differences, in the innumerable ways that we do, then these divisions will not percolate to our children.

Manual scavenging

When I speak of a shared vision, of a shared common good, I am reminded of my own shortcomings in this regard. One of the most heartbreaking encounters for me was listening to Mr. Bezwada Wilson speak about manual scavenging. Words fail me. I am ashamed to admit that it was as late as last year, at the age of 46, that I came to recognise and actually see the existence of manual scavenging. At this late age, for the first time I felt the horror and inhumanity of it. How could I have for 46 years accepted, without batting an eyelid, the fact that some of our countrymen are made to clean the excreta of others with their hands as a means of survival? That they have no means of escape from it because of the caste that they are born into? Why didn’t I notice or react to this earlier? Not because it wasn’t happening around me. No. I did not notice it because I guess I had grown so used to seeing it around me right from my childhood that it didn’t seem unusual to me! And as I was not the victim, the horror and injustice of it probably did not occur to me. I am afraid I am guilty of this insensitivity. How can I even think of a shared common good as long as manual scavenging exists?

Well, having reacted to it now, I think it’s high time I do something about it. Because, I do believe that we should work towards a shared common good, a shared vision, a dream which can belong to all Indians.

Jai Hind. Satyamev Jayate.

(Aamir Khan is an actor. His column will be published in The Hindu every Monday.)

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 12:38:28 AM |

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