Tackling the roots of discrimination
It is imperative to establish both individual culpability and institutional accountability
Ram Vilas Paswan earned many distinctions. He was the only leader to be a Central Minister under six Prime Ministers. His eclecticism in ideology and dexterity in politics could only be a dream for many a politician. Such a feat required of him to be an agnostic in his identity as well. He couldn’t help being a Dalit and he didn’t hide it, either. Being mindful of electoral dynamics, he always sought to represent lower castes, Muslims and, of course, Dalits. His Dalit critics were upset that he clubbed the three groups together for every demand, diluting the ‘uniqueness’ of Dalits.
Leaving aside his first ministerial post as Labour and Welfare Minister, Paswan throughout helmed ‘non-reserved’ ministries such as Railways and Communications. He was as mainstream a national leader as they come. But for most of the media, Paswan died a Dalit. He was a Dalit icon, a Dalit face in the Union Cabinet and what have you.
Creating pictures in our head
From Ambedkar to Paswan, most of the media clubs Dalits’ caste identity with their accomplishments. But when was the last time the media reported on a national leader as a Brahmin icon or a Bania face? Consider the deleterious effects of such cultural reflex. Sections of the media are complicit in creating and stereotyping what the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the “pictures in our head”.
The visual media, especially cinema, is guilty of perpetuating all the dross in society. A recent Telugu movie, Sarileru Neekevvaru, portrays the heroine in a grossly insulting way. As if she is the tail of a monkey, she literally chases the hero till the last frame. In that chase, she stands denuded of agency, dignity, or just decency that is any person’s due. Calling it humour would be a fig leaf to hide sexism. A railway official who must be a graduate, by virtue of his job, is cast as an obese black man capable of generating only derision and laughter.
Here is a movie produced by mostly brown-skinned men; it’s been made for a mostly brown-skinned audience. But the movie stands out also as an essay of the brown man asserting the white man’s supremacy over him. In fact, for example, our age-old infatuation with the white skin explains how, when the actual White Man had showed up on our shores, we had handed him the keys to the country, expressing our habitual obedience.
This year we have witnessed many incidents of violence, inhumanity and blatant discrimination which highlight how the problems of caste, race and gender remain intractable. Let us examine three such incidents.
The murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white policeman in the U.S. has forever damaged its reputation as a city on a hill. A female Dalit doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, found the harassment by her upper caste senior so unbearable that she tried to end her life. Fortunately, she failed in the attempt. A Dalit employee of Cisco Systems was discriminated against by upper caste supervisors in the company’s American headquarters and the same is testified by a California government’s lawsuit.
By no means are these acts of cruelty mindless. Nor are they to be ignored as some kind of clash between two parties, where one of them just happened to be from a minority group. The trail of death and destruction these acts leave goes beyond the immediate context. In addition to harming its victim, an act of discrimination does something far more insidious and long-lasting. It reinforces rules, norms and customs that allow or sanction such crimes. We must not forget the wider impact of a case like Floyd’s murder. The damage to the psyche of those millions of young blacks who protest against racism is severe and long-lasting.
The imperative for us is to demand institutional accountability. The ones who should be in the dock are, in addition to the accused, those who head the institutions where acts of discrimination take place. In the AIIMS case, the upper caste senior allegedly told the lady Dalit doctor, “You’re a SC, stay within your limits.”
Comment | Ancient prejudice, modern inequality
The attempted suicide led to the filing of an FIR and AIIMS set up two committees, including an internal one, to investigate the matter. Their brief appears to be to protect the institution’s reputation, rather than standing by the victim even if they found merit in her allegations. The internal committee’s investigation produced this gem: “Although the accused didn’t explicitly use gender or caste-based remarks against the victim, but he did use words like ‘billi’, ‘mind your level’...”
“Mind your level”? What ought to be that level, if her caste and gender were not part of her level? This is how institutions resort to what can be called intentional failures to subvert the laws meant to be invoked in such cases. The obvious reason for AIIMS’s illogic is to obviate the invocation of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 as well as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. These two acts mandate swift action. AIIMS is guilty of making a mockery of the law.
Like a rattlesnake
Therefore, institutions must be made accountable. A simple police investigation would unearth wrongdoing by several top functionaries at AIIMS to subvert the law. The greatest folly would be to treat the matter as an individual case.
Caste and race, like a rattlesnake, distract us by their myriad and daily abominations and we hardly notice their bite. Each act of hatred and violence deserves its own justice. But we must treat them as mere symptoms and look for the real factors that keep hatred and discrimination enduring and pervasive.
D. Shyam Babu is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal