If the underprivileged could survive on tokens

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The fallacy of employing affirmative action in politics is clear when we understand that the problems of the Indian underprivileged have deep systemic roots and cannot be neglected under the balm of representation.

"Besides being a decent man, by all counts, as well as a loyal member of the party, Ram Nath Kovind's being a dalit made him a candidate that was hard to say no to without slipping on a political banana skin. Anyone who was opposed to him could be painted as anti-Dalit, right?" | PTI

When I was growing up, my history textbook told me that Britain succeeded in colonising India by following a ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. Of course, it was not very well written, and was full of inaccurate clichés, (so much easier to write in clichés rather than confusing young minds with facts and nuance), but the cliché, in this case, was partially accurate. The British East India Company, (and later, Her Majesty’s Government) used the inherent fragmentation and schisms in India’s society to their advantage.

The British understood that faultlines of Hindu society run between castes. They codified Hindu Law on the basis of the Manusmriti — which was never historically a legal document — and other texts, giving a legal basis for caste. Then, with a brilliant strategy of tokenism and symbolism to demonstrate their selective patronage of certain communities and castes, they ruled India for over 200 years.


Why does representation in the executive matter? That’s exactly how the British had effectively appeased India, without ever really losing control for over 200 years.

It cannot be a coincidence that the biggest thorn in their flesh was a dangerously utopian man, M.K. Gandhi, who is known to have believed that Indian society must somehow unite, for its own collective sake, to rid itself of British rule. He attempted to create socially egalitarian systems in his ashrams, where everyone cleaned the latrines by rotation — this was traditionally considered to be a job fit for a Dalit or Shudra. He tried to instil a sense that there was pride in all professions and forms of work — that no activity was superior to another, that there was dignity to all types of human labour.

Needless to say, much of this was highly idealistic, and while Gandhi became the face of India's freedom movement, many of his ideas and experiments never made it beyond the walls of his own ashram and into the political structure on independent India. To suggest that a Brahmin or Vaishya was equal to a Dalit — and that the act of cleaning the latrine was noble work — would win Dalit votes, but could lose Brahmin and Vaishya votes. India’s political elite cared more for Dalit votes than for solutions to Dalit problems. Dalit problems are complex, and there aren't simple answers to the difficult questions.

Today, if you are born as a Dalit, you may be made to sit separately from the upper-caste students in even government schools in rural India. In some parts of the country, you may still not be allowed to drink from the same water-pot as your upper-class classmates. If you are a woman, you have a higher chance of being raped, being forced into prostitution, and having a lower life expectancy. If you are born as a Dalit today, there are higher chances of you being the victim of crime and also (or maybe even because of that) you are more likely to be forced into crime. If caught, you are more likely to be convicted, and end up in a jail where 1 in every 3 people is also a Dalit. Putting a bunch of city kids born to Dalit parents into IIT or IIM, isn't going to erase the problems that almost 20 crore Dalits experience in the villages of India everyday.


Why does representation in the executive matter? Because that’s exactly how the British had effectively appeased India, without ever really losing control for over 200 years. They had controlled India through institutions and mechanisms which had, on paper, Indian members, supposedly representing Indian interests, right until 1947, when, weakened by the Second World War, they chose to leave.

Appointing a Dalit in one's cabinet of Ministers is a symbol, designed to demonstrate a party's commitment to improving the lives of Dalits in India. Ensuring that the cabinet has Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs is viewed as a symbol that demonstrates secular intent. But this is purely demonstrative tokenism until and unless actual benefits percolate down to society and render it equal.

The Bharatiya Janata Party was criticised for not giving a ticket to a single Muslim candidate in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. Why? If they had given one token ticket to a Muslim candidate or even five token tickets to five token candidates, would that have made any difference to their track record, or to the fate of Muslims in general?


Have the Politics of Dalit Representation solved any of the real problems that Dalits face? Unfortunately it would appear not. Under Mayawati (a vocal champion of Dalit rights) in Uttar Pradesh, crimes against Dalits went up by a significantly higher percentage than the overall increase in crime did, according to the NCRB's 2007 report. Crimes against Dalits have continued the same alarming trend under the subsequent Samajwadi government as well, and also in the neighbouring BJP-ruled Rajasthan, which would lead one to the conclusion that Dalit problems are deep-rooted and systemic. They cannot be solved by mere representation. Nor can they be solved by merely voting for someone else, in the fond hope that they will do a better job.

Which brings us to the latest the Presidential Election. I would say this year’s candidate nominations elevated the charade of 'political token representation' to new heights. The most visible, least powerful, ceremonial role in Indian politics was contested between two candidates from the Dalit community. Without meaning to disrespect either of their achievements, it would seem as though their nominators believed that the biggest qualification for candidacy was their caste.

Ram Nath Kovind has had a long career and has come a long way from his humble beginnings, but it would be fair to say that most people would never have heard of him until he was nominated. Apart from being a decent man, by all counts, as well as a loyal member of the party, his being a Dalit made him a candidate that was hard to say no to without slipping on a political banana skin. Anyone who was opposed to him could be painted as anti-Dalit, right?

Which is possibly why the opposition went on to prop up Meira Kumar, career politician and the daughter of India’s first Dalit Cabinet Minister. A life of privilege within the establishment, close proximity to the Congress high command and suddenly she is a Dalit Champion. The tokenism, and the cynicism behind it, crushes out any lingering hope that anyone in Delhi even cares about solving problems that Dalits in India face today. The sadness of the reality is that as long as easy tokenism wins votes, difficult decisions will never be made. And India’s Dalits will continue to suffer.

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