Finding the right measure

Social progressiveness must be incorporated into discretionary use of the state funds

Published - August 16, 2016 01:44 am IST

Taking stock: "Sixty-nine years since Independence, we need to consider issues of equality both at times of birth and death." On the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.

Taking stock: "Sixty-nine years since Independence, we need to consider issues of equality both at times of birth and death." On the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.

Every anniversary is cause for celebration, but India’s >70th Independence Day also merits looking back. So, did we, the people of India, together create the nation we thought we would — one that secures its citizens justice, liberty, and equality? The question is, have we stayed on the path towards a just society that we had envisioned for ourselves, especially in our approach to women and marginalised communities? While it has been a dramatic journey of social, economic and political progress since 1947, one that we are all proud of, several regressive practises continue to exist in India today, and it is these that we must look at addressing urgently in the future.

Discriminatory practices Let’s take two relatively recent examples. The former Chief Minister of Gujarat, >Anandiben Patel, announced in May that a hospital would examine why some families only produce sons and some only daughters. Her reasoning was that Indians still prefer sons and the blame disproportionately falls on the woman if she produces only daughters. So, a state-of-the-art hospital will carry out “research” in this area, she said. Ms. Patel’s statement may have stemmed from the fact that the sex ratio has dipped in Gujarat. This hospital is her solution to it.

The second is Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan’s proclamation that he spent a major part of his constituency funds for building over a 100 modern crematoriums for Hindus — separate ones for Dalits, Gujjars, Jats, and Brahmins in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. A Right to Information query by revealed that the government in Gujarat is funding separate cremation grounds for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities in several villages. In Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, too, the Urban Improvement Trust, under the jurisdiction of the State’s Urban Development and Housing Ministry, sanctioned separate cremation grounds for different castes and communities at a cost of Rs.5 crore. The story repeats itself across parts of the country.

Reasons to worry There are three fundamental reasons why such decisions and practices should worry us. While the courts can consider the legality of these issues, both seem to be broadly against the Constitution and to the relevant laws — at least in spirit if not in form. The proposed Gujarat hospital seems to go against the very objective of the >Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994, the core objective of which is to “prohibit sex selection, before or after conception”. The very idea of a hospital that will address the “issues” behind having “daughter after daughter” goes against the premise of the Act. Similarly, caste-based crematoriums contravene Article 15 of the Constitution which states that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”.

What should also worry us is that these decisions seem to have been taken by our elected representatives, and, if implemented, will be done using public funds. For instance, in the case of the separate crematoriums, the recommendation would have come from the MLA or MP concerned, and the facilities must have been built using the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme or other constituency funds. While it is no one’s case that due process has not been followed — and, in fact, a cursory check of the MPLADS site reveals that crematoriums are allowed under the scheme — it is the fact that public funds are being used for discriminatory purposes that is disturbing. Can there be any denying of the fact that building caste-based crematoriums is an example of elected representatives directing the use of public monies by state institutions to perpetuate the abominable caste system that we had vowed to abolish many years ago?

Realpolitik arguments Finally we also need to examine what lies at the core of each of these decisions. The justification that is usually presented in such cases is that our representatives truly understand the people’s needs and take such decisions as a result. The legislator concerned, we’re usually told, is only responding to the ground reality and the “fact” is that Indians prefer sons, and caste Hindus often do not allow Dalits to cremate their dead in their crematoriums. So, by providing separate crematoriums, the Union Minister is apparently “helping” his Dalit constituents by giving them their own space to cremate their dead with dignity.

The realpolitik arguments are familiar and specious, and we’ll continue to see versions of them creep into our narrative almost unnoticed until they become a part of acceptable “state-sponsored solutions”. And that’s the real danger that we need to watch out for. For, as history shows, societies that refuse to acknowledge or question insidious ideas suddenly find themselves at dangerous junctures where the state apparatus is used against its own. Sixty-nine years since Independence, we need to consider issues of equality at times of both birth and death.

Barkha Deva is Associate Director at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies. These are her personal views.

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