Why Ms. Selja’s story matters

Updated - March 24, 2016 02:11 pm IST

Published - December 07, 2015 01:48 am IST

Just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in a conciliatory move to avert a deadlock in Parliament, the Rajya Sabha had reverted to its old normal. And if whatever goodwill was generated by that meeting last Friday now appears to be so much water under the bridge, the treasury benches must interrogate their own. The cause for fresh adjournments was former Union Minister >Kumari Selja ’s statement on Wednesday that she had been asked her caste at a temple in Gujarat’s Dwarka; and the response by BJP Ministers was a playbook of ways to make a House not function. That there was a defence by the government was surprising enough, given that Ms. Selja’s disclosure simply required an inquiry into her specific experience and, more importantly, into the larger prevalence of caste and gender discrimination. It was also disproportionate, even intimidatory. Senior Union Ministers charged her with bringing up “manufactured problems” and pulled out her remarks from the visitors’ book at Dwarka’s big temple to cast doubts about the veracity of her remarks. In the event, the Ministers accepted Ms. Selja’s clarification that the question about her caste was posed at a smaller temple in Dwarka, and variously withdrew or regretted their statements. There the issue now simmers on a slower burn, and the Congress may well use the faultiness to go on the hunt for other subjects to corner the government on.

However, the disquiet over the government’s handling of Ms. Selja’s intervention is wider than its effect on the orderly conduct of Parliament. Her identity, as a woman and, significantly, >as a Dalit , was not incidental to the resonance of the question at Dwarka. Temple entry has been an integral part of social reform in India, and was made a mobilising plank in the national movement by Mahatma Gandhi. The Constitution gives the state immense power to enforce and make laws for “throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus”. Ms. Selja’s recollection that she was asked about her caste at a time when she happened to be a Union Minister is not just a reminder that free temple entry is still a work in progress — but also that for all the power and privilege that may attach to an individual, there remains the overhang of the older oppressive hierarchies of caste, if not always in operation but definitely in atmospherics. Whatever the specifics of Ms. Selja’s personal encounter, it must serve as a call to Parliament to strengthen the law to end restriction to temple entry on account of caste and gender.

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